Auld Lang Syne: Guy Lombardo

For more than 50 years, Guy Lombardo, and his big band The Royal Canadians, helped us all ring out the old and run in the new. As we celebrate a brand new one, we look back to the man who became known as Mr New Year, Canada's own Guy Lombardo.

(CBC Still Photo Collection)

If you enjoy the countdown to midnight every December 31st, you probably have your required list of supplies for the celebration: a couple of noisemakers, a glass of bubbly, someone to kiss when the clock strikes midnight.. and of course, music. For almost 50 years music on New Year's Eve meant tuning in to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians.

December 1977 (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Guy Lombardo owned New Year's Eve. In fact, the live broadcast of his show on December 31st was so popular that he was known as "Mr. New Year's Eve." Guy and the band cultivated a trademark sound early on that people loved almost as soon as they heard it. It was considered revolutionary at the time: the soft, mellow saxophones, muted trumpets, slow tempos, symphonic style always presented with top-notch musicianship. His concerts were elegant affairs. Imagine grand ballrooms filled with guests dressed to the nines, a fine suit or maybe even a tuxedo, or stylish frock. If you weren't sitting at your table enjoying a cocktail, you might be swaying across the dance floor to the sweet sounds of the band. And on stage, the band in red tuxes with Guy Lombardo in black, baton in hand and gently swaying and dancing as he conducted.

circa 1963 (CBC Still Photo Collection)

From humble beginnings in London, Ontario, a move to the U.S. and first recordings in the 1920s, the band's popularity soared. By 1954 Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians had sold over 100 million records and played at the inaugural balls of every U.S. president from Franklin Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower and again in 1985 for Ronald Reagan.

Although Lombardo achieved great success in the United States, and became an American citizen in 1938, he maintained close ties with Canada and came back frequently to visit. Lombardo appeared regularly on CBC Radio over the years. In 1973 he talked to Peter Gzwoski on his program This Country in the Morning. Lombardo was a household name. They talked about the early years of the band when he and his band mates were teenagers living in London. By the time the band had grown to a 9 piece outfit they figured they were ready for the big time and decided to head south. Their first stop was Cleveland, Ohio. Guy reminisced about the surprise of learning that Cleveland was stuffed to the gills with big bands. They were definitely not the only game in town. But lucky for the Royal Canadians, it seemed that the other bands were reluctant to perform on radio. They thought it was too much bother to come all the way to a radio station for each appearance when instead they could fill a concert hall. Lombardo jumped at the chance and made their name. It was radio that helped catapult The Royal Canadians to fame and their name was made.
Bandleader Guy Lombardo, right, poses in 1943 with his brothers, from left, Victor, Carmen and Lebert. (CP)
In the mid 1970s Guy appeared on the local CBC Radio weekend morning show Fresh Air. Interviewing him were Bill McNeil and Cy Strange. Guy was always quick to give credit, especially to his brother Carmen. Carmen played sax in the band and he was entirely self-taught. He also wrote some of the band's greatest hits, like their most famous, Boo Hoo. In fact, the band was a family affair, with brothers Lebert and Victor also part of it, and for a time sister Rose Marie.
(Phil Burchman/Getty Images)

One thing you might not know about Guy Lombardo is that he was a champion boat racer, specializing in hydroplane boats. Between 1946 and 1949 he was the reigning U.S. national champion of the sport. The name of his beloved race boat? Tempo, of course.

Guy Lombardo is known for many things, but surely his signature was New Year's Eve. On December 31st 1976, Barbara Frum and Alan Maitland of As It Happens talked to him as he was preparing for the big extravaganza. It was Guy Lombardo's last New Year as he died the following November, 1977. The band was taken over briefly by brother Victor, but after brother Lebert left, was dissolved. 

Over their long career, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians had over 500 hit songs. In fact by the early 1970s total sales exceeded 300 million, making it the most popular dance band ever. Their recording of Auld Lang Syne still plays as the first song of the New Year of Times Square in New York.