© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"I'll look in books and see almost no mention of Les. I don't think it's fair. Or right."
- Frank Comstock, composer-arranger
"Throughout all (his various activities), Brown has maintained a strong jazz-oriented ensemble .... The principal virtue in all aspects of this [band’s] ... lies in utter relaxation. No one is straining and everything is totally musical, with technique available when required. This is mature professionalism at its best."
- Bill Kirchner, Jazz saxophonist, composer-arranger, author-editor
“According to George Simon [author of the seminal book on Swing Era big bands], Les Brown has traditionally deprecated his contribution to music by calling his orchestra a ‘malted milk band.’ … It’s like this, see, a good band, nowdays, is hard to find; you might go so far as to say that Les is more.”
- Will Friedwald, Jazz author and critic
Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and a slew of other big bands helped me pass many enjoyable days in my Ute [apologies to Joe Pesci] while I listened and practiced to their recordings.
For awhile, my most favorite of the big bands was Les Brown and what he affectionately termed his “Malted Milk Band.” The nickname was derived from the wholesome and clean cut “look” of the band members, something that Les took great pride in, when they appeared in super clubs, on television and radio shows and at college proms.
Most of these performances were generally in and around Hollywood, CA which I had ready access to thanks to a used car that I kept running with “bubble gum, band aids and bailing wire.” Gas priced at .29 cents a gallon helped a lot, too.
The band was loaded with talented musicians among whom were Don Fagerquist on trumpet, trombonist Ray Sims, Abe Most on clarinet, saxophonists Dave Pell and Ted Nash, Jack Sperling on drums and it featured a book of charts by such stellar arrangers as Frank Comstock, Skip Martin, Bob Higgins, Wes Hensel and Boyd Raeburn.
I was reminded of these halcyon days gone by when I recently uncovered [literally] some old copies of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter. The first of a two-part series on Les Brown and his band appeared in the June, 1996 edition.
© - Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
A Man of Renown
“Of all the great leaders of the "swing era", the one who has kept a big band going longer than any other is Les Brown. Les formed his band, at first with twelve pieces, in October, 1938, and four years before that, in 1934, had become leader of the Duke Blue Devils, a college band that recorded for Decca. Lionel Hampton, who is still out there, first formed a big band in 1940. Benny
Carter — one of Les's heroes — led big bands as far back as the early 1930s, and is still active, though only intermittently with a big band. Business factors precluded his sustaining a big band for long, and he disbanded in 1942. A year later, one of his arrangers went to work for Les Brown and became an important factor in the band's success and continued high quality: Frank Comstock. Comstock, the principal arranger for the Les Brown band over the years, said, "I'll look in books and see almost no mention of Les. I don't think it's fair. Or right."
Longevity of course is hardly Les Brown's main claim to notice. He led one of the truly great bands of that era, and a recent (May 10, 1996) performance at the Hollywood Palladium, taped for television presentation on PBS in August, shows how alive and well he and the Band of Renown actually are. This year is his sixty-second anniversary as a bandleader. Les is eighty-four.
Composer and writer Bill Kirchner, who spent three years listening to post-World War II bands in the process of selecting big-band tracks for a five-CD collection issued in a boxed set by the Smithsonian Institution, chose for inclusion a Les Brown track, Pizza Man, a blues by Bill Holman with Frank Rosolino as guest soloist. In his annotation for the collection, Kirchner wrote: "Throughout all (his various activities), Brown has maintained a strong jazz-oriented ensemble .... The principal virtue in all aspects of this performance — Rosolino's soloing, Holman's writing, and the band's ensemble execution — lies in utter relaxation. No one is straining and everything is totally musical, with technique available when required. This is mature professionalism at its best."
Part of the reason that Les Brown is semi-overlooked surely is that he is such a self-effacing man. He claims nothing for himself and nothing for his band, although it has been, year in and year out right into the present, an outstanding group. He once told George Simon that it was a "malted milk band", a perhaps unfortunate characterization that has tended to stick. Doris Day, when I talked to her about it, said it was "a milk-shake band," although she may have meant something slightly different by that. She said, "I don't think anybody in the band even drank."
All you'll get from Les is his admiration for others. "What a band!" he said of that led by his late friend Woody Herman. After reading my biography of Woody, Les said, "Change a few names and it could be the story of my life."
Well, yes and no. First let us consider the similarities, none of which had occurred to me until Les made that remark.
For one thing, the bands of both men, in common with those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Harry James, and Lionel Hampton, outlived the big-band era. Yet when that era is discussed, it is usually overlooked that Les still leads his band, although rarely outside Southern California, where most of its members live.
Like Woody, Les is a small man and, again like Woody, a very attractive one. His hair, and he has all of it, is now white. Like Woody, he is a product of middle America — Woody of Wisconsin, Les of Pennsylvania. Both played tenor saxophone in their early work as side men; both concentrated on alto and clarinet when they became leaders of their own bands, though Les never took a conspicuous solo role with his band, as Woody did. Artie Shaw once told me that saxophone players, himself among them, tended to take up the clarinet when they organized their own bands because it could be heard through the primitive sound systems of the time.
Woody was extremely modest about his own abilities. Les is the same, devoid of pretense or presumption. But inside that self-abnegation you can sense a strength. Woody accurately evaluated himself as a great editor of the work of others, and Les has that quality too. For both, the band itself was always the instrument. Like Woody, Les can play the jester in front of an audience, though not so flamboyantly as Woody; but off-stage he too is a rather shy man. Both men, in common with Gene Krupa, were loved by sidemen and alumni. Finally, both married young and stayed married.
If the similarities are many, so are the differences. Les was conservatory-trained; Woody was not. Les is a bookish man. I'm not sure Woody ever read a book in his whole life. Les is very cognizant of the classical-music tradition, perceptive of the whole range of the music's history, up to and including that of contemporary figures such as Pierre Boulez. He regularly attends the concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. ("That has become a great band!" he said.) Woody was only partially so, and in awe of what he knew: he was forever dazzled that Stravinsky had once written a piece for him.
Woody developed an astonishing number of jazz stars, more than any other bandleader in part because of the enormous turnover in young musicians. Les Brown produced far fewer, because of the stability of his band. When it comes together for its occasional gigs, Jack Sperling still plays drums in it. Les's kid brother, bass trombonist Stumpy Brown, has been with the band since graduating from military academy in 1943.
Indeed, unlike Woody, Les did not have a series of bands: he had only two, the one he led in university and the one that, with changes of personnel, continued from 1938 to the present. Nonetheless, some fine players passed through it. Don Fagerquist played trumpet in the band in 1953, '54, and '55, although only after he had established himself through his work with Gene Krupa and Woody Herman. Other outstanding players included Abe Most, Geoff Clarkson, Billy Butterfield, Ray Sims (Zoot's trombone-playing brother), Dave Pell, and Ted Nash. Gunther Schuller wrote:
"For reasons beyond my knowledge, Brown always featured in his band tenor saxophone soloists who had the most remarkable control of the instrument's upper range — and beyond. Indeed, an inattentive listener might easily assume the instrument being played was an alto or even a soprano saxophone. Wolfe Tayne, Brown's tenorman from 1938 to 1942, had that kind of exceptional high range . . . and so did Ted Nash .... Nash was one of that young generation of tenor players . . . who adopted the lean linear style and light sound of Lester Young with a vengeance. Nash's complete control of the third and fourth octaves of the tenor saxophone's upper register enabled him to expand dramatically the instrument's expressive range."
Despite the presence of such soloists, what the Les Brown band was most noted for was consistently excellent playing of consistently excellent arrangements. Jazz fans divided the orchestras into "swing" and "sweet" categories, unsatisfactory designations in that the demarcation was not clear: "sweet" (meaning corny) bands such as those of Kay Kyser (one of whose arrangers was George Duning) and Sammy Kaye employed good musicians and could on occasion turn in creditable performances of the few "jazz" charts in their books. And the "jazz" bands played "sweet" ballads. Furthermore, all of the bands played for dancers. Indeed, a Jimmie Lunceford tune was named For Dancers Only, and Benny Goodman's theme was Let's Dance.
Les, typically, claimed nothing. He never said his was a jazz band. However, if it was "only" a dance band, it demonstrated just how good "popular" music could be, what levels of excellence and high taste it could achieve. As Terry Gibbs put it, "You never heard Les Brown with a bad band."
Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, 1989), wrote that the early Les Brown band "was decidedly inferior, and thus represents one of the most startling artistic-stylistic transformations in jazz history — an ungainly cocoon into a quite beautiful butterfly.
"Brown's earliest recordings from 1936, and even those of his second band formed in 1938, drably arranged (by Brown himself), stiffly played, at best a weak imitation of Benny Goodman, do not suggest in the slightest the level of fine musicianship, technical polish, and healthy swing energy the band could muster ten years later. And once again, as we have noted before in other instances, the difference was made by the arranger. In Brown's case there were several excellent arrangers involved in the band's transformation, but it was Frank Comstock in particular who, beginning in 1943, turned the Brown band into a crack modern-styled ensemble."
