During the Big Band era and beyond there were icons like Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller, but there were also some smaller organizations that just had a wonderful sound. To start out this new feature dedicated to the big bands, I wanted to profile a little known band leader by the name of Chuck Foster.
In 1939, Foster and his orchestra were hired for two weeks at the Biltmore Bowl, a hotel in Los Angeles, but wound up staying there seven months. They went back in 1940 and ‘41, for a total of 18 months time! During that period, they made lots of network radio broadcasts.
Their very first recordings were made as transcriptions for radio stations only, for Standard in 1939 and United in 1940. Okeh Records signed them for commercial discs, and the band recorded a total of eight sides in October 1940 and June 1941, including their theme song, Oh, You Beautiful Doll, and I’ve Been Drafted (Now I’m Drafting You). It was stated that in 1941-42 Foster and his orchestra traveled more than 50,000 miles in private automobiles and played in 28 states, mostly one-night stands or theaters, with a few steady gigs in hotels and ballrooms.
A special highlight for the band was working the Academy Awards ceremony held in Hollywood in 1941, and which named, among other honors, the best picture ("Rebecca"), best actor (James Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story," his only Oscar win), and best actress (Ginger Rogers as "Kitty Foyle").
In June of ‘42, the band added the nearby Oriental Theatre to its appearances. When they returned to the Oriental that December, former Chick Webb vocalist Ella Fitzgerald shared the bill. Then, on April 7, 1943, Foster opened an engagement at the Blackhawk Restaurant, also in Chicago's "Loop," and in August of that year, it was back to the Oriental, this time with the Mills Brothers vocal group.
After his brief service in the Army during World War II, Foster organized a new band in early 1944, opening at the Chanticleer nightclub in Baltimore, MD. They then headed back to the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago for, as was typical, several months.
When they operated out of New York City, they played, for example, the Hotel New Yorker in-town or the Steel Pier in nearby Atlantic City. Starting in the ‘40s, he would take trips to the Hotel Peabody in Memphis, TN for a couple of lengthy engagements each year.
In 1953, Foster officially moved to the Chicago area, where he could continue to star at the Blackhawk, work the Aragon or Trianon ballrooms four or five months a year, and go elsewhere around the Midwest dance circuit. He played a “battle of dance music” with Eddy Howard at the Aragon on July 31, 1955, and a similar “battle” was held between Foster and Ralph Marterie at the Aragon on June 17, 1956. (Howard’s and Marterie’s bands were also big Chicago favorites.)
Foster and his orchestra recorded for Mercury in 1946-48, on Vocalion in 1949, and around the late 1950s made what seems to have been his only 12" LP, “Chuck Foster at the Hotel Peabody Overlooking Old Man River,” for Philips International. He decided to return to California in 1965, ready to retire. But a band was needed at Myron’s Ballroom in downtown Los Angeles, so he agreed to go there. He stayed for 8 years, stocking his playlists both with standards (Easter Parade, Avalon, Hindustan) and more-current pops (Born Free, King of the Road, Tijuana Taxi).
Even into the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was still willing to play for a gathering of dancers, whether in southern California or somewhere back East, like the Willowbrook or Holiday ballrooms in Chicago. Sadly though, Chuck Foster died in relatively obscurity on December 13, 2001 at the age of 89. He was married for close to fifty years to one of his band's former vocalists Delores Marshall. He was survived by her, three daughters, and his music that never will die...