The Canadian Who Changed The Way Americans Celebrate New Year's Eve

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The Roosevelt Hotel, New York City. It’s been sitting amid the chaos of midtown Manhattan since it opened in the early 1920s, a luxury hotel that still attracts visitors from all over the world. And it was right here at the Roosevelt in 1929 that a Canadian changed the way Americans celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Guy Lombardo was born in London, Ontario to an exceptionally musical family. His father worked as a tailor during the days, but he also had a passion for singing. Lombardo and his four brothers learned to play instruments so they could accompany him, and they formed their first orchestra when they were still just kids, rehearsing in the back of their dad’s shop. Before long, they were landing paying gigs around London and the nearby lakeside town of Port Stanley — soon, they created the group that would make them famous: Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians.

They were destined to become one of the biggest big bands of the jazz era. The Chicago Tribune called them “the sweetest music this side of heaven.” Louis Armstrong called them his favourite orchestra. They appeared in movies, played with Bing Crosby and Al Jolson, and performed at the inaugurations of seven American presidents — every one from FDR to Gerald Ford.

They sold more than a hundred million records, recorded more than a thousand songs, and had more than 250 hits. But to this day, it’s one song in particular that they’re remembered for.

Their hometown of London, Ontario was a very Scottish city in a very British country, so Lombardo & His Royal Canadians were used to playing two songs at the end of every night...

One of them, of course, was “God Save The King” — the anthem of the British Empire. But the other tune wasn’t nearly as well known. It was an old Scottish song based on a poem from the 1700s written by the famous poet Robert Burns. The song had quickly become an annual tradition in Scotland: sung at every Hogmanay — the Scottish New Year celebration.

So, when Lombardo and his orchestra landed the gig as the house band at the Roosevelt — which included playing every New Year’s Eve — they brought that old Scottish tradition with them south from Canada.

The first Royal Canadians New Year’s performance at the Roosevelt, ringing in 1929, was the very first New Year’s performance ever broadcast on radio across the United States — a major landmark. And that was just the beginning. Their New Year’s performances — first at the Roosevelt and then at the nearby Waldorf Astoria Hotel — became a fixture on the radio every December. Soon, they were being televised too. Lombardo was the voice of New Year’s for the next 50 years, right up until his death in 1977. As the comedian Steve Allen once explained it, "What Santa Claus is to Christmas, Guy Lombardo is to New Year's Eve." In fact, they called him “Mr. New Year’s Eve.”

And so: thanks to Guy Lombardo, the old Scottish song he brought south with him from Ontario has become an American tradition, too. To this day as the ball drops in Times Square, the very first song played to ring in the new year is the same one they’ve been playing in New York since that night in 1929...

Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians performing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.

Image of Guy Lombardo via Wikimedia Commons; photo of the Roosevelt Hotel by Adam Bunch.