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!.

1 comment:

Robin said...

Thanks for this meaty post on a group that deserves more attention. No idea why "I Want You For Christmas" didn't become a standard; danceable holiday jams are few and far between.


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