“Coon smiled behind the drums, twirling the sticks like a magician” – Joe Popper
With COON-SANDERS ORIGINAL NIGHTHAWKS ORCHESTRA, 1921-29
Some would contend that today’s Hero, Carleton Coon, cannot honestly be called a jazz titan: like several other members of our Pantheon including Tony Sbarbaro and Sonny Greer, he performed and recorded exclusively with only one group the whole decade, and even that was a star band rather than a band of stars. When it comes to modern books on jazz history, he and his colleagues rarely receive even a mention, because their milieu – hot, orchestrated dance music – barely qualifies for the modern (post-1945) conception of what jazz is. That we know of, Coon never played improvised solos of his own, neither did he accompany any really seminal improvisers – at least in public. Fred W. Edmiston’s excellent ‘The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks; The Band That Made Radio Famous’ is the only serious text to deal with his legacy in any detail. Yet, if you could ask a young music fan from the mid or late 1920s to name their favourite jazz drummers, his name would surely be among the very first they’d mention – after all, he was, for several important years, one of the most well-known and well-loved drummers in America.
Carleton Allyn Coon was born in Rochester, Minnesota on 5th February 1893. Whilst he was still a young child, his parents separated; young Carleton went to live with his father Claude, who opened a hotel in Lexington, Missouri. Claude Coon seems to have lived something of a wild lifestyle, and left the principal care of the boy to Carleton’s grandparents. His boyhood in Lexington was evidently quite adventurous, and with a friend he used to enjoy visiting the river wharves, supposedly befriending the black stevedores working there, picking up an appreciation for popular music and learning to play the bones. A few years later, with Carleton now a young teenager and frequently in trouble for a series of juvenile pranks and misadventures, his father relocated them again, to Kansas City. Whilst at high school in K.C., Coon appears to have suddenly taken to music with a passion; it’s presumably around this time that he began learning (or teaching himself) to play the drums. He also discovered that he had an excellent natural tenor voice, and would sing regularly in shows at the Electric Theater. In 1911 he married, and began playing professionally around Kansas, in the orchestra led by Jack Riley (the kingpin of the Kansas City music scene) and smaller occasional groups, under his own direction. He also worked as an agent, booking gigs from an office in the Gayety Theatre on 12th and Wyandott.
In April 1917, the month America entered the Great War, Coon volunteered for the Federal Dairy Inspection Department, in a civilian post which brought with it the notional military rank of captain. He would spend the duration of the war in this relatively cushy role, stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Just weeks after the Armistice had been declared, in December 1918, ‘Coonie’ was officially released from his post at the Commissary Department (though still wearing his captain’s uniform, according to legend) when he returned to Kansas for Christmas and made his way to J.W. Jenkins’ music shop. There he found another khaki-clad young man trying out sheet music on a piano: Corporal Joe Sanders, returned home on Christmas furlough from his unit in Fort Worth, Texas. Sanders recalled that he had begun softly playing and singing when, “I suddenly heard a voice join me. A lovely tenor quality proved to be possessed by Carleton A. Coon, a handsome and extremely personable man.”
This providential meeting would change both men’s lives and make both their fortunes.
Sanders was younger than Coon by a year and a half, and was a Kansas City native. He had begun as a boy soprano, then learned piano to a very high standard whilst still a child. In his formative years he played concert piano and sang in the Kansas City Opera Company, all the while pursuing a promising youth career as a baseball pitcher, from which he inherited his famous nickname ‘The Old Left-Hander’. By the late 1910s and his short spell in the Army (Sanders was only drafted in October) he was focusing more and more on the piano, and would soon decide to make modern dance music his career. The two young men immediately hit it off, and Coon (who was by now gradually returning to his agency work) offered Sanders a gig on the approaching New Year’s Eve. The date was a success for all concerned and, following Sanders’s eventual demobilisation from the Army in April 1919, they resolved to begin operations as a partnership furnishing dance music for functions in the Kansas City region. An office was opened on Tenth and Main streets; Carleton and Joe were in business. The talented and creative Sanders began writing arrangements, whilst Coonie contracted the best players he knew and began approaching jazz-friendly venues for work, quickly scoring regular dates at the Raven and Tiger Clubs. Soon the agency outgrew its offices and moved operations to the Gayety Theatre Building on 859 Harrison St. The groups they sent out at this time were principally quartets and quintets, and appeared at parties, country clubs and dance halls across Kansas and neighbouring Midwestern states.
