Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Firehouse Five Plus Two

One of the most popular bands of the west coast traditional jazz revival of the late 40s/early 50s was the Firehouse Five plus Two of Los Angeles (from here on the FH5). The band with their colorful appearance, comedic timing and great musicianship brought the sounds of classic jazz to many moldy figs and casual fans. Along with the Dukes of Dixieland, this writer and young trumpet student learned a lot about this wonderful music from the FH5.

The band was the brainchild of trombonist Ward Kimball, an ace animator and director at Walt Disney Studios. (Ward was one of the "grand old men" who created some of Disney's most beloved characters.) Ward was a rough and ready trombonist, but he had his moments and his enthusiasm and wit were hallmarks of the band. Ward started the band around 1945 as a lunchtime hobby with fellow Disney-ites Clarke Mallory (clarinet), Ed Penner (bass sax and later tuba), Jim McDonald (drums) and Frank Thomas (pian0; another "grand old man). All the band members loved traditional jazz and dixieland and had played with jazz greats such as Kid Ory, Joe Darensbourg, Minor Hall, Albert Nicholas and Zutty Singleton. The band was originally billed as the Huggageedy 8 then the San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers.

The FH5 came about when Ward and wife Betty, members of the S. California Horseless Carriage Club, brought the band to a caravan. To accommodate the group, Ward and Co. bought a 1914 LaFrance fire truck to play on and dressed the band in red shirts, suspenders and fire helmets. This would be the colorful uniform that attracted their legions of fans. By this time, Johnny Lucas, a talented Los Angeles trumpeter and Harper Goff, a free-lance artist had joined the crew. More casual jobs followed, along with a Monday night series at LA's Beverly Cavern, a popular spot for trad jazz, including the Kid Ory band.

The big break came in 1949 when record producer Les Koenig signed the band for a date on his Good Time Jazz label. Good Time Jazz would soon be one of the major trad labels featuring the likes of Lu Watters, Kid Ory, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey and the Castle Jazz Band to name a few. That first session on May 13, 1949 featured Firehouse Stomp, Blues my Naught Sweeties Gives to Me, Fireman's Lament and San. Luca's trumpet work is a standout, but all the players were competent jazzmen and their enthusiasm and comic touches (fire sirens, gongs, slapsticks, band vocals and Spike Jones-ish effects) made them unique and infectious. These first sides and the ensuing recordings came out on 78 rpm and would eventually be collated into 10 and 12 inch LPs. Most of the pre-1954 sides were issued on 3 LPs as the Firehouse Five Story.

On the October 8, 1949 session Lucas and MacDonald were replaced by Danny Alguire and Monte Mountjoy. Monte was a veteran of the Tiny Hill, Bob Wills and Spade Cooley bands. He later became a fixture on the midwest dixieland scene. Danny was also a former Wills Texas Playboy. He had also sat in with the Lu Watters gang during the postwar years. He played a direct, no-nonsense lead cornet, but could surprise you with inspired solos. He became a regular and stayed to the end.

The band really started to click and was the talk of Los Angeles. The years of 1950-52 saw the FH5 reach an amazing popularity, certainly something the Disney part-timers never expected. The band began a Monday night series at Hollywood's Mocambo club, where many of the film community came to dig the band and take part in their Charleston contests. Bing Crosby loved the band and had them on his radio show. I remember a great version of Please don't Talk about Me with Bing getting in a nifty scat break. Television also welcomed the firemen and they appeared on the Ed Wynn Show, the Milton Berle Show, the Make Believe Ballroom and Walt Disney shows. During this time they appeared in two feature films, Hit Parade of 1951, a B musical from Republic and Grounds for Marriage, an MGM comedy with Van Johnson and Kathryn Grayson. This film gave the band a nice spot as Van and Kathryn go to the Firehouse club to hear our boys. They play their great version of Tiger Rag. Also heard are excerpts of Pagan Love Song and Five Foot Two (catch it on Youtube). In 1950 the band made a series of Snader Telecriptions (fillers for TV when shows ended early). These films show the band in a firehouse setting and they sound and look great , Ward and Harper especially are scene-stealers. The boys were also in a 1951 Universal short with Teresa Brewer and Joe Venuti. During Teresa's tunes they lip-sync to the studio band.

