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Obituary: Carlos 'Buddy' Moreno, a swing-era singer and bandleader, had the number one hit in ‘42

Buddy Moreno
Provided by WYYR Yesteryear Radio

Buddy Moreno has died at the age of 103. Mr. Moreno was a guitarist and the lead singer with The Dick Jurgens Orchestra when he made One Dozen Roses the number one hit in the nation in 1942.

Two other bandleaders – Hal Kemp and Eddy Duchin – were vying for Mr. Moreno’s talents when he chose Jurgens.

“Dick was playing the kind of music that I liked,” Mr. Moreno said in a 2012 interview with Yesteryear Radio (WYYR.com) on his 100th birthday. “And they were all young and so was I. It was a great band.”

It was also a big step in his long career, which began when he was 17. By 21, he was the lead singer for the Griff Williams Orchestra. His next stop was with Jurgens, then on to work with Harry James, a bandleader known as much for his marital status as his trumpet: James’ wife was movie queen Betty Grable. Mr. Moreno replaced Dick Haymes, who had replaced Frank Sinatra, in the James band.

In 1947, Mr. Moreno formed his own band, which made its debut in St. Louis at the Casa Loma Ballroom. He later became a renowned radio personality.

Mr. Moreno died Sunday (Nov. 29) at Delmar Gardens North. His services will be at Lupton Chapel on Friday.

Before moving to Delmar Gardens about a decade ago, Mr. Moreno had lived in the ranch house in Florissant that he and his late wife, Perri, a singer, had decided to make home shortly after he was enticed to become the bandleader at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis in the 1950s.

The Crooner

Griff Williams formed a band in 1933 and agreed to put Mr. Moreno in it if he learned to play guitar. So he did. Their first booking was Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel. Their next engagement was an extended booking at the luxurious Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, where the band was based.

Having proved himself an outstanding lead singer as well as a capable guitarist, Mr. Moreno was courted by some of the leading bands of the time. He joined the popular Dick Jurgens Band and was the featured vocalist on numerous recordings at Okeh Records in the early ’40s.

“We glommed onto Buddy Moreno,” said Dick Jurgens in a recorded clip played during Mr. Moreno’s 100th birthday interview. “Boy, a great guy, a fine voice, played guitar; he was certainly a personable guy to have with us.”

Shortly after One Dozen Roses reached number one in the summer of 1942, Mr. Moreno joined the Harry James Orchestra. He recorded widely with James and was featured in the band’s radio shows and in Metro-Goldwin-Mayer films.

In 1944, he appeared in two musical comedies with the band: Bathing Beauty, starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton and Two Girls and a Sailor, with June Allyson and Van Johnson. He even got in a few dance routines in Bathing Beauty.

His sweet tenor was often heard on Chesterfield cigarette commercials for CBS-sponsored shows, and his Hollywood good looks put Mr. Moreno in the cigarette’s print advertisements.

He was drafted into the Army in World War II, short-circuiting his acting career.

The services were still segregated, but Mr. Moreno performed with an all-black Army band at Camp Shanks, N.Y. In 1996, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he “kind of violated some of the rules and managed to get through to their area. I knew some of the guys … like Buck Clayton, the trumpet player."

Upon discharge, Mr. Moreno returned to Chicago, where he’d gotten his professional start, and formed his own 12-piece dance band. When he put out the word that he needed a female vocalist, his agent recommended a young woman who had sang with Harry James after Mr. Moreno left. Her name was Perri Mitchell.

“She was just exactly what I wanted: blond, pretty and sang great,” Mr. Moreno recalled. “We wound up getting married.”

The Buddy Moreno Show

Buddy Moreno and His Orchestra toured throughout the United States and parts of Canada. They played all the famous ballrooms, including the Aragon and Trianon in Chicago. The band made its New York debut in 1948 at the legendary Paramount Theater where they did six shows a day.

