On the Road with the Winged Victory Singers
John Hemmer: “The biggest struggle in my career was trying to stay alive and find work. I had a great entry into professional singing work as a replacement singer for the 4-part harmony group, the Four Voices. But, after the Four Voices broke up in the early 1960s, that was really hard, because, first of all, if I auditioned, I had a problem, because I had been singing in four-part harmonies for quite some time. After that I would just start singing a harmony to the song, rather than sing the melody. So, it was kind of hard to make that adjustment. I had to go to a voice coach, and just keep going over the audition song so I would be singing the melody, and not jumping off into a harmony someplace.
In the same way, when I joined Winged Victory Singers [also billed as the Winged Victory Chorus], I struggled because then I had to go back to singing in a four-part harmony thing. And because being– the voice that I had in these groups was the second tenor, and they very rarely have the lead melody. It was always in a harmony. When I got out on my own to try to sing by myself, I was singing these songs, and it was the harmony part, rather than the melody. In fact, to this day, when I hear something, if I play a record, I can automatically sing the harmony to anybody that’s on the recording. I’m really good at that. I have to praise myself in that way. Even when I joined the group, they said, ‘It was amazing that you can pick up– you can make up a harmony without even seeing it on paper.’ I can still do it once in a while.
Yeah, I auditioned for Winged Victory. I was between show-biz gigs, so I got a job managing the Rivoli Theatre on Broadway and one of my ushers used to sing with Wing Victory and we got to know each other and he knew I was a singer, and this was after the Four Voices broke up. He told me about the group and everything and he says they don’t work all the time, but they work enough. I said, ‘Alright, let me go and I’ll audition’ and I got that job right away.
So, I went out with them, but that was a tough job. I was traveling with 9 to 10 guys at a time. That ain’t much fun and traveling in station wagons, five in each station wagon with all the costumes and everything else. We maybe did 40-50 shows per year. We did lots of American songbook stuff, mixed with selections from popular musicals of the day and some patriotic tunes. We would adapt our shows depending on the venue and expected audience. Joe Baris, the musical director, founded Winged Victory while serving over seas in the U.S. military. I believe he’d been at it with Winged Victory since the early 1950s.
Even though road life was hard at times, all of us in the group got on fine and there were a couple of clubs that were really fun to perform at. We’d leave New York to go to Florida and Baris would pick up four or five dates on the way down in different spots, different hotels. We’d be maybe on the road for sometimes two or three weeks; mostly just one-nighters in those two station wagons.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, Philadelphia was hub for popular music venues. Frank Palumbo was the proprietor of both Palumbo’s and the Click Club, where the likes of many headliners, such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and Jimmy Durante took to the stage during U.S. or eastern seaboard tours. Jimmy Durante came through when we were there once.
Sometimes Palumbo’s would work in special events. There was a Miss Philadelphia contest held there once during our booking. It was for contestants where one would go on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, if I remember correctly. The club was always packed with people. One of the most popular clubs in the area.
We’d play there for longer stints. Lots of people talk about the mob and Palumbo’s. All I know is that Frank Palumbo and all the folks there were very good to us. They fed us like kings and were very cordial.
Sometimes we’d book the summer in Wildwood, New Jersey at Cozy Morley’s Club Avalon. Wildwood was a haven for summer vacationers. Many Philadelphians and New Yorkers rented or owned places and spent the warmer months down there. It was great fun to spend time in Wildwood for a long stretch.
A couple of seasons the group rented a big house on the water in nearby Cape May. Performing at Cozy’s place for longer periods allowed us to form local friendships so we’d host cookouts and go out on little boats during the day and then head to Avalon and do our set(s) at night. Cozy Morley, the club owner, was a sweetheart. He was also a comedian and still performing at that time. He enjoyed a long career and was a Wildwood staple.”
Bill Hemmer [John Hemmer’s brother]: “I think in his show-business career the thing I remember most was when he was the lead in HMS Pinafore, which was a high-school production, and then one summer, years later when brother John worked professionally, I went to New York and he was appearing with a group, the Winged Victory Chorus, and he was in Wildwood. That was exciting.
I had never seen a nightclub performance of his because when he was traveling all over the United States with the Four Voices, I was either in school at the time or I was in the military; I was in the army for three years. So, I missed all that. I heard about it, but I didn’t see his appearances in Philadelphia or Chicago or Detroit or Reno or California. All those nightclubs around the U.S. that he sang at with the Four Voices. But I remember that show in Wildwood, New Jersey with Winged Victory very well. By that time I was finished with school and out of the Army.
I was living in Florida and going to New York on a vacation with a friend. We decided to go up together and I said, ‘My brother has an apartment and I believe that I would be permitted to use it. He is staying in Wildwood for the summer ‘cause he’s working at a supper club.’ The friend I was traveling with had his cousin and her girlfriend going on the Queen Mary to England, so it was like one big party time while in Manhattan. After my friend and all of them left I went down to Wildwood and spent four or five days out there.
Listen, I was just a kid, all the limelight, the glamor. For me it was rather thrilling. It was just all the lights and getting ready to go onstage and all the excitement of it. It was kind of fun to be exposed to show business like that. And people loved him. They just loved brother John.”
John Hemmer: “Other than those longer gigs in Philly, or especially Wildwood, we were mainly doing one-nighters, which can take their toll after awhile. Joe Lorden, who later became a stage director, was another member of Winged Victory, and was my roommate at the time. We finally quit. Joe Lorden and I had a couple of neat spots in the [Winged Victory] show. We danced in the show and we had solos, so we didn’t want to leave but it just got to be too much.
We were in Vermont and Joe Baris, Winged Victory’s Musical Director, had booked the following night in Chicago at a hotel and he wanted us to drive from Vermont to Chicago and do the show that night. I looked at Joe, my roommate, and I said, ‘This ain’t gonna work. I’m not going to drive all that time with no sleep and everything.’ We told Baris.
That was the last Joe Baris saw of us, that was the last show we did with him, couldn’t take the traveling anymore. He was a nice enough guy and all but we were done. And it wasn’t too long after that that I landed the gig at the Latin Quarter as a production singer, so I guess everything happens for a reason and some of the friendships I made through singing with Winged Victory and great memories have stayed with me all these years.”
~ “On the Road with Winged Victory Singers” was edited down from two 2015 interviews between John Hemmer (1934-2017) and KirstenStudio, LLC and Bill Hemmer and KirstenStudio, LLC. To learn more about John Hemmer, visit the John Hemmer Archive pages.
Back of Winged Victory album: From Las Vegas to Miami… Grossingers to Chicago’s Palmer House… the Latin Quarter to Carnegie Hall in New York City… the Winged Victory Singers are creating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the world of show business. Critics rave about their exciting, heartwarming performances and the sensational sound of harmoniously blended voices in stirring arrangements of music you love.
It all began in Europe when Joe Baris was stationed there with the Armed Forces. Inspired by the love of fine music and a nostalgia for American traditions, Joe blended the finest male voices in a repertoire of best loved American songs. Back in the United States the Winged Victory Singers toured the country leaving spellbound audiences from coast to coast.
A graduate of Ithaca College and resident of Beacon, New York, Joe Baris is an experienced showman. With an appreciation and understanding of his audience and tasteful respect for th music, Joe can turn a good song into an entertaining experience.