The band also began appearing at Gene Norman's famous Dixieland Jubilee concerts in Los Angeles, even sharing the stage with Louis Armstrong in 1951. (Muskrat Ramble can be heard on the California Concerts with Armstrong, a Decca cd. There also was an old Decca LP featuring the band on some samples from the Dixieland Jubilee).

Some of the many highlights of the Good Time Jazz sides of 1949-51 include The World is Waiting for the Sunrise, featuring Ward on washboard and Harper's banjo prowess. Tiger Rag became a staple in the band's book and the 1950 version is a goodie. The band's trademark "group" vocals start to appear, usually with Danny and Ward on lead. These tongue-in-cheek vocals were as much a part of the FH5 as were the fire sirens, sound effects and comic interludes. Much good jazz was played too, including solid versions of South, Everybody Loves my Baby, San Antonio Rose, Mississippi Rag (featuring Frank) and Riverside Blues. The band's single of Jingle Bells (backed by Tavern in the Town) was a very popular seasonal favorite. Ed Penner switched over to tuba on the second record session and banjoist Dick Roberts started filling in for Harper on the June 12, 1951 session. Dick was a busy studio man and had his own Good Time Jazz series, the Banjo Kings with fellow banjoist Red Roundtree. He would eventually replace Harper in the group. (drummer Jerry Hamm also subbed for Monte on a few dates). Danny's composition, Firechief Rag (based on Bob Wills' Beaumont Rag, a cousin to Do What Ory Say), is another fine side from this period.

By May of 1952, Ward and most of the Disney contingent of the band were finding it hard juggling their studio work along with the phenomenon of the FH5. They decided to take a hiatus until they could play on their own terms. The May 20 session saw the band in great form as they went out with a bang on their sabbatical. Clarinetist Tom Sharpsteen, a local trad man, had replaced Clarke. He had a funky New Orleans sound and used the Albert system. The four selections, Runnin' Wild, Floating Down Old Green River, When You Wore a Tulip and Lonesome Railroad Blues, find the band in great form. By the fall of '53 the band was back, still busy as ever but careful to watch the amount of work they took. The future albums, first on 10'' LP, then on 12'' LP, would have themes or concepts. The first of these was FH5 Plus 2 Goes South. Most of the album was recorded in January and March of 1954. Four 1956 sides were added for the 12'' version. The tunes are all favorites and ditties about the South. The new clarinetist and soprano sax man was George Probert, a spectacular player and soloist who had stints with Bob Scobey and Kid Ory in the early to mid-50s. George's unique soprano tone and ingenious improvisations would become one of the band's most popular and recognizable sounds.

The covers of the LPs would also be highlights. The Goes South album has a red map of the South with a great action shot of the band framed by their distinctive logo. The album features such favorites as Milenberg Joys, Swanee River, Basin St. and Dixieland One-Step. But we also get some old pop tunes such as Birmingham Papa, Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old Kentucky Home and Charleston Back to Charleston. Harper Goff only appears on the March 30 session but would be replaced by Dick Roberts. Harper's work on art and production design kept him very busy. He even took a few character roles in movies. He has a spot in Pete Kelly's Blues. George Probert gives us some of his fine clarinet work on Georgia Camp Meeting; his clarinet, not as dynamic as his soprano was a nice contrast. He also adds a hot ocarina chorus on Swanee River. The October 11, 1956 session has Jim MacDonald back on drums and features a lovely version of Tishomingo Blues. The boys could always give out with straight trad jazz.

Next up would be the FH5 Plays for Lovers recorded in September through December 1955 and in January 1956. This album is a nifty mix of pop favorites and vintage rarities on the subject of love, all done up in FH5 style. The album cover is a winner, a pair of Victorian lovers surrounded by the FH5 doing their thing! Danny and George get in many nice solo bits and the ever reliable Dick Roberts is a rock on rhythm and solo duties. We especially like Ward's goading of George on Love Is Just around the Corner. My Cutie's Due at Two to Two is a great little "forgotten" pop. Danny takes a cute vocal break. He sang a lot on the live dates and would later do some solos on the LPs. Love Songs of the Nile, a favorite of New Orleans' Billie and DeeDee Pierce, gets a nice FH5 treatment with George's "romantic" soprano featured. He also has a nice clarinet spot on I Love You Truly). All in all, another winner for the firemen!

