Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frank Assunto and the Dukes of Dixieland

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.

Fred Assunto (trombone) was born in New Orleans in 1929. Brother Frank was born in 1932. (Frank had two sisters, Jean and Anna). Their dad, Jacinto, better known as "Papa Jac" played trombone and banjo and taught music at Redemptorist High School. Jac's wife was known as "Mama Jo." Both brothers excelled on their instruments and by the late 40s, they had their own teenage jazz band called The Basin St. 5 or 6 or 7 depending on the size of the group.

An interesting pre-Dukes band was organized for a talent show, sponsored by Loyola University. Along with future Dukes Freddie and Stan Mendelson (piano) were Herbie Holman, bass & leader, Gil Erskine, drums, Lennie Beckler, clarinet and Woody Guidry, trumpet (a good friend and later with Lawrence Welk). This band came in first in the group competition and later did a Ted Mack tour. This band eventually morphed into the Dukes of Dixieland, with Frank on trumpet and Bill Porter on bass.

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.

For a time, around 1955, Pete Fountain was a member of the band. They made a great album for Vik Records (an RCA subsidiary). The album has some outstanding tracks including a great Tin Roof Blues featuring Pete on an extended Fazola-like solo. Fred has a nice feature on Blue Prelude with nice muted obligato by Frank. Frank sings Beale St. Blues. This arrangement would later be repeated on Audio Fidelity. The band still has a lot of the Sharkey-George Girard style of driving, white dixieland. (Girard was a gifted trumpeter, who died of cancer at 26).

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.

Vol. 3 is titled Marching Along and features many of the old brass band and marching favorites such as Bourbon St.Parade, Eyes of Texas, Closer Walk and Lassus Trombone. On When Johnny Reb Comes Marching Home, Frank takes a great Harry James-like solo backed by tom-toms a la Sing, Sing, Sing.

Vol. 4 is On Bourbon Street and is a personal favorite of mine. This was one of my first album purchases. It contains many of the standard trad/dixie repertoire including Indiana, Royal Garden Blues, Eccentric and Riverboat Shuffle. Jack Maheu on clarinet and Tommy Rundell, drums, had joined up at this point (1957). Frank reprises his trumpet and vocal showcase of St. James Infirmary and never sounded better. The band pulls out all the stops on Saints with Frank introducing the band and many clever variations thrown in. New Orleans Funeral would be a staple in the Duke's book. Similar to Louis Armstrong's New Orleans Function, it tells the story of a typical New Orleans funeral ceremony with Frank narrating and the band playing Didn't He Ramble in the various tempos required. Jack Maheu had come over from the popular Salt City Six. He was an excellent clarinetist and also would work with Bob Scobey, Muggsy Spanier , the Eddie Condon house band and Al Hirt. Happily he is still active and working in New Orleans.

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.

Vol.8, On Campus, was the other 1958 release. This was a collection of college songs. This theme seemed to be a natural for dixieland groups. PeeWee Hunt and Bob Scobey did similar albums. Although an average album, three tunes stand out. New bassman, Lowell Miller, takes an extended and inspired tuba feature on the Whiffenpoof Song. Frank sings the old Johnny Mercer favorite Jamboree Jones and takes a rousing trumpet solo on Notre Dame. That also has some neat Maheu clarinet and Freddie with his trombone "pops," a percussive device made popular by New Orleans trombonists Santo Pecora and Frog Joseph. Norman "Red" Hawley took over the drum chair with this release.

Up The Mississippi, Vol. 9 (1959), is a collection of riverboat and Old South songs such as Mississippi Mud, Ol' Man River and Lazy River. Freddie gets a nice feature on Dear Ol' Southland and Frank gets to reprieve his vocal on Beale St. On Sleepy Time down South, Frank's touching vocal and solo show his admiration for "Pops". (What trumpet player doesn't?)

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).

The first sessions were recorded for Audio Fidelity in August of 1959 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Unfortunately the sound was a bit echoey and the session wasn't released. It would finally come out in 1970. Along with the Assuntos, Mendelsohn, Miller and Hawley, was the addition of Jerry Fuller on clarinet. Jerry played a smooth, Goodman-inspired horn and had been playing with Jack Teagarden's sextet. (He is still playing occasionally in the Boston area). Some discographers feel that Bolen is on clarinet. (He and Jerry had similar sounds).

1959-60 were great years for Louis' chops. (He also did a King Oliver tribute for Audio Fidelity, with his All-Stars). His huge sound and power were beautifully captured by the Audio Fidelity engineers. On the '59 sessions, he got to revisit some of his old classic repertoire such as Sugarfoot Stomp, Riverside Blues, Sweethearts on Parade, Muskrat Ramble and Cornet Chop Suey. Louis had lost some of the flexibility and daring of the Hot Five days, but more than makes up for that with his incredible drive and ensemble work, hitting all the high ones with that amazing tone. Frank, in turn, supports Louis' lead with great harmony and when given the lead does so with flair. His backgrounds to Louis' vocals are done with exquisite taste. Frank also gets to join Louis vocally on Sweethearts and Bucket's Got a Hole in It. The contrast in their voices and the fun they are having are highlights of the session. One of Louis' All-Stars staples Back O' Town Blues gets a nice reading with Frank taking a tasty chorus after Pops' vocal. Louis' own composition Someday You'll be Sorry gets a nice reading with more of Frank's nice obbligato.

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.

As good as the '59 sessions were, the best was yet to come. In May of 1960 Louis and the Dukes recorded again at Webster Hall in New York. This session, issued as Louis and the Dukes, contains amazing, bravura performances by Pops and Frank. The Dukes never sounded better. Owen Mahoney had come in on drums and Rich Matteson on tuba joined up after a stint with Bob Scobey. Matteson plays a very flexible, horn-like tuba, frequently playing 4/4 and contributing fine solos.

Pops is all over the place with great lead and awesome solos. Frank also shares some of the leads and backs up Louis tastefully. On the opener, Bourbon St.Parade, Frank duets with Louis vocally and Pops does sound great scatting behind Frank's vocal chorus. Avalon has some incredible trumpet work by Louis (the liner notes mention Frank watching Louis with a "dazed" smile). Louis leads the closing ensemble up to a huge high G.

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.

In 1961, the Dukes would move to Columbia records and some new ideas and personnel would change the sound and direction of the band. The first album on Columbia was Breakin' It Up on Broadway (1961). The band had adopted more of a swing approach to their sound, without going "modern." Jerry, a Goodman disciple and especially Frank, benefited from this change. Frank always showed great versatility in his horn and vocal work and here gets into more of a Buck Clayton/Ruby Braff mode, using Harmon mute on occasion. His vocals got even better. Glocca Morra showed fine tone and control with a style not far removed from pop stars like Steve Lawrence and Bobby Darin. Several critics had mentioned Frank's ability to catch on as a solo act. With his good looks and personality, he could have built up a nice solo career. But he was loyal to the family and to the band and never considered such a move.

Some new players help to forge the new style of the Dukes. Gene Schroeder, an excellent, swinging pianist known for his years with Eddie Condon, Jim Atlass (formerly with Jimmy Giuffre) and west coast drummer Charlie Lodice contribute to a swinging rhythm section. In addition, guitar great Jim Hall was added for the recording.

