Tag Archives: Jack Benny

“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!

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LOVE IN BLOOM: RUMINATIONS by RAY SKJELBRED (July 8, 2014)

Creating beauty is not easy. In surroundings that may be hostile to it, the energy necessary for creation requires a particular focus and perseverance. The act of creation may seem quietly defiant. In their diligence, the artists tell us, “We don’t really need you all to sit in rapt silence; we will keep on our own paths — doing what we know how to do, doing what we live for — even if you don’t notice.”

Such was the case when Ray Skjelbred played solo piano last month at Pier 23. And since “jazz” is often characterized as rhythmically propulsive, engaging our senses through hectic energy, I offer Ray’s musings on three pieces that are, like the voice of Cordelia, “soft and low.” Two are defined as love songs; the third sounds like one as well, even though its title has no romance in it.

Listen closely. Beauty never goes out of fashion.

MARY’S SPECIAL (for and by Mary Lou Williams):

YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME (with echoes of Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, Lester Young):

LOVE IN BLOOM (for Bing Crosby and Jack Benny):

When I sent these three videos to Ray for his comments, he wrote back, “Many years ago when I first started playing piano and visiting Berkeley I used to stay with Dick Oxtot and I learned later that his daughter would quietly stand behind me while I played, look at the pattern in my Hawaiian shirt, then imagine stories that went with the music and the pattern. Your point of view reminded me of that.”

I encourage you to invent their own sweet narratives while Ray creates his own variations on love in bloom, a garden of sounds.

May your happiness increase! 

“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. . . .