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Big Band leader recalled as ‘everybody’s friend’

Russ Carlyle

Russ Carlyle, the Big Band-era orchestra leader-singer and author, was remembered Thursday as a kind man who made a point to help others. 

Carlyle, who enjoyed a long and storied career in music, died Tuesday. He was 96. 

Ed De La Hunt, long-time friend, spent time with Carlyle hours before his death Monday night at the Veterans Hospital in St. Cloud and was with Carlyle’s widow, Patty, on Tuesday. 

“He was one in a million,” De La Hunt said of his friend. “One of the kindest, loving individuals you will meet in your entire life. He was everybody’s friend.”

His life was remarkable for what he did do and for what might have been.

Carlyle’s career began at a time when crooners were kings and Big Band orchestras ruled the airwaves. In 1935, he won an amateur radio contest in his hometown of Cleveland to sing with the Tommy Flynn Orchestra. 

Carlyle’s website reports he entered the contest on a dare. It led to bigger things. Carlyle recorded hits for Victor Records, made a movie with Warner Brothers and in 1939 was voted one of the top four male vocalists in the nation by Billboard Magazine. 

In the 1940s, Carlyle was approached by Tommy Dorsey for a lead vocalist position for a Valentine’s show and movie lead in “Las Vegas Nights,” his website recounts. But Carlyle turned the gig down. Dorsey made an different choice — Frank Sinatra. 

Carlyle rubbed shoulders with those at the top of the music industry. He was friends with Nat King Cole and Dean Martin. Carlyle met Joey Bishop, Rat Pack member, when they served in the military in the 1940s. The two performed as a comedy team. They became good friends and stayed in touch over the years. Friends said Carlyle was an unofficial Rat Pack member.

Carlyle’s band was booked for national radio shows, at one time doing three network shows a night. Dance halls and night clubs across the nation performed his music. He appeared on the “Jack Paar Show.” 

Sinatra also recorded several Carlyle numbers, including the song “If I Ever Love Again” in 1951, which was released by Columbia Records and his biggest hit. Other hits included “In a Little Spanish Town” and “You’re so Understanding” and “Stashu Pandowski.”

He played before President Harry S Truman in Jefferson City, Mo. Carlyle performed at the Blackhawk Restaurant and Aragon and Trianon ballrooms in Chicago. In the 1960s, Carlyle performed at Steel Pier in Atlantic City, the Roosevelt in New Orleans, the Peabody in Memphis and Roseland in New York. 

And in 1963, he performed in Breezy Point and by all accounts fell in love with the area. Carlyle and his wife, Patty, later decided to make a permanent home in Breezy Point, first building a house on Lake Ossawinnamakee and later living along the golf course. 

De La Hunt met Carlyle in 1963 at Breezy Point when he was doing broadcast work at the resort. De La Hunt owns a radio network with stations in Park Rapids, Bemidji, Walker, Wadena and Verndale. 

“We just stayed close all the time,” De La Hunt said.

De La Hunt said his friend loved music, was good at it and enjoyed entertaining people.

“Helping people was his nature,” De La Hunt said. 

Bob Spizzo, Breezy Point Resort owner, knew Carlyle for decades. 

“He was so warm and genuine,” Spizzo said. “If you met him for the first time, you felt like you knew him for a long time after 10 minutes.”

Carlyle split time between a home in Scottsdale, Ariz. and Breezy Point. Spizzo said he’d call to see what fish were being caught off the dock to see if it was time to come back from Arizona. 

“He loved the city of Breezy Point,” Spizzo said. “He loved everything about it.”

When Spizzo’s brother, who lived in Scottsdale, was ill, Carlyle took the time to visit him once a week and provide Spizzo with progress reports. 

“That’s the type of guy he was,” Spizzo said. “I’m going to miss him.”

In the 1970s, Carlyle performed on the “Tonight Show.” From 1972 to 1978, he split his performing time between the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas and Breezy Point. 

Carlyle retired from the music business in 1990, playing at the Biltmore in Phoenix. Friends said the last song he composed was “The Breezy Point Song.” 

Following his retirement, Carlyle wrote movie scripts and several books, including a novel, “Soul of a Child.” Carlyle sought to have Breezy Point take center stage as a movie location for productions filmed in the state. 

In 2009, Carlyle donated $20,000 of arrangements to the Central Lakes College instrumental music department in Brainerd. At the time, Carlyle said he wanted the music to be used in teaching college students “an appreciation and understanding of music when, back in the early days of Big Band, style and showmanship played a big part in the success of some of the biggest names in the business.”

Carlyle’s career was also notable for what could have been. There were several near-misses even after he declined Tommy Dorsey’s offer.

Several years ago, Carlyle was interviewed for Breezy Point Resort’s publication called the Breezy Pointer. In the article, Carlyle remembered Sinatra’s manager wanting more songs after the success of the single in 1951, but Carlyle said he thought why work for Sinatra when he wanted to record his own songs instead of having other singers record them. Carlyle called it the “biggest mistake” of his life. 

Bishop, his World War II comedy partner in entertaining the troops, asked him to work together again after the war. Carlyle turned the offer down. Bishop later picked up a different sidekick for his comedy television show — Regis Philbin. 

Spizzo said Carlyle was offered the position for a televised music show but turned it down. The position eventually went to Lawrence Welk. 

“He didn’t like to take chances,” De La Hunt said, noting his friend wanted to be in a position to be in charge of his own destiny. 

Carlyle recorded dozens of albums, including a 12-CD showcase of his career, “The Romantic Style of Russ Carlyle, Living Forever in the Memory of Time.” Carlyle’s music lives on and is available on iTunes and Amazon. Spizzo said a recent musical tribute of Carlyle songs in Brainerd turned out several hundred people. 

“He’s just a genuinely nice guy,” Spizzo said of Carlyle. “We’re going to miss him. The city, Breezy Point Resort, and myself — we are going to miss him.”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at or 855-5852.