Orchestra leader Johnny Knorr, 90, diesWritten by Jason Mack | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Big-band music and the city of Toledo lost a legend Aug. 28 when Johnny Knorr died at the age of 90 in his home. He founded the Johnny Knorr Orchestra in 1960 and was the musical director for 50 years before retiring last year.
“He’s been a mainstay,” said Jerry Knorr, Johnny’s son and the current musical director of the Johnny Knorr Orchestra. “He was underrated by not being flashy and outspoken about things. He was always conservative in his approach. Therefore, many times people didn’t know what all the involvement was. In his absence, it will be more known what his value really was to the community.”
Jerry officially became musical director at the beginning of the year, although he had been helping his father perform the duties for the past couple of years.
“He’s been my mentor all along,” Jerry said. “It was an unusual relationship for a father and son, but I always looked up to him for guidance, especially with playing and everything else.”
Jerry has been with the band since the beginning, playing saxophone with the orchestra at the age of 18. The Johnny Knorr Orchestra debuted as a 10-piece band at the El Rancho Ballroom on Dec. 10, 1960.
Standing by the music
“The Johnny Knorr Orchestra is exceedingly important,” said Michael Drew Shaw, a friend of Johnny who wrote and produced a documentary about the orchestra. “They started just prior to the British invasion with The Beatles and everything else. It was a tough time to start a big band. They decided to do it and stuck with it. They went through some hard times, but the band has always stood by its signature of Big-band music.”
Johnny began playing violin at age 9, but he learned the saxophone while attending Libbey High School so he could join the marching band. It proved to be a wise career move.
“I would match him with any saxophone player in the music business,” Shaw said. “He had a special touch for playing the sax and the arrangements of some of the greats like Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller pieces. He maintained the integrity of all those great songs, but he put his special touch on everything he played — some of them originals but much of it music people danced to back in the ’30s and ’40s.”
Johnny was well respected across the music industry. Johnny Desmond, a vocalist with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, once told him, “You play tenor sax the way I like to hear it.”
“It’s best expressed by the quotation from Johnny Desmond,” Jerry said. “Many people try, and it isn’t quite the same. Since my dad has been unable to play, people who have replaced him in the orchestra have realized he made it look so easy.”
Johnny adapted the compliment into the band’s trademark: “The music you like, the way you like to hear it.” Shaw also played off the slogan with “Just The Way You Like It,” a CD recorded to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary. Shaw owns an interest in US20 Records. He reconnected with Knorr a few years ago when he asked him to help rearrange a song called “Intermission Riff.”
“Not everyone can do horn arrangements,” Shaw said. “I asked Johnny if he would do an arrangement on a song we were going to update. That led to he and I having a long and reminiscing lunch at the Bayshore Supper Club. I realized the band’s 50th anniversary was happening, and nobody seemed to be doing much to recognize them. I decided to do a collection of their greatest stuff and release it to mark the 50th anniversary.”
Shaw eventually decided a CD was not enough and put together a documentary called “Satin Dolls: The Johnny Knorr Story,” by American Retrospects Films.
“The more I researched, the more surprised I became at how little video existed on the band,” Shaw said. “There was no video I could find anywhere. Because I’m a film producer, I said ‘somebody ought to do something about this because soon it will be gone forever.’ We set out for over a year, traveling with the band to a couple of concerts and shooting quite a bit of footage at Centennial Terrace. We released it officially at their annual 2010 New Year’s Eve party.”
Shaw was the emcee at the 2009 New Year’s Eve party. A couple of clips from the night are featured on the documentary.
“That was a historic event for two reasons: It may have been Johnny’s last performance as part of the band. It was also the night he officially turned the baton over to his son and stepped down as bandleader after 50 years,” Shaw said.
In honor of Johnny, the documentary will air at 3:30 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Sept. 4 on WMNT, Channel 58 on Buckeye CableSystem.
“We were very fortunate to have done the documentary while dad was still alive,” Jerry said. “There are interviews with dad on there along with performances. It’s great to have footage of him playing.”
“I always had a special place in my heart for Johnny and his band because of the ballroom era music they played, keeping the Big-band music alive,” Shaw said. “I remember as a kid, my parents were very fond of talking about the old ballroom days back in the ’30s and ’40s. That was one reason him and I became close over the years.”
Jerry was sad to see his father retire, but he has enjoyed stepping in as musical director.
“I certainly have big shoes to try and fill,” he said. “It’s an awesome job. It’s certainly a wonderful feeling when you look out on the audience and see the smiling faces on so many friends and fans. There’s not much else that can compete with that.”
According to Jerry, Johnny lived for pleasing the crowd.
“The audience always had his first attention,” Jerry said. “Whether it was a concert venue or a dancing venue, he was always interested in pleasing the people. Sometimes musical groups will play more for themselves rather than the audience. He always had the audience in the forethought of his program.”
Jerry and the Johnny Knorr Orchestra will continue playing, starting at the Centennial Terrace Sept. 10 from 7:30-10:30 p.m.
Johnny is survived by Jerry, his wife Jane, his daughter Janice Wilcox and eight grandchildren. Visiting hours are 4-8 p.m. Sept. 1 and 2-8 p.m. Sept. 2 at Walker Funeral Home at 5155 Sylvania Ave. Funeral services begin Sept. 3 at 11 a.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church at 4225 Sylvania Ave.