Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Maynard! Master of the Trumpet Stratosphere

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Maynard Ferguson, the dynamic, musically stratospheric and charismatic bandleader/trumpter who died in August of 2006, is the subject of a new book.
Not surprisingly, the work was not able to find a traditional book publisher.
Maynard! was written and assembled by Grammy Award-winning record producer Ralph Jungheim, is a collection of interviews with many of Maynard’s personal and professional colleagues through the years, including reedman Lanny Morgan, Don Menza and Bud Shank; drummers Rufus Jones, Shelly Manne and Peter Erskine’ singer Irene Kral; guitarist Mundell Lowe; trumpeter Lew Tabackin; and various others.
Maynard! is self-published and the good news is that it was published at all, in a day and age when traditional book retailers are going under, and the only works that seem to get traditional book deals these days are works by politicians, conservative and otherwise.
Lee Mergner, Editor of Jazz Times magazine, who first wrote about this on the site, is optimistic when it comes to print publishing and jazz. He should know, as Jazz Times ceased publishing recently until, thankfully, it found another buyer and is back in business.
“Print is most assuredly not dead,” Mergner said. “Nor is the oral history. If anything, the difficulties of bookstores have created a do-it-yourself submarket, in which projects heretofore viewed as commercial risks become unabashed labors of love, published via print-upon-demand or eBook or no-frills self-publishing.”
Ferguson’s life and music are worthly of a full-fledged bio. Dr. William Lee did write an authorized biography of Maynard about ten years ago, but its scope was surprisingly limited.
Born in Quebec in 1928, Ferguson was a child trumpet prodigy who quit school at 15, performed with, and eventually led a bunch of bands there. He came to the United States circa 1949, and spent road time with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and the leader who really groomed Maynard Ferguson to be a star, the equally charasmatic Stan Kenton, with whom he spent the years 1950 to 1953. Leaving Kenton, he was a Paramount studio player until 1956. In 1957, he led his first, U.S. band, known as “The Birdland Dream Band.”
It lasted, in various incarnations, until the bottom dropped out of the jazz business around 1967. But MF’s band was astounding, and those a part of it during those salad days likened it to what it must have been like to be a member of The Rolling Stones.
The array of talent that passed through that 12-piece group was incredible, and included artists such as Joe Zawinul, Don Ellis, Bill Chase, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Ford, Don Menza, Jake Hanna, Rufus Jones, Jaki Byard, John Bunch; and an equally wonderful array of arrangers and composers. The band recorded prolifically for Roulette. Volume-wise, they could blow groups twice the size off he stage. Subtle, it wasn’t. Swinging, it was.
Call Maynard Ferguson the “Buddy Rich of the trumpet,” if you will. No one has yet been able to equal his trumpet range and the clarity of his range—no one, quite simply, could play higher—and the energy, feeling, and enthusiasm he brought to the stage was consistently infectious and exciting. By God, it’s even been said that Miles Davis liked his playing.
Ferguson had become, like Harry James before him and Doc Severinson afer him, as much of a personality as a musician, though he never, ever compromised his musical vision.
Times were tough in the latter 1960s for everything that was jazz, and were at a particularly low ebb for big bands. Woody was scuffling, Basie was recording Beatles’ tunes, and Ellington was surviving. Buddy Rich, however, did begin to make something of a splash on the scene around 1967, but Maynard couldn’t ignore increasing audience disinterest. He first cut down to a small group, spent some time studying and teaching in India, and ended up living in Manchester, England, circa 1969.
He has no idea that a second, very successful career was in the offing, via his signing with CBS Records in England in 1969, and later forming an all-British band, with the accent on more contemporary material with a contemporary beat.
Maynard came back to the states permanently in 1973 and resumed a hectic touring schedule, with the emphasis on high school and college bookings, and in-residence teaching “clinics,” a concept pioneered by Stan Kenton. The band became a favorite of younger music fans via their choice of material, and in fact, made it to the coveted “top 40” with “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from the film, “Rocky,” in 1977.
Demand for the band—as well as its prices—went up, and Maynard Ferguson was able to maintain the group, through several names and musical configurations, until just days before his death on August 23, 2006.
As a person? There are only two musicians in the history of jazz that no one—no one—has ever heard a negative word about. Louie Bellson. And Maynard.
The source material for Maynard! was a series of interviews recorded by author in 1978, when Ferguson and the band were playing in Santa Monica, CA. His wife transcribed the many hours of interviews.
“Jungheim had hopes of getting a book deal based on the interviews,” Lee Mergner explained, but there were no takers” from the major publishing houses.
“So I put it in a box and pretty much forgot about it,” said Jungheim. “Every once in a while I’d take it out and read it, but then I’d forget about it. I had a bout with cancer about two and a half years ago, and my son suggested that I make it an eBook and finally get the thing out.”
Ultimately, Maynard! was released as a print-on-demand project. The 240-page paperback is now available via, and the author’s own
Matt Keller, who has reviewed the work for the Ferguson web site, describes it “as an absolutely compelling read for Maynard fans… from the musicians who played with him in the first 30 years of his career.” Though this work is incomplete as well, in that Ferguson performed for almost 30 more years after these interviews were done, Keller says that the book “ provides a fascinating verbal accounting of the first half of Maynard’s recording and performing career.”
Perhaps the entire story will someday be told.

Louis Prima, Jimmy Vincent and 9/11

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Wherever and whenever live music is played—in Naples, Florida, or otherwise—people of a certain age will often request a song made famous by the late and great Louis Prima.

Last season in Naples at The Cafe’ on Fifth Avenue, when I had the privilege of playing with the great trumpter Bob Zottola, a customer approached me and requested that we do something by Louis.

Zottola, to his eternal and idealistic credit, is a music guy, not an entertainment guy, but wanted to honor the customer’s request.

Knowing I sang and played pretty much the complete Prima repertoire through the years—“if you want to make a dollar, you’ve got to make them holler,” has long been my credo–Bob asked me, “Is there anything like a tasteful Louis Prima song?”

“No, unfortunately, there isn’t,” I told Bob.

Louis was never a darling of the jazz critics.

We did “Oh Marie” anyway and the crowd loved it. Bob was really cooking on that one. It couldn’t be helped.

Prima’s sound was and is an electrifying, timeless and swinging one that transcended labels, genres, timelines or categories. In his early days, Louis was a good, traditionally oriented trumpeter and singer out of the Louis Armstrong mold, but as time went on, he moved farther and father away from jazz into the world of entertainment.

Indeed, via his group in Las Vegas that featured vocalist Keely Smith, to whom he was married from 1953 to 1961, he made one of the biggest splashes in entertainment history in the Vegas lounges, on records, and in clubs throughout the country. Along with the architect of the Prima sound –the recently-departed saxophonist Sam Butera—the Prima book combined elements of Dixieland jazz, early rhythm and blues, the Italian jive novelties he had been doing for years, plus the deadpan vocals of Keely, to fashion an eclectic and singular sound that has never been duplicated. Many have tried, included Sonny and Cher, who basically lifted the Louie and Keely act, updated it and tried to make it their own,

Prima continued, with varying degrees of success and with changes in music policy—he was almost doing a rock and roll show at one point in later years—until he lapsed into a coma in October of 1975. He died in August, 1978.

Prima’s drummer on and off since the early 1940s was a superb player by the name of Jimmy Vincent, who died on April 15, 2002.

You can hear Vincent wailing away on some of Louis’ most famous songs, including “Jump Jive and Wail,” “Just a Gigolo” and all of the rest.

Vincent also had a good deal of success with another, semi-famed, Las Vegas-based lounge group called “The Goofers.” Drum fans, in particular, may remember Vincent appearing in ads for the Slingerland Drum Company, where he was wearing a monkey mask.

Vincent never cared about critics. If you wear a monkey mask while playing the drums, that’s obvious. But Buddy Rich, among well-known players, is said to have loved him. No one could play the shuffle beat like Jimmy Vincent.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, singer Joy Adams and I were waiting for a cab to pick us up at our Philadelphia home to take us to the airport. We were flying to Las Vegas to get together with drummer Jimmy Vincent, who was to be interviewed and featured in a Hudson Music DVD, which then had the working title of “Roots of Roll Drumming.” Eventually, it was released as “Classic Rock Drum Solos,” but the idea was the same, which was to trace the evolution of the drum solo as it ultimately applied to rock and roll,

Vincent was an important figure in this area, having helped pioneer and perfect the shuffle beat on drums, an important component of early rock.

At about 10 a.m., a few minutes before our taxi was scheduled to arrive in Philadelphia, Joy’s daughter, Lauren, called us at home. “Turn on the television, now,” she told her mother.

“What channel?” Joy asked.

“Any channel,” Lauren said.

There it was. The tragic bombing of the Word Trade Centers. Live, on television.

We didn’t believe what we were seeing.

The taxi had arrived to take us to the airport. My first thought was to call the airport to see if planes were still flying. Whomever answered the phone at the airport said that nothing had changed, Planes were still taking off.

They didn’t for long.

The trip to Vegas never happened and we never hooked up with Jimmy Vincent, who passed away about a year and one-half later.

