Enrique Renard remembers the Englishman who became one of the ‘Greats’ of American Light Music


It was in 1942, the year the USA had just entered World War II, that a totally unknown young jazz pianist brought to RCA producers a few light pieces he had composed. He played them in the piano, but explained that his intention was to orchestrate and record them with a full ensemble, including strings.

The A & R people at RCA must have been impressed with what they heard, because a session was arranged to record Holiday for Strings, Dance of the Spanish Onion, Our Waltz and One Love. As everyone knows, recording techniques of those days were very far from what we hear today, or even from what we heard in the fifties, where the studios’ technological jump was enormous. However, and whoever that recording engineer was at RCA, he came with the idea of adding echo effect to the sound by slightly retarding the signal. The result was a novelty sound that added life to the dull sound recordings of the period under the primitive technology available. Nothing of the sort had ever been heard before in popular light music, not even in classical recordings. Everyone was impressed, and David Rose’s illustrious musical career was launched then and there.

Columbia Records, always a pioneer in sound achievement under men like Goddard Lieberson during the 40s, had a remarkable recording studio called Liederkranz Hall on 115th E. 58th St. in Manhattan, NY, famed by its excellent acoustics. By the late 30s and early 40s Andre Kostelanetz used to record in that studio using musicians from the NY Philharmonic playing arrangements from popular tunes as part of the Kostelanetz effort to acquaint the average American public with symphonic orchestral sounds. His material was pop, but his arrangements were symphonic in that he used an 80 piece orchestra with a huge string section. He openly achieved his purpose… in the east coast, that is. In the west coast the first one to attract attention in that direction was David Rose.

At the time, swing was in full blast in the USA spearheaded by Benny Goodman and his Swing Band, but the times, with all that nostalgic effect on wives and fiancées with their men overseas fighting a tough war, popularized sentimental music. Hence the enormous success of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and that of a young skinny singer called Frank Sinatra. The romantic, sentimental quality of David Rose’s tunes and string arrangements, evident even in his faster pieces like My Dog has Fleas (1944), fit perfectly the mood of the times. But it was Holiday for Strings, a million seller, that brought him into public consciousness. Given which, he wrote several other "Holidays": Holiday for Flutes, Holiday for Trombones, Autumn Holiday, Blue Holiday, etc. (An aunt of mine who was a pianist, remarked after hearing Holiday for Strings: "It’s called ‘holiday’ for strings but the only thing you hear in it is strings!). Tune titles aside, the thing is Rose can and should be credited with having started Light Music in the western USA.

David Rose was in fact British, born in London, June 15th, 1910. He was only 4 when his family migrated to the USA and settled in Chicago. By age 16 he was receiving musical training at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and starting to play piano professionally. His first contract was with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra, but someone at NBC Radio caught his sound and in 1936 he was hired as a pianist-arranger by the network. By 1938 he was hired by the Mutual Broadcasting Service, in Hollywood, where he set up an orchestra for that network. There he met singer/comedian Martha Raye and married her. He provided the arrangement for her only hit, a song with a telling title: Melancholy Mood. He divorced Raye in 1941.

The US musical scene suffered a crippling blow through a strike by the Musicians Union that lasted more than two years. But through that time, Holiday for Strings, recorded shortly before the strike, became a huge hit. The 78 carried Poinciana onthe other side with a slow, sensual arrangement that contributed to the success of the single. He then did for RCA a set of Cole Porter tunes masterfully arranged and featuring the same echo chamber sound that so distinguished his output. Those 78s were transposed into 45 rpms in a box set issued in the early 50’s, when 45s became popular, and later into LP. Both sets are almost impossible to find. He recorded Holiday for Strings, his signature song that sold millions worldwide, about six times, including an extended concert version he did in 1955 for a long forgotten MGM movie called "Unfinished Dance" but released onan LP called "David Rose plays David Rose", MGM E-3748, long out of print.

But it was not only the sound per se that made his music sound "different". It was the way he arranged. Steeped in jazz since his early youth, he phrased the strings using jazz chords and tempos, enlarging and sometimes bending phrases and scoring the strings in several voices so as to achieve a sort of uniform sound particularly pleasant to hear and very apt in establishing a romantic atmosphere. Many of my generation of those days felt a debt of gratitude towards David Rose and his music. Our seductive efforts were amply rewarded when we placed a Rose 78 rpm record on the turntable. The problem was one had to get up too often to change the record, thus spoiling things to some extent…

In 1941 Rose married Judy Garland, of all people! That an extraordinary ballad singer and the best ballad arranger in the business would never record together during the three years their marriage lasted is something difficult to explain. There were probably contractual situations that made it impossible, but they would have been a perfect match. Garland’s heartfelt style coupled with the Rose strings would have been something difficult to forget. But that perfect matching did not extend to their marriage. They were divorced in 1945.

Meanwhile, Rose’s career and fame continued to climb. He was busily arranging for movies and he had his own radio show California Melodies. For that one he wrote one of his well known tunes of that same name. The original, seductive way in which he arranged old songs making them sound new and different, attracted MGM executives, and he was offered a contract to write music for movies and record for the label. At MGM, however, the main preoccupation was with movies, and Rose ended up scoring over 36 of these! Aware of his talent and his commercial appeal, MGM gave him the opportunity to arrange and record several LPs from American standards by Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Moose Charlap and others, plus his own compositions including re-recordings of the tunes he had done for RCA, all in a mood, seductive but vital style that sold very well. Above all, Rose and his engineers invariably aimed for the best in sound and his talent, added to the lilting sound of his arrangements, brought him a measure of popularity, especially amongst advertisers and broadcasters. Whenever they wanted something catchy for the public’s ear, they would use excerpts of David Rose tunes. A survey done around 1963 showed that at every minute of every day at least one radio station in the USA was playing a David Rose selection! And his music was being used as theme songs for 22 different TV shows!

But despite all his musical talent and his success, few people would imagine that his first love was not music. It was trains, all sorts of trains! More than everything he wanted to be a railroad engineer! He owned what was probably one of the largest collections of miniature trains in the world, and he had a scale railroad track surrounding his estate in Sherman Oaks, California, with a train on it, of course.

With his career well launched and his talent in huge demand from television shows as successful as The Red Skelton Show, Bonanza, the High Chaparral, The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show, etc., plus several movies and new LPs, he found time to marry once more, this time to Conover model and actress Betty Bigelow, with whom he had two daughters, Melanie and Angie.

By the mid fifties, MGM engineers Phil Ramone and Don Frey engineered Rose’s tour-de-force album in keeping with his permanent fascination with state-of-the-art recording technology: 21 Channel Sound. This was one of the first recording efforts done on a multi channel basis, and the results were spectacular by any means. Especially a Duke Ellington piece called In a Sentimental Mood, and another by Bishop & Jenkins, Blue Prelude, represent two of the most extraordinary arrangements of tunes ever recorded in Light Music. For the occasion Rose used an orchestra comprised of 58 musicians (30 strings: 20 violins, 5 violas and 5 celli, plus percussion, reeds and brass), and the post mix phase (a novelty those days) was a painstaking process by him and his engineers. An electronic gimmick was also used which, in my view at least, detracts from the brilliance of the record: the music sweeps from one speaker to another, left to right and right to left. I feel there was no need for this in an album where stereo separation was splendidly achieved. Still, later on Ray Martin did likewise with a couple of LPs recorded for RCA in the early sixties in the USA.

Then, when it was expected his popularity would wane under the growing impact of rock-n’-roll, MGM paired him with another talent: Andre Previn, then in his 30s. They recorded a set of tunes for an LP titled Like Young. It was so successful they were asked to do an encore: Like Blue. Previn was an excellent jazz pianist and arranger, and Rose used only a string orchestra for the sessions. Both albums stand as a shining example of light music with a jazz feeling. Shortly after, something more unexpected came up. The writer has never found anyone who can explain why Rose, a master of mood music, wrote The Stripper, a hoochi-coochi strip-tease song if there ever was one! But the fact is that the thing shot up to the top of the charts in the USA and even today there are people who know and remember Rose only for that song! Public taste is sometimes suspect. But we all know that. The success was of such magnitude, Rose recorded The Stripper a whole LP album of standards arranged in that style, and then a second one, More Music of The Stripper, to satisfy the demand!Well, one must admit the man had versatility.He probably wrote the song as a lark, without imagining it would become a hit.

It is a fact that great musicians, especially great arrangers, will be imitated. Well… let’s say that some will be "influenced" by them. It is not merely a question of imitating that which sells well, but also of being inspired by originality borne in genuine talent and taste. Humoresque, a song written by Anton Dvorak, the great classical composer, was classified by my ears as one of the most trite and boring things they ever heard. And when I saw the song included in an RCA LP LPT 1011 (the first compilation of 78s by Rose by the label transposed into 33⅓ rpm.) I couldn’t believe my eyes! There was nothing anyone could do for that regrettable song! I surmised. Boy, was I wrong! Rose picked up the slow, narcotic main theme, changed it into a fast tempo played by pizzicato strings, orchestrating the central motive in the manner of that of his Dance of the Spanish Onion, adding a romantic twist to it, and a dull song picked up life and beauty. That requires imagination, an outstanding feature in David Rose’s musical talent. It was inevitable that he would be copied. And he was.

By the early 50s when he had scored well with some mood albums, he started to receive phone calls where all he heard was his own recordings being played by the caller. This went on for quite a while and he said it drove him nuts. He just couldn’t figure out who would do such a weird thing. Suddenly, in one of the calls a familiar voice came in. "This is Jackie Gleason, Dave… How are ya!... I just figured I told you we’ve been listening to your records. They sound wonderful…"

Gleason was known more as a comedian than a musician. He had never studied theory, to begin with, and couldn’t read music. He was a good bass player though (he can be spotted as the bass player in the Glenn Miller Orchestra Wives movie -1942). The fact is he was a natural musician and also a shrewd businessman, as we shall see. Fascinated with the Rose mood sound, he decided to do something similar. He tried to sell the idea to Mitch Miller, A&R man for Columbia those days. Miller laughed at it. "Strings and a trumpet? Are you crazy? I have shelves full of Harry James stock I cannot sell! Take a walk!" Gleason did, and that was a major faux pas by Miller, similar to the one he took with Sinatra before. Gleason went into hock, got together with arrangers George Williams and Dick Jones and made them listen to David Rose. "I want it to sound like that…" he explained to them, "and I got Bobby Hackett to do the trumpet part". The thing was Hackett played cornet, that smaller kind of trumpet with the conic tubing that mellows the sound and makes it languid and intimate. In short, ideal for Gleason’s concept. Gleason went ahead and recorded a few tunes. Upon hearing them, the Capitol A&R people got interested and released the album Music for Lovers Only. It was a smash hit, worldwide. It sold millions but it was a bad imitation of David Rose.

The thing was, however, that Rose included variety in his arrangements and a wide selection of different material. Tempos, colorings, fast and slow percussion and tone alternated brilliantly in his records. But Gleason understood that for wide appeal he had to play the melody straight. Average people simply did not understand nor musically relate to anything else. Add a romantic tone to it, and you got it made, he figured. He recorded over thirty "for lovers" albums, made millions, and he did change orchestration, sometimes even omitting strings (his best work, I think), but always playing the melody, and he got to be better known than Rose himself, who unwittingly gave him the idea.

The 60s were the last successful decade for David Rose. By then he recorded again many of his first hit compositions, using now the better technology available. By 1970 he recorded a couple of albums in London for Polydor, Portrait and The Very Thought of You, the latter including one of the best instrumental versions of the Ray Noble standard that I have ever heard. There is no indication of any other recordings after those.

I met David Rose at Epcot Center, in Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida, in 1985. He had been invited to do a few concerts with the local orchestra, a relatively small group (no more than 12 or so strings) that could not fully show his brilliance as an arranger. I found him to be a person who did not take himself seriously, humorous and funny. The only sad note came when he was asked why he wasn’t recording any more. There was a tone of sadness and frustration in his answer: "I don’t play rock n’ roll", he said. He was 75 at that moment, but one could sense he was still young inwardly. He was physically short, but a giant in talent. And his influence in all light music arrangers, including British composer/ arrangers such as Melachrino, Ray Martin, Stanley Black (the mood albums), William Hill-Bowen, Malcolm Lockyer, etc., was undeniable.

The distinctive Rose sound reached a lot of people, but it was difficult for me to determine clearly my predilection for it above all other light music composers. Added to his taste and brilliance there was another factor I could never pinpoint, but that attracted me. Then, by 1973, while I was living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a while, I was playing one of his records and a neighbor heard and came to knock at my door. He introduced himself: "My name is Tom Schaeffer, and I am a professor at the local university here, and would you mind telling me what is it that you are playing? It sounds great". I said, "That’s David Rose, and if you wish to come in and listen please feel free. He did, and as we listened, he turned to me and asked me if I had a song called June in January arranged by Rose. I said I did and I played it for him. And when the strings were picking up the main theme with the typical full sound Rose got from them, Tom turned to me and said: "You know, Enrique, the thing with David Rose is that his was always such a happy sound! I smiled in full agreement and thanked him for identifying the main reason why I liked David Rose above almost all others: his music made me happy! It conveyed a bubbly feeling of happiness! And $3 for an LP was an insignificant price to pay for it. I didn’t pay only for the beauty of his compositions and arrangements. Unwittingly, I was also paying for happiness.

Davis Rose died in Burbank, California, on 23 August, 1990, leaving behind not only the David Rose Foundation he set up in the 1960s, but a splendid collection of recorded music. His talented output was honored with six gold records and 22 Grammys. Not bad for a British-born kid who would have preferred to be a railroad engineer. Happily, he went the way of music to our benefit and listening pleasure.

This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ December 2005.

Submit to Facebook

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve heard the guitar of Bob Bain. In all reality, you couldn’t miss it. Starting in the 1950’s and through the 80’s (not counting today’s re-runs or syndicated programming), if you watched television shows like Peter Gunn, Bonanza, Mission Impossible, The Munsters and M.A.S.H., it was Bob Bain’s guitar that you heard on the themes. For 22 years, Bob was a fixture along with Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show Band during the Johnny Carson era on NBC. But you’ve also heard his work in movies like Thoroughly Modern Millie and on recordings with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. Bob has also recorded several albums of his own on Capitol Records, recorded with the group Guitars Unlimited, and produced a couple of releases by jazz pianist Junior Mance.

Having started out as a bass player in a trio fronted by guitarist Joe Wolverton, Bob made his way out to Los Angeles and settled into the club circuit. It was there that he met one of his heroes and mentors, Les Paul. In 1942, Bob joined Freddy Slack’s band, and through fellow guitarist Jack Marshall, was introduced to Phil Moore. He subsequently joined Phil Moore’s Four and One More. Moore’s group was introducing the new bebop sound and was one of the first interracial bands to play in the L.A. area. In 1945, Bob joined Tommy Dorsey (where he played along side Buddy Rich) and, two years later, became a part of Bob Crosby’s big band. In addition, he had formed his own band, The San Fernando Playboys. They actually recorded in Les Paul’s own home studio. Bob later played and recorded with Harry James and was also a part of André Previn’s trio.

The following interview took place during the afternoon of September 8, 2004 in Studio City, California and was organized by Frank Comstock as a part of "Frank’s Summit."


BOB BAIN – one of the Great Guitar Players

FORREST PATTEN: Bob Bain, guitarist extraordinaire, thank you for joining us today on behalf of the Robert Farnon Society. You have been on so many recordings that we’ve enjoyed over the years, but many of our non-U.S. subscribers might not be aware of your tenure with the Tonight Show Band when Johnny Carson hosted on NBC. Tell us about some of the memorable things that went on behind the scenes.

BOB BAIN: Whenever Johnny did his nightly monologue, they had cue cards for him, naturally. He would always rehearse with them. Johnny would use Doc (Severinsen) as a kind of buffer if the audience didn’t laugh at one of his lines. He would always turn to the band and expect something to come out of them. It was like when they used to do this segment called Stump The Band. This is where an audience member would come up with a song title and the band would have to try and play it. Doc was good at that and every once and a while the band would really get into it, too. I remember one night during the monologue, Johnny was talking and mentioned that he had heard one of his favorite records by Alvino Rey. I was playing a Telecaster guitar with a pitch bend that night. I hit a C chord and, with the pitch bend, brought the tone way down and then brought it back up again. It broke the place up. Things like that would just happen. I remember a time when Beverly Sills came on the show. She had just had surgery. She had just done a concert in Houston and had flown in for the show. She was extremely tired and didn’t feel like rehearsing (and wanted to lie down). They wanted her to sing a number on the show. She said that if she did sing, she would do it with a guitar player. That was all she said. Well, then the show goes on. She comes out and is talking to Johnny. Johnny says "I know that you’re not feeling well, but could you do just a few bars for us?" She agreed and looked over at me and said "Estrellita?" I said "In F?" and she nodded. We then did a chorus and a half. She was so easy to accompany. If we had rehearsed it, it wouldn’t have come off any better. The band was always a lot of fun. We had a great brass section. The lead trumpet was John Audino. Conte Condoli was the jazz trumpet. Jimmy Zito sat on the other side. The fourth trumpet was either Snooky Young or Maurie Harris. Just having those four guys in the band was enough to make you laugh. They never stopped talking! Sometimes Pete Candoli would sub for Audino and you’d think that Pete and Conte hadn’t seen each other in ten years! They were just so funny. You had Pete Christlieb and Ernie Watts on tenor sax and, of course Tommy Newsom on lead alto. You had Ed Shaughnessy on the drums and Ross Tompkins on piano. It was a great band. I really enjoyed doing the show. You came in at 3:15 in the afternoon and got to go home at 6:30 that evening. So that was a pretty good job.

FP: You’ve played on and recorded the themes for so many memorable television shows. Tell us about Bonanza.