Superior writing came too from Skip Martin, Bob Higgins, who played trumpet in the band and wrote High on a Windy Trumpet and Lovers Leap, and Wes Hensel, a Cleveland native who had come to the band after working with Charlie Barnet and Boyd Raeburn. During more than ten years with the band he wrote, among other charts, Montoona Clipper, Flying Home, and Ebony Rhapsody.
Schuller continued: "The first intimations of better things to come occur by 1939-40. One hears a considerable improvement over the earlier thumpy-rhythmed, thin-toned, and often out of tune performances, in Mary Lou Williams' arrangement of her Walkin' and Swingin' and such pieces as Perisphere Shuffle and Trylon Stomp, both written and arranged by Brown for the 1939-40 New York World's Fair (where Brown's band had one of its earliest long-term engagements). But a real break-through came in Ben Homer's clean, incisive Joltin' Joe DiMaggio of 1941, superbly played by the band with a fine two-beat Lunceford swing. There followed such fine scores as Bizet Has His Day (one of the few interesting, in this case even witty, transformations of classical material from that era); Nothin' from Ellington's Jump for Joy, in a clean, lean, swinging arrangement that anticipates the latter's I'm Beginning to See the Light of three years later; Sunday and Out of Nowhere in beautifully crafted arrangements featuring Billy Butterfield in excellent extended solos."
For its analyses, Schuller's is undoubtedly the best book ever written about the era. But Schuller, himself a composer and arranger, tends to give credit to arrangers to the slight and subtle derogation of the bandleaders who had the smarts to hire them. In other words, the book is long on perception and short on research. For example, he writes of Jimmie Lunceford:
"Indeed one of the miracles of the Lunceford band was that its performances had as much cohesiveness as they did, a cohesiveness second only to that of Ellington's and Basie's. And that unanimity, one feels, was not imposed from above by the leader, Lunceford, but came more out of the mutual respect among the chief arranger-architects of the band . . . . "
But that is not so. Rather then relying on what "one feels", Schuller could have obviated this gaffe with phone calls to such veterans of the band as Gerald Wilson, Snooky Young, and Al Grey. Al Grey says firmly that the band's coherence did come from above, and was imbued by the way Lunceford rehearsed and led that band: section by section in separate rooms, and, in performance, after tuning up each man individually. Lunceford was an arch-disciplinarian, but one who was enormously respected by his musicians.
And the reason the first Les Brown band to be heard on records is not as good as the one that succeeded it is that it was, like Woody Herman's Band that Plays the Blues, a co-operative. Woody said that no decision could be made without a meeting of some sort, as often as not in the men's room at some gig.
Les said: "Co-operative bands do not work. Ask Casa Loma. Ask Woody. Ask Johnny Long. That was another co-operative. He finally got rid of it. I finally got rid of it. I was so happy to make the change."
Red Norvo never cared for the Band that Plays the Blues; he said he wouldn't even go by to listen to it. The Herman band began its evolution when Woody got control of it; and so did that of Les Brown.
I put the question directly to Les: "Your bands were always in such exquisite taste,"
I said. "One of the keys was the writing. Was that because you're an arranger?"
"I think that had something to do with it," Les said. "I always made sure that I hired arrangers who were a hell of a lot better than I am! And I sort of confine my arranging to vocal backgrounds. I did a lot when Doris Day was in the band. And I do it for the girl singer we now have with the band, Linda Price. I know my limitations. I write a jazz chart every now and then. Sometimes it comes off. If it doesn't, it comes out of the repertoire the same night we play it the first time. If I don't like it, I say, 'Hand it in!' "But sometimes I'd keep 'em and still play 'em." Frank Comstock said, "Les has always said that. He always said he was smart enough to hire arrangers who were better than he was and Abe Most because he was a better clarinetist and Ronny Lang because he was a better alto player. That's the way Les is."
Les is a native of the beautiful hilly Appalachian coal region of upper eastern Pennsylvania, in common with trumpeter Fuzzy Farrar, a key figure in the Jean Goldkette band, and Spiegle Willcox, who played trombone with Goldkette when Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were in the band.
He was born Lester Raymond Brown in Reinerton, on March 14, 1912. "My dad was a baker by trade," he said. "But music was what he lived for. It was pretty hard to make a living from music in those towns in those days. And he had four kids. He got married in 1911, and I was born the next year. He was also the town bandleader. Self-taught."
His name was Ray Winfield Brown, and he was born in Orwin, Pennsylvania. The family background was Pennsylvania Dutch. Les was the oldest of the four Brown children, including their sister Sylvia and Warren Brown, who would one day play trombone in his brother's band and then become prominent in music publishing in New York. The youngest was Clyde Lamar Brown, who acquired the nickname Stump when he was in grade six or seven. This evolved into Stumpy when he became a professional musician. He was born September 1, 1925, in Tower City, Pennsylvania. His father taught him trumpet, baritone horn, then trombone, saying, "Baritone horns can't make a living. There are only two in every concert band." This little remark tells us that their father wanted his sons to be professional musicians.
Stumpy said of his parents:
"They were beautiful people. My dad taught himself to play all the musical instruments. Trombone was his main instrument. When I was a young boy, he said, 'Y'know, one time I played first trombone over Tommy Dorsey. Of course, I was twenty-one and Tommy was twelve.'"
The Dorsey Brothers too were from that part of the country, and their father, like Les and Stumpy's, was a part-time musician who taught music. Jimmy and Tommy were born in 1904 and 1905 respectively in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania; they were eight and seven years older than Les. These towns are at most twenty or thirty miles from each other, lying in the area's southwest-slanting valleys close to the Blue Mountains spur of the Appalachians. "My dad," Les said, "played trombone with Tommy and Jimmy and their father in Pottsville in the Third Brigade Band." Pottsville is about twenty miles south of Shenandoah. "It was a concert and parade band. Those bands were very popular in the '20s."
Stumpy said, "I'm thirteen-and-a-half years younger than Les. I played in my dad's high school band. In the summertime, in a little town called Lykens, Pennsylvania, the teachers all worked nine months and then had their three months off. Dad would teach the band during the summer. Every fall, the band was always better than it had been at the start of the summer. It was a love he had. We always say that my dad probably taught every kid who ever played an instrument in what they call the Williams and the Powell valleys. One kid that I grew up with was Gil Mitchell. We started playing trumpet the same day when we were nine years old. He went into an Army band during the war, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. We still get together. I talked to him in April, on his 71st birthday.
"I think my mother was sixteen or seventeen when they got married. She was not a musician, but she could play the piano by ear. And she could sing. She sang in the church choir."
"There was a series of towns, between Pottsville and Harrisburg. Tower City, Orwin, which was close to Tower City, Reinerton, where I was born. Most of them had one main street. Or at the most three streets. Three thousand people, things like that. Now down to two." He was referring to the depopulation of the area with the decline of the coal industry. "And then Williamstown and Lykens. All the towns put together wouldn't be more than twelve thousand population.
"It was sulphur coal mining, done mostly by Czechoslovakian and Polish people. One of my girlfriends at Duke University was from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where Henry Mancini was from. I told Hank about that once."
The arranger Bill Challis, one of the architects of the Jean Goldkette band, the Paul Whiteman band, and ultimately of the big-band era, was born in that vicinity. Bill and his brother Evan told me a few years ago that the coal miners loved to dance, and the owners of the mines maintained private clubs that employed bands.
"Bill Challis was born in Wilkes-Barre," I reminded Les.
"Paul Specht was also from that area," Les said. "Fred Waring. I go back to the days of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Paul Whiteman, and then the Casa Loma. They were my gods for a while, until Benny Goodman came along. I loved the Casa Loma band — and I loved the arrangements of Gene Gifford. And he wrote some nice originals, including the theme song, Smoke Rings.
"And I loved Benny Carter. There's an unusual man. God, I love him! What a talent! I remember when I was in college, listening to his records on trumpet and saxophone. Then I found out he was an arranger and composer. What a musician."
"Did you ever hear the Goldkette band live?" I asked.
"Not live, but I had all their records," Les said. "Miller played with that band, and the Dorseys. Another band that made some good records was Ted Weems. They were more commercial. But every Friday they'd have the new releases on Brunswick and Victor. The store was right across from my dad's bakery and I'd go by and listen. I couldn't afford to buy 'em, but I heard 'em. Every now and then I'd beg my dad to buy one I really had to have. Fred Waring. McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Bix. When I first heard Bix's chorus on Sweet Sue, my God!" And he sang a couple of bars of that solo.
"Do you know Spiegle Willcox?" I asked. "He's from just north of there in New York State. He's from Cortland."
"When I was at Ithaca," Les said, "my friend Greg McHenry, a fraternity brother who became the head of the music school, played in the same band with Spiegle. Wes Thomas and his Cornell Collegians, which I played in — tenor sax — after Spiegle had gone out into the so-called entertainment world. He's still living."
I said, "He's still playing. All over the world. I've been up to his house near Cincinnatus. Near Cortland."
