GORDON “WHITEY” MITCHELL DIES AT 76
GORDON ‘WHITEY’ MITCHELL DIES AT 76
I am deeply saddened to report the death of Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell, who died of cancer on January 18th. JazzLegends.com visitors are more than familiar with Whitey’s work with The Gene Krupa Jazz Quartet. That particular edition of Gene’s group, which lasted through much of 1955, included Gene, Whitey, Bobby Scott and Eddie Shu. It was one of Krupa’s finest small units and fortunately, their concert sets at Jazz at the Philharmonic are well-preserved on CD.
Whitey performed with a bunch of other greats through the years, including Andre Previn, Mat Matthews, Gene Quill, Herbie Mann, Tony Scott and J.J. Johnson. He recorded one session as a leader in 1956, and two years later, recorded with his brother, bassist Red Mitchell, and trumpeter Blue Mitchell on something aptly called “The Mitchells. He left music in 1965 to work full time as a comedy writer.
As the story goes, several letters he wrote to Down Beat magazine came to the attention of no less than Lenny Bruce, who encouraged him to go into comedy writing. Starting in the mid-1960s, he began writing for some of the legendary programs in television history, such as “Get Smart,” “The Jeffersons,” “All in the Family,” “Mork and Mindy,” “Good Times,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” If you ever wondered why several of those shows seemed to be so hip, “Get Smart” in particular, now you know.
He moved to Palm Desert in the mid-1990s and began playing bass again. He was even better and more swinging than he was in 1955.
Some seasons back, I got a call from Whitey, who heard that I had some rare audio of the Krupa Quartet. We began talking on the telephone frequently, and I found him to be one of the most intelligent and literate folks I ever met. At the same time, I was thinking about going out to Palm Springs to do some archival video interviews with a bunch of industry people who relocated out there, including Marie Rich and Frankie Randall. Whitey spoke of how nice the jazz scene was in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, and that he had a great gig at a club there, which, if memory serves, was owned by a one-time Playboy Bunny. He said, “When you come out, get in touch and you’ll sit in.”
“Sit-in,” to me, were and are the magic words. My long-time personal and professional colleague (and jazz singing great) Joy Adams and I decided to get out there as soon as possible. Whitey and his wife, Marilyn, were charming. We spent a good deal of time in their lovely home, and also a good deal of time in the jazz club where he was playing with a certifiably swinging group.
One night at the club, it seemed that the creme de la creme of Palm Desert celebrity were seated at the table along with The Mitchells and us, including the legendary agent, Norby Walters and the equally legendary singer, Jack Jones.
I remember specifically that Jones didn’t crack a smile all night. Until, that is, Joy Adams sang. He told me later on in the evening, knowing that I wrote and co-produced the videos on Buddy Rich, that he never really got over Buddy’s death and was never the same afterward.
To be asked to guest at the drums with Whitey Mitchell, a giant of a player , was a singular honor, especially because he had played with Krupa and always said how much he loved Gene’s playing. He later told me how much he liked my playing and that there would always be work for Joy and me if we ever decided to move out to the desert.
After that, we lost touch. A month or two ago, someone told me he had written his autobiography, and I thought that would be an appropriate time to look him up again. I didn’t, and I’m sorry about it.
I’ll miss him. And so will jazz.