Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

ARTIFICE TRANSFORMED: CLIFF EDWARDS and DICK McDONOUGH, 1933

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to find in tangible shape what I could hear in my mind’s ear — a complete recording of what was a new song in 1933 — lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and perhaps Billy Rose, music by Harold Arlen — IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, sung and played by Cliff Edwards with accompaniment by Dick McDonough, guitar. Yes, it’s on YouTube, but because reissues removed the verse, those video postings are unsatisfying.


Since the Forties, the song has been performed without the verse, as above, and in the most famous recordings by Sinatra / Nat Cole / Ella / Goodman, at a swinging medium-up tempo, which to me undermines its sweet flavor.  The version I present here is a tender love ballad, hopeful rather than swaggering.

The Wikipedia entry notes, “It was written originally for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island. It was subsequently used in the movie Take a Chance in 1933.”  Wikipedia doesn’t add that there seem to have been two films released that year with that title; the other one with James Dunn and Buddy Rogers, the one song in the film by Vincent Youmans.  In his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder notes that in its first incarnation it was called IF YOU BELIEVE IN ME, a much less lively title than the one we know.

The composer credits intrigue me: Arlen’s melody, of course, souunds so simple but that simplicity has made it memorable (thus the appeal of the song to instrumentalists).  He didn’t write dull songs.

As to the lyrics, I wonder what, if anything, Billy Rose contributed to the song. Did he say to a stagehand, “Don’t drop that!  Yeah, it’s only a paper moon, but it costs more than your salary!”  Or is it a quiet reference to the wonderful prop in photo studios of the preceding century, where couples could snuggle in the crescent curve, pretending to be miles aloft because of love?

Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a marvel, bridging contemporary and eternal in the most moving yet casual way.  Leave aside “bubble” and “rainbow,” which were cliches even then, but savor “a temporary parking place,” “a canvas sky,” — and the entire bridge, which is beautiful, affecting and sharp, ” “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade.  Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” Urban folk poetry at the highest level.  (Wilder calls the lyrics “innocent,” which is puzzling, but he admires Arlen’s bridge . . . .)  In Harburg, I hear his sense of a whole world no more grounded than a series of stage props, created to fool an audience but clearly unreal.  His words are Manhattan-tough but the toughness is there only to convey great wistful feeling.  You’d have to live in the city to understand the resonance of a temporary parking place; not only might it disappear, but you might be punished by the authorities.

A few sentences about Cliff Edwards, who seems a sculpture with so many surprising facets that when he is looked at from different angles, he is unrecognizable each time.

There’s Jiminy Cricket. There’s the goofily appealing Twenties vocalist, ukulele player, and scat singer — “eefin'” his way through one “novelty” chorus after another, often on dim-sounding Pathe 78s.  (I suspect that if Edwards had come to prominence ten years later and had had no ukulele, he would be much better known and regarded today.)  A comic film actor. There are the party records: I LOVE MOUNTAIN WOMEN comes to mind, and, yes, you can imagine the lyrics.  Later, there’s the unstable older man capering around with the Mouseketeers, and what we know of as the terrible husband and self-destructive alcoholic who dies in poverty.

But what I’ve consciously left off of that ungenerous list is Edwards the truly convincing ballad singer, someone whose wistful voice and sweet delivery stays in my ear.  He never got the attention or opportunities to woo audiences, perhaps because he had natural comic talents, but more, I think, because he wasn’t perceived as sufficiently handsome.  He could not rival Bing or Russ in erotic power, so in films and on records he was rather a light-hearted comic foil instead of the leading man.  Alas, audiences in the  Twenties and Thirties — as they do today — tend to listen to singers with their eyes rather than their ears.  I suppose that becoming Jiminy Cricket was a great thing for Edwards’ career, but being invisible and an animated insect did not help him as a romantic singing star.

But back to IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON.

Thanks to the generosity of Laurie Kanner and Jonathan Alexiuk, I can offer both takes, complete, to be accessed at https://archive.org/details/CliffEdwardsCollection1927-1933/ItsOnlyAPaperMoon1933CliffEdwards-Take1.mp3 — a collection of mp3’s of his complete 1927-1935 recordings.

I’ve left the whole ungainly web address visible so that if the link doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to go to the archive.org site for Edwards and hear IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON and more.

I think this performance is a model of the most endearing singing — he means every word, and it’s not by rote. It’s also the gentle tempo that I hear PAPER MOON at.  I haven’t analyzed these records nuance by nuance because they work their way into the heart instantly.  Or, if they don’t for you, listen intently, without distractions or preconceptions, from the rubato verse to the hip little ending.