"When I went back to Ithaca, guest conducting the symphony, not too long ago, Greg called Spiegle to see if he could come down. I did the Prelude to the Third Act of Lohengrin at the commencement exercises. They gave me an honorary doctorate and all that. I'd been back to conduct before. And Spiegle came!"
"Most of the guys who became bandleaders," I said, "began as side men with other bands. You didn't."
"Well I did," Les said, "but never with a name band. I went to school from 1926 to 1936, the first three years at Ithaca Conservatory, now Ithaca College." The city of Ithaca, New York, on the shore of Cayuga Lake, is also the home of Cornell University. It is only a few miles north of the region where Les and his siblings grew up.
"That was '26 to '29," Les continued. "Then I had to go back when I was seventeen and get my high-school education. I'd left high school to go to Ithaca Conservatory, from the time I was fourteen until I was seventeen, to study nothing but music — composition, theory, orchestration, whatever. And I was saxophone soloist with Conway's Band. Patrick Conway was second to Sousa from the turn of the century until he passed away in 1929. I played one summer with him at Wildwood. I was sixteen at the time. I had a hell of a lot of technique, I really did.
"During the summer of '29, I met a guy who had been on ftill scholarship at New York Military Academy for two years, Bob Alexy, who later played with Jimmy Dorsey and Mai Hallett. His recommendation got me a scholarship, and I went there, as my brothers Warren and Stumpy did later on. Johnny Mandel went there with Stumpy. I was class of '32. Warren was class of '34. Stumpy was class of '43. We all finished high school there, on full scholarships."
"Johnny said he knew your mother and father."
"Sure," Les said. "He used to come to visit with Stumpy."
(Johnny remembers that a sickly smell of chocolate hung over Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of the Hershey bar.)
I asked Stumpy about the academy. He said, "It's in Cornwall-on-Hudson, seven miles from West Point." Like West Point, the academy is on the west bank of the Hudson River, at that point flowing between great forested bluffs past Storm King Mountain, land that is rich in Dutch history, names, and legend.
"That's beautiful country," I said.
"Especially in the winter, when you froze to death," Stumpy said with more or less mirthless laughter. "I was the leader of the academy dance band. Johnny Mandel wrote arrangements for us and played trumpet in the band. We'd hear a record and want to play it, but there was no stock on it. Johnny would sit down and take it off the record. He was sixteen."
"Was it a strict military academy?" I asked Les.
"Very strict," Les said, laughing. "I ended up being what they called head boy. That was like valedictorian. And that gave me automatic appointment to West Point. I said, 'No thanks! Three years of military is three years too much.'
"But it was a free education. I'll bet, with the train going home, buying uniforms and books, having a full scholarship, I spent only about $600 in three years. Of course those were 1930s prices. Still, it cost my parents $600 for me to live for three years. It was better than if I'd been at home.
"We had four fraternity houses at military school. We used to play bridge or hearts. Come 7 o'clock, you studied or you went to bed. You couldn't be outside of your barracks from 7 until 6 the next morning.
"We used to sneak over to the fraternity house at night, when we were supposed to be in bed. We'd find out from the New York Times when Paul Whiteman was going to be on the radio, or even Mickey Mouse bands. Whatever bands. Especially Whiteman and McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Or the band coming in from Chicago, Isham Jones. In those days, stations had a hundred thousand watts. I loved that Isham Jones band! Golly. Later on, I made some arrangements for him."
I mentioned that Will Hudson wrote Jazznocracy based on the style of the Casa Loma. "I think that band was more influential than is generally recognized," I said.
"I know it was with me," Les said. "I'd go down to Hershey Park during the summer, if I was home, and just stand in front of the bandstand all night with my mouth open, listening to them.
"I was supposed to go to the University of Pennsylvania. In those days, during the Depression, they were begging for students. I was playing tenor in a band up in Boston, a week at some park. The Duke Blue Devils was the logo for all the university's athletics, including its football team — and the band was under the direction of a football player called Nick Laney, a very good halfback. In those days Duke had a great football team, with Ace Parker and Freddie Crawford. All-Americans. So the band too was called the Blue Devils. They came out one night to hear our band, and found out that I was getting ready to go to college, and they talked me into going to Duke."
Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, was founded in 1924 — built on a foundation of Trinity College, established in 1838 — on a grant from James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, one of the scions of the Duke family, which at one time controlled most of the tobacco trade of the United States.
"They had two campuses, the east and west campuses," Les said. "The east campus was the ladies' campus. It was a very strict college. In those days, if you got married you were thrown out of school. Unless you kept quiet, and a lot of them did.
"The reason I went there was that the Blue Devils played for an hour every night between 6 and 7, and for that you got free room and board. Again, it was 1932, the Depression; I was twenty. So my dad didn't have to put up room and board. We used to play enough gigs to make ten, fifteen dollars a week. That would buy as much as a hundred and fifty does today. You know what tuition was at Duke? Two hundred a semester, four hundred a year.
"So I went to Duke. I got down there, and there was no music school. Of course I had finished music school. So I majored in French and minored in history. I liked history and I loved languages. I studied Greek and German. I'd had Latin in military school. And French. I took four more years of French. I can still read it, but I can't speak it now. I wish I'd done more of it. Or taken business administration. Although to this day, business bores me.
"Remember Johnny Long? His was the other band there. He was at Duke at the same time I was, a year ahead of me. He was class of '35, I was class of '36.
"Now Nick Laney didn't know a note of music. He was a nice guy. Good football player. Had a pretty good voice and he sang through a megaphone. And we'd play for fraternity dances, or for concerts. We had four brass, three trumpets and a trombone, and four saxes. Three rhythm, sometimes four with guitar. The instrument you could never hear, because there was no amplification. But you could feel it.
"With Freddie Green, you could really feel it. He was great, he was really the catalyst and the mainstay of the Basic rhythm section. Basic didn't play that much; some nice fills. I tell my pianist, 'Don't play much. Just fill in the holes. Don't play solos behind the arrangements, or you'll get in the way.'
"I played in that band at Duke for two years. Nick Laney finally had his four years of football. Still a sophomore! He had a full scholarship of course, too. He left school. He loved clothes, and he dressed beautifully. He went down to Spartanburg, South Carolina, his home town, and started a clothing store. Became very successful. And I inherited the band. In September, 1934. So I've been in the band business for sixty-two years!"
"What did that Duke band play?" I asked. "Stocks?"
"No. Every now and then they'd publish something like Fletcher Henderson's arrangement for Benny of King Porter Stomp. Even Spud Murphy stocks. But I wrote a lot for that band.
All the popular tunes of the day, I arranged. And copied. I still do it the way I did in college. Now and then I'll write out a full score. Otherwise, I just do a sketch and copy out the parts myself, because nobody can read my writing. My handwriting is bad enough, let alone my notes. And sometimes I'll change my mind while I'm doing the copying. The guys have gotten used to it.
"I graduated June 10, 1936."
The prominent record producer Creed Taylor went to Duke because of Les Brown. Creed said, "I was buying his records when I was in high school, including Sentimental Journey. I thought, 'This guy has a band like this and a singer like this and he went to Duke? This has to be the college for me.'
"I played trumpet in that band, although by then it was called the Ambassadors. I had a quintet called, would you believe it, the Five Dukes.
"Patrick Williams and Sonny Burke both went to Duke."
After graduation, Les said,"We did some one-nighters. We had a gig in Richmond, Virginia. Then we got a job in Budd Lake, New Jersey. It's about 40 miles inland from New York City, toward Delaware Water Gap. We played there from July 4 till Labor Day. I met my wife there. She was then Claire De Wolfe. She was dating a third saxophone player with the Duke band. When we came back to that location in the summer of '38, he wasn't with the band. He'd gone home to Baltimore and got married and started raising a family. I met her mother and dad, I knew her two sisters, they used to come to gigs.
"On Saturday night, after we finished playing, some of us would head for New York and 52nd Street, just young kids right out of college. We'd make a weekend out of it, because we didn't have to be back until the gig Monday night at 8 o'clock.
"One Saturday night, I told Claire, 'Three of us are going in to New York to hear Basie. We have room in the car, do you want to come?' She said, 'Well, my parents aren't here.' I said, 'Don't worry.' I was very friendly with her parents, who were quite young, in their thirties. They'd married awfully young. I called her home and spoke to her grandmother. I said, 'Tell Ed and Bess that I'm taking Claire in to New York and she's going to be staying with so-and-so. We're going in to hear Count Basie.' I was twenty-seven, she was twenty. She was no baby, although she looked like one. She still does.
"That was our first date, although I'd known her for a while. Until then, I was sort of her big brother and confidant. A month later we got married at Lake Mohawk, New Jersey. Her two sisters still come out and visit us and stay with us.
"By a coincidence, a lucky coincidence, a guy named Bob Stevens from Decca Records saw a bunch of cars, heard some music, came in, and we had a record contract. The first college band that ever recorded for a major label. I had graduated. I was the only one who had. No, the drummer too."
