Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laurel and Hardy-A Chump at Oxford (1940)

This is our first Laurel and Hardy post. It has taken us a while to get to one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. Stan(1890-1965) and Ollie (known affectionately as Babe) (1892-1957) will be back for many more posts. Along with the 3 Stooges, they are personal favorites and I am proud to be a member of the Boston Brats chapter of the Sons of the Desert (the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society).

A Chump at Oxford is one of my favorite L & H features and the penultimate made for Hal Roach studios, their home studio and scene of their best comedies. (the 1941-5 features made for Fox and MGM were sadly below average). In high school , I smartly used this film as an essay in English and recieved an A for it (one of my few As-it payed to review Stan and Ollie). While we have much of the patented L & H slapstick, we also get an interesting role for Stan as he gets to use a new persona as Lord Paddington towards the film's climax.

Before we sample some of the film's highlights , here are some backround points of interest. The film was originally released as a 42 minute featurette , then expanded to 63 minutes , (for European release) adding the pre- Oxford employment sequences. The creative talent involved was top-notch. In 1941 the full version was released in the states.
The director , Alf Goulding was an ex-vaudevillian who introduced Hal Roach to Stan's talents back in 1918. He was a personal friend of Stan , however this was his first directorial job with the boys.

The screenplay was by three comedy pros. Harry Langdon , a comedy superstar of the 20s now reduced to shorts and writing assigments had worked an 2 previous L &H comedies. Charley Rogers , was another comic/writer and a fellow countryman of Stan's. He had on many of the Roach films. Felix Adler was a veteran gagman and worked for years at Columbia with the 3 Stooges and other comics. The title was a takeoff on a popular Robert Taylor film , A Yank at Oxford.

The cast had many familiar faces. At Oxford , one of the boys' favorite foils Charlie Hall was aboard (as a student!) along with Forrester Harvey (their valet, Meredith) , a young Peter Cushing and Wilfred Lucas (the warden in Pardon Us) as the dean. In the earlier scenes two old favorites , Anita Garvin and James Finlayson returned as the Van Deveres , the boys' employers. (they both went back to the Roach silents and were comedy pros). We also had the bonus of the wonderful music of Marvin Hatley , always a highight in a Roach film.(a few touches of swing music pop up along with the usual breezy score).

We open with the boys riding in style in the back of a chauffeured limo. It turns out the chauffeur is giving them a lift. After a catastrophe trying to ride on the back of a water truck the boys arrive at the Employment office in the back of a wrecker. The only jobs available call for a butler and maid at the Vandevere party. Ollie grabs the assignment and Stan is recruited to play Agnes the maid as he did in Another Fine Mess (1930) which also featured James Finlayson. The boys are met with dubious reactions by the Vandeveres, but they're in a bind and decide to give them a try. The folowing sequences borrow from L & H's silent classic From Soup to Nuts using some classic kitchen and servant gags. Ollie's efforts at seating the guests turns into a mele while Stan makes the error of following Finlayson's orders to take those cocktails (he gets himself drunk) and serving the salad undressed (in his underwear!). Finally Fin can take no more and escorts the boys out of the house with his rifle-his shot hits an unsuspecting cop! (L & H regular Harry Bernard).

The boys' next job is as sanitation workers. As they take a lunch break outside a bank , Stan's errant banana peel causes a bankrobber to trip during his getaway , making the boys heroes. (this is a great way of using one of the oldest gags in the book). Their reward is an education at Oxford and here is where we start the original film.

On arriving at Oxford , the boys are put thru a series of pranks by the aforementioned "students". First they are sent thru a maze of shruberry that leads to their quarters. The maze provides some fun gags and of course a "spook" appears to scare them off and we get the old extra hand gag (the spooks' hand lighting up Stan's pipe, twiddling thumbs, etc.). Finally the boys find their quarters , only it turns out to be the Deans' rooms. The boys have some fun with a seltzer bottle , trying to squirt the Deans' picture only to have the real Dean step in. A fight with the Dean ensues climaxing in a pillow fight and the "students" getting found out for their pranks on Stan and Babe.

The students promise to get revenge on L & H , who finally get their proper rooms. Their valet , Meredith regonizes Stan as Lord Paddington , the schools' greatest athlete and scholar who dissapeared years ago. Ollie gets a good laugh over this! When the students come after the boys Stan gets conked on the head by his window and in his daze assumes the persona of Lord Paddington! He quickly dispatches the nasty students out said window including Ollie who leaves a sizable hole in the ground - the Dean winds up in the hole with Ollie.

The last part of the film has great acting from Stan as he gets to ham it up as the stuffy , sarcastic Lord. Ollie has been made his "lackey" and the Dean fusses all over the return of his Lordship. Ollie's exasperation is classic! When the Lord gets to critical of Ollie's abilities and double chins , Ollie prepares to leave for the states. When Stan gets conked on the dome once more he returns to his simple character , much to Ollie's delight! The last shot has Ollie laughing in delight ,embracing Stan and checking his chin! These moments show the wonderful humility and lovable characters that were Stan and Babe. This is what made their films so special.

After Saps at Sea (1940) , L & H left Roach. Roach had been downsizing his comedy roster and was concentrating on features. Stan and Babe wanted to form their own production company.

Sorry to say they were eventually signed up with Fox and MGM for some dismal films without the care and love that Hal Roach gave them. These assembly-line comedies treated the boys as pure simpletons and had none of the humility of the Roach films. Thankfully , the bulk of their films were made for the Roach banner and contain their best work. There will be more to come.
A Chump at Oxford is available on DVD from Amazon. Sad to say , not many of the Hal Roach product is available on DVD , let's hope that will corrected in the future.

Till next time , Keep Laughing.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ira Ironstrings plays Santa Claus (1959)

This Christmas post will celebrate a personal favorite Christmas album and a wonderful series of recordings by the infamous Ira Ironstrings on Warner Bros, Records.
This series featured great jazz playing and clever swinging arrangements with a touch of Spike Jones' comedy. For years the identity of Ira Ironstrings was unknown but now we know that it was Big Bandleader/Guitar Great Alvino Rey doing some moonlighting. Rey was under contract to Capitol records and created the Ironsides persona as a way to make these fun, swinging albums. (Alvino had a great sense of humor). Alvino plays banjo on these sides , the rest of the players are unknown but have to be a core of the Hollywood studio pros-the musicianship is superb! Warren Barker handled much of the arranging and I suspect guitarist Jack Marshall might have also had a hand- some of the charts sound like his work for other albums.

There's a lot of dixieland, swing ,banjo and plenty of slap-mallet vibe work.(Whoever the player was, he got a workout on the sessions-Emil Richards, a top studio pro has been suggested) . The comedy is subtle but still in the Spike Jones' style-It really comes into play on the Christmas album.(Subtitled-Christmas Music For Those Who Have Heard Everything). I first discovered this album during a stint at a local music store. The owner loved this album and played it during the holidays-I borrowed it and made a cassette copy and now am delighted to have the CD from Collector's Choice Music. Dave Kapp's exellent liner notes echo his own childhood fascination with this album.

The original cover is reproduced with Santa tied down ala Gulliver by irate citizens! The original liner notes are also here-they were always a highlight of the Ironsides series. Despite the humor and bogus persona we get a lot of great jazz and amazing playing by Alvino and his studio pros.
I'm sure some of the usual suspects would include Mannie Klein, Shorty Sherock and John Best-trumpets , Si Zenthner,Abe Lincoln and Moe Scneider-trombone , Skeets Herfurt, Babe Russin, Matty Matlock (who also contributed some of the arrangements) and Gus Bivona-reeds , Ray Sherman or Lou Busch,piano(Lou produced this album-better known as Joe "Fingers" Carr, he guested on another Ira lp) , Morty Corb, bass and perhaps Nick Fatool or Alvin Stoller, drums. If anyone has info. on the personell (especially the mystery vibes man) I'd love to hear from you.

Now on to some of the many musical highlights:
Let it Snow-We get off to a swinging start with a neat riff on the familiar melody. Next is a Dixieland passage (the soprano sax sounds a bit like George Probert from the Firehouse 5) followed by the vibes (a fixture of the Ira sound) , with swinging backround, some growl trumpet, bass clarinet , back to the unison and a dixie ending.

Jingle Bells Stomp-The dixie group opens up followed by bass clarinet backed by sleigh bells, slap vibes, more dixie and back to the bass clar. and bells.

Skater's Nightmare (Waltz)-This is one of the wildest cuts and has popped up on Music Choice on Cable channels. We start with trombone lead backed by tricky piano noodling and growl trumpet. Alvino's banjo handles the verse , a band interlude brings on the vibes(always swinging in 4/4) , unison banjo/vibes on the verse with more trumpet growls and a wild drum break. An all-out band chorus brings back Alvino for the verse, a touch of tympani and dixie finish. All in 2 and a half minutes!.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus- Shuffle Rhythm opens with trombone lead and wa-wa trumpet. Next is the dixie band and vibes followed by a mellow trumpet (or flugelhorn) solo. A bit of growl trombone, soprano and dixie finish with a Lawrence Welk ending!

