Archive for the ‘Big Band’ Category

The Sound Of Royal Sax   Leave a comment

A while back I posted a piece about a pair of 1960’s combos with very similar names — Tornados and Tornadoes — but today it’s a different kind of name thing. If you’re at all interested in jazz, you might have run across a great saxophonist who worked with everybody from Ellington to Basie to Lawrence Welk and even led his own band for a while. But the funny thing is that even though most of what you see (including his own record albums) shows his name as Marshall Royal, it was actually Marshal — the extra ‘L’ just got added somewhere along the way.

mrMarshal Royal was born in Oklahoma, but mostly grew up in Los Angeles after his family moved there during the first World War. Both parents were skilled musicians and his father — Marshal Royal Sr. — was a music teacher and occasional bandleader, so Junior was given a good musical education. (As was his younger brother, Ernie, who would become a professional trumpeter.) By the late 1920s Royal was in his teens and was proficient on piano, violin, guitar, clarinet, and saxophone. He soon began working in nightclub bands and was just sixteen when he caught the eye of the Duke, whose orchestra was even then beginning its rise to fame. Although Ellington just needed him as a violinist for a special film occasion, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

For most of the 1930s, Royal kept busy playing sax – and occasionally clarinet — in the Los Angeles area, mostly as a part of Les Hite’s popular regional band although he also spent some time with Art Tatum. As the decade ended he moved on to a spot with Lionel Hampton’s outfit but a couple of years later World War II came along, and Royal (and Ernie) became a part of one the US Navy’s bands for the duration. In the post-war years he again found plenty of work with bands like Eddie Heywood’s, but the 1950s began a two-decade period that would make his fame — becoming an important part of Count Basie’s big band.

Royal’s clean and clear alto sax sound led the way for the band, but he also took a vital leadership role in the group, becoming its musical director and a mentor to the younger players. It was a long and richly satisfying period, but he also found time to do some other things — his 1960 album with Gordon Jenkins was one of his best. When he finally returned to his home area of Los Angeles in the early 1970s he was ready to wind down a little and diversify. He spent most of his latter years working with a variety of other pros (yes, including Lawrence Welk) although he did lead a band of his own for a while in the 1980s. He continued working occasionally even into the 1990s, and was just a few days short of his 83rd birthday when he died in 1995.

mrcdMarshal Royal – “Blue Prelude”


Barney Bigard Chose The Clarinet   Leave a comment

Regular visitors to the GMC might remember that I once played the clarinet myself, and that probably contributes to my fondness for spotlighting clarinetists from the past. (The real thing, not hapless amateurs like me.) One of the best was Barney Bigard, whose career began in the 1920s and stretched for a half-century — even though he didn’t begin it as a clarinetist.

Bigard was yet another musically-inclined New Orleans native, a member of a prominent Creole family who studied music with Lorenzo Tio Jr., the legendary clarinetist who barneybalso taught Sidney Bechet. But by the time he reached adulthood and began appearing professionally, Bigard was mostly playing tenor sax, and he was very good — good enough to move to Chicago in the 1920s and play alongside some of the best of the early jazz era, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. But within a few years Bigard had landed a job that would be a turning point in his career — playing in Duke Ellington’s band.

For a fifteen year period that ended in 1942 when he tired of the rat race involved with a touring band, Bigard built his reputation with Ellington’s renowned orchestra. Laying aside his sax and mostly playing clarinet, he became a featured part of the band, not only as a soloist but also as a composer and arranger on some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Mood Indigo.”

After leaving Ellington, Bigard found plenty of work with other groups, but in the post-war years he found himself on the road again, this time touring the world with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, an outfit that would find a lot of success for a number of years. Bigard was on board for a lot of that time, although he did take a couple of breaks from the grind to work with others, but by the 1960s he was slowing down. In his later years he remained active, sometimes leading small groups or just working alongside other pros, but was closer to semi-retired. He was 74 when he died in 1980.

Barney Bigard – “Farewell Blues”barn

Ina Ray Hutton – The Blonde Bombshell Of Rhythm   Leave a comment

A while back we featured singer June Hutton, but today it’s her older sister’s turn in the spotlight. Ina Ray Hutton was probably best known for leading an all-girl band (although she later fronted male groups too) and had so much flash and charisma that she was sometimes billed as the Blonde Bombshell Of Rhythm. But she was also a talented singer and dancer who starred on Broadway, found spots in several movies, and eventually even appeared on early TV.ina

Born in Chicago as Odessa Cowan, she was an early starter who began dancing in stage shows in the 1920s when she was just eight. By her teen years she’d become an experienced performer on Broadway, singing and dancing in several shows, including the famous Ziegfeld Follies. But her real breakout occurred in the early 1930s when she teamed up with music business pro Irving Mills to form an all-girl orchestra.