(The drummer was Don Kramer, who became and remained for many years the band's manager.)
"We played Ohio, Pennsylvania," Les said. "We played Cleveland. We'd stay two or three weeks at a time. The guys were making $60 a week. Not bad in those days. They thought it was great. And they were having fun. We ended up at Playland in Rye, New York, in the summer of 1937.
"And then the parents got after them. 'Hey. Get back into school.' And rightfully so. And as I said, it was a co-operative band, and co-operatives don't work. That was the end of it.
"I went into New York, free-lance arranged for a few months. I had a four-arrangements-a-week gig with Rube Newman, who was playing the Rainbow Room. Four for seventy-five bucks. I was pretty fast too. They had a Tuesday rehearsal. I wouldn't start till, say, midnight of Sunday, and keep arranging until I fell asleep around eight in the morning. I'd write on Monday, and I had a copyist right next to me, and we'd just make the rehearsal on Tuesday. The rest of the week, I'd go to the movies, or write a stock. Or whatever.
"There was about eight months, between September and July, when I didn't have a band, the only time I haven't since I took over the Blue Devils. I even inherited the Ford the band had, because nobody else wanted it.
"Then, after that eight months, I went back to Budd Lake with a band, then into the Hotel Edison."
"Had you made up your mind you were going to have a career in music?"
"I think what made up my mind," Les said, "was the Decca contract. And even though we didn't sell many records, we got pretty good write-ups, and it was a pretty good band. And one thing led to another. At the Edison, we were on NBC six nights a week, Monday off. We had a contract for four months.
"I got married a week before we opened at the Edison. The first gig out of the Edison — here I am with a twelve-piece band — and inasmuch as I had gone to school in Ithaca, I knew the guy who booked the bands at Cornell for the junior prom. That was the big social event of the year in that town of twenty-five thousand. Everybody in the school went to it.
"This was 1938. Here we are. They had three bands that night. Me and my twelve pieces here. Jimmie Lunceford over here, and Duke Ellington over here. On three different bandstands at Drill Hall.
"I tell you! Was I chagrined! It was awful. They were playing things like Jazznocracy Les sang some licks at fast tempo. "They were trying to outdo each other, and here we were, playing our little dance music. I felt caught in the middle between those two great bands.
"But we went on after that. We struggled and struggled. We did a lot of records for Victor, for their Bluebird label. Thank God they haven't re-released them. They weren't up to what they should have been in '38, when you had great bands like Artie, and Goodman. Or the Dorsey Brothers. Our records weren't that good.
"We still had three trumpets and one trombone. Gradually I added more trombones, I added another trumpet. When we were up at Armonk, New York, the whole summer. We were on the air seven times a week. Six at night and Saturday at noon.
"Glenn Osser and I lived together that eight months I was freelance arranging in New York. I learned so much about modern arranging looking over his shoulder, more than I did at music school, which taught classical orchestration.
"That Saturday broadcast was big. I'd tell the band to be there at 11 to warm up. We'd go on the air from 12 to 12:30. It was our best shot. One time, I wondered where the engineer was. We had a booth there, because we were on every night. It was put in there by WOR. At ten minutes to the hour, I called the station. I said, 'Hey. No announcer and no engineer? We're all here ready to go. Are we off the air?' And the guy said, 'No! You're on!' I said, 'What do we do?' He said, 'Break the lock on the booth, go in and set the dials at 50.' They ran from 1 to 100. He said, 'You do the announcing.' So I did it.
"That afternoon, I got a call from Glenn Osser. He said, 'Les, who the hell was that engineer?' I told him. He said, 'The engineers can ruin you! That was the best balance I ever heard on the radio. I didn't think much of your announcing, but the balance was great!'
"We played the World's Fair in '39 for Mike Todd. And we went into the Black Hawk. We were hired for a month, stayed four months. But it wasn't till 1942 that I made any money.
"I had Si Zentner on trombone, Abe Most on clarinet, Don Jacoby on trumpet, Wolfe Tannenbaum (who changed it to Tayne) on tenor. It was a good little band. Then I started losing guys to the army.
"Eli Oberstein at Victor gave up on us, and rightfully so. Four months after the Black Hawk, our records started to sell, and we had a hit on Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. Vocal by Betty Bonny. She married Mort Lindsey. Good musician, good arranger. They live out in Malibu. We still see them now and then."
"And when did Butch Stone join you?"
"Butch had been with Van Alexander's band, but Van disbanded and went into freelance arranging," Les said. "Then Butch went with Jack Teagarden. Teagarden gave up his big band too. So Butch went with Larry Clinton. Somebody said to me, 'You ought to go see this guy Butch Stone. He's a great performer.' They were playing Loew's State theater in New York.' I went backstage. Butch said, 'Larry's going into the service as a teacher, a flight instructor. I need a job.'
"I said, 'We're going into the Black Hawk in Chicago in September. Would you like to come?' And I said, 'I also need a drummer. I'd like to have Irv Cottler too.'"
Henry (Butch) Stone was born in Trenton, New Jersey on August 27, 1912. Thus he is a few months younger than Les. His parents moved to New York City when he was an infant, and his speech (as well as all the vocal records he made with Les) reflects that cultural conditioning. One of his first jobs was delivering film for one of the studios in the early 1930s. He played saxophone part-time in a band with other semi-pros, one that copied Jimmie Lunceford records. Butch did the numbers that Trummy Young sang with the Lunceford band, and gradually he gained acceptance as a comic singer, occasionally being referred to as the white Louis Jordan.
"A lot of the bands had guys who could step out of the ranks and do a song, usually a comic song, like Louis Prima with Tony Pastor and Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller," Butch said.
I'd never thought about this before, but now that Butch mentioned it, I saw the pattern. Ray Nance with Duke Ellington, Hot Lips Page and Tony Pastor with Artie Shaw, Nappy Lamarr with Bob Crosby, Sy Oliver with Tommy Dorsey and Roy Eldridge with Gene Krupa all filled the same role. Shakespeare understood the principle, as witness the gatekeeper scene in Macbeth, and even classical composition observes it, as in the Stravinsky Firebird and the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. Even the "sweet" commercial bands had people to provide this comic relief, filling that dramatic function of breaking the mood as a preparation for serious material to follow. It's a sound dramatic principle. Even the "sweet" bands observed it, for example Ziggy Talent with the Vaughan Monroe band. Ishkabibble, in "real life" a trumpet player named Merwyn Bogue, held this position with Kay Kyser. "The bandleaders loved guys like Butch Stone," Johnny Mandel said. "They could distract an audience, and the bands were expected to put on a show."
If it was an era of great ballads, it was also an era of novelty songs, some of them witty and some of them only silly. But they were part of the time, A Tisket a Tasket, Three Little Fishes, Mairzy Doats, Daddy, The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy, Pistol Packing Mama, Shoo Fly Pie, and The Frim Fram Sauce constituting a small sampling of the juke box triviality of the time.
Les was going to add a baritone to the saxophone section anyway, and if he could find somebody who could also do novelty songs, so much the better. Butch perfectly filled the job description, as they would say in a later time.
Butch recalled: "Les told us to go up and see Joe Glaser, who was booking the band. He was a big man in the business. He had a lot of acts that played the Apollo, including Lionel Hampton, and he handled Louis Armstrong. He had an office around 57th and Broadway. On the way over, Irv Cottler and I said we wouldn't take a penny less than a hundred and twenty-five a week. When we got there, Joe Glaser said, 'This band is going places. It's not a band of stars. Everybody gets the same money — seventy-five a week." Butch laughed, remembering. "I said, Til take it.' Irv Cottier said, 'I won't,' and left. He went with Claude Thornhill."
Les said, "I got him later, after the band made a little more money and we were playing the Meadowbrook and Glen Island Casino and the Cafe Rouge."
"Adding baritone saxophonist, how much did you rewrite?"
"At that time, the baritone usually just doubled the first, although we don't do that so much in the newer arrangements. Up till then, he just doubled the first sax."
Butch became a mainstay of the band, the dependable underpinning of the sax section and the resident jester, with a flair for singing comic songs, more or less on one note, including Robin Hood, Time Will Take Care of You, and a parody on etiquette lessons in which all the wrong things are advocated, Thank You for Your Very Kind Attention. Another song asserted: "Jack, I'm comin' back in my convertible Cadillac." In 1942 Butch and the band recorded A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a 1918 song associated with Bessie Smith. It became a hit.
"Butch was the road manager," Stumpy said. "He was always mother hen to the guys, trying to get them good seats on the plane and that kind of thing. He'd go to the ticket agent and say, 'Look, the band has all these instruments and carry-on luggage. Why don't you let us board first and get settled?' And they'd agree. Butch would then count everybody, to be sure everybody was there, and then yell, 'Yo! Les Brown band! Let's go!
"I finally said, 'Butch, you shouldn't do that. The people already don't like us because we're getting on before they are. Why don't you say, 'Yo! Woody Herman band!'
