“Auld Lang Syne” was his theme song.
They called him Mr. New Year’s Eve, and he was part of America’s New Year’s tradition for nearly 50 years.
Before Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest counted down to 12 a.m., January 1, there was Guy Lombardo. Each year, his saxophones would poignantly play “Auld Land Syne” as couples danced, kissed and wished “Happy New Year.”
From the crash of the stock market in 1929 through the bicentennial in 1976, big bandleader Lombardo and his Royal Canadians were a long standing tradition for Americans.
“Should Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians fail to play ‘Auld Lang Syne at midnight, New Year’s Eve, a deep uneasiness would run through a large segment of the American populace, a conviction that despite the evidence on every calendar, the new year has not really arrived,” LIFE magazine wrote according to The Lombardo Story by Beverly Fink Cline
Lombardo once even joked he planned to take the holiday with him when he died.
The “Royal Canadian” orchestra was formed in 1924 by Lombardo and his three brothers to create “the sweetest music this side of heaven.” His music was characterized by “highly melodic, danceable pieces played with staccato phrasing and a rich vibrato from the saxophone section,” according to Recorded Music in American Life by William Howland Kenney.
From 1927 to 1940, Lombardo and his Royal Canadians had more than 140 hits and 21 No. 1 songs. Some of these included: “Charmaine,” “It looks like Rain In Cherry Blossom Lane,” “Boo-Hoo,” “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Lombardo recorded under record labels Brunswick, Decca, RCA and Columbia.
“Simple arrangements, simple beat, everything goes so easy,” Lombardo said about his success, according to Kennedy’s book.
The New Year’s tradition began on the radio with a New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in 1928. Large broadcast stations picked up their live performances through Dec. 31, 1955. CBS Radio Network would air Lombardo’s live show before midnight Eastern Time and NBC Radio Network would pick up Lombardo after midnight. On Dec. 31, 1956, Lombardo had his first New Year’s TV special on CBS which would include footage of the crowds on Times Square—similar to today. From 1929 to 1959, Lombardo’s band performed in the Roosevelt Grill at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and at the Waldorf Astoria from 1959 to Dec. 31, 1976.
During the broadcasts, Lombardo would play the songs that had been popular throughout the year before ending the evening with “Auld Lang Syne.” Growing up in Canada, Lombardo and his family would sing the old Scottish songs “Auld Lang Syne” and “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” written by Robert Burns. Guy was partial to the songs and added them to his band’s repertoire when they formed, according to Cline’s book.
In 1972, Lombardo’s King of New Year’s Eve crown was threatened when Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” holiday special started; taking the younger crowds with him. However, Lombardo already proved he had staying power. Long after his big band contemporaries of Artie Shaw, Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey had faded, Lombardo demonstrated how he was one of the longest running dance bands in America.
“New Year’s Eve” wasn’t Lombardo’s only gig. His popularity took him to presidential inaugural balls for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, the band played at the Yankee Stadium opening day, and played in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade every year, according to USA Today.
Lombardo’s New Year’s Eve tradition ended on Dec. 31, 1976. On Nov. 5, 1977, he passed away after suffering from a heart attack.
But Lombardo’s holiday legacy continues to live on. Even now, when the ball drops in Times Square in New York City Lombardo’s version of “Auld Lang Syne” is playing.