In preparing this post, I shared these two sides with the fine guitarist and scholar Nick Rossi, a solid sender from San Francisco, who admires Dick McDonough as I do, and he wrote, “What a masterclass it is in sensitive guitar accompaniment to a vocal.”  And — we might add — in McDonough’s staying out of the way yet never upstaging Cliff’s ukulele.

But I keep coming back to the affectionate hopeful totality of Edwards, Arlen, Harburg, and even Billy Rose, who in these recordings say — no, sing — to us, “Love miraculously transfigures artifice,” which is a wondrous thought.  Cherish its power to create new realities.

May your happiness increase!

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MY SEARCH FOR PAT KIRBY

My search for the singer Pat Kirby — an extraordinary artist — began last Monday, June 12, with a trip to the thrift store closest to my college, as I described here.  I’d amassed nearly thirty dollars of records, and the long-playing one by a singer I’d never heard of before caught my eye because of the cover photo, the Decca label (Decca in that period tended to be more rewarding than some lesser labels), the repertoire, and the identification that the orchestra was directed by Ralph Burns.

That the disc was also $1.49 minus the Monday 25% discount was also encouraging, and I thought there might be excellent musicians accompanying Miss Kirby.  I should point out that I had never heard a note of her singing, nor had I been of an age to see her perform on television.

And, having just come from teaching a class of mostly uninspired students, it is likely that the cover picture of Miss Kirby, sweet pedagogue, caught my eye.  I would have bet that her students were paying attention.  It might be silly to have an instant crush on a portrait of someone c. 1956, but I make no more apologies for myself than that.

Good songs, as well.

Before Monday evening, I had played the album four times, had spent a good deal of time searching for Miss Kirby, and had emailed several friends who are professional singers to say, “You have to listen to her.”  Rebecca Kilgore listened and approved: I knew I was on the right track.

At this point I invite readers to do just that. I confess that I had put the needle down on the first track hoping for a pleasing, competent singer but really searching for surprises from unannounced jazz stars.  They may well be there, but Miss Kirby took my attention wholly.

I hear a controlled passion, a lovely dramatic sense.  She understands the words, offers them with diction that is both natural and impressive.  Some passages of lyrics that I had never fully understood are clear for the first time.  Her rhythmic sense is splendid . . . and although she has a splendid vocal instrument, her voice is never the main subject.  It’s the song.  She’s not imitating anyone (although she reminds me ever so delicately of Teddi King) and her approach seems so unaffected but, as any singer would tell you, she is no amateur.  I hear a tender tremulous vibrato, full of emotion but Miss Kirby is in complete control, never over-dramatic.  Yet she can be almost saucy on DOWN WITH LOVE, which rises to a near-shout; however, her LOVER MAN is a young woman’s sweet series of wishes.  Her IN LOVE IN VAIN — backed only by a guitarist who might be Barry Galbraith and a string bassist — is beyond memorable.

I don’t know whether she or Burns or perhaps Milt Gabler chose the songs, but Miss Kirby shows tremendous courage in singing LOVER MAN with the potent shade of Billie hovering.  She manages to make me hear her on I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, making that song her own, not Mr. Sinatra’s.

I will put my adoration down for several paragraphs and offer a story, by John Fink, from the September 15, 1956 Chicago Tribune “TV Week” — full of attractive photographs of a dark-haired, pretty young woman, sipping soda through a straw, singing in front of an overhead microphone, demurely wearing a narrow-striped top. The story’s headline, in lower-case turquoise, is “once too shy to stand up and sing!”  I know the enthusiastic prose that one finds in weekly television guides, but at least Mr. Fink had offered a few facts.

Philadelphia has always been home base for Pat Kirby.  The songstress of the Tonight program, seen week days at 11 p. m. on Channel 5, started life there as Patricia Querubin, and did her first vocalizing with a high school band.  Too shy to stand up and sing, she sat at her piano at the rear of the stage.

Two years ago, after a shot at local radio, Pat was tapped for an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts appearance.  She won, then retired to Philadelphia to consider a Hollywood offer.  But Hollywood, she decided, was too far from home.

By that time Steve Allen had signed her up for guest appearances on Tonight, and she was staying in a Manhattan convent, returning to Philly on week-ends to be with her parents and three brothers.  She was signed as a regular on the program, and had begun to make records.  She knew she had really arrived when they asked her to make an album called “Pat Kirby Sings.”

The singer with the jet black hair and flashing black eyes stands 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall and weighs a tidy 125 pounds.  Her father, a merchant mariner, is of Spanish descent; her mother comes of Irish stock.

