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King of the New York dance band contractors, Lester Lanin was still going strong into his nineties, playing "strict tempo" medleys of old favorites and contemporary hits for weddings, debutante balls, fund-raising galas, and other society affairs. Along with his brothers Sam and Howard, Lanin provided music to the upper crust for much of the last four decades. Starting with Eisenhower in 1952, Lanin performed at numerous Presidential inaugural balls, and legend has it that Queen Elizabeth II once rescheduled a royal gala to accomodate Lanin's schedule. USA Today wrote of him in 1992, "For generations of the rich and famous, a society party isn't a society party unless Lanin is there with his back to the tuxedoed crowd."
Here's a typical Lanin gig:
In 1988, Karim Aga Khan threw a lavish party to celebrate the 18th birthday of his daughter Princess Zahra, in his chateau near Paris. Over 800 guests assembled to dine on caviar and smoked salmon, drink vintage champagne, and dance to Lanin's band, specially flown in from America. The fireworks display alone was estimated to have cost $300,000.Over the course of seven decades, Lanin and his (up to ten or more at once) his bands played 20,000 wedding receptions, 7,500 parties and 4,500 proms. He played at the engagement party for Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier and at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. His clients included most of the 100 richest men and women in America and the kings of Norway, Spain, Greece, Denmark and Sweden. Even though he's gone now, you can reach the Lanin organization at 212-265-5208 to hire them for your next block party.
Born the youngest in a family of ten boys, Lanin was around music from birth. His father and grandfather were both bandleaders, and six of his brothers took up the baton at one time or another. Despite these rich family traditions and having played various instruments from the time he was five, Lester wanted to be a lawyer when he was growing up.
The undertow was too strong to overcome, though, and Lester dropped out of school at fifteen, first to play in his brothers' bands and then to take over the business of hiring musicians.
by the time he was in his early twenties, Lester had his own band and was becoming a regular feature at Philadelphia Main Line society soireÚs. Philly was but a short step from New York, and soon New York's blue bloods were hiring him, too. When he was hired to play at heiress Barbara Hutton's coming-out party in 1930, it was clear he had connections to die for.
Lanin didn't stay tight with the upper crust without working for it. He expected his musicians to look at least as sharp as his clients and to act even better. He didn't tolerate drinking or drug use and smoking was forbidden on stage. He never fraternized with his customers, sticking to the safety of "Mr. Harriman" or "Your Excellency." He was legendary for never leaving the bandstand during a performance. He married only once, to a former Miss Texas, but it didn't last, and when he died, he left no survivors.
Although he's long since disappeared from the record scene, Lanin cut a slew of albums, mostly for Epic Records, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Virtually all feature his signature style of splicing four or more tunes into one long medley designed to keep the folks twirling round the dance floor. Like Lawrence Welk and Billy Vaughn, Lanin assimilates whatever happens to be hot at the moment into a seamless if eventually monotonous music. He's probably fused twist, bossa nova, soul, disco, funk, punk, hip-hop, and rap into his medleys at sometime or other--unfortunately for us, never all at once.
One musician recalled an affair at which the groom called for Lanin to play "Take Five," the Dave Brubeck tune. Lanin promptly called out the tune and bravely tried to conduct in 5/4 time (appealing to the drummer to help him find the beat). Keeping with him medley mania, after a few choruses, he yelled for the band to seque into "Five Foot Two."
If you're dying to hear what David Rockefeller's daughter did the fox trot to at her coming out, pick up one--any--of Lanin's albums. Otherwise, there are just a couple to keep your eye peeled for. One is The Madison Avenue Beat, in which Lanin creates medleys of 40 tunes taken from popular television commercials of the early 1960s. This album was released under three different covers. If you're lucky, you'll find the one showing the boss and his secretary in his office, music coming out of a radio. Caption: "Listen ... they're playing our song." (Check out "And Now a Tune From Our Sponsor" for other collections of advertisement music.
Another is Narrowing the Generation Gap, perhaps his last LP. It's a more-than-respectable "Now Sounds" album, featuring arrangements by Charles Fox, composer of the score to Barbarella and Goodbye, Columbus, and occasional glimpses of Vinnie Bell's electric sitar. Despite their promise, and their tasty covers featuring swells with hips a-swiveling, Twistin' in High Society and More Twistin' in High Society are just as stiff as any of Lanin's standard businessmen bounces.
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