Although the band they named the Melodears was musically solid, the gorgeous Ina Ray was the unquestioned star. Dancing and singing while dressed in slinky outfits and always exuding tons of sex appeal, she helped lead the act into stardom throughout the decade. During its peak years the band not only made a lot of good records, but also appeared in several musical short films. Ina Ray also managed an occasional Hollywood cameo herself, but by the beginning of the 1940s things had slowed and the group had dissolved.

During the war years and beyond Ina Ray stayed busy, presenting a new look by leading a conventional male band while toning down her act a little. But she was still a lively and eye-catching presence fronting the band, and it did very well throughout the decade. In the 1950s she once again formed an all-girl band that made its biggest impact in clubs and on TV, finding success regionally for several years but failing in a brief try nationally. She finally retired from music in the 1960s and was 67 when she died in 1984.

inacdIna Ray Hutton & Orchestra – “Truckin”

June Hutton Was All-Around Talent    Leave a comment

(Note: I had originally intended to write about the passing of Lesley Gore, but it was about then that the flu bug hit me. By now there have been tons of good articles posted about that talented lady, so I’ll just salute her and move on to another subject.)

Sometimes confused with bandleader Ina Ray Hutton, her older sister (or half-sister according to some sources), June Hutton was a fine singer whose career included several high points. She worked as a big band songbird, spent some time as the lead singer in a famous ensemble, and found a lot of success as a soloist before eventually fading.

jhA Chicago native, she was born as June Marvel Cowan, but began calling herself June Hutton as a teenager in the late 1930s. Not coincidentally, it was about when she began singing with the all-girl band led by Ina Ray Hutton (born Odessa Cowan). It was a good start for her career, and after building her experience in a couple of other jobs she moved on to a spot with Charlie Spivak’s band, mostly as the centerpiece of his singing group, the Stardusters. (See video below.)

Spending the early years of the war with the band was great experience for the young singer, and when Jo Stafford left Tommy Dorsey’s Pied Pipers to pursue a solo career, June was able to step into her place in the much-admired group. In fact, she remained with the ensemble for several years, singing on some of its biggest hits. But by the end of the 1940s she was ready to take the next step — a solo career.

During the 1950s, she was able to score hits on several records, including “No Stone Unturned” and “Say You’re Mine Again,” no doubt helped along by her new husband. Axel Stordahl was a talented composer and arranger who’d already found a lot of success himself by then, including working with Frank Sinatra for an extended period. That in turn probably helped June make frequent appearances on Sinatra’s TV show, although she also popped up on a few others. Unfortunately the 1950s began the incursion of rock and roll into pop music, and singers like June soon felt the pinch. Within a few years she retired from performing. She was only 52 when she died in 1973 (although another source puts her two years younger).

jhcdJune Hutton – “No Stone Unturned”

In Appreciation Of The Amazing Viola Smith   4 comments

This is a different kind of post for the GMC. First of all, the only music I can find that features the spotlighted performer is on a video. But it’s also different because I’m going to give you the basics, but then point you toward a couple of other places that do a much better job of telling the whole story of this fascinating lady. vsViola Smith, once known as the ‘Female Gene Krupa’, started her career way back in the 1930s — and amazingly, she’s now 102 years old and still doing just fine.

Her story began in 1912 when she was born Viola Schmitz in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. Her father owned a restaurant and dance hall, and made sure his eight daughters all learned to play musical instruments so that he could mold them into a band. For some of them — especially Viola — it was the beginning of a career as professional musicians.viola

Before she finally retired from the business, Viola would become a vital part of some of the ‘all-girl’ bands that toured America in the 1930s and 1940s, would appear on radio and TV, and would be a member of the original Kit-Kat band in the famous Broadway musical, Cabaret. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the lady who was known as one of the best ever.

It’s a fascinating story, one that has spurred a number of good articles in recent years. You can find two of the best HERE and HERE, but I would also emphatically urge you to view the video below, which features the lady herself talking about her experiences. It’s interspersed with old pictures and also scenes from a pre-World War II musical short, which you can see in its entirety HERE. It features Viola as one of the stars of the all-girl band known as the Coquettes. Although Frances Carroll is billed first, Viola and her sister were co-founders of the group. (I’ve extracted one of the songs from the film, and you can find it below.)

At last report, Viola was happily retired and living in Costa Mesa, California, surrounded by friends and family.

Viola Smith & The Coquettes – “Snake Charmer”