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!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Three Stooges: Merry Mavericks (1951)

Continuing our never ending chronicles of the Three Stooges is an exellent Shemp short, Merry Mavericks (1951). This short was written and directed by Ed Bernds, one of the boys' favorite and most accomplished writer/directors. This short is unusual in that it combines a comedy/western with spook/scare comedy, one of the Stooges' best and surefire gimmicks. As a matter of fact, this film has some of the boys' best Nnnnaahhs-their vocal reaction to spooks and scary goings-on. The boys also made numerous comedy westerns, it was one of their most popular premises.

The first half of the film is a reworking of a Curly short, Phony Express (1943).Some stock footage is used including a WANTED poster of the boys, this time with Shemp's photo in place of Curly's.
We get the bonus of seeing Bank President Victor Travers( a very underated member of the Stooges' stock company ) once again get pasted with Ink from a stray bullet- complete with his great groan. The plot is essentially the same as Phony Express. The boys have been palmed off as 3 tough Marshalls coming to "clean" up the town. They tangle with Red Morgan's gang, meet Clarence Cassidy, a somewhat inept cowboy and spend a night in a spooky house guarding the bank's money.

The supporting cast includes Don Harvey, a B movie/serial veteran as Morgan. Marian Martin(Gladys), a popular female foil with credits at Columbia and with the Marx Bros. She has the "Bad Girl" role, apparently Christine McIntyre was busy. (she exelled in all character roles). Also along for the ride is John Merton as one of Red's boys. He was a perennial heavy in many Stooge shorts of the 30s and 40s. Stooge stalwart Emil Sitka has a too short role as a jailer. Paul Campbell gets the Cassidy role. This part was obviously a take off on Jock Mahoney's Arizona Kid. Campbell looks and speaks quite a bit like Mahoney, it appears to be his only Columbia short. Like Mahoney's Kid, Cassidy comes off tough but never is any help to the Stooges.

The comic sequences mainly take place in the saloon and at the creepy Horton place. Many of the original Phony Express gags are used at Morgan's saloon. It's fun to see Morgan and Co. trying to butter up the Stooges when they think they're tough "marshalls". Shemp gets to show off his fancy dancing with Gladys , followed by the old "cutting in" routine with Moe and Shemp dancing. Also reprised is Moe's spur getting Morgan in the rear. The Morgan gang turns nasty when they find the Stooges old Vagrancy poster. A comic fight ensues with the Stooges winning and Cassidy coming in too late with his mock bravado.

Once things move to the Horton place we get the usual "scare" situations which the Stooges were masters of. Morgan and gang try to scare the boys away with spook masks and cloaks. The "ghost" of the headless Indian chief also comes after the boys. Columbia got a lot of mileage out of those scare outfits. They were used in numerous Stooge shorts and those of Hugh Herbert, Andy Clyde and other Columbia comics.
There are loads of Nnnaahhs as the boys kep running into ghosts and spooks. All the Stooges were masters at these frightened yelps, but Larry uncorks a doozy when running into a cloaked ghost. There's also more Columbia" chicanery" as the boys' screams are constanly heard on the soundtrack even as we see individual Stooges featured.

There are many great verbal gags including Larry's definition of Vagrancy- "You take a flower and it smells good, that's Vagrancy." When Moe tells him it's a hobo or tramp, Shemp adds "we can't beat that rap". When Larry tells Moe he's "apprehensive", Moe asks for it's meaning-Larry's reply is "scared with a college education". Shemp has many great lines. When he tries to wiggle out of the Indian costume his retort is-"Now I know how a frankfurter feels". At the film's wrapup he threatens Gladys with "Get goin' sister or I'll knock your brains out!". When Moe tells him that's no way to treat a lady, Shemp removes his hat and repeats the threat as Moe responds "That's better".

Shemp saves the day when he switches places with the Headless Chief and saves Moe and Larry from Morgan and the gang. His Indian response is Ungawa!, the old all-purpose Tarzan term. Shemp could always be counted on with his own bits of business and "Classic Puss"-A true comedy great.
Cassidy arrives again too late to help but passes out when he sees a trickle of blood on Morgan!
The short closes with the old bit "Moe, what do we do with the girl?- throw her to the dogs" as Shemp and Larry howl and bark to fadeout.

Merry Mavericks is a fast moving and greatly entertaining short made during Shemp's salad years with the team. It is available on Vol. 6 of Sony's Complete 3 Stooges Collection.
Some scenes were filmed with the boys as dentists in a western town and were planned for Merry Mavericks, but used in their next short, The Tooth Will Out.

Till next time, Keep Stooging!