BB: I got a call from Dave (David) Rose and he told me that he had to record a theme that had been composed by the team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. He said that it was a Western and asked me what I thought. I asked him what he wanted and he replied that he’d like something with guitars. I told him that I thought he should use maybe four or five guitars and put them in unison with whatever he wanted to do. We’d just try and fake it when we got there. He said "Great." He wrote his usual arrangement for strings and other parts of the orchestra. There were five guitars. Laurindo (Almeida) was there; Tommy Tedesco, Al Hendrickson, Dennis Budimir and myself. He had just a lead sheet for us. We played it in octaves. He had a nice orchestration behind us, but simple. So we recorded that as the theme song for Bonanza. Then David scored the rest of the show without guitars because he didn’t use guitars as a rule. When the show started to become a hit, I remember having dinner with Dave one night and he said, "Can you imagine that they asked me to write the theme for that show and I turned them down because I told them that I was too busy!" He was doing the Red Skelton Show at the time. But that’s the story of Bonanza.

FP: How about the opening theme to the TV series M.A.S.H.

BB: That’s a long story. Johnny Mandel is really the one who was responsible for that. He scored the original motion picture. When it came time for the TV version, Twentieth Century Fox picked it up. Johnny wrote the theme, orchestrated it, and supplied cues for the first couple of episodes. After that, he gave it to somebody else. But he did write the guitar part that appears at the opening. It was actually written for two guitars in the key of B-minor. One guitar played B and F# and the other guitar played the thirds. As the show became popular, the union law said that you had to re-record the theme every year. So we’d come back in the next year and Lionel (Newman) would say "Let’s add a few more guitars." So now we did the theme with four guitars. And the next year, there would be six guitars! Since there were only two parts originally, you had guys that were adlibbing and strumming along or whatever. As it turned out, the original recording (with two guitars) continued to be used for the entire run of the series. Even though you would come in and do another annual session, the producers could use the original track as long as the guys were paid their union fees. If you ever listen to the theme on M.A.S.H. closely, you’ll notice that there are different versions that they use throughout the series. The editor for that week’s show could choose the particular rendition he wanted to use for that specific show or season. But Johnny Mandel really deserves the credit. After all, who would ever think of starting a TV show with just two guitars playing? Most people would say that it just didn’t have enough sound. But it worked.

FP: And, of course, another television favorite: The Munsters.

BB: Uan Rasey reminded me how much fun we had on that show. The leader was Jack Marshall, a good friend of ours. It was a small band, comparatively speaking for television. There were three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, guitar, bass, drums, piano and two or three woodwinds. There might have been some extra percussion, also. Jack wrote the theme that sounded a little bit like "spooky" music we always thought. He put the electric guitar as the lead because electric guitar was very popular then. Les Paul was very popular at that time, too. The producers wanted that sound. He would write these cues that were so short sometimes. Jack would give you a downbeat and almost have to cut you off immediately because it might have been a six-second or less bit. But the fun thing about it was that the people who were filming The Munsters on one stage (which was only about a block away) would come over when they heard there was going to be a scoring session. Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster would come by in full "Frankenstein" make-up and Al Lewis (who played Grandpa) was always there. He loved it and just liked to sit around and listen to the music. Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster) didn’t show up too much. The male characters did, even Butch Patrick who played their little boy, Eddie. Jack Marshall was so funny. It was like one big three-hour laugh session. When you had the likes of trombonist Frank Rosolino along with trumpeters Uan Rasey and Jack Sheldon, and Shelly Manne on drums, it was great. The music was funny to begin with, and then to see all of the shenanigans that went on in the show (like smoke coming out of Herman’s ears) was a lot of fun. It didn’t pay a lot, but you did it because it was with Jack Marshall and there was always a lot of laughs. That was forty years ago. The thing that amazes me today is that young guitar players will come up to me when they hear I did The Munsters. They could care less about the rest of the stuff! They say, "Hey, are you the guy that played on The Munsters?" To them, that’s more important than playing for Sinatra or anybody else.

FP: Let’s segue here and talk about your many years playing for a man named Henry Mancini. Didn’t it all start with a TV program called Peter Gunn?

BB: Yes, I played the guitar part on Peter Gunn. I first met Hank Mancini when he was an orchestrator at Universal Pictures. He had originally come out to the West Coast with the Tex Beneke Band when he got a job on staff at Universal with a weekly salary. He orchestrated The Glenn Miller Story. That sort of opened the door for him. Then they gave him another picture called Rock Pretty Baby with John Saxon. It was a typical beach rock and roll picture. And then Dominic Frontiere and I did an album with him featuring accordion and guitar for Liberty Records. The next thing you knew, he had Peter Gunn come up. He was a friend of Blake Edwards who told him to write a theme and "we’ll see what happens." It was a pilot show that caught on and that was the beginning. Then Hank did everything that Blake ever produced including Breakfast At Tiffany’s with "Moon River." So I got to know Hank and his family very well. We became very close friends. I worked with him on just about everything he did for about the next twenty or thirty years. The reason that I stopped working with him more recently was because he was doing a lot of concerts on the road. Because I was doing The Tonight Show, I couldn’t get out of Burbank! The wonderful thing about working with Hank is that he did so many great pictures with so many great melodies. There was Days Of Wine And Roses and Soldier In The Rain. The song "Dreamsville" (from the original Peter Gunn soundtrack album) was originally just "thrown in" to fill up the record. Later on, Sammy Cahn wrote a lyric for it. I think it’s one of the most beautiful tunes that Hank ever wrote. Over the years, I can say that as many pictures as Hank did, the one that ended up being the most popular was The Pink Panther series. In the original picture, it started out with guitar and vibes doing fifths. The vibe player was Emil Richards and I did the guitar part. Compared to the "George Shearing" style, this was more of a low-end sound. Plas Johnson played the tenor sax melody. To honor what would have been Hank’s 80th birthday, they re-recorded The Pink Panther using a big orchestra and Plas, once again, played the main melody. I didn’t get to do that album because, I believe, they wanted all "younger" players for that session.

FP: A lot of people might not realize that when watching a movie and seeing their favorite star sing while strumming along on guitar, that you are actually the one providing the guitar track. I seem to remember the late Natalie Wood (with guitar) singing a beautiful ballad called "The Sweetheart Tree" in the Blake Edward’s comedy The Great Race. How did that work?

BB: That was, of course, pre-recorded with Natalie. In Breakfast At Tiffany’s there was kind of an interesting thing. You had a big orchestra scoring the picture at Paramount and then, when the date was over the contractor (Phil Coggin) came over and said "Bobby, you stay." The whole orchestra left and I’m sitting around. Hank said "Why don’t you go over to Nick’s. We won’t need you for another half hour. All you’ll need is your gut string (guitar)." I figured that they wanted me to play a little background music or something. When I came back, Audrey Hepburn was in the studio. The studio had been darkened and the only people there were the engineer in the booth, the producer (Blake Edwards), Hank, and an assistant in the booth to run the tape machine. They had told everybody else to essentially get lost. Audrey did not want to sing with a big orchestra. She wanted to record "Moon River" with just guitar and voice. She was so nice and very easy to accompany. She was really a good singer, too. She sang for My Fair Lady and was pretty good. There are some outtakes of her singing all of those tunes. She made one take and we went in the booth to listen to it. Hank asked her if she thought she could do it one more time and she agreed. We did a second take and that was it. Then Hank took that track (with just guitar and voice) and overdubbed strings. In the picture, the first sixteen bars has Audrey in a window or a doorway singing "Moon River" with just guitar and then the orchestra sneaks in. It ended up with this really nice orchestration.

FP: I’ve always wondered whether or not Henry Mancini did the majority of his own orchestrations, or did he have some ghost arrangers?

BB: No, Hank orchestrated almost everything. He was very particular about that. The only time I ever knew Hank to give some stuff out was much later when he asked Jack Hayes to help arrange some of his concert pieces. But in the beginning, Hank did everything himself.

FP: Bob, out of all of the film and television composers that you’ve worked with over the years, do you have a favorite?

BB: I’d have to say Billy May. He was a great kick to work with. The music was good and he was funny. I’ve also enjoyed working with Nelson Riddle and Frank Comstock. One of my heroes was Victor Young. I didn’t know Victor at all, but I certainly knew his music. It’s hard to believe that he wrote "Sweet Sue." I was working with Andre Previn when he had a trio. We had a guest shot on The Carnation Hour. Victor conducted the orchestra on the show and the singer was Buddy Clark. We did some Nat King Cole trio-type stuff worked out in thirds for guitar and piano. It was hard because Andre liked to play fast tempos. We played the guest spot. When it was over, I packed up my guitar and was getting ready to leave. Victor’s brother-in-law, Henry Hill (who served as orchestra contractor on the show), came over to me and asked if I’d be interested in working for Victor. I said sure. He told me that Victor had a call at Paramount the following week and would like me to do it. That was my first job with him, and we continued to work together for years after that. Phil Sobel, Henry Hill and I (along with Victor) would go over to Victor’s house after a date and would play Casino. His wife would serve us tea. She didn’t speak English.

FP: One of my all-time favorite Victor Young scores was his last to Around The World In 80 Days. Were you involved with that?

BB: I worked on that quite a bit. There was a lot of recording on that because there was so much music in the picture to start with. It was almost wall-to-wall music. There were a lot of scenes in the Orient (or wherever they were) and Victor said to me "I don’t want to bother getting any authentic samisen players in here. Can you make your banjo sound like a samisen?" We all knew how to do that by putting a mute on the bridge of the instrument and muffling it. It had sort of a "twangy" sound to it and you could bend the strings a bit. There’s a lot of music in that picture that sounds like it was done with a Japanese instrument, but it’s actually a banjo that’s being muffled! But, of course, there was a lot of guitar music in there, as well. He hired several authentic Flamenco guitar players for the Spanish scenes. I didn’t do that. But I did a lot of work on that picture.

FP: Do you remember who the arrangers were on that film?

BB: Sure. Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes were involved, and even Leo Arnaud did some things. There was so much music to be scored. Victor was so busy conducting. We recorded it all at Todd-AO. It took six weeks, at least.

FP: Bob, you’ve worked with so many of the great vocalists in the business including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. Tell us what it was like working with such musical legends.

BB: You get a call from a music contractor. They’d tell you that there was a date with Nelson Riddle at 8:00 at Capitol. When you walked in, it could be Peggy or Frank or Keely Smith. It could be anybody. Sometimes they would tell you in advance. For example, on the Sinatra album Songs For Swinging Lovers, they tried to keep the band the same so they’d tell you that you have three sessions in a row and they’d like you to do all of them. Every once in a while I’d show up for a session at Capitol and it would be with Nat. His regular guitar player might be playing with the trio in Chicago. Capitol would fly Nat out to do a couple of recording dates, but they wouldn’t bring the trio with him. So they’d add a guitar and another bass player.

FP: Tell us about the famous guitar opening to Nat Cole’s hit Mona Lisa.

BB: Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation about how that happened. The truth is that Nelson Riddle and I were pretty good friends. This was a long time ago when his kids were pretty small. I was over at his house and I always brought my guitar along because his daughter, Cecily, liked to sing and I’d provide the accompaniment. He told me that he was writing the arrangement on this tune and asked me what I thought. I looked at it and he asked "How does that lay for guitar?" Well, the original lead sheet (which was composed by Livingston an Evans) had that beautiful melody line and I said "That lays perfectly in thirds for the guitar." He then asked to hear it and I played it for him. It was almost as if a guitar player had written it out originally. He said, "Great," but nothing else. The next thing that I knew was that it became a hit record. Nelson had written the arrangement and Irving Ashby played the guitar part because he was the guitar player in Nat’s trio. Later on, Irving and I talked about it. He said, "When I first looked at the score, I thought that this Nelson Riddle really knows how to write for guitar. But then, I looked at the original lead sheet and realized that it was written that way to begin with." But Irving did play the opening guitar solo on Mona Lisa. He was a great guitarist and joined Nat after Oscar Moore left the trio to go with his brother’s group, The Spirits Of Rhythm, if I recall. And then John Collins took Irving’s place and that lasted to the end of the trio.

FP: Do you have a favorite singer that you’ve worked with?

BB: I’d have to say Nat Cole for a male singer. His phrasing and sound were wonderful. He was a great guy to work with in the studio. Nat would never play piano after he became a stand-up singer. He always wanted keyboard artist Buddy Cole to be there on the recording dates with him because he admired Buddy’s playing so much. Nat really knew how to read music. Ever so often if he wasn’t sure how a tune should go, he’d walk over to the piano and sit down next to Buddy and ask him to play the part in question in single notes. He also had a small rhythm section around him. He’d listen and say, "OK. I’ve got it," and would walk back to the recording mic. He was such a beautiful and wonderful guy and was such a swinging piano player with his trio. In fact, I think he was one of the best jazz pianists I’ve ever heard. Capitol A&R man Dave Cavanagh was quoted as saying, "There are three different sexes. Men, women and girl singers." My favorite "girl singer" or female vocalist would have to be Peggy Lee. We did the album Guitars A La Lee together. I especially enjoyed Billy May’s arrangement of "Call Me" on that record. Peggy put so much expression into the lyric and picked such great material. She also appreciated all the players at the session. In fact, her first husband, Dave Barbour, was a fine guitar player himself. I also loved the way that Linda Ronstadt sang on the first album that Nelson Riddle did with her doing all of those standards. I’ve worked with so many great girl singers. As I think about it, I guess I’d have to say it would be a tie between Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney. Rosie was a complete gas to work with and was so sharp. She could pick up a tune so fast and had a great ear. I actually did her television series, The Rosemary Clooney Show. And it goes without saying, Doris Day also ranks right up there with my two favorites. I think one of the nicest records I ever heard was a Doris Day’s version of "Remind Me" with just piano accompaniment. Betty Bennett also did a beautiful rendition with Andre Previn and his orchestra.

FP: You did an album with violinist Herman Clebanoff on Mercury Records. It was done with a full orchestra and contained a number of standards and Latin pieces done in a true "bossa nova" style. How did that association come about?

BB: There was a fellow named Wayne Robinson who was a great arranger and did a lot for Wayne King and also did a number of string arrangements for Herman Clebanoff (who was a violinist from Chicago). Robinson wanted to do a Latin album featuring the Clebanoff Strings and it was also going to have a lot of guitar in it. The pianist Caesar Giovannini was also a part of it. Their idea was to feature the Latin/bossa guitar sound (that was so popular at the time) with a full string orchestra. That was back in the mid 1960’s.

FP: I’m going to mention a few of your contemporaries in the guitar world and ask you comment on each. Let’s start with Charlie Byrd.

BB: A great player and innovator. He was really responsible for getting Stan Getz to go down to Brazil and record with Joao and Astrud Gilberto. He had that marvelous rough technique that I loved. He played everything with his fingers using a gut string guitar. It was hard to believe that Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd (playing the rhythm) could create this great swinging sound. But they did, and Charlie was just an amazing player. I really think that he was responsible for making the Bossa Nova popular and bringing Antonio Carlos Jobim’s music to the U.S.

FP: Laurindo Almeida.

BB: A very close friend. I met him while doing a television show. There were just two guitars. I got to know his family, as well. They lived out here in the San Fernando Valley. He taught me so much. Even though Charlie Byrd was responsible for bringing the Bossa Nova to the public eye, Laurindo (who was originally from Brazil) was playing the Bossa Nova long before it became so popular here in the states. The first job he got here was with Stan Kenton’s band; but he really didn’t have the chance to play a lot there. When I met him, he showed me the basic Bossa Nova beat. He was a marvelous technician.

FP: Chet Atkins.

BB: I didn’t know Chet that well, but he was quite a gentleman. He would play as a soloist every once in a while on The Tonight Show. He and I would talk and then I’d get a letter from him saying "it was so nice seeing you again." He was one of the original "finger pickers" that really got his own style going. It’s a distinct Chet Atkins style. He was also a student of classical guitar. He could play almost all of the things that Segovia had transcribed. He was quite serious about that. He made his money and became a legend in Nashville as a producer because he had such a great ear for talent.

FP: Tony Mottola.

BB: Tony, a lovely man. He was on the east coast. I didn’t work a lot with him. I did meet him a few times, though. One time he came out to California to work with Frank Sinatra as an opening act. They were doing a TV show and he called me and said "I left my L-5 in New York. Can I borrow yours?" I was doing The Tonight Show at NBC and he was in the studio right next to us. I brought my L-5 down and I’ll never forget what happened. Tony picked it up and played it and then said "Change the strings the next time you play this."

FP: That brings up an interesting point. When you’re called in to a recording session, do you naturally bring a variety of guitars with you?

BB: You have to. In the olden days (when one would be working everyday), the trunk of your car would be filled with a banjo, an electric guitar, a rhythm guitar (like the L-5), an acoustic guitar, and a twelve-string. You might also have thrown in a mandolin, but you would have hardly used it! I remember walking in the studio for a Doris Day date and looking at the chart. It called for a mandolin. Al Hendrickson and I were together for that session which was the recording of Doris’ "Que Sera Sera." As you recall, that had a lot of mandolin in it! Later on, the studios began to pay cartage like they did for drummers and harpists. So you had a big trunk made that could hold a dozen instruments in it, an extra amp, and all kinds of pedals and other special effects.

FP: Can you single out a particular guitarist that you would consider as being your personal hero or inspiration?

BB: No doubt about it. It was Django Reinhardt. I listened to his records when I was a kid and I couldn’t believe how meticulously he played and with such great ideas. This was back in 1934-35. He played out of the Hot Club in France. Another great influence on me was Les Paul. I know Les and feel that he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for what he has done for guitar players. Electronically, he’s a genius with his innovations with multi-track tape machines. There’s an interesting story. Les was doing a show with Bing Crosby, a fifteen-minute radio show. It was a daily show with the Les Paul Trio. Bing owned a great deal of Ampex stock. Les asked him why Ampex couldn’t come up with a two-track machine so that when he overdubbed, he could put two tracks on one tape (instead of going from one machine to another). Bing took the idea to Ampex and, by gosh, they came out with a two-track machine! And then Les said, "If you can do it with two tracks, why not four?" It took off from there. And, of course, Charlie Christian is an influence on anybody who plays electric guitar. You can’t help but be amazed by all of his ideas and the sound that he had.

FP: One last item, Bob. Do you have a word or two that you’d like to say to our friend Robert Farnon?

BB: Yes, I certainly do. I have never met you, Mr. Farnon, but I have played your arrangements while working with Pia Zadora for six nights in the theater. They played nothing but your arrangements. I enjoyed them so much. I have many of your albums. In fact, the first one I got was From The Emerald Isle. I still have it and it’s one of my favorites.

