Tag Archives: Gene Kardos

“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!

JAZZ ARCHAEOLOGY, or A NEW TROVE

After my most recent venture into unexpected hot music (finding Lester Young and Charlie Parker 78s) Mal Sharpe told me I was a “jazz archaeologist,” which I take as a great compliment.

I have emerged from another rich unexpected dig, brushed the dust off of my khakis, taken my pith helmet off, and put down my shovels.  Here is my tale.

Yesterday afternoon, while much of the world was engaged in its own pursuits, the Beloved and I were meandering around Sebastopol, California: a paradise of nurseries and antique shops.  We arrived at one of our favorites, FOOD FOR THOUGHT ANTIQUES (2701 Gravenstein Highway South), a non-profit enterprise which gives the proceeds from its sales to the local food bank.  In the past, I’ve found some sheet music there and the odd record or two.  Nothing could have prepared me for the treasure that had arrived there four or five days ago. See for yourself:

Photograph by Lorna Sass

Photograph by Lorna Sass

Yes, perhaps eight hundred ten-inch 78 RPM records in their original paper sleeves. I thought the hoard had some connection to a record store, since many of the discs were blue-label Bing Crosby from 1936 onwards, but I was told that this wasn’t the case: a woman brought them to the store, explained that they were her much-loved collection, and that she now felt it was time to pass them on. I wish I could find out her name to send her thanks, but that might never happen.

And since you’d want to know, the records were one dollar each.

The first afternoon I went through about one-half of the collection: it was a good omen that the first record I picked up was the Victor ST. JAMES INFIRMARY BLUES by Artie Shaw featuring Hot Lips Page. Yes, there were many red-label Columbias by the early-Forties Harry James band, but that’s not a terrible phenomenon.

I gravitated towards the more unusual: KING JOE by Count Basie and Paul Robeson; a Bluebird coupling by Freddy Martin of MILENBERG JOYS and WOLVERINE BLUES; several Fats Waller and his Rhythm sides; a Bob Howard Decca; many Dick Robertson sides featuring a dewy Bobby Hackett; INKA DINKA DOO by Guy Lombardo on Brunswick; BLUE PRELUDE and WE’RE A COUPLE OF SOLDIERS by Bing Crosby on the same label; Johnny Hamp and Arnold Johnson; OLD MAN MOSE by Willie Farmer; a Meade Lux Lewis album set on Disc; Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra on OKeh; WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME by Ted Weems on Victor; a blue wax Columbia by Ted Lewis of TEN THOUSAND YEARS AGO — with his special label; a Johnny Marvin Victor solo and duet; THE LADY WHO SWINGS THE BAND (that’s Mary Lou Williams) by Andy Kirk on Decca; Bunny Berigan’s SWANEE RIVER; a Gene Kardos Melotone; the Rhythm Wreckers’ TWELFTH STREET RAG on Vocalion; the Bluebird BODY AND SOUL by Coleman Hawkins; JEEPERS  CREEPERS by Ethel Waters; Deccas by Lennie Hayton and Edgar Hayes.

(Who can tell me more about Willie Farmer?)

I returned this afternoon, and found the little flowered stool Valerie had offered me in the same place, so I resumed my inspection — many records but with far fewer surprises.  Wingy, BG, Fats, Jack Leonard, Ginny Simms, Bob Howard, Dick Robertson, Milt Herth (with Teddy Bunn and the Lion) and a few oddities. FOOTBALL FREDDY and FRATERNITY BLUES by “Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys” on Columbia (with, yes, Jack Purvis as the sole trumpet); the Mills Brothers singing lyrics to Pete Johnson’s 627 STOMP.  Les Brown performing two James P. Johnson songs from his 1939 POLICY KINGS: YOU, YOU, YOU and HARLEM WOOGIE. Jean Sablon singing TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE . . . and a few more.

I passed up a few country records, Julia Sanderson solos, Nat Shilkret and Charles Dornberger waltzes . . . but the collection was a rich cross-section of good popular music of the Thirties and middle Forties, with a few detours into the late Twenties. No specialist jazz labels, no country blues rarities — but the middle-of-the-road pop music of that period was rich and honest.

I feel honored to be partaking of this experience — this voyage into a time when Freddy Martin and Coleman Hawkins occupied the same space in the collective consciousness. . . . and when a purchase of a thirty-five cent Decca or Bluebird was a real commitment to art, both economic and emotional.

On the way home yesterday, the Beloved (after congratulating me on this find and rejoicing with me — she’s like that!) asked me pensively, “What do you get out of those records?”

I thought for a minute and said, “First, the music. I am trying not to buy everything just because it’s there, so I am buying discs I don’t have on CD or on my iPod. Second, there’s a kind of delight in handling artifacts from a lost time, relics that were well-loved, and imagining their original owners. Third, and perhaps it’s peculiar to me, these records are a way of visiting childhood and adolescence once again, going back to a leisurely time where I could sit next to a phonograph, listen to the music, and absorb joy in three-minute portions. I know that I won’t keep these records forever, and I hope — maybe in twenty years? — to pass them on to someone who will delight in them as I do now.”

And delight is at the heart of the experience.

To find out more about the Food For Thought antiques store and the food bank the proceeds go to (the staff is not paid; they volunteer their time and friendship) see here. The store — which has other surprises for those immune to “old records” — is at  2701 Gravenstein Highway South, Sebastopol. Lovely people, and cookies at the cash register for the low-blood-sugar crowd (like myself: record-hunting is draining work).

May your happiness increase!