“Classic Rock Solos” features an early, 1940s drum solo by a 16-year-old player by the name of Jimmy Vincent, tearing it up on a song written by his long-time boss, Louis Prima. The song’s title was “Sing Sing Sing.”

Bob Zottola has spoken often about doing that number when I come back to Naples.

I plan on it.


Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Anita O’Day. There will never be another like her in the history of jazz. Along with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and perhaps one or two others, she influenced scores of jazz singers and virtually created a language — and set the standard– for true, modern jazz singing.

And yes, she lived what used to be called the “jazz life,” with a decades-long substance abuse problem, destructive relationships, and what can gently be termed as career highs and career lows.

But through her astounding professional life, that lasted from the early 1930s to her death in 2006, she always, always performed at the highest level. As detailed in her 1981 autobiography, “High Times, Hard Times,” life was rarely easy, and she almost lost that life more than once due to addiction.

Professionally, she was a perfectionist who only demanded of her accompanists what she demanded of herself.

Above all, Anita O’Day was a survivor. In the true sense of the word.

Jazz aficionados are fortunate that O’Day was amply represented on recordings, both authorized and unauthorized, from 1941 until her death, and that a good amount of performance film exists. Those films include her film shorts with Gene Krupa from the early 1940s, her memorable appearance in the legendary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival from 1958 and a guest stint on the Timex All-Star Jazz television show from the same year with Krupa and Lionel Hampton, a wonderful concert from Japan in 1963, a hard-hitting turn on “60 Minutes” profile from 1980, and various other odds and ends.

As incisive as her autobiography was and is (none other than Madonna was reported to have owned the rights to it for some time) along with the great recordings and videos, Anita O’Day’s real story–and the impact she had and has in the world of jazz–has never really been told. Until now.

“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is an award-winning film, completed in 2007 and now available on DVD for the first time, that truly tells the tale of a certifiable legend. Co-directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, this marvelous production includes film of Anita’s interviews with Dick Cavett, David Frost, Bryant Gumble (that one is worth the price of admission), and comments from her fellow artists and collaborators through the years, including Buddy Bregman, Russ Garcia, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Annie Ross, George Wein and Joe Wilder.

Taken as a cinematic whole, “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is, quite simply, Academy Award-winning material.

Most visitors know O’Day’;s history, but for those who may want a refresher, her first break as a singer was in 1938, when she began appearing at Chicago’s Off-Beat club, where she caught the attention of Krupa. She continued working around Chicago until she joined the GK crew in 1941. Her duet with Krupa trumpeter Roy Eldridge, “Let Me Off Uptown,” became a hit, and she was named “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine. When Krupa disbanded in 1943, she briefly joined Woody Herman’s band, then the orchestra of Stan Kenton, where she again hit on wax with “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.” She rejoined Krupa in 1945 and stayed a year. Many fans of that “ace drummer man” consider the his 1945 band to be his best. After that, she worked as a single.

Her contribution to the Krupa band was a substantial one (and they had a number of live and recorded reunions until Gene’s death in 1973). Before her arrival in the Krupa fold in 1941, and the arrival of co-hort Roy Eldridge, the band was a not-particularly-distinguished swing crew that was highlighted by a few decent soloists and more than a few drum features by the leader. When Anita and Roy came on the scene, the band caught fire–and Gene said this many times throughout his career– and remained one of the top bands in the business until Gene gave it up in 1951.

From 1952 to 1962, in addition to touring nationwide, she recorded a series of 17 albums for Norman Granz’ Verve label and its various imprints. On an artistic basis and without exception, they still stand up today as among the most remarkable recordings in jazz history. Individually and collectively, they reveal a timeless “hipness,” sense of swing and overall sensitivity that will never, ever go out of style.

In the latter 1960s, O’Day recorded a well-received series of albums for a record company she owned and operated, Emily Records. Indeed, aside from the efforts of Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1950s, Emily was among the few, “jazz artist owned and operated” record companies in the history of jazz.

Her final album, “Indestructible,” was recorded in 2004 and 2005, and released in 2006. It was her first recorded effort in 13 years. She died in November of 2006, seven months after its release.

Singular credit must be given to Robbie Cavolina, who was O’Day’s manager for some years, and truly the mastermind behind “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.” He almost single-handedly ensured that O’Day got the credit she deserved as an icon and an innovator during her lifetime, and that, almost until the end, she kept working. That Anita O’Day was around for 87 years–and still singing–had much to do with his dedication.

Jazz has been blessed with a pretty comprehensive filmed history, especially in the last 15 years or so, with performance films, features and documentaries. I’ve made a few of them myself.

This one is the best. — Bruce Klauber

“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is available in two editions: The standard edition is a two-DVD set that includes a 32-page, full color booklet with essays by noted jazz historians James Gavin and Will Friedwald, plus 16 pages of Anita O’Day’s scrapbooks. The deluxe edition includes the above, along with a 144-page, hard bound coffee table book of O’Day’s 1939 to 1969 scrapbooks.This edition contains much rare Krupa material as well Both are available via most online ordering outlets. For more information, visit, the official web site of Anita O’Day.

Slingerland Dies. Again.

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

A bit over a year ago, I received a call from an executive of the Gibson guitar company, owners of the Slingerland name since 1994. The executive thanked me for helping keep the Slingerland name alive through the years with books, DVDs and CDs, and to my astonishment, said that Gibson wanted to sell the name and asked if I would help broker the deal.

While I was certainly surprised to have received the call, I was more astonished by the fact that Gibson—finally—was going to do something with the Slingerland name. Gibson, of course, has done virtually nothing with the Slingerland brand for years, and also has continually refused to respond to parties who were very much interested in resurrecting it.

Slingerland’s slow demise was a particularly sad one, especially when you bear in mind that the greatest drummers in history endorsed that brand.

I had several ideas as to how to proceed. I strongly believed that only an American drum company could do the name justice, and that whatever outfit bought the name should have at least a modicum of jazz orientation, and an interest in the Slingerland legacy.

What I did not want to see repeated was what happened when Yamaha bought the venerable name of Rogers. For some unknown reason, Yamaha slapped the Rogers name on a student line of drum sets that have nothing whatsoever to do with what Rogers was

Though Gibson expressed interest in continuing to manufacture Slingerland drums—and claimed to be able to gear up in a short time—I was of the opinion that only the name would be of interest to a potential buyer. Since being taken over by Gibson in 1994, Slingerland’s quality and distribution were variable, at best, and manufacturing techniques had changed since the last time Gibson manufactured them.

I went to work immediately, and took the proposal to two, percussion industry titans. The first was a company best known for making drum heads, and I was told they wanted to stay that way. The other company was and is one that I consider to be the finest in the industry, domestic or stateside.

It did take some convincing in terms of what a drum with the Slingerland name on it could mean in the contemporary marketplace, as, let’s face it, it’s the young rockers most companies are interested in these days.

They proceeded with caution, but at least they proceeded.

And what has happened in over a years’ time?

Nothing. Those familiar with Gibson management are not surprised.

It’s likely too late to bring back Slingerland in any form, as with each passing day, the brand name becomes less and less of a memory.

Gibson owns a host of names—including Baldwin, Hamilton, Epiphone, Wurlitzer, Tobias, Nordiska, Chickering and Kramer—some are dormant and some are not.

But for the life of me—and to drum fans of a certain age all over the world—I cannot figure out why Gibson would let the legacy, tradition and the legend of Slingerland die. Again.

Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

In 1965, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote a song for Frank Sinatra entitled “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong.” That tune has been running through my mind a lot these days in line with some recent comments I made about DownBeat magazine in a story I wrote about the unfortunate demise of Jazz Times magazine.

With the publication of the July issue of DownBeat, which in fact is their 75th anniversary collector’s edition, I have come to the realization that I should not have dismissed them in such a cavalier manner. Indeed, with the publication of this issue, DownBeat has demonstrated everything that it was, is and likely will be.

DownBeat has what the other publications do not have, and likely could never have.

An incomparable legac editorial and photographic legacy. 75 years’ worth.

The hefty, 130-pager is well-balanced and thought out via archival pieces featuring everyone from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Hank Mobley and Mel Torme’. Portions of several pieces have been widely quoted through the years in a number of books, notably Louis Armstrong’s 1948 thoughts about bop (he described it as “modern malice”) and Monk’s famed, 1958 answer to the question about where jazz is going (“I don’t know where its going,” Monk said. “Maybe it’s going to hell”).

The editors also came up with quite the incisive concept via giving a number of artists the chance to explore their own, DownBeat archives. Sonny Rolllins, Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland have been given the opportunity to comment on pieces written about them for, in some cases, six decades.

The roster of writers in this issue constitute a list of names never equaled in jazz journalism history, including Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Don Gold, Don DeMicheal, Pete Welding, Michael Cuscuna, John Litweiler, Chuck Berg, Elliot Meadow, Bill Coss, Joe Goldberg, Gordon Kopulos, Ralph J. Gleason, Dom Cerulli, Dave Dexter and Barbara Gardner. I grew up with many of these names as did many an aspiring jazz journalist. Its wonderful and heartwarming to read them again.

A marvelous feature of the publication through the years were the articles written by the artists themselves. Artists/contributors represented here include Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Anita O’Day, Count Basie, Jimmy Giuffre, Chick Corea and Benny Golson. Fascinating.