Pat chooses her songs for the feeling in the lyrics and leans towards “standards” by Gershwin and Arlen and Rodgers and Hart.  “If the words don’t mean anything,” she says, “why bother pronouncing them.  You might just as well sing vowels.”

But her long range goal was to get married.  She was all of 20, and she had made up her mind.  Pat accomplished that last June.  The lucky fellow?  A boy back home in Philadelphia, of course.

For the moment, we can ignore all the stereotypes and sexism of 1956.

Here are the (uncredited) notes on the back of the Decca album:

Decca’s newest recording artist, Pat Kirby, is one of the most talented as well as the most attractive newcomers in show business. She appears several times a week over NBC Television, and hardboiled critics as well as enthusiastic watchers of Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show are already predicting that she will soon be one of the nation’s top-flight stars.

Born twenty-one years ago in Philadelphia, where she was raised, Pat Kirby comes from Irish and Spanish forbears — her real last name is Querubin.  She was educated at St. Francis Xavier Grammar School and John W. Hallahan Catholic High School, and it was at the latter institution that Pat began to display her musical versatility.  In the school band she played the tympani, drums, piano, organ, and celeste — there seemed to be no instrument she could not master. There was only one thing that did not seem to interest her, and that was singing.  A vocal career was the last thing on her mind; her ambition was to play the drums in an all-girl orchestra.  It was only after she graduated that she took up singing because she thought the ability to sing might help her in show business.

Pat’s professional career began when she was offered occasional piano and singing jobs with small bands in and around Philadelphia.  She forsook the piano — reluctantly — when Buddy Williams engaged her as vocalist for his orchestra.  It was not long before she was featured with the band in such coveted showcases as the Bellevue-Stratford and Benjamin Franklin Hotels in Philadelphia, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and many other top spots.  A little more than a year ago, Pat began doing a “single.”  In November 1954, she gained national recognition by winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Program,  She also appeared for twenty weeks on “Get Happy,” a show emanating from Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV, in which Pat was given a chance to act and ad-lib as well as sing.

This album furnishes proof that Pat Kirby has arrived.  The songs she sings are among America’s favorites, and she renders them all with a delicate and sure touch.  The songs themselves have a central theme.  Whether the numbers are Ballads, Rhythm Tunes, or Torch Songs, all of them answer the question posed in the title, “What Us This Thing Called Love?”  The arrangements for the numbers are unusually lush in scoring, and their enriched instrumentations furnish a worthy background for Pat Kirby’s voice. 

In writing this post, I have spent a good deal of energy chasing invisible cyber-rabbits.  I found out that after Miss Kirby had made this recording, she “abruptly retired,” although I saw mentions of her singing on the Merv Griffin Show c. 1960-62.  Did she retire as soon as she became pregnant?  Did she choose, a good Catholic, to forsake the bright lights for happy domesticity?  Did she miss performing? (Did Someone hasten her flight by behaving inappropriately to her? She was, as we say, both very attractive and very young.)  Decca, incidentally, seems to have had her record some pop singles, including the paper-thin TAMMY (circa 1957), and this Frank Loesser rarity, which might have had merit. And then, nothing.

I found out that Buddy Williams played drums and apparently had played them for Miller and one of the Dorseys.  Of course, no recordings from the period are listed in Tom Lord’s online discography, and there is no entry for Miss Kirby.  Or Miss Querubin.

There is a single by “Pat Kirby” of the theme from the motion picture SAYONARA, but it does not sound like the same singer.  There is no YouTube video of her, although there is televised evidence in the Paley Center (more about that shortly).  Facebook bristles with authorities, some quite incorrect and vehement about it, but no one responded to my request for information — from a group devoted to the dark corners of popular culture.  And I have little success with family-ancestry sites: her parents may have been Robert and Helen Querubin; her married name might have been Burgoyne.  Given that she was born in 1935 or so, I doubt that she will write to me to say, “Young man, you have gotten the facts of my life all wrong.”

However, I have a frustratingly lively lead that might lead nowhere: a Google search for Pat Kirby led me to the Paley Museum, which has two kinescopes of the Steve Allen show: on one she sings THE BOY NEXT DOOR, the other I’M GLAD THERE IS YOU.  And . . . on Trip Advisor, of all places, Liz M. from Philadelphia visited the Paley Museum and wrote this comment:

I visited here to see a video of my mom on the Steve Allen show from 60 years ago. She was young singer Pat Kirby who sang regularly with Andy Williams. They had 2 episodes.  It is so wild to see your mother in action years before you were born. My friend had never been there before and can’t wait to go back for special events.