FP: Bob, thank you for talking with us and for really giving several generations so many fine performances through your work on recordings, television, films and concerts.

BB: It’s been a pleasure.

This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ December 2005

Submit to Facebook

Readers will recall that Robert Farnon has dedicated his final work – the Bassoon Concerto "Romancing the Phoenix" - to Daniel Smith, the eminent American virtuoso on the instrument. Recently Daniel gave this exclusive interview to ‘Journal Into Melody’, in which he talked about his career and meeting Robert Farnon.

Daniel Smith

interviewed by David Ades

DAVID: Daniel, let's start with how your career in music began.

DANIEL: I grew up in a family where there was not any musical background. The reason for my taking up music makes for a rather funny story. I grew up in the Bronx, and when I was sixteen years old, happened to see a show on TV which reunited the original Benny Goodman trio in a New Year's eve special. Seeing Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson was a magical moment which changed my life forever. I knew absolutely nothing about music or instruments and watching them perform left me staring at the screen with these amazing sounds coming from them, and especially Benny Goodman.

Shortly after seeing this show, I l went to a music studio where my cousin was studying drums and told the owner that I wanted to take trumpet lessons. He asked me why I wanted to play the trumpet and I told him that I had seen someone on TV play the trumpet and that I really liked the sound of it. 'What was this person's name' he asked me? 'Benny Goodman' I said. ' And what did his trumpet look like' he further inquired? I said it was long and black. He then of course told me that it was a clarinet. That's how naive I was! So it was actually Benny Goodman who inspired me to want to be a musician.

Prior to this I was studying to be an artist and went to a special Arts High School in Manhattan as well as the Arts Student's League. I had always had this artistic bent in me since I was a small child. No one in my immediate family or any of my relatives had such a trait, so I guess it just came sort of out of nowhere. As the saying goes, 'I did not choose it, it chose me'.

My first lessons were on the clarinet with a somewhat inept teacher. I then switched to Bill Sheiner, whose teaching fame was that he taught Stan Getz and other famous artists. I then took up the saxophone with him after the clarinet and also added on flute. Eventually I entered the Manhattan School of Music as a clarinet major and midway through, switched to being a flute major and eventually got my degree from them on flute.

DAVID: Where does the bassoon come in?

DANIEL: These were the later years of the Vietnam War and of course I had to do whatever I could to avoid getting caught up in this- or else run to Canada. Being now of draft age, I chose the best way out by signing up to perform with the West Point Band to fulfil my draft obligation. I auditioned for them on flute and was appointed solo piccolo and flute in what is called 'Special Services' and with the rank of SP5 for a three year tour of duty. Meanwhile, my wife had given birth to my daughter while I was in the service and I was nervous about making a living after I returned to civilian life. I thought it would be prudent to learn a double reed instrument to compliment my already proven skills on saxophone, clarinet and flute. This so I could then have the ability to be a 'doubler' and be able to perform in Broadway show bands and studio work. So this is how I got involved with the bassoon and at this point, had nothing to do with the idea of being a bassoon soloist, just to help make a living.

DAVID: So you were always employed as a musician one way or the other?

DANIEL: More or less. My parents had hopes of my being an accountant or a dentist like a cousin of mine. My father especially fought tooth and nail that I should not be a musician and I had absolutely no support or understanding from them. It was very traumatic and a very difficult period in my life, but obviously there was something within me that held firm and somehow held onto my desire to be a musician. I always envied anyone who came from a family where there was understanding and support. Recently, before his death, Robert Farnon told me of the joy he had coming from such a family where music was an important part of everyone's life.
DAVID: It made you all the more determined to become a musician.

DANIEL: Yes, you are correct. My father had worked in the Post Office and I watched the sort of life he had, and by the time of his retirement, he was a very closed person full of fears about life. His advice to me was to never take risks. So I knew instinctively that this was not for me, a safe and secure life where no risks were involved. Music became my calling, and as I said before, I did not chose it, it chose me.

My later background in music is so different from that of a conservatory trained classical bassoonist, although I did study eventually with some of the best players and teachers, including the principal players from the NY Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Boston Symphony and even from Toscannini's NBC symphony. In later years I performed in the bassoon sections as an extra or substitute with the NY Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and several other leading ensembles with some of these very same teachers. However, along the way, I also did many things in music that a strictly classically trained bassoonist would never experience and certainly not which you would associate with someone known as a solo classical or jazz bassoonist. For instance, I played saxophone and flute with Latin bands in New York at clubs where we would be in very dangerous neighbourhoods. These 'gigs' would go to two or three in the morning and I witnessed riots, knife fights, beatings, attempts on my own life, etc... nasty stuff but part and parcel of my musical experiences.

DAVID: There are not many bassoon players around; is this why you took up the instrument as you knew there would be plenty of work?

DANIEL: Yes, exactly and we sort of covered this earlier. But this had nothing to do with my eventually becoming a soloist on the instrument. At first, it was purely pragmatic, to make a living so I could support my family. As the years went by, and for various reasons, it evolved into a strong desire to become a soloist and also to plunge into areas of music where the bassoon had never gone before- crossover, ragtime, popular music, and of course jazz. And along the way to record a lot of musical gems written for the instrument, especially the complete 37 bassoon concertos of Antonio Vivaldi.

DAVID: Tell us of your time on Broadway.

DANIEL: I can answer this in a 'broad way' in fact. I was at one point doing so many different things in music and on so many different instruments, that I would almost say I was going through multiple musical lives. I played in Broadway show bands, off-Broadway show bands, Latin bands, resort show bands (where I played lead alto for big headliners such as Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence, Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Buddy Greco, Carmen Macrae, etc.) ...I was a very good sax player on all the saxes as well as the other woodwinds. I played with such bands as Billy May, Les Elgart, and even one summer with Guy Lombardo where I had to execute that outrageous wide vibrato to fit in with his sax section. Then a Latin band phase where I played with or opposite on the bandstand with the likes of Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Xavier Cugat, Machito and others. A lot of this sort of stuff was overlapping such as where I would perform as principal flute with an orchestra north of New York city, jump into my car, and drive to Manhattan where I would dash into a night club to perform that same night with a Latin band on saxophone.
As my bassoon playing started to improve, I kept on taking lessons with those teachers I referred to earlier and was granted a scholarship to Tanglewood. I also spent four seasons on scholarship with the National Orchestral Association under Leon Barzin. And then started to perform on bassoon and contra-bassoon with a lot of orchestras and ensembles. So as you can see, I wound up for a variety of reasons doing a lot of different things in music, including and excluding the bassoon.
DAVID: So most of your work was in New York in the early days?

DANIEL: Yes, I did not go to California or Hollywood, just around New York. Somewhere along the way, I was starting to get this desire to become a solo bassoonist and started to perform concertos with various orchestras. I also had the good fortune of performing for ten years as principal bassoonist and as soloist many times during summers in Rome, Italy with the Rome Festival Orchestra. And then I started to plunge in with making my early recordings- mostly concertos with string ensembles on a variety of labels. My biggest break then came when on a trip to London with my wife; we were at a friend's home in Richmond where the subject of my recordings and musical career came up. This couple were close friends with Jose Luis Garcia, leader of the English Chamber Orchestra, and they asked me if I would like to record with them. I thought I was dreaming but she was obviously serious. She picked up the phone and rang Garcia. We spoke for a while and he instructed me to send him some of those recordings I had already made so the powers that be at the ECO could hear them and judge if I was up to recording with them. They liked what they heard and before I knew it, I was sitting in a chair at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead with the ECO and recording an album of mixed bassoon concertos. I also at that time made an album of English Music for Bassoon and Piano with Roger Vignoles, so my foot was now in the door with recording in this country.

At the suggestion of the producer of these two albums, Brian Culverhouse, I took the masters to ASV which had recently started up thanks to the leadership of Jack Boyce. I got to know Jack very well and he was keen on my doing further albums for ASV. When I mentioned to him that Antonio Vivaldi had written 37 concertos for bassoon and nobody had ever recorded them all, he said to me 'why don't you do them for us?' I thought he was kidding but he was quite serious about this. It was a huge undertaking, and over a period of six years, half accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra and the other half with the Zagreb Soloists, we eventually completed the entire series which went on to win several awards, including the MRA award as 'Best Concerto of the Year', The Penguin Guide *** rating, and four times on Fanfare magazine's 'Want List'. Along the way there were other albums including crossover music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, music for bassoon and string quartet, others involving ragtime and so forth.
DAVID: How did you become aware of Robert Farnon?

DANIEL: In November of 2004, the phone rang at my flat in London. It was someone by the name of David O'Rourke who was phoning me from New Jersey. David indicated he was glad to have finally located me and asked if I knew who Robert Farnon was. I said I had heard of Robert Farnon and asked why he was phoning me. David told me that there was a network of people trying to hunt me down on both sides of the ocean. Apparently, Robert Farnon wanted to write a concerto for bassoon which involved jazz improvising and my name kept coming up as other bassoonists were approached about this project. He had fallen in love with the sound of the instrument and now knew I could perform both the virtuostic concerto parts as well as improvise where needed in the piece. But he only knew of my first name ...'Daniel' and could not locate me. Eventually through a broad network of people, they found me via my UK manager.
David O'Rourke and I had a wonderful conversation about this project and left me with Robert Farnon's Guernsey phone number. He said that I should phone him and that Robert Farnon would likely be contacting me shortly as well. Within ten minutes the phone rang again and this time it was the voice of Robert Farnon that I now heard. I will never forget his deep booming and friendly voice with his cheerful introduction...' Hello Danny', how are you?'  There was an immediate connection between us and as I later found out, many others had experienced the same sort of thing over the years.

Robert and I had a long conversation that day and went over the concept of the bassoon concerto. In the next weeks, we had many further conversations on the phone and I then flew to Guernsey a few weeks later in December to visit with him and go over the piece, this after having earlier sent him samples of my recordings to listen to. He was full of praise for my playing and was very open about any ideas I might have for the concerto. On his music stand was the first page of the bassoon concerto score.... that was all he had at this point. I asked him how long before the full concerto would be finished and he said that he would have the whole piece ready no later than the beginning March of 2005, just two months later! I arranged with him to fax me the bassoon parts in New York where my wife and I would be from December through February of 2005. Within a very short time, the faxes started to arrive courtesy of his copyist and by mid February, I had the entire solo bassoon part in my hands. I could not believe the speed at which this all happened. I practised and learned the solo part in New York and in February returned to the UK and then flew to Guernsey to actually play it for Robert Farnon. At this point, he was recuperating from a leg operation and receiving therapy at a nursing home in Guernsey. We spent a wonderful day together going over the concerto and sharing lots of laughs and stories. He was so excited about this music and said it was the best thing he ever wrote and that it's premieres would be huge successes. His wish was to be able to conduct it himself, to have the UK premiere at the Proms, to have Andre Previn involved in Oslo, Canadian orchestras involved, and much more. He wanted to devote his energies to having all this accomplished as soon as his Third Symphony was premiered in Edinburgh later that month. And as we all sadly now know, he was not to be alive much longer after that day.

DAVID: Could you describe the work to us?

DANIEL: I will try to some degree. I actually never saw the score until that second trip to Guernsey in February, about a month before he passed on. I had at that time with me the solo bassoon part, but did not understand where everything fitted in or how the piece was constructed. When he showed me the completed score, I knew almost instantly that I was looking at something very special and unusual. Robert told me that all his life he wanted to compose something that had no restraints on it and which would include everything he could muster up from a lifetime of composing and arranging. As with his Third Symphony, his last two pieces including the bassoon concerto were not bound by any commissions, deadlines, financial obligations, or anything else, just to fully express himself as a composer. And as I mentioned before, he told me it was the best piece of music he ever wrote and was very excited about seeing it brought to life.

In the actual score, you can see passages where the bassoon plays the role of a lead saxophone with three bassoons underneath in the scoring, just as in a saxophone section. There is also a lot of percussion used and in many sections, the winds of the symphony act as a sort of wind band within the full orchestra- Farnon described this as ' a big band within a full symphony orchestra'. Naturally there are gorgeous moments in the second and lyrical movement as per what everyone knows of the music of Robert Farnon. And then as we arrive at the third and final movement of the concerto, Robert made full use of some of my suggestions where he pulls out all stops. At one point, the full symphony orchestra and 'big band' fade back and the bassoon opens up with a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums in an up tempo blues (which Farnon composed himself) allowing for unlimited choruses to be played and at the moment of choosing of the soloist, the conductor then brings in the orchestra, starting with percussion first and then adding on instruments. And then after a few more spots which also have improvisation involved, a really startling ending which simply flies all over the place and ends on a bang. It is hard to describe and hopefully we will see all this incredible music brought to life in the near future when everyone can hear what Robert Farnon achieved in his final work.

DAVID: Robert called it 'Romancing the Phoenix'. Do you know why?

DANIEL: Sort of. I asked him but don't remember his exact words. Robert apparently had the concept of the phoenix as an elusive legendary bird that rises up again and again in unexpected ways. I suggested 'Flight of the Phoenix' which he liked even better but after checking this name out on the Internet, he discovered that this title was the same as a recent movie and so he went back to his original title idea. The concerto, without any doubt, is a one of a kind piece, and I am sure that when it is heard, it will have quite an impact in the musical world.

DAVID: So is it with a jazz band and also a symphony orchestra? Roughly how many instruments are involved?

DANIEL: It is with a full symphony orchestra, and once again as Robert Farnon described it, ' a big band within a full symphony orchestra'. When I finally saw the score, I was a bit confused as I thought he meant a big band including a saxophone section, but apparently what he had in mind was a big wind band using the resources of the wind players of the symphony being involved in passages that stand out from the full symphony in various passages.

DAVID: Isn't it costly to stage with so many musicians?

DANIEL: Not really because it involves a symphony orchestra which already has the wind players within it. The only instruments to be added would be a piano, bass and drums for the jazz rhythm section.
DAVID: Have you any idea where the premiere might take place?

DANIEL: At this point we are following up on various possibilities. As already said, Robert's wish was to see it premiered at the Proms and wanted to work towards this goal and other premieres, not knowing of course that his recent illness would become worse. He was so upbeat and so excited about this music and looking to hearing it performed. In any event, I am sure that in the coming months we will know a lot more about premieres. Unfortunately, we will never know what doors he would have opened but there are other people now working on this. I am sure there will be a big demand to have it premiered in various venues and countries.

DAVID: You have the honour of having his very last work.

DANIEL: Yes, he was very generous about it for many reasons, not only that he wrote it for me but that he arranged for it to be printed by Warner/Chappell and with a dedication to ' The American virtuoso Daniel Smith'. He also had the opportunity for one movement to be premiered with the BBC Concert Orchestra but turned it down because they would use their own bassoonist (he would have had to write out any improvised solos of course) and he would not allow this to happen until I did the actual premiere. Which was very kind of him.

When I last met him at the nursing home in Guernsey, and also prior in some phone conversations, Robert had asked me if I could bend notes on the bassoon like the clarinet does at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue. I said I was not sure but would play for him when we next met and show him what I can do. So when we did meet, I told him I had an idea about this query. I played Duke Ellington's ' In A Sentimental Mood' . Several measures into the piece, the melody swoops down to an Ab, which I seriously bent as per Johnny Hodges would have done. 'That's it!' he exclaimed with a big smile on his face. I think he wanted to go back to the piece and incorporate this effect in the music but of course we will never know what he had in mind.

DAVID: Will other bassoon players be able to play this piece do you think, or is it a bit too technical?
DANIEL: Probably not. A highly skilled virtuoso bassoon player could execute the melodic material but would not be able to improvise in those places which require this unusual skill. And for the handful of jazz players on the instrument, I would have serious doubts they could execute the written parts which are quite difficult.

I would like also to bring up the subject of unusual and different music which can be performed on the bassoon and also jazz. Ragtime if executed with the right feeling can sound very natural on the instrument, as does a large amount of 'crossover' material including transcriptions of music normally performed on other instruments as well as orchestral pieces. As for playing jazz on the bassoon.....several years ago, Steve Grey composed a work for me entitled 'Jazz Suite' which I had the honour of performing with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra. The piece contained improvisational spots and which forced me to plunge in and get serious about playing real jazz on the instrument. I was already a virtuoso so to speak but all of my technical skills were of no help whatsoever in learning how to play jazz in a serious way. I had to methodically learn to play extended chords and scales from top to bottom on the instrument and in all keys. This included many scales and chords which do not appear in classical music. And then to place all ideas exactly where the underlying chords are heard and of course to 'hear' musical ideas many measures before you execute them. This took me about four years to accomplish and along the way my arms became very sore and stiff from the effort. But then suddenly the ideas flowed and the soreness stopped... everything just flowed! All the musical ideas made sense and I can now perform a full two hour jazz concert without using any music and with a repertoire of nearly one hundred jazz pieces to pick from including bebop, swing, Latin, blues, ballads, etc.
Finally, the bassoon must be amplified when performing jazz, otherwise it would not be heard above a rhythm section, let along a full symphony orchestra. I have a special microphone attached to my crook/bocal which makes this possible. When Robert Farnon found this out, he was much relieved knowing that his music would be clearly heard above the orchestra in his bassoon concerto. And as for developing a jazz style on the instrument, there are no real role models from the past to learn from such as Armstrong, Gillespie or Davis on trumpet or Parker, Getz or Rollins on saxophone. It is all pioneering stuff and I am very pleased to be involved in such ground breaking efforts and of course with the bassoon concerto of Robert Farnon as a fitting memorial to his memory and talent.

Daniel Smith was speaking to David Ades on Tuesday 24 May, 2005. The Editor thanks Adam Endacott for transcribing the recorded interview for 'Journal Into Melody'.

Daniel Smith through his management would be most pleased to hear from any conductors, festivals or venues interested in being involved in performances of the Robert Farnon bassoon concerto. Contact information concerning his USA and UK managers can be made via his website at    www.danielsmithbassoon.com   

This interview appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005.