“On its 75th birthday, DownBeat can stand tall knowing that it has become an integral part of so many peoples’ lives,” says Jason Koransky, in his “First Take” column.

It has become an integral part of mine. “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong.”

I stand corrected.

The Last Time I Saw Paris

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The golden age of lounge entertainment in Atlantic City has been over for some years. The recent passing of saxophone giant Sam Butera, architect behind the sound of Louis Prima, just formalized the end of an area.

From the inception of casino gaming in 1978 until the early 1990s, virtually every casino/hotel had a lounge that featured live music. Some of the attractions were local, some were national. In the very beginning, Resorts International, the first casino to open, booked jazzers like Red Norvo and Teddy Wilson, and later, Sam Butera, Freddie Bell, R & B pioneers The Treniers, and jazz trumpeter Jack Sheldon.

Later on, The Golden Nugget booked everyone who was anyone from the world of Las Vegas lounges, including Buddy Greco, Frank D’Rone, Keely Smith, Billy Eckstine, Johnnie Ray, Billy Daniels, Joanie Sommers, Chris Connor, and many others.

The Claridge jumped into the fray after a while, as did Caesars, with attractions like Julius LaRosa. Dakota Staton and Buddy Greco, who, if memory serves, moved to The Claridge from The Golden Nugget and then to Caesars. There were bidding wars going on in those days.

It was party every night in those lounges. And remember, this was world class entertainment on view for the price of a drink.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when things began to change, but I do recall when I first saw the handwriting on the wall.

Sonny Averona was a Sinatra-type singer who had a substantial following at the shore and beyond. Sonny’s following was the “right” kind of following, i.e., high-rollers. He packed the lounge at The Taj Mahal six nights a week. I know. I was his drummer. When Sonny took a break, the crowds gambled–quite heavily, I was told–until we returned to the stage.

I was shocked when we were given two weeks’ notice. I had become acquainted with one of the Taj’s executives, also a regular visitor to the lounge, and told him that, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why we were given notice, given the size the type of business we were doing.

“Come with me,” the exec said, while leading me to a quarter slot machine at the end of an aisle in a dark and rather secluded part of the casino floor. “See this machine? It may be in a dog of a location, but it’s still good for a minimum of $600 per hour. What’s replacing you in the lounge? Slot machines.”

As of summer, 2009, there are a number of lounges that do book live music, though the descriptions of the sounds within–provided by the casinos themselves–do not go beyond “live entertainment” or “rock cover bands.”

What hasn’t changed is that casino executives have to be creative in terms of who or what they book in their bigger rooms. A “name” is always a draw (when Sinatra was in town, all of Atlantic City was sold out) and given the economic climate and the fact that A.C. is no longer the only game in town, these places need all the help they can get.

Here’s some creativity at work for you: A recent advertisement for the Borgata casino/hotel listed none other than Paris Hilton as an upcoming attraction on Saturday, June 13th. You’ve got to hand it to the folks at the Borgata. What they’ve done in terms of appealing to the younger/upscale market has been astounding, and the operation has become a model for all other casinos in the area and beyond.

But Paris Hilton?

Those of us of a certain age knew that “actress” Zsa Zsa Gabor was basically famous for just being famous, though she did develop a character and demonstrated a flair for comedy, often at her own expense.

But Paris Hilton?

What does she do, and more importantly, what will she do at the Borgata on the evening of Saturday, June 13th?

The copy for the first newspaper advertisement I saw read, simply, “Paris Hilton, Music by Jesse Marco, Saturday, June 13.”

Music by Jesse Marco? Gee, maybe Hilton would be singing with a big band.

It turns out that Marco is one of the hottest, young D.J.’s around, so don’t look forward to hearing any Count Basie charts.

One of the Borgata’s web sites,, offers another clue as to what Hilton will be doing on the evening of June 13.

Here, the copy reads PARIS HILTON (in very big letters), and underneath, in very small letters, “Hosts Mur.Mur,” and underneath that, also in small letters, “Music by Jesse Marco,” and underneath that, again in large letters, SATURDAY, JUNE 13.

Mur.Mur, it turns out, is a new nightspot within the Borgata, which they describe at “the nightclub with a personality all to itself.” In line with just what the Hilton appearance is all about, the key word here has got to be “hosts.”

That, evidently, is what Hilton does. She shows up. And on this night, she’ll be hostessing at a disco. Mur.Mur. The nightclub with a personality all to itself. Bet the joint will be mobbed.

I bear no ill will toward Hilton or Jesse Marco, the Borgata or Mur dot Mur. In fact, I’m jealous. I want the gig. I’d love to get paid for showing up. Nice work if you can get it, says the song.

More seriously, I miss Sam Butera and the era when Buddy Greco would be singing and swinging to a packed room. There was nothing canned about it and these performers gave their all and created an excitement and energy that hasn’t been surpassed. And it was all live.

I’ll pass on the famous hostess and the disc jockey. I’ll listen my Sam Butera records instead.


The ageless Buddy Greco appears regularly at his own spot in Cathedral City, CA, “Buddy Greco’s Dinner Club,” and will be touring the U.K. in August.

Julius LaRosa’s web site lists no appearances beyond November of last year.

Trumpeter Jack Sheldon is still out there swinging, and will be playing at The Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl on June 13, the same date Paris Hilton will be hostessing at the Borgata.

Singer and guitarist Frank D’Rone, a vastly under-appreciated talent (boy, did we have some times at The Golden Nugget), continues to play to packed houses in and around his native Chicago, on the west coast and at other selected, national venues.

Vocalist Joanie Sommers is still singing and takes jobs, when offered, near her Los Angeles home base.

Several of the recorded works of legendary jazz singer Chris Connor are being reissued–finally–by a number of record companies in Japan. Her singular singing style will be the subject of pianist/composer/eductaor Ran Blake’s lecture series this summer at the New England Conservatory.

The golden voice of Keely Smith has not changed one iota since her days with Louis Prima. She appears in the “main rooms” — no longer the lounges — of nightspots and concert halls nationally and records for the Concord Jazz label.

Milt Trenier, the only surviving member of The Treniers, appears a few times per month in and around his Chicago home.

Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson died in 1986.

Billy (“That Old Black Magic”) Daniels died in 1988.

Singer and hit-maker Johnnie Ray died in 1990.

Singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine died in 1993.

Jazz vibraphonist Red Norvo died in 1999.

Jazz singer Dakota Staton died in 2007.

Vegas lounge maven Freddie Bell died in 2008.

SAM BUTERA: What Made Sammy Run

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Note: I saw Sam Butera hundreds of times in the 1980s at various
casinos in Atlantic City, notably Resorts International. At that juncture,
I was writing for Atlantic City Magazine by day and playing in the lounges
by night, but I always made it my business to be in the lounge of
Resorts when Sam Butera and The Wildest were in residence. It
was the hottest show in town. Eventually, I became close with Sam
and the talented members of his band, including the late Buck Mainieri
and Chuck Stevens Ignolia (Connie’s brother) and keyboardist
and arranger Arnie Teich. Sam had me helping with sound, with
publicity, etc. In other words, I was a hanger-on with a purpose. Sam
and the boys gave me some of the most exciting and most
educational moments of my life. Though the following tribute
concentrates on Butera’s long association with Louis Prima, be
aware that he participated in many projects on his own, both before
and during the Prima years, including recording sessions as a
soloist, fabulous pairings with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy
Davis, and even a film or two, including “The Rat Race.” Sam’s music,
with and without Prima, is timeless and will never, ever date or age.
Was it art? As Sam might have answered, “I don’t know, man…but it
was sure fun.”

Saxophonist Sam Butera, the architect behind the sound of the legendarysinger and trumpeter, Louis Prima, passed away in Las Vegas on June 3rd. He would have been 82 in August. Butera, who retired in 2004, died as a result of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, said his wife of 62 years, Vera.

The Butera/Prima pairing constitutes one of the great show business stories. In 1954, young Butera was quite the sensation on the New Orleans club scene, with his raucous combination of jazz, dixieland and rhythm and blues sax solos and vocals winning over locals and tourists nightly. He was, in fact, already a national name, as he was voted as one of the most outstanding teenage jazz musicians in the country by Look Magazine a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, Louis Prima career was all but shot by 1954. Though he had enormous success in the late 1930s with a Dixieland combination on 52nd Street in New York city, a popular and quite entertaining big band throughout through the 1940s and plenty of hit records, by 1954, the big band era was long over and Prima’s “jumpin’ and jivin” style was pretty much considered old hat. Prima and then-wife, vocalist Keely Smith–they married in 1953– were working every dive imaginable, with local rhythm sections. “Louis had us playing in bowling alleys, or wherever else he could get us a job,” Smith said years later.

Prima needed a break, and he got one in the form of Bill Miller, Entertainment Director of Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel, where Prima had once headlined. Miller gave Prima and Smith two weeks in December. In the lounge. On the midnight to 5 a.m. shift.

