One of the most popular traditional jazz bands of the 50s and 60s was The Dukes of Dixieland. The New Orleans group was co-led by brothers Frank and Fred Assunto. Their successful series of Audio Fidelity recordings introduced trad jazz and dixieland to many happy listeners including this writer. This post will look at their phenomenal career, with a special spotlight on the very talented trumpeter/vocalist, Frank Assunto.
In 1949 they won a talent contest on the Horace Heidt radio show as The Junior Dixie Band. This resulted in a nationwide tour with the Heidt show. Following this success, they returned to New Orleans and turned pro, calling themselves The Dukes of Dixieland. Some of their early venues included The Famous Door for four years and The Golden Slipper in Baton Rouge for 22 weeks.
The earliest recordings of The Dukes were on the New Orleans Bandwagon label in late 1951. Frank and the band sound great, but they definitely have the sound and feel of the 1950s white dixieland groups such as Sharkey Bonano, Santo Pecora and Tony Almerico. They would eventually smooth out their style to be more popular commercially.
Frank sounds surprisingly like Sharkey on these sides. Of course he was only 22 years old. He would soon go with a leaner, more virtuoso type style, more like Louis. These sides eventually were reissued on an old Forum LP (long out of print). Pianist Stan Mendlsohn would continue along with The Dukes until 1960. Other players such as clarinetist Bill Shea, bassist Chink Martin and drummer, Roger Johnston, were local pros who worked with many of the New Orleans jazz bands. Fred's wife Betty, known as The Duchess, makes her first appearance and has a cute Kay Starr/Brenda Lee type approach to the trad tunes. Frank's excellent trumpet and vocal on St. James Infirmary is pretty much the set routine he would use on Audio Fidelity.
Frank had a fine voice. There was some of the New Orleans drawl but also a clear Sinatra-type phrasing to his vocals. In 1951-2 the band recorded for Imperial and later for Okeh. These sides are hard to find and haven't been reissued yet.
In 1955 Betty Owens took leave of the band to deliver her and Fred's first child.(they had a boy, Mike and two girls, Jan and Angela). She would occasionally rejoin the band, but spent more of her time as a mom.(Frank had married Joan Bartet, a New Orleans beauty queen). The boys asked Papa Jac to join them as a special attraction on trombone and banjo. Jac took a leave from his teaching duties and joined up. Audiences enjoyed seeing him working with his two talented sons. Jac also had a degree in business from Tulane and was a great help with the management of the band.
In 1955 and '56 the boys played Chicago at the Preview Lounge on Randolph St. and were a big hit. They also made their Vegas debut and racked up 64 weeks at the Thunderbird. They would become Vegas regulars. While playing a smash 16 week stand at the Preview, Sid Frey of Audio Fidelity Records heard of the band and found them to be a perfect match for the company. Audio Fidelity specialized in showing off their great stereo sound and The Dukes' percussive, lively jazz was perfect for their needs. They became the first jazz group to record in the new stereo process.
Most of The Dukes' Audio Fidelity LPs had a theme or concept. The first two volumes in 1956 featured the band playing their standard repertoire. Vol. 1 has favorites such as High Society, South Rampart St. Parade and Frank and the band sing on Tailgate Ramble and When My Sugar Walks down the Street.
Vol. 2 brings Betty back for her fine singing on My Blue Heaven and Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night. Unfortunately these would be her last commercial recordings. Frank does his fine vocal honors on Basin St. and the band plays a nice, strutting version of Listen to the Mocking Bird. Frank does the vocal honors on the "meet the Band" favorite, Mama Don't Allow. Harold Cooper plays clarinet on the first 3 albums. Also featured are Bill Porter on bass and tuba and rotating drummers Paul Ferrara, Roger Johnston and John Edwards.
Next up was Vol. 5, Minstrel Time (1957). This was an average collection of minstrel era and turn of the century favorites such as Swanee, Georgia Camp Meeting and Dinah. Frank gets in two nice vocals on Bill Bailey and Alexander's Ragtime Band.
Vol. 6, Mardi Gras Time (1957), is a natural for the group as they salute their home town with mardi gras flavored selections such as Panama, Honky Tonk Town (nice trumpet by Frank) and While we Danced at the Mardi Gras. Frank gets in 4 great vocals: Louisi-an-i-a, Way down Yonder, New Orleans and the band's theme, Do You Know what It Means? (Frank always sang this beautifully).
Vol. 7 was Circus Time (1958). This sounds like a gimmicky album, but has some fun selections and clever charts. Visions of Salome and Persian Market are standouts along with favorites such as Over the Waves, Asleep in the Deep and Entry of the Gladiators. Barney Mallon plays tuba and bass. It appears to be his only appearance with the band.
During the Audio Fidelity period, the band kept busy with clubwork, personal appearances and television. They played the Playboy JazzFest, the Roundtable in New York and made frequent appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Garry Moore shows. In January 1959 they did a Timex jazz special with many jazz greats including their hometown hero, Louis Armstrong. The Dukes were managed now by Joe Delaney and worked for Joe Glaser's Associated Booking (who handled Louis).
The band's 1959 Carnegie Hall concert was recorded by Audio Fidelity and released as Vol. 10. Gene Bolen, a veteran of the Gene Mayl and Nappy Lamare/Ray Bauduc bands, had come in on clarinet. A fine player, his stay was quite short. The album is pleasant but not inspired playing, although Freddie gets his licks in on Slide, Frog, Slide and Frank plays and sings a great Mack the Knife. Also noteworthy are 76 Trombones, Royal Garden Blues and Yellow Dog Blues. Frank's talents as an emcee are also shown to full advantage here. The band's next two recording sessions would team them with that "hometown hero" for some classic jazz performances and some of Louis Armstrong's greatest later playing.
