A Personal Tribute by Arthur Jackson
RFS members who attended the Bonnington meeting on 18 April 1999 had the rare privilege of meeting Loonis McGlohon and hearing some of his lovely music, without realising that just 2½ years later he would be gone from us. But even those who weren’t present would have seen from the photo in JIM140 that he seemed as cheerful and healthy-looking as ever at the age of 77.
Born in September 1921 in Ayden, North Carolina, he made it to East Carolina University at Greenville and apart from World War II more or less remained in North Carolina all his life. He served in the 345th Army Air Forces Band, then after demob joined Jimmy Dorsey for a while. He had an offer to join Ralph Flanagan's band, but having just married his childhood sweetheart Nan, he decided to stay in the south, making his permanent home in Charlotte. A true Southerner, he justified his decision by saying they wouldn't be able to get hominy grits in New York!
Spending the next half century in Charlotte was no hardship for Loonis. As Special Projects Director at Station WBTV he produced many musical and non-musical programmes for the ten stations on the circuit, adding to his wholehearted adoption of the city by originating the first "Park And Ride" system in America, and turning a patch of waste ground into a green park.
In 1985 he found out that some music he had written for his church choir on radio was popular in Kenya, and after learning from a music teacher out there about severe water shortages Loonis used the resources of WBTV to raise $100,000 for well-digging equipment, any unused money going to other African water projects.
Loonis was also highly active as a jazz pianist and accompanist to a host of singers including Dick Haymes, Margaret Whiting, Judy Garland, Maxine Sullivan, Eileen Farrell, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Joe Williams and Mabel Mercer. He also worked with Benny Goodman ("a horrendous experience, boorish, rude and uncouth"), Charlie Spivak and Bob Hope, but perhaps his greatest experience was when he co-hosted, and with his trio provided the backings to all the guests on Alec Wilder's "American Popular Song" series on National Public Radio. 42 pro- grammes in all, with Alec and Loonis talking to the world's greatest popular singers, all ad-libbed!
He was Wilder's last collaborator on such musicianly songs as Be A Child, Blackberry Winter, Saturday's Child, also A Long Night and South To A Warmer Place, commissioned by Frank Sinatra for an album to try and helpthe dying Wilder, and the last songs Alec ever wrote but which he didn't live long enough to hear performed by Frank. Loonis' own Songbird is well-known via the Farnon/ Shearing recording, and Nobody Home had several versions including one on his own "Name-Dropping" CD which I reviewed in JIM148. A Las Vegas performer once called Loonis "the best-known unknown songwriter in the country", but that wasn't his only commendation, having received awards and citations for his work outside music.
I got to know Loonis when he wrote me a fan letter about the booklet and liner note I did for a Dick Haymes LP on which he was MD, and I had no idea that he was to become one of my beat friends. In 1981 he came to England to make an LP and he and his wife Nan, two daughters and a son-in-law came down to Cornwall to see us for a couple of days during which we took them to National Trust properties, also visiting Mevagiasey. This was an experience Loonis never forgot … in fact he mentioned it in every letter for the next 20 years.
We saw them all again four years later at their holiday flat in London (plus another new son-in-law) by which time I had a (temporary) professional relationship with Loonis collaborating on a number of songs which publishers naturally wouldn't look at in the current musical climate. As long as I knew him he never changed in his admiration for Bob Farnon, who he regarded as the greatest composer-arranger in the world. I can't honestly remember whether I introduced them to each other but I certainly did mention each in my letters to them both.
About the end of 1994 he started seven years of chemotherapy for lymphoma cancer, with periods of remission which enabled him to function professionally, though not as much as in previous years when he had played in China, Yugoslavia, Israel, Rome, Oslo etc. He recovered enough to appear at the Pizza In The Park in London when he rang me for the last time, and when he attended the RFS meeting at which he was pictured in JIM. Yes, he had finally achieved one of his life's ambitions when he worked with Bob on the Eileen Farrell sessions.
His letters were always optimistic, even when discussing the cancer, reporting open-heart surgery, gradually going blind and announcing a further heart condition. Then last year he was glad to say he had been cleared of the cancer and was looking forward to being honoured at a jazz concert at a Charlotte theatre named after him. And, even more important to such a family man, he was to have a mutual 80th birthday party for himself and Nan organised by "the kids" to which they had, appropriately enough, invited 80 friends.
But he hadn't been cleared of the cancer after all, and it finally returned, the end coming on 26 January 2002. Typically he ended that last letter still reminiscing about their visit to Cornwall 21 years ago. His musical talent apart, Loonis McGlohon was one of the nicest people I ever knew, and I count myself privileged to have had him as a friend.