Frankie Carle: Wizard of the Keyboard

It is with a good deal of hometown pride today that I celebrate the career of pianist, bandleader, and composer Frankie Carle (Francis Nunzio Carlone, 1903-2001).

The son of a Providence factory worker, Nunzio began playing in local dance bands led by his uncle in 1916. For a time he was musical director of a touring vaudeville unit, then successively played with the big bands of Edwin J. McEnnelly, Mal Hallett, and finally 1939, Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights. Heidt’s band was nationally popular; after five years with the band Carle had enough recognition to form his own outfit, which he led from 1944 through 1955. In the mid ’40s the band backed Allan Jones on The Old Gold Show on CBS radio.

Carle and the band were also in lots of movies. Riverboat Rhythm (1946) was the first of them; it was shown on TCM a few months ago and I’m pretty sure that’s what put him on my radar. You can also see them in the features Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1946) with Phil Regan, Mary Lou (1948) with Joan Barton, My Dream Is Yours (1949) with Jack Carson and Doris Day, as well as the musical shorts Moonlight Melodies (1946), Carle Comes Calling (1947), Musical Merry-Go-Round #5 (1948), Frankie Carle and His Orchestra (1949), and Oh, What It Seemed to Be (1950).

In 1945, Carle’s daughter Marjorie married Hughie Hughes, a musician in Carle’s band. As Marjorie Hughes, she was the band’s lead singer for awhile, with the public ignorant of her identity until Walter Winchell published the fact in his column sometime later. Marjorie left the band in 1948 for other ventures.

Carle himself continued on as a solo performer for decades after disbanding his orchestra. He released over four dozen LP records between 1942 and 1984. A member of ASCAP since 1940, his best known compositions include “Sunrise Serenade” (a #1 record for him in 1938), and “Oh What It Seemed to Be, which went to #1 twice in 1946, once with his own version with Marjorie on vocals, and again with a version by Frank Sinatra.

Carle was in his 80s when he retired, and inching mighty close to the century mark when he died in Arizona in early 2001.

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For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.