The Broadway tunes range from Runnin' Wild (1922) to Hey Look Me Over (1960). Despite the "new" sound of the band, Papa Jac is still very visible on banjo for Lida Rose and on trombone for New Ashmolean Marching Society. Freddie gets a nice spot on Adrift on a Star (taken from the Baccarolle) and Jerry shines on From this Moment On, definitely in a Goodman vein. All in all, a very promising debut album.

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.

Finishing out a busy year was The Dukes at Disneyland (summer 1962), recorded live at the Disneyland JazzFest. This was one of my early record purchases and it holds up fine. The tunes are all favorites, but the band opens things up with extended solos. Jerry Fuller gets in a long, swinging ride on Dixie One-Step. Wolverine Blues and Royal Garden get their standard arrangements. Canal Street Blues is given more of a funky treatment with great solos by Herb Ellis and Frank doing some swinging riffing on harmon mute. The old standbys, New Orleans Funeral (with Frank's narrative) and Saints get a more modern, but still swinging touch.

An interesting swing date for Epic records resulted in Frank's only recording away from the Dukes. Herb Ellis' The Midnite Roll (June 1962) had Frank filling in for Roy Eldridge on two sessions. Frank acquits himself nicely in the company of Buddy Tate, Ray Bryant, Gus Johnson and Herb. He gets in a nice harmon spot on Darling Nellie and sounds great on band and solo chores such as Symphony, You'd better Know it and Herb's Here. No doubt Herb Ellis decided to pay Frank back for his guest spots with the Dukes.

I'm sure that Frank enjoyed this session as the Dukes' were getting more swing oriented and it showed that he was more than a "dixieland" player.

The Dukes also made an unusual 45 single of two Assunto/Ellis originals called Too Bad and What's the Time? The sides are very pleasant swing, but quite removed from the usual Dukes fare. (Too Bad was also on the Midnite Roll album).

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 last album for Columbia was Struttin' at the World's Fair(1964). This was to promote the New York World' Fair. The theme song of the fair, Fair is Fair is the title track. The other sides have a march/parade theme, not unlike Marching Along. Franks gets in a nice vocal on Sweethearts on Parade and the band reprises Louisiana from Mardi Gras Time.

The next series of albums would be on the Decca label. The band kept their loose, swing feel, but with more of the dixieland sound. The Deccas have very short running times. These selections were meant for radio play. Also more pop and contemporary tunes were used.

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.

Come on and Hear (1965) has Freddie back and a nice mix of pop and traditional. The favorites include Everybody Loves My Baby and Clarinet Marmalade featuring Jerry. Franks gets off one of his best vocals on My Kind of Town and almost tops Sinatra, himself. He also sings a lovely Someday You'll Be Sorry for Pops with Gene Schroeder playing celeste in the style of Johnny Guaneri from the 1947 Armstrong recording. A good album!

In April of 1966, Freddie Assunto passed away from a heart attack. He had been fighting cancer and was only 36 years of age. It was a big blow to Frank and Papa Jac. Still the show went on and the band continued to appear and record, with Ed Hubble replacing Freddie.

The next Decca album was Sunrise, Sunset (1966), another pleasant mix of dixieland and current pops. That's a Plenty and I Found a New Baby, highlight the standards. Jerry Fuller gets in a pleasant tenor solo (something new) on If I Had You. Frank takes nice vocal on Mame and Them There Eyes. Ed Hubble does a very credible job in Freddie's chair.

Next up were songs from Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). This film had some nice original songs and some good period tunes. Besides the title tune, the song Jimmy is a lovely ballad, played beautifully by Frank, Jerry and the band. Jerry gets to do his B.G. thing on Poor Butterfly and Frank sings Baby Face and Jazz Baby (a cute rock-type novelty). Highlights from the standards are Stumbling, Rose of Washington Square, Do It Again and Japanese Sandman. Not a bad album for a potentially weak concept.

A good friend and wonderful trombonist, Charlie Bornemann worked with the band from July '67 to Nov.'70. Charlie provided me with some personal insight to the band's activities and working with Frank.

"Frank was a great boss. Almost too easy. He let the guys play and ran a great show. He had an uncanny ablility to remember people, from celebrities to casual fans. Frank didn't talk about Freddie's passing, but it must have been a difficult situation for him." Papa Jac had left the group by the time Charlie came aboard. Freddie's death was very hard on him.

The band kept up a busy schedule. Besides a tour of Japan and the Far East, they played long stints at the Beach Club Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and stints at Al Hirt's and the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans. Frank preferred to mix in the new tunes he was recording at Decca, but his audiences wanted to hear the old trad classics. I noticed Frank's appearance had changed. He was going with a "mod" look of long hair and mustache. This was nothing radical. But it was a far cry from the clean cut, young guy on the Audio Fidelity covers. I guess Frank was going through a stage. I recall seeing him on a Boston TV show around this time. I was impressed with his musicianship, but his appearance didn't seem to fit the style of the music. (This was a bad era for style. I have some band photos of my own that haunt me.)

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.

Back at Decca, the band recorded Come to the Cabaret(1967) and Dixieland's Greatest Hits(1968). Cabaret is an entertaining album, although it jumps back and forth between pure dixie and more modern mainstream. However the musical quality is very high. New pianist Johny Varro sparkles on a Basie-like Foolin' Around and contributed some nice arrangements.

Frank has two excellent vocals on Rosie and the old favorite I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now. The Charlie Chaplin composition Smile makes for a nice trumpet feature for Frank and he gets in some Sweets Edison-like Harmon mute passages on More and More. The other players are Ed DeHaas, bass and Paul Ferrera, back on drums. The old studio pro Art Ryerson was added for banjo and guitar. An interesting sidelight-Louis Armstrong also recorded Cabaret, Rosie, Wilkommen and Hellzapoppin' (from this album) in 1967. Charlie reminded me of the connection with Joe Glaser handling Louis and the Dukes. He probably wanted a cover version of Louis' renditions.

Dixieland's Greatest Hits is a mixture of trad classics such as Midnight in Moscow, Tin Roof Blues, Closer Walk, Bill Bailey and ringers like Heartaches, What's New? and Third Man Theme (not "dixieland" hits). Franks takes excellent vocals on How come you do Me? and Ace in the Hole. Stanley Dance's excellent liner notes praise Frank as vocalist and trumpeter, along with nice words for Charlie and Johnny Varro. The album was recorded in New Orleans during the beginning of the band's stay there. Rudy Aikels had come in on bass. Paul Guma, from Pete Fountain's group handled banjo and guitar.This would be the last studio recording of the Dukes.

The early 70s saw Frank concentrating on New Orleans as band's homebase. Freddie's death had soured him on touring. The band worked a lot at Economy Hall and the Royal Sonesta and covered at Al Hirt's when Al was on tour. Frank had been drinking a lot and put on quite a bit of weight, along with dealing with Joan's being very ill. but he was determined to open his own club for the Dukes.

