Chubby Checker did The Twist, Bobby Darin sung Beyond the Sea and Elvis
asked Are You Lonesome Tonight?
These rock classics were the top three songs in 1960, just four years before The Beatles-led ‘British Invasion’ changed popular music forever.
Johnny Knorr watched that birth of rock ‘n roll from the ashes of his career. Big Band music was dying and work was harder to find for a 39-year-old sax player recovering from back surgery. Knorr faced a life-altering decision. Music paid the bills for his wife and two children. He performed with local bands and with renowned musicians such as Art Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey and Les Brown. At times, he played seven days a week in front of crowds numbering 800 to 900. But, when Elvis shook his hips and musical taste changed, Johnny was forced to find another career, or a way to keep the music he loved alive while paying his bills.
Enter Jane Knorr.
“My wife really saved the family,” Johnny said. “She got a teaching degree.” This financial help gave Johnny the freedom to start his own 13-piece orchestra with talent he recruited from Toledo and Detroit. He wanted to play Big Band music for the shrinking base of ballroom dancers.
“That was a real challenge,” he said. “It was kind of a stupid way to go, but that’s the way I went.”
Fifty years later, Johnny Knorr and His Orchestra just released their ninth recording, this one called Just the Way You Like It. The compilation CD features 14 songs and 8 medleys including Boogie Blues, Stranger on the Shore, Stardust, and Tangerine, starring vocalist Gay Hobbs from Gibsonburg.
The orchestra’s first job was headlining a dance at the El Rancho Ballroom on
Woodville Road. During the best years, the band played 70 to 80 nights a year and traveled throughout the Midwest to such venues as the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Cedar Point and the University of Notre Dame.
Jerry Knorr, Johnny’s son, has been with the band all these years. He started out as an 18-year-old sax player sandwiched between his father and his uncle George. “I had a unique opportunity,” he recalls of that time. “There was no way I could falter because I had my dad on one side of me and my uncle on the other side of me.”
In 1960, at age 18, Jerry could see the same future his father saw. “I saw reality. You weren’t going to be making a living at music anymore.” So, Jerry attended the University of Toledo earning a degree in electrical engineering. In his spare time, he attended the Eastman School of Music and played in the band. He does many of the arrangements and has been the leader for the past three years. He’ll carry on the band’s legacy when Johnny, now 88, is no longer up to playing.
Today, the orchestra plays 20 to 25 nights a year. Home base is Centennial Terrace in Sylvania. The next performance is Saturday, 7:30 pm. The theme is The Music of Glenn Miller.
Most of the members have been with Johnny for more than 20 years. That has
been one of two keys to Johnny’s success. He would only take jobs where he could bring all 13 members. Consequently, if you heard the orchestra at a wedding and you wanted to book it you would get the same sound. Other bands had a core group and hired just the musicians they needed for a performance. Johnny’s approach allowed the band’s reputation to grow along with its play list.
That’s the second reason for the band’s success—an expanding, topical play list. Jerry said, “Most orchestras played for the musicians. Dad always played for the dancers and he followed many of the trends of the current time. He didn’t just play fox trots, waltzes and swing numbers. He also played many of the Latin numbers—the cha-chas, the mambos, the sambas, so that the people who were taking ballroom lessons and learning new steps, we would be there for them.”
Gay Hobbs has been Johnny’s female vocalist for 23 years. She is a retired from Owens-Illinois. She began her singing career in the early 1960s shortly after a divorce. She needed extra money to support her three sons. She joined Johnny’s band in 1986. Her debut performance was at the University of Notre Dame. She has stayed with the band because of the arrangements, the following and the extra income. And, of course, there’s the passion for the music which you can hear in such songs as Tangerine.
“I never thought, pushing 72, I’d still be singing,” she said. “It’s like when you’re a little kid and you think, `Oh, I’d like to be a big band singer like in the movies.’ Who knew?”
Johnny knew. He has kept Big Band music alive in Northwest Ohio for 50 years.