"He didn't do it, of course, but he stopped naming us. He'd just say, 'Yo, band!' He still does."
To which Butch said: "If the musicians are happy, it will be reflected in the music. So when we'd be going through some little town and stop to get something at a diner at three in the morning, and there'd only be a cook and one waiter, I'd go behind the counter and wait on the band. It was just fun. Later, when we started flying, I'd try to see that they got good seats on the aisle or at the window."
This went neither unnoticed nor unappreciated; and so pervasive was Butch in the life of the band that some people thought of it as the Butch Stone band. He was a nurturing figure to other musicians. This led to his being named the Mother of the Year, an obvious pun, a few years ago.
One of the band's hits was Bizet Has His Day. "This was during the fight between BMI and ASCAP," Les said. "And we had to go to PDs." He meant songs in the public domain.
This is a little-understood factor in evaluating the repertoire of those days. ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers — which licensed all the major modern songwriters, demanded more money from the radio stations for the performance of its members' songs.”
The following audio file features the Les Brown Orchestra performing Wes Hensel’s arrangement of Flyin' Home.
© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Most of the bands were folding at the time. We were lucky: we had Bob Hope to keep us warm. You have to be lucky in this business. If Bob Stevens from Decca hadn't come in to hear us, I might not have gone on in the music business. If that guy hadn't been listening to the Hope show that evening, that record [I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm] would still be at the bottom of the barrel."
- Les Brown, saxophonist and bandleader [Emphasis, mine]
“Les Brown is the only band leader I never fought with.”
- Buddy Rich, drummer and bandleader
“People like Jack Siefert [on behalf of Woody Herman] and Don Wood [on behalf of Les Brown], archivists and historians by instinct, are invaluable resources, and jazz historians have not sufficiently utilized them. Like everyone else, they are growing older, and some day won't be there for the interviewing. Indeed, time is running out on much unrecorded jazz history, which is why I have chosen to donate so much of my time (and your subscription money, which finances it) to explore music history from primary sources and get more of it on record before it is irretrievably lost.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz writer, editor and publisher
Over the years, mostly in studio settings creating the music for TV ads and radio jingles, I got to know some of the guys that played on Les Brown’s band.
I don’t recall any of them ever saying a bad word about Les.
Given the vagaries of the music business and the quirky and capricious people who populate it, not being the focus of musician discontent is an amazing achievement.
Les and the late vibraphonist Red Norvo frequented a restaurant lounge in Santa Monica that I played at for a number of months in a guitar-bass-drums trio. All of us were very young at the time, but Les never failed to stop by and offer an encouraging word about our music. We thanked him by performing I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm whenever he came by the lounge. He would feign to be cold, wrap his arms around his torso and give us a smile of recognition.
Through the years I have also learned that there is a lot of truth to the adage that it takes about as much time and effort to be nice to people as it does to be mean to them.
I wonder if Les Brown invented that maxim?
From what I observed, he was the living embodiment of the truism contained in it.
The following is a continuation of Gene Lees’ piece on Les which appeared in the July, 1996 edition of Jazzletter.
© - Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
A Man of Renown
“But the radio industry had prepared an ambush for ASCAP, setting up a company called Broadcast Music Incorporated and signing up songwriters from country-and-western and other fields previously disdained by ASCAP, in preparation for trouble with ASCAP. ASCAP pulled all its music off the air.
BMI immediately became functional, and some observers have seen this as preparing the decline of American popular music to its present nadir. It may have been a factor, but it was one of many. Also significant was the abandonment by the major broadcasting companies of network radio in favor of the rising medium of television. Ironically, this would work to Les Brown's advantage.
During the ASCAP ban, radio stations could play only music licensed by BMI or material that was in the public domain, that is to say music old enough that its copyrights had expired, which included folk and much classical music. Stephen Foster's I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair for a short time was a hit.
"That's why we did Bizet Has His Day" Les said. (The piece is based on Bizet's Arlesienne Suite). "And Mexican Hat Dance. That's why we did Marche Slav by Tchaikovsky. If you didn't record things that were in the public domain, the disc jockeys couldn't play them on the air. We even did Old Dog Tray! Bizet was during that time, 1941."
"Bizet was Ben Homer's chart, wasn't it?"
"And where did you find him?"
"He was just out of the Boston Conservatory and he came to me looking for a job.
"Homer was very strange to work with. You'd get a chart about every six weeks. But when you got it, it was a gem. Frank Comstock could do six in a week, if you wanted him to. Glenn Osser could make an arrangement in two hours. And a great one, every time. He had perfect pitch. He didn't have to go to the piano. But I'd say Ben Homer gave us the style."
However, Frank Comstock, born in San Diego, California, September 20, 1922, became the most important writer for the band. One of Comstock's charts, a reorchestration of Leap Frog made when Les expanded the band — this riff tune, based on an octave leap, was written by Joe Garland, who also wrote In the Mood — became a hit and the Les Brown band's theme. Later Comstock arranged, orchestrated (for Dmitri Tiomkin, among others), or scored music for films and television shows, though always retaining his association with Les.
"Frank is still writing for us," Les said. "He wrote most of our last album."
Prior to joining Les, Comstock had written three pieces for Stan Kenton. But a more sustained association was with Benny Carter. Comstock wrote for him for eight months until Carter dismantled his band in 1942 and turned his attention increasingly to composition and studio work in Los Angeles.
In 1939, Les encountered a young singer whose work he liked. This meeting would profoundly affect both their lives, its long effect making her a major movie star.
She was born Doris Kappelhoff on April 3,1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up there. She was called Dodo by her family. Like Ella Fitzgerald, she aspired to be a dancer.
"I loved the movies when I was very young," she remembered. "But dancing was my favorite thing. I started when I was about four, and I went to dance class four times a week. I sang in personality class at the dancing school. I adored dancing.
"I don't know if I thought about acting. But I thought a lot about movie stars because all kids do, and we played movie stars. And I thought about California, how great it must be. We would see the magazines. It was always sun shining. And I loved the way the movie stars dressed. It was all exciting.
"But I don't know if I really thought that I was ever going to do it. I wasn't the kind of person who was a go-getter about being successful and being a star and all of that stuff. I think it's tragic if it becomes the all-important thing in life. It must be tragic for those who don't have a career in that field.
"I was a real mid-western person who thought about home, and getting married, and having a nice family and taking care of my house. I always loved taking care of my room when I was a little girl, and helping my mother to clean. I learned to iron when I was ten years old. I just thought I was going to be a home maker. It didn't work out that way. Everything went in a different direction.
"When I was about twelve or thirteen, we were getting ready to move to California. My dancing partner and his mother and my mother and I had been there to get some new dance routines. We spent about a month in Los Angeles. Oh God, that was the biggest thing in the whole world. We loved it so much that when we came back to Cincinnati, my partner and his mother wanted to move out to L.A. The following year we decided that my partner and our mothers would go, and we would see what could happen, and what was in store. Then maybe her husband would come out. My father was not living with us at the time. But my brother wanted to go.
"We were going at the end of October. I was in Hamilton, Ohio, visiting relatives to say good-bye. Four of us young people went out, and the car was hit by a train. It was October the 13th, and it was a Friday.
"I haven't really talked about this very much. I had terrible fractures in my leg. I was laid up about three years. The bones were not knitting, and it was becoming a terrible thing. I couldn't stand on crutches, I couldn't bear the pain. Finally, they started to knit."
Her aspirations to dance were finished. But she could sing, and she began doing so on radio station WLW in her home town. It was there that Barney Rapp, leader of a successful local band with whom she worked at the station, changed her name to Doris Day.
Then she joined the Bob Crosby band.
"I was with Bob Crosby a very short time," she said. "They were going out on the road. Bob had a half-hour radio program. There was a gal who was going to be on that show. She was a friend of somebody important. And so they decided that it would be a good idea if she sang with the band."
It's an old show business story. Girl balls Powerful Person, gets the gig. Ironically, the girl who snagged her job did her a major favor. It is always fascinating to look back and try to trace the strings of our lives, and of course she can never know what would have happened to her had she not been thus displaced. But destiny is merely what happens.
Doris said, "The manager of the Crosby band, Gil Rodin, who was a wonderful person, said that Les Brown had been to the Strand theater in New York and had seen me and would like me to join the band. I said, 'I don't know much about Les Brown.' Gil said, 'He has a terrific band, and he's a terrific person.' So I said, 'Well I'd like to meet him.' I wasn't sure what I was going to do.
"I didn't know the fellows in the Bob Crosby band too well, but they were very nice. I really was looked after. The guys were like brothers to me. They were older. They were all married. And then I found I was going with a very young band, and I was concerned that I would be lonely."
She was seventeen.
"But then," she said, "Les was always so concerned, and so careful about everything, and he was so dear with my Mom. It was a family scene. From then till now, Les has always been a wonderful friend. We all lived at the Whitby apartments in New York at the time. Claire was there with the babies. We were all so close. We still are.
"It was a good band, and I loved it. We always talk about the laughs we had. When you have thirty or more one-nighters in a row, that's hard. But we still just laughed."
