Long-time Mattapoisett resident George M. Barden Jr., musician, mineralogist, research genealogist, skilled carpenter/cabinetmaker, polymath, died September 28 2015, aged 97. His Big Band swing era arrangements and compositions were played by three dozen bands and performers, including a million-selling record among nearly 50 recordings of his arrangements.
George M Barden Jr. was born on November 6, 1917 in Wollaston, MA and spent his early years in and around Quincy, MA, and his junior high school and high school years in Miami, FL. He grew up in a musical household and started piano lessons at the age of six – and was still playing the piano and arranging until a few days before his death at the age of 97. But his great musical love was the trumpet; as a teenager he played first trumpet in the award-winning Miami Junior Symphony Orchestra as well as various local bands. The Miami Junior Symphony was awash in talent, and he played with and continued as friends with Leonard Rose (principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, later a celebrated instructor at the Curtis Institute of Music and Julliard School of Music), Louis Elie (violinist in the New York Philharmonic), and Lowell “Skip” Martin (who played with Tommy Dorsey, Woody Hermann, and had a successful writing and arranging career in Hollywood).
His interest turned forever to big band swing jazz in his high school years, but he recognized the need for formal musical training, and attended Boston University School of Music starting in 1933, where he studied harmony and music theory and had the opportunity to play trumpet in the BU Symphony and was invited to play in Arthur Fiedler’s City Symphony. At the end of his third year, he was invited to join the Dean Hudson Orchestra, a swing band touring the east coast of the US. Barden jumped at the chance, correctly assessing this as an opportunity to further his education at an accelerated rate. He toured with Dean Hudson from 1937 through 1941, becoming the band’s arranger as well as trumpet player. When Dean Hudson and several other band members were drafted early in WW II, he joined the Royce Stoenner Orchestra, also an east coast swing band, for six months.
Many Big Bands were losing members as World War II began and personnel either enlisted or were drafted. In 1942, Glen Miller’s band was the house band at the famous Café Rouge in New York (perhaps the most prestigious Big Band booking in America), but Miller and selected band members enlisted in the US Army Air Force with the mandate to make swing music part of the military marching repertoire, leaving the Café Rouge with no house band. Amid much speculation about Miller’s successor, the Bob Allen Band was booked into the Café Rouge, and Bob Allen asked Barden to become the band’s arranger. The band opened to high critical acclaim, including specific mention of Barden’s arrangements (“Bob Allen Band Now Sensational,” Down Beat, Nov 1, 1942 and “Manhattan’s Music Makers,” The Host, Oct 1942).
In the USAAF, Miller needed a larger staff to fulfil his mandate to modernize military music. The Draft was taking its toll on the Bob Allen Band and Barden was invited to join Miller’s organization in the USAAF as an arranger, which he did, enlisting and then joining the Glen Miller USAAF Band in Atlantic City and then moving with them to New Haven. However, there were strong traditional elements in the USAAF, and Miller was encountering stiff internal opposition to his project. In 1944, Miller gave up on the idea of modernizing military music, dismantled the organization, and took a smaller band to England, while the rest of his organization was dispersed. Barden stayed behind and was trained to serve as a radio operator. Yet wherever he was stationed during the war, he always also served in the band attached to that post, both as arranger and performer. Having a true eye as well as perfect pitch, he also earned a rifle marksman medal.
In 1941, Barden had married Clyda Magee of Washington DC, and they had a son in 1944, George M Barden III. But with the separations and stress imposed by military service the marriage ultimately did not survive, and they divorced. When Clyda remarried, the young boy was renamed Tom Edwards by his adoptive father, Congressman Don Edwards.
Upon his release from active duty in late 1945, Barden immediately joined the Randy Brooks Orchestra, where he initially shared arranging assignments with John Benson Brooks (no relation to Randy), eventually taking over all arranging for the band. The Randy Brooks Orchestra thrived in the post-war years, playing in many of the top venues of the day, including the Café Rouge, The Latin Quarter, Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, the Beverly Hills Country Club, and others, recording a number of hit records, and playing many radio spots. Randy Brooks’ largest-selling hit record was “Tenderly” which sold over a million records and which was arranged by Barden. The story of that particular arrangement is described in the Time-Life series of books The Swing Era, Volume 1946. This became Barden’s most celebrated arrangement, and continues as a well-known musical standard to this day.
The Randy Brooks Orchestra failed in 1948 due to Brooks’ failing health and an ill-advised linkage with Ina Rae Hutton’s band. Barden based himself in New York and found himself in high demand as a free-lance arranger, providing arrangements for many of the top names of the day, including Vincent Lopez, Art Mooney, Vaughn Monroe, Skitch Henderson, Dizzy Gillespie, The Ames Brothers, Johnny Desmond and many others. He formed many friendships in the New York music scene, including with Emile Charlap, the premier music copyist of the day and later the 802 Music Union Contract Agent for New York City; they kept in touch until Charlap’s death in 2015. He also became the staff arranger (1948-50) for Vincent Lopez, the venerable band leader whose band had permanent residence at the Grille Room in the Taft Hotel, with a radio program once per week.
Barden married Virginia Rossney in January 1947 and had two sons, Robert born in 1947 and Richard in 1948. Within a few years, seeing the direction of music changing and not wanting to follow the new trends, he quit the music business in 1951 and moved his family to Long Island, where he lived until 1980. Here, he invented a new career for himself in mechanical and electronic manufacturing, and actively participated in his sons’ lives through the scouts, Little League, and school activities. During this time, he honed the carpentry skills taught to him by his father by expanding and finishing the interior of his Levitt house, and acquired a new interest in geology, mineralogy, and fossils that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He and his wife Virginia went on many rock and fossil hunting expeditions in the north eastern US, Canada, Colorado and New Mexico. They spent many happy hours polishing and finishing the rocks and making them into jewellery to sell at local craft fairs.
In 1980, Barden retired and moved to the house on Aucoot Road in Mattapoisett that his grandfather had built in 1935 and in which his mother had lived the last thirty years of her life. Together with Virginia, and doing most of the construction and finish work themselves, they doubled the size of the house and changed its character from a small cottage in the woods to a more functional family home. Together, they lived in this home until 2006 when they felt the need to downsize and moved into Mattapoisett village. Virginia died in 2012.
During the 1980’s while living in Mattapoisett, he revamped the Marion Museum geology, mineralogy and fossil collection and used his cabinet making skills to build display cases to show off parts of the collection that had been stored out of sight for years. At the same time, he served on the Board of Directors of the Middleborough Historical Society and was a frequent contributor The Antiquarian magazine. Also during the 1980’s through the 2000’s, he served as a research genealogist with the Middleborough Library, answering queries about family history from all over the country. He was Managing Editor of a book published by the Library to be used as a research tool, Old Cemeteries of Southeastern Massachusetts (1995), the print run of which was totally sold out.
George M. Barden Jr. is survived by his sons Tom Edwards, Robert Barden and Richard Barden, and by three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.