Great Lakes Radio Band

Led by Leonard L. Bowden, the Great Lakes Radio Band was no doubt one of the best bands in the United States during World War II. Bowden selected the best musicians from each of the Great Lakes’ bands. They presented the “Men O’ War Radio Show” on CBS from WBBM in Chicago every Saturday night, the only all-Black service show presented weekly over a radio network. Performances were filmed by the American News Reel and shown in theaters all across the U.S.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

Performing with the band on the show was a 200-voice regimental choir, a vocal octet, a vocal quartet, and a vocal trio. E. Wayman Hathcock, formerly head of music at Morris Brown College (he wrote the music for the college alma mater), directed the octet and three base choirs, from which he selected the performers for their mass choir performances. “If you want to hear something, you ought to hear the whole camp singing spirituals,” he recalled. “When several thousand voices swell the chorus of some sad, sweet spiritual, that is really something.” Hathcock graduated from Wittenberg College, majoring in music, earned a Master’s in music from Ohio State University and did graduate work at Rochester School of Music.

In the octet were vocalists from college glee clubs and professional groups such as the Hall Johnson Singers. In the photo above, Hathcock is directing one of the octets at the dedication of a Marian Anderson mural commemorating her free public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. The dedication was held in the Department of Interior Auditorium before a distinguished audience on January 6, 1943; Hathcock is the only one identified in this Library of Congress photo.

The quartet had been known as the Southland Singers prior to joining the Navy. The trio had performed as the Sharps and Flats.

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Annual Catalog. Morris Brown College, Atlanta, GA, 1937-1938. 7 June 1938.

Floyd, Samuel A. The Great Lakes Experience, 1942-45. Carbondale, IL: S. Illinois U, 1974.

—. “An Oral History: The Great Lakes Experience.” The Black Experience in Music 11.1: (Spring 1983): 41-61.

Goldberg, Dan. The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold. Boston: Beacon, 2020.

Leonard L. Bowden – photo courtesy of Michael Bayes, US Navy archivist, and the U.S. Navy