Richard Himber: Musical Magician and Magical Musician

Richard Himber (1899-1966) was a big band leader (and magician!) with an entrepreneurial bent and a love for gimmicks, whose career stretched from vaudeville days to the age of The Beatles.

Born and raised in Newark, he was only 16 when he got a job playing violin in Sophie Tucker’s act during her “Five Kings of Syncopation” phase. Red-haired and portly, he made a strong visual impression which undoubtedly contributed to his popularity and success.  For a time he worked as a booker and secretary to Rudy Vallee, and booked other acts like singer Russ Columbo. 

By 1932 Himber was ready to step out on his own. He formed his own orchestra and got them a regular booking at the Essex House in New York, which almost immediately resulted in recording contracts and frequent radio appearance on NBC. He was also in films, such as the shorts Richard Himber and His Orchestra (Vitaphone, 1934) and The Magic of Music (Paramount, 1935). At various times, members of the group included soon-to-be luminaries like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. In 1933 he co-wrote the song “It Isn’t Fair”, which became his theme song. He also wrote and co-wrote a number of other hit tunes.

Himber’s flair for showmanship including performing magic tricks during his performances. He became a highly respected magician, with many illusions named after him, and many articles and even a book written about him strictly from the magic angle. He was also known for his hoaxes, pranks, and comedy. In 1938 he recorded a  3 volume album of parodies in the style of bandleader contemporaries like Count Basie, Ted Lewis and Guy Lombardo, called “Parade of Bands”.

Starting in 1949 he began appearing on television, often performing his magic as much as music. He was booked on such shows as All Star Revue, The Arthur Murray Party, The Ken Murray Show, The Morey Amsterdam Show, and Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle through the early ’60s. In his later years he kept his orchestra going by enlisting sponsors to subsidize his performances. Pepsi was his sponsor during his last tour of free performances when he died in New York in 1966.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,