DEL COURTNEY / 1910-2006
1930s big band leader helped revive isle swing
Del Courtney, last of the original big band leaders who popularized big band swing in the 1930s, died Saturday in the Queen's Medical Center. He was 95.
Courtney had been in declining health for several years but had rallied in recent months before coming down with pneumonia.
"He was telling us all that he loved us, and we told him it was OK, he could go to all his friends, all the other band leaders, and his parents," Donna Johnson, one of Courtney's caregivers, said yesterday.
Courtney thought of himself as "retired" when he moved to Hawaii in 1978 after spending 19 years as director of administration of the Oakland Raiders, but the rise of disco music had inspired a revival of interest in "touch dancing," and so he was asked to recreate the old-time Del Courtney Orchestra and host a revival of "big band tea dances" in the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Youthful "touch dancers," ballroom dancers, and folks old enough to remember World War II as adults all came out for live big band dance music played by an authentic pre-WWII band leader on classic big band charts. Courtney's residency at the Royal lasted 15 years.
His final "tea dance" was rightly mourned as the end of an era when changes in management priorities ended the popular event in 1993.
Courtney, 83 at the time, kept right on going. The live big band sound of the Del Courtney Orchestra enjoyed renewed popularity a few years later when the pop chart success of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Royal Crown Revue, and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, introduced yet another generation of young people to "swing dancing" and a new take on the fashions of the 1930s and 1940s.
Courtney was 90 when he stepped forward to conduct the orchestra for the overflow crowd that celebrated his birthday in the Monarch Room in 2000, and he was on stage again when big band fans returned to the Royal to celebrate his 92nd birthday there in 2002.
Courtney also came out of "retirement" to help keep live big band dance music alive in Honolulu with a series of performances at Blue Tropix in 2001.
Born on Sept. 24, 1910, in Oakland, Calif., Courtney was playing music professionally while still in his teens. He played semi-pro baseball in the Bay Area, and earned an M.A. in music at the University of California-Berkeley, but after spending six months as a student teacher he decided he wanted to be a professional musician.
It was the start of a career that spanned more than 70 years, and included stints as a radio and television show host, Hollywood actor, and television producer, as well as band leader. He published his autobiography, "Hey! The Band's Too Loud," in 2005.
Courtney described his biggest career accomplishments as playing for four presidents -- Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan -- and being director of administration of the Oakland Raiders. His Raiders Super Bowl rings were among his most cherished possessions.
Courtney is survived by his nephew, Bill Schammel, Schammel's wife, Mary Jane, and two grand-nieces, Roxanne and Sharon Schammel. Funeral services in Oakland later this month will be followed by interment next to his parents at the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Hayward, Calif. Plans for a local commemoration of his life are pending.