Thursday, August 14, 2008

Johnnie "Scat" Davis: Hooray for Scat


One of the most intriguing personalities of the Dance Band era was trumpeter-vocalist-bandleader-actor Johnnie "Scat" Davis. Perhaps this diversity in his career was the reason for his musicianship being forgotten over the years.

Johnnie was born in Brazil, Indiana on May 11, 1910. His father and grandfather were concert musicians and he had some musical brothers. (Trumpeter Art Davis worked in Johnnie's big band in the 40s.) Johnny became proficient on trumpet by his teens and worked with local stage and dance bands. At one show Johnnie sang a vocal and was complimented by an old minstrel man, Lassus White. He referred to Johnnie's singing as "scat," but he meant ad-libbing as opposed to Louis Armstrong's horn-like scatting. However, the nickname stuck.

Johnnie's early professional years were spent hopping around the country with territory bands such as Jimmy Joy and Smith Ballew. As early as 1930 he recorded with his own band for Broadway but these sides are extremely rare. While with Ballew in New York City in 1931, he recorded a vocal on Sugar (not the standard) for the Crown label. He also recorded four sides for Victor in 1932 with a trio. They were rejected.

By mid-1931 Johnnie was working frequently with Red Nichols at the Park Central and recorded some Brunswick sides with him. Most of the Nichols sides feature Johnnie on vocals (sounding quite like the popular studio singer Dick Robertson). He also gets in a fine plunger solo on Nichol's record of Get Cannibal. Johnnie also worked for Will Osbourne for a time and "fronted" the Casa Loma Orchestra for a short time before Glen Gray became leader.

Late in 1931 Johnnie joined the popular Fred Waring Band. Waring, like Paul Whiteman, featured a large troupe of musicians and singers. Johnnie did some novelty vocals with the band and took most of the jazz trumpet spots. Two good examples from this period are How'm I Doin’ and I Heard with Davis on vocals and trumpet. In October 1934 and September 1935 Johnnie made 12 sides for the Decca label.

This was a studio band and featured many New York City studio pros such as Bunny Berrigan, Mannie Klein, Floyd O'Brien, Frank Froeba, Artie Shaw and Lennie Johnson (guitar). Johnnie sings and plays trumpet on all the sides, mostly pop tunes of the day. Highlights include College Rhythm with a fine vocal and trumpet coda combining Louis and Red Nichols. Congratulate Me has fine plunger work and nice guitar from Johnson (very Dick McDonough-like). Take a Number from One to Ten has great O'Brien trombone and a swingin vocal by "Scat." Loafin' Time is a pleasant tune in the style of Lazy Bones. I Feel a Song Comin' On has Johnnie in great vocal form. These sides deserve to be heard. Besides Johnnie's fine work, they are an excellent example of pre-swing era dance music.

Johnnie continued with Waring through the 30s, occasionally taking sabbaticals to front his own groups. He also had a brief run at the Hickory House with Frank Trumbauer in the early part of 1937. (I believe some of the airchecks have come out on a Trumbauer CD.)

A word or two on Johnnie's trumpet and vocal style. His later success as an actor and novelty singer obscured the fact that he played fine trumpet. The influence of Louis Armstrong is obvious (not unusual), but there is also a brisk staccato-like attack reminicent of his former boss, Red Nichols. Johnny liked to use the cup and harmon mutes to get a "buzzy" sound to his horn. He also played with quite a bit of power and had no trouble getting into the upper register of the horn (again a la Louis). On vocals he had a flexible tenor voice, sometimes with a bite or rasp, but also pleasant on ballads. Fellow horn men Louis Prima and Tony Pastor had similar approaches to "Scat." Johnny continued as a popular member of Waring's troupe thru the 30s.

In 1937 the Waring band appeared in a Warner Bros. musical called Varsity Show. This was a typical campus musical. Johnnie sang a few tunes in the picture and registered well as a comedic character actor. Warners' liked what they saw and retained Johnnie's services for a series of musicals and comedies.He had a plum supporting role in the football comedy Over the Goal(1937) also starring William "Paul Drake" Hopper, June Travis and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.Johnnie stood out as freshman water boy Tiny Waldron and sang a bit of Rollin' Off a Log and a cute novelty called Scattin' with Mr. Bear which featured some hot horn work. He even did a vocal and trumpet bit in a Vitaphone cartoon, Katnip Kollege (1938.)Johnnie's cat character reprised Rollin' Off a Log (sung to mabel Todd's "Kitty") and part of his cornet solo from Mr. Bear was edited in. But the picture that really put Johnnie over was Hollywood Hotel (1937.)