If the band was good for her, she was good for the band. With her vocal, Les recorded My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time. He wrote the arrangement. Though the song was not one of the immortal ballads, it was nonetheless a substantial hit.
I said to Les, "I think she is under-rated, for all her success. I catch her in an old movie, and I am amazed at how well she sang. When I was in high school, I saw the band in Niagara Falls, Ontario, at an arena. She was gorgeous, and she had wonderful posture. I suppose that was from the dancing. And, I have to tell you, Les, I still remember it: she had the most beautiful derriere."
"Oh sure," Les said, laughing. "We used to call her Jut Butt. We'd say, 'Hey, Jut Butt.' She was a good egg to be around. On the one-nighters and things."
Stumpy Brown was still in school at the time. He graduated from New York Military Academy in 1943, turning the academy band over to Johnny Mandel, class of '44, and joined Les's band three weeks later.
"And my dad retired from being a baker," Stumpy said. "He sold the bakery. I think he was happy to get rid of it. He was only in his fifties. It was wartime, and school teachers were at a premium, especially for music. And he started teaching in high school, although he had no academic credentials. I don't think Dad went past third grade. He taught in Tower City, and we lived in Lykens, which was only ten miles away.
"When the war was over, the state stepped in, and said, 'Mr. Brown, for you to continue teaching at school, you're going to have to get a degree in music. Go to summer school, for just one summer. That's all you have to do.' He said, 'I'm too old to go to school.' And he lost his job. For some reason, he got another job in a little town called Hegins, where my mother was more or less raised. They sold their house in Lykens, and moved to Tower City, and he taught privately.
"Incidentally, when I joined the band, my dad said to Les, 'You know, one of these days he'll be doing something in front of the band for you.'
"Les said, 'I don't think so. He plays bass trombone. What do you think he'd do?'
"My dad said, 'Maybe he'll be singing.’
"Les said, 'Look, Dad, I can't sing. You can't sing. Warren can't sing. Sylvia can't sing. What makes you think Stumpy can sing?' And my dad said, 'Well his mother can.'"
A few years later, when Butch Stone left the band for a time, Stumpy took over his vocals, and when Butch returned, Stumpy continued to sing the up-tempo numbers.
And Doris Day had become virtually a member of the family.
"She married a trombone player from the Jimmy Dorsey band, Al Jorden," Les said. "When he left the Crosby band, he told her, 'All right, get home here.' He was jealous! One time there was a picture of her with the band. She had legs crossed and you could see her knees. He wrote her a letter! She was crying. She showed it to me. I had to write him a note and saying, 'Hey, it's all right, we need publicity, and this isn't bad.'"
It was a period when Down Beat heavily emphasized cheesecake photos of the "canaries" or "chirps", as it was prone to call them, who sang with the bands.
Doris left the band, had a baby, then was divorced and returned. "I had to wait until the baby was old enough to take on the road," Les said. "I took her mother with us."
And then came the alchemical combination: Les, Doris Day, and Sentimental Journey.
"Ben Homer and I wrote Sentimental Journey together," Les said. "It's hard to make guys believe that, because in those days bandleaders were putting their names on material they didn't write — I was offered so many songs. I never would do it. Unless I actually had something to do with the song. In this case, Ben called me and said, 'I'm up at Buddy Morris's office.'"
The Morris office was in the Brill Building. The building is still there, on Broadway in mid-town Manhattan. Many music publishers had offices there, and it has always had — to me, anyway — a faint aroma of rancid thoughts. In tribute to the savage insensitiv-ity of its typical inhabitants, the author James T. Maher called it "Attila's last outpost."
Les said, "I found out later that Homer was trying to get an advance from Buddy. Buddy was too smart. He said, 'I know you're a crook. Get in there and write me a tune. You're not getting any money from me unless you give me a tune.' Homer told me one time that his philosophy was fuck the other guy before he fucks you. I told him, 'Ben, that's a terrible way to live.'
"He was going to publishers all over town saying, 'You can't get on the air unless you pay me. I'm Les Brown's arranger, I make the arrangements, I tell him what to do.'
"I was living at the Whitby when he called. He said, 'I've got a pretty good idea for a tune. Why don't you come on up and we'll write it together? I've got the front part but I can't think of a release.'
"I had nothing to do so I went to the Brill Building. Homer had . . . . " Les went to the piano and played a variant on the front strain. In this version, the cell of the tune, the first two notes, drops a sixth. This would increase the range, limiting the number of singers who would be able to handle it. Les pulled this fragment down to a major third, and that repeating pattern is the material of the front strain as the tune finally was published.
Les continued: "Homer said, 'What'll we do about the release?' I said, 'We'll do the Sears and Roebuck change,' which is a four chord to a one chord to a two chord to a five chord." Les played it. "We wrote it in a few minutes. I think I had as much to do with the song as he did.
"In the meantime, the band wasn't recording. It was during the ban."
Wreaking further havoc on the American music business, in the wake of the ASCAP strike, James Caesar Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians, barred all recording by union members, finally settling for a royalty on records to be paid into a union trust fund. Petrillo's argument was that recordings were putting musicians out of business, on which point he was absolutely correct, but nothing did more to put the big bands out of business than that strike, which enabled the emplacement of the singers as stars, Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole among them.
The Les Brown-Ben Homer ballad was sitting in the office of Buddy Morris. Les said, "Two or three guys wrote lyrics on the tune, but Buddy Morris didn't like them. Then I got a call from Buddy, who said, 'I finally got a good lyric. It's called Sentimental Journey.' I said, 'That's good. Where did you get that?' He said, 'I'm reading a book. It's a Baedeker of the Eighteenth Century called Sentimental Journey, a guide to the great inns of Europe. I got Bud Green to write a lyric.' Bud Green wrote the lyrics to I’ll Get By and Once in a While. And also Flat Foot Floogie. I went up and heard the lyric and I said, 'Great.'
"I had Homer make an arrangement. I said, 'Ben, I want this in thirds, clarinet above the subtone tenor lead, clarinets below.' I'd
used that combination in a lot of my own arrangements, and I liked the sound. He came in and it was . . . . " Les sang a blatant, loud figure. "I said, 'Stop the band! I told you what I want. Change the first sixteen bars or we don't record the thing.'"
"We were at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York. We would rehearse after work, when all the people were out of the dining room. That song suddenly appeared. Les handed me the lead sheet. I thought, 'This is really good.'
"The very next night we had a remote out of New York, about 11:30. And we put that on and, Bang! Right off the bat, I started getting mail about it."
Les said, "People would come up and ask about it. It's a simple song, simple as hell. So we stopped playing it for a while, because we were afraid somebody would steal it before we could record it.
"The record ban ended in November, 1944, and we went in and recorded it."
Stumpy remembers that the band was playing a job in Boston and took a night train to New York to record the song at Liederkranz Hall in the morning.
"Columbia put it out in January, 1945," Les said. "It was just after the Battle of the Bulge. When that was won, we knew the war was over. It was perfect timing. If we'd brought it out earlier, I don't know whether it would have been a hit. Psychologically, it was perfect timing. I've had so many GIs come up and say something like, 'Hey, I was on a boat docking in New York and it was our favorite song, because we were going home.' It might not have been a hit if it had not been for the record ban, which delayed it until then."
It reached the top of the popularity charts, a hit so big for Day as well as the band that it became almost a theme song for her.
Les parted company with Ben Homer. "When I found out what he was doing, I had to fire him," Les said. "When his reputation got around, nobody would hire him. And he didn't have to do that. He wrote so well. I said, 'You write me one arrangement a week between now and Christmas and I'll give you a five thousand dollar bonus.' And that was in the 1940s. He didn't get close to it. I don't think that year I got more than ten arrangements. But they were all good. He was an evil man. But by now I had Frank Comstock and I didn't need Ben Homer. Frank wrote practically everything for us for a while."
Sentimental Journey had made Doris Day a star. And so striking were her looks that the movie industry was beckoning. But that was not the immediate reason she left the band. Les said: "She was getting five hundred a week, through '44, '45, and part of '46. That's equivalent to five or ten thousand now. She got so far ahead — she wasn't spending the money — she married one of my saxophone players, George Weidler, and they decided they didn't want to go on the road any more. I understood that, because I didn't want to go either, but I had to."
Sentimental Journey came when the bands were already encountering trouble. Costs of travel were rising, and television held a particular appeal to the returned GIs who were marrying and settling down to raise families and thus were less inclined to go out for amusement. Both baseball and movie attendance declined. But network radio, in the last days of its vigor, and soon television, actually rescued the Les Brown band.
"Skinnay Ennis had the Bob Hope radio show until he went into the service," Les said. "Then Stan Kenton had the show. He went into the studio and blew out the walls. Hope said, 'Stan, I love your band, but it's not for us.' Then he had Desi Arnaz, who didn't know a fucking thing about music, but Hope didn't know a fucking thing about music either, didn't know that Desi didn't know. Desi had a Latin band around town. And so Hope's radio agent, Jimmy Saphier — Hope had the biggest radio show at that time — came in to hear our band and sent a note, asking me to have a drink. I went over to his table, and we got talking about the Hope show. He said, 'Desi Arnaz doesn't know anything about music.' And Jimmy did; he was an ex-trumpet player.