That dream wouldn't come to fruition as on Mardi Gras Eve, Feb 25, 1974, Frank died of a massive coronary. How ironic for one of New Orleans' favorite sons. It was a great shock to the family and the music world. Frank was only 42 years of age at his passing. He had crammed a lot of great music and brought happiness to countless fans in that short life span. Papa Jac died in 1985 at the age of 79. Betty Owens is the sole survivor of the original band. The Onward Brass Band played at Frank's funeral, the only time the band had played for a white musician.

Frank, Freddie and Papa Jac brought the great art form of New Orleans jazz to many happy listeners (yours truly, included). Their flair for showmanship and entertainment introduced this music to many casual listeners not familiar with the idiom. It's a great tragedy that Frank and Freddie left us so young, but we can give comfort in all the great albums and filmed appearances they left.

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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Johnny Weissmuller-The RKO Tarzan Films

I've always been a big
Tarzan fan. It comes with the territory of being a Baby Boomer. In the late 50s and early 60s Saturday morning television meant The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang and Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burrough's jungle hero has been played by many actors and athletes, but Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) will always be Tarzan. The powerfully built Olympic swimming champ had the look and physique to make him the definitive Tarzan. The MGM films Johnny made with lovely Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane are classics. I've always been partial to the RKO series of 1943-8. The RKOs are more campy and silly at times, but still great entertainment. This post is an affectionate look at the series.

When MGM dropped the Tarzan series in 1942, producer Sol Lesser jumped at the movie rights and took stars Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny "Boy" Sheffield to RKO. Maureen O'Sullivan passed as Jane. The first two entries had her character in England nursing soldiers for the war effort. In 1938 Lesser had produced the independent
Tarzan's Revenge starring Olympic athlete Glenn Morris and swimming champ Eleanor Holm.

Tarzan Triumphs (1943), the first of the series is a top notch adventure, also full of camp and wartime propaganda. Tarzan battles an army of Nazis, who have taken over a jungle city. Weissmuller, approaching 40, is still powerfully built and commanding as the jungle lord. Young Johnny and Cheeta are along for their usual adventures and monkeyshines.

To fill Jane's absence Lesser cast beautiful Frances Gifford as Zandra, princess of the captive city. Frances had earlier played Nyoka, the Jungle Girl (another Burroughs creation) in a 1941 serial. She was lovely and possessed a gorgeous figure and would have made a great Jane had she stayed in the series. For us Baby Boomers we all remember the cat and mouse game between Tarzan and Nazi Stanley Ridges with Tarzan's cries of "Here, Nazi. Come, Nazi-Nazi" before tricking him into a fitting death. Cheeta's finale with the Nazi's radio is not to be missed! It is right up there with
The Three Stooges' Nazi gags.

The next film, Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943), was a bit on the silly side. Filmed right after Triumphs and also using Nazi villains, the film shows its haste in production. Again Jane is in England and asks Tarzan and Boy to find a jungle serum that will cure ill soldiers. The female lead is played by Nancy Kelly as a lady magician who meets up with Tarzan and Boy. Her character is plucky and amiable, but is given a little too much to do at the expense of Tarzan! The last part of the film in the "fever jungle" is good mostly for laughs with Tarzan battling "prehistoric monsters" and a "giant spider". Later that year Johnny did a cameo as himself in the war effort film, Stage Door Canteen. RKO studios used the Los Angeles County Arboretum in nearby Arcadia for jungle scenes. There was a lagoon and vegetation and looked quite realistic. Some scenes were also shot in Lake Sherwood. Also important to the success of the series was the work of directors William Thiele and Kurt Neumann, screenwriter Carroll Young and musical composer Paul Sawtell. They gave the films style, substance and color.

Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) got back to basics and also brought Jane back. Brenda Joyce, a lovely, shapely blonde with great legs, took over the role and looks great in Jane's leather tunic. She and Johnny made a handsome couple. She was a lovely step-mom to the pre-teen Boy. In the story Jane is returning to Africa after her wartime work in England. A group of scientists guided by a crooked hunter, Barton MacLane, are looking for a tribe of Amazons. When Tarzan refuses to show them the hidden Amazon city, Boy is duped into playing guide. When the crooks try to swipe the Amazonian treasure, they pay with their lives. Tarzan makes the save before Boy meets his death! There are many lovely leopard-clad lovelies as Amazons. Brenda Joyce makes a nice debut as Jane. All in all, a top-notch adventure.

The next film, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), is the best of the series and my personal favorite. Tarzan takes on a savage tribe that dresses in leopard skins with steel claws and tries to retard the advance of civilization to the jungle. Their queen, Lea, is played by Acquanetta, an extremely beautiful and sexy actress who was portrayed as a Latina but was actually Native American. This film has more action and excitement than the previous entries. Johnny Weissmuller had gotten himself into the best condition of his RKO period. He is trim, toned and his pectorals are at their best in years. His loincloth is a bit more daring. Obviously
the studio knew how good he looked! Brenda Joyce once again plays Jane and looks lovely as ever. Tarzan works hard in this outing, constantly involved in the action. He has a nasty fight with the leopard men and in a very erotic and chilling scene, faces torture from the beautiful but deadly Lea.

With Cheeta's help Tarzan makes his escape, destroys the evil tribe and saves Jane, Boy and some native girls, all of whom were to be sacrificed. If you haven't seen an RKO Tarzan, start with this one. It's the best!

This was a hard act to follow. The next film,
Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), is a fine adventure. Not as intense as Leopard Woman, but still great fun. Johnny still looked fit and strong, but his physique isn't as awesome as in Leopard Woman. Brenda Joyce, on the other hand, never looked better. She sports a sexy two piece outfit in some scenes. Johnny Sheffield had grown into an athletic teenager. This would be his last appearance as Boy. He had outgrown the part. In 1949 he would star in his own series, Bomba the Jungle Boy at Monogram Studios.

The Huntress storyline is familiar. Greedy hunters led by the lovely Tanya, Patricia Morrison, try to overstep the bounds allowed by the local king. Tarzan intervenes and saves his animal friends. Barton MacLane returned in a role similar to his Amazons character. Tanya wasn't as evil as Lea and was allowed to escape. All the other baddies meet their fate at the hands of Tarzan.

The last Weissmuller Tarzan film was Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). Unfortunately Johnny went out with a lackluster adventure. He had also lost some of his superb muscle tone and put on a bit of weight. He was still great in the part and along with the lovely Brenda, sporting that two piece again in early scenes, saves a rather sorry film. Newcomer Linda Christian also looks gorgeous as a native "mermaid" forced to marry a phony island god. A sub-plot involving pearl thieves is thrown in. Tarzan saves the day, making a spectacular cliff dive, fighting off his adversaries and battling an octopus before saving Jane and Co. This was the only Weissmuller Tarzan filmed on location in Acapulco, Mexico.

Johnny wanted a percentage of future film grosses to continue as Tarzan. RKO and Lesser decided to go with a younger actor. Lex Barker took over the role. Brenda Joyce stayed on as Jane for the first entry, Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949).

Johnny got back into shape and went over to Columbia studios to star in the equally popular series, Jungle Jim (1949-55). As a hunter and jungle guide, Johnny simply traded loincloth for khakis. As one critic said, it was "Tarzan with clothes." Johnny also starred in a syndicated Jungle Jim TV show in 1956.

