Ted Weems - Biography


Born in Pitcairn, Pennsylvania, Weems learned to play the violin and trombone. Young Ted's start in music came when he entered a contest, hoping to win a pony. He won a violin instead and his parents arranged for music lessons. He was a graduate of Lincoln School in Pittsburgh. While still in school at Lincoln, Weems organized a band there, initially providing some instruments himself. His teacher offered young Ted and his band a penny each if they would play when the alarm sounded for fire drills. Weems kept the monies of the band and in turn charged each band member a penny for membership. He used the money to purchase better instruments than those the band started out with. When the family moved to Philadelphia, young Weems entered West Philadelphia High School. He joined the school's band and became its director.

He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he and his brother Art organized a small dance band that became the "All American Band". The brothers sought the most talented college musicians for the group. The All American Band soon started receiving offers to perform in well-known hotels throughout the United States. Weems, who had originally intended to become a civil engineer, found himself being attracted to a musical career. His band had a contract to play four weeks at a Philadelphia restaurant; the owner was able to keep Weems and his band there for four months by making Ted a partner in his business. They were one of the bands that played at the inaugural ball of President Warren Harding. Going professional in 1923, Weems toured for the MCA Corporation, recording for Victor Records. "Somebody Stole My Gal" became the band's first #1 hit in early 1924.

Weems was a Victor band from 1923 through 1933, although the final 3 sessions were released on Victor's newly created Bluebird label. He then signed with Columbia for 2 sessions in 1934 and subsequently signed with Decca from 1936. Weems also co-wrote several popular songs: "The Martins and the McCoys", "Jig Time", "The One-Man Band", "Three Shif'less Skonks", and "Oh, Monah!", which he co-wrote with band member "Country" Washburn.

Weems moved to Chicago with his band around 1928. The Ted Weems Orchestra had more chart success in 1929 with the novelty song "Piccolo Pete", and the #1 hit "The Man from the South". The band gained popularity in the 1930s, making regular radio broadcasts. These included Jack Benny's Canada Dry program on CBS and NBC during the early 1930s, and the Fibber McGee & Molly program in the late 1930s.

In 1936, the Ted Weems Orchestra gave singer Perry Como his first national exposure; Como recorded with the band (on Decca Records), beginning his long and successful career. Among Weems' other discoveries were whistler-singer Elmo Tanner, sax player and singer Red Ingle, Marilyn Maxwell, who left the band for an acting career; and arranger Joe Haymes, who created the band's unique jazz-novelty style. Weems also signed 14 year old ventriloquist Paul Winchell to a contract, after seeing him with one of the Major Bowes touring companies. The first season of the Beat the Band radio show (1940–1941) included Weems and his orchestra as part of the cast.

In November 1942, Ted Weems and his entire band enlisted in the United States Merchant Marine, directing the Merchant Marine Band. Reorganizing his big band in 1945, he made records for Mercury, including the hits "Peg O' My Heart" and "Mickey". However, the biggest hit of Weems' career was a reissue on his former Victor label: the Weems Orchestra's 1933 recording of "Heartaches" topped the national charts for 13 weeks.

For his August 4, 1933 session, Weems recorded 6 tunes, including "Heartaches". Since Victor wanted the recording made quickly, Weems and his band had time for only one rehearsal session prior to this. Weems did not like the song at first, and decided to have Elmo Tanner whistle rather than use a vocalist. While rehearsing, someone came up with an idea of trying the song at a faster tempo than it was written for. The recording attracted very little attention after its release. In 1947, a Charlotte, North Carolina overnight disc jockey named Kurt Webster found it in a box of old records he had recently received. He played it on the air and the radio station's phones never stopped ringing; the callers wanted to hear the song again. The calls continued, now joined by record stores wanting to know how to order copies of the record. Other radio markets began playing the song, while Victor searched for its old masters to press copies. Since the Weems orchestra had also recorded "Heartaches" when the band moved to Decca, the company decided to re-release its version of the song also. "Heartaches" topped the Hit Parade on April 19, 1947; 14 years after it was first recorded.

Decca Records seized the moment, and it also reissued "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" with vocals by Perry Como, which became another major chart hit. The new-found popularity of the 1933 recording came at a time when Weems was struggling to re-form his band; many former members had other music-related jobs, others were no longer interested in performing. Two of his band members were killed in World War II. Weems was then able to recruit new band members and was again being asked to play at the same venues as before the war. In a 1960 interview, band member Elmo Tanner related that he and Weems received nothing for the reissue as both men had let their contracts expire while they were in the Merchant Marine.

Despite this sudden surfeit of popularity, the hits dried up after 1947. Weems toured until 1953. At that time he accepted a disc jockey position in Memphis, Tennessee, later moving on to a management position with the Holiday Inn hotel chain. Perry Como played host to his old boss, Elmo Tanner, and three other Weems band members on his Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall show of October 18, 1961.

Ted Weems died of emphysema in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1963. He had been operating a talent agency in Dallas with his son which also served as his band's headquarters. Weems was in Tulsa with his band for an engagement the day he was taken ill. His son Ted Jr. led a revival band at times during the 1960s and 1970s.

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