I find that very touching, and Trip Advisor has a space to “ask Liz M. a question,” which I did.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Pat Kirby, who obviously wanted privacy after her brief intense turn in the spotlight, might have planned it all this way.  A short bolt of fame, of public visibility, might have been all she could tolerate or all she wanted.  William Faulkner said of fame that his ideal would have been to have written his books without his name on the title page — to do the work and remain anonymous.  Pat Kirby leaves us under an hour of musical evidence of the finest kind imaginable, and then she made her exit.  Thank goodness we have the records, because who would believe this tale otherwise?

I’d love to know more, if only to honor one of the finest — and least heralded — singers I’ve ever heard.

P.S.  (“This just in!”) Music scholar Bob Moke told me on Facebook that Pat is the speaking voice in the middle of this famous record.  The singing voice at the start is Lois Winters — all confirmed by one of the Lads.  Any snippet of Miss Kirby is greatly appreciated:

May your happiness increase!

“ONE OF THE GREAT WAYS TO LEARN IS TO DO SOMETHING WRONG”: JERRY DODGION SPEAKS

This interview of the splendid and splendidly durable reed master Jerry Dodgion (born in 1932) created by Ed Joffe, is quite wonderful — not only in his stories of Gerald Wilson, Charlie Mariano, Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Frank Sinatra, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Jerome Richardson, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Joe Newman, Frank Wess, Cannonball Adderley, Coleman Hawkins, Godwin Louis, the importance of the acoustic string bass, playing in a section, and more — but the insight Jerry offers us into the music.

What comes through here is a gentle portrait of a man thoroughly imbued with gratitude, humility, kindness.  That Jerry Dodgion is a saxophone master is beyond dispute: that he exudes the calm sweet intelligence of a fully-realized human being is also evident throughout.  “Life is a learning experience.”  “Get your pen out!”

Even if Jerry Dodgion is not familiar to you, you’ve heard his beautiful sound on many recordings, and the interview is wonderfully rewarding.  Don’t miss the final minutes of this video — his unaccompanied chorus of THAT’S ALL, which is memorable and more.

Here is the source — Joffe Woodwinds — to which we owe a debt of gratitude.

May your happiness increase!

“JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE, FROM ITS ORGINS IN NEW ORLEANS TO FASCIST ITALY AND SINATRA,” by ANNA HARWELL CELENZA

“I prefer books that tell me things I don’t know,” said Mark Twain. Or if he didn’t, he should have.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is such a book — wide-ranging, full of intriguing information, and refreshingly straightforward.

I will say that I thought I knew a great deal about the title and the subject.  After all, I know Rossano Sportiello, Marc Caparone, Paolo Alderighi, and Larry Scala. I have recordings by Frank Sinatra, Joe and Marty Marsala, Leon Roppolo, Louis Prima, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Wingy Manone, Jimmy Durante, Tony Sbarbaro, Nick La Rocca, Marty Napoleon, Phil Napoleon, Lino Patruno, and others.  Years ago, I owned a vinyl anthology on Italian Odeon called ITALIAN JAZZ OF THE 50s, which had music from the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band and Romano Mussolini, with other bands I do not recall.  In the very early Seventies, I ate authentic Italian food at the Half Note, under the loving supervision of the Canterino family.  (All of the above is true, although not meant to be taken with the utmost seriousness.)

But the glory of Celenza’s book is the information it offers — subtle illumination of areas of the subject that I was ignorant of, and I am sure my ignorance is not my sole property.  And the fruits of her investigation are the substance of this appreciation of her book.

But first: we are told, even before the book starts, that Celenza is “the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses in music history, radio journalism, and the music industry.”  To some readers, those credentials will seem either the kiss of death or the black hand: another academic book, indigestible, a forest of footnotes, theoretical and ideological beyond endurance.  Calm yourselves.  Celenza is an engagingly straightforward writer, clear, candid, and witty.  (I saw the wit when I opened my copy at random and saw she had translated “Il Quattro Buffoni,” a band name on a record label, as “The Four Idiots.”

She doesn’t talk down to the general reader, and the book down’t labor under chunks of undigested digressive facts.  And leaving aside the useful documentation and index, the book is a compact 192 pages, because Celenza has not felt an obsessive need to include every fact that wanders by, and her chosen time period is under half a century.  It isn’t a book-length study of Sinatra, fascism, or every Italian who’s ever improvised, and that adds to its charm and effect.  Rather, like effective cultural studies, it traces the interweavings of many phenomena: radio and the growth of the recording industry, political struggles and performance, and much more.

As I promised above, I salute this book for adding information to my mental hoard.  Here are a number of things I didn’t know before reading JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE.