Since Carleton Coon is our first Hero to emerge from this neck of the woods, it’s perhaps worth briefly considering the location of Kansas City itself, with its traditionally strong music scene, in the context of the wildfire spread of jazz and its attendant culture during the early 1920s. As an affluent, thriving Northern city with excellent railway links, K.C. was a popular destination for many thousands of economic migrants during the Great Migration, who brought vestiges of their distinct Southern culture with them as they moved across the country. Furthermore, ‘The Paris Of The Plains’ was famous since the 1890s as a centre for the vaudeville business, with several important theatres opening up throughout the 1900s, and the Orpheum circuit eventually basing itself in the city. The Original Creole Orchestra – the very first jazz band from New Orleans to tour widely – visited the Hippodrome vaudeville theatre in 1915 and returned to play at the Empress for a week the following year, during which time a local trade paper described them as “a riot”. Sited at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, the city is also connected to the great waterways of the central United States, and thus became a destination for the fleets of riverboats travelling up the Mississippi from Louisiana thoroughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These craft, each boasting a band, would usually sail first from New Orleans to Memphis, beyond which they could then branch East up the Ohio River to Louisville and Cincinnati, or continue up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where they could turn West up the Missouri to reach Kansas City. By 1916 there were over 20 music stores in K.C., and there also still thrived a residual echo of the city’s past as a wild-and-woolly frontier town. Frank Driggs & Chuck Haddix in ‘Kansas City Jazz’ refer to “a tradition of vice and lawlessness”, and the bustling 12th Street district boasted an imposing line of cabarets and nightspots that would only grow as the hedonism of the Jazz Age took hold.
The Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra had now expanded to eight musicians, and was beginning to stand out as something slightly above the usual standard of provincial dance bands. As Fred Edmiston writes, “There were other orchestras in the city with good musicians, but Coon-Sanders had something more – a band that was entertaining both aurally and visually […] What’s more, both Joe and Coonie were singers, good singers, individually and as a duet […] sufficiently distinctive for the orchestra to be designated as a singing orchestra.”
In the late summer of 1919 they began a residency at the Muehlebach hotel at 12th and Baltimore in the heart of Kansas City – a twelve-storey Art Nouveau pile that had first opened in 1915. Built by the heir of the Muehlebach Beer company, the hotel was the most luxurious in town, boasting 500 air-conditioned rooms, two restaurants, a tea salon and music room. The band initially played for tea dances in the hotel’s Café Trianon; by March 1921 they had built up such a following that they were contacted by the prestigious Columbia Record company, which dispatched a team of technicians to Kansas City with the intent to record the sensation of the Midwest. Unfortunately, of the four numbers they recorded, only one was eventually selected for release – a stately but unremarkable foxtrot typical of the early-20s dance band format popularised by Paul Whiteman, entitled ‘Some Little Bird’. Whilst this was officially Carleton’s début on record, disappointingly no identifiable drums are audible whatsoever. Such, alas, was often the lot of the early-20s recording drummer, even when he was also the (joint) boss.
Whatever the merits of ‘Some Little Bird’, Columbia evidently did not consider the session a success and the orchestra would not record again for another three years. Being a ‘recording band’, however, did nothing to harm the upward trajectory of Coonie and Joe’s enterprise. They soon began performing in theatres, and continued to build their reputation, battling with local competitors including Duke Yellman’s Orchestra and the Harmony Boys band led by Eddie Kuhn, which starred saxophone prodigy Loren McMurray. Meanwhile, another new technology was rapidly proliferating across the world: radio.
As 1922 dawned there had been just four licensed radio stations in the United States, but with the technology improving and new broadcasters springing up literally every week, it was clear to all that commercial programmes playing popular music over the airwaves for listeners (and dancers) at home would surely soon be a phenomenal success. For ambitious regional dance bands all over the country, meanwhile, radio stardom became a viable alternative to a phonograph recording career. The Kansas City Star newspaper opened an experimental station of its own, WDAF, in the summer of that year and began occasionally featuring various local artists amongst its intermittent programme of broadcasts. In September, armed with new, more powerful transmitting equipment allowing nationwide broadcasts, the station set up in the Newman Theater where the Coon-Sanders organisation had been resident for some weeks (doubling in the evenings after their sets at the Muehlebach Hotel). They contributed several numbers and made something of a hit; subsequently the Star decided to set up a microphone in the Muehlebach’s basement Plantation Grill restaurant and broadcast one of their gigs in its entirety. Thus it was that on December 5, 1922 – almost exactly four years since their first meeting – Coon and Sanders, and the band they’d built, made their very first transmission of their own. It was to be their great breakthrough.
