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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

1910 - 2006
Bandleader brought his legacy to Hawai'i

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Del Courtney

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Del Courtney, the big-band leader whose name was synonymous with tea-dancing in Waikiki, died Saturday at The Queen's Medical Center. He was 95 and had been hospitalized for pneumonia.

His entertainment career spanned seven decades from the 1930s to the turn of the century, embracing recordings, radio, television, films, music and football. He was widely known in Oakland, Calif., and San Francisco, and he performed at all the top clubs in America in his heyday. Courtney was born in Oakland on Sept. 24, 1910.

"He was a father figure to me," said Patrick Hennessy, who has played trombone in Courtney's orchestra for more than 20 years. "Since his last return to active playing, around 1999 or 2000, he had asked me to handle everything for him, so we've put together the Del Courtney Orchestra with 13 members," he said. "I'll very fondly remember him as a great person to work for and a great friend who cared about his band members. ... We'll carry out his wishes to continue the band with his name."

Jimmy Borges and Shari Lynn were among the Island vocalists who have fronted the Courtney orchestra.

"Del was a big star (although) local people probably knew him best as a musician from the tea dances," said Borges, who first met Courtney in San Francisco, where Borges was performing at the Miyako Hotel and Courtney was a radio DJ on KSFO. "He was one of the top three or four disc jockeys at the time, much like the K-POI Boys here, and he commanded the airwaves. He interviewed me once, and attendance jumped. He had that kind of power."

In 1986, Borges reunited with Courtney in Honolulu and became one of the regularly featured vocalists for Sunday afternoon tea dances at The Royal Hawaiian hotel, an arrangement that continued for 15 years. "He gave me and other singers the chance to regularly perform with a big band, so in Hawai'i, he is best known as a musician, though he had a legacy before coming here."

"There are some of us who feel we were born too late (and) missed the swing and big-band era," said Shari Lynn. "Del gave us the opportunity to live those moments. ... He made so many dancers happy; and best of all, he was able to see neo-swing, young kids enjoying that music again. It made him very happy. ...

"When I went to his last birthday, he was bedridden, but someone had given him a magic wand with a star, and he was using that as a conductor's baton, leading us on 'Happy Birthday.' It's one of my fondest memories of him."

Art Todd, 91, the surviving member of the Art and Dotty Todd duo of "Chanson D'Amour" fame, first met Courtney in 1956 in San Francisco, when the Todds guested on his radio show. In more recent years, Todd, Courtney and the late Martin Denny met for lunch every Wednesday.

"He was a handsome guy when he was young," Todd said.

Courtney was married and divorced three times, to singers Connie Haines and Yvonne King (of the King Family), and Nalani Courtney.

At the peak of his career on the Mainland, Courtney hobnobbed with the rich and famous, providing music for such icons as Carmen Miranda, Bing Crosby, Phil Harris, Martha Raye and The Ink Spots. Besides his radio show, he had a TV show on KPIX in San Francisco, which gave him access to a number of performers who were happy to guest on his show, including Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Kingston Trio.

Courtney also appeared in a handful of movies and television shows such as the "King Family Show," and formed the original Oakland Raiders band in Oakland in the 1960s. Courtney appeared with the Raiders in Super Bowl games, and when the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, Courtney was tapped to form a band, which resulted in his fourth Super Bowl gig.

He performed in the mid-1930s at the long-gone downtown Alexander Young Hotel's Roof Garden, where his music was broadcast on the popular radio show, "Hawaii Calls."

He moved to Hawai'i in 1978.

For his 90th birthday, Courtney put health concerns aside and appeared at a nostalgic party at the Monarch Room. The Musicians Association of Hawai'i, Local 677, awarded him its first Distinguished Life Member Gold Card, proclaiming Sept. 24 "Del Courtney Day."

A service was pending at Diamond Head Mortuary.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.