Though they went over well with the Vegas audience—they were extended throughout the month, and the musicians provided for them worked well–Louis Prima knew something was missing. Prima’s New Orleans-based brother, Leon, told Louis about this fabulous band in New Orleans, led by a swinging, honking, entertaining dynamo of a saxophone player, Sam Butera. Instinctively, Prima knew that Butera could give him the sound, and help realize the musical concept, he wanted. Prima begged Butera to come to Vegas on Christmas. Butera came out December 26th, and shortly after, the face of Las Vegas entertainment changed.

Louis Prima had already been through a number of musical styles, including swing, big band sounds, dixieland, Italian “jive” novelties like “Please Don’t Squeeza-Da Banana,” and several more. His goal was to somehow incorporate all of these in his act, with contemporary rhythm and blues overtones. At the same time, he was developing the role of his singing wife, Keely Smith, into that of bored, deadpan vocalist who could care less about Prima’s on-stage scatting, jiving, dancing, be-bopping and other musical shenanigans. Sonny and Cher were an updated version of Louis and Keely.

Sam Butera and his talented New Orleans crew, dubbed “The Witnesses,” brought it all together. Even Prima’s cornball novelties–like “Josephina Please Don’t Lean-A on the Bell”–were now catchy, electrric swingers, held together by a modified swing beat called a “shuffle.” It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t jazz and it wasn’t dixieland. The music of Louis Prima, as defined by Butera, had elements of them all.

Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera and The Witness were a hit and took Las Vegas by storm. The Casbah Lounge at the Sahara was the spot in Vegas. Tables were impossible to come by and after-hours visits to the lounge by the headliners–which frequently included Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack co-horts–became the norm. The group signed a lucrative contract with Capital Records, had a bunch of hit records, made a movie or two and were all over television. Ed Sullivan, who employed them frequentely on his television program was fond of calling them “the hottest act in the country.”

And the songs? Venerable oldies like “That Old Black Magic,” “Just a Gigolo,” “Oh Marie,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and dozens of others were arranged by Sam Butera for maximum effectiveness, utilizing the skilled talents of Prima’s wild vocals and trumpet playing, Smith’s sweet singing, and on most every tune, the booting and rousing tenor saxophone of Butera.

Prima, Butera and The Witnesses remained Vegas staples–and toured the country– for years, even after the very public divorce of Keely Smith and Louis Prima in 1961. Though the hits stopped coming and audiences and tastes changed, they always had their following. In 1967, Prima, Butera and the Witnesses got a tremendous shot in the arm via their casting, albeit as cartoon characters, in Walt Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” Prima, naturally, was “King Louie,” King of the Apes. Youngsters are still mesmerized by the songs and the characters in that film today.

The man who Sam Butera called “The Chief” played his last gig in 1975, after lapsing into a coma during an operation to remove a brain tumor. Louis Prima died three years later. Butera understandably floundered a bit on his own in the beginning, and sadly, a pairing with Keely Smith didn’t work out. Vegas, of course, wasn’t the same.

But things changed with the advent of legalized casino gaming in Atlantic City in 1978. As Sam Butera and “The Wildest” (Prima widow Gia Miaone owned the name “The Witnesses” and wouldn’t allow Butera to use it), the rabble-rousing tenor man garnered an entire “new” audience who remembered and loved the music of Louis Prima. It was that Vegas excitement–every night–all over again. Butera had a fine, fine band which was seven or eight strong at one point, and for years, they were the stars of the lounge within Resorts International, often alternating with other Vegas lounge legends, The Treniers and Freddie Bell and The Bellboys. Again, everyone who was everyone came into the lounge to catch Sam Butera. Including Frank Sinatra.

Rocker David Lee Roth’s remake of Prima/Butera’s “Just a Gigolo” brought even more audiences, nationwide, to see and hear “the original,” as did The Gap’s use of the Butera arrangement of “Jump Jive and Wail.”

In 2004, Sam Butera formally retired, tired of the constant travel and having to deal with a changed Las Vegas and a changed Atlantic City. He didn’t need to work. He worked and played long and hard, and even during his last gigs at the age of 78, he played with more energy than I have ever seen on stage before or since.

I once asked, during a band break at Resorts International in the early 1980s, if there was any secret to to his longevity. “There are two things to remember,” he told me. “One is that it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice. The second is, and I love pure jazz more than anyone else, that we don’t play for critics. We play what I call happy music, and as Louis used to say, ‘We play it pretty for the people.'”

Bruce Kaminsky: Playing for a higher authority

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Bruce Kaminsky is a bassist, jazz educator, recording artist, and inventor of the popular, acoustic/electric hybrid, the KYDD bass. Since the early 1970s, when he burst on to Philadelphia’s then-bustling jazz scene as one of late bass guru Al Stauffer’s finest students, there has not been a style of music he hasn’t played. Those styles would include swing, bop, fusion, klezmer, and just about every type of world music imaginable, from Armenian to Israeli.

He has never lost sight, however, of respecting “the tradition,” whatever that musical or ethnic tradition might be. For the past several years–both independently and as director of several ensembles at Philadelphia’s Drexel University and University of the Arts–Kaminsky’s love for what he calls a “World Music/Philly-style tradition” is now geared toward a higher calling. World peace.

According to Kaminsky, “The Philadelphia Middle East music scene is steeped in a tradition crossing ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries. Greeks perform with Turks who perform with Armenians who perform with Arabs who perform with Jews. The music becomes the only issue.”

What’s left unsaid, of course, is, that if music is the only issue, there can be nothing but peace between all races, religions and creeds.

This incredibly uplifting vibration was very much in evidence at a June 3rd concert at Drexel University, entitled “Middle East Peace…Philly Style,” a program directed by Bruce Kaminsky that featured Drexel’s Mediterranean Ensemble and the Philadelphia-based Middle Eastern ensemble of Arab and Jewish musicians, “Atzilut.”

The packed, Mandell Theater house was singing, dancing, cheering and clapping throughout this touching, and yes, swinging, show. Very peacefully, of course.

Atzilut is a mini, musical United Nations, that features Hassan Jack Kessler, a Hebrew Cantor on guitar and vocals, and Maurice Chedid on Arabic vocals and ‘oud. Rounding out the group are Roger Mdgrichain on ‘oud, Joseph “Flip” Kessler on electric violin, Joseph Tayoun (son of the famous James) on doumbek, and Lenny Seidman on tabla. The group performs for the cause of peace all over the world, including, not surprisingly, at the United Nations, the Royal Opera Theater of Copenhagen and for Munich Gasteig.

The music they play, both written and in many, inventive improvisational passages, is not easy to master, given the system of micro-tones indigenous to many world music’s, and the time signatures that often veer from straight, four-four. The players, without exception, are technically astounding, and make everything sound and look simple. It’s clear that they love what they’re doing as well. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds and seats just cannot contain several of the players.

As “front men,” if that term applies in this case, Kessler and Chedid are affable and sensitive players and singers who cover a lot of international ground in their program. “Syrtos” is a composition that comes from the Jewish community of Greece. “Avram Avinu,” fmeaning, or “Abraham, our Father,” comes out of the Spanish Ladino tradition. There were solo numbers for each and a rousing Arabic/Hebrew closer called “Ranenu/Debke,” which translates roughly into, “Sing forth, all you righteous.” If only the world could be so joyous. And simple.

The second part of the evening’s concert featured Drexel’s Percussion Ensemble, also directed by Kaminsky, that had as a subtitle, “The Drum Solo” Show. Percussion ensembles, no matter what their level of talent, can sometimes be an acquired taste. This one, with accompaniment by The Drexel Brass Quintet, was refreshingly musical, with compositions that included Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission Impossible” theme, Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and the venerable “Sing Sing Sing.” The 16-strong ensemble of drum sets, marimbas, xylophones, bass drums and assorted Latin percussion was quite musical throughout, but above all, this was about fun. Remember, that’s why it’s called “playing.”

On a personal note, I’ve known Bruce Kaminsky personally and professionally for over 30 years. It occurred to me, while sitting in the audience and experiencing all this, that his June 3rd event represented the absolute fruition of virtually everything he’s been doing, musically and otherwise, for the last 30 or so years. Indeed, his idealism and dedication has helped catapult his singular musical vision to the level of a much higher calling.

Those on stage and in the audience had no doubt that all of us can work, live and exist peacefully together. After all, as Bruce Kaminsky has said, “The music becomes the only issue.”

For further information on Bruce Kaminsky, log on to
For more info on Atzilut,” visit
Drexel University music programs can be accessed on the web via

Benny Goodman’s 100th: Long Live the King

Monday, June 1st, 2009

On May 30, 2009, Benny Goodman, a.k.a. “The King of Swing,” would have been 100 years old. There were and are several Goodman tributes, including a BBC Radio “Centenary” episode, concerts by Paquito D’Rivera, the Boston Symphony and a Lincoln Center “Jazz for Young People” show entitled “Who is Benny Goodman?”

There are several players and leaders out there who do ensure that the Goodman legacy continues. Ken Peplowski (who will do a Goodman tribute concert at The Rochester Jazz Festival on June 13), Brooks Tegler, and especially Loren Schoenberg — who could and should write the definitive Benny Goodman story—are three who immediately come to mind. And Schoenberg, by the way, paid tribute to BG, and Lester Young, via several, recent WGBO radio programs. While all this is great stuff, it seems to me that there should be more, given the scope of Benny Goodman’s fame and more than substantial contributions. But memories fade as time goes on, so maybe we should be thankful for any tributes at all.

