Friday, August 27, 2010

Forgotten Heroes of the Big Band Era: The Ozzie Nelson Orchestra

The name Ozzie Nelson is mostly remembered from his long running radio and TV series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and sons David and Ricky.However, Ozzie had a very successful musical career of his own and led a very musical band which could swing with the best of them.
The Nelson band which also featured Ozzie's wife Harriet Hilliard on vocals hit it's stride in the late 30s and early 40s. This post will hope to bring some well-deserved attention to this fine band.

Ozzie was born in Jersey City, N.J. in 1906. He was a star athlete and honor student at Rutgers. He was studying to be a lawyer, but his work as a singer and saxophonist proved to enticing and in the late 2os he formed a dance band. The band's success came quickly. In 1930 it began recording for Brunswick and was the first band to open the Glen Island Casino, where many of the nation's top band's made their reputation.
Harriet Hilliard (1909-94) was an attractive singer and vaudeville performer when Ozzie hired her as vocalist.She also appeared solo in several films including Follow the Fleet (1936). They married in 1935 and Harriet's solo vocals and duets with Ozzie were highlights of their programs. The early Nelson band was a pleasant dance band, but by the mid-30s it had developed a crisp swinging style and boasted some fine soloists. This version of the band will be highlighted in this post.

Two of the stalwarts of the band were saxophonist Charlie Bubeck and trumpeter Bo Ashford. Bubeck(a charter member of the band) played alto but specialized on baritone. He had a huge,full sound (he used a bass sax reed on his baritone) and was a good jazz player. His baritone gave the Nelson band it's trademark. The great Harry Carney admired the playing of Bubeck-high praise from the master of the baritone. Ashford, formerly with Casa Loma joined up around 1934. He played a pleasant Bix-like horn and was heavily featured on the band's swing tunes. The celebrated trombonist Abe Lincoln was with the band from 1934-7 and lent his fine jazz trombone work to the Nelson recordings. Elmer Smithers , also a capable jazzman (who worked with Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby) handled the trombone work after Lincoln's departure.

The band is well represented on record with Brunswick (1930-3 and 34-6), Vocalion (33-4), Bluebird (37-41) and Victor (41). An old Bandstand lp gave a good cross section of the band's swing style.
Two 1935 sides, Swamp Fire and Solioquoy have an earlier band sound (shades of Casa Loma and Isham Jones) with tuba still present. The old stock favorite Swamp Fire swings politely with good solos, Solioquoy is primarily ensemble, but nicely played (this was a Rube Bloom composition, also recorded by Duke Ellington). The 1936-9 period has many fine sides. Streamline Strut has Bubeck's baritone very present and good trombone (Lincoln?). Ashford's trumpet has some Louis-ish effects and there is nice tenor and ensemble work. There's also a bit of Sid Brokow's hot fiddle (he also doubled saxophone).
Two Larry Clinton favorites ,Whoa Babe and Satan takes a Holiday get swinging treatments. On Whoa, Ashford and Lincoln take nice spots and Bubeck's bari gives the band an Edgar Hayes feel (see our earlier post on him). There are nice dynamics on the out chorus. Satan was well covered by other bands (T.Dorsey, Clinton, Hayes) and the Nelson version is a good one. Ashford states the theme and gets a hot solo along with Lincoln and Bubeck way down low on bari.

The Wayne King favorite, Josephine gets a polite but swinging version. Ashford and Smithers split the melody and Ozzie takes a half-talking vocal, ala Ted Lewis. There's more exellent Bubeck and a good rideout. Queen Isabella another favorite of the day shows the band's light but swinging sound. The opening ensemble has a neat voicing of solo trumpet and reeds. Ashford is polite but gets in some nice rolling licks ( ala Nichols or Secrest) , there's good trombone by Smithers(an underated player) and Bubeck plays off the band not unlike Harry Carney with Duke. The Sheik of Araby has opening melody by bari and an arranged dixie passage. Ashford gets a couple of good Bixish rips and Smithers follows. The outchorus has a nice passage of reed melody with Loui-ish brass backing them. One of the band's best sides. Maple Leaf Rag is played at a nice medium tempo with short solo spots for Bubeck and Ashford and a standout ensemble rideout. Stompin' at the Stadium (1938), also rcorded by T.Dorsey and Bob Crosby is a nice instumental with Asford in his Nichols bag, Smithers and an especially good Bubeck spot.

