Tag Archives: Arthur Godfrey

FOR FATHER’S DAY: “THE JAZZ APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE,” by SONNY McGOWN

A touching reminiscence by my friend, jazz collector and scholar Sonny McGown:

Through our correspondence over the years and my recent YouTube posts as “Davey Tough,”  our dear host Michael became aware of my father’s musical impact on my life. Quite often many people ask “How did you discover Jazz?” My story begins in 1952 at age 5, observing my father’s music related activities.

Sonny and Mac, later in life.

His name was Monroe “Mac” McGown and his story began at age 10 in the late 1930’s when he was fascinated and captured by the radio broadcasts he heard of the great Benny Goodman band with Krupa, Stacy, James, Elman et al and he soon started collecting Swing records up until the beginning of World War II. As a result of his boyhood hobby in Chemistry, he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and became a Pharmacist’s Mate. He deployed with the U.S. Marines and eventually landed in one of the later waves of the horrific and extended battle of Okinawa. After being honorably discharged in 1946, he decided that Radio and TV electronics would be a promising career so he took correspondence classes and mastered the science. Soon he became a TV repairman and stockpiled his home with radios, TVs and various pieces of audio equipment such as turntables, amplifiers, and speakers.

His first job as a TV repairman was with the Southern Electric Appliance Company in Arlington, VA, who also sold phonograph records which necessarily enlarged his record collection and diminished his take home pay each payday. Sometime in 1950 he procured a Wilcox-Gay Home Disc recorder which allowed him to permanently capture radio and TV music broadcasts onto aluminum based acetate discs. Using his electronics skills, he wired the recorder input to the amplifier stages of the TV and radio thereby obtaining the best possible audio fidelity.

This is where my Jazz initiation begins.

Creating a record involved the constant removal of the metal shavings carved out by the heavy cutting arm. This feat was performed gently with a soft brush and without touching the disc in order to not disturb the turntable speed. Watching this process simply fascinated me and my father recognized an opportunity to stimulate my interest.  In 1952 he trained me to be the brush boy. All of a sudden, I was part of the music preservation process! Further, as fate would have it, I started to relate emotionally to the music as well. There was something captivating about it to me, particularly the rhythms and soon he made me keenly aware of artists like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey among many others.

Thanks to his instruction it wasn’t long before I was able to recognize them by sight and eventually by ear. For a kid this was truly exciting and was similar to seeing your favorite baseball player on TV whose trading card you had but in this case it was a recording that I possessed and could play over and over.

A few years later in 1955, home tape recording became commercially available and my father upgraded to a Magnecord M30 reel to reel recorder and the quality of the recordings vastly improved because there was no annoying surface noise which was inherent in the acetate disc surfaces. More technical training from my father ensued and I soon became an official tape recorder switch operator. At this point he had gained enough confidence in my ability to start and stop the recorder before and after a performance. Eventually he strategically staged a tape recorder setup in the living room, dining room, and master bedroom operational station was usually the bedroom. For upcoming program guidance, we subscribed to the weekly issue of TV Guide magazine which was pretty reliable at listing guest artists on various shows for the week so we had a good idea what to watch for music potential.

So much good Jazz was still on the air in the 1950s. Steve Allen was a serious Jazz promoter as well as an accomplished pianist and regularly featured numerous notable Jazz guests. Jackie Gleason promoted the Dorsey Brothers on “Stage Show.” NBC Monitor Radio had 15 minutes segments where they would cut away to another studio or Jazz venue and broadcast live music. Garry Moore was a big Jazz fan and had top flight talent in his “house band.” There were educational programs such as “The Subject Is Jazz” hosted by critic Gilbert Seldes, “The Stars of Jazz” series from the West Coast hosted by Bobby Troup, “The Timex All Star Jazz Concerts” were superb shows and “The 7 Lively Arts” series which included arguably the most famous Jazz TV broadcast which was the “Sound of Jazz” production. As a kid my favorite TV show was “Pete Kelly’s Blues” with the likes of Dick Cathcart, Matty Matlock, and Nick Fatool providing the background music. In hindsight, I was so fortunate to have the real time opportunity to absorb all of these wonderful sights and sounds by so many Jazz Giants including some who had just a few years left to live.