As much a part of the Goodman legend, if there is such a thing, is the not-so-fondly-remembered issue of his personality. Though I don’t like getting involved in the personal lives of any celebrity, the Goodman “personality,” or lack of it, is just so darn amusing and very, very public, that it just cannot be ignored. Especially on BG’s 100th.

One of Goodman’s biographers, perhaps James Lincoln Collier (and whatever happened to him?) once pointed out that, in all probability, not a day goes by without a story being told about the enigmatic behavior of BG. (Buddy Rich stories are another issue.) Gene Lees’ essential “Jazzletter” devoted a bunch of past issues to what went down on the famed tour of Russia in 1962, and Bill Crow’s “Jazz Anecdotes” retold some of the more infamous stories.

The one I particularly like is the one told in the late, Peter Levinson’s great biography of Tommy Dorsey, published in 2005, entitled “Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way.”

As the story goes, BG was doing a gig somewhere on November 27, 1956, the day after Dorsey died. One of Goodman’s sidemen told Benny the news about TD’s tragic and unexpected death. “Benny, I hate to tell you this bad news, “ the sideman related, “but Tommy Dorsey just died.” The King’s reply? “Is that so?” he said. You’ve got to love it.

Another frequently-told story through the years that has again been making the rounds of the internet, is pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg’s hilarious tale of the evening Goodman sat in with Gene Krupa’s Quartet at The Metropole Cafe’ in New York city. Track that one down. It’s a riot.

I haven’t related my personal Benny Goodman story in years. In line with the 100th birthday business, this seems like an appropriate time to retell it.

In the mid-1980s, I had the bright idea of writing a biography of Gene Krupa, which later became “World of Gene Krupa: That Legendary Drummin’ Man,” published in 1990 and still in print via Pathfinder Publishing of California. For an unpublished author writing about someone relatively forgotten back then, the project was an uphill battle from the start. Still, I forged ahead, and though a good deal of the book was a compilation of edited, previously published materials, I obviously had to get some first-person interviews to give the project some credibility. When I started, I had no publisher and not much of anything else, other than my credentials as a drummer and newspaper editor, but players like Teddy Wilson, Eddie Wasserman, Carmen Leggio, John Bunch, Charlie Ventura, and later, Mel Torme’ (who wrote a wonderful introduction to the book, where he revealed that Gene was, in fact, Goodman’s absolute, favorite drummer of all time) were just marvelous to me.

But it was always in the back of my mind that any book about Krupa just had to have an interview with one, Benjamin David Goodman.

My plan was this: Find the New York phone number and ask BG’s’ long-time secretary, who I believe was still Muriel Zuckerman, if there was a chance at setting up a future phone interview. Goodman’s office number was listed, and having heard all the stories about this strange guy through the years, and the fact that he remained one of my musical idols, I really had to get some serious courage going before I dialed the phone.

Zuckerman answered the telephone, and I did not misrepresent my credentials or the project’s status. “I’m writing a book about Gene Krupa,” I told her, “and I was just wondering…next to setting up an interview with God, how difficult would it be to set a time to do a five-minute phone interview with Mr. Goodman?”

Always the merry prankster, I thought injecting a bit of humor into the proceedings might help pave the way.

“You’d have a better chance with God,” Zuckerman replied, and then asked if she could put me on hold for a moment.

Several moments later, someone picked up a telephone extension and said, “Hello?”

The voice was instantly recognizable. It was “Him.” I was not prepared for this at all.

“Mr. Goodman, I’m writing a book about one of your friends and colleagues, Gene Krupa, and I was wondering if I could set up a time to talk to you over phone about him for a few minutes,” I related.

“Well…what kind of questions do you want to ask?” was BG’s reply.

Man, was I on the spot, as I had absolutely nothing prepared, but I thought I came up with something reasonably intelligent.

“I’ve always wanted to know something, Mr. Goodman,” I answered while stalling for time. “You played with Gene at the very beginning of his career, and you played with him at the very end. Maybe you could explain the difference in how he accompanied you through the years.”

I thought that was a great question, and I still do. I’ll remember Goodman’s comments until the day I die.

“He played pretty much the same,” he explained. “He was rather consistent. As you know, he started with me and then formed his own band, which was rather successful. When did you say he died?”

“He died in 1973,” I told him.

“How old was he when he died,” asked BG.

“He was 64 years old, Mr. Goodman.”

“My, that was rather young, wasn’t it? Goodbye.”


That’s my Benny Goodman story and it was printed, verbatim, in my Krupa book. Several Goodman fans were not happy about it.

When players like Teddy Wilson gave a sensitive and intelligent analysis about how Krupa functioned—and evolved—as an accompanist and a soloist through the years, Benjamin David Goodman could only relate that Krupa’s playing “was pretty much the same” over a 40-plus year span.

But as one wag –who heard all the stories and more through the years—once put it: “Yeah, but he sure could play that clarinet.”

Happy 100th and long live The King.

Hal Blaine at 80: 35,000 Sessions and Counting

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

It is quite probable that, to this day, Hal Blaine remains the most recorded drummer in music history. He played on 40, number one single records, 150 that made it to the top ten, and by his own estimate, played on about 35,000 recordings. Blaine virtually defined the role of the modern-day studio session drummer, and was instrumental in developing the multi-tom set-ups we see today.

Especially via his work with the much-heralded “The Wrecking Crew” with everyone from The Beach Boys and Elvis to John Denver and Phil Spector, Blaine’s roots were in jazz. He was first influenced by Krupa and Rich, played with Basie, and cut his teeth backing singers like Patti Page, The Four Freshmen, The Hi-Lo’s, and one Francis Albert Sinatra.

Blaine’s 1990 autobiography is still essential reading. In February, he celebrated his 80th birthday, and announced the formation of a Hal Blaine Scholarship Fund. To donate, visit And released last year was an award-winning documentary, The Wrecking Crew,” which tells the story of those ground-breaking studio rebels.

The following interview with Blaine was a part of a book project on the influential, early drummers of rock that for one reason or another, never happened. In this extensive interview, the still-colorful Blaine speaks of his early influences, love for jazz, work with Tommy Sands, Nancy Sinatra, Phil Spector, The Beach Boys and many more.

When did you first want to play drums?
Hal Blaine: You know, when I first realized that I wanted to play the drums, I was too young to realize that. I was a kid. I was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Nice little town. I was not around any music, although I actually had three cousins who played drums, well really, two cousins who were drummers and one who was a violinist. She was the only female who played the violin but she also played drums. I was sort of surrounded by people who played drums, but I never even thought about drums. I moved to Hartford. Connecticut when I was about seven or eight years old, and like so many Jewish boys, I was put into a Hebrew school to study for my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13 years old. During that period, from about nine to 12, 13 years old, I had an old rocking chair that my mother had, and I used to take the top of it off and take the doweling, which was on the back, and they became drum sticks for me. And I started fooling around like that. Our Hebrew school was right across the street from a Catholic school, which I think was Saint Anthony’s and they had a marching band. They had bugle, snare drum (being played by) young kids and I use to watch them all the time after Hebrew school. I would go out back and watch these kids playing and marching and the priest used to see me, so he came over to talk to me a few times and I told him I fool around on drums. He invited me in. All of sudden I became the only Jewish drummer in the Catholic brigade, which was kind of funny. My parents didn’t mind. The loved the idea. At least I wasn’t in the streets causing any trouble. And I liked being a show off. All drummers are show off’s… major show off’s, When I got my first drums I was about 13. My older sister bought me my first little set of drums. It was a bass drum, cymbal and little high hat. That was my set of drums. I used to set it up on my front veranda. We lived up on the second floor. Then my dad had fashioned a kazoo with a big piece of rubber on it that went around and I could play my own songs and accompany myself on these little drums that I had. That was the first time that I sort of felt show biz, because all the kids coming home from school would stand out front and listen to me. It was very infantile, but to me, I was doing a show. Also at that time, my father worked at the Connecticut Leather Company in Hartford, Connecticut, and the place where he worked was right across the street from the State Theater in Hartford. The State Theater was one of those theaters where every band played and my dad started bringing me there at a pretty young age. It was a quarter to get in. And the poor man could hardly afford that quarter but he would take me every Saturday morning, drop me off when he went to work at 8:00. I’d be the first one in line and when the house lights came up, I was always front and center in the theater. To this day, I can smell the powder off of the faces of the performers and I saw every major band, every major comedian, every dance act. I mean real burlesque. I saw everybody and everything. I sat there through every show every Saturday morning until maybe 9:30 at night when my dad would get off. But they would do a show, movie, show, movie, show, movie. I also got very interested in film because I’d see all these wonderful movies. So that was sort of the beginning. Then my dad was not feeling so well and the doctor said that he had some problem with his lungs. Connecticut was a major tobacco area and he told him he had to move to California to get away from this. That’s how we moved to California and I was about 15. We moved to Los Angeles and lived with my uncle and auntie for a while. Then I moved down to San Bernardino, California, where I moved in with my other sister, my sister Belle. It was one of those housing projects that was very cramped and we were surrounded by mostly black folks. I got to know a lot of the black musicians who would invite me in to fool around with them. We were still kids, 15, 16. One of my best friends, a kid by the name of Bob Kaminski, was the first kid I met in California when I moved to San Bernardino. Same birthday. Same age. Same date. We’ve been friends ever since to this day. Bob sort of became a singer with the band. He sang great. And he loved to sing, so I had this little band I finally put together; this little, four, five, six-piece band. We would play these little jobs for $5.00 and a chicken dinner. I use to attend all the jam sessions down in the black neighborhood. Place called JD’s Rose Room. Playing there I got to jam once with Dizzy Gillespie, for an example. That was the stuff that I loved. be-bop was coming in and I loved be-bop. I loved jazz. I loved swing. Gene Krupa was my main influence. Buddy Rich was my second main influence at the time when I was a kid. When I grew up, I went into the service. From San Bernadino I went to Korea. Spent almost three years, came back, took my GI bill and went to Chicago. Studied with Roy Knapp at the Roy Knapp School of Percussion, which was Gene Krupa’s alma mater. Louie Bellson was there. A lot of fine drummers. Buddy Harmon from Nashville was there.