Police reporter Leo Fitzpatrick (who would eventually earn the nickname ‘The Merry Old Chief’) acted as compère and announcer, and both Coon and Sanders were both positioned at the front of the orchestra so as to be close enough to the microphone to sing, speak and participate in comic skits as frequently required. The programme began at 11:45pm and continued until 1am; an offhand remark by Coon was evidently broadcast and overheard by listeners: “During the chatter I happened to mention that anybody idiotic enough to stay up that late to hear radio must be a real nighthawk. The next day we got about two tons of telegrams from people who claimed they were nighthawks and always would be.” – Carleton Coon.
The Coon-Sanders Original Novelty Orchestra became the WDAF Coon-Sanders Nighthawks literally overnight. Coon’s flippant jibe soon led to an early exercise in corporate rebranding, with the management of the orchestra devising a whole set of cod-Masonic imagery to go with the new name and gaining a fan club called ‘The Enemies Of Sleep’. Even at this early stage of radio history interaction from listeners was encouraged – and received; within their first week of daily broadcasts the Nighthawks received 60,000 letters from enthusiastic well-wishers across the nation. The tuneful, syncopated dance music of the band combined with the Merry Old Chief’s engaging patter was a winning combination; Kansas City’s geographical location roughly in the centre of North America was fortuitous, and thanks to WDAF’s cutting-edge gear their music was enjoyed nightly by thousands in Canada and Mexico, and by ships’ crews far out in both oceans. The Plantation Grill was equipped with a telegram receiver near to the two leaders, and every night they would be deluged with telegrams from Enemies Of Sleep, writing in with greetings and song requests. Soon offers came pouring in from neighbouring states for in-person appearances by ‘Radio’s Aces’.
The continued sensation surrounding the Nighthawks’ radio broadcasts soon brought another recording contract their way, this time with the famous Victor Talking Machine Company, and in April 1924, the band made the trek north to Chicago. This time, the sessions reflected the breathless excitement of the band’s live show and featured the leaders’ duet singing on several tracks including Sanders’ most frequently-performed composition, the band’s theme song, ‘Nighthawk Blues’.
On ‘Nighthawk Blues’ we finally get to hear Coonie actually playing the drums – socking out some full-blooded cymbal, for example, during the introduction. The rest of the kit is absent (being 1924, we’re still deep in the middle of ‘recording traps’ territory, alas) but a few choruses later, we are given more than a glimpse of the characterful duet-singing by the two leaders that made the Nighthawks such a hit; after Sanders sings the verse alone Coon joins him on the chorus, providing a thrilling tenor harmony above his friend’s melody line. The energy and excitement generated by the Nighthawks, however, is palpable, and the record really does give us an impression of those pioneering early radio broadcasts from the Muehlebach.
This session for Victor in 1924 was to be only the first of many trips to Chicago and its environs (which, of course, had been the epicentre of jazz since about 1918), with a residency offer arriving that summer. They also entered a contract with aspiring agent Jules Stein, founder of the Music Corporation of America (MCA), who sent them them on a month’s one-nighter tour across the Midwest. When this finished, they returned to Chicago to find Stein had lined up a plum new residency in the Congress Hotel’s Balloon Room, which Sanders later recalled as,“the world’s most beautiful supper club […] the band proved to be the sensation of Chicago.” Here too the Nighthawks made nightly radio broadcasts, on local station KYW, at the even-later hour of 1 to 2am, with listeners dubbing themselves ‘The Insomnia Club’. The Congress was (and still is!) situated at 520 S. Michigan Avenue in the southern Loop area of downtown Chicago. The neighbourhood was already well-known as a centre for Jazz, with the Brunswick Records’ studios a block or two away, and the famous Friars Inn (former home of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings) just down Michigan Avenue (see map).
The spring brought another successful tour which was now becoming an annual event; despite its home base changing several times the band would keep up this regular yearly cycle (summer tour/winter hotel residency and radio broadcasting) for the rest of its working life. This tour was the first serious road trip the Nighthawks had made, and took in Iowa, Nebraska, Omaha, Milwaukee, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Ontario in Canada. They played at theatres and dancehalls, country clubs, roadhouses, picnics and college campuses. Thanks to the malign influence of Variety magazine, which was conducting something of a vendetta against radio artists (believing the ‘the bane of showbusiness’ to be killing live entertainment), the tour did not encompass New York, but instead ended up with six weeks in the East’s pleasure capital, Atlantic City. Whilst resident there, they also made a short trip up to Victor’s New Jersey headquarters to cut more records including road-toughened performances of several of Sanders’ new compositions. Many of these prominently featured Coon’s characterful singing, precise woodblock punctuations and ‘hot snap’ cymbal work.
