Pretty, Timeless Things The Bill Dayton Big Band Plays On

by Nathan Oravec


“It’s a pretty timeless thing,” says Sandy Dayton-Richwine of the music played by The Bill Dayton Orchestra - that is, the sounds of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, from the glory days of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie - the lyricism of Sinatra, Martin and Cole. A time when orchestras comprised of big, brass instruments made music - honest to God music - in syncopated unison; when that music had real words; when those words had actual meaning; and when that meaning was almost always about loving someone so much that the earth and sky would move.

Although patriarch Bill Dayton passed away in 1997, today his music continues to move the world.

It all started back in the 30s with Uncle Johnny who headed the twelve-piece Johnny Dayton Orchestra in the family’s home state of South Dakota. Ten years old at the time, brother Billy took to the band playing drums, while other brothers Dick and Roy played sax and trombone. A big hit on the barn dance scene, the band played throughout the Dakotas, sharing the circuit with a before-fame Lawrence Welk, when Johnny decided to move the orchestra to Oregon some short years later.

It was there, in the small town of Myrtle Point, where Bill would meet future wife, Phyllis at a local dance where the band was playing. “The Shirley Temple of Coos Bay, Oregon” (sharing a birthday and tap-dancing ability), Phyllis had been singing a duet of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” when twelve-year old Bill spotted her and subsequently escorted her to the dance floor. They were married seven years later.

Bill’s career as a salesman would carry the couple to the East Coast in the mid-50s, where they would ultimately settle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Now with two children - Craig and Sandra - the couple continued to foster love and longing for the music that had brought them together. Born of a desire for “good, clean entertainment,” Bill had long harbored dreams of launching his own big band and, after acquiring old band charts from his brother, proceeded to do just that.

It was the 1970s and no one wanted to hire a big band - it was even said by many proprietors approached by Bill that such no ones would “ever hire a big band again.” Ahead of his time, the rejection only fueled Bill’s cause. With the help of Professor Robert Zellner of Gettysburg College’s music department, the roster for The Bill Dayton Orchestra was quickly filled out. Merle Hildebrand, who had previously backed up Doris Day, was hired as lead trumpet, and a dream began to take impressive shape. “Once Merle was there, we knew we had a Big Band,” says Sandy.

It was February of 1972. Mr. and Mrs. Dick Staley, owners of Schotties Restaurant and Ballroom in Littlestown, Pennsylvania, had offered to showcase the band - their first performance. On the snowy eve of their debut, Bill locked the doors of his bowling alley, Upper Adams Lanes, and traveled twelve hours round-trip from Biglersville, Pennsylvania to New York City to pick up jackets and equipment. He arrived back in town with just enough time to set up. That night, The Bill Dayton Orchestra - with Phyllis and Sandy on vocals, Craig as arranger, and a “small but enthusiastic crowd” on the dance floor - made history.

Soon, the big band was performing to packed-houses, while their mailing list garnered names in the thousands. Cutting three albums during the time that Bill and Phyllis led the band, the Daytons and Company traveled cross-country playing renowned ballrooms, and even entertaining on the Caribbean Cruise ship, S.S. Brittanis. In addition, Bill and Phyllis chaired a benefit-committee, which funded the renovation of Pen Mar Park Pavilion in Blue Ridge Summit. It was there, years later, that they would meet their future son-in-law.

In 1988, Sandy Dayton met her husband, Steve Richwine. Steve, a trumpet player, had been playing with the Ed Williams Orchestra for twenty years. Sandy, having settled in Baltimore, had performed in a number of venues throughout the years. At sixteen years of age she had already sang at Carnegie Hall and for the president at the White House. By the time she was eighteen, she had been chosen as an alternate for the Dean Martin Golddiggers, had worked as a runway model for petite fashions, and had studied acting under Lee Strasberg. A longtime fan of the Ed Williams band, Sandy met Steve during a show at the Hyatt Regency through friend and fellow band musician Rich Winkler.

Fate, it would seem, is lyrical, too. According to Steve’s mother Marge, his father, Don, who had long played lead alto sax in the army jazz band, had been asked on numerous occasions by Bill to play with the Dayton Orchestra, but because of scheduling conflicts with his regular job in The Don Frey Orchestra, had never been available. Additionally, Don, while playing for the army at Fort Ord sixty years before, had toured up and down the West Coast, often playing at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay - where Phyllis had attended school.