From the studying in Chicago, and that was eight hours a day of school, then I happened to get a job in a strip club that was eight hours, from eight at night until four in the morning. I used to go from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon to school, try to do a little homework and practice in between. At eight p.m. I was on stage with a trio, playing for these strippers. Now my name got around. There were a lot of strip clubs in Chicago and I probably worked all of them. I finally wound up at one place called The Post Time Club. And it was one of those clubs that was owned by “dez, dems and doze guys”. They owned all the clubs. They were known as The Outfit and it was plain and simple, they were all Italian, they were all Outfit. They took a liking to me. One of the owners, Little Vince, was always loaded with armor and he actually was fooling around with drums himself. He caught me in the office one time. He had a set of drums there. He had been practicing. Then I found out he had played with Harry James.

My main reading experience started happening when I was backing up all these strippers. There were 10 or 12 strippers every night, sometimes not the same ones. You had to sight read their music and most of them had music. Of course, at the strip club you had the slow song, medium song and a fast song. I had gotten a lot of great experience sight reading. Reading became second nature to me. As I have said through the years when I do clinics, a lot of drummers are afraid to read music and I try to explain that reading music is no different then reading the newspaper. When you first start out, and you are saying “The man ran.” But all that becomes second nature. You don’t even think about when you’re reading music. You’re reading in bits and spurts of whatever the lick happens to be. You don’t have to start thinking “eight-one-e- and- a two- e and-a”. It’s nothing like that. You’re reading automatically and unconsciously. That’s especially important with big bands. The other thing that I try to tell drummers, is to get a hold of the trumpet parts, the saxophone parts, the trombone parts, see what these guys are playing. Make little notes on your own music to catch some of their stuff. So little by little, that’s exactly what happens.

I went back to California after school, graduated and started working with little bands around San Bernardino . There was a very fine disc jockey that known as “Bill the Bellman,” who played a lot of pop music, swing music, jazz music, and they had a little studio at the radio station. He had heard me playing with a couple of these little bands and he asked me if I would come in and do some demos with him, which I did, and those were my first real recordings. He had a record company called Rocket. I think it was Rocket Records and Melody House Records. He had several labels. Boy, I was really hooked on recording. Once again, the show off drummers, they want to hear themselves and like anything else, once you have had enough experience and know what not to play, that’s the big thing once you finally get into the studios. I moved back into Los Angeles and started working with just a group of guys nobody had ever heard of. Glenn Campbell, Leon Russell and Tommy Tedesco were just a bunch of nice guys. There were no drugs by the way. We were making demos for everybody. Glenn Campbell could sound like anybody. And in those days the record business was centered on songwriters wrote songs for particular artists. If you wanted a Nat King Cole, you wrote a Nat King Cole song. You made a demo of that song and then there were song pluggers who would take that demo to Nat Cole or his producers at Capitol. Nat Cole would hear the record and if he liked the song he would record the song and it would go on the air. Little by little, and the timing couldn’t have been better, there was a thing called rock and roll that was starting to infiltrate the music business. Most of the drummers in Hollywood– and this was in 1956, 1957, 1958–hated the name rock and roll. They refused to play rock and roll. Naturally, when producers decided they wanted to make a rock and roll record, they were calling the guys that were making the rock and roll demos. All of a sudden, we started working with Sam Cooke, H. B. Barnum (sp), Joe Saracino, and different people around Los Angeles. They were putting names to groups, and we became–I can’t even remember all of the silly names–The Four Fabs, whatever. They were putting records out and they were hits. Pretty soon, all the big movies studios wanted rock and roll in some of their movie scores. They started calling us “The Wrecking Crew.”

How influential to you was your early association with singer Tommy Sands, in terms of making the transition from straight ahead jazz drummer to developing a rock concept?

Hal Blaine: There was a young gentleman who was being managed by Colonel Parker. His name was Tommy Sands. No one had ever heard of Tommy. Colonel Parker, of course, was managing Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley had just gone into the service. Tommy Sands was offered a singing part in a movie. It was a big hit called “The Singing Idol”. All of a sudden, he needed a rock band. As a matter of fact, they called it rock-a-billy. Tommy Sands was from Houston originally, and he was kind of a country singer. He had played guitar and he was just the nicest kid in the world. It happened that one of these Mafia type guys came to me, saw me playing at the Garden of Allah in Hollywood. This was a very, very famous nightclub in Hollywood. I was working with a jazz trio. This guy came to me and said, “ I’ve got this young man and he has an audition for Capital Records and we need a drummer. I said, “What’s the music? “ He said, “Well it’s rock-a-billy, it’s country.” I said, “You know, I haven’t had a lot of experience in that.” This guy said, “Well, it’s really rock and roll.” Well, I’d been listening to rock and roll, and all I heard were after beats and bass drum. So I said, “I’m really not interested.” He said, “Would you be interested in just doing the audition? I’ll give you $50 bucks or $75 bucks, just come in and audition. I know that you’ll fit in with the group. And once that they say ‘yes’ and they sign him, then you can go on and do your thing.” So I said, “Okay!”

I went to the Algiers Hotel, then on South Vine Street and met Tommy Sands and these two guys, Eddie Edwards and Leon Bagwell. Young kids, right out of Texas. I mean they talked that Texas talk. You can always tell a Texan…but not very much! I sat and kind of played, rehearsed with them for just a few minutes. They were just the nicest kids in the world. And I was playing rock-a-billy. Tommy came in and we rehearsed. Tommy said “You’ll be fine for the group.” I didn’t want to say anything to him, that I wasn’t going to be with the group, but we started talking about this that and the other. It turns out that Tommy Sands tells me his real name is Tommy Sancheck and a bell went off in my head. My piano teacher in Chicago was Benny Sancheck. He was Tommy’s father. So we immediately had a mutual love society going and they offered me a lot of money to play with him and travel with him, to conduct at times, and to be road manager at times. We went all over the world a number of times and played. We just had a wonderful time. At that time, Tommy had met Nancy Sinatra. We were playing at the Ambassador Hotel, The Coconut Grove, where I recently did a movie with Jim Carrey, “Man on the Moon.” We all met Nancy Sinatra that night. I guess Nancy and Tommy fell in love and before you knew it, they got married. Prior to the marriage, Nancy traveled with us, and during those travels, her mother was always with us. We always referred to her as “Big Nancy.” Sweetheart of a lady. And during that period was when I met Frank Sinatra for the first time. That’s a whole ‘other book or a whole other story. I stayed with Tommy until he went into the service, then I joined Patti Page. With Tommy, all these arrangements that we had, it was just a little bit of rock and roll, but all arranged for big band. Just cookin’ stuff. There’s a great album we did called “Sands at the Sands”. Thank goodness for the experience that I had playing big bands and admiring big bands. That was my meat. While I was with Tommy, I did a couple of weeks with Count Basie, when Count’s drummer, Sonny Payne, wasn’t able to play. I had already been playing the show and Count Basie talked to me about filling in, and I said, “Sure.” It was one of the greatest times of my life playing with that band. Of course Louie Bellson played with him, everybody played with him. It was a wonderful, wonderful time. When I joined Patti Paige. Patti was singing, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” but she also had some great big band arrangements. She was on Columbia Records. Meanwhile, I was recording at Capital, which was my first major recording with Tommy Sands. I started recording at Columbia with Patti Paige. Patti’s then husband, Charles O’Curran, was a major choreographer at Paramount. He put me with Elvis. I spent four years doing movies with Elvis and also did his 1968 comeback special. It was during that period I kind of fell into it. It’s almost like a family. People get to know you. They know you’re responsible and you’re re reliable and that’s what rock and roll always meant to me. R & R meant responsible and reliability. They knew that I would be there on time to the next job. Anyway, working with Elvis and with Patti and with Tommy Sands, the word got around, who is the rock and roll drummer?

The developing of the concept to play rock and roll, was that difficult? How much work was that for you to become comfortable at rock and roll?