Buddy Moreno
Credit Provided by WYYR Yesteryear Radio

The orchestra recorded many songs with RCA Victor, including Carolyn, Doo Dee Doo On An Old Kazoo and Gee, I Wish You Were My Sweetheart. They often appeared on CBS, NBC and Mutual network radio. The CBS appearances included several stops on Saturdays at the Chase, which originated live from St. Louis.

In the '50s, the owner of the Chase, Harold Koplar, offered Mr. Moreno and his wife steady work. Now with two children, they agreed it might be time to leave the road. Mr. Moreno became the director of the house band for the old Chase Club, playing with the likes of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Sophie Tucker.

He had a musical variety program, The Buddy Moreno Show, on KMOX-TV. As the big band era waned, Mr. Moreno, who was nearing the age when most people consider retirement, switched careers. He became a radio announcer, always keeping a hand on the big band-turntable. He worked first for WHHM in Memphis. After a year, he returned to St. Louis and worked for several stations, including WIL, KWK, WEW, where he was program director for 23 years, and WSIE, the public radio station at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. He began hosting a weekly big band program on at WSIE at the tender age of 84 and continued until he was 93.

Dick Ulett, now a program consultant with WSIE and owner of Clayton Studios, worked with Mr. Morena at KWK in the ’60s. They reconnected much later.

“He was as sharp as a tack and he remembered me when I interviewed him (on his 100th birthday),” Ulett said. “Buddy was very friendly, very knowledgeable and very encouraging to a young cub. I thought he was amazing.”

Mr. Moreno served for a time as musical director at the Fox Theater and the Muny. For many years, he led the band for the Chuck Norman Christmas Party to benefit children with disabilities and brought his special style to the Gateway Jazz Festival.

“I was busy,” he laughed playfully when many of his accomplishments were recounted during his century celebration.

A Musical Legacy

Carlos Jesus “Buddy” Moreno was born July 14, 1912, in Los Angeles and grew up in San Francisco. He was the only child of Charles and Dorothy Moreno. He began singing professionally with a vocal group for $5 a night while still in high school. He married Audrey Perry, known professionally as Perri Mitchell, in June of 1950. She died in 1998.

Buddy Moreno
Credit Provided by St. Louis Media History Foundation
Mr. Moreno was at KWK when this photo was taken.

Despite being a star in his own right, Mr. Moreno idolized his show business contemporaries with the fervor of a star-struck teenager. 

A room in his home was filled with autographed photographs of everybody who was anybody during the golden age of big bands and Hollywood. Mr. Moreno is in most of the pictures, including the one of Harry James and Betty Grable. His photo of June Allyson is inscribed: "For Buddy, my most favorite singer, with my best wishes for your success, fondly, June."

“The names he knew,” said Cindy Vantine, a longtime friend. “(He’d talk about) the times he spent with Rosemary Clooney or at the mention of Lawrence Welk he’d say, ‘Larry? He was a good guy.’”

He counted many of Hollywood’s best-known names among his friends, including Ozzie Nelson, Bob Hope and Ricky Ricardo, after whom he named his son.

When interviewed for the St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church newsletter in yet another celebration of his 100th birthday, he was asked what legacy he hoped to leave.

“If I have given (people) pleasure with my music,” Mr. Moreno said, “then what better legacy can I leave?”

Appropriately, he was a Legacy inductee into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 2-197.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Moreno was preceded in death by his son, Ricardo “Rick” Moreno.

His survivors include his daughter, Julie (Michael) Hamilton, who followed her mother as his band’s lead singer, his daughter-in-law, Chris Moreno, and two granddaughters, Kara and Amanda Moreno.

Visitation for Mr. Moreno will be from 4-8 p.m., Thursday at Lupton Chapel, 7233 Delmar Boulevard, in University City. Services will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Lupton Chapel with interment at Jefferson Barracks.

Editor's note: a musical tribute for Mr. Moreno that had been planned for Sunday Dec. 6 has been postponed and a new date has not yet been set.

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