Ward, Frank and Ed Penner (a screenwriter) were involved in so many of the classic Disney films including Snow White, Pinnocchio, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty to name just a few. Danny and George joined the studio around this time as assistant directors, doing mostly music work on cartoons. In 1956 the band appeared on the popular Mickey Mouse Club. (You can catch it on Youtube). The band joined the kids for I Want To Be a Fireman and Tiger Rag with Mousketeer Cubby O'Brien sitting in on drums. (Cubby was a great talent and later was with Lawrence Welk's Junior Band on TV.) Speaking about drummers, the FH5's new drummer, Eddie Forrest, is on this show. He was a studio pro and a real kick to watch, the perfect FH5 drummer!

Sadly, Ed Penner passed on in November of 1956. He was a fine musician and talented writer loved by the band and Disney colleagues. His first replacement was Ralph Ball, a West Coast trad man who had played with Turk Murphy. Soon the remarkable George Bruns filled the chair. George had worked with Turk and the Castle Jazz Band and was working a lot at Disney, writing and scoring music. (His Ballad of Davy Crockett was a huge hit.) He played several instruments, but specialized in trombone and tuba. He was one of the most inventive and dexterous players on tuba. With the two Georges and Eddie, the FH5 fielded their best band.

Their next album, FH5 Goes to Sea, is a classic! The album was recorded over the course of 4 sessions from February to November of 1957. Ralph is on the first session with George Bruns taking over for the rest of the sessions. The combination of fun tunes, FH5 hokum, great jazz and the slurping ocean effects after each tune make this a real winner. George Bruns' extended solos on Devil and the Deep Blue Sea are some of the finest tuba improvisations on record. George Probert has many great spots including a wailing chorus on Sailboat in the Moonlight. Danny does some nice growling on Red Sails in the Sunset and the old favorite Minnie the Mermaid is a natural for the band, complete with band vocal and swinging Probert chorus. (George also gets in a hot ocarina solo on Sailor's Sweetheart.) These are just a few highlights of a truly great trad album. Once again, the album cover was a classic as the boys are shown "going to sea" into the ocean at Malibu.

The band was keeping up its busy schedule with private parties, jazz festivals and TV. They did the Lawrence Welk show and made a memorable appearance on Bobby Troup's Stars of Jazz show in 1958. This show also featured the wonderful Barbara Dane, a west coast singer in the Bessie Smith tradition. (Trad fans will remember her Blues over Bodega album with Lu Watters.) Some of the tracks have surfaced on Youtube. My copy comes from an old VHS tape. For this show Ward added Don Kinch on cornet. Don played with Turk Murphy and the Castle Jazz Band and would soon take over the FH5 tuba chair. This "super" edition of the band plays Milenberg Joys, Devil and Deep Blue Sea (featuring George Bruns and nice fours with the trumpets) and a romping That's a Plenty. Barbara does Old Fashioned Love and Ain't Nobody Got the Blues like Me with the boys. This is a wonderful show and deserves to be on DVD. (The entire series would be welcome.)

Back at Good Time Jazz, the band made one of it's funniest albums, FH5 Crashes a Party. This album was recorded over 5 sessions from September 1958 to November 1959. The repertoire included old favorites such as Heart of My Heart, I want a Girl , Button Up Your Overcoat and You Are My Sunshine along with jazz standards such as Jazz Band Ball. Nobody's Sweetheart, Bill Bailey and the Saints. To create their "party" the band used the voices of wives and friends along with the band members. There is hilarious laughter, hooting and hollering and bad singalongs like you find at every party. A lot of good jazz still surfaces, but the band's comedic talents are at their best here. Don Kinch would now be the permanent tuba with the band. (Occasionally Ward would get George Bruns back and put Don on cornet). We also get another classic cover with the band "crashing" the party of a middle age lothario with his comely date.