Christmas is for the Birds!-An original , probably by Alvino and/or Barker. Lots of sleigh bells, flutes and bird calls. Banjo takes the bridge with some Spike Jones effects , some dixie , a chimes interlude incorporating other Xmas tunes then back to the theme , a unison bridge , touch of banjo and dixie finish with a birdcall coda. Lots of Fun!

Deck them Halls- Two guitars in harmony open with the theme (probably Alvino) backed by bells. Some dixie follows , chimes lead to banjo/vibes unison with some dirty Spike Jones-ish trombone (perhaps Abe Lincoln?). More vibes , dixie and back to the 2 guitars for a fugue ending. A real clever chart.

Over the River (And thru the Woods)- We open with dixie and the familiar vibes followed by a cute unison riff ,more dixie a chimes break and dixie to the coda. A neat twist on a real Christmas oldie.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer- Bass clarinet states the melody with cute band answers , a banjo bridge , touch of flute then into the dixie chorus with some honky tonk piano(probably Lou) and soprano sax. Back to the Bass Clar. and the vibes ride out the coda.

Frosty the Snowman- A dixie intro followed by more honky tonk piano , the dixie band (vibes and banjo on bridge) and a neat unison passage by the band. Some more hokey trombone and back to the piano and dixie band with a neat modulation.

Sleigh Ride- The Leroy Anderson favorite gets a swinging ride by Ira and pals. Banjo/vibes state melody with trombone playing the counter melody with growl trumpet on bridge. On the second chorus the next theme is played in unison with some banjo licks , more drum breaks and a dixie finale with banjo on the bridge and coda.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town- We wrap things up with a mellow version of this perennial. Bass clarinet has a clip-clop figure while banjo/vibes state melody backed by bells with wa-wa trumpet. Next is dixie with vibes on bridge and back to unison melody with bas clar. having the last say.

We hope this review inspires you to pick up this very special and un-traditional Christmas album. Hopefully we will see more Ironstrings albums reissued. There are great titles such as Ira Ironstrings plays for People with $3.98 , Destroys the Great Bands , Plays with Matches and Meets Joe "Fingers" Carr-Together for the Last Time Vol.1.
These albums are a testament to the musical talents and humor of Alvino , his arrangers and top sidemen.

Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Billy Butterfield: "Conniff Meets Butterfield"--"Just Kiddin' Around"

Our recent Bob Crosby post (11/1/09) lauded the talents of trumpeter Billy Butterfield (1917-88). Billy was a consummate jazzman, lead and section man which made him extremely valuable in the world of big bands, traditional jazz and swing.

These two albums recorded for Columbia in 1959 and 1963, respectively, show his beautiful tone and jazz feel, even in a more commercial setting. Conniff Meets Butterfield reunites Billy with his old buddy from the Bob Crosby band, Ray Conniff (1916-2002). Ray, an excellent trombonist (more on that later) and arranger, had hit it big at Columbia with a simple but effective series of vocal albums featuring his Singers backed by tasty arrangements usually with rhythm section backing.

The 1959 session is a trumpet showcase for Billy playing a series of popular standards backed by Ray's rhythm and catchy charts. Many of the tunes utilize the shuffle rhythm made so popular by Jonah Jones over at Capitol records. The one constant is Billy's huge, gorgeous tone whether muted or open. His jazz ideas are given free reign even though this is essentially an easy listening album. Personally, this album was an early exposure to great trumpet playing and still evokes happy memories. Here are some highlights:

Most of the tunes have Billy either cup muted or open playing some great standards backed by a rhythm section. Despite the commercial nature of the album Billy gets in great jazz phrasing and licks on all the tunes.

The opener Beyond the Blue Horizon gets off to a great start with shuffle rhythm and Billy's pungent cup muted horn. Billy goes open for the second chorus with nice variations before going up high for a classic ending. The rest of the album doesn't disappoint. Ray's arrangements are sparce, but clever. On You must have been a Beautiful Baby, Billy plays open and has a nice jazz chorus with a catchy riff before reprieving the melody with cup.

Time on my Hands has cup mute melody then Billy plays a nice unison riff with the rhythm. What a Differance a Day Makes opens with Billy in cup then a nice open passage over shuffle rhythm with Louis-like glisses before going out up high.

South of the Border is another swinger with shuffle rhythm, more trumpet-rhythm unison and some more Louis high ones. Billy uses the Ay-ay-ay strain as a coda. Rosalie also swings nicely over shuffle with more glisses (Billy sure knew his Louis) and a repeated ending with a hint of Salt Peanuts. Ray's original A Love is Born (Song of the Trumpet) , is a beautiful, haunting theme , just perfect for the great Butterfield horn. Only one chorus, the theme shows off Billy's control and gorgeous tone. A highlight of the album, for sure. The other tracks , I Found a Million Dollar Baby, Can't we be Friends, All the Things You Are, Oh What a Beautiful Morning and Something to Remember You By all have wonderful Butterfield solos.

The only drawback to the album is a gimmicky echo in the rhythm section that sounds like the drums and guitar are behind the beat. This was the era of hifi/stereo and these effects are very annoying-Too bad it wasn't omitted on the reissue. (It would get worse on the next album).

The follow-up album was Just Kiddin' Around (1963)
and this time Ray added his trombone work to his arranging talents. Ray had broken in as a trombonist with Bunny Berigan, followed by stints with Bob Crosby(where he met Billy), Vaughn Monroe, Artie Shaw and Harry James. His work with Shaw, especially his chart on 'Swonderful, established him as a top arranger and soon his trombone had to take a back seat. (He reworked the sWonderful chart for the Singers and had a hit with it.) Ray was a fine jazz player. His work on a March 1944 Blue Note session with Art Hodes, Max Kaminsky and Rod Cless show what a fine trad/dixie player he was. If he hadn't met with so much success as an arranger, he could have been a major player in the trad circles.

Ray and Billy only team up on 2 selections, the rest of the album has them splitting solo features. On Alexander's Ragtime Band, Billy and Ray duet the first chorus with Billy getting off some nice licks, Ray handles the verse and Billy wails up high on the outchorus with Ray sliding underneath. We even get some quotes from Cornet Chop Suey and Muskrat Ramble-A Great Opener! Just Kiddin' Around is a riff tune from Ray's Artie Shaw days with unison playing by the horns, more shuffle rhythm, trading fours a nice Basie-ish piano bridge and back to the unison. Now on to the features.

Billy's features are in the same format as the earlier album. Put your Arms Around Me is a standout with shufle rhythm and Billy getting off great drive and phrasing. After a modulation he wails the second chorus with a long held note on the coda. This Love of Mine has soaring open horn with a lot of Louis and Bunny like phrasing. On You'll Never Know, Billy gets in some nice Harry James licks in tribute to a fellow trumpet great. Louise and But Not for Me are both tasty renditions.

Ray's features are tasty but not as jazz oriented. However he plays strong and percussive-He obviously had been keeping his chops up. Heartaches, When I Grow Too Old to Dream, You Oughta be in Pictures and Peg O' My Heart are all nicely played with his patented tasty charts.
The lovely ballad I See Your Face Before Me has more of a Teagarden feel and is a jazz highlight.

All in all , these two lps show the greatness of Billy Butterfield as an all-round trumpeter and the dual talents of Ray Conniff. The CD versions are available on Columbia thru Amazon.

Till next time-Keep Swingin'

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The 3 Stooges-Hula -La-La (1951)

The Stooges go native in this delightful 1951 short , one of their very best with Shemp as third stooge. The plot has the boys as dance teachers at a movie studio sent to a South Sea island to teach the natives how to dance , the studio is planning a big polynesian epic and find out their natives can't dance! Along the way the boys run afoul of beautiful island girls, headhunters, an evil witch doctor and a pesky idol with four arms!

This breezy short was directed by Hugh McCollum , primarily a producer at the Columbia Shorts Dept. His style was more laid-back and jovial than the violent Jules White, however we have the usual wild slapstick gags by the boys. The story was by Ed Bernds , himself one of the Stooges' best directors. His screenplay has loads of witty dialog and bad puns. Another plus is the little untitled island song that gets played thruout the short, it gives not only the proper flavor but a nice change of pace. (Columbia, always thrifty reused it as backround music at a waterfront cafe in the 1955 sci-fi classic , It Came from Beneath the Sea).

The supporting cast is an exellent one including Stooge regular Emil Sitka as Mr. Baines the studio chief.(he will be the subject of a future post) His part is small but he makes the most of it even getting in a nifty pratfall. Emil plays his own age here, he was very adept at old codgers and goofy professors.
Jean Willes plays the native girl Luana, she joined the Columbia shorts in the mid 40s as Jean Donahue and was a busy player with the Stooges and other comics thru the mid 50s. Jean was a tall, leggy brunette and like Christine McIntyre(the Stooges' first lady) she had a good flair for comedy. She worked in many features of the 40s and 50s, popped up in the feature version of McHale's Navy and was in the classic Twilight Zone episode , Will the Real Martian please Stand Up?
Another favorite Stooge foil Kenneth McDonald plays Varanu the Witch Doctor. Kenneth was a great slimy villain with his pencil mustace and theatrical voice , many Perry Mason fans remember him as one of the regular judges on the show. A Hawaiian named Lei Aloha (sounds like a stage name!) plays the idol and longtime bit player Heinie Conklin gets to mug a little as the king.