The RKO Weissmuller Tarzans are very entertaining and exciting jungle adventures with the greatest Tarzan of all time. All 6 films are available on DVD on Warner Brothers' Tarzan Collection Volume 2.

Till next time, Good Hunting and Ungawa!

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Three Stooges-Three Little Pirates(1946)

Time to revisit another classic Stooges short. Three Little Pirates is one of the best entries of the 1945-6 period when Curly's health was declining and eventually forced his retirement from the act. As director Ed Bernds recalls, "Curly's energy went up and down with each short." Although his voice is tired and features haggard, Curly puts in a great performance and is able to carry his share of the comic workload.

The boys play three shipwrecked sailors who have landed on Dead Man's Island. Governor Vernon Dent is about to do away with them when lovely Rita (Christine McIntyre) intervenes and helps the boys in exchange for escape from the island. Posing as rich wayfarers with gifts for the governor, the boys get to do their classic "Maha" routine. This was a staple of their vaudeville days. The Stooges' first filmed version of the skit is in the Columbia feature Time out for Rhythm (1941) featuring a much healthier Curly. They would repeat the routine on TV with Shemp and Curly Joe . Even Mike Douglas got to take a turn when Moe guested on his TV show. Check it out on Youtube.

Curly, wearing regal robes, a turban and coke bottle glasses responds to all of Moe's questions with a barrage of gibberish, including some choice Yiddish words: "Maha? Aha!" etc. etc. When the governor finds out about the ruse, he sends word to his buddy, Black Louie the Pirate. The boys and Rita are heading to Louie's joint to get some quick passage money. A wild series of vignettes ensue, first with a game of knife-throwing between Louie (Robert Stevens) and Curly with Larry as a human target! Producer Jules White gets in one of his patented violent gags when one of Curly's errant throws gets an old buccaneer in the side!

Finally the Stooges and Rita take on all the pirates, pulling out all the stops with all kinds of great gags including a giant hammer attached to the pinball machine! After winning the fight in typical Stooge style, Moe declares himself emperor, only to be crowned by the hammer and the boys exit with some choice Maha words.

Christine McIntyre was a lovely lady with great comic timing. She was a favorite of not only the Stooges, but many of the other Columbia comics. She and Columbia stalwart Vernon Dent work extremely well with the boys in this short. Curly's next short, Half-Wits Holiday, would be his last. He suffered a fatal stroke during the filming and was eventually replaced by brother Shemp. This outing is a great penultimate performance.

Till next time-Stooge On!

Three Little Pirates is available on Vol.5 of Sony's Three Stooges Collection.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass-Part One

As a jazz trumpet player, my No.1 idol has always been Louis Armstrong. Along the way I also was influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Dick Cathcart and many more fine trumpeters. As a young trumpet student, I was attracted to the sounds of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, one of the most popular instrumental groups of all time. Not only did I enjoy Herb's playful, punchy trumpet style, but I loved his clever arrangements and still do. Here's an affectionate tribute to a wonderful musician.

Herb was born in Los Angeles on March 31, 1935. His dad was a Russian Jew and mom, a native Californian. He attended Fairfax High in L.A. and went to the University of Southern California. He played trumpet through high school and in the U.S.C. Trojan Band. After service in the army, Herb became a free-lance musician and dabbled in songwriting and producing records. He and Lou Adler wrote songs together and worked for the Keen record label. One of their early hits was Sam Cooke's Wonderful World. Herb also produced and wrote for Jan and Dean. He made some solo vocals as Dore Alpert and some singles as The Herbie Alpert Sextet or Quartet. As a trumpeter Herb was influenced by Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Clifford Brown. One can hear some of their qualities in his playing.

The Tijuana Brass came about almost by accident. Herb attended a bullfight in Tijuana in the early 60s. The experience moved him to combine the sounds of the bullring with his haunting trumpet sound. He took a song called Twinkle Star written by a composer friend, Sol Lake ,and used it as the model for his new sound. He added some authentic bullring sounds courtesy of engineer friend, Ted Keeps. Herb called the new tune The Lonely Bull. For the flip side Herb used a jaunty original called Acapulco 1922. A good friend of Herb's, songwriter/producer Jerry Moss went in on the project and they called their label A&M Records (for Alpert and Moss). The record quickly rose to No. 6 after 2 months. Within six weeks it had sold a million copies!

Herb went back to the studio to add ten tunes and make an album. He combined some originals along with some current pops like Let it Be Me, Desafinado, Never on Sunday and Limbo Rock. The result was a fresh, breezy type of easy listening with the mixture of mariachi and Herb's jazzy, punchy trumpet. The Tijuana Brass at this time was just a studio band. Two musicians on the session would continue to work for Herb for many years. They were Bob Edmondson (trombone) and Julius Wechter (marimba). The LP was released in December of 1962, completing a very successful musical year for Herb.

The follow-up album to Lonely Bull was Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass Vol.2. (1963). Herb himself wasn't too fond of this album, but it has many fine moments. Spanish Harlem gets a lovely TJB treatment. Green Leaves of Summer is perfectly suited to Herb's haunting sound with a touch of mariachi thrown in. The Great Manolete is a legitimate bullfight song and is treated respectfully. Sol Lake's Winds of Barcelona is a lovely piece and would be re-made on the next album as El Presidente.

As talented a trumpeter as Herb was, his real forte was in arranging. He arranged most of the TJB albums. Herb had the ability to give the tijuana sound to standard tunes, sometimes using different tempos and combining dixieland, swing riffs and shuffle rhythms. The originals he and other band members came up with were always very musical, full of charm, humor and, at times, poignancy. Herb never was a mariachi fan. He liked the style but was always trying to give his own take on tunes. When the TJB sound took off, he was obliged to arrange within that format. As time went on, the sound became more latin-tinged than mariachi.

The next album was South of the Border (February 1964). This was a mixture of the mariachi style (including the title standard) and Herb's jazz/pop take on standards. Sol Lake's catchy Mexican Shuffle became popular when used on a Teaberry Gum commercial (as the Teabury Shuffle). Other standout tracks were Girl from Ipanema with a mix of mariachi and Herb's Chet Baker-ish horn. A cute Hello Dolly had a pseudo-Mexican vocal by Herb and the band. Also Julius Wechter's bouncy Up Cherry Street, a lovely latin ballad take on Accustomed to Her Face and a shuffling, jazzy All my Loving. (Herb did many Beatles covers with the Brass).

The LP quickly made the Top 10 and by early 1965 was No. 6. The brass were on their way to big things and the next album cinched it. Whipped Cream and Other Delights (April 1965) with the hit songs Taste of Honey, the title track, and other food songs along with its sexy, controversial album cover turned Herb and the Brass into a top attraction and they were still strictly a studio group! The album spent most of the year in the top 10 and was No. 1 for eight straight weeks! A Taste of Honey with its stop and go's, bass drum kicks and breezy brass made it to No. 7 on the charts and gave Herb three Grammy awards in 1965, Record of the Year, Best Instrumental and Arrangement.

