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.