Virtute, sic itur ad Astra
(Those who excel, thus reach the stars)
– Motto of the Manhattan School of Music
On December 6, 1923, Thomas Paine Brittain Navard (aka: Bobby
Brittain; aka: Tommy Dix) was born to Anna Navard and Henry
Leon Brittain in New York City. Anna (age 35) and Henry (age
50) were very much in love, but due to circumstances beyond
their control they were not able to marry. Although Henry visited
his son often he was not a daily presence, and the child was
raised by his single mother in a poor area of New York City
near Harlem. She supported her son by running a thrift store
out of the front of their basement apartment.
was a great admirer of both Thomas Paine, one of America’s
Founding Fathers, and of the 19th century orator and advocate
of free thought, humanism, and agnosticism, Robert G. Ingersoll.
Because of her admiration of Ingersoll she called her son “Bob”
or “Bobby”, and it was by the name Bob Navard that
the future Tommy Dix would be known during much of his childhood.
– Tommy’s maternal grandfather was a Polish cantor.
– Tommy’s paternal grandfather was a Methodist
Minister in Birmingham, Alabama.
– Tommy was related to Chief Justice John Marshall,
the longest serving Supreme Court Chief Justice in U.S. history.
– While running a concession stand at the 1898 World’s
Fair in St. Louis, Tommy’s father invented the ice cream
Beginning around the age of three, little Bobby began having
a number of medical problems and exhibiting many of the symptoms
of starvation – swelling of the abdomen, stunted growth,
fatigue, diarrhea, cramps, and anemia. It would not be until
Bobby was seven that he was correctly diagnosed as having Celiac
disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that interferes with
the absorption of nutrients from food. People who suffer from
Celiac disease are unable to properly digest fats and wheat
protein (gluten), and they have to adhere to a very strict diet.
his medical problem was properly diagnosed and treated Bobby
began to grow normally, but time had been lost and he would
grow no taller than 5 feet 4 inches. It is possible that the
Celiac disease may have allowed his diaphragm to enlarge which,
in turn, allowed him to develop an unusually powerful singing
voice. True or not, singing would quickly become an important
part of Bobby’s life. When his voice dropped from an alto
to a baritone while singing in the Trinity Church choir, Bobby
began to amaze people with the unexpected maturity of his singing
– According to the University of Chicago’s Celiac
Disease Center, Celiac disease affects 1% of healthy, average
Americans. But 97% of them are undiagnosed.
epiphany may have come when his mother brought him to see Nelson
Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in the 1935 movie “Naughty
Marietta”. When Bobby heard them sing Ah, Sweet Mystery
of Life, tears began rolling down his cheek and he knew
that he wanted to sing like that for the rest of his life. His
mother, however, didn’t support his decision until one
day when Bobby asked to participate in a local Thanksgiving
tradition where children raised money by performing on the sidewalks
in their neighborhood.
idea was to sing for the patrons in a nearby saloon. Reluctant
at first, Bobby’s mother eventually gave in and, while
she waited outside, little Bobby went in and sang a popular
Fred Astaire number, Cheek to Cheek. He was an immediate
hit with the patrons, and he followed–up by singing a
number of requests beginning with When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.
When he finished he walked out and handed his mother almost
$5, close to a week’s income. Bobby’s mother couldn’t
believe her eyes and she suggested that he try singing in another
was now apparent to Bobby’s mother that he was going to
sing whenever and wherever he could. She decided he needed a
“professional” name and, using the first name by
which he was known and his father’s last name, she gave
him the name Bobby Brittain. Now, whenever Bobby sang for people
he was no longer Bobby Navard, he was Bobby Brittain.
High School of Music and Art:
The mayor of New York, Florello H. LaGuardia, had recently authorized
the establishment of a high school designed to provide training
in the performing arts for promising students. New students
were chosen through auditions, and Bobby received a four–year
scholarship to the school. In addition to taking the standard
classes in history, science, literature, etc., he majored in
“Voice Culture” taking additional classes in theory,
harmony, and chorus. He became president of his class and president
of the Science Club. Although Bobby would eventually drop out
of this high school to pursue his singing career, the study
of science and philosophy would continue to captivate Bobby
for the rest of his life.
– After winning a drawing at his high school Tommy got
to visit Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced
Studies for a day. During this visit he heard Albert Einstein
give a speech.
– Because of his interest in physics, Tommy was made
an honorary member of the American Institute of Science while
he was still a teenager.
Bowes’ Amateur Hour (1936):
The former manager of the radio station that hosted The
Bowery Mission Service was Edward “Major” Bowes.
In 1934 Major Bowes had created a show called “The Amateur
Hour” that gave a prize to the best amateur performer
each week. Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour quickly
became a national sensation receiving over 10,000 applications
a week and becoming the most popular show on radio. Of the thousands
of applications, only 20 performers or acts were chosen for
Brittain wrote a letter to Major Bowes applying for the show
and comparing himself to a cross between Nelson Eddy and Lawrence
Tibbett. After an audition and an interview he was chosen to
be on the show, and when his voice boomed out over the airways
the studio’s switchboard lit up with calls for more. The
show’s producer quickly came over to Bobby and told him
they were cancelling the final act so he could sing an encore.
