Phil Burgess: Cultural preservation also includes saving baby boomers’ pop culture


In order to write a Bonus Years column each week, I have to be on the lookout for interesting people using their gifts in interesting ways in their later life. One of the benefits is that many of those I interview become new friends.

One “new” friend is Roland Leone. I wrote about Leone back in 2012. His story began in 1958 with a talent contest at Bentwaters Royal Air Force base in Ipswich, England. One of the competitors didn’t show up, and the organizers needed a body to fill the empty slot. Leone, then an enlisted airman in the U.S. Air Force weather service, had a habit of singing Frank Sinatra favorites in the shower. His USAF buddies liked his singing, so they “volunteered” Leone to fill the empty slot. Leone not only belted out a great rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling,” he won the contest!

Leone, now in his 80s, lives up the road in Bel Air and still sounds like Sinatra. When he dons his hat — a felt fedora with a silk band — he even looks a bit like Ol’ Blue Eyes. And Leone still performs his Sinatra look-alike and sound-alike act — sometimes with retro big bands, sometimes at retirement homes and at all kinds of gigs in between, including hotels and night clubs in the capital region.

During his time in military service, Leone met Harry James Jr., who, like his father, played a trumpet. James played with Airmen of Note, a USAF band known as the Glenn Miller band during World War ll. Leone and James became fast friends, a friendship that continues to this day.

Last week, I was having lunch with Leone and his wife of more than 40 years, Garnet. Leone said, “You have to call Harry James. Ask him about his new project. It’s right up your alley.”

So I did. That’s when Harry James told me about the Golden Digital Network — and it’s truly up my alley.

Harry James Jr., born in Dallas in 1941, is an interesting man with a compelling story. When James left the Air Force in 1962, he attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas where he majored in real estate.

Hired directly out of SMU, James joined Hunt Properties, owned by H.L. Hunt, the colorful oil tycoon. Many will remember Hunt as the thinly disguised inspiration for J.R. Ewing in “Dallas.”

James, a Texan through and through, had a successful career in real estate — as a principal developer of environmentally friendly residential and commercial properties (office parks and shopping malls) and as a contract developer for others.

Reflecting his interest in the environment, James was a founding member of the Green Building initiative of the Dallas Builders Association.

Throughout his career — and continuing into his bonus years — James has been active as a volunteer in the civic life of Dallas and Texas, including service on the boards of Volunteers of America-Texas, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Civic Opera.

Since “retiring” in 2005, James remains active in business and civic affairs, but is now focused on preserving the musical heritage of his father and his mother, Louise Tobin.

Tobin, a vocalist with Benny Goodman and other “big bands” in the 1930s and ’40s, was also a recording artist whose songs would appear on Billboard magazine’s “Hit Parade” — where top-selling songs were found in those days. Tobin is also known as “the lady who discovered Frank Sinatra,” a part of the Sinatra mythology which happens to be true. One of her songs, “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” sold more than a million copies, a major feat back when Americans numbered around 130 million.

But Harry James Jr.’s bonus years interest in cultural preservation is bigger than his own family’s major contributions — and it’s even bigger than music.

During our conversation, James said, “I’ve heard it said that, ‘No matter how old we are or how far we travel, our memories will always follow in a baggage car.’ I think that’s totally true.”

James continued, “The early days of modern pop culture were characterized by crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and ‘big bands’ led by instrumentalists such as Harry James (trumpet), Tommy Dorsey (trombone), Glenn Miller (trombone) and Benny Goodman (clarinet).

“But today America’s growing interest in everything ‘retro’ extends beyond music to all forms of entertainment. That’s why I’ve joined with several others to launch Golden Digital Network for individual subscribers and Golden Memories Network for institutions, such as assisted living and continuing care retirement communities.”

James continued, “Both the retro movement and the aging of America are inspiring renewed interest in the music and entertainment from the ’30s and ’40s through the Fabulous 50s onto the ’60s and ’70s — a time when our booming pop culture was sparked by the advent of movies and radio — and later reinforced by TV and now by the internet.”

According to James, it’s the mission of Golden Digital Network to give those in their bonus years — as well as others interested in things retro — direct access to the music, radio programs (and commercials), TV programs and movies that people ages 60 and older grew up with.

I immediately identified with that. I can remember my grade school days when I would rush home to listen to my nightly dose of cowboy programs on the radio, beginning with “The Lone Ranger,” followed by “The Roy Rogers Show” (with Dale Evans and his horse, Trigger), and “Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders.” Then came “Hopalong Cassidy” (a clean-cut, sarsaparilla-drinking hero who wore all black clothing), “Sky King” (a modern cowboy who flew a small aircraft to capture criminals and spies and find lost hikers) and ending with “The Cisco Kid.”

Though my parents wouldn’t allow a TV set in our home (my mother’s permissible 3Rs at home were “reading, radio and responsibilities”), I knew from my friends that most of these programs were shown in the early years of TV.

During that same time, in Lafayette, Indiana, my father and I would make a biweekly trip to the barber. The haircut cost 50 cents each. Then, we would go down the street to the Mars Theater to take in a double feature for 25 cents each — including a Movietone newsreel and three cartoons. I’ve been a movie buff ever since.

I asked James, “How can you compete with Sirius radio and its separate channels for music from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s?”

He replied, “On Sirius, you have to listen to their picks from their library of songs. With Golden Digital Network, the consumer of retro entertainment gets to do the picking — from Top 40 music but also from radio, movies and TV programs — all from a library organized by genre, decade and year, so members can easily focus on their preferences.”

Though his father died in 1983, James is now preparing to celebrate the 99th birthday of his mother. Interesting note: In 2011, Tobin was a guest on a popular Dallas talk show. Reminiscing about the “big band” era, she said, “Music restores the soul.” Indeed, it does, I thought.

And that’s why the Golden Digital Network will bring redemption, as well as entertainment, to many who will enjoy the popular arts of yesteryear.

Phil Burgess is president of the Annapolis Institute and author of “Reboot! What To Do When Your Career Is Over But Your Life Isn’t.” Send your post-career story or nominations of interesting people with good stories or other comments to [email protected].

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