The comic highlights are many , but here are some of my favorites:
The opening scenes with the Stooges as dance instructors are a hoot. Moe telling Shemp that the "girls have their rondelets mixed up with their pirouettes and their fortissimos tangled with their allegrettos." Shemps's response- "Yeh, but what's wrong with their dancin'?" Shemp proceeds to give the girls a wild display of his dance style only to find he's dancing to a Trombone part! ( The boys were all great eccentric hoofers , but Shemp took the cake).

Varanu showing the boys his collection of shruken heads has a great Columbia editing gaffe as Moe's scream gets dubbed in before he can react. Shemp's visit to Luana's hut has him hiding under the bed when Varanu enters and Shemp dealing with a visit from a baby and momma crocodile while still under the bed. Great Stuff! We even get the old "You can say that again" bit when Luana tells the boys that the witch doctor is a bad man. (she says it again, of course).

Moe and Larry's encounter with the Idol (Old Four Arms) is a classic with both getting heaps of punishment from the multiple arms before Moe gets her with a great eye-poke. (the Idol uses all 4 hands to cover her eyes). The Idol is guarding a box of hand grenades that the Stooges use in the finale. Shemp also gets in some good jungle dialog calling Luana's boyfriend,Kuala the Coca-Cola guy and instructing a native to Ungow! and get him some food.

Just when it looks like the boys are to be victims of Varanu's axe on the chopping block , Moe asks him for a sample of his work on the grenade box. When arrogant Varanu obliges he gets blown sky high with only his smoking sandals left! (a perennial Stooge gag). Finally the boys get to give the islanders their dance lesson. Moe, Larry, Shemp and the cast start skipping, shuffling and trying to hula accompanied by the little island song. Shemp again takes top honors with his wild contortions.

Hula-La-La is oneof the best of the many classic Shemp outings by the Stooges. It is available on Vol.6 of the Sony/Stooges collection. (which should be wrapping up in 2010).

Till next time-Keep Stooging!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Good News- Teresa Brewer and the World's Greatest Jazz Band

This delightful session from 1974 has been quite forgotten over the years, We hope this post will bring it some well deserved recognition.

The album was originally recorded for Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label. (he was Teresa Brewer's husband). While Miss Brewer is an acquired taste, her work here shows a maturity as a performer with a nice feel for jazz. (No doubt Mr. Thiele. a top jazz record producer helped). As for the World's Greatest Jazz Band , alias W.G.J.B. they have one of their best blowing sessions. The band has plenty of solo room, on some tunes Teresa sings just a single chorus! The addition of Bobby Hackett's cornet and Bucky Pizzarelli's guitar is also a strong plus.

The theme of the album is a salute to the wonderful songs of the team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. This threesome wrote some of the most popular show and movie tunes of the 20s and 30s. Quite a few of the songs came from the Good News show along with some other goodies by the team. (the show was enjoying a revival at the time).

The band's lineup is a strong one. Regular members included Yank Lawson (trumpet), Bob Wilber (clarinet & soprano) , Vic Dickenson (trombone) , Bud Freeman (tenor) , Ralph Sutton (piano) , Bob Haggart (bass) and Gus Johnson (drums). Trombonist Benny Morton had recently joined the band. (he and Vic had both worked with Hackett's tasty quintet). Benny didn't get a lot to do on the session , but was an old pro.Veteran arranger Glenn Osser devised some simple charts , but the structure is pretty loose and free-blowing.

Miss Brewer was always a cute and vivacious performer with a big voice and sometimes heavy vibrato. However she rises to the occasion in this stellar company. She especially connects with Hackett (what singer didn't, he was a master at vocal backup). The previous year Teresa had guested on Bobby's What a Wonderful World album. (another Flying Dutchman production).
While we miss Billy Butterfield's trumpet (he had recently left the band) , Bobby is a most welcome replacement. Bucky Pizzarelli's solid rhythm guitar adds to the already rock solid rhythm section. Now, on with the show!

Good News (1927) the opener is the title tune of the broadway show. Gus'hihat brings in the band wailing with Bud's twisting, percussive tenor on the bridge. The band modulates to Teresa's vocal backed by Bobby's tasty cornet , after another modulation Bob Wilber's soprano is on with a playful Hackett bridge. More Bud , a wry Dickenson trombone bridge and the band goes home with a driving tag by Gus. We're off to a great start!

I Want to be Bad from a 1930 show and film called Follow Thru. Bobby and Vic introduce the melody in duet leading to a cute vocal by Teresa.(right up her alley) A modulation brings on Yank and the band with a striding bridge by Sutton. The band takes things home with some nice noodling by Wilber over the last chord.

The old favorite Button up your Overcoat (also from Follow Thru) makes a perfect vehicle for Teresa. After a band intro Teresa is on with nice Wiber backup. The band wails one with Bud on the bridge folowed by a nice series of trading between Yank and Bobby folowed by Vic and Benny. The band moulates back to Teresa with more cute vocalizing (backed by Wilber) and the band riding her home. This rendition moves along nicely.

Sunnyside Up comes from a 1929 film of the same name and was also featured in the 1956 bio. of DeSylva, Brown & Henderson , The Best Things in Life are Free. Yank opens with his Harmon mute, a greattrademark sound of his , pushed by Bucky's great guitar. Wiber brings on Teresa for 2 great choruses getting hotter on the second backed by Ralph's striding. We modulate to more swinging Freeman tenor folowed by more trombone trading. Yank takes out the last half on Harmon with Wilber noodling underneath. A Great version!

Lucky in Love , also from Good News opens with Haggart's familiar whistling before Teresa enters backed nicely by Hackett. The band modulates with Bud on the bridge. A lovely round toned Wilber chorus with Hackett's bridge then bring on the band who set up Teresa's final chorus (with more pretty Hackett noodling) with atasty unison figure and rideout. Glenn Osser's contributions are felt thruout the date, but the band gets plenty of wailing room.

Varsity Drag (Good News)- This is a real swinging track.A raggy piano intro by Ralph brings in Teresa for two great choruses, a bit Charleston-like on the first and swinging on the second. The band goes aboard with a nice chorded bridge by Bucky. Vic's up next with a strutting, slurring chorus with Wiber on the bridge and a modulation to Teresa's last chorus that swings along with nice vocal variations. (I like her line do the varsity drag-in drag). Vic closes the festivities with one of his dirty pedal notes. This rendition is no drag at all!

Just Imagine (Good News)- One of the highlights of the session. Teresa sings the lovely verse backed by Ralph. Bobby enters with his lovely sound and stays behind Teresa's plaintive vocal. Her maturity and jazz feel make this an outstanding vocal. Bud takes over playing pretty with an equally lovely bridge by Wilber. Teresa picks up the last half with Bobby stil behind her winding down to a long ending with Bobby weaving over the final chords into one of his classic codas. Bobby gives us some of his last great solos here (he passed on in 1976). Teresa and Bobby get MVP honors here.

Together- Another lovely ballad done with a light swing. This tune was featured in the 1956 bio.
Ralph gives us a striding intro into Teresa's vocal (backed by Wilber). A modulation brings on a weaving, twisting Hackett for a half chorus picked up by Bud. Wilber brings back Teresa for the last half and a nice closing vocal tag backed by Wilber, who shines here. Teresa's singing is very expressive on this track. Bud and Bob take the cake on this one.

You're the Cream in my Coffee-from a 1929 film, The Cock-Eyed World. Bob's soprano introduces the theme. (he was a master on the instrument). A nice interlude using some of the bridge's melody brings on Teresa for a strutting chorus. (more Bobby on the bridge).A swinging band chorus follows with Bobby in for the bridge. Bud and Vic split a chorus with Vic's laughing plunger on the bridge and the band takes us home with another bombastic tag by Gus. Plenty of good blowing by the band here.

We wrap up the party with The Best Things in Life are Free.(Good News). Bobby 's graceful cornet opens over bchords into Teresa's cheery vocal (with nice backup by Bobby and Bud) followed by more of Yank's driving Harmon with Wilber on the bridge. A break by Vic gives us more of his wry sound with Bobby darting in for the bridge. Bobby takes a pretty break that sets up Teresa's last chorus (more Bud and Wilber backup) and nice vocal turnaround (The cry in Teresa's voice is very effective) as the band swings us home with Vic's pedal note saying Goodbye!

Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart never were comfortable with the rather presumptous title of World's Greatest Jazz Band. (their sponsor Barker Hickox came up with it). They preferred the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band which they used before and after the W.G.J.B. days. However, with lineups like this and the Bob Crosby feel of the band (Haggart did a lot of the aranging) it was indeed a very great jazz band. This session certainly reinforces that claim and gives Miss Brewer one of her best vocal outings. At this writing , only Bob Wilber and Bucky Pizzarelli survive (they're both still very active musically) , Miss Brewer passed on in 2007. This wonderful session , last available on Sony/Signature CD is a great testament to them all.

Here's hoping that all your news is Good News!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Louis Armstrong and the Decca House Band (1936/8)

The recent release of Louis Armstrong's Decca recordings of 1935-46 on Mosaic records has given new prominence to this wonderful but neglected chapter in Satchmo's recording career. Louis made many of his Decca sides with his own band, the exellent Luis Russell Orchestra. He also was backed up by some very fine studio groups and the bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Casa Loma and Bob Haggart.

These two delightful sessions find Louis backed by a group of studio pros casually known as the "Decca House Band". This group usually comprised of 7 to 10 players backed many Decca artists, especially Dick Robertson. (see our earlier post).

The session of February 4, 1936 found Louis waxing two popular tunes backed up by an exellent band including Louis disciple Bunny Berigan who was one of Louis' favorite trumpeters. Besides being a great jazzman, Bunny was a wonderful lead player and his huge, open horn is a highlight of the band's sound.(Bunny was doing a lot of studio work at the time).Also present were Bob Mayhew( trumpet), who worked with Bix in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Al Philburn was on trombone, he played on most of the Robertson sessions.

The saxes consisted of leadman Phil Waltzer(alto), Sid Trucker(alto/clarinet), a busy studio man formerly with Russ Morgan and Paul Ricci (tenor), a veteran of the bands of Joe Haymes, Richard Himber and Bunny.

The rhythm section had Fulton McGrath on piano, he had worked with the Dorseys, Red Nichols and would have a brief spell in Bunny's big band. (he wrote the lovely ballad Mandy is Two). Dave Barbour on guitar(with Red Norvo at the time) would soon find fame with Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee.(also as Peggy's husband). Bassist Pete Peterson was also with Norvo and drummer Stan King was an old pro from the 20s. He was on many sessions with Red Nichols, the Dorseys and Miff Mole, his great time and swing are a plus on the session.

First up is Irving Berlin's I'm Putting all my Eggs in One Basket, a delightful tune with a tricky bridge. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers introduced it in the film Follow the Fleet. Louis opens with a classic operatic cadenza then takes us into tempo for a lovely exposition of the melody with subtle variations. (Ricci handles the bridge nicely on tenor). Sid Trucker's clarinet leads into a cheery vocal by Pops with his usual superb time and phrasing . (Trucker's clarinet chips in with some backup). Bunny's strong lead brings on the band backed by King's great backbeat and Louis picks up the rest of the theme going operatic again for an equally impresive coda.

Yes Yes! My My! is a novelty by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. (the composers of Shoe Shine Boy, a Louis classic from this period).The band brings Louis in for a spoken Yes Yes, My My then right into the vocal. Pops' vocal is full of fun and McGrath has some nice piano fills. Bunny leads us into a tasty Philburn solo with Bunny contributing a few flares leading into a key change for Pops. His chorus is full of great note placement, blue notes and his gorgeous tone. By this point of his career Louis had pared his style to amazing simplicity mixed with his technical gifts. He finishes up high with a neat 4 note burst.
A Lovely session.

The session of June 24, 1938 saw a new "house" band, two new pop tunes and Louis revisiting two of his classic favorites. The band was an 8 piece unit ( the size of the Dick Robertson group).
On trumpets were Bob Cusumano , an exellent lead man formerly with Paul Whiteman, Larry Clinton and Tommy Dorsey and Johnny McGee who was on most of the Robertson sides and had been working with Richard Himber. Al Philburn was back on trombone. Sid Stoneburn was on clarinet, he had much big band experience including T. Dorsey, Bob Zurke, Joe Haymes and Larry Clinton, he gets in some nice jazz licks on these sides. Dave Barbour was back on guitar and Decca house man Haig Stephens played bass. Sammy Weiss, a top drummer with Goodman, T.Dorsey and Artie Shaw lays down some great rhythm.(he was also part of the Jack Benny show for years). Pianist Nat Jaffe only lived to be 27 , but shows a mature Jess Stacy-ish style. He worked with Charlie Barnet, Joe Marsala and Jack Teagarden. He contributes some nice solos and fills on the session.

First up is a rather obscure pop tune by Harry Barris, Naturally. The tune is pleasant with an unusual minor-sounding bridge. After a band intro Louis sings a mellow vocal with polite backup. The band comes in for an interlude with a nice Stoneburn spot. Louis enters backed by tasty Weiss rimshots and hihat. Pops gives us some tasty figures over the stoptime bridge and goes up high for the coda over the band ending.

I've got a Pocketful of Dreams(comp.Johnny Burke-Jim Monaco)was a new tune from the Bing Crosby film, Sing, You Sinners. After a band intro, Pops enters with the vocal. The tune is a bit rangy, so Louis plays around with a few notes, but with his usual swing and time. (Billie Holiday picked up this trick from Louis). The band gives us an interlude with spots by Sid and Jaffe and Philburn. The band modulates to Louis' chorus, his phrasing is tangy and close to the melody. Jaffe gets the bridge and has a nice spot with Pops closing out on a neat solo break backed by Weiss.

I can't give you Anything but Love was already one of Louis' standbys. This version , at a faster tempo from the original has some neat touches that make it unique. The Mosaic issue gives us some banter before the performance, Louis is kidding about "remembering the words". After a band intro, Pops' vocal is patented but has a few nice asides. The band modulates with nice Stoneburn fills and Pops picks up the rest (Weiss' hihat is very effective behind him). His time and accents are superb, giving us a more mellower but still exciting solo. Louis closes with another grand coda backed by Weiss' hihat. The renowned French critic Andre Hodeir singled this solo out in his exellent book, Jazz: It's Evolution and Essence.

Another Armstrong perennial , Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin' gets a redo. Following the band intro, Louis' vocal follows his original with some subtle changes. The band modulates with a nice horn figure and Philburn spot with Jaffe handling the bridge. Pops gives us subtle variations on his classic solo with a new bridge and a soaring outchorus going up high, backed by Weiss' tomtoms. Louis would continue to delight us with new versions of these old classics thru the years.

The arrangements on these sides were probably stocks with some doctoring done at the studio. (many studio jazz dates were done this way). Perhaps Barbour, Jaffe or McGrath had a hand in the changes or a house arranger may have been used. The two sessions are part of Mosaic's exellent set of the Armstrong Deccas 1935-46, highly recommended for any Pops fan. The entire collection shows the amazing quality of Louis' work during this period. These little "house band" sessions offer a fascinating part of this huge body of work.

Till next time, keep enjoying the Wonderful World of Pops.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

This film is one of those So Bad that it's Great offerings. Besides the presence of horror master Lugosi and other familiar B players we have the unique comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo doing their Martin & Lewis impersonation. (Petrillo's Jerry is so dead-on that it's scary!). In the 40s, the team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney did a similar take on Abbott and Costello.

The plot (what there is of it) involves entertainers Duke and Sammy stranded on a jungle island encountering friendly natives (the lovely Nona takes a shine to Duke and her hefty sister Saloma goes after Sammy) and the evil Dr. Zarnoff (Bela) who is conducting strange experiments and turns Duke into a gorilla when he sees Nona (his lab assistant!) getting too chummy with Duke. It's all good silliness in the tradition of the 3 Stooges, Abbott & Costello and the Bowery Boys.

The film was released by the Realart studio and produced by Jack Broder. The director, William Beaudine was known as "one-shot" for his ability to make a film in record time, quality notwithstanding. He made many low budget affairs for Monogram and American-International.
The screenplay was by veteran actor Tim Ryan who acted in and wrote many Monogram classics.(he and wife Irene-"Granny" of the Beverly Hillbillies had an act similar to Burns and Allen). Also contributing dialog was Leo "Ukie" Sherrin, an actor and writer for many Monogram cheapies. Duke Mitchell got to sing two songs (a la Deano) , the favorite Deed I Do and Too Soon( based on La Paloma).

A bit about the All-Star cast: Bela Lugosi at age 70 was at a low point of his career, beset by years of B movies and drug addiction. He pretty much sleepwalks thru the film, but occasionally raises an eyebrow or does a "take" to show he's getting a kick out of the comics.

Duke Mitchell(1926-81) and Sammy Petrillo (1934-2009) were nightclub entertainers who took advantage of the popularity of Martin and Lewis.(Duke had a bit part in Martin & Lewis' Sailor Beware (1951 ). They worked in and out of the business for years, Petrillo ran a comedy club in Pittsburg called the Nut House. Jerry Lewis threatened the team with a lawsuit and they dropped out of sight. Despite the obvious impersonation, they had good chemistry and Petrillo showed good comic timing.