There are some nice vocal features by Ozzie and Harriet from this period. Says my Heart was a popular Nelson side of the time with a pleasant Harriet vocal and nice solo spots for Bubeck and Ashford. That Sly Old Gentleman shows off the band's sweet side with a nice Harriet vocal and pretty trumpet-A good dance side. Jerome Kern's The Folks who Live on the Hill makes a charming duet for Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie was good on rhythm novelties, sounding a bit like Dick Robertson. Yes Suh! has some good Ozzie vocalizing answered by the band along with two hot Ashford spots,Smithers and our boy Bubeck on the rideout. I'm Breaking my Back (Putting up a Front for You) is another cute Ozzie/Harriet duet. When Harriet was on maternity leave, Rose Ann Stevens deputised. She and Ozzie have fun with The Man who Comes Around, supported by a band vocal and some cornball comedy. The best novelty however also takes the cake for title - I'm Looking for a Guy who plays Alto and Baritone(Doubles on Clarinet and Wears a Size 38 Suit). In this Lament, Ozzie gives us the perennial problem of a Bandleader in need of a sideman and Rose Ann gives the Female view in romantic pursuit of said sideman.

The swinging Nelson band of 1940-2 is nicely showcased on an old Hindsight lp.The cuts are fairly short, made for radio play. Here are some highlights. This band is larger and hits harder than the earlier unit. Most of the tracks are pure swing, but there are still some pleasant dance and vocal specialties. Ashford and Bubeck are still heavily featured, but there are some new soloists including two tenor men, one similar to Eddie Miller and the other more rough-hewn. There are some growl trumpet spots played by another trumpeter(not Ashford).
Jersey Bounce shows the brassier and more dynamic Nelson band. Charlie Bubeck's baritone is still very present. Moonlight Cocktail and Autumn Serenade, two popular dance hits show off the band's mellow sound with an Eddie Miller-like tenor on Moonlight and on Autumn, nice spots by alto,tenor and Don Ferris' piano. There is also a nice brass soli.
Harriet sings a pleasant vocal on Everyone But Me with nice clarinets and bones behind the vocal. Another swing favorite Idaho gets a nice swing with a Charlie Barnet styled tenor and a solid trombone soli. Somebody Else is Taking my Place is taken at a solid medium tempo with clean swinging saxes. Ozzie gives us a pleasant vocal followed by a trombone soli, Asford's horn and Bubeck on the rideout. Sir Walter's Serenade (also recorded commercially) is an easy swing riff a la Tuxedo Junction or Miller's Spirit is Willing. Ashford's trumpet is in a pleasant Red Nichols groove and there is a good growl trumpet spot. The low reeds led by Bubeck highlight the rideout.

I Don't want to Set the World on Fire was a big 1941 hit for Tommy Tucker. The Nelson version is on the sweet side with Wayne King style alto and an Ozzie/Harriet duet. Strictly Instrumental is a cover of a Lunceford/H. James hit. with more swinging tenor and a nice trumpet spot(not Ashford). Breathless ( also rec. by Shep Fields) is a cute novelty with Ozzie and Harriet sharing the tongue twisting lyric and some fun byplay with Charlie Bubeck. Jersey Jive and Central Ave. Shuffle were also recorded commercially. Jersey has a standout solo by Ashford (very melodic), some more Bubeck and nice dynamics on the rideout with good drum kicks. Central Ave. is another simple riff with more of the Eddie Miller tenor , Ashford with more Nichols-like horn, growl trumpet and boogie woogie piano. The Jimmy Dorsey hit, Tangerine gets a nice medium ride with melodic Ashford and more of thar unknown Miller styled tenor man. Broad Jump is a hard hitting riff with a nice trombone spot (Gus Mayhew?) . Cutting Classes has some forceful tenor a la Georgie Auld, a brash trumpet spot, clarinet and good interlay between brass and reeds. The piano spot is Basie influenced. Texas Jump is another Basieish riff (similar changes to Lady Be Good). There's more growl trumpet, Basie piano and a swinging rideout with Bubeck's bari up front. These sides show how much the band had grown musically and can swing with the best of them.