Whipped Cream itself became a popular tune thanks to it's use on TV's Dating Game. (Lollipops and Roses and Spanish Flea were also used.) Other highlights included a pretty Tangerine with a charming, wordless vocal by Herb. Sol Lake's Bittersweet Samba and El Garbanzo (used on a Sunoco ad), a mariachi Lemon Tree and a strip-tease take on Love Potion No. 9 all made the album a winner. As for the cover, model Dolores Erickson (who was 3 months pregnant at the time) was actually covered in shaving cream!

With TV and personal appearance offerings galore, Herb finally formed a working TJB culled from the great studio musicians who made the first four albums. The lineup was Tonni Kalash, trumpet, ( although Herb double-tracked most of the horn parts in the studio), Bob Edmondson, trombone (formerly with Harry James and a funny guy), John Pisano, guitar (an excellent jazzman and composer), Pat Senatore, bass, Lou Pagani, piano and Nick Ceroli, drums (formerly with Ray Anthony). Marimba/composer Julius Wechter continued to play on all the albums and was given his own road-company TJB, The Baja Marimba Band who also recorded for A&M. The label itself was growing and in time would boast artists such as The Carpenters, Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66, Chris Montez and many more to come.

Once Herb put his working Brass together, they performed in concert, clubs, theatres, state fairs and on many TV shows. Starting with Andy Williams, Herb and the Brass quickly covered Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, Danny Kaye and the Hollywood Palace to name a few. Many of these performances are available on Youtube. I hope somewhere down the road Herb can get these spots issued commercially.

The next TJB album was Going Places (October 1965). It is one of the very best Brass albums. Three songs on the album became TJB staples. Tijuana Taxi (probably the most recognizable TJB tune) was written by Bud Coleman. Bud was a member of the Baja Marimba Band and occasionally sat in on TJB records. He would contribute many more tunes to the band's repertoire. Julius Wechter's Spanish Flea and the theme from Zorba the Greek were crowd pleasers at TJB concerts. Zorba with it's tempo changes and tricky trumpet licks was a challenge for Herb and the boys and they rose to the occasion.

Two big band classics get TJB re-writes. Tommy Dorsey's Getting Sentimental over You is given the TJB shuffle treatment with Bob Edmondson giving a nice nod to Tommy. Ziggy Elman's And the Angels Sing gets a nice easy bounce with Herb's perky horn and strings. This version is reminiscent of the Bert Kaempfert style. The tune Mae from the movie The Yellow Rolls Royce is one of Herb's best "pretty" tunes and also has nice string backing. This album would be hard to top. Only a month after it's October release, the album went gold and stayed on the Top 40 for over 100 weeks. For 6 weeks it was No. 1.

What now, my Love (May 1966) went gold right after its release and stayed No. 1 for 9 weeks. The title tune earned Herb a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement and Performance. The song, a French favorite, gets a light samba treatment with Herb's punchy horn and marimba and mandolin keeping the mariachi sound alive. While the album doesn't have the punch of Going Places, it has many fine moments. John Pisano's So, What's New? became the theme of the popular Lloyd Thaxton show and also a Peggy Lee hit. Sol Lake's Memories of Madrid is one of his prettiest offerings. Bud Coleman's Freckles is a delightful dixie TJB take. There would be many of these. Julius Wechter's Brasilia was a Baja Marimba Band hit and Herb re-makes it into a bouncy TJB favorite. One strange thing is the album cover. A shot from South of the Border with Herb in Matador coat and pretty girl is used. One would think they could have come up with a new photo.

1966 was quite a year for Herb and the TJB. They had 6 singles in the Top 30 and at one point had 5 albums in the Top 20. 14 million TJB albums were sold that year! The band was making numerous appearances, including SRO crowds at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre. Other appearances included stops in London, Paris, Frankfurt and many arenas and music theaters.

SRO was the title of their December 1966 offering. This was a fine album with a combination of the trademark TJB and some new sounds and titles. The Michel Legrand favorite I Will Wait for You gets a sly, jazzy bounce from Herb, who uses a harmon mute for variety. Bud Coleman's Wall St. Rag is one of the very best dixie tunes and really swings! Nat Adderly's Work Song gets a nice TJB take and Herb, a closet jazz player, loved arranging it. Mame is one of the happiest TJB sides with more dixie and a cute band vocal with Herb stepping out for a solo passage. Flamingo is a neat cover of the Phil Spector style of rock recording in A Wall of Sound. From now on the TJB would have their trademark tunes but with a more mellow, laid back approach. Probably more of Herb's own musical personality was coming out.

1967 was another banner year for Herb and the TJB. Besides their busy appearance schedule, they hosted two TV specials of their own. (Previously they had a Hollywood Palace show to themselves.) The first in April of 1967 was sponsored by Singer and broadcast by CBS. The special was an excellent series of vignettes with Herb and the band set to many of their previous hits (all lip synced). Dwight Hemion, a veteran director of many top TV variety shows, did a great job in staging the various segments. Herb's gentle, handsome features registered well as a host and he always had a wistful sense of humor. Two standout scenes were the band playing Wade in the Water in the A&M studio and a terrific big band throwback scene with the TJB playing in a vintage ballroom to a jitterbugging crowd.

In June of 1967 they starred in the CBS Kraft Music Hall with the one and only Louis Armstrong.
Louis and the Brass did a cute medley exchanging each other's hits and it was great fun to hear Pops blow a bit of Tijuana Taxi. Louis and Herb also did a fun duet on Mame and the Brass played their new version of Lot of Livin' to Do.

That same June a new album, Sounds Like, was released. Wade in the Water and Lot of Livin' were included on a pleasant album, but not as exciting as SRO. Casino Royale by Burt Bacharach from the James Bond spoof is a standout. Fleshed out by a large studio band, the bouncy, energetic theme hit No. 27 on the charts. The LP spent 31 weeks on the Top 40. Wade in the Water, a dixieland-ish Lady Godiva and an uptempo Town without Pity are highlights.

The next album had the clever title of Herb Alpert's Ninth (December 1967). This was another pleasant, but not spectacular release. Even so it started at No. 4 and spent 18 weeks in the Top 40. The opener A Banda was a popular Brazilian melody. Herb's slow, puffy version of the Trolley Song is unique and a typical "change tempo" Alpert arrangement. Bud was a tribute to TJB buddy/composer Bud Coleman, who had passed on. Haunting Brass and lovely guitar make this a standout track. The Beatles' With a Little Help from My Friends has some of the Sgt. Pepper string sound and the closing Carmen is a clever chart by Herb and Peter Matz, using various trademark sounds in the course of the Habanera melody, ending with the Tijuana Taxi horn! 1968 would bring another TV special and two more albums.

The Beat of the Brass was the title of their April 1968 special on NBC and their May LP of the same name. The album featured many tunes featured on the special. The surprise hit of both was Herb's vocal on Burt Bacharach and Hal David's This Guy's in Love with You. Herb originally intended to use the song only in the special during a sequence where he sings to his wife, Sharon. The reaction from the show required a single release. It shot immediately to No. 1 and would become one of Herb's signature songs. The LP spent 28 weeks on the Top 40. The special was a fun tour of the country with stops in California, New York, Vegas and New Orleans.