The film starred Dick Powell, The Lane Sisters (Waring alumni), Frances Langford and Benny Goodman's band. At the beginning of the film Johnnie, Frances, Benny and the band see Dick off at the airport and perform Hooray for Hollywood (Richard Whiting-Johnny Mercer.) This version with "Scat" featured on some lively vocalizing has become a classic and became "Scat's" theme with his own groups. In the movie Johnnie is supposed to be a member of the Goodman band, but he just lip-synched his part with the trumpet section. (With all due respect to Johnnie Benny had Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin!) To this day when TV shows do a Hollywood-theme they usually trot out this version with Johnnie scatting away.

Another good showcase for Johnnie was Garden of the Moon (1938.) John Payne played the leader of a swing band (actually Joe Venuti's band) and "Scat" was a featured musician and John's sidekick in the film. Also featured were Pat O'Brien, Margaret Lindsey and Jerry Colonna as a trombonist in the band. (Jerry was a fine player before concentrating on comedy.) Between "Scat," Joe and Jerry there are many funny vocals and instrumental bits. Johnnie gets in some good trumpet licks and is featured on Girl Friend of the Whirling Dervish and Lady on the Two Cent Stamp.

Johnnie made a total of ten films for Warners'. The 1938 film Mr. Chump gave Johnnie the starring role supported by Penny Singleton and Lola Lane. He played a trumpeter with a get-rich scheme. Johnnie got to play and sing several numbers. The big number was As Long As You Live (also recorded by Tommy Dorsey's Clambake 7)performed in a dance hall scene. Scat also does some nice blowing on Bob White and Listen to the Mocking Bird and accompanies Penny's vocal on It's Against the Law in Arkansas. Although a minor B picture, Johnnie's vocals,trumpet and comic abilities are well showcased. (The film was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies).

After 1939 Warners' cut down on their musicals and let Johnnie go. His movies had made him a recognizable figure so he put together a swing band and started touring. The Johnnie "Scat" Davis band had a very successful start at the Blackhawk in Chicago.

A 1939 promo in Down Beat shows him with vocalist Gloria Van. Much of his activity during these years is obscured. As Johnnie himself said, he had become popular in the movies so the band did a lot of theatre dates. Johnnie led some good bands during the swing era and sidemen included Conrad Gozzo, Kenny Trimble, Buddy deFranco, Dodo Marmarosa and Mel Grant. The band made a few movie shorts and four sides for the Hit label in 1942. Hip Hip Hooray is the only side that features Johnnie's horn and voice. The other sides are routine pop arrangements. (Johnnie has a brief solo on At Last.)

In 1943 Johnnie and the band made a low budget film for Monogram called Sarong Girl. (The band onscreen is fairly small.) Burlesque star Ann Corio had the title role and Johnnie once again excelled as a comic sidekick-musician. He gets a great feature on Darling Nellie Gray. His trumpet work is very Louis-ish including a cadenza right out of Pops. In 1944 Johnnie made his last films, You Can't Ration Love and Knickerbocker Holiday, a campus musical and film version of the play with Johnnie in a supporting role.

Johnnie continued leading his big band into the late 40s. A 1946 transcription finds Johnnie in good form on Buzz me, Honeydripper and Hey, Baba Rebop. He also contributes a mellow vocal on Hoagy Carmichael's lovely Memphis in June. The band sounds full of fun and really jumps. It has a lot of the feel of Louis Prima's big bands of the time.

Around 1948 Johnnie scaled down to a small group called the Scat-tet. A 1948 transcription finds the band playing 'Swonderful, Mean to Me and I Can't Give You Anything but Love. Johnnie's trumpet work on these is especially good and on Mean to Me he hits some Louis-ish high notes. There is a fine tenor sax and vibes player in this band. Bassist Jack Wyatt, later with Jim Cullum, was a member of this band. Johnnie did some recording for the Universal label of Chicago in 1948. I believe the tunes in the transcription come from these sessions. He made a swinging re-make of Hooray for Hollywood at these sessions.

In the early 50s, Johnnie popped up on his own TV show out of Detroit, Coffee and Cakes. I'm sure this was done live and we don't have any tapes of the show available. He also did at least one side for Dizzy Gillespie's short-lived DeeGee label.One of the tunes was Gambler's Blues by Phil Baxter, an old colleague of Johnnie's. Johnnie's activities in the 50s are hard to trace. I know he started doing regular small band dates in Vegas, probably by the early 60s.