So it was that this 13–year–old boy with the amazing
voice sang an encore for a national audience and returned the
following week to sing again.
Bowery Mission Service” Radio Show:
Changing from skeptic to promoter, Bobby’s mother heard
that the leader of a nearby Harlem mission, Dr. Charles St.
John, had a weekly religious radio show that featured singers
and musicians. Although the performers were not paid, The
Bowery Mission Service Sunday radio show provided valuable
local exposure, and Bobby was not only accepted for the show,
he became a regular who was sometimes referred to (perhaps jokingly)
by the euphonious appellation “Bobby Brittain, the Boy
Baritone of the Bowery.”
William Morris Agency and the Creation of “Tommy Dix”:
In the mid–1930s the William Morris Talent Agency developed
a program that attempted to discover the “Stars of Tomorrow”.
Young Bobby Brittain was one of their discoveries and they gave
him a great deal of valuable advice, including the suggestion
that he change his professional name from Bobby Brittain. At
that time there was a popular boy soprano named Bobby Breen,
and the Morris Agency felt that the public might confuse the
names of the two young singers. The Morris Agency gave Bobby
and his mother a few suggestions for the new name, and his mother
chose the name Tommy Dix. From that day onward Bobby Navard
(aka: Bobby Brittain) would be known in Show Business as Tommy
Show Business (1938): Sometime
during the summer of 1938 Tommy’s mother fell ill. With
her unable to support them as she had done in the past, Tommy
decided to quit school and “commercialize on whatever
talent I had.” He began by playing young people on radio
shows like The Aldrich Family, Superman, and
Renfrew of the Mounted.
“March of Dimes”:
Tommy and his mother were great admirers of the President of
the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each January 30th,
on the President’s birthday, Birthday Balls would be held
across the country to raise money for the fight against Infantile
Paralysis. In 1938 The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis
was officially incorporated, and the radio appeal that occurred
during the week preceding the Birthday Ball events was named
“The March of Dimes”.
during 1938 Tommy told his mother that he wanted to do something
special for FDR and the newly named “March of Dimes”
campaign, and his mother suggested that he write a song. Having
never written a song before Tommy began to compose the words
(he had already written a number of poems) and eventually plucked
out a tune on a piano. The following year, with song in hand,
Tommy went to the Brill Building in the heart of Tin Pan Alley
and, with the guilelessness of youth, found a music publisher
who said he would publish the song if Tommy could get invited
to sing it during the next President’s Ball at the Waldorf–Astoria
no time, Tommy immediately went to the headquarters of George
V. Riley, the chairman of the Greater New York Committee in
charge of organizing the 1940 President’s Ball. Without
an appointment Tommy went up to the receptionist, burst into
song, and caught the attention of everyone in the suite of offices
including Mr. Riley. Mr. Riley immediately recognized the potential
of this diminutive young boy with the amazing voice, and he
invited Tommy to perform his song at the next President’s
On January 30, 1940, 16–year–old Tommy Dix attended
the President’s Ball at the Waldorf–Astoria dressed
in his Boy Scout uniform. The President’s mother, Sara
Roosevelt, and thousands of guests watched as a legion of Boy
Scouts and Girl Scouts marched into the room lead by a drum
and bugle corps. Then, according to The New York Times,
“The climax was effectively reached when Tommy Dix,
14–year–old [sic] Boy Scout baritone, sang his own
composition, ‘The March of Dimes’, a copy of which
he presented to the President’s mother.”
then lead the entire audience in a rendition of “Happy
Birthday” while the birthday cake was being cut. After
the show Sara Roosevelt came backstage and spoke with Tommy
for a few minutes and indicated he would be invited to the White
House the following year to sing his song. For a number of reasons
his appearance at the White House never took place, but Tommy
would sing his song again at the 1942 New York President’s
Birthday Ball where the newly published sheet music for his
song was sold to raise money for the campaign.
week following Tommy’s triumphant appearance at the Waldorf–Astoria’s
Birthday Ball, he was invited to be on the popular radio show
Coast–to–Coast on a Bus. Its host, Milton
Cross, was also the announcer for the Metropolitan Opera radio
broadcasts every Saturday, and he used his Coast–to–Coast
show to introduce many promising young singers and radio actors
to a national audience. Tommy sang I Got Plenty O’
Nuttin’ from Porgy & Bess.
Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air (November 1940)
Shortly before Tommy opened in his first Broadway play he was
walking through the NBC studio in Manhattan when he heard a
group of baritones warming up to audition for The Metropolitan
Opera Auditions of the Air. Each week aspiring operatic
performers would be chosen to sing on the show and earn audience
support. At the end of each year two of the singers would be
given small parts in one of the Met’s operas. Tommy asked
if he could “horn in” on the auditions, and when
he sang Old Man River for Conductor Wilfred Pelletier
and the other judges he was immediately chosen for the show.
But because he was too young to compete, he was chosen to be
a guest rather than a contestant. The Met’s manager Edward
Johnson introduced Tommy to the radio audience as “a promising
young baritone”, and Tommy sang Song of the Open Road
by Albert Hay Malotte.