Submit to Facebook


talking to PETER EDWARDS

Adam Saunders first came to the attention of RFS members several years ago, when he composed his Comedy Overture which was featured on "Friday Night is Music Night". It was also performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra specially for "Legends of Light Music". Adam now has a flourishing career as a Light Music composer, and he recently spoke to Peter Edwards about his work.

First of all, here are some basic facts about his musical background. Adam was born in Derby and studied at the Royal Academy of Music and London University, winning several prizes for composition. Since leaving he has established a career composing music for the concert hall and for worldwide television, film and other media. In addition to a period as composer-in-association with the East of England Orchestra, Adam has had his works performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Academy of Ancient Music, London Mozart Players, Odense Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Renaissance and the Brighton Festival Chorus amongst others. As well as his work as a composer, arranger and conductor, Adam also regularly performs as a jazz pianist with his own trio and quartet. His concert works include the afore-mentioned Comedy Overture and The Magic Kingdom. Adam is an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.

Peter Edwards began by asking Adam: which composers or arrangers do you admire the most, and why?

Adam Saunders: I have wide-ranging musical tastes and admire composers and arrangers from a wide variety of musical backgrounds. For example, my favourite classical composers include Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Debussy and Ravel who wrote the most colourful and amazingly vibrant works for orchestra. Favourite film composers include the usual suspects – John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri and, of course, from Hollywood’s golden era, Korngold, Newman and Hermann.

However, I also grew up listening to BBC Radio 2 nearly every day and in particular the BBC Radio Orchestra broadcasts (especially the great Tuesday evening Radio Orchestra Show and String Sound on a Saturday night – I must have been a very unusual teenager!). There were also great concerts on a Saturday night with either the Radio Orchestra or the Concert Orchestra. My favourite arrangers and conductors were John Fox (also a fantastic composer and now one of my best friends), Neil Richardson, John Gregory, Roland Shaw, Robert Farnon, Ronnie Aldrich and Stanley Black. I think I learned a huge amount about the sound of the orchestra and the basics of scoring by listening intently to these wonderful broadcasts, which sadly now have disappeared from the air waves.

Peter: What are your favourite films or television programmes? How does this influence your work?

Adam: Again, my tastes are varied. I’m a huge fan of silent movies – in fact, as a child I had an 8mm cine projector and used to put on film shows of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy etc. for local OAP’s clubs and the like where I accompanied the films by improvising on the piano to match the action on-screen, just like in the days of silent cinema. I’m sure this started the ball rolling with my decision to become a composer for film and TV.

I also greatly enjoy fantasy and science fiction films – anything from Star Wars to Indiana Jones, Alien, etc. and it’s no coincidence that these are my favourite kind of film scores to listen to in their own right. I think that if you have exciting visuals and lots of action and magic on screen, the music you write to accompany these scenes is going to be the most imaginative you can compose. I remember hearing an interview with Ron Goodwin saying how much he enjoyed scoring action films for this very reason, and that the worst kind of films to score are where they consist mainly just of people talking in a room!

The wonderful scores from Hollywood’s greatest composers can’t fail to have influenced my development as a composer (especially when writing library music), just as the current top Hollywood writers were influenced by the best of their predecessors. Everyone grows up listening to something - the important thing is to absorb these influences and go on to develop your own style.

Peter: What are the main differences between writing library music and writing concert music?

Adam: With library projects, you’re writing a CD of music to fit a particular purpose. Examples of this could be fantasy music, historical/ period dramas, news and current affairs, comedy/ cartoons, music for sports programmes etc. The CDs are distributed to production houses around the world for television, film and radio producers to use in the soundtracks to their productions. Obviously, listening to a library CD from beginning to end might not be a great experience for a lot of people, no matter how good the music is. Listening to 70 minutes of non-stop horror or slapstick music – including all the 60 and 30 second versions and short "stings" that are required by the publishers doesn’t include a lot of variety for a casual listener! However, these recordings have become essential in the world of TV, radio, film and advertising. Also, writing library music is a fantastic way for a composer to make a very good living from writing music – although it’s to be recommended to write other music as well.

Of course, when writing concert music you don’t have the same constraints on what you write. In the case of a commission you probably have a brief to write a particular type of work (an overture, a work for chorus and orchestra, a piece for strings etc) but then it’s up to you to decide what you want to write. You can be true to yourself as a writer and write in your "own voice" rather than having to write in a particular style or mood. In the case of writing for a classical recording, where you may be compiling a CD of your works, it is important to have a balanced programme with plenty of variety to keep the listener interested.

Peter: Why do you think there is so little encouragement for composers who write tuneful music for music's sake?

Adam: We live in a different world now to the days of, for example, the BBC Light Music Festivals etc. and gone are the days of the BBC commissions to light music composers to create new works for the many broadcasts that existed of this kind of music. However, the picture in the classical world isn’t as bleak as it was a few decades ago when anything "tuneful" would be looked down on by the ivory-tower "squeaky gate" brigade. Indeed, the "avant garde" movement of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is now almost a cliché in itself and there’s nothing new anyone could write to "shock" or alienate audiences that hasn’t been done before many times. Modern "classical" music is much more audience-friendly with many composers writing music people enjoy hearing, without being old fashioned. There’s a lot more freedom than there used to be for composers. After graduating from the Royal Academy, I soon became Composer-in-Association with the East of England Orchestra for several years. A post like this would have definitely gone to another kind of composer a few decades ago.

Peter: How do you see the world of light music progressing in years to come?

Adam: Well, there’s always going to be a place for orchestral music that’s enjoyable to listen to, whether on CD or in the concert Hall, and although quite limited in their playlists, Classic FM and the like have done a lot for the popular classical market. However, it seems that, as far the tastes of the general public are concerned, those that do listen to orchestral music tend to look upon writers like Howard Shore and John Williams as the new popular composers of our time with film soundtrack albums dominating the "classical" record charts.

Although this isn’t written as "music for music’s sake", there’s no doubting that writers like this are immensely talented and it’s good exposure for new orchestral music, no matter what it’s written for. Indeed, I think it’s great if young people start to listen to orchestral music of any kind, and I’m sure that those who start off by listening to soundtracks may well start to experiment and listen to other kinds of music. It’s also great that orchestral music isn’t seen as something that was only written in the past. Film composers especially now have a bigger public image than they have had for a long time.

Producer Philip Lane has been a fantastic force in bringing new recordings of light music to the fore, and with his policy of mixing older repertoire with new and unfamiliar works he’s created a new life for light music in the recording studio, and with the subsequent broadcasts of these discs, a gradual increasing in public awareness. Brian Kay’s Light Programme on Radio 3 is wonderful, but there really should be more than one hour a week allocated to light music. It’s almost bizarre that what was once the most popular and commercial music on the airwaves (and actually not that long ago), is now seen by the BBC as a "peculiar" minority interest.

The pioneering series of recordings produced by Ernest Tomlinson for Marco Polo must also be recognised as hugely important in the re-awakening of this market, and with wonderful people like Gavin Sutherland and the players of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, we are now in a situation that would never have been imagined a few years ago, where we have an abundance of new digital recordings of light music. Surely it would be a great idea for the BBC to give somebody like Gavin an hour-long weekly programme on Radio 3, maybe with the BBC Concert Orchestra, where he could broadcast light music from all eras. If we can have regular broadcasts of early music or mainstream "serious" contemporary music (both minority interests), it’s time to do the same for light music.



ASV: British Light Overtures 3 CDWHL 2140
Dutton Epoch: British Light Music Premieres Vol.1 CDLX 7147
Chappell: Fantasy and Adventure CHAP 272
Chappell: Elizabethan and Baroque Drama CHAP 292
Chappell: Light and Shade CHAP 303
Chappell: Pure Piano CHAP 309
Bruton: Cinematic Trailers BRJ 54
Bruton: Movie Mania 2 BIGS 010
Bruton: Political Path BR 429
Bruton: Living and Breathing BR 426
Bruton: Game Zone BR 435
Bruton: Widescreen Drama BR441
Amphonic: Soprano Sax AVF 130
Amphonic: Neo-Classical AVF 139
Amphonic: Klub Kulture AVF 143
Amphonic: Beat Nation AVF 145
Amphonic: Film Styles II AVF 146
Amphonic: Christmas AVF 147
Amphonic: Adrenalin Zone AVF 149
Amphonic: Symphonica Electronica AVF 151
Amphonic: Contemporary Jingles AVF 155
Amphonic: Classical Fusion AVF 158
Amphonic: Retro Remix AVF 163
Amphonic: Broadcast Themes AVF 168
Amphonic: Comic Capers AVF 170
Focus: Byte-Sized FCD 171
Focus: Fast and Furious FCD 178
Focus: Sound Design and Music Beds 1 FCD 181
Focus: Sound Design and Music Beds 2 FCD 182
Focus: Lifestyle and Reality TV FCD 199
Focus: Promos and Commercials FCD 202
Extreme: Passport to Cuba XPS005


Silva Screen: The Fantasy AlbumFILMXCD360
Primetime: John Williams 40 years of Film Music TVPMCD810
RPO Records: Filmharmonic RPO 015CD
Chappell: Pop Hits CHAP AV150
Chappell: Ambient Grooves and Dub 2 CHAP AV157
Chappell: French Electronic Beats CHAP AV169

Albums of Adam Saunders compositions to be released shortly:

Bruton: Epic Choir and Orchestra
Focus: Lounge Jaz

Editor: this article (reprinted from our September 2005 magazine) is based on a feature which recently appeared in the Newsletter of The Light Music Society. We are grateful to Adam Saunders, Peter Edwards and the LMS for kindly allowing us to adapt it for ‘Journal Into Melody’.

Submit to Facebook

Robert Farnon’s Inspired Contributions to Big Bands and Jazz


Robert Farnon was a genius in the world of music, and his career would have prospered in any field of music he chose. All members of this Society know every facet of his illustrious work in the category of light and classical music but his jazz output mostly took a back seat.

Jazz always has been a minority realm: every devotee has their own definition of what comprises jazz. Some argue that whoever is playing should improvise each session and written jazz has no place! Others take the view that arranging jazz is just as credible because the writer is improvising as he writes. Further arguments start between the Traditionalists, Mainstreams and Modernists, each saying theirs is the only true genre.

Bob grew up with fellow countrymen Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Dizzy is quoted as saying if Bob had kept on playing trumpet he would have been a serious rival. Bob kept his jazz for special occasions, sometimes inserting Big Band tracks into his orchestral albums, film soundtracks or when backing singers. Bob won many awards but the one he was proudest of was the ‘Grammy’ earned for his arrangement of Lament on J.J. Johnson's "Tangence" album.

There was always a long list of Jazzmen lining up for Bob's input but for various reasons not many of them reached fruition. I sent a sample of Herbie Hancock’s compositions to Bob when Herbie approached Bob about working together. I suspect Herbie was familiar with Bob's work (especially "Porgy and Bess") because he later recorded "Gershwin’s World" - more than likely a project he wanted Bob involved in. Bob thanked me for the suggestions but said their two managements could not agree terms. If it had got off the ground I am sure another ‘Grammy’ would have resulted.

Vic Lewis promoted a concert starring Dizzy Gillespie, and requested Bob as conductor. Only one of Bob's arrangements was used - Con Alma; unfortunately it never made it to CD. I was slightly consoled when Johnny Dankworth used Bob's chart for Dizzy's CD "The Symphony Sessions" using the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Another track on the CD was Lorraine - Dizzy's composition dedicated to his wife. Bob also had Lorraine in mind when he wrote Portrait of Lorraine. It had its first outing in the Chappell Recorded Music Library but in 1975 Bob conducted the German NDR Big Band expanding the piece into a Jazz vehicle. Two other titles Bob used on the session were Almost a lullaby and Lamasery Chant, the latter pulled from Bob's "Road to Hong Kong" score.

Bob wrote The Pleasure of Your Company for Oscar Peterson and it was performed on British TV in 1969. The writing was perhaps the most liberated that Bob ever put to paper, a constantly inventive study in rhythm, obviously enjoyed by Oscar at his peak.

Tony Coe's recording "Pop Makes Progress" (a Chapter One LP) arranged by Bob kicks off with a fine Big Band chart There will never be and continues with another eight popular tunes of the day. Bob's arrangements make the album because, for me, Tony's tone jars. It only works on Bob's own composition Blue Theme.

Some of Bob's best Big Band charts were written for the Tony Bennett albums "With Love" and "The Good Things in Life" (hopefully they will be out one day on CD!). Bob's one recording with Sinatra (now a collectors’ item!) mainly concentrated on his string writing. Examples of arrangements Bob might have used on a ‘swinging’ follow-up are contained on his instrumental tributes to both Bennett and Sinatra.

George Shearing and Bob arranging was another match made in heaven. "On Target" and "How Beautiful is Night" impeccably show the lighter side of Jazz.

Bob made a jazz version of one of his most popular compositions Portrait of a flirt for the BBC Radio Orchestra which probably raised the hackles of purists (Bob always liked a challenge!).

"Showcase for soloists" featured Bobby Lamb, Don Lusher, Frank Reidy, Dennis Wilson, Roy Willox, David Snell, Kenny Baker and Stan Roderick. Stan used to live near to me and I persuaded him to come to one of our meetings. He cried off of a second visit when hearing that Bob was attending. I never discovered if it was in awe of sitting next to Bob or a more personal reason! I do know Bob used Stan on most of his sessions until Stan lost his lip and enjoyed too many sherbet dabs! "Showcase" gave all the players charts they could really get their teeth in to. They were the cream of session men and revelled in the beauty of sounds created.

The first Farnon chart that impressed me with its jazz leaning was In the blue of evening from the "Presenting Robert Farnon" LP – now on a Vocalion CD. Frank Reidy was the soloist and I played it incessantly - still the bees knees!

Trombonist J.J. Johnson stated that Bob had been one of his heroes for as long as he could remember. "He orchestrates with the meticulous precision of a fine Swiss watchmaker". Many years before recording "Tangence" J.J. had heard Bob's masterful score for "Captain Horatio Hornblower". One piece in particular really blew him away - the majestic, lush, elegant tone poem Lady Babara's theme.

The CD "Tangence" explored Bob's jazz credentials perhaps more than any other recording, hatching ideas by the nanosecond, collating songs old and new. The opening track written by Benny Carter People time grabs your attention from the first notes; working Only the lonely into Dinner for one, please, James is another example of Bob's talent for surprising and delighting any listener. Sadly this inspired partnership only got together for one other CD, "The Brass Orchestra", where Bob arranged Wild is the wind for JJ.’s muted trombone; the writing is moody - almost funeral - but still offering a new way of thinking jazz orchestrally.

Bob could take compositions written by others and make them his own. Always one step ahead of his compatriots, Bob knew instinctively whether to construct backings with soaring or subdued strings, oomphy brass and woodwind voicing to suit the artist singing or soloing. Bob's comprehensive mastery whether arranging or composing will never be bettered, and I find it very hard to believe we will ever again be blessed with such a talent. The world of music will never be the same deprived of that special man, Robert Joseph Farnon.

This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005.

Submit to Facebook


It is difficult to think of a time when the music of Robert Farnon was not a part of my life. As an aspiring teenage violinist in Britain, I had the good fortune to mature with the opportunity to listen to Robert’s music emanating from so many sources in an environment and time that were conducive to the performance of live music.

Radio gave us his great arrangements with the big dance bands of Ted Heath, Ambrose, and Geraldo; the series "Melody Hour," which began in 1946; and Robert’s BBC programme "Journey into Melody." from 1950 The many LP albums and CDs with Robert’s musical arrangements, and his collaboration with such illuminaries as Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Eileen Farrell, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, George Shearing, Joe Williams, and Dizzie Gillespie are testament to his versatility and great abilities as are the fine recordings with the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra. For television, we need only mention the stirring concert march, Colditz, written in 1972 that was the theme for the BBC TV series, "Colditz,’ and the main title for "Secret Army.’ Melody Fair that was often used to introduce Robert’s television shows. Other TV series included "The Prisoner" 1967, and "The Champions" 1969. The opportunity to compose music for films was, I believe, the main factor that persuaded Robert to stay in the United Kingdom at the conclusion of World War II. A good decision when one realizes that he eventually penned the scores for over forty films including such memorable movies as "Spring in ParkLane" [1948], "Maytime in Mayfair" [1949], and "Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N." [1951].

Having been surrounded with such music in my formative years, it is only natural that Robert’s fine writings have resonated with me ever since. I readily understand why such notable composers such as André Previn, John Williams, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones and many others have publicly acknowledged their musical indebtedness to the influences of Robert’s creative scores. During the late 1940’s through 1958, I would personally play the music of Robert Farnon as an instrumentalist in many ensembles including Her Majesty’s Armed Forced Bands; the BBC, and ITV [Wales] Orchestras. The reality that I would subsequently reside in Canada with the opportunity to conduct his music in North America and, furthermore, be favoured to regard Robert as a very dear friend, seems almost beyond belief.

The pleasure of working in Canada with many of Robert’s former musical players and colleagues such as violinists Frank Fusco, Samuel Hersenhoren, Berul Sugarman, and Albert Pratz, allowed me to share their admiration not only of Robert’s immense and versatile musical abilities but also of his personal warmth, his humour, and his friendship.

With the invaluable help of my good friend and neighbour, vibraphonist, Peter Appleyard, a plan was formulated to produce a concert that would give Robert’s musical colleagues, friends, and the Canadian general public an opportunity to pay tribute and to hear some of his masterworks. The Board of the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, Ontario, Canada, readily gave their approval, and arrangements were made by the Symphony to bring Robert to Canada to be a vital part of this well-deserved tribute to him. On Sunday, May 4, 1997, the seventy-eight piece ensemble with Jascha Milkis , concertmaster, and myself as conductor, presented our personal musical tribute to Robert at the Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts at Brantford, Ontario. Compè re and host was Peter Appleyard, O.C.

The programme for this memorable occasion, entitled ‘The Genius of Robert Farnon,’ consisted entirely of Robert’s compositions and arrangements : Colditz March; Shenandoah; Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra with Canadian Joseph Macerollo, accordion; How Beautiful is Night; "Manhattan Playboy," No. 3 of Three Impressions for Orchestra; À la claire Fontaine; Melody Fair; Gateway to the West; Farrago for Brass Quintet and Orchestra; Intermezzo for Harp and Strings with Julia Shaw, harp; The Very Thought of You with vocalist Carol Welsman, conducted by Skitch Henderson; and Twilight World with Peter Appleyard, vibraphone; Show Boat Selection; and Farnon Fantasy.

