Notable for distinctive modern harmony and phrasing, the Pied Pipers began in Hollywood in 1938 as a merging of eight members of three different groups. While waiting on the 20th Century-Fox lot to get a shot at working in the musical Alexander’s Ragtime Band, hopefuls the Four Esquires,The Stafford Sisters, and the Three Rhythm Kings whiled away the waiting time by harmonizing together. Jo Stafford of the sisters began singing with The Esquires and Kings seven male members, and soon after, when sister Pauline’s marriage ended the Stafford Sisters’ career, the Pied Pipers were born.
Besides Stafford, the original members were John Huddleston, Hal Hopper, Chuck Lowry, Bud Hervey, George Tait, Woody Newbury, and dick Whittinghill.
Through two of the King sisters, Alyce and Yvonne, the Pipers came to the attention of Paul Weston and
Axel Stordahl, who were arrangers for the Tommy Dorsey band. According to Joseph Laredo’s liner notes on the Pied Pipers’ 1991 CD, Paul Weston stated, “The Pipers were ahead of their time. Their vocal arrangements were like those for a sax section and a brass section, and they would interweave, singing unison or sometimes sing against each other’s parts. It was revolutionary and we’d never heard anything like it.” Weston made that assessment at a jam session he was having at his house, and one guest, a visiting ad executive, was so impressed he hired the group to sing with Tommy Dorsey’s band on the Raleigh Kool cigarettes program.
The group drove to New York and lasted about six weeks before being canned by a pompous British sponsor who came to the studio and was aghast at their overly (to him) off-color repertoire, which included “Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood Mama).” But before leaving New York to return to Hollywood they managed to record two 78s for RCA Victor, “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “What Is This Thing Called Love.”
Back in Los Angeles, the octet was now a quartet of Jo Stafford, her husband John Huddleston, Billy Wilson, and Chuck Lowry. Things were going so poorly they unofficially rechristened the group Poverty Inc. At the bleakest of moments Stafford received a call from Dorsey in Chicago saying he couldn’t afford eight Pipers but he’d like it if she would pare them down to a quartet and join him. With only four members and one unemployment check left, this was an easy request to accommodate.
The group moved to Chicago in 1939; Billy Wilson left to be replaced by Clark Yocum, a Dorsey guitarist and vocalist. Paul Weston left Dorsey to work as Dinah Shore’s musical director, but he would have an important involvement with the group at a later date.
In early 1940 Dorsey hired another vocalist who had sung with Harry James’s band in 1939 and with a vocal group, the Hoboken Four, in 1935. The vocalist whose influences were Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, and Dorsey himself had a hit right off the bat with “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (#18, April 1940) backed by Dorsey’s orchestra. Two months later the Pipers put a notch in the musical holster by hitting with “My My” from the film Buck Benny Rides Again (#13, June 1940).
On June 29, 1940, an historic pairing of that vocalist, Frank Sinatra, and the Pied Pipers resulted in one of the biggest hits of the pre-rock era, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which was number one for 12 weeks, spending 20 weeks on the charts.
In August the five hit again with “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else” (#11).
The group went on to have 11 more chart hits with Dorsey, nine of those singing with Sinatra, including “Stardust” (#7, January 1941), “Do I Worry” (#4, April 1941), and “Just As You Thought You Were Here” (#6, July 1942). Without Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Pipers hit with “You’ve Got Me This Way” (#14, January 1941) and “Let’s Get Away from It All” (#7, May 1941). Even Jo Stafford found some recognition, charting as a solo vocalist on “Yes Indeed” (#4, July 1941).
A burst of group loyalty around Thanksgiving 1942 changed the Pipers’ future when Dorsey, who was prone to fits of temper, fired one of the members at a Portland, Oregon, train station for inadvertently sending him in the wrong direction. In a display of one-for-all and all-for-one comradeship, the remaining Pipers picked up their pickled peppers and left the train, heading immediately for Hollywood. The number one record in the country around that time was “There Are Such Things” by Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers. It was their last Victor release with Dorsey.
In Los Angeles they signed with Capitol Records, while John Huddleston joined the war effort and was replaced by one of they original octet, Hal Hooper. Workin gat Capitol was none other than Paul Weston, and he became the arranger and orchestra leader for most of the Pipers’ recordings. Jo became a soloist, scoring a hit ahead of her group with “How Sweet You Are” (#14, February 1944).
The group charted in April with ‘Mairzy Doats” (#8) though THE MERRY MACS had scored the number one hit version two months earlier.
By June Jo’s Solo career was off and running, so June Hutton of the Stardusters took over the Pipers lead. Her first hit with the boys was their biggest hit, “Dream” (#1, March 1945), originally used as the closing theme on Johnny Mercer’s radio show.
Mercer, one of America’s most prolific lyricists, was the founder of Capitol Records and had the Pipers sign with him on such hits as “Candy” (#1, February 1945) and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (#8, December 1946).
The Pied Pipers had 12 chart singles for Capitol, their last being “My Happiness” (#3, June 1948).
From 1945 through ’46 the quartet took part in a series of National Theatre tours with Frank Sinatra while still doing radio programs in Los Angeles.
They became the resident vocal group on Frank’s own weekly CBS radio show from September 1945 through mid-1947.
The Pipers were voted the Top Vocal Group in down beat magazine’s annual poll for six straight years from 1944 to 1949.
In 1950 June Hutton left and was replaced by Sue Allen and later Virginia Marcy. Jo Stafford (who was divorced from Huddleston in 1943) married Paul Weston in 1952 and went on to have one of the most successful solo careers of all time, charting 75 times between 1944 and 1954, including “You Belong to Me” (#1, 1954).
June, who married the other half of Dorsey’s early arranging team, Axel Stordahl, had several solo releases for Capitol in the early ‘50s, including “Say You’re Mine Again” (#21, 1953), in which Axel was the orchestra leader. She died on May 2, 1973, at the age of 53.
At the start of the 1990s, a touring Pied Pipers carried on the tradition of vocal expertise.
– Jay Warner