Hal Blaine: I would say that for me to become comfortable at rock and roll was absolutely overnight. It was nothing. It was just a matter of knowing what a song was, knowing what it was all about. Listening to the lyrics. Within a very short time, Phil Spector starting calling all these major producers in Hollywood. Earl Palmer, God bless him, was so jammed and busy with work, that he was throwing work to me all the time. That’s how so many of those people got to know me. Rock and roll was just another word for playing the drums. I was just playing the drums. I would listen to certain records on the radio. When I would hear a record and they were calling it rock and roll, I would listen to the drummer and he was just playing straight eights or dotted eights, whatever the feel was. There were only two feels of music: Straight eights or dotted eights. That was it. Many of the big drummers in Hollywood refused to play what they called “That loud, lousy crap.” I’ll tell you something. Within six months these guys were all calling me. “Can I come to one of your sessions? I want to see what you do”. That’s the way it was.

Who were the other players at that time that were doing the work?

Hal Blaine: Well when I got to LA, there was Irv Cottler. He was Frank Sinatra’s drummer. There was the guy with Les Brown, Jack Sperling, who was a wonderful big band drummer. Mel Lewis was there, and Shelly Manne, of course. Shelly and I became very good friends. He was a sweetheart. Larry Bunker, one of the great big band, be-bop drummers. Gene Estes.

So really at this point, there really was nobody, except for Earl, playing rock and roll in the studios. Were there any other drummers playing rock and roll in the studios?

Hal Blaine: There were several guys that were playing rock and roll in the studios. Earl Palmer. Sharkey Hall was great little drummer. I got to meet all these people, got to know all these people and we were all friends. We were in the same union. We would see each other at the union or sometimes pass each other in the hallways, in the studios. Somebody would be in Studio A and I would be in C and somebody would be in B. We would yak this way and that way. We were all friends. A lot of people thought that there was a terrible competition going. There really wasn’t. Not at all. It turned out I had my accounts, Earl had his accounts, Sharkey had his accounts. There were several other drummers.

There were a lot of guys of the old school that were sort of being phased out by us. When we came along, a lot of people asked me how we got the name The Wrecking Crew? Very simply, all the old established musicians with the three-piece suits, use to see us come into a date, wearing a pair of Levi’s and a tee shirt, smoking cigarettes, maybe unshaven, and they would say, “These kids are going to wreck the business.” I just automatically started calling us The Wrecking Crew. I finally had to have a secretary. She would book all the people. They would call my secretary and they’d say, “We need The Wrecking Crew.” She knew who to call, etc. It wasn’t always exactly the same guys but there were quite a bunch of guys that were all great musicians and if one wasn’t available the next one was, and so forth. They were all “A” players. Nobody was second or third or fourth string players. All the guys were really very, very good. They were very sober and reliable.

It’s a strange thing. Things will happen in the recording industry. I have a picture of four of the officials at Warner Brothers/Reprise. I have this beautiful picture of them handing me four Gold Records and they were for Frank Sinatra and Nancy Sinatra and I forget who else. Beautiful picture. When I went to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas with Nancy Sinatra, we did a great show, an incredible show there, and it became an Ed Sullivan special. At one point, there’s a solo that I do on a song called “Drummer Man” that Nancy did, beautiful, she did it gorgeous. At the end of the song, as she was coming down, she’s getting ready to appear on stage again, and she says, “Hal was very instrumental in one of the records that I did that was such a big hit for me. Hope you like it and we go into “Boots.” “These Boots Were Made for Walking” was a song written by Lee Hazelwood. Billy Strange conducted. It was like yesterday. Richie Frost claims he did that record. Jim Gordon, a fine drummer, claims he did that record. I have a contract. I have the Gold Record. I have Nancy saying on the Ed Sullivan Show that I did and yet these guys continue. I don’t know. And I have often said, “I don’t care, they can say anything they want to say.” It really doesn’t bother me. I know what I did, and I was the drummer on “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I was her drummer and Lee Hazelwood’s drummer. Lee Hazelwood took me to France. We did shows all around the world with these people. And Nancy has referred to me as her drummer man for as long as I’ve known her, 40 years maybe. Just did this big beautiful show with Nancy at the Whiskey A Go-Go with Eric Burdon and The Animals. Now about 35 years ago, I was one of the guys that sort of opened the Whiskey A Go-Go with Johnny Rivers. We did his first live album there. After all these years the Whiskey A Go-Go is still the one Hollywood spot where all the major stars want to play. It’s just a big old nightclub, and they use to have girls up in birdcages doing the twist and dancing and so forth. It was quite a place.

Getting back to drummers. Drummers are either going to learn to accompany or they are going to be soloists. I have never been a soloist. I am an accompanist. I want to hear a song and I play the song the way I feel it. Fortunately for me, being the rock and roll guy at the beginning of rock, people use to say to me, “Just do your thing. We want a hit.” They didn’t want to bother me. I remember one time I was scared to death. I had my first call at 20th Century Fox. I had been working at other major studios, but there was something about 20th Century Fox, Lionel Newman, who was known to be one of the toughest guys in the business and a great conductor, was the head of music at 20th Century Fox. We went out there to do some little cue. There was one place where a couple people were driving in a car, they turn on the radio and you hear all this wild rock and roll music, just for a couple of seconds, Boom, then they shut it off. That’s why we, The Wrecking Crew, were hired. We played this wild and crazy rock and roll. At Fox Studios, they did all these epics and all these sagas with 150 piece orchestras, and they used two microphones. It was beautiful. But rock and roll is not two microphones. There was a producer there who said to me, “Hal, we’re not getting that rock and roll sound that we hear on the radio, you know, that you guys do”. I said, “Well you know, one of the problems is they have one microphone on a very short stand about four or five feet in front of me, and one or two overheads for the rest of the band. It was five, six, seven guys. I said, “You’re not getting the sound because it’s not isolated.” And I didn’t know that much technically about it, but I was learning. He said, “What can we do? I said, “Usually, there’s one overhead just over me to pick up everything. There’s one on the snare drum. There’s one on the bass drum, and maybe one or two in front of the guys over here.This old man, his name was Hal, came up screaming, “Are you crazy? We don’t have those kinds of inputs. We can’t do those kinds of things. What are you trying to pull here?” I said, “Excuse me.” I felt so bad because Lionel Newman was standing and you could see the smoke coming out of his ears saying to himself, “Why did I ever get these idiots in here?” I told him, “Sir, all I’m doing is telling this gentleman that what we do in the other studios. I realize that you don’t have the inputs.” Well, they fooled around with jerry-rigging something, and they got it and it came out perfect. From that day on I was getting calls practically every other day from 20th Century Fox. I was doing “Batman” and all these series that they were doing. All of a sudden I was the rock and roll drummer. They didn’t know any other rock and roll drummers. So it was pretty amazing.

How about The Wrecking Crew’s sessions with Phil Spector? ( (Note: This interview was conducted long before Spector’s legal problems.)

Hal Blaine: Many people ask me about Phil Spector. The mystic mystery of Phil Spector. Whenever we did a Phil Spector date, and as I recall it was usually a Friday night because we would sometimes go half the night, it was always a big party. A major party. There was a big sign on the door “Gold Star” (studios). And by the way, every Tuesday morning I had breakfast with the Goldstar gang, It was the “Goldstar Breakfast Gang.” There is no longer a Goldstar Studios–but Dave Gold, Stan Ross, Larry Levin, Randy Van Horn and some of the producers and singers who worked there– we get together every Tuesday morning and reminisce and kibitz about Gold Star and about the business in general. Anyway, there was a big sign on the front door, whenever Phil recorded, that said “Closed Session.” But anyone that stuck their head in and peeked in, Phil would grab them, drag them into the studio and say, “Hal give them a tambourine. Give them a cowbell, castanets, whatever.” We always had 15 percussionists, just guys smacking and cracking, including Sonny Bono, who was not a percussionist. I use to give him a tambourine or cowbell or a something.

How big was this band?

Hal Blaine: Our band at Gold Star was myself and generally rhythm sections with piano, bass, drums, guitar. We would have four, five, six, seven guitars. We would have three, sometimes four basses. There were always four keyboard players, playing regular, upright, tack, electric. I never knew how Phil used to work on this stuff. A lot of the producers would come by just to see how he made records. They use to use this phrase, they wanted to see how Philip “sprinkled the fairy dust over the record and made it gold.” Phil Spector was the talk of Hollywood. We were doing the Blossoms, of course, the singers who did “Bobby Socks and the Blue Jeans.”(Note: The Blossoms recorded under various names, including Bob B. Sox and Blue Jeans) featuring the high tenor lead of Bobby Sheen). We were doing, of course, the Ronnettes. and Phil had actually been married to one of the young girls of the Ronnettes. Cher was singing backgrounds. It was an amazing assembly of people, and once again they were the top musicians. Ray Pullman was always on bass. Lyle Ritz upright. Jimmy Bond upright. Carol Kaye would be on guitar, along with Tommy Tedesco. There’s nobody finer than Tommy Tedesco. Some of the great jazz players were sitting there playing with Phil like Herb Ellis, Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel. All the greats. And Phil played the piano and also played guitar. He loved all these guys and these were the guys that he would call. We always had Steve Douglas on saxophone. Jay Migliore on baritone sax. Jim Horn sometimes on tenor. We had all the great horn players. This was two-track. This was years ago. Larry Levin, the engineer, had a way of getting us all on there. And it was rather a small studio. We were packed in there like sardines. This was the Wrecking Crew, while Phil called it his “Wall of Sound.” Everybody called it the “Wall of Sound.” One of the reasons for their great sound was they were one of the first studios to have a natural echo chamber built up in the attic somewhere, some kind of cement chamber. They could turn on that echo, and this is long before electronics and everybody had echo. It was pretty amazing. Leon Russell would be on piano, Don Randion piano. Al Delari , who became a big producer at Capital on piano. Larry Necktel on piano, the guy that got the Grammy for the introduction on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that we did with Simon and Garfunkel. These guys were all super players.