At the end of the summer of 1925, the Nighthawks returned to Chicago and their gig at the Congress, via another massively circuitous road tour. At this point they underwent a significant turnover in personnel as several long-serving members, tired and jaded from the rigours of road life, left the group to return to Kansas. Some were also exhausted by the group’s onstage hi-jinks: “The Coon-Sanders band was a smoking band, unlike the Whiteman band which was a drinking band. They played baseball. ‘Pop’ Estep, the tuba player, quit because of the band’s unprofessional bad habit, which was tickling each other [particularly him] onstage.”
The new residency, however, was booming, and became so popular that it was permanently sold-out. In December they made their first electric recordings for Victor, prompting a series of sessions that yielded a host of classic Coon-Sanders sides including ‘Flamin’ Mamie’, ‘Brainstorm’, ‘High Fever’ and ‘Sittin’ Around’. It’s impossible to overstate how much of a hit the Nighthawks had made by this point; already approaching celebrity status nationwide, they were also beginning to see the material profits of what Edmiston refers to as the ‘gruelling pace’ of their calendar. Thanks to a personal connection of Sanders’s, the Auburn automobile company of Indiana had sponsored the band since the previous year, supplying each member with a personalised sports car emblazoned with his own and the band’s names. The Conn company provided wind and brass instruments, whilst each musician proudly wore Kingly shirts and Society suits when in public. In 1926, the usual exhaustive and exhausting summer road tour was followed by a shift of winter venue: the Congress being outbid for Coonie and Joe’s services by the Blackhawk Restaurant on Wabash and Randolph, at the heart of the Loop in downtown Chicago. Just as at the Muehlebach and the Congress, they made their usual nightly broadcasts – this time for WBBM, using the tried-and-tested format incorporating a genial announcer and a telegram receiver to promote interaction from the fanbase dubbed ‘The Nutty Club’.
The band’s road tour in 1927 was notable principally for the dramatic events of April 18th. The Nighthawks’ train, trundling through southern Illinois, was halted by a violent tornado passing through, leaving a wide area of devastation behind it. A number of people had been killed and seriously injured by flying debris, and the musicians leapt out of their carriage to help where they could. Carleton Coon had a lifelong layman’s interest in matters medical, counting several practitioners amongst his close friends and serving as the Nighthawks’ de facto band doctor. Confronted with this desperate emergency, he grabbed the medical kit he always carried on tour and set up an improvised hospital in the luggage van, where he treated casualty after casualty, Sanders later opining not entirely sarcastically that ‘Dr. Coon undoubtedly saved several lives’. Carleton Coon is thus our first (and perhaps only) genuine Hero, in a literal as well as a musical sense.
On their return to the Blackhawk, the band found that owner Otto Roth had booked the cheaper Ben Pollack orchestra (yes, that one – with Fud Livingston, Glenn Miller and a teenaged Benny Goodman, as well as Hero #7) in their place. Unmoved, the Nighthawks returned to touring and made a superb session in June, the results of which – thanks to refined electric recording – feature Carleton Coon’s excellent drumming, beautifully audible at last.
‘Roodles’ is a swaggering original arranged in typically detailed Joe Sanders style, which makes copious use of the then-fashionable whole-tone sound to conjure an eerie mood that at times (such as the scat duet) edges towards full, swivel-eyed lunacy. Keeping things anchored throughout, however, are Coon’s insistent, heartbeat-like bass drum and crisp snare drum press-rolls. Behind the yelping chorus (really!) at [1:05] he plays syncopated time on a cowbell – an unusual tonal colour, but very effective in this particularly eccentric context – and during the ‘broken texture’ section immediately following [1:20] clips out fills on the wooden bass drum hoop, rather in the manner of his percussive peers on the Chicago jazz scene such as Baby Dodds and Bob Conzelman. Another Chicagoan drummer to prominently make use of this texture was Andrew Hilaire, who with Doc Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra had recently recorded several tunes made popular by the Nighthawks including another Sanders’ composition, ‘High Fever’. The coincidence is worth noting. If I were asked to recommend a perfect example of simmering, in-the-pocket mid-20s dance-band drumming, Coon’s work on ‘Roodles’ is certainly worthy of consideration.