•     “The most horrific mass lynching in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italian immigrants were shot and strung up by an angry mob after a  jury found them innocent of assassinating the local police chief, David Hennessey.”

•     In 1919, Chevalier Bruno Zuculin wrote a description of the musical scene in New Orleans — and the music itself — for Italian readers.  The article was published two months before Ernest Ansermet’s famous celebration of Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which included the young Sidney Bechet.

•     “D. Onivas,” whose orchestra is on the reverse of some 78s by Cliff Edwards, is the pseudonym of Domenico Savino, composer and conductor.

•     Jazz first came to Italy with the USAAS (United States Army Ambulance Service) and its American Jazz Band landed  — and when members of the American and Italian armies recorded for Fonotopia in December 1918.

•     I had assumed that Mussolini, like Hitler, was hostile to jazz as decadent music: not so, in fact, Il Duce “embraced” it as an expression of the Futurist art he celebrated.

•     Josephine Baker, Herb Flemming, and Al Wynn visited and worked in Italy.  Louis Armstrong gave two concerts in Turin in January 1935 and wrote a detailed happy letter to an Italian fan and record collector.

•     I had never heard or heard of the female vocal trio, “the three graces of the radio,” the Trio Lescano — Alexandra, Judith, and “Kitty,” originally from the Netherlands, who became singing stars in Italy.

•  During the Second World War, when recordings by American artists were played on the radio, new Italianized names for the musicians were invented: Luigi Braccioforte, La Colema, Del Duca, and Beniamino Buonuomo.  (Answer key on request.)

•     Sinatra’s four trips to Italy, in 1945, 1953, 1962, and 1987 — and the audience’s elation when he described his Genoan heritage, then their silence when he revealed his family was also half-Sicilian.

These excerpts are, of course, not the substance of this book.  Celenza has a wonderful understanding of the widespread forces that go into the development and growth of jazz in Italy, and one will come away from this book with a much deeper understanding of the mingling of history, race, ideology, and politics — during war and in peacetime.

JAZZ ITALIAN STYLE is very rewarding, but never ponderous.  Here are the publisher’s resources for the book, and this is the link for the CD label offering for sale almost all the jazz described in the book.  And since a book like this cries out for a soundtrack, here is the one Celenza has generously created — 124 relevant musical examples that delight and illustrate.

May your happiness increase!

“TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES: SONGS BY JOE BUSHKIN,” BOB MERRILL and FRIENDS

It’s always a generous idea, karmically, to honor the Ancestors.  If you’re trumpeter, singer, and composer Bob Merrill it’s not only easy but gratifying, because the Ancestor in question is his late father-in-law Joe Bushkin, pianist, trumpeter, singer, and composer.

The formulaic way to pay tribute to Joe would have been to assemble a band and have them play transcriptions of his famous recordings — from Berigan, Condon, Spanier, to his own performances.  But that approach might have run into obstacles early.  Joe was a singular pianist, whether he was musing his way through RELAXIN’ AT THE TOURO or dazzling us on HALLELUJAH!  And fifteen minutes with YouTube shows Joe at his best as player and singer.

But Joe’s talents as a writer of songs have been overshadowed by his brilliance at the keyboard.  He was fortunate in that Sinatra and Lee Wiley recorded OH, LOOK AT ME NOW; Bing sang HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN; Louis gave Joe and his new bride the wedding present of recording LOVELY WEATHER WE’RE HAVING.

Bob Merrill’s new CD, “TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES,” devoted to Joe’s songs — and it’s the first volume of several planned — is rather like Joe himself: melodic, light-hearted even when the lyrical thread is slightly somber.  It’s a wonderfully varied offering, and rather than describe it first, I offer samples here (scroll down to the lower half of the page).

Not a simple presentation of songs with the same approach and instrumentation, the CD could have been called THE MANY FACES OF JOE BUSHKIN’S MUSIC, with each track a little dramatic presentation in itself.  Some of the tracks so wittily and cleverly develop the theme that they sound like display numbers for a yet-to-be produced Broadway show. Consider HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN, which begins as if it were an unissued 78, with Bing’s wife Kathryn singing over a hot band, then morphs into the twenty-first century embodiment of the Andrews Sisters — Kathryn, Bob, Shannon Day, and Lisa Gary, over a modern arrangement for hip vocals over a shouting band.  Nicki Parrott convincingly masquerades as a diner waitress for several minutes on BOOGIE WOOGIE BLUE PLATE.