The concert was an unqualified success: a packed house in the 1200 seat Sanderson Performing Arts Centre; repeated standing ovations; and demands for, and receiving encores including State Occasion. Each time that Robert was brought on stage, there was an instantaneous outburst of applause from the capacity audience Among those in attendance were Robert’s son, Brian, from Calgary, Alberta; John Parry of Parry Music Inc., Florida; and Skitch Henderson, Music Director of the New York ‘Pops’ Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York. Regrettably, Oscar Peterson was unable to perform because of illness. Countless greetings were received—telephone calls, letters, facsimiles, telegrams—including greetings from André Previn, Oscar Peterson, George and Ellie Shearing, Marian McPartland and others. All present were invited to a reception backstage to meet Robert, special guests, national and civic dignitaries, and Orchestral and Board Members. In one of his communications to me, Robert stated: "It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I was flabbergasted by the accolades that I received."

It is widely acknowledged that Canadian-born Robert Farnon is the greatest composer of light orchestral music in the world. Often overlooked, however, are the symphonic influences that are in evidence in such orchestral settings as À la claire Fontaine that Robert conducted and recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the Suite, Canadian Impressions, the Concert March, Colditz, the Suite, Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.; and Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra.

Robert Farnon manifested a great love for his native country, Canada. Many of the Canadian public are familiar with Robert’s trumpet playing with the Toronto-based dance bands of the 1930’s; his trumpet playing [1937 though 1943] with the well-loved radio programme, "The Happy Gang" - which began as a Summer replacement show in 1937 and ran for twenty-two years - his work as Conductor of the Canadian Percy Faith Orchestra; his 1961 CBC TV programme, "Music Makers"; the 1969 television special, "The Music of Robert Farnon"; the 1969 concert with Vera Lynn at the Maple Leaf Gardens at Toronto; and the Christmas concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1984. In addition, Robert also served as Conductor of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.

It is doubtful, however, if many of the Canadian public are conversant of the tremendous influence that Canada had upon Robert’s creative writings. Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra was written for the Canadian harmonica virtuoso, Tommy Reilly; Pleasure of Your Company was written for Oscar Peterson; Saxophone Triparti was commissioned by the British Musicians’ Union and premiered by the Canadian saxophonist, Robert Burns; Gateway to the West, and Alcan Highway were influenced by Canadian locations; Shenandoah, written in 1959 for an album associated with melodies of the American West, depicts the arrival of a sailing ship at an East Coast port prior to its long journey Westward, while Lake of the Woods reflects a remote lake in Northern Ontario; À la claire Fontaine based on a French Canadian folk song, was recorded by Decca in 1955 as a compilation of Robert’s works entitled "Canadian Impressions"; Farrago for Brass Quintet and Orchestra was commissioned by the Canadian Brass; while Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra was recorded by Canadian violinist, Steven Staryk (now available again on Vocalion CDLK4146); and Scherzando for Trumpet and Orchestra was recorded by the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra.

As a celebrated Member of Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada, and the Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Canada, it was almost axiomatic that Robert should be honoured by the Guild of Canadian Film Composers at Toronto on October 24, 1997; and by the Society of Composers, Authors and the Music Publishers of Canada. Indeed, 1997 was an impressive eightieth year for Robert. Apart from his celebratory concerts with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, May 4th and with the National Arts Centre Orchestra on October 30/31 and November 1st, it was during this period that he was commissioned to compose Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: Cascades to the Sea. This major work was completed in 1998 - the same title as the earlier orchestral work lost in 1944 - and has been broadcast both in Britain and the USA. It was issued as a commercial CD by the British recording company, Vocalion, in 2002. It was also in 1997 that Robert Farnon was finally awarded the Order of Canada.

From an early age Robert, although self-depreciating and modest about his more substantial compositions, innately recognized that he had the creative ability and technique to compose such major works. This is evidenced by the fact that by 1942 - at the twenty-five years of age - he had written two symphonies.

Symphony No. 1 in D flat Major, completed in 1940, was premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest Macmillan on January 7, 1941 as ‘Symphonic Suite.’ Symphony No. 1 was later performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It is interesting to note that the earlier orchestral work, Cascades to the Sea - premiered on August 31, 1944 - along with the score of Symphony No. 1 were lost at sea in 1944 together with a shipment of Army Show music and equipment.

Symphony No. 2: "Ottawa in B Major," completed in 1942, was also premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest Macmillan in 1943 on the CBC programme, ‘Concert Hour.’ Both symphonies were also performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony No.3: "Edinburgh," completed in early 2004 is dedicated to the City of Edinburgh; it was inspired after a visit to the Edinburgh Festival by Robert. It was first performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland by the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland, conducted by Iain Sutherland, on May 14, 2005. In a fitting tribute to the composer, the Orchestra included as encores Westminster Waltz and Portrait of a Flirt as Robert had died on April 23rd, exactly three weeks before this premiere.

On learning of Robert’s death, Peter Appleyard at a concert with his Quintet with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, Ontario changed the programme to include Twilight World, In the Days of Our Love, and The Very Thought of You as a tribute to Robert. Westminster Waltz was included in "Salute to England" with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, May 29th, and "Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of World War II" with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on June 10/11, 2005. Both programmes were conducted by Bramwell Tovey.

The Concerto for Bassoon "Romancing the Phoenix", was written for American bassoon virtuoso Daniel Smith, who will premiere the work in Europe and North America.. Using an amplified bassoon backed by a big band incorporated within a full symphony orchestra, the three-movement composition is in jazz style, and was completed early in 2005.

The commissioning of the Wind Symphony: "The Gaels" in 2004 was spearheaded by Professor Darryl Bott, Assistant Director of Bands at Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, and Chairman of the New Jersey State Band Association on behalf of the award-winning Honours Wind Symphony at Roxbury High School, New Jersey.

In several discussions with me about instrumentation, musical clefs, notation, and so on regarding this new multi-movement work, Robert was particularly enthusiastic about the use of the Celtic drums that play an important part in the ‘Finale’ of the Wind Symphony. The knowledge that Robert played percussion in the Toronto Symphony Junior Orchestra at the age of twelve, and that he was a drummer in his brother's band for three years clearly demonstrated his passion and continued interest in percussion. The first performance of the Wind Symphony, which Robert dedicated to me, is scheduled for late Spring 2006 at the Performing Arts Centre, Newark, New Jersey. It is of interest to note also that Robert once lived at Riverside, New Jersey, some seventy miles from the Performing Arts Centre, Newark. Plans are now underway for the North American publication and recording of this work.

Robert’s musical versatility is further evidenced by his compositions for winds. His Military Band compositions, as well as works adapted specially for bands. Une Vie de Matelot - specially written for the British National Brass Band Championships in 1975 - and Suite Mountbatten - began as a tribute to Lord Louis Mountbatten by Robert’s friend, Sir Vivian Dunn — are only two examples.

Douglas Field, former CBC producer and now Manager of The Intrada Brass, Oakville, Ontario, [Musical Director, Bramwell Gregson] told me that in the last years of his life Robert had given them great assistance in locating out-of-print scores and parts of his band works in the Intrada Brass’ project to record all of Robert’s music written for brass bands. In 2003, Robert sent a new arrangement of À la claire Fontaine as a gift for the Intrada Brass as well as arranging for the Library of the Royal Marines to forward State Occasion and Colditz March. These three works will be included in the tribute CD.

For my final concert with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, Ontario, after a tenure of twenty-seven years as Music Director and Conductor, I gave much thought to the selection of the concluding works on the programme. I selected the Suite Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. as a dedication and tribute to Robert for his friendship and for the important part that he and his music has played in my life; and a movement of that Suite, "Lady Barbara", as a devotion and recognition of my wife, Barbara’s unswerving support throughout that period.

For all of Robert’s eminence, he still retained his wonderful generosity of spirit, his interest in others, and his modesty and humility. Many will testify to his reticence to interviews when facing the television cameras, his astonishment when faced with plaudits and acclamations, and his propensity to divert his well-deserved accolades on to others. I remember well his telephone call to me asking "Stanley, would it be all right if I dedicated the Wind Symphony to you?" It was almost as if I were doing Robert a favour!

Barbara and I will greatly miss the interchange of many facsimiles, telephone calls, and celebratory birthday and Christmas cards with Robert. I shall miss discussing particular interpretations of his compositions and arrangements, the specific instrumentation of some of his early and more recent works; his help in obtaining scores and instrumental parts for performances, his suggestions for programme notes, contrasting Canadian and European weather and politics along with the general musical scene in North America and Europe, and deliberating on the latest news of the English Premier Soccer League. It is so difficult to accept the fact that those contacts have now gone, and no longer will we hear his vibrant, sonorous, baritone voice saying, "Is that you, Lady Barbara? Is Stanley there?"

The original postcard that he sent us - later used as the cover photograph of his CD, "Lovers Love London" with the Royal Philharmonic Strings containing even more string orchestral gems - will be an important part of our Robert Farnon personal memorabilia and treasures. I have been privileged to have been a small part of the legacy and genius of Robert Farnon. It is my fervent hope that the true genius and musical importance of his music in all of its genres will be fully recognized especially in his beloved native homeland, Canada.



This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005.

Submit to Facebook


The warmest day of the year to date greeted the Robert Farnon Society members and friends who made a special trip to Edinburgh to attend the premiere of Robert Farnon’s Symphony No. 3 – The Edinburgh on Saturday 14 May. Some had even flown up from the south of England especially for this memorable occasion, and everyone agreed that it was a magical experience.

The following reports (by three RFS members who attended the premiere) give an idea of the ‘flavour’ of that very special event. First of all we hear from James Beyer…..

World Première of Robert Farnon’s 
Symphony No 3 in F "Edinburgh"
National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland (Leader John Reid)
Conductor: Iain Sutherland
Saturday 14th May 2005 in The Usher Hall, Edinburgh
An appreciation with some personal thoughts

Saturday 14th May 2005 was a special day for my native city of Edinburgh – for at the Usher Hall that evening, the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland (Leader John Reid) under their Conductor, Iain Sutherland would present the World Première of Robert Farnon’s 3rd Symphony – his "Edinburgh" Symphony.

For myself and fellow RFS member Brian Henderson, things began happening the previous day, when we spent a most enjoyable evening in the company of Philip Farlow and his wife, Edwina (who had travelled earlier by train from London). A bright and sunny Saturday dawned – heralding what was to turn out to be one of the warmest and sunniest days so far this year! Edinburgh city centre was thronged with people, determined to take advantage of the good weather; and as the day progressed, it proved to be memorable on a number of counts. That afternoon, I met David Ades for a chat over coffee before heading off to the Usher Hall for the evening Concert.

Early doors brought a number of RFS members together – Robert and Patricia Walton, Malcolm and Iris Frazer, Philip and Edwina Farlow and Brian Henderson. Also attending the Concert were three RFS members from Fife - Terry Viner, Stephen Gray and David Kinnison.

For those of us in the audience whose association with Robert Farnon was more than a passing acquaintance with his music, the evening was not without some feelings of emotion, poignancy and personal reflection.

Initial efforts by Bob to get his Symphony performed in Scotland, let alone Edinburgh were fraught with all sorts of difficulties and problems; and at times the prospect of a world première north of the border seemed hopeless. Latterly, telephone calls between us were frequent in an attempt to get his "Edinburgh" Symphony performed in the Capital. As an amateur musician my contacts within the professional sector are limited; and thus, no matter how keen I was to "promote" and support Bob’s project, my "input" was therefore restricted. However, thanks to Iain Sutherland and the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland, Bob’s wish became a reality. The Concert was presented in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada, Europe.

So – to the Concert itself.

The programme began with Sir Malcolm Arnold’s "Tam O’Shanter" Overture Op 51. An Englishman’s idea of Scottish-ness? – well, perhaps; but it was a rousing and exciting start to the evening, with a spirited performance from the NSOS.

In complete contrast, there followed a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op 35 with soloist, Alexander Sitkovetsky. At 22 years of age, this amazing young man’s talent is phenomenal. Having made his début as a soloist at the tender age of 8, he has become one of the most promising young musicians of the 21st century. Sitkovetsky has performed throughout Europe and the UK; and other engagements have taken him to the USA, Israel and Hawaii, as well as his native city of Moscow.

The interval brought excited anticipation, as we eagerly awaited the first performance of Robert Farnon’s Symphony No 3 in F – dedicated to André Previn, who once referred to Farnon as, "the greatest string writer in the world". And in this respect, the Symphony serves as vindication of Previn’s statement – not that any proof is needed.

From the opening bars of the 1st Movement (Calmato assai) with its expressively romantic theme, we knew instinctively that we were about to experience something very special. For in this 25 minute Symphony, Bob "encapsulated" his life-story in music, so to speak. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is, in many ways, retrospective and at the same time "biographical" in character – for here, Bob, in effect, is narrating his life-story. Neatly dovetailed, is an amalgam of varying styles and moods, which reflect his astounding musical career. And to really appreciate the work, one has to know the man and his music – for here is his humour, his sensitivity, his humility and above all his supreme musicianship. And as the music unfolded, I found myself identifying with Bob and his music. He had the great gift of being able to write in a number of different styles; and we were reminded of these in this multi-faceted Symphony.

There was the tonal richness of Bob’s film music – complete with the big romantic themes; the sound of a concert orchestra from the 30s or 40s; a hint of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett; and rhapsodic passages reminding one of such works as, "A la claire fontaine". Especially notable was the NSOS brass section, comprising four trumpets, four trombones with the addition of four horns, which provided the "Big Band" element.

At one point, the orchestra launched into a rhythmic figure in a style not unreminiscent of "Jumping Bean", and which was quickly followed by a typically Farnonesque treatment of the nursery rhyme, "Baa, Baa, Blacksheep". And there were touches of comedy. By using a "slapstick" at one point, was Bob I wonder, reminding us of the unscripted comedy of his "Happy Gang" days?

Particularly poignant was the main theme from the 2nd Movement written for the solo trumpet – highlighting Bob’s love for the instrument and recalling his time as lead trumpeter in Percy Faith’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra. Here also were some Gershwinesque touches and a reminder of Bob’s association with the Big Bands.

The 3rd movement included the Scottish references – heard initially by distant pipe-band drumming (I now know why Bob asked me to send him a CD of authentic pipe-drumming!) – and developed by the introduction of two folk tunes ("My love she’s but a lassie, yet" and "The Bluebells of Scotland"). First heard separately, Bob quickly combines them in skilful counterpoint. The Symphony ends with a direct quote from his arrangement of Scottish airs – the suite, "From The Highlands". After all; as Bob once said, "If you’re going to borrow (music), borrow from the best!"

The final chord brought hesitant applause at first – not out of disrespect or an unappreciative regard for the music; but due, I suspect, to a typically reticent Edinburgh audience. This was something noted especially by the foreign visitors, who are accustomed to showing their appreciation in a somewhat more enthusiastic and passionate manner.

Following a short "tribute" to Robert Farnon by Iain Sutherland, we were treated to two encores – "Westminster Waltz" and "Portrait of a Flirt".

Iain Sutherland has to be commended for his masterful interpretation of Robert Farnon’s fine score and giving us the opportunity to hear Bob’s last major work. In addition, he must be complimented on the excellent programme note for Robert Farnon’s 3rd Symphony. In writing the analysis, Mr Sutherland "guided" the reader-listener through the opus, thus serving to enhance one’s enjoyment and appreciation of what hitherto was an unknown work. (The text of Iain Sutherland’s programme note is reproduced below).

Sadly, with Bob’s recent death, it is the end of an era; but let us reflect on the rich musical legacy he has given us, which is something that we will continue to treasure and enjoy for many years to come.

After the Concert, a fellow member of The Robert Farnon Society remarked, "It has been a magical weekend". It certainly was!

James Beyer (Conductor: The Edinburgh Light Orchestra) 

The following Programme Note is reproduced by kind permission of Iain Sutherland.

Symphony No. 3 in F ‘Edinburgh’
Robert Farnon CM
Dedicated to André Previn
i. Calmato assai ii. Larghetto iii. Allegro

Robert Farnon’s final opus is dedicated to the world-renowned conductor and composer, André Previn, and was inspired by a summer visit to Scotland’s capital city. Like so many Canadians, Farnon had a strong Scottish connection, his Grandmother having been an émigré. Although not a symphony in the strict classical sense of the form, as indeed, neither were Tchaikovsky’s, nor Sibelius’s, it is an extended work, in three movements, rather like three loosely linked symphonic rhapsodies. It is scored for a large orchestra with four Trumpets, and, unusually for a symphony orchestra, four Trombones. The sonority of eight brass, is, however, redolent of the ‘Big Band’ sound, and allied here to the usual four French Horns, gives the work an immediately identifiable ‘feel’. The composer does not shy away from the kind of writing and orchestrating for which he was so justifiably world famous in an effort to be more ‘symphonic’ per se, and many of his unique orchestration techniques echo throughout the score.

The first movement, Calmato assai, opens with the first of many romantic melodic themes, played by unison violins; a short series of brass and timpani interjections leads to a new theme played against a brass backdrop of subtly changing chords, with a jazz-style ‘walking’ bass. These themes continue to be explored until a bright, jig-like section bursts out, leading to a short, full brass fragment of a warmly remembered nursery rhyme, eventually leading to a new, more intense theme, introduced by the strings, then the solo cor anglais and the solo cello. The opening theme returns in the full orchestra, and a short coda beginning with a chromatic, rising and intense figure by the brass, subsiding into a calm and very soft ending, with an ambivalent F major/ F minor descending figure on the harp.