Throughout his career Coon seems regularly to have been pictured with a succession of large and impressive arrays of percussion instruments, such as in the early photo at the top of the page. This particular sonic arsenal includes tubular bells, tam-tam, two timpani and three Chinese tom-toms in addition to the usual bass drum, presumably-hidden snare drum, and multi-cymbal ‘console’ hanger setup. Coon was evidently a finished percussionist, and like many a top dance orchestra the Nighthawks’ recorded oevre is liberally sprinkled with occasional piquant dashes of additional tonal colour courtesy of its drummer. Coonie plays castanets or bones on ‘Some Of These Days’, sandpaper blocks on ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’, swanee whistle on several early sides, gong on (of course!) ‘Hong Kong Dream Girl’, and vibraphone on ‘Moaning For You’, among others.
With Pollack’s band still occupying their usual holiday slot at the Blackhawk, the Coon-Sanders organisation decided to make a triumphant return to Kansas City for the festive period of 1927, being hailed as ‘The Ambassadors from Jazzland’. Victor Records’ engineers also emulated their Columbia counterparts’ venture six years earlier and travelled down to Kansas to cut eight more sides, including the classics ‘Louder And Funnier’, ‘Slue Foot’ and ‘Hallucinations’. It was recordings like these that the author of ‘The Dance Band Era’, Albert McCarthy, surely referred to when he wrote, “If asked to name the dance band of the ’20s that produced the most consistently interesting recordings, I should be tempted to settle for the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks.”
Having patched things up with Roth, the Nighthawks returned to Chicago and the Blackhawk residency to see in the New Year (whilst Pollack’s crew headed East, to fame and glory…) During this period, as Chicago’s nightlife came increasingly under the control of organised crime, the Nighthawks were occasionally put in the invidious position of receiving private bookings for parties held by known mob leaders. Carleton’s son Johnny Coon later remembered his father once pointing out Al Capone to him in a department store; Capone waved at them in obvious recognition. Another memorable encounter in 1928 was a closed-door jam session at the Palmer House with several members of the visiting Paul Whiteman orchestra, which included Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden and several others acknowledged as real jazz heavyweights – in subsequent years, if not necessarily at the time.
In the summer of 1928 a mystery session was made for Vocalion records by an anonymous band under the name ‘The Louisiana Rhythm Kings’ – an alias previously reserved for large scratch groups led by the New York-based cornet player Red Nichols. However, the fact that one of the tunes recorded was ‘Hallucinations’, based vaguely on the Coon-Sanders version from the previous year, has led to speculation that this session was in fact the Nighthawks recording under another name, in order to get around their exclusive contract with Victor. It’s been a hotly-debated question for many years amongst jazz fans – and since everyone’s entitled to an opinion, I’m going to throw in my own two-pence worth here! For me, the good things about this version of ‘Hallucinations’ and its three companions – the sparky solos and interactivity – are not at all typical hallmarks of the Coon-Sanders sound, whilst their strongest qualities – slickness, detailed arranging, charismatic singing and cohesive ensemble playing – are some of the weakest elements here. The pianist has none of Sanders’s technical flash and confidence, and the ensemble soli section [2:18] following the guitar solo (guitar solo!?) sounds to me much more Nichols than Nighthawks. The drummer (who has alternatively been speculatively identified as a young Gene Krupa) plays mostly cymbal throughout in a manner Coon was moving away from by 1928, and when he tries a ‘tricky’ break [1:38] it’s not entirely technically secure. I could comment on similar artifacts on all the other three tunes, but you get the idea. In summation – if WAS them, it was them doing a very convincing impression of someone else. Which is not impossible. But is unlikely.
The Nighthawks definitely did spend the summer of 1928 in a highly profitable residency at the Dells, a nightclub in Morton Grove north of Chicago. However, a rift with Jules Stein and the MCA over his supposed preferential treatment of the rival Guy Lombardo orchestra led to the Nighthawks’ star beginning gradually to wane in the later years of the decade. Their winter spell at the Blackhawk that year was broadcast by WGN, with yet another listeners’ fanclub and a salary of $125 per week for each musician. This winter also yielded superb records such as ‘Great Big Date’, ‘Bless You Sister’ and ‘Tennessee Lazy’.