MAN HERE PLAYS FINE PIANO has not one, but three pianists soloing and trading phrases: Rossano Sportiello, Laurence Hobgood, and John Colianni. Other pleasures here are the wildly virtuosic trombone of Wycliffe Gordon, who turns in a fine vocal — seriously evoking Hot Lips Page — on GOIN’ BACK TO STORYVILLE. Eric Comstock is responsible for a number of smooth, winning vocals: I especially admire his reading of WISE TO MYSELF, a song well worth performing in this century, and Bob himself sings splendidly (with a touch of New York wryness) as well.  In case you don’t know his trumpet playing, it’s expert and swinging: he’s never at a loss for notes, and his brass battle with Wycliffe, who could overwhelm lesser players, is truly a draw.  Bob has the best musical friends, as you will have noticed, in Nicki Parrott, Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Harry Allen, Steve Johns, and Adrian Cunningham.  Yes, the CD is a loving evocation of Joe’s many talents, but son-in-law Bob is operating at the same level of swinging joy.

If this sounds like an exuberant, vivid musical package — full to the rim and never monotonous — you have a good idea of what TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES offers.  And the music is framed by two wonderful anecdotes about Joe, told by his remarkable friends.  At the close of the CD, Red Buttons delivers a sweet, naughty elegy which ends with a story about Joe, Bing, and some sleeping potions delivered in an unusual way.  And the CD starts with Frank Sinatra, Joe’s long-time friend, telling a story about Joe and illicit stimulants.  That tale is worth the price of admission in itself.  And, for once, the CD itself comes in a splendid package with notes, stories, and photographs — much better than any download.  You can buy this generous offering here.

May your happiness increase!

“SAMMY THE DRUMMER”: SOME THOUGHTS ON SAMMY WEISS

Sammy Weiss and Frank Sinatra

Drummer Sam (or “Sammy”) Weiss played in New York with many of the most prominent jazz musicians of the ’30s and early ’40s, including Louis Armstrong, Adrian Rollini, Wingy Manone, Miff Mole, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. He also worked with Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Louis Prima, and Erskine Hawkins, among others. After moving to California in 1945, Weiss led his own successful orchestra and worked freelance. He led bands throughout the ’60s, and also worked in television; his TV work included appearances on The Jack Benny Program in 1961 and 1964. He died in 1977.

Here are Jack, Sammy, Wayne Songer, and others doing a “hilbilly” sketch:

And going back a few decades, a Weiss appearance with Gene Kardos in 1934:

Here I pause the official biography for a moment, to say that one of the most pleasant aspects of JAZZ LIVES (which I began nine years ago this year . . . no presents, please) is that people find me.  Some months back, I got a cheerful message from Jayne Weiss, Sammy’s daughter, who had noticed that I had mentioned her father in a blogpost.  In our conversation, I mentioned that her father was remarkable in making the transition from sideman to bandleader to personality, “Sammy The Drummer.”  And she said, “That was exactly who he was.  He was a personality.”

Sammy was one of the cast of characters on the Jack Benny television show: this episode is based on New Year’s Eve, 1961:

Here are some of Jayne’s thoughts.

Since my dad’s death, people are always finding things and sending them to us, so I got a hold of my cousin Brian, who does web design, and we are going to create a website for my dad, with discographies, clippings, photographs, videos. In 1971, my mother started to write a book about my father, because he had a very interesting story.  She had written to Ralph Edwards of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, but the show was being cancelled.  But I found the letter and the story she had written about him.  I have a letter from Artie Shaw and telegrams from Jack Benny.  He was with Jack Benny for twenty-five years, radio and television.

Sammy Weiss and Mickey Katz

He was from the Lower East Side, a very poor family, because his father, who was a bootlegger, had died when he was very young and he had to help support the family. He was self-taught at thirteen; he took rungs of a chair and made drumsticks, then took parts of the chair and tin plates and made a set of drums.  And he would sit at the front of the building and entertain the neighborhood.  One day a neighbor came by and asked Sammy if he would get a few friends together and play their daughter’s wedding. He was maybe fourteen, a big, tall guy.  Having no drums, he would rent a set, and he got a band together .  They paid the band three dollars, and my father decided that this was for him.  At fifteen, he started his career.  Then he started playing in the Catskills, fall and winter, dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs.  In 1933, he was playing at the Stevensville Lake Hotel, where he met my mother.  (They were married for thirty-seven years and had five children.)  

Now, my mother, who looked like Jean Harlow, was already engaged to Henny Youngman’s brother-in-law.  But when Sammy met my mother, he walked her all around the hotel, introducing her to everyone as his future wife. When she went to break up with the brother-in-law, he locked himself up in a room with a gun and threatened to kill himself.  Unlike Sammy, my mother came from money: her father was in the pants business and one of his customers was Bugsy Siegel.  Her parents were opposed to the marriage because Sammy didn’t seem as if he could support a family. Then she was in the hospital, seriously ill with peritonitis, with her father at her bedside, praying for her to get well.  She looked at him and said, “I’ll only live if I can marry Sammy.”  And she got well.

