Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992


Q:  So, when you went off to college, to Pomona, although music had been very much a part of your life up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to you at that point yet that you were going to pursue a musical career?

RS:  No. no, no, no.  I got into music quite by accident.  Pomona had superb glee clubs.  There was a wonderful man by the name of Professor Ralph Lyman who had graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa and then taught at a college in Salem, Oregon.  He was Head of the Music Department of Pomona College, and as a matter of fact, Pomona College, in about the third or fourth year before I registered as a student, had won the last Intercollegiate Glee Club Competition of the United States. The male Glee Club had come east, as far as St. Louis, and met the eastern colleges which had been selected and won their districts, and they walked off with that championship - when those days were more important to college glee clubs.    They discontinued it, I think, before I ever got to Pomona College.

So I went into glee club work. Glee club was non-credit course or anything.  It was an extracurricular activity.  And I had a few lessons then conducting with this Prof Lyman because he wanted me to become his student director.  And it happened that when, in my junior year, he got somewhat seriously ill for a year, though he came back the following year, and I was asked to take the glee club and was paid a full student scholarship to take the glee club for my junior year, which I did. And, it so happened that Fred Waring made a motion picture on our campus during that year, with Dick Powell and Myrna Loy, or some of those earlier stars.

Fred Waring

So, Fred Waring made a picture on campus. Fred Waring, at that time, had weekly radio shows and his men in the glee club had - he asked them to sing as well as to play their instruments - and they had also developed a fine band style of unison singing, and gestures of the hands with dancing dominoes, and tambourines, for almost vaudeville circuit shows in the United States. Remember that, in those days, also there were big band shows that would – at the Paramount Theater in New York you’d have one of the great bands - Gene Krupa’s Band would be on stage for an hour between films or something. 

So, Fred Waring had made a big splash with that.  And he also made a significant dent in American light music with his singing style and with the playing of his band.  It was folksy but it was rather well disciplined. It wasn’t unlike the radio shows that became the “Hit Parade” shows that spawned the Frank Sinatras and group of – and even Bing Crosby, and such. 

But he had never had an independent glee club singing unit.  And he asked me at that time, because he heard our Pomona College Glee Club, which I had inherited. I guess I hadn’t ruined it. But it was substantially Prof Lyman’s group.  Certainly he’d made the tradition. But it was a distinguished blending type of singing that was not unlike what you would hope that university glee club serenades would be like – serenading outside the women’s dormitories.  One would hope that fraternities could sound that good!  It was extraordinarily skilled in that way. 

Most of our repertoire was not like the repertoire which choruses do now.  That is to say, there weren’t many Hindemith’s Chansons or Poulenc Masses.  But there were a lot of - Marshall Bartholomew, who was a very significant influence in American choral music, had established a folk song repertoire at Yale University which became very influential in the first part of this century. And also, somewhat contrary to that, Archibald T. Davidson had established a different tradition at Harvard University, which was largely the male chorus arrangements of Renaissance polyphony.  And so, one had these two  that came up between the wars, leading into the 30’s and 40’s, that led into the second World War - one had these two major repertoire traditions.  And we were sort of closer to – well we, probably Pomona had probably inherited a little bit from both of them. 

At any rate, Fred heard this glee club and decided, looked into my background, I guess, and decided -  gave us some of his arranger’s music to use in our annual home concert.  And we thought this was big stuff because we’d heard some of these arrangements on the air.  So we did them and we did them pretty well.  He asked me what I was going to do.  I said I thought I’d go into some aspect of religious teaching.  So he didn’t say any more but I, within six months, I sort of began to be more and more interested in music as I got the experience with conducting this group.  And I asked him if he had a place - I wrote him and asked him if he had a place where I might see what professional music life was like for some three to six months back east in New York.  And he wrote and really offered me the chance to - he said I’m gonna have a new show - and it turned out to be a weekly show - and I want to have a special choral group. And I’d be happy to have you come and form that choral group. 

So I arrived even before I’d graduated from college - I still was short a few units of graduation. I arrived and put an ad in the New York Times, two or three lines, that I was forming this chorus for Fred Waring. And we had six- or seven-hundred applicants. They were hungry days.  It was ’39.  And a lot pf PhD’s in music, and a lof of - a slew of masters and young artists – all male - who’d come to New York to seek their fortune and were starving.

And so this first glee club, we first - I didn’t know any way better. I went through 600 voices, picked 100.  And that took two weeks, 10 – 12 hours a day. And we spent the next four weeks cutting those 100 down to 24.  And simply, by lining 2 or 3 guys up in a row and saying “You sing together," “You sing together." “Do you feel comfortable?” “Does it work?” “Does it win my ears?” “Would you rather sing with this guy?” 

What happened then, by virtue of determination and willingness to go through the process, you ended up with a group that I’ve never met its equal in my life since.  Extraordinarily gifted voices and young and the type of men he wanted on stage.  They looked good, though he didn’t interfere with the selection process at all. 

Our first concert that we gave, at the end of the sixth week, was at Riverside Church, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s liberal Riverside Church, and we did nothing but sacred music and mostly in Latin.  Because I didn’t know any other repertoire, though we were going to make our living with popular song.

Fred brought to that instrument  - he brought a lot of important things. First, he brought very skilled arrangers that he could hire.  And he brought an almost flawless taste of what the popular song was about.  I frequently heard him say, “I can’t make any mistake in this repertoire."

He brought a very fine, natural musicianship that was not necessarily linked in any way to musical scholarship. Even the ability to read music was difficult for him.  But I’ve seen him take - in the old days, before Radio City Music Hall was built, the big shows that used to take place with a ballet corps and so on, were in the Roxie Theater.  And I’ve seen him walk into a Roxie Theater Symphony Orchestra -  which then became the Radio City Music Hall Symphony Orchestra, and played for there - and, with a ballet score, and ask an assistant conductor to take it two or three times through, and by the third time, it was in his ears; it was memorized. As Danny Kaye also had extraordinary skills in this regard. I’ve seen him do the same thing with symphonic scores.  There were times when he was so gracious as to give his great celebrity to help symphonies raise money.  Those were special shows.  And so, Fred had this skill, too.

And then he had iron willed discipline to want it his way and to work out a system of enunciation which he finally patented as "tone syllables," which was a sort of a rough phonetics. And this became his celebrity, this glee club.

Q:  What was it called?

RS:  It was called “The Fred Waring Glee Club."  And “Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians” was the original title of the group. And actually, the glee club became sort of more famous than the Pennsylvanians’ orchestra part. The orchestra was not exactly a dance “Glenn Miller” type orchestra.  It had a few strings in it as well, but it played popular music. It could play in that style as well as slightly more symphonic style. And for five years after our first year together, we did 10 broadcasts a week for Chesterfield cigarettes, called “Chesterfield Pleasure Time,” but it was only a 15-minute show, Monday through Friday. We’d do one show for the east coast at 7 and do one for the west coast or the intervening states at 10 o’clock at night.  The years I spent with Waring, I suppose – lets’ see if we did, five weeks, that’s 250 times 2 is 500.  I did 500 broadcasts a year - live broadcasts. And so it was a pretty intense schedule.

I did all of the preparation of the Glee Club.  I would occasionally step in and take the orchestra and the Glee Club through a piece which they did together.  Fred did almost always all of the conducting on the show but I began to do a little bit more.  That was the great good fortune. 


See below the program that Fred Waring helped to prepare when he discovered Robert Shaw.  Contributed by Kurt Sauer of Cleveland who found this in the extensive Penn State University Fred Waring Archives on the University Park campus.