One of the best regular sources for good Jazz was the daily Arthur Godfrey Show on CBS Radio. Arthur loved Jazz and stocked his “house band” with renowned players such as Dick Hyman, Lou McGarity, Urbie Green, Remo Palmieri, Cozy Cole, and my favorite of all, clarinetist extraordinaire Johnny Mince. Each summer day for me began sitting beside our Zenith FM radio at 9 am with hopes that Johnny would be featured which happened quite often. We have some wonderful Godfrey recordings of eminent guests including Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Benny Goodman, and Erroll Garner among many others.  What a show! You can imagine how sad I felt when summer recess ended.

As you can probably tell by now I was happily hooked on this wonderful music called Jazz due to all of the paternal influence around the house between 1952 and 1958. The next logical step was to begin record collecting. Fortunately, another key person entered my life at this time: and that was my Uncle Don who was my father’s brother. I had an RCA Victor 45 rpm only stackable record changer. Unc gave me several 45 rpm records with the first being a box set of the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. He also helped me expand my nascent collection by taking me each Saturday morning to Swillers, our local record shop, and I would pick out one 45 rpm single and they all came from the RCA Gold Standard series. Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” was my favorite followed closely by Benny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp.”

Don also subscribed to the Jazztone and Columbia Record Clubs and there were new LPs arriving in the mail on a monthly basis. Eventually I expanded into LPs and my very first purchase was Columbia CL 547 titled “Jam Session Coast to Coast” with the Eddie Condon Gang representing the East Coast and the Rampart St. Paraders on the West Coast; truly one of the Classic Jazz LPs of all time. I wore out every groove on that disc!

Lastly, I must not forget my dear mother! We grocery shopped once a week and she allowed me to buy one record; yes, in those days even grocery stores sold records. Thanks to her I purchased the complete twelve volumes of “The RCA Victor Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz” which cost a whopping $0.79 cents per 10 inch LP.

Eventually, there came a point where my father and I had our musical differences; thanks in particular to the “Jam Session Coast to Coast” album. He was more of a Big and Small Band Swing fan while I was more into the Condon style. He couldn’t convince me that Benny Goodman was better than Edmond Hall and I couldn’t convince him that Wild Bill Davison could cut Louis Armstrong. It took me some time to realize of course that he was right and I was simply naïve.

On another matter, I’m still feeling guilty to this day that I broke one of his most cherished 78 rpm records. He rarely got mad but this mishap was really disappointing to him. It was Brunswick 7699 by Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. His favorite side was “Why Do I Lie to Myself About You” which is a real swinging instrumental with Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Jonah Jones. I love that record myself, but I’ve never been able to find an original replacement copy because the flip side is “Them There Eyes” by the same band but with a vocal by Billie Holiday. All of Billie’s Brunswick records are highly collectible these days and tough to find. The search goes on even though my father passed away in 1997.

One last fond memory that I truly cherish from my formative period pertains to the release of the movie “The Benny Goodman Story”. My father’s Uncle was an accomplished organist and projectionist at the McHenry Theater on Light St. in Baltimore, MD.  When the BG movie came to town we made the 45 mile trip to Baltimore where Uncle George allowed us upstairs into the projection booth to directly access the theater sound system and tape record the soundtrack in the best fidelity. I still have that reel of tape from 1955 and it plays fine today.

To this point, I have addressed the first 6 years of my Jazz foundation all of which I recall as if it were yesterday. Needless to say, we had a fabulous time building a large Jazz archive together over many years until he passed away. One of the most memorable collecting moments occurred in the mid-1960s. I went to the Discount Record Shop in Washington DC and purchased 2 LPs on the Melodeon label produced by Dick Spottswood. These LPs were the first issue of the legendary and mysterious Bill Dodge World Transcription session featuring Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan. This was unquestionably the greatest recording session with Benny and Bunny together. Also, as avid collectors, this was the kind of session that we never expected to be made available to the public. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I called him at work and he was in total disbelief. He was home in half an hour and we played those records over and over until midnight. For us, this day was like hitting the lottery!

