NBC’s Chime Master – Iowa’s Meredith Willson.

In Our Iowa Heritage collection is a prize photograph from October 20, 1951.

Here’s Meredith Willson hard at work in his studio – composing yet another tune for the NBC radio production – The Big Show.

As you can see (below), our black-and-white photo of Iowa’s very own Meredith Willson is a NBC press-release sent out to newspapers promoting NBC’s Silver Jubilee in 1951.

(L-0114) Here’s a NBC promotional info sheet – dated Oct. 20, 1951 – that accompanied Meredith’s picture of him working on music for “The Big Show.”

While most recognize Meredith Willson as the creative genius behind one of Broadway’s all-time classics, The Music Man – our black-and-white promotional photo was taken six long years before River City’s traveling salesman – Harold Hill, and Marian – the librarian – Paroo ever stepped foot on the Broadway stage.

At the time of this photograph, Willson worked for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), serving as the musical director for NBC-Radio’s last hurrah – The Big Show – a one-and-a-half hour weekly broadcast which aired live on Sunday nights from 1950 to 1952. You can read more about The Big Show here. And as the musical director, Meredith not only wrote countless arrangements for the cavalcade of stars who appeared on The Big Show, but he would, on occasion, also introduce some of his newest compositions to the massive, Sunday night national audience.

On November 19, 1950, for example, the show’s host – Tallulah Bankhead – debuted Meredith’s new song – May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You – which went on to become, not only the show’s weekly closing number, but one of the nation’s top songs throughout the 1950’s. Read more here.

Written in 1950, May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You was brought onto The Big Show as the closing song for the Thanksgiving show – November 19, 1950. Click here to read more.

And, the following month, on December 31, 1950, Meredith honored his home state of Iowa by introducing his new school fight song – The Iowa Fight Song. Read more here.

On December 31, 1950, Willson introduced, to a New Years Eve national radio audience, his new creation, The Iowa Fight Song. Listen to this rare recording of the very first performance of our favorite Hawkeye classic, performed with a 47-piece orchestra and sixteen singers

In 1926, just as radio was coming into its golden age, The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was incorporated – September 9, 1926 – under the laws of Delaware. NBC was a corporation jointly owned by Radio Corporation of America (RCA), General Electric (GE), and Westinghouse, and was comprised of 19 different radio stations around the country, using more than 3,500 circuit miles of telephone wires. NBC-Radio began broadcasting on November 15, 1926 from the WEAF studios in New York City, with WOC-Radio in Davenport – Iowa’s oldest radio station – being a part of that original network. Soon, NBC expanded, becoming America’s oldest and largest broadcasting network by adding hundreds of additional radio stations, including, in 1927, WHO-Radio in Des Moines. And, it’s with WOC and WHO, the local sports announcer, Ronald Reagan, found his first listening audience!

Read more about Iowa Radio in the 1920’s & The EKKO Radio Stamp Craze.

A sequence of three tones played on National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broadcasts – the NBC Chimes – were originally developed in 1927 as seven notes, and were standardized to the current three-note version by the early 1930s. The chimes were originally employed as an audible programming cue, used to alert network control engineers and the announcers at NBC’s radio network affiliates of a programming transition, but soon, this three-note tune became associated with NBC programming in general, and is an early example of an “interval signal” used to help establish a broadcaster’s identity with its audience.

Watch this! Do you recognize the tune?

Read about Meredith Willson’s earliest days working as a musical director for NBC Radio.

The well-known NBC chimes were first played on a xylophone like this one.

So, in 1951, Meredith Willson – a long-time employee of NBC, and the musical director for NBC’s The Big Show – was asked by NBC-Radio executives to write a pop song that would celebrate the network’s most identifiable trademark – The NBC Three-Note Chime.

(M-0032) Between 1930 and 1950, Meredith Willson was one of NBC Radio’s biggest stars.

Kudos to Tyler Brinegar, Senior Producer & Director at Iowa PBS – who is planning to use our rare B&W photo in his March 2023 Iowa PBS production on Iowa’s very own Meredith Willson. Check out Iowa PBS for more info.

And by October 1951 – as you can see from our NBC Press Release photograph (above) – Meredith’s new song was ready to be released to the public. So, without further ado, here is his salute to NBC’s familiar three-note trademark – Three Chimes Of Silverperformed by The Mellomen. As you’re listening, pay attention for the three-note chimes woven nicely into the song. Oh, and notice how Meredith’s tune is arranged for barbershop quartet – which, of course, is a musical style Willson will return to six years later (1957) when The Music Man had its amazing debut on The Majestic Theatre’s Broadway stage – December 19, 1957. Read more here.

Three Chimes of Silver – The Mellomen – 1951

All in all, this timeless classic – which has pretty much been lost over the years – gives us a wonderful peek into the musical genius of Iowa’s own Music Man – Meredith Willson – writing yet another popular tune that truly foreshadows his amazing work on his classic songs from The Music Man.

Looking for more resources on Meredith Willson? Check out our suggestions here.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Thanks to YouTube – here’s a fun look at Milton Berle – Uncle Miltie as he was known on early television – offering his fun rendition of how the NBC Chimes were first created. This is not how it really happened, of course, but this clip comes from the fun opening segment of the May 12, 1986 NBC 60th Anniversary program.
Thanks to YouTube – here’s, perhaps, the only known video of the NBC Rangertone Chimeless Chimes in operation. Aired May 12, 1986, Bob Hope shows us one of these automated machines which were put into operation in late 1932. Sadly, most or all of them have now been discarded and junked.
Kudos to Tyler Brinegar, Senior Producer & Director at Iowa PBS – who used one of our rare B&W photos in his February 2023 Iowa PBS production on Iowa’s very own Meredith Willson. Click here for more!

NBC chimes, Wikipedia

Three Famous Notes of Broadcasting History – The NBC Chimes, Bill Harris, RadioRemembered.org

Golden Age of Radio, Wikipedia

WOC-Radio, Wikipedia

WHO History, George Davison, DesMoinesBroadcasting.com

NBC Chimes Magazine, January 1951, WorldRadioHistory.com

U.S. Patent Office – NBC Press Department, January 17, 1950, eyesofageneration.com

The Mellomen, Marv Goldberg, Big John & The Buzzards, 2004, 2009

Three Chimes of Silver, The Mellomen, Meredith Willson, 1951, Internet Archive

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