A living link to London’s musical past

The column appeared in The London Free Press on Saturday, June 23, 2001.

WHITEHOUSE, Ohio — Bisected by a cool, narrow creek, this quiet farming village in the heart of the Ohio Valley seems the antithesis of New York or Hollywood. It is, however, the summer home of a petite woman who has sung on stages on both coasts and hundreds of bandstands in between. She spends the winter in Florida and only recently returned north to be near her three children and their families. “You’ll have to forgive the musty smell,” she says, flitting from window to door, letting June breezes breathe life into the curtains. “It’s been a long winter and the house was closed up for so long.” At one end of a rectangular living room, located in the centre of her tidy bungalow on the north side of town, stands a hint to her musical past: a stately, chocolate-brown Heintzman baby grand piano, bought by her father more than a half-century ago for her older sister, Elaine. The other clue consists of a stack of CDs on a shelf at the end of her kitchen table: Julie London, Cleo Laine, Mel Torme, Harry Nilsson, Herb Alpert, Diana Krall. She is the last Lombardo sibling, the only surviving member of London’s most famous musical family. And although the history books — even her most famous brother’s autobiography — spell her name as Rose Marie, she uses only the one-word variation: Rosemarie. “I didn’t like people calling me ‘Rose’,” she explains. The world, of course, knows her oldest brother, Guy (1902-1977), the bandleader who once said you didn’t have to be a Lombardo to be in his band — but it helped. Brother Carmen (1903-1971) played saxophone and flute and served as the orchestra’s reluctant vocalist. Lebert (1905-1993) played trumpet and anchored the brass section; Victor (1911-1994) mastered the soprano sax like few others of his generation. Sister Elaine (1906-1999) helped manage the band’s business affairs and married its most famous vocalist, Kenny Gardner, who retired to Florida after her death. Only brother Joseph (1913-1996) resisted the call of the bandstand, choosing instead to study in North America and Europe before fashioning a career for himself in interior design. Gardner’s departure for military service in the Second World War lifted Rosemarie onto the stage she shared for eight heady years with her brothers, by that time already established as one of North America’s most popular ensembles. The Royal Canadians needed a singer (Carm, who did the honours during the band’s early years, firmly refused to return to crooning) and Gardner had joined the U.S. army (he would later join fighting in Europe with 71st Division). The youngest Lombardo, still living with Papa Gaetano (1873-1954) and Mama Angelina (1874-1955), seemed the logical fit. Although only 16, she possessed a lovely contralto and was anxious to taste the excitement and glamour of being part of the No. 1 band in the country. Fifteen days before Pearl Harbor, she made her radio debut on the Lombardos’ Colgate Toothpaste Hour from New York. For Rosemarie, however, joining the band was no escape from the watchful eyes of senior family members. “Geez — it was like having four fathers,” she says. “Wear this dress, wear that dress, put your hair up, put your hair down . . . . When I went out in public, even just to travel, Guy would never let me wear flat shoes — they had to be high heels.” Within a few years, however, she had learned there was nothing particularly glamorous about traveling all day in trains and buses, living in hotel rooms and working until the wee hours of the morning. She opted instead for marriage, family and business. As I read to her from Guy’s autobiography — a book she was unaware was ever published — she recognizes many of the anecdotes as those she heard around the family dinner table on Sundays, during the years everyone was together in Connecticut. She basks in the stories as if they are old friends from a distant past come to pay a visit. Tears of laughter well up in her eyes as she thrills at the words of her oldest brother, gone for nearly a quarter century. Memories . . . ah, the memories. They include bright lights and big cities, to be sure. But among the most vivid are those of a young girl growing up on mama and papa’s farm in Glendale, now part of south London. Of a one-room schoolhouse with eight grades, presided over by a single teacher, Tinabell Baldwin. Of a time when life was simpler, the world was young and the future, laden with possibility, sprawled ahead like a giant, untouched canvas. And of a family, gone now, that seemed to lift the spirits of a generation with the simple wave of a baton.

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