The Nelson band also appeared in several movies including Sweetheart of the Campus (1941), Strictly in the Groove (1942), Honeymoon Lodge (1943) and Take it Big (1944). At the moment, these films are not available for review. An early 40s soundie shows the band playing their version of Somebody Else is Taking my Place. The band swings strongly as they did on the transcription with Ashford and Bubeck very visible. By 1944 Ozzie decided to concentrate on his popular radio series with Harriet and the band was dissolved.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet became a huge hit on radio and transferred to TV in 1952. Sons David and Ricky joined the TV series and Ricky became a popular pop singer of the late 50s and early 60s. Ozzie became an astute businessman. Not only did he produce and direct the TV series, but he produced the hit TV series Our Miss Brooks and guided Ricky in his solo career.
When the series ended in 1966, Ozzie and Harriet guested on other TV shows and did regional theatre. They had a short lived series in 1973 called Ozzie's Girls where the Nelsons rent David and Ricky's rooms to two college girls. Ozzie passed on in 1975 and Harriet in 1994.

For those who only remember Ozzie Nelson as a mild mannered sitcom Dad, the Ozzie Nelson Band will come as a pleasant surprise. It provided top dance music and surprisingly swinging sides to the great Big Band Era. The work of Bo Ashford and Charlie Bubeck also deserve more hearings.

Till next time- Keep Swinging!


anyjazz said...

Glad I ran across your blog. Fascinating stuff. I’m a lifelong jazz fan.

Perhaps you can help me find a recording I heard years ago. I think it was by or featuring Abe Lincoln, on something like Hindustan or Sheik of Araby and ended with someone saying: 'The cobra is back in the basket.' It was being played on my local radio about the same time that Billy May’s “Sorta Dixie” was new. Got any ideas?

Pete Kelly's Blog said...

Hi Anyjazz-Thanks for the message. Glad you enjoy the blog. I believe that recording came from a album by the "Rampart St. Paraders" on Columbia. It had the usual suspects- Matlock, Miller, Fatool etc. You might find it on ebay or at a used record store.
Best Wishes,Dave.

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Chas B. said...

Charlie Bubeck was my father. Interestingly, his great grandson, a college student also named Charles (my name also, plus my son's name), discovered your blog about the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra, which featured your most kind comments about his great granddad Charlie Bubeck.
In 1941, when the war began, there was a great deal of war hysteria on the West coast (the Nelson band was playing the Red Skelton radio show), and after some reported Japanese submarine shelling of California coastal oil storage tanks, and occasional anti aircraft fire at unidentified objects over Los Angeles, my dad decided to leave the Nelson band and return to New York, where he joined the orchestra at the El Morocco nightclub. The leader at El Morocco was Chauncey Gray, who was also a former member of the Nelson band.
My dad worked many years at El Morocco. In those days, musicians had Mondays off, no paid vacation, and had to arrange a substitute from the Union if they were too sick to work. Dad maintained his union cards for N.Y. and California locals until he passed away.
The band also did short visits to the Pump Room in Chicago, and a country club in New Orleans. The El Morocco band was considered one of the top N.Y. cafe society bands, and Sherman Billingsly, owner of the Stork Club in New York hired Chauncey Gray to install a band in the Stork. My dad did all the arrangements for that band as well as for the Gray band.
Dad passed away in 1980 at age 71, after living contentedly in Columbia Maryland with his wife Helen (who continued corresponding with Harriet Nelson over the years). Helen, my mom, passed away at the age of 100 in 2010.

anyjazz said...

Many thanks! I found a copy! Apologies for being so late in my response.

Boe's Kid said...

Thanks so much for this. I really enjoyed reading it. My father was Boe Ashford although it is quite frequently spelled Bo in some articles. As well as the Casa Loma band he was with Kate Smith for a while and did some recordings, along with his brother Bob, with Red Nichols. He gave up his cornet when Ozzie and Harriet started their radio show at about the same time his marriage to my mother ended. After that he always found jobs where he could be "on the road". He loved driving and did so until he finally retired at 72. He lived his last twenty years here in Los Angeles and died at the age of 92 in 1997.
Carol Ashford McDonald

Dr Why said...

I just saw a couple of Ozzie Nelson Orchestra videos, and the sax solos were played on tenor. I'd like to know who that was. The fella played some nice notes.

Phil Vee said...

My Dad, Lester Valentine played tenor sax in Ozzie's band for a while - I think in the late 20s - 30s. I thought it was very interesting finding your blog about this band here. I used to watch the Ozzie & Harriet show when I was a youngster in south Florida.

Thanks for the posting,

Phil Vee