"I said, 'I'd be interested.'
"He said, 'You can make far more money on the road.'
"I said, 'I don't care. I want to get off the road.'
"I didn't even know Hope. I made the arrangements with Jimmy Saphier. I met Hope in the studio at NBC.
"Doris had left the band in '46. This was spring of '47. Jimmy tried to sell Hope on Doris and the band. Hope said, 'Yeah, she sings well, but how about that band?' I got the job, and Doris didn't. Two years later, she had two hit movies and Hope had to pay through the nose to get her."
She made a series of musicals for Warner Bros., co-starred with Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn (the worst movie about jazz ever made except for all the others), played Calamity Jane in the film version of Annie Get Your Gun. She became increasingly known as an excellent light comedienne and a solid dramatic actress. A drama coach once told me: "It's easier to teach singers to act than actors to sing."
But just as Nat Cole's singing success overshadowed his preeminence as a pianist, her movie stardom obscured her excellence as a singer. She not only sang with keen intonation and good time, she always had a sense of the dramatic meaning of a lyric.
"We started on the Hope show in September of '47," Les said. "Come '48, and Bing Crosby was a guest on the show. When Bing and Bob were on NBC together, the rating went sky high.
"We'd do Hope's theme Thanks for the Memory, monologue, a band number, a skit, a commercial, a song from Bing, another short skit, a five- or six-minute sketch, theme song and out. For our band number one night, we played I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, truncated because they only allowed us two minutes. The chart was by Skip Martin. The first chorus was in and so was the piano solo and the last chorus.
"I got a telegram. 'Heard I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm on the Hope show. Go in and record it tomorrow, even if you only do one tune. I want to put it out right away.' It was from the sales manager of Columbia Records. I called him on the phone and said, 'Hey, schmuck, we recorded that two years ago, 1946, while we were at the Palladium. Now look for it.'
"He called back about four hours later. He said, 'We found it, it's great! We're gonna put it out.' About a month later I got a call from the distributor here saying, 'Hey, you've got a hit on your hands.' I said, 'Horseshit.' He said, 'You've got a hit.'
"Most of the bands were folding at the time. We were lucky: we had Hope to keep us warm. You have to be lucky in this business. If Bob Stevens from Decca hadn't come in to hear us, I might not have gone on in the music business. If that guy hadn't been listening to the Hope show that evening, that record would still be at the bottom of the barrel."
As the big band era came to an end, Les and his band were in an unusual and advantageous position. They had a steady network radio (and later, television) show to provide financial sustenance and at the same time continuous public exposure. Network radio was disappearing. So were "locations", as they were called. "We used to play Elitch's Garden in Denver for a month at a time," Les said. Elitch's Gardens is a 36-acre amusement park that, in the "swing era" was an important stop on the itineraries of bands heading out to or back from the West Coast.
"And I went on doing the Hope show for years," Les said, "including the overseas tours. We did eighteen of those tours.
"Hope would be on radio or television or, early, both, from 1947 until the middle of the '50s. We'd book the summers. Until about 1957, we'd go out each summer for a twelve-week tour, capitalizing on the radio and television shows. We did very well.
"We had Buddy Rich in the band one summer. We got along fine. I even roomed with him at one point. When he had his own band, he introduced me once, saying, 'This is the only leader I never fought with.'
"In 1950, we island-hopped with Hope for 32 days across the Pacific. We traveled in two DC-4s. We did Hawaii for four days, Pearl Harbor, one for each service, on to Johnson Island and Kwajalein and Guam and Okinawa, then Japan, then we went to Korea for two weeks. We were there right after MacArthur invaded at Inchon. They'd pushed the North Koreans up to the Yalu, and we even played in North Korea. We had lunch with General MacArthur in Japan, just before we went over to Korea. He said, 'Don't worry, you'll be safe in Korea. It'll be cold, but you don't have to worry about getting shot at.' I said, 'How about the Chinese Reds?'
"He said, 'Oh, they wouldn't dare.'
"They dared. They came across the border.
"The day we were leaving to come home — I was staying at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo along with Hope — I got a call from a United Press reporter I'd met. He said, 'They've come across the Yalu. All hell's gonna break loose.' And of course it did.
"But we were on our way home. We went up through the Aleutians and Alaska. We ended up doing our last show at a base in the state of Washington. It was a great tour. Everybody had taken eight-millimeter cameras. I edited it all down to about an hour and a quarter, and Hope paid to have copies made for everyone on the tour, about seventy-five persons."
The Hope show was not the only TV series on which Les and the band appeared. For some time his was the house band on the Steve Allen show, briefly in 1964 played on The Hollywood Palace, and was the house band for the complete run of The Dean Martin Show, 1965-1974.
"I'm a half-assed arranger," Les said. "But as a conductor, I'm good. That's one thing I'll say for myself. Ask anybody who's worked for me. I have done guest appearances with symphony orchestras, but I'm not really good enough for that. I can do it, but that's just an ego trip." He chuckled. "And my name got me by. But a real symphony conductor? It's one of the toughest jobs in the world. You have to know that repertoire the way we know Stardust.
"But I could follow singers, follow a trapeze act, an elephant act — which I did on The Hollywood Palace. I got that experience at the Capitol Theater and Palace Theater in New York, the Strand, other places. We always had to have acts with us. So I got vaudeville experience. Even when I was in music school, I played saxophone in the pit of a vaudeville house.
"I think all that paid off. I could conduct, and that kept the band together."
Les and Claire have one son and one daughter, and four grandchildren. Les Jr. is much involved in Les's business enterprises, and he and Les have a warm relationship. It wasn't always easy.
Les Jr. was born February 15, 1940. Like most of the offspring of famous people, he was not at first aware that his father was a public figure.
"I guess I began to be aware of it," Les Jr. said, "around the time of Love to Keep Me Warm, although he was famous before that. But it didn't really sink in. I started going with him Friday nights or Saturday or sometimes both down to the Palladium around 1953, when I was around thirteen. And I'd see this mass of people come in every night, and it still didn't sink in.
"I got into my teens, and then it did.
"It has two sides to it. It is a double-edged sword. One of them is: you have instant recognition, people are automatically accepting of you, you see the reflection of what he has created in their lives. The other is: Who the hell am I?
"And that takes quite a time to get over. It's a difficult process, especially when you're a Junior. That's what we're given to deal with.
"We have a fairly solid family. We're not perfect, by any means, but we've always kind of hung in there. And I went through my traumatic experiences with it. One of them was getting away from music when I was in my twenties. I started acting. I
was able to work a lot, get a television series and all that. And that gave me a bit of an identity.
"Then I had a second crisis. He was on The Hollywood Palace and on the Steve Allen and Dean Martin shows. And my acting work dried up a little bit. So I went through a battle with alcohol and drugs and all that. And finally, when I was around thirty-seven, I took a look and said, 'I can't continue this. I've got to stop.' So I got into a program and got sober and got out of the entertainment business altogether for a few years, and found out about real life, and that's where I started to create my own feeling of self-worth. And eventually I got back into entertainment, with Dad, and the music that I always loved.
"Now I don't have a problem with being his son. I have enough within me to know that whatever the perception of other people, I know who I am."
Les Jr. runs much of his father's business. At times he sings with the band, taking it on the road, particularly when Les Sr. doesn't want to go out with it.
Now the music stands read The Band of Renown, instead of Les Brown and His Band of Renown, as the billing and publicity described them for so many years.
One of their projects is the marketing of a 1954 stereo — yes, stereo — recording of the band. Gerry Macdonald, a young tenor player and recording engineer then living in Los Angeles, was working with a prototype two-track "binaural" (as such things were at first termed) tape machine. To test it, he asked friends for permission to record them during engagements. He recorded several bands, including the Les Brown band at the Hollywood Palladium. The tapes of these recordings have been in Gerry's possession ever since. Remembering them, Les got in touch with Gerry. The record companies manifesting little interest in Macdonald's treasury of historical documentation, Les decided to put out his own album.
And there is that pending PBS TV show scheduled for August.
Les Jr. said, "Two years ago, I started thinking, 'My gosh, he's coming up on his sixtieth anniversary.' So I started to write a history of the band. My dad is so self-effacing. He's not one to want a biography of himself. It's always been 'the Band of Renown' that's been his foundation. It wasn't Les Brown and his Orchestra.
"I started to take a look at that. What does it take to keep a band in the forefront
for all of those years, through all of the changes in music and in the country?
"I got a call from Carl Scott, vice president of artist's relations over at Warner Bros. He said, 'There's something we want you to see.' We had dinner in Los Feliz, and then went to a club called the Derby. I walked into 1942. Everybody was dressed in '40s dress. And then a band called the Royal Crown Review came on. Warner had just signed them. It's a seven-piece band, with a lead singer. And they're all dressed in that 1940s style. And they started playing swing. Modern swing. Original tunes.
