Kenneth Gardner, 89; Sang With Guy Lombardo's Band


Kenneth A. "Kenny" Gardner, the tenor who voiced such signature hits for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians as "Enjoy Yourself, It's Later Than You Think" and "Frankie and Johnny," died July 26 in Manhasset, N.Y. He was 89 and died of a heart attack after an appendectomy.

Gardner crooned with the dance band--formed in 1917 and still performing under the direction of Al Pierson--from 1940 until 1978. The famous big band sold more than 300 million records, played at every presidential inaugural from Franklin D. Roosevelt's in 1933 to Jimmy Carter's in 1977, and became a nationally televised fixture on New Year's Eve. For decades, it seemed America could not welcome a new year without hearing the band play "Auld Lang Syne."

"Everybody counted on us always being there," Gardner said in 1984 when the Guy Lombardo Museum opened in the bandleader's native London, Ontario, in Canada.

Unlike the bandleader, his sister Elaine (whom Gardner married) and Lombardo's brothers who played in the band, Gardner was not a native Canadian.

He was born March 20, 1913, in Lakeview, Iowa. He ignored a college scholarship to sing on Los Angeles radio shows and then quickly found a career home with the Lombardo band.

Gardner took time out to serve in Europe during World War II, where he was wounded and earned a Purple Heart.

With no formal musical training--he couldn't even read music--the intimidated singer decided to take lessons after he was hired by the hugely famous band.

But carefully rehearsed and precisely repeated style was everything in the Lombardo band, and the leader was not pleased by Gardner's good intentions.

In a 1994 video tribute to Lombardo, Gardner recalled: "Guy came up to me one night and he just laid it on the line. He said, 'Are you taking music lessons?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm taking music lessons.' He looked at me cold turkey and said: 'Stop. You're changing the style of the band.' And that was it. I stopped. I got the message: You play it by ear."

After his retirement in 1978, a year after Lombardo's death, Gardner devoted himself to civic service in the Long Island town where he settled, Plandome, N.Y. He served as trustee of the village and was active in the volunteer Plandome Fire Department.

Widowed in 1999 by the death of his wife of 59 years, Gardner left no immediate survivors.

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