After the hilarious "Party" album the band got back to basics with Dixieland Favorites. This album recorded over a period from September 1958 to March 1960 shows the band's fine abilities as a trad jazz band minus the comedy. Along with classics like Doctor Jazz, Royal Garden Blues and Fidgety Feet, we get lesser heard items such as Working Man Blues and Storyville Blues. The band sounds great and plays all the material with verve and polish. Canal Street Blues is a showcase for the marvelous improvisations of George Probert. Taken at an uncharacteristic slow tempo, he builds chorus after chorus until the final band ride out. It would become a crowd pleaser on live dates. George also gets in a nice low register clarinet spot on Doctor Jazz. (Too bad we didn't get more of that clarinet.) This is a great introduction to the band if you're not into the comedy part of their act. (Don't worry. There is a fire siren on That's a Plenty and a silly band break on Sister Kate!)

The next album, Around the World, was another fairly straight collection of "geographic and travel " tunes, always a popular album concept. Recorded over 4 sessions from 1957 to 1961 we get a nice collection of old favorites and a few jazz standards. (Sorry; no band vocals!). On the '57 session we get the added bonus of George Bruns on tuba. Danny Alguire has some of his best moments here with nice punchy cup mute solos on Japanese Sandman and Hindustan along with a duet with Bruns on Sheik of Araby. His lead playing through out is very strong. Sheik also has some silent movie piano by Frank (a tribute to Rudolph Valentino) and a swinging Kimball -Probert duet with George on clarinet. We also get George back on clarinet for Hindustan. (I got my wish.) Russian Lullabye, Irish Eyes, China Boy and Panama also get nice renderings. As on Dixieland Favorites, the fire siren comes on for the ride out in California, Here I Come. (We have to have the FH5 trademark). The cover, designed by Ward, has the band virtually flying around the world!

Disneyland had always been a regular venue for this band of mostly Disney employees. It was the perfect spot for their first "live" album, At Disneyland, recorded on July 27 and 28 of 1962. This was an early purchase for this writer and still brings back happy memories. Recorded at the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland, a regular venue for the band in the summertime, we get a representative FH5 program of standards and surprises, complete with Ward's witty announcements. We also get a bonus of two solo vocals by Danny, who always sung on live dates. Anvil Stomp is a hilarious takeoff on the Anvil Chorus with Eddie Forrest dropping his anvil on his foot at the end of the performance. Coney Island Washboard has Ward dusting off his washboard chops and we get a super version of Tiger Rag (first recorded by the band in 1950). I can never play this tune without using Danny's Deep in the Heart of Texas quote. My only complaint is that we get Muskrat Ramble again. It was on Favorites only two years earlier. Another selection would have been nice. We also get a great cover of the band posed on the famous Disney Tea Cups, and don't miss Danny's closing Safety Message! The band also took part in many of the Dixieland at Disneyland festivals, sharing the bill with the likes of Louis Armstrong, the Dukes of Dixieland, Sweet Emma, Ben Pollack and Santo Pecora to name but a few. Also in 1962, the band played on Oscar Brown Jr.'s Jazz Scene U.S.A. TV show. This show is not available for viewing but hopefully will surface on DVD or on Youtube. (The boys played Panama, Sister Kate, Anvil Stomp and Tiger Rag).

The band kept up their schedule of Disneyland appearances along with private parties, festivals and a bi-yearly visit to friend Turk Murphy's club Earthquake McGoon's in San Francisco. Next up at Good Time Jazz was FH5 Goes to a Fire, recorded from April through June 1964. It is a very appropriate album featuring lots of hot flame, smoke and fire songs and a great cover with the boys in front of an antique fire engine. The album goes from the comedic best of the band with Ward's wild narrative of Fireman, Save my Child to his "kissing" chorus on Hot Lips to straight ahead trad on Oh Sister, Ain't that Hot, Smoky Mokes and a new version of the band's theme, Firehouse Stomp that tops the original. There's also a surprisingly swinging version of Smokey the Bear (complete with band vocal) and a lovely version of the 40s hit, I don't Want to Set the World on Fire with a great Probert chorus and pretty lead work by Danny.

By the mid-60s some changes in personnel occurred. Dick Roberts passed on and was replaced by Bill Newman, a top-notch string man who had worked with Turk Murphy and Kid Ory. George Bruns came back on tuba and Don Kinch joined Danny for more two cornet work. This edition of the band made a single for Good Time Jazz in November 1966 of Mame and Winchester Cathedral, two top hits of the day. The band sounds great and George Bruns gets in some nice solo work. On Winchester, George Probert dusts off his ocarina. This would be Frank Thomas' swan song; he would continue with Disney until 1978. Frank and Ward were often interviewed on Disney retrospectives.He passed away in 2004. Frank was replaced by a fine west coast trad man, K.O. Eckland.