And the dance floor filled up, and the people were twenty-five, twenty-six years old.
"I had presented what I had written as a documentary to PBS. I had presented it as a two-hour special in three segments, and the third segment was a live show. WEDU in Tampa bought the idea of the live segment. I wanted to take it full circle, with the band that started in 1936, in 1996. I wanted to put the best of the old and the best of the new together and create an event.
"I used Royal Crown Review, Sheena Easton — who sang Sentimental Journey — Suzanne Somers, Hal Linden, who played clarinet in a Benny Goodman medley and sang I've Heard that Song Before, the Nicholas Brothers with their grand-daughters, Tex Beneke, John Pizzarelli, and more. On the dance floor were white-haired people in their seventies and some in their eighties, and the twenty-five-year-olds. It was packed. It was a magical evening.
"That's the show that's coming up in August on PBS."
Les Brown — Senior, that is — is currently living in Pacific Palisades. For years he and Claire lived in a two-story penthouse apartment on top of an art deco building in Santa Monica, the building in which William Randolph Hearst once lodged Marion Davies. (The late Don Ellis's recording studio for a long time was housed in the high-ceilinged apartment Hearst kept for her in New York City.)
Les and Claire loved their apartment, whose balcony looked out on the wide grass swath with a seemingly endless row of tall palms that forms the western border of Santa Monica, and, for that matter, the continental United States. Beyond it, the Pacific. But the building was badly damaged in the 1994 earthquake, and Les and Claire took a house in Montecito, a suburb of Santa Barbara about eighty miles up the coast. They felt disoriented there, far from their friends and the symphony concerts Les loves. So they took the Pacific Palisades house, waiting for the day when they can get back into that exquisite apartment. (Red Norvo lives almost around the corner.)
Les retains all his old friendships, including one with Don Wood of Matewan, New Jersey. They met in 1958, and Don began a systematic documentation of the band's history, making notes on dates, personnel of sessions, and the like. Woody Herman kept very little of his awards and memorabilia, including photographs. The documentation of his life fell to a friend whom he met when he was in his early twenties, Jack Siefert, an engineer retired now and living in the Pittsburgh area. "And Les," Don Wood said when I told him that, "kept nothing." And I realized, in memory, that in Les's home I hadn't seen an award of any kind on display. As the Woody Herman chronicles (fresh acetates of old airchecks, for example, which Woody tossed away "like Frisbees," as Jack put it) in Jack Siefert's home, the documentation and memorabilia of the Les Brown band repose in the home of Don Wood in Matewan. Don was for twenty-five years chief photographer for Bell Labs, and developed their video program.
In 1994, Les was named Alumnus of the Year at Duke University. Don accompanied him to the ceremony. "He tried to con me out of my hand-written notes on the band's history," Don said. "I won't give them to him!"
Instead, Don's collection has been donated by the terms of his will to the music school of Duke. "Les is all for it," Don said.
People like Jack Siefert and Don Wood, archivists and historians by instinct, are invaluable resources, and jazz historians have not sufficiently utilized them. Like everyone else, they are growing older, and some day won't be there for the interviewing. Indeed, time is running out on much unrecorded jazz history, which is why I have chosen to donate so much of my time (and your subscription money, which finances it) to explore music history from primary sources and get more of it on record before it is irretrievably lost. And one day not long ago it occurred to me that I had written almost nothing about Les Brown, and I thought: it's time.
Recently Les threw a big party for Butch Stone at the Ventura Club in Sherman Oaks, California. It was filled with friends and former band members, as well as those who play in the present band. Frank Comstock and Dave Pell were there. So were Ralph Young, Van Alexander, Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, Terry Gibbs, Frank Comstock, Billy May, Larry Gelbart (a young writer on the Bob Hope show when Les joined it), and many others. Bob Hope was there with his wife, Dolores. He is in his nineties, his eyesight and his hearing almost gone; she led him to their table, and Steve Allen sat with them, a protective air, almost a halo, around them. Steve was the emcee for the occasion. At one point Steve said that Bob's wife was going to sing. She is eighty-eight, and I am sure I was not the only one in the room, which seats about 300, who braced to give polite and compassionate applause. It was unnecessary. She sang superbly, without tremor or breathlessness, and the ovation, when it came, was a standing one.
And of course Butch was the center of it all. His hair is white, and he is in vigorous good health, as ebulliently funny as he was when he played with the band. He still sings with the band, but a problem with one eye prevents his playing with it. As guest of honor, he sat in front of the band.
"Your playing days are over, Butch!" Les chided from the bandstand. "And so are mine!"
The band sounded fine. "And we had two subs in tonight," Les whispered to me later. Steve Allen said, "I've been to a lot of these things, but this was different. It was warm, really warm."
"How active are you still?" I asked Les at one point.
"We play about three or four gigs a month. Age happens to all of us."
I said, "You seem to have had a happy life."
"Very," Les said. "I've been very lucky. We've been married fifty-eight years. I've had my pitfalls. I was a bad boy, a couple of times. We all were."
(I suppose Woody was one of those he had in mind. Toward the end, when Woody was too ill to make a gig one night in Ventura, California, Les jumped in to lead his band for him.)
"Claire and I survived it," Les said, "and the last twenty years have been our happiest."
Ted Nash lives in Carmel. He became one of the top studio players in Los Angeles, published a book on the playing of high harmonics on saxophone, retired, and plays a good deal of tennis.
Dave Pell developed a second career as a photographer. He founded a group called Prez Conference, devoted to the music of Lester Young. He remains an active musician in Los Angeles.
Ben Homer was born in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1917. In addition to the Les Brown band, he wrote for Bob Chester, Jack Teagarden, Raymond Scott, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey. But he disappeared from the music business. He became a Jehovah's Witness, and in 1953 a minister in that movement. He died in Reseda, California, in 1975.
Bob Higgins, one of the band's best arrangers, left the music business. "That's an interesting story," Les said. "He and I were very close. We used to room together on the road. He wasn't that great a trumpet player, but he was a very good writer. One day I said, 'I'm going to do you a big favor. I'm going to fire you.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Because you're too smart to be in this business. You could do a lot better elsewhere.' And I fired him. A few days later he called me and said he had a job, working for Dan Reeves, in securities. Dan Reeves owned the Cleveland Rams. I ran into Dan Reeves and he said, 'That Bob Higgins who used to play in your band. He's the smartest man I ever hired. I may make him my partner.'
"Later, when the Denny's restaurants were going to go public, they asked him if he'd handle their stock issue. He said, 'Oh, maybe for a million dollars.' A few days later they came back and said, 'Okay.' He became a very big executive with Denny's. He came in to hear us two or three years ago. He's many times a millionaire. I don't know where he is now — in Texas, I think."
On Les's recommendation, Geoff Clarkson, an outstanding pianist, became Bob Hope's music director for the comedian's public appearances, a position he held for many years. He lives in North Hollywood, California.
Dick Shanahan, who was with the band from 1943 to 1946, was one of the finest big-band drummers of the time. His exemplary dynamics are well displayed in the original recording of Leap Frog. His playing on that record has not dated in the least. "He's still a good drummer," Stumpy said. "He played with us not long ago." Shanahan lives in Van Nuys, California.
The air of tolerance in the critical establishment's attitude to Les Brown extends to his sidemen. There are no entries for Clarkson or Shanahan in the Feather encyclopedias, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, or any other reference book I can find. Wes Hensel, a generous and kind human being who was with the band from 1947 until at least 1959, became head of the brass department at the Berklee College of Music. He was a good friend of mine; he died, like so many lead trumpet players, of a heart attack.
Doris Day, of course, had a phenomenal screen and recording career: she made 39 films in 20 years. Many of them, such as Young at Heart, in which she starred opposite Frank Sinatra, were box-office hits. Most of her LPs were hits as well. She formed the Pet Foundation in Los Angeles and remains active in the animal-rights movement. She did TV shows in 1985. She lives in the Carmel Valley — not far from Ted Nash — on an eleven-acre ranch overlooking a golf course near Monterey, and still loves to sing. Her voice remains youthful and strong and she gives occasional thought to recording again.
Doris said, "Frank Comstock and I talk on the phone all the time. We always remember the laughter."
Frank lives at Huntington Beach, which is down the coast from Los Angeles and not far up the coast from his native San Diego. Frank, who wrote a good deal for Doris Day when she became established as a recording star on her own, said, "Doris is my best friend. When my wife was dying, hardly a day went by that Doris didn't call.
"I was talking to Doris just the other day. She said, 'Oh Frank, I wish we were back on the road again. I never had so much fun in my life.'"
Why have Frank and Les retained a cordial relationship through all these years? "I don't know," Frank said, with a chuckle. "Les is not a malicious guy, and neither am I."
"Les is a great guy," Doris said, "and I love him very much.
And Butch Stone summed it all up: "Music is Les's life."