Louis Armstrong loved working with the Dukes. They were "hometown" boys and everyone, especially Frank, put in inspired playing. Frank had mentioned his nervousness in working with his idol, but quickly pointed out Louis' easy and relaxed personality. This shows on the sessions and Pops is in "super" form on horn and vocals. (For a more detailed look at these sessions, please look up my friend Ricky Riccardi's Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong website).
Bye and Bye and Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen were not released. On Bye Pops makes a goof on his band introductions, which may have been the reason for its deletion. Nobody Knows is a "gem." Pops sings the spiritual favorite with sincerity and passion. Freddie and Papa Jac play pretty backgrounds on trombone and Frank plays some beautiful muted obbligatos to the vocal. Frank was a superb accompanist.
Wolverine Blues has all kinds of trumpet highlights with Pops and Frank trading off leads and 4 bar chases. For good measure Pops throws in an inspired "stop" chorus, reminiscent of the Hot Five days. On New Orleans, Louis plays a sober melody and a tender vocal with Frank providing lovely muted backup. Equally touching is Closer Walk with Thee, played in a similar style to Nobody Knows. Once again Frank's obbligato to Pops' heartfelt vocal is a highlight. Limehouse Blues also has some intense blowing by Pops. He leads the Dukes through the old favorite with great power and passion. The whole album is a classic and showcases the genius of Pops and the excellence of the Dukes and Frank in particular. In 1976 Chiaroscuro records issued two LPs of the unissued material and alternate takes of both sessions.
The last Audio Fidelity album was Piano Ragtime (1960) Vol.11. This is a pleasant album, but pales in comparison to the musical fireworks of the Armstrong sessions. This album may have been recorded in 1959, as Red Hawley and Lowell Miller are aboard. Stan Mendelsohn gets some feature time here on the traditional rags such as Maple Leaf, Grace and Beauty and 12th St. Rag. A few ringers such as Tiger Rag and Wolverine Blues are thrown in for good measure. Johnson Rag gets a nice treatment with a catchy chart. Frank's lead and solos are as fine as always, but he gets no vocals.
The next album was Now Hear This (1962). This time out, the band concentrated on jazz standards including Jazz Band Ball, I'm Comin' Virginia, Honeysuckle Rose, Jazz me Blues, Mood Indigo, Sweet Sue and When You're Smiling. Frank sings a mellow version of Fats Waller's Blue Turning Grey and Jerry gets a crack at the clarinet showcase My Inspiration. Another great guitarist, Herb Ellis, sits in and would be on the next two albums.
The folk craze was big in 1962, so the Dukes did their take on Dixieland Hootenanny. Such favorites as On Top of Old Smokey, Greensleeves, Darling Nellie, John Brown's Body and Wreck of the Old 97 got the Dukes' treatment. Bob Casey, another Condon and Muggsy Spanier alum, brought his solid basswork to the band. The great clarinetist Edmond Hall sat in for Jerry on one session and the band recorded Frosty the Snowman, which wound up on a collection called Jingle Bell Jazz.
The Dukes also appeared on a TV show called World Series of Jazz, where they had sort of a "battle" with Gene Krupa's Quartet. A silly premise, but good musically. The band did a great version of Wreck of the Old 97. The Dukes also did the Dean Martin show in '65.(Frank named his son Frank Jr., "Deano" in honor of Dean. Frank and Joan were big Martin fans.(they also had a daughter,Gina).
Next up at Columbia was an unusual date that paired the Dukes with the gospel group, The Clara Ward Singers. The album entitled We Gotta Shout(1963) features a collection of gospel and spiritual favorites. The great clarinetist Kenny Davern fills in for Jerry Fuller and Jack Six, a talented modern player is on Bass. Boston's Buzzy Drootin, another Condon alum comes in on drums. Buzzy's nephew Sonny, a great pianist recalls seeing Buzzy and the Dukes on the Tonight Show around this time. This is something different for Dukes fans, but Frank and the boys get in some good licks.
The first Decca album was "Live" at Bourbon Street (Chicago) Feb.1965. This album was recorded during the band's stay at the famous Chicago club. Freddie was ill and was replaced by popular Chicago trombonist Dave Remington. The selections mix traditional fare such as China Boy, Struttin' with Some Barbecue, High Society and South Rampart St. with pop tunes such as Charade, Hello Dolly, Red Roses for a Blue Lady and I will Wait for You.
Frank takes a nice solo on Bourbon St.Blues and sings the band's theme Miss New Orleans. However he gets a bit too fancy, with behind the beat phrasing (a bad habit of pop singers). Otherwise, a nice debut for the band on Decca.
The musicians in the band photo (taken at the Royal Sonesta in the Fall of 1969) are Frank, Charlie, Harold Cooper (back for another stint) on clarinet, Don Ewell on piano, Rudy Aikels on bass and Freddie Kohlman on drums.
I'm sure Frank is up there with Freddie and Papa Jac, wailing away with Pops as they did back in the Audio Fidelity days.
Oh Didn't they Ramble!
CD Update:Unfortunately there's not a lot of CD reissues of the Dukes. The Dukes at Disneyland was on a Sony CD for a while. Some of the Columbias were on Collector's Choice CDs, but may be out of print. The Louis Armstrong sessions have been reissued on the Blue Moon and Essential Jazz Classics labels, but the sound is so-so and some tunes have passages missing!The Herb Ellis Midnight Roll session is on a Mosaic Box Set of Columbia Swing Sessions (Mosaic#228). There is a new Hindsight CD of 1961 transcriptions. Most of the TV spots are on the Assuntos' Real Dukes of Dixieland Website.
That's all for now! Hopefully someone will put out all the Audio Fidelity,Columbias and Deccas.In the meantime keep checking on Ebay and at Used Record Stores.