By John C. Alsedek:
“If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six.”
I first got into the entertainment business back in 2005, when I started writing and filming a webseries called Monster Beat. Set in the late 1950s, it concerned a cub reporter whose seemingly mundane assignments invariably took a turn to the supernatural; in other words, a jokey Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Anyway, I was having a little production meeting with my assistant, Mary, and I put on a song that I was thinking of as background in a scene, and she immediately blurted out, “That’s my Aunt Julie!” Not being all that quick on the uptake, I said, “Huh?” She replied, “Aunt Julie—she was married to my Uncle Bobby.” And then it sank in. Mary was related to Bobby Troup and Julie London, the very epitome of the cool celebrity couple during the sixties.
Robert William Troup Jr. was, like me, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Raised in a musical family (they owned the J. H. Troup Music House), Troup graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics in 1941. But that degree didn’t get much use, as his career went in a very different direction. His composition "Daddy" was recorded by Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra in ’41, sitting at #1 on the Billboard chart for eight weeks and ending up as the #5 record of the year.
Following his graduation from college, Troup enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, went through officer training, and was eventually assigned to work with African-American recruits; during this time, he organized the first African-American band in the Marines and composed "Take Me Away from Jacksonville," which became an unofficial Marine anthem. While this was going on, Troup was continuing to build a reputation as a songwriter; his next big hit would be "Snootie Little Cutie," which was recorded by Frank Sinatra and Connie Haines with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and the Pied Pipers.
Following World War II, Bobby Troup would pursue a recording career of his own, doing ten albums for different labels (mostly Liberty and Bethlehem) between 1953 and 1959. None of them charted significantly, but his compositions would continue to do well for other artists. The biggest of them all was "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," which would be a huge hit for Nat King Cole in 1946 and would go on to be recorded by the likes of Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, and Depeche Mode. But there were others. Legendary jazz player Miles Davis did an instrumental version of Troup’s "The Meaning of the Blues" on his 1957 album Miles Ahead. And Little Richard performed Troup’s title song for the rock & roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It in 1956; that film also featured a musical performance by up-and-coming torch singer Julie London. Why do I mention that? Well . . .
Prior to 1956, Julie London was best known as an actress, having over a decade of screen appearances to her credit, including The Red House (with Edward G. Robinson) and Return of the Frontiersman (with Gordon MacRae). But her true love since childhood had been singing; battling her own shyness and bouts of stage fright, London had made herself a solid secondary career singing in Los Angeles jazz clubs when she met Bobby Troup. Already pushing 30 (which isn’t anywhere close to old by any measure except within the entertainment industry), London was encouraged by Troup to stretch her musical wings. Troup followed that up by convincing Liberty Records co-founder Simon Waronker to go to one of London’s gigs. Waronker was bowled over by London’s intimate, smoky style and signed her to Liberty. Within a year, London had a bona fide hit single in "Cry Me a River" (produced by Troup) and had been named Billboard’s Most Popular Female Vocalist. Troup and London were married in 1959; the two remained together for the rest of their lives (Troup passed on in 1999, London less than a year later).
While Julie London was becoming a world-famous singing star who continued to act in films and television, Bobby Troup went a bit in the other direction. He still worked (largely behind the scenes) in the music industry, but he also built a pretty good resume as an actor. Among Troup’s credits were The Gene Krupa Story (where he portrayed Tommy Dorsey), The High Cost of Living, The Five Pennies, two episodes of Mannix, three episodes of Perry Mason, and the 1970 film M*A*S*H (in which he played Staff Sgt. Gorman).
However, his best-remembered acting role was as Dr. Joe Early in the hit television series Emergency!, which ran on NBC from 1972 until 1977. It’s doubly memorable because London also starred on the show (as Nurse Dixie McCall)! The involvement of Troup and London came about because of Jack Webb, who happened to be both the head of Mark VII Limited (the company that produced Emergency!) as well as London’s ex-husband. Despite having divorced in 1954 (prior to London meeting Troup), London and Webb had remained close friends, while Webb (one of the all-time great celebrity fans of jazz music) hit it off with Troup as well, even having him guest on Dragnet in the late sixties. Emergency! introduced the duo to a whole generation (namely, mine!) who would only later learn of their musical legacies. So, while I haven’t seen an episode of Emergency! in more than 40 years, it’s a rare week that I don’t listen to some classic tunes by Bobby or Julie.
Though Jack Webb is best remembered today as the flat-toned, seemingly humorless Sgt. Joe Friday on the television classic Dragnet, he actually got his start in the entertainment business as a comedian! We’ll be looking back at the eclectic career of Jack Webb next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.