Charlita (Regis) as the lovely native girl, Nona (complete with college education!) made a career of exotic and jungle type roles. (similar to B favorites Acquanetta and Lita Baron).
Mickey Simpson as Bela's hulking servant, Chula was a former boxer who specialized in tough guys and body guards with the likes of Abbott and Costello, Tarzan, Jungle Jim and the 3 Stooges. (Stooge fans will remember him as strongman Rocky Duggan in Gents in a Jam (1952).
Muriel Landers as Saloma, was a former dance partner of Ray Bolger and played many comic suporting roles in the 50s. She played "Tiny" in Sweet and Hot (1958), one of the worst 3 Stooges shorts.
We can't forget Ramona the Chimp, who Zabor plans to turn into a gorilla. When Duke gets hot with Nona, he turns him into the gorilla instead.

Petrillo's antics get to be a little too much ( of course so were those of the the real Lewis) and Mitchell's singing has a strange mix of Frankie Laine, Billy Daniels and Elvis! They do have good chemistry, it's too bad the Martin and Lewis take-off was so obvious, they could have developed into a good B comedy team ala the Bowery Boys. Likewise, the Mitchell/Charlita romance has a nice, genuine chemistry to it.

Things get sillier and sillier with the Duke gorilla, Romana and Nona all running around the jungle with Zabor after them. We seem to be getting melodramatic when Zabor shoots at Duke and buddy Sammy takes the bullets for him. But it turns out Sammy was dreaming all of this in his niteclub dressing room! To boot, all the lead players turn out to be employed at the club (with Bela as headwaiter!). The boys put on their tuxes and go into their act with Duke singing and Sammy mugging. (here they look just like the real Martin and Lewis club act). On this upbeat note we end this wild, little film.

Although a real cheapie 50s jungle comedy, this film has it's moments and is always amazing watching the Martin & Lewis takeoff of Duke and Sammy. My DVD copy came from a label called Digiview. I was pleasantly surprised at the exellent quality of the print, it was a pleasure to watch.
Until next time, Keep on Laughing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bob Crosby's Bob Cats-Feb. 1940

One of the most unique and musical orchestras of the Big Band era was that of vocalist Bob Crosby (1913-93), younger brother of Bing.

Many bands had gimmicks and styles that made them special, the Crosby band used traditional jazz or dixieland as the basis of it's style. The band brought many jazz classics back into the Big Band repertoire and featured a fantastic array of soloists. The Crosby band also spotlighted an 8-piece "band-within-a band" called the Bobcats. This post will celebrate 5 classic sides recorded for Decca in February of 1940.

The Crosby band grew out of a group of musicians who left the Ben Pollack band (known as the Pollack Orphans)in search of their own identity and dedication to Big Band dixieland. Bob Crosby was chosen as leader on the strength of his personality and talents as a frontman and singer. (He had a lot of Bing's vocal timbre and good humored comedic timing). The band had a great crew of jazzmen including Yank Lawson,trumpet, Matty Matlock,clarinet, Warren Smith,trombone, Bob Haggart,bass, Joe Sullivan,piano and New Orleansians Eddie Miller,tenor, Nappy Lamare,guitar and drummer Ray Bauduc.
Arrangements were spit between Matlock,Haggart and veteran Deane Kincaide(also a band saxophonist). Saxophonist Gil Rodin actually ran the band for Crosby but it was always a co-operative unit in spirit and financial gains.

By 1940 the band had undergone some personell changes, but sounded better than ever. That is where we pick up this session. First a few words about the Bob Cat members heard here:

Billy Butterfield, trumpet(1917-88)- Billy had joined the band in Sept. 1937.(from the Austin Wylie Orch.) When Yank Lawson was hired away by Tommy Dorsey, Billy took over the jazz chair with the Bob Cats. One of the most versatile trumpeters, he could play hot, sweet or lead and his beautiful pure tone was always a joy to hear.

Warren Smith, trombone (1908-75)-"Smitty" joined up in early 1937.(He had been with Abe Lyman) Some of the band members were impressed by his blowing at a jam session. He never quite lived up to that hype, but blew a solid, tailgate and later worked with many west coast dixieland groups.

Irving Fazola, clarinet(1912-49). When Matty Matlock's services were needed more as an arranger,"Faz" came into the band in March 1938. One of the great New Orleans clarinetists with a beautiful,round tone, he shines on this session.

Eddie Miller, tenor sax(1911-91) A charter member of the band and another New Orleans boy.
Eddie played one of the prettiest and swingingiest tenors(and a fine clarinet,too). He would go on to be one of the top tenor men of all time.

Jess Stacy, piano(1904-95). The Crosby band featured some great pianists starting with Joe Sullivan, Bob Zurke and Jess in Sept. 1939. Jess was one of the top piano stylists with a great backround in Chicago jazz. He came over from Benny Goodman's band and must have enjoyed the cozy surroundings of the Crosby Crew. (He had his "moments" working with Benny).

Nappy Lamare, guitar (1907-88). Another charter member and New Orleans native. Nappy played a solid rhythm guitar and contributed fun vocals. He and Ray Bauduc led bands in the postwar years.

Bob Haggart, bass (1914-98). Also Class of 1935 and ace arranger of the band. Bob was a top notch bassist and he and Yank Lawson led many fine bands in the post war years.

Ray Bauduc, drums (1906-88). Another original member and New Orleans born. One of the finest traditional drummers of all time. He took part in many Bob Cat reunions along with his work with Nappy.

And now, on to the music: The session of February 6, 1940 produced 4 classic Bob Cats sides. First up was Isham Jones' Spain, a beautiful but little recorded gem. Faz's gorgeous clarinet sound takes over the first chorus with the horns giving him light backup. Next is a sparkling Stacy solo with Miller's mellow tenor on the bridge, backed by an appropriate tango beat. Bily and the band ride out in grand style with Faz repeating his intro. A wonderful record.

Irving Berlin's All by Myself has a lovely vocal by the band's girl singer, Marian Mann. She phrased well and had a nice feel for jazz. She was highly respected by band members. Billy's pure toned lead, Eddie and Faz splitting a chorus lead to a percussive spot by Warren Smith. He wasn't a subtle player, but could swing in a hard hitting style. The outchorus has the reeds harmonized with Billy (a common Bob Cats device) and makes for a tasty outchorus.

The Tom Delaney favorite Jazz Me Blues is next. Bix Beiderbecke made this a jazz standard and the Bob Cats' rebdition is a winner! Billy leads the band thru the traditional ensemble and breaks and Faz has 2 solid choruses. (One can see where Pete Fountain came from).The riff on the outchorus has become a part of the tune. (like the "dogfight on That's a Plenty). Billy's blowing on the outchorus is as fierce as Yank's -he was so versatile.

A forgotten pop tune, Do you ever think of Me? has become a Bob Cat classic. The neat opening has Eddie playing lead with the other horns below him. (sort of a "hip" Hotel Band sound). Nappy takes a fun vocal followed by more of Faz's great horn and an inventive Stacy solo with neat reharms. Billy and the boys ride out with a nice unison break by clarinet and tenor. (a common Crosby device).

The February 28 session was mainly a feature for Marian Mann, however we have a classic version of Armand Piron's Mama's Gone , Goodbye. I'm sure the New Orleans contingent enjoyed this one. Faz opens the proceedings and Marian gives us a nice chorus backed by Billy's pungent plunger horn.(her vocal has shades of Mildred Bailey) Eddie and Smith split a chorus and the outchorus is tightly voiced, backed by Ray's choke cymbal. Although Butterfield gets no solos on these tunes, his lead, obligattos and drive show what would make him one of the top trumpeters of the century.

There are many Crosby Orchestra and Bob Cats reissues on CD. I recommend a crosscheck at Amazon or World's Records. Also insispensable is John Chilton's Stomp Off, Let's Go (Jazz Book Service-1983). This wonderful bio/discography is long out of print , but worth looking for. There will be many more Bob Cats posts, in the future.

Till then' This is the old Dave Cat saying"Happy Listening".

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Dick Robertson Sessions

One of the most enjoyable but unheralded small-group jazz series of the 30s and early 40s was the Decca series under the direction of vocalist Dick Robertson. Dick was one of the busiest and most popular studio singers from the late 20s to early 40s. He had a clear, pleasant tenor voice, a bit like Eddie Howard and he could also adopt a more jazzy type voice if the occasion warranted it. He sang on many of the wonderful Gene Kardos/Joel Shaw band sides of the early 30s. The rest of his resume is like a Who's Who of jazz and dance bands. It includes Duke Ellington, Clarence Williams, Ben Pollack, Irving Mills, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Red Nichols and Freddie Rich to name just a few.