Finally, I must note that my father influenced me in other ways that shaped the course of my life. His alternate passion for electronics lured me into that domain and we spent countless hours building AM and police band radios, repairing TVs and even making loudspeaker baffles from large cardboard boxes. These appealing projects led me to pursue a career in Electrical Engineering, working for the U.S. Navy for 35 years. Never one to be outdone, my father advanced as well by becoming a computer programmer, designing naval shipboard antennas at the Naval Research Laboratory for 40 years. As they say, “like father, like son.” I believe it was just meant to be.

Like many of you, I could go on about my Jazz influences and experiences. The way in which all of this happened has been key to much happiness in my life up to the present day. This music is joyful and comes from the heart. I can’t imagine my life without it and for that I am deeply grateful to my father in particular who fostered my musical and career paths. He didn’t push me into these realms but allowed me to naturally grow within them. As a result, my happiness still increases daily!

Sonny McGown

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S IN THE GROOVE,” or FORTY-FIVE SECONDS WITH EDDIE CONDON (1949)

If you were to take all the video footage of Eddie Condon and his bands before the early 1960s, it wouldn’t add up to an hour, and that is sad.  But this clip from a 1949 March of Time short just came up on YouTube thanks to “pappyredux,” and although I’ve seen it before, it is delightful. 

BILLBOARD’s reviewer disliked “IT’S IN THE GROOVE” and seemed bored by the shallow coverage of the history of records offered in its eighteen minutes, I don’t share that negative opinion at all: 

The actual date for this rehearsal is unknown, although a version of this assemblage — identified on the labels of the Atlantic 78 as “Eddie Condon and His N.B.C. Television Orchestra” recorded four sides for that company on May 25, 1949.  The reference to television is of course to the Eddie Condon Floor Show.  And it is tragic but true that no kinescopes of those shows have ever surfaced: we are lucky to have as much audio from those shows as we do (even though little of it ever made its way to CD — my collection exists on cassette tapes and five records issued on the Italian Queen-Disc label). 

On two of the Atlantic sides, recorded on May 29, 1949 in New York City, the band played rather undistinguished scored background (arranged by Dick Cary, I would guess) for the new singer Ruth Brown — those titles are IT’S RAINING and SO LONG.  The recording band was composed of Bobby Hackett, trumpet; Will Bradley, trombone; Dick Cary, Eb alto horn; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Ernie Caceres, baritone sax; Joe Bushkin, piano; Eddie Condon,guitar; Jack Lesberg, bass; Sidney Catlett, drums. 

The other two sides (a 78 I now have in my collection again, thanks to David Weiner and Amoeba Music) are SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES — identified in a subtitle as the theme for Arthur Godfrey’s television show — and a fast blues seated midway between Basie and late Goodman, called TIME CARRIES ON, a nod to the MARCH OF TIME.  Eddie and friends had recorded for Decca a slow blues theme — their version of DEEP HARLEM, retitled IMPROVISATION FOR THE MARCH OF TIME, so I suspect Atlantic wanted a similar recording.  The Erteguns were deep into what we would call the best small-band swing, and I wish only that they had signed Eddie up for record session after record session.  Herb Abramson told Chip Deffaa a story that suggests that this whole session was the idea of Condon’s friend, the indefatigable publicist Ernie Anderson, and that the two vocal sides launched both Ruth Brown and Atlantic Records.  I wonder myself whether Condon was temporarily released from his contract with Decca Records (overseen by Milt Gabler) to make this session, or whether Decca hadn’t signed another contract with the musicians’ union after the 1948 recording ban.