We’re also privileged to have several surviving radio ‘airshots’ – recordings taken live from the air – from this vague period of Coon-Sanders’ Blackhawk broadcasts. They allow us for a brief moment, with a bit of imagination, almost to experience the sensation of being one of the legions of members of the Enemies of Sleep or the Insomnia Club in 1927 or 1928; sitting up awake in the small hours, alone somewhere in the dark expanse of nighttime America with only the crackly receiver, Coonie and Joe, and your anonymous fellow Nighthawks for company. There are a few of these airshot recordings floating around; this one included several numbers linked by repartee from the compère, from which I’ve selected the closing tune to present here – ‘What A Girl, What A Night’. It’s interesting to compare and contrast it with the version put out on record in November 1928 – but I’ll leave that bit of homework to you. Albert McCarthy judged that, “The broadcasts owed much to the personalities of the leaders, expressed through their announcements, acknowledgments of requests, and vocal duets. […] Today, the qualities that make listening to the Coon-Sanders recordings an enjoyable experience are technical expertise and a relaxed rhythm that was by no means commonplace among white bands of the period.”
1929 brought another, more eventful summer season at the Dells in Illinois, during which time the club was twice suspiciously damaged – first by an explosion, and later by a fire. Rumours at the time were that the Dells’ wholesome facade concealed an illicit mob-run gambling den in the back room. As the decade came to a close Coonie and Joe and the rest of the crew returned to the Blackhawk for a fourth winter. The law was cracking down hard on nightspots flouting prohibition laws, but somehow the Blackhawk survived unscathed. Whilst back in Chicago, of course, the band made more Victor records, rounding off the 1920s with a post-Wall Street Crash session on 6th December 1929.
‘The Darktown Strutters’ Ball’ – on the face of it a surprisingly mainstream choice for the Nighthawks to record, but of course arranged in typically surprising and imaginative style by the pianist – mostly finds Carleton socking away on a thin, dark-sounding cymbal in a manner rather reminiscent of late-20s dance band contemporaries like Sonny Greer or Cuba Austin. However, at [2:15] we are treated to a very rare instrumental duet by the two co-leaders, Sanders’s sparkling piano accompanied by Coon’s sprightly snare drum and sizzling cymbal work. McCarthy again: “Coon, on recorded evidence, was a proficient drummer, but no doubt his value to the band lay as much in his personality as in his musical skill; in bookers’ terminology, he was an ideal frontman.”
Unlike some of our Heroes (whose personalities have sadly disappeared into the ether even whilst their music still lives on), it’s not at all difficult to get a sense of who Carleton Coon was. Like many great double-acts, he and Sanders were very different in character but between them almost made up the ideal bandleader. The short, thick-set Coon was gregarious, easy-going and almost self-destructively generous – one of his favourite sayings being, ‘Money’s made round to go around’. Sanders, meanwhile, was tall and athletic, and as a person was highly-strung and competitive. Both men were utterly committed to their joint endeavours, and whilst working hard, both also played (and drank) extremely hard too – as was the norm for musicians at the time. Sanders remembered his friend simply as, “Coonie: carefree, happy-go-lucky, ever smiling […] He lived for today, worked hard, played harder.”
He was evidently a very likeable character and was always surrounded by friends. As well as Joe and the band, and his doctor pals, he was also personally close with several other dance band leaders including Fred Waring and Ben Bernie, the stresses and perks of whose lifestyle he shared and understood. Whilst working in Chicago, Coon also loved to attend gigs when he wasn’t working, particularly enjoying Earl Hines, Ted Lewis and Bing Crosby.
From the early 20s he owned a ciné camera and evidently enjoyed making home movies; six reels of these are viewable online at the Missouri State archives. The scenes are rather jumbled, but there are many glimpses of the Coon-Sanders band on their epic road trips across America, travelling on trains and in their personalised cars, larking-about around various cities and landmarks, and killing time before gigs. There are also touching scenes of Coon’s large family, filmed at his home in Kansas City. Reel 1 starts here: https://cdm16795.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16795coll18/id/9115?fbclid=IwAR3Ne4woC9XrLbsD2Jb3fzoIa8JmgwYHJKDs7niE1hxWGDvT_qHQwzMoqCk
That concludes our look at Carleton Coon’s stellar career during the Twenties; tragically, however, his life was to last only a few years more. On 4th May 1932 Coon died unexpectedly at Henrotin Hospital, Chicago, having developed septicaemia following a jaw infection. Aged only 39, he left behind a widow, Eula, and four children. The band’s contract with MCA still had fifteen years to run, but after trying for a few months Joe Sanders found it impossible to operate the band alone after depending on his friend’s collaboration for so long. The Band That Made Radio Famous folded soon afterwards.