Hal Kemp led the most popular and the most musical sweet band of the mid-1930s. With muted trumpets and full clarinet tones, its distinct sound earned it a large and dedicated following. Always the friendly, Southern gentleman, Kemp was well-liked by everyone and treated his musicians well. Bandmembers often referred to Kemp's orchestra as a ''fraternity.''
Kemp studied piano, trumpet, alto sax, and clarinet as a youth. He worked local movie theaters as a teen and formed his own orchestra in high school. In 1922 he entered the University of North Carolina, where he was highly involved in extracurricular activities, belonging to two fraternities, the drama club, the glee club, and the school band and orchestra. He also formed his own campus jazz group, the Carolina Club Orchestra. The band recorded for Okeh Records and toured Europe during summers. He also formed a smaller seven-man combo which featured future stars John Scott Trotter, Saxie Dowell, and Skinnay Ennis.
In 1927 Kemp turned leadership of the Carolina Club Orchestra over to fellow UNC student Kay Kyser and formed a professional jazz orchestra of his own, which included Trotter, Dowell, and Ennis. The early orchestra also featured, at various times, trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Jack Purvis. Based in New York, the group often toured Europe. Though it never achieved commercial success it did include among its fans Fred Waring, who gave the band financial and spiritual support, and Prince George of England, who would later become King George VI.
In 1932 Kemp's orchestra settled at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago for an extended stay. Kemp fiddled with the group's sound, and it eventually emerged as a sweet orchestra. The new sound proved popular with the crowds, and Kemp was ready to take the band back on the road in 1934. Owing to his contract, however, he first had to find a replacement orchestra for the Blackhawk. He knew former college friend Kay Kyser was struggling with an orchestra of his own and recommended Kyser for the job. Kyser happily accepted the offer, which included radio time, and Kemp was free to leave. Travelling back to New York the band captured the ears of audiences everywhere with its new sound. No other band of the day played as smoothly and as sensuously as did Kemp's, and unlike other sweet orchestras it also featured interesting musical arrangements.
One of the main reasons for the band's success was arranger John Scott Trotter. The orchestra did not feature any outstanding musicians, and no one, save Trotter and Kemp, could read music particularly well. Kemp and Trotter often hummed their parts to the musicians. Trotter was brilliant in working around this limitation. None of the trumpeters could sustain notes and play legitimate tones, so Trotter muted the trumpets and introduced staccato triplets into the charts. This gave the band a unique sound, which Johnny Mercer jokingly referred to as like a ''typewriter.'' In contrast to the trumpets the clarinets played simple, sustained notes, often through megaphones. The musicians would place their fingers through holes in the sides of the megaphones and play softly. Out would come a rich, round tone.
Kemp was fit for vocalists too. Ennis was the orchestra's most popular singer. Also the drummer, he would step away from his kit and take the mike, leaving no one to cover for him on drums while he sang. His singing style was shy and breathless, and he quickly became popular with female audiences. Other male vocalists of the mid-1930s included Dowell, who sang novelty songs, and Bob Allen, who was a better singer, stylistically, than Ennis. Female vocalists were Deane Janis, Judy Starr, and Maxine Gray, who later became Lawrence Welk's first ''champagne lady.'' The band recorded for RCA Victor.
The orchestra's heyday ended when Trotter left in 1936. New arrangers Hal Mooney and Lou Busch took the group in a different direction, creating a more fuller big band sound. Lead trumpeter Earl Geiger also left that year. His unique, delicate trumpet playing was never replaced. Ennis and Dowell left in 1938, further deteriorating the band's unique sound.
The Kemp band of the late 1930s couldn't seem to make up its mind on whether it was going to be a swing band or a sweet band, and its popularity began to slip. Allen remained as lead male vocalist. Nan Wynn and, later, future actress Janet Blair were the female vocalists. By late 1940, however, Blair and two key musicians had departed the band, and Kemp, realizing the need for a change, decided to revamp the group's sound. Kemp never realized his goal, however. On December 19, while driving from Los Angeles to a booking in San Francisco, his car hit another head on. Kemp suffered multiple broken ribs and a punctured lung. He developed pneumonia while in the hospital and two days later passed away.
Ennis and Trotter returned to the band after hearing the news. Allen took over leadership and tried to keep it going, but without Kemp the band was lost and soon broke up. Original saxophonist Porky Dankers reassembled some of the orchestra members a few months later, and under the leadership of Art Jarrett tried to revive the group, with Gale Robbins as female vocalist. It lasted only a few months, however, before it broke up, and the Hal Kemp Orchestra passed into the history books forever.