The Skylarks were formed in the unlikely surroundings of the Panama Canal zone during Worls War II. The four army servicemen included Bob Sprague (first tenor), Harry Gedicke (second tenor), Harry Shuman (baritone), and arranger/leader George Becker. They toured bases throughout Panama starting in 1942 while starring in a weekly program on the area’s Armed Forces Radio Network.
After their discharge they reorganized in Detroit and added lead singer Gilda Maiken, whom they had heard on WJR radio. The group rehearsed at the YMCA in Highland Park, Michigan, practicing songe like “Night and Day” and “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of Chance.” Through Gilda’s connections the group appeared with the Don Large Chorus on a coast-to-coast radio show. Bandleader Woody Herman heard them and engaged the group to perform with his orchestra.
The quartet originally called themselves the Velvetones, but upon joining Herman they became known as the Blue Moods, since Woody’s orchestra was billed as “the band that plays the blues.” They recorded “Stars Fell on Alabama” in August 1946 in Los Angeles and then set off with Herman for the National Theatre tour circuit.
In 1947 Herman’s band broke up while the Blue Moods were in New York, but they eventually the good fortune to meet and record with Bing Crosby. He changed their ame to The Skylarks and they recorded two sides with him, “Ko Ko Mo Indiana” and “Chaperone.”
In 1948 they joined Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra and made several MGM recordings before Dorsey’s band broke up.
Music publisher Rocky Carr became their manager and wired them to come to California where work may be easier to find. The smooth-sounding quintet’s reputation preceded them and without so muchas an audition they were hired by Harry James. They recorded on Decca with trombonst Russ Morgan in February 1949 and had a million seller in the number one hit “Cruisin’ Down the River.” Its follow-up, “Forever and Ever,” charted for 26 weeks and also reached number one.
The group performed with such stars as Dinah Shore, Eddie Fisher, Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, Dean Martin, jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra.
By the ’50s the group included originals Gilda Maiken and George Becker with Joe Hamilton, Earl Brown, and Jacki Gershwin. They signed to RCA Records in the early ’50s and had one chart single, “ I Had the Craziest Dream” from the film Spring time in the Rockies (#28, April 1953). The group also appeared in the TV musical game show “Judge for Yourself” with Fred Allen in 1953.
Jackie Gershwin was later replaced by Carol Lombard, adn the group kept performing. Included in their travels were four years of tours with Dinah Shore and the last tour with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The Skylarks were staples of varity-show TV ranging from the Danny Kaye and Dinah Shore shows in the ’50s to Carol Burnett’s and Sonny and Cher’s shows in the ’60s.
In 1979 The Skylarks made their last public appearance at the Hollywood Palladium, 37 years after they were formed.
The individual members kept quite busy in show business after their group retirement. George Becker became production coordinator for “The Tim Conway Show” and worked on Carol Burnett’s shows for 15 years. Earl Brown became a material writer for TV and nightclub acts including The Osmonds, Steve Martin, Suzanne Somers, and the New Smothers Brothers. Joe Hamilton produced Carol Burnett’s long-running TV show. Jackie Gershwin and Carol Lombard went on to work as backup singers as did Donna donna Manners and Peggy Clark, wo had aslso spent some time with the group. Lively and charismatic Gilda Maiken (Anderson), the only lead singer the group ever had, opened her own talent agency and later became chairman of the celebrated Society of Singers.
– Jay Warner