In 1959 a King LP was issued by Johnnie called Here's Lookin' Atcha. These sides probably come from the Universal sessions. The album is a real mixed bag, part dixieland, part swing, part R&B. It even has some organ on some sides, a nice touch. Johnnie's horn is featured very nicely on most selections. (The album is instrumental.) His Body and Soul is inspired with great phrasing and a take off on Bunny's Can't Get Started ending. After You've Gone and Baby,Won't You Please Come Home also feature nice horn work, although he's straining a bit on the high ones on Baby. The dixie tunes Muskrat, That's a Plenty and Tin Roof feature Johnnie on solid lead and some of that stacatto attack. St. James Infirmary has a nice solo by John and a vamp similar to Red Nichol's Wail of the Winds.

Despite the odd mixture of tunes, the album shows Johnnie's abilities as a jazzman and leader. The dixie tunes have a unique front line of trumpet, clarinet and baritone sax. This album is well worth seeking out on Ebay or in second hand shops. In the 60's Johnnie settled in Arlington,Texas with his wife Martha and daughters, Nancy and Judy. He played local dates and took bands to Vegas, Reno and Tahoe for regular appearances. For a good example of his Vegas band, go to John Gates.com. John played drums for "Scat" in the mid 60's and has a nice audio clip of one of "Scat's" shows. John was playing mostly bass trumpet. He was having some chop trouble, but he sounds good on Basin St. and So Long Dearie. His singing is delightful and he is a fine emcee.

I had a chance to talk to the late Jack Wyatt, who did some of Johnnie's Texas gigs. He said that "Scat" was a great entertainer and great guy to work for.

Through a fellow collector I was able to get a copy of a radio show John did in the late 70's in Arlington,Texas. The show was hosted by Jim Lowe. He and a fellow collector chat with Johnnie who talks about his years in the business and reacts to some of his recordings. "Scat" comes across as a nice, good-humored guy who knows his place in music history, but doesn't come off as an egotist. In 1981 Johnnie was one of the bands that played for President Reagan's Inaugural Ball. He and Ron were colleagues at Warner Bros. and had kept in touch over the years. Johnnie continued to work around Texas until his death from a heart attack on November 25, 1983. He was booked to play New Year's Eve at Dallas' Fairmont Hotel.

Though not a major player on the jazz/swing roster, Johnnie brought lots of fun and good jazz to his audiences for many years.

Hooray for you, Scat.

Addendum- Recently we acquired a curio- an LP of vocalist Patti James backed by the Johnnie "Scat" Davis Orch. The album appears to be a souveneir of an engagement Miss James played in Dallas with Scat's band. The promo picture of Scat on the cover suggests the period of mid to late 60s. The 12 piece band is a good one, it sounds like an augmented version of Scat's Vegas band.
Miss James is a talented entertainer and from her photo, a good looker. There isn't much here for fans of Scat ( he is obviously leading the band-no trumpet work), until the last cut, a swinging duet of Ol' Man River with Patti and Scat. Apparently, they had been doing this number during the run of the show. Scat is in good form, his elastic voice jumping all around and throwing in some nice scat passages. This album is for Scat completists only, however it shows him to still be a fine entertainer and front man.

6 comments:

thomas said...

I think this is the guy I have been trying to identify. Heard him once on Chairman of the Board Show on Sirius and never could get them to give me any info. Then I heard him on an old movie--The Long Good Bye and feel sure it was him.

anybody knowing anything like a discography for him please let me know--firenze841@hotmail.com

tinpanalley01 said...

I have been looking for Scat Davis' recording of "Hooray for Hollywood" on Universal to add to my collection of dance band theme songs ( around 300 at present). Can anyone supply or sell me a copy or dub? Universal records are very rare! One source suggests that his earlier theme was "I Feel a Song Comin' On,"done on Decca - of which I do have a copy.

tinpanalley

Kurt Tazelaar said...

Thanks for putting the info up, I've been fascinated by him ever since I saw the clip from Hollywood Hotel. I hope there's a compilation somewhere of his music... Fred Waring did a ton of albums but the ones I come across are later.

19mike59 said...

Great information. I was doing research and today found out that he is my second cousin once-removed, on his mother's side. What a wonderful entertainer he was!

Gerald Nichols said...

Johnnie had a small group at the "Brass Rail"in Chicago at the same time I played trombone with Jimmy Ille there in mid 50s. You wrote a fantastic piece on Johnnie here. I found it while looking for a trombone player with Johnnie's band then, can't remember his name but I think he left the band in Chi and for a while shared my apartment. Marty Nichols.(aka Gerry Nichols)
lnam22@att.net

disco 07 said...

I just saw Johnnie (Scat) Davis on TCM in "Hollywood Hotel". I was quite intrigued with his upbeat style and thought I noticed several influences. Thanks for your article which cleared a lot of things like influences, career, biography and generally solved the mystery. Amazingly enough I find myself singing "Hooray for Hollywood" to myself never knowing who sang the song. Thanks for the enjoyable reading.