Classically trained, trumpet player Phil Napoleon cut his teeth in several East Coast dance bands before forming the Original Memphis Five with pianist Frank Signorelli, purportedly in the late 1910s. By 1921 the group had begun recording, literally making hundreds of sides over the next decade. As did most bands in that day, the group recorded on several different labels under several different names: Bailey's Lucky Seven, The Southland Six, Ladd's Black Aces, Jazzbo's Carolina Serenaders, Charleston Chasers, and Napoleon's Emperors. Progressive for their era, they helped move white jazz beyond its early roots and set the stage for such artists as Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke. Many top musicians recorded with the band under its various pseudonyms, including Nichols, Miff Mole, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Sam Lanin, Lennie Hayton, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Babe Russin, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Charlie Teagarden, and Davey Tough.
In 1927 Napoleon led a short-lived dance orchestra. During the early and mid-1930s he worked as a studio musician, forming his own big band in 1937. The group recorded on the Variety label. One of the more musical orchestras of that era, it failed to find much success and soon disbanded. Napoleon then returned to studio work until 1943, when he joined Jimmy Dorsey. He remained with Dorsey until 1947, though he continued working as a studio musician with other bands and for NBC radio.
In 1949 or 1950 Napoleon reformed the Original Memphis Five. The band settled into Nick's in New York City, where they remained for six years. In 1956 he moved to Miami and opened his own club, Napoleon's Retreat. Napoleon continued leading bands for many years. Phil Napoleon passed away in 1990.