Everything we did with Spector was a hit. They were all Gold and Platinum records, and that included the last stuff with John Lennon prior to his death. People ask me quite often about how I got the sound on my drums in those days. It was just a normal, four-piece set. I had a snare, small tom, which was a 12, a floor tom, 16ish. One of the things that I did for Phil was I rarely used any cymbals. I played my bass drum, which was a normal 22 bass drum with a head on each side, and a little dampening on each head. I was using calf heads. What we did was, every backbeat was snare and floor tom, I was giving them the highs and lows of the backbeats. That was something that Phil liked. That’s something I did always with Phil. In fact, I always did it with the Beach Boys, but the snare drum was not quite as high as the Beach Boys. There was a lick that I played that I became famous for, and that was on a song called “Be My Baby.” Every drummer in the world was playing that lick somewhere after that record came out. People ask me about that lick. I did a record with Frank Sinatra called “Strangers in the Night,” I did the same lick. Drum parts were never written for me. In the case of this lick, when we were doing that record, it’s very possible that when somebody pushed the record button and said, “Here we go,” I may have missed that second beat. So anytime I make a mistake, I will continue that mistake. It’s happened to all drummers, obviously. But that mistake was one of the wildest things that ever happened to me.

How about Jan and Dean?

Hal Blaine: Jan and Dean were a couple of young very handsome guys who were doing nothing but selling records. Earl Palmer and I were doing double drums with them. We use to sit and write our parts out identically. Same tom-tom licks, same snare lick. Anything we did was done in unison. Came out great. That’s the way Jan wanted it, Nobody knows why or anything about it. They were major hits, “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and all those records. At one point, they had a lot of hits and 20th Century Fox came along and they wanted to do a(television series, “Jan and Dean on the Run,” something like that. Jan Berry was a medical student. Dean Torrence was studying architecture. They were both going to USC. They called me and said, “We’ve got a chance to do this television pilot for 20th and we want you to play our road manager and drummer on the show.” I said, “Sure, of course.” We had talked about this before but I had been working in some film as an actor. I worked at Disney and Paramount. I was working with Sal Mineo, a wonderful kid who was quite the drummer himself. He had done “The Gene Krupa Story.” Sal and I became pretty good friends, I was photo doubling for Sal and doing some stunts and doing some bits in this some “Z”movie. “On the Run”was about a couple of young guys, Jan and Dean, on the road, playing concerts. At one point, we did a free concert in San Diego for about 5,000 screaming kids and I brought the whole band down from LA. Now we had filmed all over the country, but this happened to be a concert in San Diego, one of the big concert halls, and I do happen to have that on film. (My character) was called Clobber the Drummer, and I had a running gag where their manager would say, “Clob, you got the music?” I would always say, “Have I got the music?” Like, leave me alone. He was a very nervous guy, this guy, Clobber. “You got the music? Have I got the music?” Just as we were getting on the airplane or whatever, they would cut to me running away. “ Clob, where are you going?” “ I forgot the music.” That type of thing. It really was very cute. We got all signed contracts at 20th. We were going to be big stars. We did this concert at the end of this run and this crew was with us through the entire pilot. William Asher was the director. He was also married to Elizabeth Montgomery. She also did a cameo in it. We shot all over the place. I brought the band down, The Wrecking Crew, and we had one heck of a band. It was a blowing band. All these guys are great players. I saw it not long ago. All the guys in the crew, they only knew me as an actor. They were coming to me and saying, “Hal, how did you learn how to play the drums like that, so quick, for this concert?” I had a double bass drum set up like Louie Bellson’s set up. Eventually they realized that I was a drummer, really not an actor. We had all signed contracts, we were going to be stars, they were picking me up in a limo every day. Then Jan had his accident. Not to get too gory, but he went under a truck in his little Corvette, He was pronounced dead on the scene. Someone kind of noticed some life and they got him, they brought him back, but unfortunately he was in a coma, for God, I don’t know how long. I use to go there every Saturday and I would just talk to him as if he could hear me. That was the end of the show. That was the end of everything. He did survive. To this day, they still go out as Jan and Dean. They have a fan club. Jan is completely crippled one side, almost like a stroke victim. But one side does not work. He’s married to a very nice gal, Gertrude, who’s been taking care of him. Every now and then he calls.

A lot of people ask me about the Beach Boys. I think it is common knowledge that I played on just about all of their hit records. It kind of ties in with Phil Spector. as so many of those things tied in with the various producers, conductors and arrangers. Brian Wilson use to come to the Phil Spector sessions a lot, because any time Phil Spector called a session, it went around town like wild fire. Everybody knew that Friday night, Phil Spector was going to be at Goldstar with the band, so a lot of people used to want to be there and see it and catch it. Brian was no exception. Evidently, Brian was driving the car one day and had heard “Be My Baby, ” and it blew his mind. He said, “That’s the greatest record I have ever heard,” and to this day, he still says that. He went through finding out who it was and all of a sudden, he showed up at Goldstar and wanted to meet Phil Spector. Phil let him sit there and watch. Most of us at the time, were already working with The Four Freshman, The Hi-Lo’s, The Lettermen, these various great groups. They all had hit records. When we went in and worked with Brian, we were never hearing final vocals. We just heard some humming or something. Brian was trying to explain the record to us. It was all in his head. He would have a chord chart, just a map. Start here, stop here, another stop here and here’s an ending. This is what chord charts were anyway with most arrangers. Lot of the biggest name arrangers would give us chord charts and say, “Do your own thing. You have carte blanche. Just make me a hit record,” because we did. Brian called me and we became very, very friendly, very close. He used to come to my house all the time. He would put my little daughter Shelly on his knee and he would play the piano and bounce her up and down. It was just a wonderful time. Brian was totally together, just absolutely together. Now, we would never see the other guys. Once in a while I would see Dennis, the brother, the drummer, to see what we were doing. Or he’d say, “ I need a set of drums on certain day, we’re doing a concert.” People ask all the time, “Wasn’t Dennis upset that you played on the record?” Dennis was never upset. First of all, whenever we were doing sessions, and we were making $35, $40.00 in the afternoon, that night, Dennis would be on stage making $35,000, $40.000.00.

That afternoon, Dennis was out on his motorcycle or his boat. He was doing something with some gorgeous lady somewhere, maybe getting married. He lived on a 45 degree angle. I mean, I always knew that Dennis was going to be in deep trouble some day because he was just one of those guys. He just led with his forehead. Yet he really was a brilliant piano player. He wrote some wonderful songs. He was happy that I was doing the sessions and the proof of the pudding is he hired me to do his solo album. “Pacific Coast Blue,” or something like that

Some years later, Brian was writing all these songs. Once again with Brian, it was always “Fun, Fun, Fun,” just like we did that record. It was always fun. We just had a ball. One of the ingredients for hit records for all of us was having fun and making a record feel good. If a record felt good, and by then they were into four track and eight track, if a record felt good, they could fix a glitch. If something went wrong somewhere, they could always fix that. With Brian, he had it all in his head. Out of nowhere we did “Good Vibrations”, and out of nowhere he wanted a theremin. None of us had ever even heard of a theremin. I had to go find a theremin player. There was a bona fide player, a Mr. Tanner, who played the theremin on records. We all thought he was nuts, and we didn’t know what it was. When we did “Good Vibrations”, we did it in so many sections, I don’t know how many sessions we did, but we would go in and we would sit down and Brian would give us some sheets and we would run through it once, maybe twice. Brian would say “Thank you,” and he would leave. That was the three hour, 12 minute session. The next time it might be four hours. He was putting these sections together for the song “Good Vibrations”, which even the Beatles and so many people said that the way he put this stuff together was just incredible. And we never heard the vocals, but I do know that, often times, Jan sang on Beach Boys records and often times, Beach Boys sang on Jan and Dean records. Big family, same studio. But once again, it was fun. We went for a feel. If it felt good it was going to be a hit. I’ll tell ya, almost everything we touched turned to gold. We were so fortunate to have been working with these people. We walked in on the Byrds one day, being produced by Terry Melcher, who happened to be the son of Doris Day. Terry was a very fine producer and he got a job at Columbia Records. Everybody said, “Oh Doris Day got this kid a job this kid, what are they going to do?” Well, he came in and we did a record called “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It probably took Columbia Records out of the hole if they were in a hole. Terry was one of those sweethearts and everything he touched turned to gold. It was just amazing to think about how young some of these people were. Terry was about 17, 18 and in those days.”