This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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THE BAND THAT MADE RADIO FAMOUS: THE COON-SANDERS NIGHTHAWKS
by Maury Cagle © 2012
(From Radio Recall, August 2012)
Today, they are a little known part of broadcast
history. Their music sounds hopelessly dated, and
almost no one is still alive who actually heard them
on the air. But when radio was an infant, the Coon-Sanders
Nighthawks were the first coast-te-coast
phenomenon of the new medium, and caused
thousands to buy their first radio and then stay up
way too late at night to listen to it.
The name comes the group's co-leaders,
Carleton Coon and Joe Sanders, who met in a
Kansas City music store. The Great War (as it was
then known) had just ended, but both were still in
the army. Sanders was playing the store's piano,
and Coon, liking what he heard, stepped up and
sang along. They immediately liked each other.
Coon was an outgoing, engaging personality.
who loved practical iokes, and was fond of partying. He was a naturally gifted drummer known mostly by
his nickname, "Coonie." Sanders was musically
gifted, and well trained, but somewhat reserved
and self-conscious. He was an accomplished
pianist and vocalist.
In 1920, they formed the Coon-Sanders
Novelty Orchestra. Coon was a natural for
promotion and public relations. Sanders wrote
songs and became an excellent arranger. They
blended nicely on stage, and their patter became
an important part of the presentation.
They played each noon at one of Kansas City's
top hotels, and in the late afternoon as part of a
vaudeville show at the Newman Theater. Because
of their stage antics and danceable music, they
quickly became the most popular band in town.
Their success came at a time of great change in
America, with Prohibition, serious racial tensions,
the growing influence of the automobile, women
voting, and the increasing popularity of jazz. It was
also the time of the beginning ascendancy alone
of the great cultural forces of the 20th century--radio.
In late 1922, the Coon-Sanders Orchestra
began its regular broadcasts on WDAF in Kansas
City, There were only 30 radio stations across the
U.S. and just SO-thousand homes had receivers
(now, there are some 14,500 stations and the
average home has eight radios).
A handful of stations were so-called "clear
channel" stations, which had 5O-thousand watts of
AM omni-directional power No other station could
broadcast on a clear channel station 's frequency,
so at night, their signal could be heard coast-to-coast. WDAF was one of those. Its signal was clearty heard on the island of Maul in Hawaii, on the
Canadian plains, and in all 48 states.
The band's appearances were the first regular
broadcasts of any musical group. The first week the
show was on the air - from 11 :30 pm to 1 am -it
received 60-thousand letters from fans in 31 states.
On one of the early programs, the mike was left on
after the show ended, and caught an impromptu
conversation in which Coon was overheard saying: "... anybody idiotic enough to stay up that iate to
listen to the radio must be a real nighthawk." The
next day, the band received two tons of telegrams
from people proclaiming themselves to be
"Nighthawks." Recognizing a good thing, Joe and
Coonie changed the name of the band to the
Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra, and
formed the first radio fan club.
Joe wrote a new theme song for the band, which
was so popular it was often requested to be played
during the body of the show. It's called "The
Nighthawk Blues," with the chorus featuring Joe
and Coonie singing a duet through their
Night Hawk Blues
Have you heard the very latest news?
All about the very latest blues?
Originated just the other day
In a most peculiar way.
Started with a bunch of midnight rounders,
Who never sleep, they are the founders
Of the Nighthawk Club, you know,
Listen in on the radio.
When Coon and Sanders start to play
Those Nighthawk Blues, you'll start to sway,
Tune right in on the radio,
Grab a telegram and say "Hello."
From coast to coast and back again;
It's a bear, you'll declare!
Listen to the Nighthawk Blues-tune in!
Listen to the Nighthawk Blues!
So many people responded to the invitation
to "Grab a telegram and say 'Hello,'" that Western
Union installed a trCker tape machine on stage, so
people could contact the band on the air New
members were greeted with the ringing of a cowbell
and their name was read on the air Soon, there
were 37-thousand members.
The band's increasing popularity opened several
important doors. From 1924 to 1932, Victor
released 65 sides by the banet. They had a winter
engagement at the Congress Hotel in Chicago,
followed bY a summer at the Lincoln
Coon and Sanders were approached by Jules
Stein, who proposed that he book a tour for the
band and use the profits to form a booking agency.
From that tour sprang the Music Corporation of
American-the ubiquitous MCA-which became
one of the real powerhouses of the music industry.
It's still in the media business, known as Universal
In 1926. the band moved to the Blackhawk
Restaurant in Chicago, which quickly became a hot
spot, frequented by many celebrities, including Al
Capone. They stayed four years, with their show
carried on WGN.
The Nighthawks also caught the attention of a
young man named William Paley, who was looking
for ways to get stations to join his fledgling network,
the Columbia Broadcasting System. Paley and
MCA arranged an l1-month engagement for the
band, based in the Terrace Room of the Hotel New
Yorker Their CBS broadcasts were sponsored by
Lucky Strike Cigarsttes.
One of the youngest fans of the band was four
year old future jazz vocalist Mel Torme, brought to
the restaurant by his parents. Several people
noticed the child mouthing the words to all the
songs. Soon, he was introduced to Joe Sanders,
who invited him to sing a song with the band. It
proved to be so popular that Torme appeared
every Monday night for six months. Later he said
his career began with the first song he sang with
the Nighthawks. By this time, the band was
pioneering road tours and one-nighters, which
became standard for bands that followed.
For years, Sanders had bought Auburn
automobiles, a high-end car often associated with
Cord and Duesenberg. Sanders had become
good friends with the vice president of
Auburn, who came up with a malVelous promotional
scheme for both the band and Auburn. He
outfitted each member of the band with new,
personalized 1931 Aubums. Coon and Sanders
drove Cords. The band made an impressive
entrance into towns with their unique motorcade.
All, however was not going well. The band did not
like New York. And Coonie's drinking was
becoming serious. Sometimes, Joe had to keep
him off the program.
A return to Chicago brightened everyone's 7
spirits. But it was short-lived. Carleton Coon
developed an abscessed tooth, and the infection
moved into his jaw bone. Two operations followed,
but blood poisoning had set in, and he died on May
4th, 1932, at the age of 39. His funeral procession
in Kansas City was miles long.
It proved to be the death knell of the band,
since one of its vital ingredients was Coonie's
prodigious sense of humor. Joe tried to keep
The band together but a year later it disbanded.
Joe Sanders continued in music, but he hit hard
financial times, and died in 1965.
If you are interested in learning more about the
Coon-Sanders story, I recommend the book "The
Coon-Sanders Nighthawks, " by Fred W. Edmiston,
McFarland, 2003. There are several excellent
retrospec!ives of their music on CD. A good start is
a single CD called "The Best of Coon-Sanders
Original Nighthawk Orchestra, 1924-1932," on
Retrieval Records RTR 79019.