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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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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 megaphones.

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 Tavern.

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 Studios.

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.