The second movement, Larghetto, begins with a short cadenza on the solo flute, recalling the jig-like central section of the first movement. The solo violin and flute then present a meditative, romantic theme; a secondary theme from the strings soon becomes the accompaniment to the return of the first melody on the oboe. A lush chorale by the full brass section is followed by the main theme played by the solo trumpet. The middle section of the movement is, to me, a nostalgic reminder of Robert Farnon’s war years as Conductor of the Canadian Band of the AEF, alongside Glenn Miller with the American Band and George Melachrino, the British. The secondary theme mentioned earlier is played by the Trombone quartet over pizzicato rhythms from solo bass and cellos. A new theme now emerges, and is presented three times in contrasting orchestrations, the middle one being of great intensity, and the third extended into ever quieter, rising triplets until abating in a short vibraphone solo, before the pizzicato bass whispers the final phrase.

The Finale, Allegro, opens with a series of irregular rhythms played by the harp and strings col legno, with the wooden back of the bow, and an accompaniment of exotic percussion instruments including finger cymbals, templeblocks, woodblocks and sandpaper blocks. A solo clarinet sings out a blues tinged fragment, later taken up by the trumpets after a jazz-style burst from the full orchestra. As the irregular rhythms fade away, a roll on the timpani and suspended cymbal opens up into a gloriously full-throated, big, broad theme for the whole orchestra, reminiscent of the great themes Robert Farnon provided for many a romantic film score. The theme then quietens, with the brass choir accompanied by triplet figures on the vibraphone, celeste and harp, until Scottish pipe-band drums are heard pianissimo; having visited most of the influences on his music on his symphonic journey, he beholds Edinburgh. Two folk melodies, ‘My love she’s but a lassie, yet’ and ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’, are ingeniously combined in a rising crescendo until the jig-style theme returns for a short, joyous coda.

Iain Sutherland


Robert Walton gives his impressions on this major new work …..

To hear any work for the first time, is a thrilling experience, especially a world premiere, but when it's a symphony by your favourite composer, that has to be special. Even though you're familiar with the idiom, you never know quite what to expect. Whether you're in a concert hall or at home, it's no different. Your auditory senses are in a state of high expectation and anticipation. You become a human sponge ready to absorb a brand new creation. Such was the case with Robert Farnon's last major work, his Third Symphony, performed in the imposing Usher Hall in the historic capital and cultural centre of Scotland. The thought that the composer would never actually hear the symphony made it a very poignant occasion.

Dedicated to André Previn, the man who called Robert Farnon "the greatest living writer for strings", the symphony starts simply with unison violins playing a gorgeous tune which only Farnon could have written. (Violins playing the same note, especially in their lower register, can often produce much more emotion than in harmony). That comes later. But for now this melody is given the seal of approval by the brass and timpani. I knew it wouldn't be too long before Farnon introduced a jazz element to the proceedings. And sure enough he incorporates the device invented by Basie bassist Walter Page in the late 1920s, a walking bass. And how effective it is, especially with a new melody over beautiful chords. Then a jig (Scottish of course!) suddenly emerges from the orchestra dancing its way towards a familiar nursery rhyme played by the brass. But the strings never far away, return with a more passionate theme followed by the cor anglais and cello. If the nursery rhyme was familiar, then the opening tune repeated by the whole orchestra has already endeared itself to the listener. Now it's the turn of the brass to get worked up but not for long. They quickly calm down to the softest of endings, while the harp keeps you guessing whether the movement is going to finish in a major or minor key.

Symphonies are all about recycling and mood swings, so it's not surprising that the second movement opens with a reminder of the earlier jig featuring some solo flute fireworks slowing right down to join a violin in a new tender tune. Yet another string theme is skilfully transformed into the accompaniment of the tender tune but this time the oboe takes the solo. Now we're treated to a huge Ted Heath like brass section of 8 players (4 trumpets and, unusual for a symphony orchestra, 4 trombones) who produce the most glorious sound. This is Farnon in full flight showing it's not only strings he's master of. Then the trombones come into their own with a reworking of the earlier theme which doubled as an accompaniment, but this time the lower strings in pizzicato mode provide the accompaniment. And as if all that isn't enough, a completely new melody (Farnon's full of them) is stated three times no less in different guises, the second one erupting with immense force. The movement ends peacefully with a vibraphone solo and a pizzicato bass. Taking a leaf out of the finale of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Farnon instructs the violins to tap the strings with the sticks of their bows (col legno) instead of using the hair. This unusual effect when mixed with the harp and percussion creates an exciting exotic sound. The clarinet plays a brief blues which is picked up later by the trumpets, but not before the whole orchestra lets itself go in an uninhibited jazzy outburst. But the orchestra has one more important function to fulfil. To play one of those thrilling climaxes Farnon is famous for, and it doesn't disappoint. It's my favourite part of the symphony. In fact I was so overwhelmed I hardly noticed the two Scottish tunes at the end but did detect the orchestration was strangely familiar. Clearly a little bit of recycling From the Highlands!A major part of the success of the work was due to the brilliant conducting of lain Sutherland who with the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland gave such a polished performance it sounded like it had been in the repertoire for years. If André Previn had been present I'm sure his original assessment of Farnon would have remained unchanged. Robert Walton

Phil Farlow completes our trio of reminiscences….

On the weekend of Saturday the 14th May the sun shone brightly and warmly on the City of Edinburgh for what must have been one of the most memorable and poignant events in the Robert Farnon calendar.

The main event for us was the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland with the World Premiere Performance of Bob’s Symphony No. 3 in F, the ‘Edinburgh’ which was to be performed at the Usher Hall.  

My wife Edwina and I had travelled up from London by train on the Friday and that evening the weekend started in great style when we met up for a very memorable Italian meal with James Beyer and Brian Robinson who later on also kindly hosted a mini tour of Edinburgh by night.

During the Saturday we walked through the Gardens, up to Edinburgh Castle and down the Royal Mile taking in quite a few metres of tartan on the way, and also viewed the apparently controversial architectural lines of the new Parliament Building.

On the Saturday evening we arrived at Usher Hall in good time to greet several Robert Farnon Society members including Robert and Patricia Walton, Malcolm and Iris Frazer as well as David Ades and his brother- and sister-in-laws Andrew and Joan Stevenson. There was definitely that buzz in the air that goes with events like this one, and as we all chatted away the time soon drew near to take our seats.

The  World Premiere of Bob’s ‘Edinburgh’ Symphony was to be performed after the interval – and whatever had been chosen before, I don’t think I was the only person there to want to ‘wind on’ in my excitement to hear this new work.

Then the interval came – another chat with our friends and another look around to see who was there – and we were back in our seats for – well ‘the great moment’ we’d waited for.

Baited breath time as traditionally on came the orchestra’s leader John Reid closely followed by conductor Iain Sutherland – and then that wonderful hush that occurs just before the first notes are ushered.

There are three movements in the ‘Edinburgh’ Symphony, and as they slowly unwound to our ears for the first time ever in public, the very strong first impression that I got was that Bob has given us here glimpses of his lifetime’s music. Here encapsulated in this Symphony are all the Farnon trademarks that we have all come to know and love: the humour of ‘Happy Gang’, the eight brass big band sound, all the beautiful tone colours of the strings – it was all there. And the many and different ways Bob applies it for each requirement as well – the sounds of the AEF band, the ‘Portrait of a Flirt’ sound, the film sound, the jazz style, the blues style, the romantic style, the way he scored for singers – and more. The Scottish connections came as a delight with interpolations of jig rhythms, pipe band drums and folk melodies and in the third movement Bob brings us his own touch of ‘exotica’ where added to harp and strings are finger cymbals, templeblocks, woodblocks and sandpaper blocks. Wow !!

I personally think that the ‘Edinburgh’ Symphony is a really joyous illustration and not least celebration of Robert Farnon’s life in music, and that it couldn’t have been marked better than in this Premiere performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland.

In the light of Bob’s recent passing, and to complete the evening’s entertainment, we had the further joy of hearing the orchestra playing ‘Westminster Waltz’ and ‘Portrait of a Flirt’ which certainly finished icing the cake to perfection.

Phil Farlow

This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005

Submit to Facebook

Much has been written about Sidney Torch in recent years, although there have been few personal reminiscences from people who actually knew him. Thanks to one of America’s leading organists, RFS member LEW WILLIAMS, we can fill in a few of the gaps which reveal Sidney in a new light. Lew is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, where one of his near neighbours – and a good friend – is ANGELA MORLEY. More of that later: first of all we’ll let Lew set the scene with a few reflections on the great composer.


A London couple who were on very friendly terms with Sidney Torch received a phone call from him one day in the early 1970s,  inviting them to come down to Eastbourne and get his organ records, as he was going to chuck them out otherwise.  When they arrived, Mrs. Torch met them at the door and said quietly, "You know, of course, that we don't talk organ in this house." So during tea, the conversation was decidedly steered in other directions. Apparently, Elizabeth Torch, a BBC producer who married Sidney in the early 1950s, did not much care for the cinema organ, as per Torch's own comments towards the end of the third instalment of his interview (see later in this article).

When Mrs. Torch left to do a bit of shopping, Sidney said "Right, now, what ever happened to so-and-so (an organist)?  Is such-and-such an organ still intact?"  Perhaps he regarded his cinema work as an early indiscretion and was still curious about what was going on.

Some years later, during a 1990 visit to the UK, our London couple showed me a poignant letter Sidney had written, lamenting his wife's recent passing and his own poor health, notably back trouble.  It wasn't long afterwards that I heard from another longtime UK friend, telling me that Torch had taken his own life.  According to the newspapers, a shotgun was involved, and a note was left behind.

It is somewhat telling to know that, while Torch had a grand piano in his Eastbourne flat, the lid was down, the keyboard cover locked, and the whereabouts of the key were unknown.  He was much happier talking about his dogs. According to one source, he said, "You must understand that music was my business, and I have now retired."

Another incident occurred during an orchestral rehearsal. During a break, the musicians were milling about while Torch was chatting with someone.  Some prankster who had found one of his old organ 78s quietly put it on the player and started it.  After a few notes sounded, Torch started a bit and said, "Hello. What's this?"  He wandered over to the gramophone and watched the rapidly spinning disc, then reached down and took the tone arm up.  Removing the record from the spindle, he looked at the label for a moment, broke it over his knee, dropped it on the floor, and wandered back to his conversation as though nothing had happened.

Tony Moss, who was one of the founders of the Cinema Organ Society, met Torch in the bar at Broadcasting House in the '50s or '60s.  They had an amiable conversation until Tony mentioned organs. Torch drew himself up and inquired, "Oh, are you an organ fan?"  When Tony replied that he was indeed, Torch said "Well.........I'm not."  And that was that.

A final anecdote about the conclusion of Sidney Torch's long career in music: One of Torch's colleagues relates how he came to retire in the early '70s. When the post of conductor with the BBC Concert Orchestra opened up, Torch felt that he was sure to be appointed.  It ended up going to someone else, and apparently Torch decided that he'd done enough conducting.

On the way to the Friday Night broadcast that same evening, Sidney said "You know, this will be my last broadcast."  Indeed, at the conclusion of the signature theme, as soon as the light on the conductor's desk went out, Torch turned to the audience and said "Ladies & gentlemen, I have conducted my final broadcast.  Good night."  He then snapped his baton in two, laid it on the music desk, and walked off.

Editor: In May 1972 Sidney Torch was interviewed by two American organ enthusiasts, Judd Walton and Frank Killinger. They were arranging to issue a 2-LP collection of his 1930s organ recordings, and were hoping to get some background information from him about his pre-war career. The following extracts are taken from transcripts of the interview which were printed in the ‘Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society’ in October 1972 and February, March & April 1973. They are reproduced with due acknowledgements, and special thanks to Lew Williams. Judd Walton sets the scene…

One of the main objectives in going to England was to meet Torch. Over the years reports had been received that this would be difficult, if not impossible. Several contacts were made without success, and as my visit neared an end, it began to appear that the meeting would not be possible. On arriving at my Hotel in London from a trip to Scotland, however, a note was waiting for me with the message, "Please call Mr. Torch". The following Tuesday we met for lunch at Verrey's in Regent Street for two hours of delightful conversation. I was accompanied by Frank Killinger who was in London for the summer.

Mr. Torch was very gracious, hospitable and kind and proved to be as I had expected, a very warm, generous and considerate person. Above all he was forthright in his opinions and is truly an individual musically. The meeting was the highlight of the entire trip — without exception.

He gave us his approval of the reissue of his organ recordings on Doric label, and offered his help in any way possible. At a later meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Killinger, he provided many pictures from his personal collection for our use.

(K) You started playing professionally at 14?

(T) I got myself a job when I was 14 by attending an audition for orchestras in a very large complex of London restaurants run by the well known firm Lyons. They must have built lots of restaurants; 3, 4, 5 floors of restaurants, always on the corner and they were called Lyons Corner Houses. Of course, we used to have nonstop music for nine hours a day on every floor. Therefore, we used to have three bands on every floor and if there were four floors, they employed twelve orchestras. Each orchestra was about twelve or fifteen strong. It was a pretty large employment of musicians. Mind you, the pay was very, very poor in those days. I gave an audition as a pianist in one of these things. I had a black jacket, striped trousers, a bowler hat and an umbrella. I was only 14. I thought myself quite a guy because I looked older. There were about 300 musicians applying for jobs and the audition piece was Tchaikowsky's 1812 Overture. I played rather well as a child, so I rattled off everybody's cues. I played the violin part, the bassoon part, the tuba part, all on the piano. I wasn't popular but I got the job. That's how I started. I was one week out of school and I got five pounds a week. In those days, that was a lot of money.

(K) Did they have any sort of a musicians union at that time?

(T) Not as effective as they are today. Today, of course, it's 100% closed shop as it is in the States. In other words, if you're not a member you don't play. But in those days there were two unions. There was one which was called the Normal Average Player and there was another one called the Association which was only intended for the better players, the top players who commanded all the best work. Ifyou belonged to the Normal Union, the musicians union, you were less of a performer. It was a sort of snob value of course. If you were a member of the Association you could get five shillings extra, you know, this sort of thing. But, of course, that's all done away with now, there's no such thing. Everyone belongs to the same union.

I did all sorts of things. I went on tour with a musical comedy to play the piano and this is where I first got my appetite for conducting. One evening the manager of the company came to me and said that Jack (that was the conductor) is sick, you're conducting tonight, and vanished, you know, like that! That's how I became a conductor. I don't remember much about it. I just remember going there and the entire orchestra saying to me: go on, you can do it. I was about 16. But I just had to do it. Everything was red. I remember there was a red stage with red people on it and red music in front of it and a red orchestra to the left and right of it. Sounds like the charge of the Light Brigade, doesn't it. But we must have all finished together. To this day I couldn't tell you what happened. I was unconscious then, I still am. But that's how I became a conductor.

(K) A conductor has special frustrations. When you get a large orchestra and everybody's not doing their bit because maybe they're not feeling up to it, you suffer accordingly. Right?

(T) Part of your job is to make them do their bit. Of course, you can't always get the same degree of good performance. To get a good performance not only must you be feeling well and up to performing yourself, but every individual member of the orchestra must be feeling fit as well. Then you may get a good performance. But if there are 100 people in the orchestra, the chances are against you getting this thing. But it does happen and you operate that anything over 50% is good. If you go below 50%, this is when you've got a dud in front of you. And of course, we are all human, we can all make mistakes, and sometimes if you're feeling exceptionally well and on top of the performance you become rash. This is when you do make mistakes.

After I had this taste of conducting, I had an offer to play the piano in the cinema in the days of silent films. It was a very large orchestra in the largest cinema in London. Most of the people who played in this orchestra in those days, if they are still alive, are stars in their own right. We've all got a feeling towards stars. We had one of the first Wurlitzer organs in England or inBritain in that cinema.

(W) What cinema was that?

(T) A cinema named the Broad which was in a suburb of London called Stratford, in East London. It had something like about 3,000 seats in the days when most cinemas were 400 or 500 seats. The first one of the very, very large cinemas. Anyway, we had an American organist named Archie Parkhouse, who was a demonstrator for the Wurlitzer Organ Company and had been sent over by Wurlitzer to England for the installation of this organ and to demonstrate how it should be played and to teach English people how to play it. He said to me, "Why don't you learn to play the cinema organs." So I said, "Well, I don't know how." He said, "Well, you ought to because I've seen talkies come in the States and I'm sure they are coming over here and you'll be out of a job." I said, "Well, I don't want to be out of a job. How do you do it?" He said, "Sit down here, put your hands on there, put your feet on there and I'll be back in 10 minutes, I'm going for a smoke." The film was running and there I was stuck with an organ which I didn't know how to play. Sure enough, the orchestra did get the sack, and I was kept on as assistant organist, I used to stay there night after night, hours and hours of practice and experiment — that's how I learned the organ. No one taught me, I learned it by necessity.

In those days we used to have two organists because we used to sit there waiting for the film to break down, so that you could jump in quickly and play something. But there was a snag to it. You know, Wurlitzer organs or in fact any cinema organ has to have an electric motor to give the necessary power to the keyboard and the pipes. Ifthis motor is allowed to run for an unlimited amount of time, it burns out like any electrical motor. So you have to switch it off. Of course, in the way of the world, every time you switch it off the film broke down. Every time you let the motor run the film didn't break down, so in the end the management decided it was a waste of time having a second organist because sure enough as soon as he switched off the motor the film broke down. By the time it was running again the film had restarted. So they said to me, "You're finishing at the end of the month."

Archie Parkhouse, this American — very kind to me, said "Don't worry, I'll give you an introduction to some of my friends." He sent me to see them and the organist at what was then the Regal Marble Arch which today is the Odeon Marble Arch. A very famous cinema in the old days, it was so elegant that all the linkmen and the reception men inside wore powdered wigs and white stockings, in the manner of footmen. He sent me to see the organist there, a very famous man, the late Quentin Maclean. He gave me a letter of introduction to Maclean. I went to the stage door and said I wanted to see Maclean. The stagedoor keeper said, "You can't. He doesn't see anybody without an appointment." I left the letter and when I went back, the receptionist called me over and said, "You're wanted on the phone." It was Quentin Maclean who said to me, "Why didn't you wait and see me." I said, "The stagedoor keeper told me to go away." He said, "I badly want to see you. Can you come back?" I went back and he said to me, "Look, I've got to go to Dublin to open a new cinema and I badly need someone to fill my place while I'm away. Can you do it?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Come back at 11:00 tonight and I'll show you how this organ works." It was the biggest organ in England. Five manuals. Frightened the life out of me. He showed me how to play it and I stayed there all night. The next day they offered me the job as pianist and assistant organist. So I wasn't out of work again. Mind you, I don't think this is talent, I don't think it is luck. It's a combination of talent and luck but the other thing was that I was prepared to sit there all night and practice until I had mastered it.