Other highlights of the show and album are a nice TJB samba take on Cabaret, a jazzy Pisano-Alpert tune called Slick, a pretty Sol Lake original, A Beautiful Friend and a charming Jewish folk song, My Home Town (previously recorded by Ziggy Elman) that Herb dedicated to his father, a Jewish immigrant.

November saw the release of the TJB Christmas Album, a surefire winner. I can remember being home from school sick and asking my mom to pick up a copy of the LP. When she came home with album, this high school trumpeter was in seventh heaven. 4o years later, it is still a delightful LP, but I can be a little critical.

Shorty Rogers' lovely choral intros cut into the selections' already short running time. Herb coasts quite a bit here. He sings the Christmas Song (a lovely, mellow version) and Bacharach's the Bell that couldn't Jingle. Let it Snow is turned over to Bob Edmondson for a nice feature (and, yes, that sounds like Paul Desmond). Las Mananitas comes from an early single (hence the Lonely Bull sound). However Jingle Bell Rock, My Favorite Things, Sleigh Ride and a lovely Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (featuring Herb's legit sound) make up for the short-comings. The album still went gold and was one of the top Billboard Christmas albums. The cover with Herb as a horn-playing Santa is a classic. Herb and the Brass also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, reprising Favorite Things and Christmas Song (thanks to Youtube).

1969 would see another TV special and two more albums, but would also see the end of the original TJB.
The next album, Warm(July 1969) was an interesting change of pace. A very relaxed, laid back affair, there are only a few trademark TJB cuts. Despite the change in mood, the musical content is very high. The opening track, The Sea Is my Soil is a lovely track and was used in the upcoming TV show. Without Her and To Wait for Love (by Burt Bacharach) are tasty vocal features for Herb. The latter is reminiscent of This Guy's in Love. Sol Lake's Marjorine has some of the TJB dixie sound with a nice guest clarinetist. Girl Talk is a tasty chart with Herb dubbing 4 trumpets! The Beatles' Ob-La-Di gets close to the old TJB sound and Zazueira is a lively Brazilian theme with shades of Brasil '66. Warm is certainly a different TJB album, but it still stayed 7 weeks in the Top 40.

Warm was followed by the NBC special and companion album of The Brass are Comin' (October 1969). The special had some neat set pieces including Herb and the boys riding into a western town like a cowboy posse. There were also nice beach scenes, spots by guest Petula Clark and a concert segment. Some of the tunes pick up on the western element such as Little Train, Sol Lake's Country Lake and the old standard I'm an Old Cowhand. Moon River has a neat segue with Herb and John Pisano rehearsing the tune and going into a nifty Dave Grusin chart. Dave also arranged Herb's vocal on You Are my Life. This vocal didn't take off but I always enjoyed it. The Beatles' I'll Be Back makes a nice "haunting horn" vehicle for Herb and Bert Kaempfert's Maltese Melody has shades of the old TJB sound. John Pisano's Moments is one of his prettiest compositions with shades of the mariachi sound. The album came out in December and got to No. 30 on the Billboard charts. It's a nice follow-up to the ultra-mellow Warm and more in the classic TJB style.

By the end of the year Herb had decided to dissolve the group. It had been an amazing ride and could have gone on longer; but Herb wanted to regroup, concentrate on A&M and try some solo projects. Happily, he would have two TJB reunions.

More in Part Two.
CD note-All the original TJB albums have been reissued on Shout Factory.
Addendum- Herb and some of the Brass appeared on an A&M lp-The French Song(1964) by Lucille Starr,a Canadian pop singer.They play some nice Dixie passages and Herb's solo horn can be heard on a few selections.The lp is long out of print.
Also had a chance to hear a run-thru of a medley by Herb and Louis Armstrong, from the Kraft special. Herb and Louis' parts are left open and we get to hear Tonni Kalash cover a lot of the horn parts. He sounds real good. Obviously on location gigs he got a chance to blow a bit.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Louis Prima

Louis Armstrong's influence on jazz and popular music was immense. Not only did he change the style of jazz solo and band playing, but countless instrumentalists fell under his spell.

One of his most successful admirers as trumpeter-vocalist and entertainer was fellow New Orleansian, Louis Prima. Like "Pops" Louis started as a pure New Orleans jazz man with small groups, joined the Big Band craze of the 30s and 40s and finally fronted a successful small group combining jazz and entertainment. This post is a fond overview of his remarkable career.

Louis was born in New
Orleans on December 7, 1910. Like Armstrong, his early years were spent absorbing the many and varied sounds of jazz in New Orleans. King Oliver, Bunk Johnson and Armstrong were early mentors. Louis started on violin but soon started experimenting with older brother Leon's trumpet. (Leon was a fine trumpeter in his own right, worked in some of Louis' big bands, but mostly stayed in New Orleans.) It didn't take Louis long to figure out the rudiments
of trumpet and apply himself to the jazz styles of New Orleans. By 1922 he was fronting a "kid" jazz band that included future clarinet star Irving Fazola. By the late 20s he was working with local dance bands such as Ellis Strakakos and playing in French quarter clubs. He also did some work on the steamship Capitol as Louis Armstrong had a decade earlier.

In 1931 Louis was hired by Lou Forbes, director of the Saenger Theatre pit band. This job would give him great experience as a musician and entertainer, as he took part in skits and acts on the theater's bill.

Louis did some work away from New Orleans around 1932-3 and had a short stint with Red Nichols. In September of 1933 he was in Chicago and wound up making his first records with pianist Dave Rose ( the Holiday for Strings composer). Besides a full band session, Louis also played with the "Hotcha Trio" (Rose and violinist Norman Gast) playing Chinatown and Dinah. Louis was already showing the huge influence of Armstrong in his fine trumpet work and gravelly good-humored vocals sprinkled with scat. These sides came out on the Bluebird label.
By 1934 Louis was back in New Orleans playing at Club ShimSham where he was heard by bandleader Guy Lombardo. Guy was taken with Louis' playing and arranged for him to come to New York. Initially things were slow for Louis, but Lombardo and agent Irving Mills secured him a record contract with Brunswick records. This gave Louis some security until the right venue opened. Louis' record series was called Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang. Louis also appeared on some transcriptions by Joe Venuti and a big band. Included in the band were Red Norvo, Jerry Colonna, Larry Binyon and Frank Victor. Louis again shows his debt to Pops on Rockin' Chair, Monday Date and Confessin'. The New Orleans Gang sides feature great jazz, Louis' trumpet and vocals and some fine New Orleans musicians.

In March of 1935 that right venue opened up for Louis. It was the Famous Door on 52nd St., better known as Swing Street. Louis' unique brand of swing with a New Orleans accent coupled with his clowning and entertaining made him the hit of Swing Street.

The New Orleans Gang recordings continued into the late 30s and feature some great small group jazz. Most of the 34-5 sides featured fellow New Orleansians George Brunis(trombone) and Eddie Miller and Sidney Arodin (clarinet). Highlights included Jamaica Shout (a rare instrumental), Let's have a Jubilee, Breakin' the Ice, I still Want You (a Prima composition) and Worry Blues featuring a tasty muted Prima solo. George Brunis added a lot with his tailgate trombone and comic contributions. Along with his Armstrong inspired vocals, Louis really shines on trumpet. He had a broad, lusty tone with a good high register---all trademarks of the Armstrong style. He was also pretty fleet at fingering and capable of fast runs.