You know, he was the first drummer for Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw.  He was with Goodman at Billy Rose’s Music Hall in June of 1934. But when they went on the road, he didn’t go, because he wanted to stay home and raise a family.  

That’s why Gene Krupa showed up, and Buddy Rich, because Sammy stayed in New York.  In fact, when I was young, I went with my dad to the musicians’ union on Hollywood and Vine, I was crossing the street and Buddy Rich was crossing the street the other way, coming towards us, and the two of them stopped in the middle of the street, hugging each other, and I was standing there, going “What the heck?”

He moved to the West Coast in 1945 because my older brother got very sick, and the doctors told him that my brother couldn’t survive another winter.  Luckily, the Jack Benny Show was moving west. When he and my mother first moved out to California, their house had a room separate from the house where the musicians would jam, also because my brothers were musical.  There were always people coming and going, and they used to say that my mother cooked in army pots because there were so many.  Maurice played trumpet, drums, and piano.  My brother Allan sang and played drums.  And Jack played clarinet, saxophone, drums, and piano. And they all had bands.

I was twelve years younger, so I remember hearing about all of this, but I was little. I played piano, violin, and guitar.  My father always used to say I had perfect pitch, because he would call across the room, “Hit A,” and I would hit it.  One day they got a notice in the mail, “Come to _____ School.  Your daughter is playing first-chair violin in the orchestra.”  They didn’t even know.  I had found a violin in the garage, took it to school, and learned how to play it.

On radio, he worked on WNEW and then went on staff with WNBC. He had his own radio show called JAMMIN’ WITH SAMMY, and worked with Paul Whiteman, Kate Smith, Walter Damrosch, “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” with Abe Lyman — also with Mark Warnow, Freddie Rich, Ray Bloch, Raymond Scott, Paul Lavalle. He could read, play piano, and all the percussion instruments.  He was on the Carnation Show, Meet Millie, Edgar Bergen, the Colgate Hour, Russ Morgan, Jack Carson, Lucky Strike, Al Jolson, Steve Allen, Burns and Allen, Victor Young, Dinah Shore.  My mother took Dinah Shore to pick out an outfit for her first audition in New York. My father accompanied Tony Martin at the Cocoanut Grove.  In 1953, he did a movie with Frank Sinatra, THE JOKER IS WILD.  He recorded with Johnny Guarneri and Slam Stewart for Savoy Records.

On the Benny Show, he was a character.  He was bald.  They actually wrote a show about me, in May 1951, “When Sammy’s Wife Has a Baby.”  The joke was that everyone went to see the baby in the hospital, and someone says, “How did you know which one was Jayne?”  “She was bald!”  Jack and Mary Benny bought me my layette when I was born.

He had his own band for private parties and conventions, dances. In November 1957 he had a month’s engagement at the Hollywood Palladium, “playing the kind of music the public has always loved.”

He was wonderful.  Definitely Mister Personality.  A wonderful father who loved his kids.  I had the best parents ever.  He was so involved.  We would have lots of people for the holidays, for Thanksgiving.  Wherever we went, if we would walk into a restaurant, “Oh, my God! Sam!”  And he was such a sport. My mother would yell at him because he would always pick up the tab. “Bring me his check.”  People knew him at the market, on the golf course.  He could golf during the day and work at night.

There’s a famous steakhouse, Monty’s in the San Fernando Valley. On my twenty-first birthday, we went there for dinner.  Over the years, I heard “Me Tarzan.  You Jane.” jokes constantly.  That night, sitting at the bar, was Johnny Weissmuller, drunk.  My father didn’t realize just how drunk Johnny was, but he said, “Look, it’s my daughter’s birthday, and her name is Jayne.  It would be such a hoot if you came over and did your shtick.”  There was an outdoor patio, and Johnny opened the doors and did the Tarzan call, then came over to the table and said, “You Jane.  Me Tarzan.”  I wanted to die, to crawl under the table.

Sammy was on every Mickey Katz album.  My mother actually sings on one. Mickey and Grace Katz were very dear friends of our family. In fact, I  have a picture of Joel Grey before his nose job, dancing with my mother at one of the bar mitzvahs!  Mickey did my father’s eulogy.  I knew Mannie Klein (his wife was nicknamed “Dopey”) and he gave me a nickname when I was about three.  They would sit me on the piano, and call me “Quackwee.”

