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Skip Nelson (1920-1974)

Skip Nelson (orig. name Scipione Mirabella) achieved his greatest fame in the early 1940s singing such hits as "Dearly Beloved," "Moonlight Becomes You," and "That Old Black Magic" with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Nelson also had a hit in 1944 singing "It's Love-Love-Love" with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra.

In the 1940s, Nelson also performed nationally with the big bands of Chico Marx, Tommy Dorsey, Teddy Powell, and Glen Gray, and in the late 40s and early 50s in Southwestern Pennsylvania with Benny Burton, Walter Gable and Joey Martin. Besides singing, Nelson played piano and guitar and wrote songs.

Early Life and Career

A ship passenger list documented nine-year old Scipione Mirabella arriving in the U.S. with his mother and two siblings in June 1929. His place of birth was Pozzuoli, Italy and the Florida Death Index stated his date of birth as August 9, 1920.

According to the 1940 U.S. Census, the Mirabella family was living in New York City where 20 year old Scipione worked as a movie theater usher and his father worked as a drummer. It is unclear exactly when Mirabella moved to Pittsburgh, but a copyright entry for his song "Mem'ries of Yesterday" dated Apr. 10, 1941 listed his location as Pittsburgh and his name as both Skip Nelson and Scipione Mirabella.

Pittsburgh bandleader Benny Burton stated that "When [Skip Nelson] came to Pittsburgh, he was broke. I staked him to a room at the old Fort Pitt Hotel and gave him a job." ("Benny Burton's Memories Are as Mellow as a Favorite Melody," Pittsburgh Press, August 9, 1985) Confusingly, though, the same article said, "[Burton] recalls a young fellow named Skipione Mirabella from Brooklyn who came to him in the the late 40s." Most likely, this should read the early 1940s. In a 1993 interview, Burton elaborated that after a show Mirabella was in folded, he was brought in to audition as a pianist by Burton's bassist. Though Burton described him as a "terrific piano player," his style didn't fit the band so Mirabella revealed that he sang too. Burton, liking his voice, would hire him for one-nighters with his group. Burton also claimed to have given him the name "Skip Nelson." (Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh [OHMP] 103)

Tenure with Glenn Miller Orchestra

John Flower's Moonlight Serenade: A Bio-discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian Band has the following information on Nelson:
12 July, 1942 (SUN)
Ray Eberle was discharged from the Miller band this evening and Miller hired Skip Nelson, a 20-year-old [i.e., 21, almost 22] Pittsburg [sic] boy who was singing with the Chico Marx band in New York. Nelson arrived in Chicago by air from New York in less than 24 hours after Eberle's departure. Nelson, besides singing, played piano.
13 July, 1942 (MON)
The payroll records show that Skip Nelson worked for the orchestra from July 13th (first day of work actually was July 14th) until the orchestra disbanded on September 27, 1942.
14 July, 1942 (TUES): Victor Studios, Chicago, Illinois
Same personnel as for March 19th broadcast except that SKIP NELSON (SCIPIONE MIRABELLA), vocalist, replaces Ray Eberle.

George T. Simon's book Glenn Miller and His Orchestra elaborated:

[Ray Eberle's] replacement came from the Chico Marx band, at the suggestion of Glenn's old boss Ben Pollack. Skip Nelson (real name: Scipione Mirabella), a musicianly singer who also played piano and guitar, joined just in time to record with the band on its final Victor sides. ... Nelson's first recording, "Dearly Beloved," showed him off to best advantage, though "That Old Black Magic," which he sang with the Modernaires, was more popular. (p. 307)

Simon's Glenn Miller book has a photograph of the handsome Nelson.

Both books stated that Nelson returned to Chico Marx when Miller's civilian orchestra disbanded in the autumn of 1942.

Mel Tormé

At age 17, multi-talented vocalist Mel Tormé joined the Chico Marx band and Skip Nelson was his roommate. In My Singing Teachers: Reflections on Singing Popular Music, Tormé wrote:

[Nelson] hailed from Pittsburgh, and I must admit I looked up to him for a lot of reasons. He was tall, good-looking, of Italian descent, and he could sing. The timbre of his voice was gorgeous, full, round, and commanding. He sang the ballads while I sang the "jump" tunes. Any pretensions I might have had toward ballad singing with the Marx band were quickly stifled as soon as I heard Skip sing. (pp. 78-79)
In his autobiography, It Wasn't All Velvet, Tormé also wrote:
Skip was a wonderful character from Pittsburgh; he was a tall, good-looking lady-killer who also sang the total hell out of ballads. He possessed a vocal quality not unlike Dick Haymes's -- deep, rich, and perfectly in tune. (p. 66)