By May 1935 Louis' front line partner would be the one and only PeeWee Russell on clarinet. PeeWee's raspy, nervous clarinet made a great foil for Louis' trumpet flights and vocal high-jinks. Some of the many fine sides of this period are Sweet Sue, Dinah, Lazy River and The Lady in Red. Louis also made some big band sides in '36 with an augmented Gang including PeeWee. Standout sides include Pennies from Heaven, The Goose Hangs High and the Armstrong favorite, Confessin'. It would become a Prima staple.

In 1936 Louis wrote a cute novelty tune called Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing). Little did he know that, thanks to Benny Goodman's great version, it would become one of the classics of the Swing Era. That same year Louis moved his activities to Hollywood where he opened at a new Famous Door, created especially for him. Louis became the darling of the Hollywood movie community. They flocked the club to hear Louis' brand of jazz and entertainment.

Movie opportunities also opened for Louis.He made a cameo in Bing Crosby's Rhythm on the Range. Louis and the band also made a great short for RKO called Swing It, featuring some terrific interplay between Louis and PeeWee. In 37-8 he also appeared in the films Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, Start Cheering and You Can't Have Everything with Alice Faye.

Louis took a big band out on some tours but still did the bulk of his work with the New Orleans Gang. In 1937 Meyer Weinberg joined the group on clarinet. He was also from New Orleans and had some of PeeWee's style with a prettier tone and more fluidity. He is featured heavily on Louis' cuts from the period. Some of the standouts are Doin' the Serpentine, Love Bug, Good Man is Hard to Find and Tin Roof Blues (instrumental). This addition of the gang also made a terrifi Vitaphone short, Swing Cat's Jamboree. The short featured drummer-vibraphonist Godrey Hirsch, a New Orleans boy who later worked a lot with Pete Fountain. The band also appeared in another Alice Faye musical, Rose of Washington Square.

A September 1939 broadcast from the New York Famous Door shows Louis and the Gang in great form. On an extended version of Should I?, Louis and Meyer engage in some great riffing over a swinging rhythm section. A perfect example of small group swing at it's best.

By 1940, Louis had made the switch to fronting a big band. This was the popular way for a swing star to go and Louis' big bands were always colorful and swinging with plenty of lohorn and vocals up front. The first Prima big band sides were made for Varsity and Okeh. Most of Louis' wartime sides were on the Hit and Majestic labels. It was at this time that Louis began introducing the Italian novelties that would become such an important part of his shows. Tunes such as Oh Marie, Angelina, Please No Squeeza Banana and Chela Luna would all be big hits for Louis. Louis' big bands didn't have any big names but included solid pros such as Charlie Kennedy, Morty Lewis (sax), Allan Logan (piano), brother Leon (trumpet), Frank Frederico (guitar) and Jimmy Vincent (drums). From 1940-6his female singer was a cute girl named Lily Ann Carol. She worked well with Louis(this was the start of his boy-girl duets). Lily also had a big hit during the war years with I'll Walk Alone.

Louis used top arrangers such as Earl Bostic, Edgar Battle and Bob Miketta. With the latter he wrote one of his biggest hits, Robin Hood, another perennial in the Prima book. Besides the studio dates, many broadcasts of the wartime Prima bands exist. The band always swings and Louis' great sense of showmanship and pacing is always evident. A typical program would range from St.Louis Blues and Confessin' (Armstrong) to Angelina and Robin Hood (Louis specialties) and ballads by Lily Ann.

Around this time Louis adopted the slogan "Play it pretty for the People." He often used it to encourage his musicians. Another favorite Prima device, the "Shuffle Rhythm" begins to appear.(Henry Busse and Jan Savitt also had great success with it). The
shuffle eventually would be a part of practically every Prima number.

Louis made some more Band shorts in the mid-40s. One short from around 1945 has him playing Old Black Magic, destined to be one of his biggest hits). Lily does Porgy and Jimmy Vincent does his Krupa-thing on Sing, Sing, Sing.

In August of 1948 Louis and the band were playing at the Surf Club in Virginia Beach, part of Norfolk,Virginia. While there Louis auditioned a local girl for his vacant girl singer spot. The girl not only won the job but would become an integral part of Louis' life and career. Her name was Keely Smith.

Keely was an attractive, tan 17 year old with pageboy bangs and a curvaceous figure. She was of Irish-Cherokee heritage (Louis would often use her "Indian" heritage as comic material). Keely possessed a clear, musical voice that contrasted perfectly with Louis' gravelly, gregarious vocalizing. Soon Louis developed a routine in which Keely would act "deadpan" to Prima's zaniness onstage. This chemistry would be an important part of the phenomenal success soon coming Louis' way. By 1949 Louis had to break up the big band. Many of the great swing bands had done the same. For the next few years he and Keely would work venues with local bands of varying quality. Louis continued to record. He was with RCA Victor from 1947-9 and scored a big hit with Civilization. He was with Mercury in 49-50, Columbia 51-2 and a brief stay at Decca in 54. These sides were mostly singles aimed at the juke box market. Standout Mercury sides are Over the Rainbow, Ja-Da and Buona Sera, another popular Italian side. Paul Revere, a Robin Hood clone, was a big Columbia single and for Decca, Louis and Keely made a pretty duet on Until Sunrise with a fine trumpet solo.

By late 1954, Louis and Keely were really scuffling. Louis talked to an old friend, Bill Miller He was entertainment director at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Vegas was just starting to be a center for entertainers. Miller gave Louis and Keely a 2-week run at the Casbar Lounge with no promises. The engagement started slowly but soon, to back him and Keely, Louis added an exciting tenor sax man, Sam Butera, along with his band. Louis had heard Sam, a New Orleans boy, at his brother Leon's club in New Orleans. Besides Sam's superb musicianship , he brought along his great arranging skills and a solid group of musicians who would be known as The Witnesses. The format would feature Louis' jazz and Italian specialties, Keely's smoky ballads and swing tunes and many features for Sam and the boys. Featured constantly was the driving shuffle rhythm and great manic, comic showmanship from Louis, Sam and The Witnesses. The new act would garner the tagline "The Wildest" and it sure was. Crowds flocked to the lounge to see their midnight shows including entertainment icons Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, Cab Calloway, Red Skelton and many more. Louis was back in business.

Ditto with his recordings. Capitol Records signed him and from 1956-60 many best-selling live and studio albums were recorded along with solo LPs for Keely and Sam. Two of the biggest records of this period were That Old Black Magic and I've Got You under My Skin. Louis and Keely's impeccable dueting accompanied by great Butera charts really showed the chemistry, timing and musicianship of the Louis-Keely-Sam triumvate.