At Pen Mar, when Sandy introduced her parents to her new beau, kismet - it was plain to see - came along for the ride. “Dad was tickled that Steve was a good trumpet player,” exclaims Sandy. The common bond of big band music linked both families. Steve began subbing for Bill’s orchestra when possible and in October 1991 a new union was celebrated. “Steve passed the audition,” laughs Sandy, “and I married him.”

Some years later, Bill became ill with cancer. In September of 1997, at sixty-eight years of age, he passed away. Prior to his passing, Bill had asked his daughter and son-in-law to take over the band. That October, Sandy sat down and wrote all band members. “I told them we were going to start up again.”

In January of 1998, Sandy contacted Dick Naylor of Naylor Wine Cellars in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, who agreed to host the band’s comeback debut. In February, she discovered she was pregnant.

The following May, The Bill Dayton Orchestra played at a private engagement - appropriately, an anniversary party. A month later, at Naylor Wine Cellars, the band performed for the public once again.

On November 15, 1998, The Bill Dayton Orchestra added a new member to its lineup when Lindsay Richwine was born. Now a sweetly precocious five-year old, Lindsay continues a musical legacy having become quite the vocalist herself. Bill Dayton, it is certain, is a very proud grandfather.

As it began, the band, notes Sandy, is a family affair - mother, Phyllis, still sings, and Craig, in addition to duties as arranger, has crafted the band’s extensive web site (www.billdayton.com), as well as another - www.bigbands.us - which serves to promote Big Bands and their one-of-a-kind sound across the country. Former members and “old favorites” continue to play as their schedules allow, while Steve has assembled a fine cadre of professional musicians via contacts with the United States Army, Navy and Air Force.

Last Spring, Steve and Sandy began hosting their own Big Band Dances in Westminster, Maryland, where they moved in November of 1991. Held at the Pleasant Valley Fire Hall, it is something that the couple hopes will reintroduce this pretty, timeless sound to individuals both young and old.

“Our goal is to bring families together through this music,” she says. “To get them dancing again.”

While many of the Big Band’s followers are those who remember the music from their youth, a new faction of young men and women who have fallen in love with its sound, its style, its rhythm and emotion are on the rise. Small children are also being introduced to the music, and, more importantly, says Sandy, to their elders who dance to it. “I think children can learn so much by socializing with their seniors.”

On Sunday, May 16, The Bill Dayton Orchestra will be holding their next dance at the Pleasant Valley Fire Hall in Westminster, Maryland recognizing the late Frederick James Neal, a good friend of the Dayton family and uncredited lyricist of the classic song, “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Fred’s surviving family, wife of 51 years, Ruth; his sons, Mark and Aaron; and daughter-in-law Betty will be present, and Gettysburg resident and acclaimed radio announcer, Tom Phillips, will emcee the event where Lindsay Richwine will make her singing debut.

“The idea just came to me,” says Sandy of the honorary concert. “Sometimes you just know when you’re supposed to do something.”

Making music was what the Daytons, led by husband and father, Bill, knew they were supposed to do.

They do it well.

“My dad’s name is on the front of our stands,” says Sandy. “We give anyone who comes to our shows our word that we will do anything we can to make sure everyone has a good time and that everyone is welcome. That matters to us.”

Steve’s father Don passed away in October 2002 at 84 years of age. He played, Sandy says, until then. Decades after being asked to play in his friend and colleague’s big band; after his son and his friend’s daughter met, fell in love, and were married; and after he retired, Don was finally able to sit in as a soloist for The Bill Dayton Orchestra, led by his son. Afterward, Don approached Sandy with tears in his eyes. “He said, ‘I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have played in Bill’s Band.’”

Today, the sax men watch over the band from above. “He’s with me,” says Sandy of her father. “I can definitely feel him.”

Such is the story of a big band that started small - of family and friends who found one another through music and made it beautifully together.

Sandy says it simply. “We’re kind of about love.”

The Bill Dayton Orchestra will hold their next concert on Sunday, May 16, 2004 at The Pleasant Valley Fire Hall in Westminster, Maryland from 2-5 p.m. Admission is $12 and reservations are recommended. Call Sandy or Steve at 410-751-5588. The event is smoke free and singles and families are welcome. For much more information on The Bill Dayton Orchestra, visit www.billdayton.com. Visit www.bigbands.us.

For more on Frederick James and Ruth Neal, see next week’s issue of The Picket News.