New tidings from the world of McConvilliana — always delightful and surprising!

Leo Jr. told me at our last meeting that his father was famous not only for his beautiful lead playing but also for his mastery of half-valve playing!  Who would have thought Leo McConville a precursor of Rex Stewart’s BOY MEETS HORN?

And — on a more personal note — Leo Jr. said that his father had a substantial and beautiful HO train layout, complete with wooden houses, in a large upstairs room in their three-story house.  Leo Sr. was so proud of his autographed photographs that he had built picture molding for top and bottom, up at the ceiling and running around the four walls of the room, his pictures there on display.

Thus I am happy, in some small way, to recreate that display in installments on JAZZ LIVES.

A less happy story concerns Leo Sr.’s terror of bridges (I’ve also heard that his fears included high buildings) — so much so that his fellow passengers would have to lock him in the car trunk when they went over a bridge.  The solution seems as painful as the problem, but I can’t say — bridges aren’t one of my phobias.  It is possible that the only way Leo could endure going over a bridge would be in an utterly dark place where he couldn’t see what terrified him.

But enough of such matters.

Here’s another half-dozen friends of Leo — some famous, some whose name in the autograph calls up some dim recognition, some obscure.

Let’s start with someone who used to be famous, although you’d have to be a film buff or of a certain age to recognize him instantly:

The publicity still is from later in Powell’s life — did Leo meet him while playing in a radio orchestra, or had their paths crossed earlier, when Powell was a hot banjoist / guitarist (and perhaps cornetist, saxophonist) and singer in hot dance bands — including the Royal Peacock Orchestra and the Charlie Davis Orchestra?

Next, someone far less well-known these days:

The man above is Canadian-born, a saxophonist and bandleader — someone Leo would have known in radio.  He had connections to Sam Lanin and Bing Crosby, and made a few records with an all-saxophone ensemble that backed Seger Ellis on disc.  Or so I think — but there’s another man with the same name, born in 1897, died in 1978, whom I’ve read was “born in Watertown, New York.  Attended Clarkson Institute of Technology.  Teacher of Larry Teal. First American saxophonist to teach regulated vibrato and founder of the New York school of saxophone playing.”

Please advise!

How many readers have heard anything by the tenor saxophonist Jim Crossan (one of the section on a number of OKeh hot dance recordings) much less seen a portrait of him?

Frank Parker — radio singer!  Is this the Irish tenor associated with jack Benny, Harry Richman, and Arthur Godfrey?Now, “the last word in hot” — that’s more like it as a Homeric epithet for our Leo!  The handsome tenor saxophonist here is Dick Johnson — someone who played clarinet with Red Nichols and the Red Heads.  (Obviously “good-fellowship” in those days meant that trumpet players hung out with saxophone players: Leo Jr. remembers meeting Jimmy Dorsey, who was an old friend of his father’s.)

For a perceptive piece on the Red Heads, see Andrew Sammut’s review of the Jazz Oracle reissue: http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=39412

Perceptive readers will notice that Johnson autographed his photo to “Wilbur,” which Leo Jr. said was a teasing name for his father.  I imagine (it is speculation) that Leo Sr. made it known to everyone he talked to that he really wanted to leave the music business, buy some land, and have a chicken farm.  “Wilbur” must have been the sharply-dressed New Yorkers’ nickname for a deep-down hick.

And someone I really knew nothing of:

My friend Rob Rothberg — deep jazz scholar and long-time collector — helped me out here, “The face is unfamiliar, but there was a Cecil Way who played trumpet in Charlie Kerr’s band in the mid-twenties;  I’m not sure what happened to him after that.  Leo and Cecil played alongside an up-and-coming banjoist named Eddie Lang in Kerr’s band in the early twenties.  I think I see some lip muscles, so I’ll vote for that Way.”

We are indeed known by the company we keep, and Leo had a wide range of musical friends!  Not all of them had lip muscles, but Leo was an easy-going fellow. . . .


  1. Stompy Jones

    Yes, that’s the Frank Parker who was a regular on the Wednesday night TV show “Arthur Godfrey and his Friends” in the 1950s. He specialized in singing sappy duets with Marion Marlowe.

  2. Peter Vacher

    Fascinating material, once again. I believe saxophonist Merle Johnston later moved to Los Angeles where he became the most respected saxophone teacher in the city, working with Buddy Collette, Frank Morgan, Eric Dolphy and Teddy Edwards on improvements in technique. See Buddy’s autobiography, ‘Jazz Generations’ for more about Johnston. He was an advocate of the Schillinger System and and is referred to as ‘from New York’ in BC’s book.

    Keep up the good work. Kind regards. Peter

  3. Fom “The Jazz State of Indiana” by Duncan Schiedt.
    “Dick Powell officially joined the band (Royal Peacock Orch.) as featured vocalist and part-time musician. His playing ability a this time (N.B. I guess 1926) are reputed to have been quite modest, but since the vocalist of that day was expected to be also a musician, he was obliged to sit in place and “fake” playing between songs. Later, as a member of the Charlie Davis (N.B. composer of Copenhagen) orchestra, he is said by various people to have strummed a rubber-stringed banjo (Fritz Morris says they were ukelele strings), but others claim that Dick could play passable trumpet or saxophone when given the opportunity.”
    “Offstage, Dick tried to improve his musicianship, but it was slow going, and he still largley “faked” his musical role.”

  4. Photos of the “Canadian” Merle Johnston in the Bixography forum.
    Sent by Enrico Borsetti, the “Champion Sparkers.”

    Merle is the guy with glasses sitting in front and holding a tenor saxophone.
    From Wikipedia:
    “Champion Spark Plug Hour was a music radio program sponsored by Champion. It was broadcast on New York’s WJZ and WGY during the late 1920s and early 1930s. An entry in The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio) for October 4, 1926, indicates the show aired on Tuesday afternoons at 5:00pm. [1] By 1928 they were heard Wednesday evenings at 8:00pm on the NBC Blue Network.The program featured the Champion Sparkers Male Quartet and an orchestra conducted by Gustav “Gus” Haenschen. Personnel in the band included Sam Lewis (trombone), Earl Oliver (trumpet), Merle Johnston (saxophone) and Phil Gleason. Irving Kaufman (1890-1976) was a featured vocalist with the band.”

    I don’t remember where I got this photo.

    I speculate that this photo was taken on he same day as the one dedicated to Leo by Merle. This Merle Johnston is from Canada, according to the caption with the photo.

  5. I am pretty certain that there is only one “Merle Johnson,” not two, one born in Canada, the other in Watertown. Some of the evidence comes from the 1920 US Census. The listing includes for Watertown, Jefferson County, New York, a George Johnston, age 48, born in Canada, immigrated to the US in 1905, became a citizen in 1919, described as an officer in the Salvation Army. The household included the following members of the family: wife, Mabel, born in Canada; mother in law, Marguerite Scott; and four sons and one daughter. The older three children were born in Canada, the younger two in New York. The oldest son is Merle, age 21 on the date of the census (Jan 2, 1920), described as an electrical engineer. The tird son is Leroy, age 16, later to be known as Roy Johnston, trumpet player with Ray Miller and with the California Ramblers. The SSDI lists a Merle Johnston, born Jul 20, 1898, died in Los Angeles, CA, April 1978. I have a lot of additional information which I will post in the Bixography froum in a day or two.


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