The last Good Time Jazz album was 20 Years Later, recorded in October of 1969. This anniversary album features the new edition of the band playing a mix of more pop tunes of the day and old favorites. The 1966 single was included. The Rooftop Singers' Walk Right In makes a great FH5 vehicle with great Bruns tuba. Hello Dolly has great trumpet fours by Danny and Don and Petite Fleur features George (appropriately on a Bechet composition) along with Don's Louis-ish lead. Midnight in Moscow and Java are also nice treatments. Bill Newman, a fine guitarist gets in some nice rhythm work on Petite Fleur. Wilbur DeParis' Martinique is a standout with great solo spots on the minor strain by Probert and Don with nice lead by Danny. High Society is given a wild ride with guest sopranos John Smith and Tom Kubis joining George for a 3 man soprano version of the classic clarinet spot. Barney Google is a perfect FH5 tune with band vocal, bird calls and duck quacks. Yellow Dog Blues features a mixture of dog and train effects. (The Yellow Dog was a railroad line.) All in all, this is a great wrap-up to the band's 20 year stay at Good Time Jazz. The cover feature a great shot of the band atop the fire engine on Ward's railroad line, complete with cake and flowers.

The last FH5 album in April of 1970 was recorded at Earthquake McGoon's and an LP was issued by the San Francisco Jazz Foundation. Happily, George Buck has put the album out on CD on his G.H.B. label with great liner notes by K.O. Eckland, a very witty man. The band with Danny on solo cornet and the great trad tuba man Bob Short of Watters, Murphy, Scobey and Castle Jazz Band fame filling in for George Bruns sounds as fine as always. We get many tunes not recorded on Good Time Jazz along with Ward's witty announcements and plenty of vocals by Danny (sometimes supported by Ward and the band). There's a great Jungle Town, Doctor Jazz and Sister Kate. (You can hear Turk laughing during a zany band break.) Danny goes back to his Bob Wills days for San Antonio Rose and George gets in his innings on Canal Street. For a sentimental wrap up we get a great version of Who Walks In from the band's early days. My only complaint is a few too many duck call routines from Ward; otherwise a great "farewell" album.

In 1971 Ward retired the band to concentrate on his Disney work. Most of the boys continued playing. Danny moved to the Portland, Oregon area and was active in the trad scene there where he played with Monte Ballou and Jim Beatty. Chris Tyle did a great profile on Danny in the September 1992 Mississipi Rag. Danny had passed on that July. This back issue may be available online at the Rag's website. I also recommend Hal Smith's online appreciation, For Whom the Brass Bell Tolls. Don Kinch also worked around Portland and had a fine band, the Conductor's Ragtime Band. The band wore railroad conductor hats and used some FH5 comic effects. They made some hard-to-find LPs. The grand old man, Ward Kimball, lived until 2002. Youtube has a great Tom Snyder interview with Ward and wife Betty as they discuss his Disney work, antiques, railroads and the FH5. George Probert is still wailing on the west coast and at trad festivals.

This has been one of my longest posts, but I think the band deserved it. For great traditional jazz with the right dose of showmanship and comedy, you can't beat the Firehouse Five Plus Two. Their Good Time Jazz albums and film and TV appearances are there for the proof. Ward and his talented crew brought a lot of joy and great jazz to many trad fans, this writer included, and to casual listeners. If you haven't heard or seen them, try them out. I guarantee you'll be entertained and musically rewarded.

To close we'll use Ward's intermission announcement from At Disneyland: We're going to take a 15 minute break. So you have time to go on all the Rides!

CD Update: The Good Time Jazz LPs were all reissued by Fantasy Records, but I believe they are out of print. Ebay or a used CD store are good alternatives. So far, no FH5 clips are on DVD. Until then, check them out on Youtube.


GeorgeS said...

Good article. I was trying to track down Teresa Brewer's films with them. I thought she did 7, but maybe the other 5 were just audio. Any tips?

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