UNC can count many popular musicians on its list of notable alumni. Among the very earliest is Hal Kemp, the big band leader of the 1920s and 30s who started his musical career at UNC and went on to achieve national fame. Kemp’s saxophone and clarinet are our December Artifacts of the Month.
Kemp organized his first dance band, the five-piece Merrymakers, when he was still in high school at Charlotte Central High. After entering UNC in 1922 he started the Carolina Club Orchestra, which recorded for Okeh records and performed in Europe during summer breaks. Before graduating, Kemp invited Kay Kyser to take over as bandleader for the Carolina Club Orchestra.
The seven-piece combo Kemp formed during his senior year became the foundation for the professional band he established in the spring of 1926, the year he graduated. While it was active, Kemp’s band recorded some of the era’s major hits and consistently appeared in the top ten of the Billboard’s College Poll. It was the first band featured in a motion picture — 1938’s Radio City Revels.
Kemp’s instruments were generously donated by his nephew, Howard Yates Dunaway, Jr.
Dunaway traveled with the band as a teenager in the 1930s, helping to set up the band members’ instruments. When he brought the saxophone and clarinet, Dunaway, now in his 90s, shared his memories of life on the road with his uncle’s band.
Howard Dunaway and his brother Kemp Dunaway inherited the family’s musical talent: Howard played violin in the Charlotte Symphony at age 16. And his brother Kemp played these very instruments, which he had inherited from his uncle.
Hal Kemp wasn’t with us long enough. He died following an auto accident in 1940 at just 35. But his recordings will be with us forever — and so will his instruments. The North Carolina Collection Gallery is proud to care for these artifacts, which tell an important story of a time when UNC made significant contributions to the world of popular music.