Dick's bio. is a bit sketchy. We know he was of Canadian descent and born in New York in 1903. He played violin, but his success came as a vocalist and he seemed to emerge on the New York recording scene in the late 20s. The series that would feature Dick with a tasty seven or eight piece jazz group had its origins in December of 1935 with a series of sides on the Champion label. Among the sidemen were Bunny Berigan, Al Philburn, trombone (he would be a fixture), Paul Ricci, clarinet, Forrest Crawford, tenor sax and Frank Signorelli, piano (another fixture). Unfortunately these sides weren't available for review. (Hopefully we can do a separate post down the road.) The basic style of the Robertson band was a loose, swinging style of dixieland somewhat like Tommy Dorsey's Clambake 7 and the Wingy Manone recording units. Dick usually sang a chorus and would do a vocal reprieve, but there was plenty of jazz ensemble and solo work to be enjoyed.

By December of 1936, Dick was recording for Decca where he would stay until the recording ban of July 1942. The first Decca sides had some New York studio men such as Andy McKinney, trumpet and Russ Jenner, trombone along with members of Red Norvo's band (with Red on piano). Slats Long on clarinet, Jenner and Norvo are the star soloists. Goodnight, my Love and When my Dreamboat Comes Home are excellent sides. (On Dreamboat there is a Bud Freeman- -like tenor, possibly Slats Long. Herbie Haymer is listed, but it doesn't sound like him.) The band that would work the bulk of the Robertson sides came aboard with the March 24, 1937 session.

This group, with a few personnel changes made numerous sides with Robertson and other Decca artists such as the Andrews Sisters, Lil Armstrong, the Nicholas Bros. Teddy Grace and Louis Armstrong(more on Louis' session later).. They became an "unofficial" Decca house band. Most of the sides had two trumpets along with trombone, clarinet and rhythm section. The two trumpets gave the group it's Band sound. (Occasionally only one was used.) The sound of the band was dixieland with a bit of swing creeping into the later efforts. With Dick's vocals ranging from crooner to balladeer and rhythm man, the group had a wonderfully carefree and swinging approach to pop tunes and old favorites.

The core of the 1937-42 Robertson band were Bobby Hackett and Johnny McGee ,trumpet, Al Philburn and Buddy Morrow, trombone, Don Watt, Sid Trucker and Tony Zimmers, clarinet. Frank Signorelli and Frank Froeba did most of the piano work. Haig Stevens was the bassist on just about every side. Frank Victor and Dave Barbour handled much of the guitar work and Sammy Weiss and Stan King were the resident drummers. All these men were on call for studio dates and some were playing in dance bands of the day. The dixieland ensemble and tasty solo work really put these sides over. While most of the Robertson sides are available only on 78, the Timeless label of Holland put out an excellent CD of the 1937-39 period called Dick Robertson-The New York Session Man. I can thank a good friend and collector, Ed Reynolds, for providing many of the 78s to listen to and share with you.

The sessions really came into their own with the arrival of Bobby Hackett in March of 1937. Bobby was still in his embryonic stage (see our post-Hackett-Bix session) but plays nice rolling, melodic phrases as was his hallmark. Even at this stage of his career, Bobby was a unique and tasty soloist. Most of the sides have a strong lead trumpet-usually Ralph Muzillo or John Carlsen (both lead men with many top dance bands). Al Philburn on trombone was a veteran of the California Ramblers and studio bands, he lent a nice tailgate trombone to the band. (ala T. Dorsey or PeeWee Hunt).He was occaisionly replaced by Buddy Morrow (of Big Band fame), then known as Moe Zudecoff. The clarinet chair went from studio men Paul Ricci to Sid Trucker to Don Watt a veteran of the Ted Weems band, Don stayed on the longest until Tony Zimmers took over. The piano chair was mostly the property of Frank Signorelli (of Memphis 5 and Bix-Venuti fame) and Frank Froeba of New Orleans (the original pianist with the Benny Goodman big band). Signorelli devised a cute piano intro that became the trademark of the group and was heard on most of the sides.

Some of the highlights of the Hackett period include lovely choruses on Little Old Lady, Too Marvelous for Words, You're a Sweetheart and September in the Rain (all 3/24/37). Even a "Cowboy" ballad such as My Little Buckaroo gets a nice treatment with a pretty vocal by Dick. On September, Froeba plays some tasty celesta. Other standouts include Good Mornin' (not the Singin' in the Rain favorite), Gone with the Wind, My Gal Sal and Johnny Mercer's Bob White. The other soloists never disappoint, especially Watt and the pianists. Guitarists Frank Victor and Dave Barbour also get in some tasty licks. I Want you for Christmas (10/19/37) a long-forgotten seasonal song has nice spots by all of the horns. (Bobby is very Bix-like.)

Starting with the 7/21/37 session, Bobby was occasionly replaced by Johnny McGee. McGee was a competent trumpeter who had worked with the popular Richard Himber Orchestra. He played a tasty, rhythmic horn and was a capable replacement for Bobby, if not as inventive. From 1939 on he was the permanent trumpet soloist. The session of 2/28/38 is notable for the presence of the great Jack Teagarden, filling in for Philburn. This session also introduced Tony Zimmers, a fine tenor man with Larry Clinton, who would take over the clarinet duties. His playing on these sides is wonderful and at times he sounds like Jimmy Dorsey or Artie Shaw. He stayed with the Robertson band till the end. (He died tragically in WW2).

The Teagarden session included You Went to my Head (also recorded by Fats Waller), a smooth ballad with Jack playing a Tommy Dorsey-like lead up front then jumping octaves on his solo to navigate the tune's key. (he did this flawlessly, of course). The novelty Drop a Nickel in the Slot gets a fun treatment. Dick always excelled on rhythm tunes and Jack and McGee take spirited choruses. Let's Sail away to Dreamland has nice breaks and solo spots by Jack and the pretty Goodnight Angel has some more of Jack's octave jumping on his solo and a nice spot by McGee. This was one of the best Robertson sessions.

Most of the material Dick and the band recorded were pop tunes of the day-some became standards, others disappeared quickly. The band also recorded waltzes (Come Josephine is a good example), one-steps (Oh Mama) and many patriotic songs (especially after 1941). Bobby Hackett was back for the August and September 1939 sessions - Baby Me and I Only Want a Buddy are standout sides. The very underated pianist Nat Jaffe turned up on 6/30/38 and on Who did you meet Last Night? (5/19/39) and I'm Building a Sailboat of Dreams (3/8/39) the pianist sounds a lot like the wonderful Billy Kyle. Billy was doing a lot of sessions for Decca at this time so it's very possible that he sat in on these sessions. The old George Formsby favorite, Mr. Wu( 5/10/38) gets a great treatment by the band with Dick contributing jazzy vocal choruses.

Most of the sessions from Early 1939 on featured McGee, Zimmers, Froeba and Company. Brian Rust lists the personnel as probable from here on. (from his indispensable Jazz Records). Highlights include I'm a Lucky Devil (3/8/39), a nice tune with a tasty buzz mute solo by McGee (sounding a bit like Johnny Austin of the Jan Savitt band) , nice clarinet and perhaps more of Billy Kyle. The old favorite Maybe(4/14/39) gets a pleasant dance treatment with a sweet vocal by Dick and low register clarinet by Zimmers. Comes Love(10/27/39) has nice muted McGee and Are you Havin' any Fun?(same date) has McGee on plunger trumpet and Zimmers shining on clarinet along with the usual dixieland band sound. Lilacs in the Rain(same date) has more celesta, fine solos and a dixie ride out. The novelties Ma and Oh Johnny(Nov.&Dec.1939) have spirited ensembles, fun vocals by Dick including the verses and tasty spots by Philburn, McGee and Froeba.The old favorite I Used to Love You from 1940 is an outstanding side with some swing riffs added to the dixie sound. From 1941, Blues my Naughty Sweetie gives Me has fine singing by Dick and good jazz spots for trumpet and clarinet. A forgotten ballad, My Greenwich Village Sue (Jan. 1941) showcases the band's mellow side.

Many of the band's 1941-2 sessions featured patriotic tunes, with the outbreak of WW2. Even on propaganda material like You're a Sap, Mr. Jap, we get some nice jazz solos. After the recording ban of July 1942, the Robertson band disappeared from the Decca lineup. Dick continued to sing but also got more into composing. His We Three, a big hit for the Ink Spots and Sinatra-Dorsey and Little on the Lonely Side were popular wartime favorites. He made a session for Coral in 1947 but afterward his bio. becomes sketchy again. We know he lived into his eighties. Any more information on Dick will be used as an addendum to this post.

The Dick Robertson sessions deserve greater recognition, they have some of the happiest small group jazz of the late 30s and early 40s and a stellar group of musicians headed up by the always dependable Mr. Robinson.

Along with the Timeless CD, some of these tunes can be heard on YouTube. Hopefully someone will see fit to issue another Robertson CD. Till then, there's always Ebay and yard sales.

Happy Hunting!.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The 3 Stooges-Spook Louder (1943)

Once again we return to the inexhaustible supply of Three Stooges shorts. Being an October post, we revisit one of the team's many spook/scare comedies and one of this writer's favorites. The early 40s period was a golden one for the Stooges as they had become mainstays at the Columbia Shorts Dept. and had gained a huge legion of fans. The boys were in top form and this April 1943 release was a few years before Curly's stroke which affected his energy and comic timing.