He passed away in 1977 from pancreatic cancer.  He was only 67. My older brother also contracted that cancer and died at 75.

Many thanks to Jayne Weiss and her brother Allan for their memories and memorabilia: they’ve made their father come wholly alive once again.

May your happiness increase!

STILL SPARKLING: JOE BUSHKIN AT 100

joe-bushkin-on-piano

I suspect that everyone who reads JAZZ LIVES has heard the magical sounds of Joe Bushkin‘s piano, songs, voice, and trumpet.  My birthday celebration for him is a bit early — he was born on November 7, 1916, but I didn’t want to miss the occasion.  (There will also be birthday cake in this post — at least a photograph of one.)

He moved on in late 2004, but as the evidence proves, it was merely a transformation, not an exit.

I marvel not only at the spare, poignant introduction but Bushkin’s sensitive support and countermelodies throughout.

“Oh, he was a Dixieland player?” Then there’s this:

and this, Joe’s great melody:

A list of the people who called Joe a friend and colleague would include Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley, Joe Marsala, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett,Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Bunny Berigan, Fats Waller, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Zoot Sims, Bill Harris, Buddy Rich, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Judy Garland, Jimmy Rushing, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Spargo, Red McKenzie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Tough, Brad Gowans, Benny Goodman, Joe Rushton, Roy Eldridge, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Ruth Brown, June Christy, Barney Kessel, Pearl Bailey, Gene Krupa, Stuff Smith, Chuck Wayne, Jake Hanna . . .

Here’s a sweet swinging tribute to Irving Berlin in 1951 that segues into Joe’s own homage to Miss Bankhead, PORTRAIT OF TALLULAH:

He’s on Billie’s SUMMERTIME and Bunny’s first I CAN’T GET STARTED; he’s glistening in the big bands of Bunny, Tommy, and Benny.  He records with Frank Newton in 1936 and plays with Kenny Davern, Phil Flanigan, Howard Alden, and Jake Hanna here, sixty-one years later:

But I’m not speaking about Joe simply because of longevity and versatility.  He had an individual voice — full of energy and wit — and he made everyone else sound better.

A short, perhaps dark interlude.  Watching and listening to these performances, a reader might ask, “Why don’t we hear more about this wonderful pianist who is so alive?”  It’s a splendid question.  In the Thirties, when Joe achieved his first fame, it was as a sideman on Fifty-Second Street and as a big band pianist.

Parallel to Joe, for instance, is Jess Stacy — another irreplaceable talent who is not well celebrated today.  The erudite Swing fans knew Bushkin, and record producers — think of John Hammond and Milt Gabler — wanted him on as many record dates as he could make.  He was a professional who knew how the music should sound and offered it without melodrama.  But I suspect his professionalism made him less dramatic to the people who chronicle jazz.  He kept active; his life wasn’t tragic or brief; from all I can tell, he didn’t suffer in public.  So he never became mythic or a martyr.  Too, the jazz critics then and now tend to celebrate a few stars at a time — so Joe, brilliant and versatile, was standing behind Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, then and now.  He was also entertaining — someone who could act, who could do a television skit with Bing and Fred, someone who could fill a club by making music, even for people who wouldn’t have bought a Commodore 78.  Popularity is suspect to some people who write about art.

But if you do as I did, some months back, and play a Bushkin record for a jazz musician who hasn’t heard him before, you might get the following reactions or their cousins: “WHO is that?  He can cover the keyboard.  And he swings.  His time is beautiful, and you wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else.”

One of the memorable moments of my twentieth century is the ten-minute YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY /  MOTEN SWING that Joe, Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Wayne Wright, and Jo Jones improvised — about four feet in front of me — at the last Eddie Condon’s in 1976.  “Memorable” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Consider this: Joe and his marvelous quartet (Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton or Sid Weiss, and Jo Jones) that held down a long-running gig at the Embers in 1951-2:

Something pretty and ruminative — Joe’s version of BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL:

And for me, and I suspect everyone else, the piece de resistance:

For the future: Joe’s son-in-law, the trumpeter / singer / composer Bob Merrill — whom we have to thank for the wire recording (!) of SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY —  has organized what will be a stellar concert to celebrate his father-in-law’s centennial.  Mark your calendars: May 4, 2017.  Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Ted Rosenthal, John Colianni, Eric Comstock, Spike Wilner, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Steve Johns, drums; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet; Bob Merrill, trumpet; Warren Vache, cornet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; and of course a surprise guest.

Here’s the promised photograph of a birthday cake.  Perculate on THIS:

louis-birthday-cake

Thank you, Joseephus.  We haven’t forgotten you.

May your happiness increase!