Thanks for the MemoryWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
For a few hours on June 2, I had the easiest job in the world: to encourage applause for The Johnny Knorr Orchestra (JKO). Hundreds of enthusiastic fans packed Hansen Hall at Christ Presbyterian Church to hear the orchestra, which is celebrating 53 years of playing Big-Band “music you like … the way you like to hear it.” You might assume that means soft and easy, but for 90 minutes, the orchestra would swing and rock the hall with a focus and intensity that shook the rafters.
There is nothing like live music at its best, when musicians lock in on a groove and drive it to its full potential. As half of the Johnny Knorr Orchestra has been playing together for more than 25 years, the music ticks along with the steadiness of a Swiss watch. Johnny died in 2011, but his son Jerry took up the baton and leads the dozen musicians and two vocalists with great confidence.
My job was to introduce the orchestra for the taping of a special to be broadcast New Year’s Eve. I could have taken the stage and read a page from the phone book and it would not have mattered; the audience was ready for the show and in applause mode without urging from me.
The orchestra launched with two Glenn Miller arrangements, “A String of Pearls” and a medley of “Blue Champagne,” “I Know Why” and “At Last.” The acoustics served the music well and the orchestra played as if it had spent an hour warming up. Longtime JKO vocalist Gay Hobbs charmed the crowd, then handed the microphone to one of the night’s revelations. Joel Zmuda took the stage in a white tuxedo jacket and owned his moments in the spotlight, bringing great emotion and vocal control to Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and Bobby Darin’s “(Up A) Lazy River.” Zmuda has a smooth delivery and connection to the song lyrics; the audience joined my excited applause following his turn.
During the performance, a slide show ran through images from the orchestra’s career: marquees showing its names, guest appearances from celebrities, images of Johnny and Jerry progressing from young men to seasoned conductors. The images brought Johnny into the hall and kept his spirit very much entwined with the music.
After spins through “Lara’s Theme” and Miller’s arrangement for “Danny Boy,” Zmuda returned for one of the evening’s highlights, his reading of Darin’s “Clementine.” The song requires a performance of humor and pathos that is almost acting. It is the story of a “chubby miner’s daughter” who is walking a herd of cows over a river footbridge. “The old bridge trembled/Then disassembled” Zmuda sang, employing bubble-blowing trills and Darin’s trademark “hup hup!” to sing the song with its darkly funny lyrics (“Hey, I’m no swimmer/but were she slimmer/I might have saved that Clementine” and “I wasn’t nervous/Until the service/They held for Clementine,” Zmuda sang with a smile. It was not an impersonation of Darin, but an adoption of his mannerisms that Zmuda made his own.
The audience responded strongly to a medley of songs about girls (“Margie,” “Sweet Sue, Just You,” “Marie,” “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and a rousing “Hello Dolly” and Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction.”)
It is a tough task to single out individual musicians in such a tight orchestra, but I was duly impressed by Tim Vesey, who played alto sax, clarinet and flute, trumpet player Dave Tippett and bass player John Dana. Drummer Bob Johnson played his rolls and fills with a force and drive that men one-third his age should envy and emulate.
After wrapping up with “We’ll Meet Again,” “Thanks For The Memories” and a version of Miller’s “In The Mood” that rocked the audience (and could have gone on forever, as far as the audience was concerned), the orchestra took its bows and closed the show.
It was a major honor to play a minor role in the evening and a great privilege to hear the JKO play live; it is an opportunity I strongly encourage Toledoans to pursue. If nothing else, the memories will be preserved on CDs and the TV special, scheduled to air New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day on Buckeye CableSystem Channel 58.
Mark your calendars to relive the memories with those of us who were lucky enough to be there, lost in the music of Darin, Bennett, Sinatra and Vera Lynn — singing of love, America and a girl named Clementine who may still be out there, pushing bubbles through the water as her story reverberates in song.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.