Stooge director Ed Bernds pointed out how "surefire" this type of comedy was. Just about every comedian and/or comedy team (including many of the Columbia comics) took a turn or two with a Spook comedy. The Three Stooges were masters of this genre and made numerous scare shorts with Curly and Shemp. (Standouts include We Want Our Mummy, If a Body Meets a Body, Gem of a Jam, Three Pests in a Mess, The Ghost Talks, Who Done It?, Dopey Dicks, Hot Scots, Merry Mavericks and Spooks! ). No other comics could top the Stooges' reactions to ghosts, monsters and creepy foils, complete with their patented "Nnnnaaahhhhh!" when being scared. Some critics have called this entry one of their worst, but I think for pure belly laughs it's one of their funniest outings.

Spook Louder was directed by veteran Del Lord who remade one of his Mack Sennett comedies, The Great Pie Mystery. Fellow comedy veteran Clyde Bruckman handled the screenplay and as usual borrowed many classic gags from earlier comedies (as was his custom).

Several veteran members of the Stooges stock company were aboard including Stanley Blystone as the Spy Leader. Blystone was a busy Columbia supporting player, always good in villainous or authoritative roles. His work went back to silent days and he also appeared in Chaplin's Modern Times. He continued with the Stooges right into the 50s.

Ted Lorch as Graves, the Master Inventor, and Charles Middleton as his butler were real old-timers, both born in 1873. Ted appeared in many Columbias but I think this was Middleton's only Columbia short. He's best remembered as Ming, the Merciless in the Flash Gordon series (Ted was also in the series as the High Priest )and the prosecuting attorney in the Marx Bros. classic, Duck Soup . He had a great theatrical voice and is pretty much wasted here. (In one editing gaffe he seems to disappear from a scene only to pop up later). The Stoogers' favorite dowager, Symona Boniface (akin to Margaret Dumont with the Marx Bros.), has a funny bit early in the film and Lew Kelly who played "creepy" parts in a few Columbias plays Professor J.O. Dunkfeather, who tells the story of the Stooges' breaking of the Great Spy Ring to a young reporter.

The Professor's story tells of three salesmen who happen upon the home of inventor Graves. The boys are selling a weight-reducing machine. (Moe--"It also makes a great cocktail shaker.") The boys are mistaken for caretakers and are entrusted to watch Graves' home while he takes his Death Ray machine to Washington. (Propaganda gags abound in this wartime comedy.) Once the boys are in the house and Blystone and two cohorts show up in scare costumes, the hilarity never stops.

Classic gags abound and every now and then someone gets creamed with a pie by an unknown assailant, followed by fiendish laughter. When the Professor is questioned about the pie thrower, he puts off the identity till the film's climax. Among the many highlights are the Cossack clock that sings a Russian tune on the hour. (Curly--"Let's come back at 12 and hear the whole song.") Then there's the old Morse Code gag. Curly feverishly takes down the message. When Moe asks for its meaning, Curly says, "Eh eh eh eh eh" with a face slap from Moe. When Larry is queried, his response is the same along with a slap. Another cute musical gag has the boys hearing ominous piano music (Curly--" Oh, Rachmaninoff!") which turns out to be a kitten walking up and down the keyboard. (Curly--"Oh, Kitten on the Keys"--a popular piano novelty tune).

Curly and Larry have some great moments. Curly gets a balloon tied to his pants scaring all including himself, then gets wrapped up in a sheet and clobbered by Larry who takes him for a ghost! Curly also is victim to the old boxing glove in the bookcase bit and gets punched out a few times. When Larry opens the front door and finds a "skeleton spy," his hat goes flying high in the air accompanied by the perennial slide whistle effect.

Moe has his moments, too. While cowering in a rocking chair, he spots the "devil spy"in the window, resulting in his hair flying straight up in the air (courtesy of a blower). His response--"The Devil stabbed me with his pitchfork. He had flame coming out of his nose!" These exaggerations were classic Stooge bits. Later Moe brushes up against a stuffed bear and Graves' pet monkey lands on him. Moe's response--"The bear was strangling me. He ripped both my arms off."

After more pie missiles, the boys encounter the spies! Curly saves the day by accidentally lighting a nearby bomb and blowing up the spies! But the boys still get creamed with pies!

When the exasperated reporter asks Dunkfeather the eternal question, he confesses to throwing the pies as he gives out with the manic laugh. The perfect climax has him creamed with a pie as he milks the final take. Case closed!

In the long line of Spook comedies made by the Stooges and Columbia, Spook Louder is right up there with the best of them. It's available on DVD as Vol. 4 of the Sony Three Stooges collection.

Enjoy and watch out for flying pies!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fats Waller and his Rhythm-An Affectionate Overview

Without a doubt Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904-43) was one of the greatest of jazzmen. His huge talents rivaled his size and included amazing virtuosity on piano and organ. He was a vocalist of great flair and style and an inspired bandleader and composer of some of America's best loved standards and jazz favorites, many written with his longtime lyricist, Andy Razaf. This post will give a personal tribute to the wonderful and prolific series of small band sides known as Fats Waller and his Rhythm. In the future we will visit standout recording sessions. For now we'll highlight the series and its effect on this jazz musician and fan.

In 1934 at age 30, Fats was already a veteran jazzman. His first records were cut in 1922. His credits included solo piano--he was a master of the stride style--organ and band recordings and much freelance work with bands such as Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Ted Lewis, Jack Teagarden and his mentor, James P. Johnson. He had also become a noted composer of jazz tunes and Harlem revues. By the 30s Fats had become better known through his radio work. His program was on Cincinatti's WLW. It had a very strong signal.

In May of 1934 Fats' manager, Phil Ponce, secured him a contract with Victor records. The format was simple: Fats, his piano, vocals and comic personality backed by a swinging 5-piece combo known as his Rhythm. The series would be one of the most successful in the history of small band jazz. From 1934-42 he produced over 400 sides!

That first session in May 1934 featured some of the core players of the Rhythm including trumpeter Herman Autrey, a fiery sometimes erratic player of the Louis Armstrong school who had many moments of brilliance in Fats' company. Guitarist Al Casey, who Fats had discovered in Cincinatti, would also be a mainstay. His strong rhythm and chord solos were trademarks of the Rhythm sound. Bassist Billy Taylor (a future Ellingtonian) and drummer Harry Dial (formerly with Fate Marable and Louis Armstrong) were solid rhythm mates. Reedman Ben Whittet, a competent player but not a jazzman, was only aboard for the initial session.

The tunes recorded at the first session were James P. Johnson's Porter's Love Song and 3 pop tunes of the day; I Wish that I Were Twins, Do Me a Favor and Armful of Sweetness. Many of these tunes were at best average pops but Fat's swinging piano, vocals and little band combined with his great comic ability--he kidded a lot of the weaker material--made these obscure tunes jazz classics. Many of them have remained in the jazz repertoire as a result of Fats' influence and style. Along with Fats' great presence, Autrey, Casey and the soon-to-arrive Gene Sedric were the primary soloists.

Gene Sedric's arrival in August of '34 gave the group it's missing ingredient. He was a gifted tenor man and clarinetist with experience in the bands of Fate Marable, Sam Wooding and Fletcher Henderson. (He hailed from St.Louis, a great jazz town). Sedric's mellow but full-toned tenor and light, limpid clarinet (with a bit of a New Orleans sound) complemented Autrey and the rest of the band perfectly. Except for a few sabbaticals,
he would stay with Fats to the end.

Before the personnel settled in for a long stretch, some interesting "guest" musicians came aboard. Chicagoans Floyd O'Brien (trombone) and Mezz Mezzrow (clarinet) livened up the session of Sept. 28,1934, which featured such classics as Serenade to a Wealthy Widow, Mandy and Fats' own How Can You Face Me? The sessions of 11/7/34 and 1/5/35 had the wonderful trumpeter Bill Coleman filling in for Autrey who would soon move to Paris. His light, airy and melodic take on Louis are featured on such landmark sides as Baby Brown, Dream Man, Breakin' the Ice and I Believe in Miracles. Fats also played some organ on these sides. He was a virtouso on the instrument. Victor also started issuing non-vocal takes for domestic issue and it's interesting to hear the band's instrumental side. Another musical plus was Fats' interludes on celeste, a lovely change of pace.

From March through August 1935 veteran reedman Rudy Powell filled in for Sedric, formerly with Elmer Snowden, Sam Wooding and Rex Stewart. He possessed a dirty, raspy clarinet sound but played very pretty on alto. On one of his clarinet spots Fats exhorted, "Make that thing sweat!" Guitarist James Smith pinch hit on some sides for Casey and in Jan. 1935 Charlie Turner took over bass duties. The musical drum chair went from Dial to Arnold Bolden to Yank Porter before Slick Jones came in for a long stay. From time to time Fats fronted big bands usually including the Rhythm fleshed out with extra horns. A Dec. 1935 date featured one of these units including Autrey, Sidney de Paris, Benny Morton, Don Redman, Sedric, Powell, Bob Carroll and Emmett Matthews on soprano, who did some live dates with Fats. A great version of I Got Rhythm recreates a stage routine with Fats dueling band pianist Hank Duncan (himself a fine stride man). There is also some high flying soprano by Matthews.(Don Redman was probably musical director for this session since there were quite a few of his men aboard).