Louis and Keely had also found personal chemistry, having married in 1952. She was his 4th wife. They had two daughters, Toni and Louanne. Louis had already had a daughter by wife number 3, Tracelene. The Louis/Keely marriage took place just before the Capital era. That era introduced some of their biggest hits including Autumn Leaves from Call of the Wildest. Other standouts from the Capitol era include the Should I/Can't Believe You're in Love medley and White Cliffs of Dover (with great trumpet work) and Greenback Dollar Bill (one of Sam's best vocals) from the Las Vegas Prima Style. On the initial Capitol album, The Wildest, we find two staples of Louis' show, Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody and Jump, Jive and Wail. Louis was fond of two-tune medleys. On The Wildest Show at Tahoe, Keely shines on I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues and in duet with Louis on I'm in the Mood for Love.

Sam himself was a great showman as well as musician and all of The Witnesses were featured in the shows. Standout players included trombonist Lou Sino (from New Orleans), Bobby Roberts from Chicago-a great jazz guitarist, bassist Rolly Dee, also a fine singer and comic, drummer Jimmy Vincent (from the big band days) and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Thomas. These great players were an important part of the act's success.

Louis, Keely and the band made many TV appearances, a Universal short and in 1959 a Columbia feature, "Hey Boy,Hey Girl." Although a low-budget affair, the film was a great showcase for the act including Louis' Oh Marie, the Saints and Lazy River, Keely's Autumn Leaves and Sam's Fever. The film's title tune made a cute Louis-Keely duet. The movie's threadbare plot involved Keely hiring Louis and the band for a church charity show. Along the way Louis falls for her and her voice and adds her to his show. Very autobiographical.

In 1960 Louis moved over to Dot Records. He got a better financial deal than at Capitol. He did a lot of recording over two years. Numerous live shows, Louis-Keely LPs, Sam and Keely solos and 3 easy-listening trumpet albums. Louis had had a hit with his cover of Wonderland by Night.

By 1961 years of performing and personal strain took their toll on the marriage. Despite their great success as musical partners, Louis and Keely split up. Keely slowly built up her solo career. She had a big hit record with I Wish You Love in 1958. Louis and the band kept the show rolling with Louis promising his fans to come up with a new female vocal star.

In 1961 Louis and the band made a cheapie film for American-International called Twist All Night, capitalizing on that current dance craze. Although a bottom of the barrel production, Louis and the boys are featured almost non-stop. Louis also gets in some nice trumpet spots in the film. To compensate for Keely's absence, voluptous June Wilkinson, a former Playboy playmate, played Louis' girlfriend. In 1962 Louis made a one-shot comeback at Capitol with a great LP, The Wildest Comes Home, featuring himself, Sam and the band in some great, swinging tracks. Louis' old theme Way Down Yonder in New Orleans gets a real Wildest treatment.

In May 1962 while appearing at the Latin Casino in Camden,N.J., Louis auditioned a local 20 year old singer named Gia Maione. Like with Keely Louis was attracted to her Italian brunette charms and clear professional voice. Gia didn't have the great vocal chops of Keely but worked well with Louis and the band. She had been a fan and knew all of his records. Romance blossomed and Gia and Louis were married in February 1963. They had two children, Lina and Louis Jr., both of whom became performers. Gia eventually switched to part-time singer and full-time mom. The show went on with numerous TV appearances and Las Vegas shows. A 1964 Capitol LP Lake Tahoe Prima Style finds the new combination to be a still entertaining show.

In 1962 Louis also tried his hand at his own record label, Prima1. Over the next dozen years he would put out various LPs of the show band, Gia and Sam. One of the best is King of Clubs, a live show including a great I still Want You from the New Orleans Gang days, Buona Sera and Chela Luna from Louis; a nice Louis and Gia duet on Baby, Won't You Please Come Home and one of Sam's best vocals, French Poodle. Two later Prima albums are standouts. On Just a Gigolo Louis features familiar tunes with girls names. The title track has one of his best trumpet spots. Angelina has all of Louis' great Italian novelties.

In 1967 Louis' career got a big boost when he was tapped to provide the voice of King Louie in Walt Disney's Jungle Book. The Disney animators brought Louis and the band into the studio to perform and matched their actions to those of King Louie and his pals. The song I Wanna be Like You became a hit for Louis and spawned numerous revivals. (Kenny Ball had a big hit in the U.K.)

The late 60s and early 70s saw Louis still starring in Vegas. His shows and LPs saw an attempt to be current with contemporary rock songs added to the program. However these numbers have dated terribly and the pure Prima and Sam numbers always worked the best. This writer recalls a 1972 Merv Griffin show in which Louis did his WILD version of Perry Como's It's Impossible.
This was followed by a hilarious bit of banter between Merv, George Kirby, Tony Martin and Louis. Louis also popped up in a cameo on a David Jannsen show O'Hara U.S. Treasury playing a nightclub musician. In 1974 Louis and the band had a cameo in the film Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. The all-too brief segment saw Louis doing some of his familiar tunes onstage during a Vegas casino scene. It would be his last film appearance. For a short time Louis tried making New Orleans his home base but surprisingly he found his home town not as receptive as Vegas.

Louis started to experience severe headaches during this period. He stopped playing trumpet to alleviate the pressure. Louis was always a healthy and athletic guy. The diagnosis was a brain tumor and Louis opted for surgery. During surgery Louis lapsed into a coma. He stayed in this condition for 3 years. In 1976 he was moved to the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. Louis finally passed on August 24, 1978. It was a sad ending for such a vibrant man who brought so much joy and good music to the world.

Happily, there has been much renewed interest in Louis' work. Starting with a GAP TV commercial featuring Louis' Jump, Jive and Wail to the Jump/Jive Swing bands of the 90s with many Prima covers. The film Big Night featured many Louis and Keely tunes and in 1999 director Joe Lauro put together an excellent documentary, The Wildest.

Sam and Keely continued to perform into the 21st century. It looks like The Wildest will be playing pretty for the people for many years to come.( We lost Sam in 2009).

CD samplings

The New Orleans Gang sides are available on the Classics label.

Big band sides are available on various independent labels; for example, Hit and Majestic sides. RCA-Buddah has a compilation called Say it with a Slap.

Mercury and Decca sides are on Beepin' and Boppin' on Hippo. The Columbias on a Columbia CD called Breakin' it Up.

The Capitols have been put out in various forms. Bear Family issued the complete Louis-Keely-Sam on Capitol some years ago.

The Dots are available on Jasmine CDs. Gia Prima has issued most of the Prima1 material.

New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show-Prima1(1968).

This album has some great tracks by Louis. A wild In a Little Spanish Town, a great new version of Confessin' with a standout trumpet solo. Louis also solos on Margie, I wanna Be Like You (from The Jungle Book) and does a hilarious comedy number with Sam, the Story 'bout the Dog. Sam does a fine vocal on When a Man Loves a Woman and Louis' new keyboard man, Richie Varola, breaks it up on electric organ with You're just in Love. One of the best examples of the later Prima show band.

Louis Prima on Broadway-United Artists(1967).

This album has Louis playing and singing with a large studio band (No Witnesses). Louis does some fine singing and contributes some nice trumpet work to favorites such as Cabaret, Mame, Hello Dolly and On a Clear Day. (not available on CD).
There are also some great Louis TV clips on Youtube, most of them from Louis Jr.'s collection.