But all this historical rumination matters less than what we see here.  For me, it took a few serious episodes of staring-at-the-screen to get past the newsreel touches (the overly serious voice of the narrator, the animated stack of discs growing larger, then the large-print display of one statistic (a repetitive tendency predating Power Point by sixty years).  Then, after a visual reminder of Atlantic Records — the disc on the turntable (yes, try this out at home), we are in a quite small room, microphones visible but pushed aside, two soda bottles on the piano — an oddity, perhaps. 

Everyone is arranged around the piano for a rehearsal of TIME CARRIES ON, a fast blues with arranged passages, riffs, and a four-bar drum break at the end.  However, Lesberg seems hidden to the right, and I would not swear that I hear either Cary or Caceres . . . were they added only for deeper background harmonies on SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES?

The music seems reasonably well synchronized with the film, suggesting that the players were not miming to a prerecorded soundtrack.  Great things happen: we can hear and see Eddie playing the guitar; his bowtie is especially beautiful.  (Hucko’s necktie is superb as well.) 

The players are so tidily attired in business attire that Hackett’s black or dark blue shirt comes as a small shock; we expect drummers to dress more casually, so Rich’s open-necked shirt is not surprising.  The music is hot but insufficient . . . but after the audible splice (or jump from one passage to another) we have a chorus that seems reasonably free-wheeling. 

Readers of JAZZ LIVES have long understood my deification of Sidney Catlett, and I am glad that he is on the record to play his own four-bar break, but I lament that he is not here.  It is possible that he was on the road with Louis Armstrong and that Rich made the film shoot, or (heresy according to my lights) that Rich was the drummer of choice and he couldn’t make the record date.  Buddy, by the way, plays splendidly on many of the Condon Floor Shows. 

It’s not a Town Hall Concert or a 1949 kinescope, but it is a wonderful glimpse into a world we would not other have seen had the March of Time people not wanted to array a variety of live musical groups to depict its own version of the history of recorded music.

“THE LAST WORD IN HOT”: FROM THE McCONVILLE ARCHIVES (Part Eight)

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. . . .

FOUR STRINGS IN MY FUTURE?

Two days ago on Maui, we wandered into a second-hand store in Wailuku and I saw a beautiful ukulele hanging on the wall.  In the grip of musical hubris and hopefulness, I asked to see it and improvised a simple Thirties single-note riff, impressing the Beloved, who said, “I didn’t know you could play!”  “I didn’t either,” I replied.

mele-curly-kpa-tenor-2-holeSince I was quite young, I have made half-hearted attempts at learning a number of musical instruments.  Some of those nstruments ornament my apartment, although I am cautious lest it turn into a one-bedroom version of a music store / pawnshop. 

The ukulele has appealed to me for a long time, because I had the notion that it might be fairly simple to play — four strings rather than some more intimidating number, and not a great deal of aesthetic ambition attached to it (unlike, say, the violin).  It also has a Jazz Age history — on all the Twenties and Thirties sheet music I collect, the line above the treble clef has chord diagrams for imagined ukulele players to read off the page — and the diagrams are just my speed, a diagram of the four strings with a dot on each string to show where the novice should place his or her fingers. 

I haven’t bought the ukulele yet, although we visited the Mele store, where Peter (the resident self-taught virtuouso) tried to teach me to play YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE, with middling results. (I am a recalcitrant, stubborn pupil.)   The second-hand store was closed today, and I refuse to pay full price unless I am compelled to by circumstances.  I also don’t plan to turn into Arthur Godfrey, Don Ho, or Tiny Tim, never fear.  My aesthetic model is Cliff Edwards. I don’t aspire to starring in Technicolor, being the voice of a Disney character, or dying penniless, but his swinging insouciance is immensely appealing.

There are many wonderful Ukulele Ike clips on YouTube — too many to up or download, so you might want to investigate them on your own.  I’ll report back about the results of my four-string quest.

(On YouTube, you can also see a brief clip of Buster Keaton at home in 1965, happily croaking his way through “June Night,” accompanying himself on a tenor guitar with a fair deal of skill.  Who knew?)