The 1935-6 edition of the Rhythm produced many classic sides: Lulu's Back in Town, Somebody Stole My Gal, I'm Crazy' bout My Baby, Rosetta, Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, "S'posin' and Until the Real Thing Comes Along. Some additional non-vocal takes were recorded. Two sides stand out to this musician: My Very Good Friend the Milkman and When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful. These tunes have been part of my repertoire for years. (The latter is my theme song.)

The format by now was pretty much set with Fats' effervescent stride and vocals followed by solos by the Rhythm and a swinging band or vocal ride out, and, of course, Fats kept things loose with his comic touches. Fats could also sing a mean ballad (try Then I'll be Tired of You) No matter how banal the material, Fats and the boys always rose to the occasion with their joyous sounds and Fats' musical and comic energy led the way. Louis Armstrong was also a master of this art.

Two personal favorites from this golden period are 12th St. Rag and Have a Little Dream on Me. Here are some reasons why they are so representative of the early Fats and Rhythm. Have a Little Dream (8/17/34) by Phil Baxter and Billy Rose is a charming little tune that probably wouldn't have gone far were it not for Fats' lovely rendering. Fats opens with some pretty piano including his trademark clusters, waterfall-like runs that enhance the solo. (Billy Taylor's slap bass is also very effective.) Fats' vocal is tame but has a few cute asides. Autrey enters with some Cootie Williams-ish plunger work. (He was very adept at the style.) Sedric gives us some rhapsodic tenor. He also plays nice backgrounds that make the group sound larger with Fats singing us home. A simple but very tasty version of a typical pop tune, Fats put just as much effort into these ditties as he did the jazz classics.

On to the wild side and 12th St. Rag.(6/24/35). The old Euday Bowman favorite gets a swinging, hilarious ride from Fats and the boys. Starting with Fats' awesome striding,(not once is the traditional melody played) , a light hearted vocal and Rudy Powell's dirty clarinet. Fats keeps the running comrntary going as Autrey plays a very Louis-ish solo leaving lots of spaces for the rhythm.(this was one of his specialties). The rideout has Autrey popping off single high notes (again the Louis influence) against Powell's clarinet and Fats' exhuberant YEHs. Fats gives us an operatic coda and the horns play a 3 Stooges lick with one last YEH from Fats. An amazing performance combining great swing and comedy. These two short examples show how much joy and jazz are to be found in the amazing recorded legacy of Fats and the band.

The period of 1936-8 saw the group rolling along with more classics such as Us on a Bus, Lounging at the Waldorf, Sin to tell a Lie, Boo Hoo, Joint is Jumpin', Fractious Fingering, I'm sorry I Made you Cry, Honey on the Moon and Fat's own Crazy 'bout my Baby and the Waller-Autrey Yacht Club Swing (for a time the group's theme). There were more non-vocal takes and two extended 10" 78s of Honeysuckle Rose and Blue Turning Grey (Apr/June 1937). These versions let Fats and the boys stretch out. Slick Jones even gets in a chorus on vibes on Honeysuckle. Slick Jones (mid 1936) and bassist Cedric Wallace (early 1938) solidified the group till the end. One noticeable difference was Autrey's use of the muted horn. . He still played great open horn, but seemed to be fascinated with the muted sound, especially buzz-mute. but seemed to be fascinated with the muted sound, especially the buzz-mute.

Another big band session in April, 1938 produces some exellent sides by Fats' working big band (including all the rhythm and future trumpeter John Hamilton). In the Gloaming, Sheik of Araby and Fats' Hold my Hand are standouts.
Fats' piano and personality were so strong that he carried two Rhythm sessions with different players and the results were exellent. A December 1937 session in Hollywood included Paul Campbell,trumpet-Caughey Roberts,reeds and Lee Young (brother of Lester) on drums. The standout track is Every Day's a Holiday with Louis-ish trumpet by Campbell.
While on tour of England in August of 1938 Fats recorded for HMV with some of England's finest players. Released as Fats and his Continental Rhythm the band featured Dave Wilkins, trumpet, George Chisolm, trombone, Ian Sheppard and Alfie Kahn,reeds. (all top men in British dance bands). Ain't Misbehavin', Flat Foot Floogie and Music, Maestro, Please are standouts and Fats' English colleagues swing along with him in grand style.

The early part of 1939 continued on a high note with sides such as Good Man is Hard to Find, Hold Tight, Undecided and 'Taint what cha Do. An interesting session of June 1939 had Chauncey Graham filling in on tenor and Larry Hinton on drums. Graham is a very able replacement for Sedric and takes great tenor solos. Autrey had one of his best sessions with nice muted and open horn. Fats' piano and vocals shine on I Used to Love You and You meet the Nicest People( a great little tune). One of Fats' lesser known originals Honey Hush also gets a nice rendition. John Smith, a fine rhythm guitarist pinch hit for Casey until April 1940. (He did some nice work with Wibur DeParis later in his career).

In August of 1939, Fats and the band made some wonderful transcription sides including Sheik of Araby, Bflat Blues, Nagasaki and Sweet Sue. These sides along with earlier transcriptions are all on CD.(The Definitive Fats-JZCL 5004) This session introduced John "Bugs"Hamilton on trumpet, he would take Autrey's place for the next two years. From St.Louis, a great trumpet town, Hamilton was a fine trumpeter with a clean sound, nice ideas and swing. He fitted perfectly into the Rhythm sound. By this time the band hit a high for musicality and sound. They didn't have the earthy charm of the earlier sides but swung just as hard. Fats hadn't let up with his great comedy-Victor was giving him some terrible novelties to record. The band did get to record some nice instrumentals including The Moon is Low, Clarinet Marmalade, Scram!, Pantin' in the Panther Room, Buck Jumpin' (featuring Al Casey) and Fats' own Mamacita and Bond Street(from his London Suite).

This later period including many great vocal sides such as I can't give you Anything but Love with his protege, pianist/vocalist Una Mae Carlisle (she deserves a future post) , Everybody Loves my Baby, Let's get away from it All, 24 Robbers and a charming rendition of Little Curly Hair in a Highchair(this could have been a disaster in anybody else's hands). Fats also played Hammond organ on some of these sides.
The big band was back for sessions on July 1941 and March 1942. Two instrumentals Chant of the Groove and Fats' lovely Jitterbug Waltz(with Fats on organ) stand out. Herman Autry was in on these big band sessions and returned to the Rhythm for the session of Dec. 1941 Arthur Trappier had taken over on drums. (Wallace, Casey and Sedric still held forth). A lovely seasonal tune, Winter Weather was waxed. Hamilton was back for the final Rhythm session of July 1942. A nifty Fats-Razaf tune, Up Jumped You with Love is a highlight. The tune has all the hallmarks of the Rhythm-great piano solo and humorous vocal, a nifty riff with solo spots for the horns and Casey and Fats riding home on the vocal. Fats and the boys also appeared in some film soundies at this time.

A special version of the Rhythm appeared with Fats in the film Stormy Weather. The band included Benny Carter on trumpet, Zutty Singleton,drums, Gene Porter,reeds and Slam Stewart,bass. In the film they played a great version of Ain't Misbehavin'. The cut Moppin' and Boppin' featuring Zutty is heard briefly. Both these sides came out on Victor. Fats had always been a notorious drinker and party person. On December 15, 1943 while on a train out of Kansas City, Fats left us, much too early. The cause of death was pneumonia just lived to hard during his 39 years on earth. Thankfully we have this immense legacy of music to enjoy and as long as people can enjoy great,swinging music and a good laugh, Fats will always be with us.

On a personal note, I've had a wonderful and interesting odyssey collecting these wonderful Rhythm sides in the Boston area. Starting with two wonderful Victor lps-One Never Knows,Do One? and Handful of Keys. These featured many of the Rhythm classics plus a couple of Fats' piano solos. Victor also added Ain't Misbehavin' (with many of the hit standards) and a Camden lp, The Real Fats Waller (more Rhythm and some of the transcriptions).(I purchased many of these at the Concord Music Shop, where I later worked) In the 60s, Victors' Vintage Series issued 5 great lps of Rhythm sides with a few piano solos to boot. In the late 60s, French RCA issued two 5lp Memorial sets with many Rhythm classics and piano/organ solos. Finally they issued single lps that covered the entire Waller output for Victor! I got most of these at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge from a fellow musical colleague Mark Pucci, who was working in the record dept.

The CD era has given us the Classics series of Complete Fats and the Bluebird Complete set on 6 volumes of CD boxes. If Fats had lived longer, I'm sure he would have continued with the Rhythm and expanded his great composing gifts. Fats is still swingin' and singin' in the 21st Century and will for many more to come.

As Fats would say-My, My, Latch On!