Nelson was something of a mentor to the young Tormé in another way. In a chapter of It Wasn't All Velvet entitled "Virgin," Tormé wrote, "Skip and most of the rest of the band ribbed me mercilessly about my status as a virgin." Then he candidly told the tale of how during a one-week run in Pittsburgh, a woman who worked in the hotel coffee shop at the William Penn Hotel was "recruited" by Skip and other band members to help Tormé solve his musician's "problem." (pp. 69-75)

Selected Performances in Pittsburgh Area

Skip Nelson's performance engagements in Pittsburgh include:

    March 5, 1943
    Stanley Theater
    with Chico Marx's Orchestra featuring Skip Nelson, Kim Kimberly and Mel Tormé

Due to Chico's illness, Harpo Marx filled in as bandleader. Reviewer Harold V. Cohen wrote, "His brother's band has come along fine in one short year and Pittsburgh's Mr. Skip Nelson is doing a bang-up job of singing with it." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 6, 1943) Kaspar Monahan wrote, "It's a good show, particularly on the vocal side. Skip Nelson, the local boy, does justice to 'Moonlight Becomes You.'" (Pittsburgh Press, March 6, 1943)

    April 21, 1944
    Stanley Theater
    with Teddy Powell and His Band

Cohen wrote, "In Pittsburgh's Mr. Skip Nelson and cute little Miss Peggy Mann, Mr. Powell has a couple of singers who are far above average. In fact, just mentioning the two in the same breath with average is grossly unfair to them." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 22, 1944)

    June 16-18(?), 1951
    The Ankara
    with Walter Gable's Orchestra

"Walter Gable's orchestra featuring its newest member, Skip Nelson, continues at the Ankara." (Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 17, 1951) While engagements at the Stanley were typically for a week, it's unclear how long Nelson performed at the Ankara, located in McKeesport, about 12 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

Cohen wrote, "The breaks have finally started to come Skip Nelson's way. Not only does the former Glenn Miller and Glen Gray vocalist open tonight at the Ankara as Walter Gable's featured singer and the m.c. of the ice show but he's also just signed for a new teevee show." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 18, 1951) The program with Edythe Aymes was a quarter-hour, two afternoons a week, on WDTV.

(Concert dates were found in Dave Goodrich's book Key to the City: A Guide to Pittsburgh Music, History, Entertainment & More! which lists performances in Pittsburgh between 1928-1954.)

Film Appearance

Skip Nelson made an uncredited appearance in the 1944 film Broadway Rhythm singing "Irresistible You" with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. Approximately 13 minutes into the film, the song begins and Nelson is seen singing lead in the middle of a group of five vocalists. At 15:20 minutes in, he steps forward to deliver the final line of the song.

Career Struggles

Pittsburgh bandleader Benny Burton said Skip Nelson had a dark cloud that followed him and enumerated Nelson's string of bad luck with the big bands with whom he performed:

Glenn Miller: "...Miller was lost in an airplane over the English Channel during World War II."

Teddy Powell: "...Powell dissolved his band when he was convicted of avoiding the draft."

Tommy Dorsey: "...Dorsey got mad one day and fired the whole band."

Guy Lombardo: "...complained that Nelson's music overpowered his band."

("Benny Burton's Memories Are as Mellow as a Favorite Melody," Pittsburgh Press, August 9, 1985)

Mel Tormé lamented:

When the Miller band broke up and Glenn went off to war, Skip literally disappeared, after a short stint with Tommy Dorsey. I heard that he had returned to Pittsburgh and was singing locally there, but he never again enjoyed high visibility, his moment in the sun being those few short months with Glenn Miller. What a shame. (My Singing Teachers: Reflections on Singing Popular Music, p. 80)

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nelson was indeed singing with regional groups at venues around southwestern Pennsylvania such as the Little White House Inn in Scottdale, Musical Bar in Monessen, Hotel Beeson in Uniontown, and the VFW Country Club in Indiana, PA.

"The twice-weekly Skip Nelson-Edythe Aymes program fades from Channel 3 on the twenty-first after a six-month run," wrote Harold V. Cohen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (December 13, 1951)

In June 1956, a newspaper article from the International News Service newswire began with the question, "Anyone remember crooner Skip Nelson?" It then described a $100,000 suit that Nelson filed against RCA alleging that the record company was selling recordings of his without identifying him as the singer. The article also stated that Nelson was "now living in Miami and working the local nightclub circuit." (The Stars and Stripes, June 30, 1956)

Benny Burton also said in the newspaper that Nelson ended up in Florida "selling used cars" but in another interview said that Nelson died as a young man "selling pianos" in Florida. (Pittsburgh Press, August 9, 1985; OHMP 103)

Death

Skip Nelson's obituary in Variety stated that he retired to Florida when he developed a heart condition. He died on March 31, 1974 in West Palm Beach, FL at age 53. (Variety, April 17, 1974)



This page was created in July 2012 by Timothy R. Williams, Music Librarian, in collaboration with Mike Plaskett of the radio show Rhythm Sweet & Hot. Updated September 2013.


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