(K) You had tremendous self discipline on that.

(T) Not only self discipline. It was my main chance. I wanted to succeed. If you want to succeed you can. That's how I became an organist.

(W) How long were you there?

(T) 1928 to 1933 or 1934. About 6 years. I was assistant to Quentin Maclean then I was assistant to his successor who was Reginald Foort. When Reggie Foort left I was given the job. In those days. I used to do organ broadcasts twice a week, three quarters of an hour each one. Twice a week, 52 weeks a year, broadcast all over the world. Today everything is recorded in advance. In those days we used to broadcast on what is now called the BBC Wurlitzer. I used to get up at 2:00 in the morning, go down to the theatre, broadcast, come home again. You didn't go by your time, you went by the time of the country of reception. If you were broadcasting to a country which was eight hours behind, that was just too bad.

(W) Was it during this period you made your first cinema organ record?

(T) The first cinema organ record I made, two records, I think or three, I'm not certain were on a label called Regal Zonophone.

(W) How did this come about?

(T) Columbia used to record the orchestra of the Regal Marble Arch. I had to do an arrangement for a record and the arrangement was a selection from the music of the "King of Jazz" which had never been known in this country - brand new. Shows you how far back that is. I was given the sheet music, the American copies of the sheet music, to make a selection. Anyway, I did, and we recorded it. The Columbia manager, A and R man said, "That's a good arrangement. Who did that?" Somebody said, "He did." So he came up to me and said, "I'm going to do things for you. You're playing the organ too, eh? Would you like to make records?" I said, "Of course." That's how I got a record. From there I graduated to Columbia and then I graduated to Decca after that.

(W) What was your next organ post after the Regal Marble Arch from which I understand the organ is now removed, unfortunately.

{T) A very famous cinema in North London called the Regal Edmonton. They opened that and they offered me the job so I went there. Then after that I went on tours opening up new cinemas along the way. I went finally to the State Kilburn which was the biggest Wurlitzer in the country. I opened that and stayed there until the war came. Then I went into the RAF and stopped playing the organ.

(K) You did some fantastic records on that Regal Edmonton (Christie organ).

(T) You think so. I look back on them now and I think they're pretty corny compared to what could have been done.

(K) You may think so, sir, but we in the States think differently. There isn't anyone in the States, past or present, that has equaled the records you made on the Edmonton or the Kilburn.

(T) That sounds very nice. I wish I thought that too. I listen to them very occasionally. About once every 5 years I take one out and play it and then I blush and put them back again — quickly, I don't think they are nearly as good as they should have been. They may have been advanced for those days.

(K) They were. Well advanced. But they still stand up today.

(T) Yes, but technically, I think they sort of fell between lack of ideas and too many ideas. In other words, they came halfway between that. In some instances when I look back on them I think to myself, why didn't I think of doing so and so. And then I look back and I say why did I attempt to do so. It was a dangerous life you know.

(K) Like the "Flying Scotsman".

(T) It was made up on the spur of the moment.

(K) That was a fantastic record.

(T) Yes, but you see there is no tune there at all. It's just a couple of traditional Scottish tunes put together. And the whole thing is a fix.

(K) Right, but it just flows like water.

(T) Well, it's made up. It's improvisation. Every time I played it, it was different, because it simply had the tune of Loch Lomond or Annie Laurie, then I improvised on that. This was not difficult.

(W) Weren't most of these recordings your arrangements?

(T) Oh, every one of them were my arrangements but they were not written down. They were practiced until they were in my head.

(W) The only record, sir, that I have broken in my collection, and I have several thousand records, was your recording on Columbia, "Teddy Bear's Picnic". I had a very dear cat that became frightened and knocked it off the table.

(T) The cat shows remarkable taste.

(K) I have a complete collection of your records, except the Zonophones.

(T) They are not good. These were very early days when I was experimenting and when the recording companies were experimenting. You know, the ultimate recording of a cinema organ has never been mastered to the extent of recording an orchestra. I believe that Jesse Crawford finally made records in a sound proof chamber with no sound except what he got through the can (headphones). He couldn't hear the pipes because they were outside. Is this so? I have been told this.

(K) I don't know. He did a lot of recording in North Tonawanda.

(W) No. Not the recordings.

(K) He did the player rolls in North Tonawanda.

(W) He recorded basically on five organs. The Paramount studio, the earlier style F in the Wurlitzer hall in New York, the Special style 260 in Chicago and a style E on which he made Valencia with 7 ranks.

(T) You're much more learned about cinema organs than I am. I had forgotten all this.

(W) I have one in my home, 2 manual, 14 ranks. Two Tibias, a Wurlitzer Musette.

(T) I wouldn't have thought, judging by your appearances, you live as dangerously as all that. And you play it yourself?

(W) Strictly for my own amazement.

(T) Well, that's the only way to do it. It's a very dangerous instrument because it is the easiest thing on the cinema organ to be vulgar. It's also terribly simple to be loud. The difficulty of playing the cinema organ is to restrain yourself and show good taste.

(W) Mr. Torch, you have just reiterated what I've been trying to say for so many years.

(T) Well, I'm honored that we think alike, but I am sure it's true.

(K) Crawford has this feeling.

(W) Precisely right!

(T) Have you ever played any of the British organs, Compton or Christie?

(W) Yes, it has been my pleasure to have done that this visit, about 24 of them.

(T) Wild horses wouldn't make me play a cinema organ and on 24! You're a brave man.

(W) I have been down to Southhampton which I disliked with great intensity, it's a Compton. Yesterday I heard the State Kilburn which is as near our large American organs as I've heard even though it is only 16 ranks. I had a great night at the 8 rank out at Clapham. I loved the Gaumont in Manchester. The Odeon or former Paramount is a typical Publix No. 1.

(T) I like the Odeon in Manchester. It's very good. Henry Croudson used to play that. Great little organ. Most of these including the British ones always remind me of a bison getting out of the swamp. You said what a marvellous bass it had. Now this is indicative of most cinema organs. They all had a terrific rolling sound from the bottom register. There wasn't enough personality on top, registration, you know. All tended to be voiced — everything was voiced for the Tibia sound.

(W) This is right.

(T) This is why I liked playing the Regal Marble Arch, because this was limited to legitimate organ in its voicing. It had nothing to do with the action or unit system. In other words, you could get staccato authority, not only in the actual key performance but the staccato of the sound. The pipe would go ‘eep’, like that.

(W) Was that your favorite organ?

(T) No, but I think there was a lot to be said for it. It, of course, had this straight side to its nature. Most cinema organs tend to have the same sort of loud rolling noise throughout the entire arrangement of the instrument right from the 2' down to the 32' and it had this. I think although it's a necessary part of the cinema organ, it is a trap for the unwary performer. It's like having an orchestra composed of players, all of whom have a very large vibrato. Imagine all those strings vibrating together. This isn't very good. I think that the voicing over here has tended in this country to be much too sticky sentimental. At least what we care to think of as being sentimental in those days.

(K) The Regal Edmonton, on the Christie, had a lot of brilliance and snap to it.

(T) That was my voicing. In the "Bugle Call Rag", that organ goes ‘daddle daddle dup’. You try and do that on most of the Compton organs or most of the Wurlitzers in this country and it goes ‘buooh buooh go buooh’.

(W) Without tremolos, still?

(T) Makes no difference. It's the voicing of the stops and the location of the chambers. You know, in sound, I don't have to tell you in some cinemas the site of the chambers is very detrimental to the sound. You get this backwards and forwards roll. You know I haven't talked about cinema organs in 25 years.

(K) This is why we are so thrilled because you are talking about it to us.

(T) I very rarely talk about anything to do with that side of my career. I have as my orchestral pianist a very famous organist, William Davis. He is probably the best player in this country today. We sometimes talk about it and he imitates me sometimes. We have an electric organ which we use in the orchestra and when I'm least expecting it, he'll play my old signature tune. But that's the nearest I ever get to it.

(W) I heard it yesterday - Douglas Reeve at the State Kilburn programme.

(T) They don't play it like I used to. I used to do 1 or 2 glissandos. They try and do a glissando every time. We all copy Jesse Crawford who invented the glissando as far as I know.

(W) He said that he did.

(T) I believe this because I never heard it before he did it. But then like everything else in a cinema organ, it is the discretion with which you use it which is important. The trouble is this, when they finally can play loud, they play loud all the time. By the time they can do glissandos, they do them all the time. All these things are very valuable. These are the points that make up a cinema organ — the ability to do these special tricks which only a cinema organist can do. If you use them all the time, they are no longer tricks.

(K) This is where the taste comes from. This is what you had and were very advanced when you did it.

(W) If you will permit me to say so, you were so far ahead of any other artist on this instrument.

(T) I think this only proves how bad the others were. It doesn't prove that I was good.

(W) On the contrary, I believe it does prove how good you were because to this day in our opinion and those of us in America who have listened, it hasn't been touched.

(T) Is there the market and is there the opportunity today? You see, when I played it, it was at the peak of popularity. The cinema organ was something for which people actually carne to the cinema. They came to see the film, but if two cinemas had the same film, they would go to the one in which Sidney Torch was playing. Not because it was Sidney Torch but because it was a cinema organ — it was an added attraction. But is this a true thing today? People go to see a film because there is violence or sex or sadism.

(K.) But, strangely enough, even today if we get a top-rank organ, like the Fox Theatre in San Francisco a 5,000 seat house, we might fill it. George Wright gave several special performances there at which that house was packed.

(T) Yes, forgive me though, but this is a special occasion, the specialized taste, but if he were running three performances or four performances a day, seven days a week, and George Wright appeared every day, would this mean a difference? That's the point I'm trying to make. You see, in the day I played this was an asset - it meant something. People went because somebody was playing the organ at a specific place. But today they won't do this. Therefore, it is very difficult, if not impossible, certainly unfair, to compare the two days. I have had many, many years of people writing to rne and say, "Play again, record again." But I don't believe myself that that justifies the concept. I think it is probably better to be a legend in somebody else's mind and I think if they heard me today they wouldn't think as much of me as they did when I was there. Of course, it's something I won't buy. I don't subscribe to it; I don't think I was good. I think I was disappointing. Mind you, I've got grey hairs now and I'm not perhaps as sharply defined, I feel, and this is what in retrospect I see as missing. But then I was young and my only excuse is that because I was young I didn't have the right idea.

(K) Well, you had the right ideas all right, because as Judd said, they were so far advanced than anything else we made at that time.

(T) I suppose you've got to judge it by the context of what happens every day. But I think myself that most people made up for talent with sheer noise that they loudly passed as a substitute. And they became vulgar because of this. It was so easy to be vulgar, it is so easy to be loud.

(W) The organ became their master instead of them mastering the instrument. This happens today.

(T) Well you know, it's very, very true the second loudest noise you can make is silence. If you have a terrific crash the next loudest thing is to stop entirely and make everybody wait for it — and then silence, the impact is almost as great as the loud sound.

(W) They don't know when to take their hands off the keys. We wish we had some of your orchestral music available on radio in the States.

(T) Yes, well you see, these things are a matter of commercial assessment, in the first instance. The rate of pay for orchestral musicians throughout the world is very, very high now, so therefore, the initial cost of making tapes of orchestral music is exceptionally high. And no company will set up to do this unless it is assured of a reasonable risk in getting at least a return and at the best a profit. Now, as you must know (you are in the recording business), classics are duds, as you buy a subsidy. It's the subsidy on the pop records that pay for the other side and in the end it's all a figure in the books, isn't it? It depends on which side of the ledger you are going to put these things on.

(W) That's right.

(K) How did they record your organ records? I understand they had a van that went around to the theatres.

(T) Yes, they had a recording van which they would bring around and go up on the roof. With a bit of rope, they would hang a microphone, let it dangle down and trust their luck. If it didn't go right we would all break for a half an hour while the rope was shifted to another place. This happened on every session. No one ever found the right place for the microphone because it entirely depended on what you were playing and the registration. Of course, I am not an expert on microphones although I've spent my life recording, but it seems to me that we have lost this thing of having one microphone balance the sound as it is played in the studio or in the home, from the viewpoint of one pair of ears. After that I am fully in accord with boosting this or boosting that for the purposes of getting something mechanical to sound as if it were live. Today they have 27 microphones. Everybody has a microphone. But there's no one microphone that gives you the overall sound. This is the one thing, of course, we used to try and do with the cinema organ, but if you played quietly it was too far away, and if you played loudly it was too near. If you used the reeds it was too violent; if you used the flutes it was too mellow. You were always in trouble; the engineer was always coming to say "Can you boost bar so and so; can you take down bar so and so". You never played as you really wanted to, because in those days we didn't have the ability to record four bars and cut it in. It was all wax and you had to start from the beginning to the end, what is more, when the van came out there was only storage space for 70 waxes and the hot cupboard. As you know, the waxes had to be kept at a set temperature. So that you would get this thing; the telephone would ring, the recording engineer would say to you, "You had better be good this time because this is the last wax!" If you didn't get that one right your session was over and you got nothing. As you didn't make anything except royalties, it was up to you to see that it was in the can.

How you manage today is quite a different matter. You go in there for the whole day and you record four bars at a time and then you fake it out. You would have what, seven channels, eight channels. We had one channel and the wax and the diamond would cut it like that. We used to blow the needle, blow away the surface wax, and off you'd go. And if someone came into the theatre and dropped a pail (one of the cleaners came in while we were recording and dropped a pail). People used to come in the middle of a record and say. "Hey, where is the gas meter?" Or the electric meter.

(K) How many takes, may I ask you, did you have to do on the average number?

(T) Very difficult to say. You see, in those days, we used to make at the most three waxes in a four hour session. Frequently we only got two. Shall we say that the van carried perhaps twenty waxes?

(K) Probably, Yes.

(T) So you might get perhaps six or eight, or even ten takes, frequently you would only get the first half a minute and the batter would go. "Sorry, the needle jumped". The wax has got a pop in it, you know, a bubble or something like that. You might touch something. A cinema organ can be very difficult you know, you touch it with your cuff, something squeals. It has to be played like that. It has to all be done away from the keys.

(K) Because I listen to those, and I never know a clinker, I never knew a wrong note.

(T) Well, the whole point is you don't expect to hear a wrong note or a click or something on any other form of recording. You choose to comment upon the cinema organ in this way because you are used to hearing that performance and you hear clinks and long notes and stumbles that you shouldn't hear. There is no reason at all why the thing shouldn't be played well, but it requires good players.

(W) Your work on the State Kilburn was rnarvellous.

(T) Well, that was the highest point I reached, really in technique, but it still was unsatisfactory. It had a terrific lag, you know. The distance from the console to the chambers was something like about 80 or 90 feet. The lag was such that it was quite a second or two, so you had to play purely by touch. You didn't listen. You must learn to keep tempo despite it. For a stranger it can be terrible. But then it is part and parcel of the technique of playing this instrument. If you are not prepared for a lag in sound you shouldn't play the cinema organ — or any organ. It is an instrument that lags behind the actual execution. Its very nature is such. And over the distance it travels from where you actually touch the keys to where the pipe speaks and to when it comes back to ears. This is what is so frightening about electronic organs today. They are quicker than you can play. Everybody can play fast now. The thing to do is to play fast. I don't think you should confuse good playing with technique. It's rather like confusing good driving with speed, you know? I mean, just because you drive fast you're not a good driver.

(W) Mr. Torch, may I say you are one of the most modest individuals I have met.

(T) Nonsense, I'm a realist. It isn't a question of being modest. I don't think myself or anyone has achieved the high standard of performance that can be achieved on that instrument; Idon't think there has been enough time, effort or money devoted to it. The State Kilburn had more service time and more practice time devoted to it than any other organ in the country. The tuner, the service man lived with that organ 24 hours a day — lived around the comer. You could always get a thing put right or improved, the balance, the weight on the tremolos, which were always being remounted. We were always searching for the ultimate. Should we shift this reed an eighth of an inch or not? I think it would go much further than that, but it takes time and money and patience.

(K) Which of the theatre organs did you like best of those you played?

(T) The Wurlitzer, Gaumont State Kilburn. I had more say in that organ than any. This was the best achievement I think, that Wurlitzer had over here. It was the keenest, cleanest sounding organ in this country.

(W) What was the date of finality of your work on cinema organs?

(T) 1939-40. It was in the first six months of the war.

(K) Then you went in the Air Force?

(T) Right. I could see when I was in there that there was no possibility of cinema organs ever being revived again. It was obvious.

(W) May I interject, sir. What is your definition of good musicianship? — Artistry in music?

(T) I don't think it can be defined!

(W) May I ask a very personal question? Do you feel you have musicianship in your work with the orchestra and —

(T) Not by any means enough. Ah, I'm not, I hope, as vulgar as most of the people who delve in music. And that is especially what it is for. I've yet to hear someone who wasn't vulgar. See, they play wrong harmonies, wrong tempos, wrong rhythms, wrong melodies. Organists seem to have a fixed idea in their head that anything can be juggled because they are playing the cinema organ. You don't have to play four beats in a bar because the composer said so. You can play five because it's cinema organ. You don't have to play a chord of C major. You can play F major if you like, because it's cinema organ. You don't have to play the right pedal note, you can play any pedal note you like because it's a cinema organ. You couldn't do any of these things if you were playing some cathedral? I'm forever damned in my opinion of other cinema organists, aren't I? You see, here is the ultimate proof of what I have been saying. Right! You have to take the uppermost out of the orchestra; you have to take stops out of the orchestra purely and simply to protect the listener. This is the wrong way to protect the listener. You should protect the listener by ensuring that the person who uses the instrument has sufficient savvy, good taste, whatever it is to be able to have these things but not to use them all the time.

(K) It's like giving a brain surgeon's kit to a boy.

(T) It's maddening! Your words are final proof of what I have tried to say. This instrument has been badly performed by people who shouldn't be given the opportunity to use it. This doesn't apply to everybody. Of course,there are good performers. I don't even know their names today. There always will be good performers but they are the very tiniest minority. This applies to painting or anything else.

(W)May I say, realizing that you have to get on, that I deeply appreciate this opportunity to meet you, sir.

(T) It was very nice and I've enjoyed it very much.

 Editor: Sidney Torch mentioned his first arrangement – "King of Jazz" – on Columbia DX 72, recorded in 1930 at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch. This is included on the recent Guild Light Music CD "British Cinema and Theatre Orchestras" – GLCD5108. A few parts of the published interview have been omitted for space considerations, but other editing has been minimal.

This article appeared in "Journal Into Melody" June/July 2005.

Submit to Facebook

Talk about being in the presence of the Top Brass! (writes FORREST PATTEN). We’re not talking about military officers or corporate management here; but simply two of the finest trumpet masters to ever grace the concert stage and recording studio. Pete Candoli will forever be associated with his blazing solos in the Woody Herman and Henry Mancini organizations. Uan Rasey’s masterful playing can be heard in a host of blockbuster motion pictures from An American In Paris to the solitary trumpet featured in the late Jerry Goldsmith’s score to the film Chinatown. Frank Comstock arranged our meeting (as a part of Frank’s Summit) on the morning of September 8, 2004. We met at Uan Rasey’s home in the Laurel Canyon area near Studio City, Califoria. Once again, RFS member Rob Keil joined us for the gathering and participated in the following interview.




FP: Gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to our interview today and start out with a question for Pete Candoli. I heard this famous story about you when you were with the Woody Herman band. Dressed in a Superman costume, you leaped over the band (on stage) and performed quite a trumpet solo on that great Herman hit "Apple Honey." Tell us about that.

PC: This is funny. I used to work out all the time in at Sid Klein’s gym in New York.

You’d see these guys with 52-inch chests. I used to be there all the time. They must have thought that I was high or something because I’d always be jumping around. I was just a health nut at that time. I was inspired by Uan (Rasey) the first time I met him. I was in high school at the time and would spend the summer months playing with the Sonny Dunham orchestra. That’s where I met Uan. He was one of the first true health food nuts! He had a bag of carrots and celery that he’d carry around all day. You know, natural foods. I thought that this guy was pretty weird! He played first trumpet then, but it wasn’t until later that everyone realized how good this man really is. I sincerely mean that. Uan’s probably the finest trumpet teacher that this town has ever seen. He’s also a composer and many other things. Anyway, they called me Superman in Woody’s band because I could open windows that nobody else could lift up, things like that. So they thought I should wear a Superman suit as a part of the act. They made me a costume complete with cape. Woody wanted me to come out at the end of "Apple Honey." That was a great Herd arrangement. We had fine players like Neil Hefti, Bill Harris, and many others at the time. During the last chorus (before the finale) I’d play a trumpet break and jump on-stage while ripping my suit off to reveal this Superman outfit underneath. One time I had this cable attached (because I’d jump off of a seven-foot platform) and it malfunctioned! Chubby Jackson was announcing over the microphone "It’s Superman!" I was supposed fly out towards the audience. Somehow the cable pulled me side-to-side across the stage and I (while holding this Superman pose) ended up hitting my head on a wall and bouncing back to the middle of the stage. I had to blow the horn after that! That’s when I told Woody that the act was over. There was danger in that act! They wrote a tune for me called "Superman With A Horn" that I performed at Carnegie Hall.

FP: There’s an album that I’ve always considered to be the epitome of great trumpet virtuosity. You both played on it. It’s called TUTTI’S TRUMPETS conducted by Tutti Camarata. What do you remember about those sessions?

PC: Uan was a lead player on that album. Mannie Klein and Shorty Sherock were there.

UR: And Conrad Gozzo. Pete had some great solos on that record. That was a lot of fun. It’s just been re-issued on CD.

PC: It’s been a wonderful ride and it still is. I guess at this point, I’m too nervous to steal so I’ve got to keep playing!

FP: And, of course, there was all of your fine work with Henry Mancini.

PC: Hank was a piano player with the Glenn Miller band after the service. He’d sit there and daydream. He was like the Gordon Jenkins of the piano. He’d "plink" something here and "plink" something there. He was a wonderful guy and a wonderful friend. I love all of the great things he has written.

UR: I’ve got to tell you a story. I was on a record date along with Conrad Gozzo and Pete. I’m telling you, Pete did everything for Hank. And you know the kind of jazz he plays. We’re making the first take and Barney Kessell yells out "Pete! Pete! I know why you stopped playing. The way that you were playing, you were headed right for Do."

PC: Barney was one of the funniest guys. He did about three or four albums with my brother Conte.

FP: I’m very curious about your particular style of trumpet playing. When I think of those players who really hit those "high" notes, the names Cat Anderson, Maynard Ferguson and Bud Brisbois come to mind. How hard was it to reach those notes?

PC: I don’t remember. I just did it. I think a lot of the notes were written. I never considered myself a "screamer", unlike Maynard who’s a wonderful player. I never screamed to be screaming unless there was a need to be on top of the band following the last chorus or something.

UR: But Pete was one of the great lead players, too. I’ve worked with quite a few of these guys, but they don’t quite match the quality of Pete as a lead player.

PC: The best album I’ve ever been involved with (featuring brass and rhythm) was Bob Bain’s album with pianist Junior Mance. They had bent notes like you’ve never heard. That’s my all-time favorite. You can’t fake those notes. You either have them or you don’t. I remember talking to Billy May, He said that good players will unconsciously land on the right notes in the chord and it will just feel good. They won’t have to play louder or softer. A good note will have the substance in a chord or a phrase. Billy knew that right away. He was such a natural and one of my favorites.

FP: Pete, did you prefer the live performances of the big band era, or the work in the recording studios for motion pictures and television?

PC: Everything has its purpose and everything is great in its own way. It’s wonderful what they did with the motion picture orchestras, The composer Hugo Friedhoffer was a dear friend. He was right up there with Robert Farnon. I was amazed with the artistry of these composers. I always considered myself just an instrumentalist.

RK: I’m a big Henry Mancini and Billy May fan so meeting the two of you is a big thrill for me. When working with Mancini or May, they obviously picked you because you had something special that they heard. When playing for them, how much was actually written out versus how much did they actually let you improvise on your solos?

PC: With Hank, he’d let me go most of the time. Except there would be a few instances where he’d say, "Pete, this scene is kind of easy so stay in bounds on this one." I said "OK", because I knew exactly what he meant. There was no reason to "go outside" because I knew what the content of the compositions were. Most of the time, though, he’d let me go where I wanted to go on the solos. I had a lot of freedom. I was really thrilled to be able to work with people like Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Frank Comstock.

FP: Pete, do you have a comment or two about Robert Farnon?

PC: Well, I’ve known about Robert Farnon for as long as I’ve known about Hugo Friedhoffer and others. I knew his brother Brian quite well. He had a band up in Reno and is a fine musician and a wonderful guy. Of course, Bob headed over to England and has been there a long time. We sure miss him around here! To me, he’s one of the great pinnacles and always has been. He introduced so many nuances in music that you have to stop and ask "what went by there?" when you listen to his music.

UR: He’s very close to Conrad Salinger who, I believe, is still one of the very best. I don’t mean to offend Bob when I say that. I worked a lot with Salinger when I was at MGM.

FP: Are there any brass players from today’s generation that you particularly like?

PC: Yes. Arturo Sandoval. He’s one of Uan’s students and always calls on him when he’s in town. Uan’s one of the finest teachers around.

UR: The mediocrity of the music business came with the guitar thing back in the late 50’s. People who knew nothing about music (or how to play an instrument) were, all of a sudden, making half a million dollars a year from record deals. You just can’t fight that. It just went downhill after that.

PC: To me, it doesn’t matter. It became a commodity. People ended up making millions who were not even connected with the music business! It’s a different business altogether really. In rap, all you need is a couple of bongo players in the background while a DJ creates scratching sounds on his turntable and another guy warbles some lyrics.

UR: We did a parody record with Stan Freberg. Billy May would tell Stan to "mumble more." Stan would just repeat "baby, baby" during the whole take! It was hilarious. I was very close to Billy. He didn’t like artificial sound in the recording studios. With the proper microphone placements, he wanted to hear the band (on the recording) just as he heard it from the podium. He didn’t feel comfortable with the engineers who wanted to artificially "sweeten" a session.

PC: At least in the school system where they have stage bands, they have various degrees for instrumentalists. That’s our saving grace. 

At that time, Pete Condoli had to leave for an outside appointment. We continued our interview with Uan Rasey.  

FP: Uan, your bio lists so many famous films that you’ve worked on. There were all of those great MGM musicals starting in 1947.

UR: I was really being auditioned at the time on different musicals with different leaders. They didn’t like the way that Raphael Mendez played classical or jazz. That was unfortunate because he was a great player. One day there was a big argument between Miklos Rosza and Raphael Mendez about making something a little bit smoother. Rosza wanted some vibrato and Mendez couldn’t seem to get what he wanted. They asked me to play it and apparently they liked it. We did the picture ON THE TOWN and Lennie Hayton seemed to like what I did with the jazz parts. I stayed at MGM for 35 years.

FP: Tell us about some of the films you’ve worked on.

UR: You know, I was never really of fan of films. Other guys would come home with a copy of this or a copy of that. It was just work as far as I was concerned. I was more fascinated with the craftsmen on the lot who would build the miniature ships or the locomotives. For some reason, I enjoyed the work a lot, but I never really retained a personal interest in the films themselves. I think my family was rather disappointed that I didn’t have that much to talk about!

FP: How about your solo on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

UR: The first time, I read through it straight. Then Gene Kelly came over and said, "Sexy. Play it sexy." So I played what I thought was "sexy." I got a screen credit for my efforts in that film which was rather unheard of in those days.

FP: We know that Gene Kelly had a lot of input into the choreography of a film. How much input did he have in the actual musical side?

UR: Gene was the type of guy who’d be willing to change things for a dance sequence where Fred (Astaire) had to have it one way and that was it. I remember one time that we had a four bar break and Fred came in wrong. The 50-piece band was right but Fred insisted they were wrong. Gene would have simply laughed about it and gone on. He might have wanted to add a shake here or leave something out. He might have wanted to emphasize something or completely change a step altogether. If we came up with a phrase or something that would prove a little jazzier during the rehearsal, Gene would say "Try it." We had to be cautious when adding these bits and pieces because the conductor, Johnny Green, knew very little about jazz and had his own way of interpreting it.

FP: When you did the scoring at MGM, did they always pre-record the tracks and have a playback on the set for the singers and actors?

UR: Yes. You pre-recorded everything and they could sweeten it later if they wanted to. They’d have a playback on the set when they were actually shooting the sequences.

FP: Jumping a head a few years, tell about your work on the film CHINATOWN with the late Jerry Goldsmith. The trumpet solo actually carries the whole score.

UR: There were 40 strings, four pianos, four drummers and one trumpet player. That was it. I had no idea what the picture was about. Arranger Arthur Morton told me to play it sexy but like it’s not good sex! That was his interpretation of it. It was well written, though.

FP: Let’s talk about your work for Capitol Records. I remember hearing you all over the place on many of the Glen Gray Casa Loma Band releases. Did Glen actually conduct those sessions.

UR: Those were a lot of fun. No, Glen did no conduct. His arrangers did and were very inept. We really had to clean up his arrangement of Benny Goodman’s "Let’s Dance." It took us something like two hours to do it and it was chaotic. Jack Marshall was waiting in the wings to bring in the arrangement he had put together for the group. He came in and, facing the band, asked that he be shown the same respect as the previous arranger! Everyone had a good laugh over that.

FP: You were on the Capitol album SOLO SPOTLIGHT that was Glen Gray’s tribute to composer Victor Young.

UR: I worked with Victor going back to the radio days. He was not only a fine writer, but a fine conductor. In reality, he’d rather be playing poker than rehearsing. But he was a great technician.

FP: You’ve obviously had fun over the years.

UR: I remember Billy May would turn to all of us and say "Cheer down everyone! Cheer down!" I was always surrounded by guys who’d like to laugh and would have a great sense of humor. People like Bob Bain, Shelly Manne, Frank Comstock, Jack Marshall, and Joe Howard.

RK: I’ve always been a big fan of Billy May. I’ve heard that he would come into a session with an armload of music. The band would go through one score and move onto the next one almost immediately.

UR: Billy really didn’t like to rehearse much. Many times, he’d have an arranger working on a chart almost up to the last minute. He’d say let’s go through it once and, if the music was OK, then let’s record it. The only difference was when Billy was working on Bing Crosby’s show. Billy really enjoyed classical music. Back in 1948, I brought back over 40 scores from Boosey & Hawkes in London. He liked seeing what the great classical composers had written. On Wednesday we’d rehearse all of Bing’s numbers for the show and have the actual dress rehearsal on Thursday morning. Following that, the orchestra would play from charts that Billy had written. I remember he once did a chart of the third movement from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. He wrote it backwards and it took him two-to-three hours to write it all out (longer than it took him to write out anything for Bing). He did it just to see what the piece would sound like in reverse! We played it through with a 40-piece orchestra. He’d write things out just like that and for fun. It would take him three or four hours to write these things, but it would only take an hour or less to write Bing’s numbers. Bill Finnegan composed the beautiful "Serenade In Blue" for Glenn Miller. However, the night before they were going to rehearse it, he hadn’t written an intro for it. Glenn decided to hold a contest among his arrangers to see who could come up with the best intro. Besides Bill Finnegan, there was Jerry Gray and Billy May. Billy’s intro won and the rest, as they say, is history.

FP: Uan, on behalf of all of us associated with the Robert Farnon Society, thanks for a great interview.

UR: My pleasure. It’s been fun.

Submit to Facebook

In September, 2004, a musical reunion took place in Southern California reports FORREST PATTEN. This event reunited a group of some of the most accomplished and talented composers, arrangers and players in the business. Organized by staunch RFS member composer-arranger Frank Comstock, "Frank’s summit," as we affectionately dubbed it, proved to be a marvellous opportunity for old friends to come together and to share memorable stories of the music business.

In order not to miss an opportunity like this, Nancy and I packed our bags and recording gear and headed to The Sportsmen’s Lodge, a venerable meeting establishment and resort located in Studio City. Our good friend and recent RFS member, Rob Keil, flew down for the day to join the festivities and to assist us in our quest: to obtain a series of exclusive interviews on behalf of the Robert Farnon Society. Starting with this issue of Journal Into Melody, we’d like to present the first of those interviews.

Van Alexander has had a wonderful musical life. He literally was responsible for the launch of Ella Fitzgerald’s career by co-writing and arranging her big hit "A Tisket A Tasket". He wrote a book on arranging and has counted Johnny Mandel as one of his students. He has provided numerous orchestral backings and arrangements for the likes of Gordon MacRae and a host of other Capitol Records recording artists. He has scored a number of memorable films and television shows, including Dean Martin’s long-time NBC variety series. He’s also released a series of popular recordings featuring his own orchestra. Here’s Van’s story.

Van, who will turn 90 this year, shows no sign of slowing down. He recently completed some big band charts on behalf of pianist Michael Feinstein for a Carnegie Hall concert. EMI in the UK has recently re-issued two of his popular Capitol albums on a single CD. He’s won numerous awards and is very grateful for all of the good that’s come his way. In Van’s own words: "It’s been a wonderful ride." I have a feeling that this ride is far from over. It’s like the best "E Ticket" ride at Disneyland!


Interviewed by FORREST PATTEN

 Forrest Patten: Van Alexander, on behalf of the Robert Farnon Society, I’d like to thank you for joining us today for this very special interview. I think our readers would be interested in the story behind your tune "A Tisket A Tasket" for Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb’s band.

Van Alexander: It was the luckiest thing that happened in my career. Pure luck. I was arranging for Chick’s band. In 1938 they were playing at Levaggi’s Restaurant in Boston and were also on the air three or four times a week nationwide. Naturally, all of the music publishers were after Chick to play all the current hits. He was loading me up two or three weeks ahead of time with writing assignments. I was doing three arrangements a week plus the copying. Ella had recently joined the band and I was doing all of her early Decca arrangements. One day she said "Gee, I’ve got a great idea for a tune. Why don’t you try to work up something on the old nursery rhyme "A Tisket A Tasket." I said, "That’s a great idea, Ella. Let me think about it." But I didn’t have time the first week. When I came to Boston with my arrangements, she asked me if I had thought about the tune. I said, "Yeah I did, Ella. Maybe next week I’ll have something." Next week arrived and I still didn’t have anything. Now she got a little testy with me. She said, "If you don’t want to do it, just tell me and I’ll ask Edgar Sampson." He was the first saxophone player in the band and a wonderful arranger. So I said, "Hold the phone, Ella. Don’t ask Edgar. I’ll get to it." The song is an old nursery rhyme that was in the public domain. Anybody could have written an arrangement for it. What I did was to put it into a 32-bar song and added all of the novelty things. I took it to Boston. They rehearsed it that day and put it on the air that night. Robbins Music Publishing had a man in Boston named Leo Talent. He called Abe Olman (who was a big man at Robbins) and told him to "tape this thing off the air tonight and see what you think." Well, everybody raved about it. Two weeks later, they recorded it at Decca and it became #1 on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade show for 19 weeks. The real irony of the story is that in 1986 (almost 50 years later) because of that record, Ella, Chick and I were inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. That’s the story. If I hadn’t have done it, Edgar Sampson (or somebody else) would have ended up doing it. It was Ella’s idea. She changed a lot of the lyrics. It was a happy marriage. It was really her entry into the business, as well as mine, too. Chick Webb was just starting to make it, but he didn’t last long enough. He was quite ill and was unable to really cash in on "A Tisket A Tasket."

FP: Let’s go back to your beginning on the East Coast. You were influenced by some of the great Black bands and Black musicians of the day. Tell us about that time in your life.

VA: As a teenager, a lot of us were so-called "jitterbugs." We loved to do the "Lindy Hop" and so-forth. The place to do it and hear some great music at the same time was in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom. We’d go there quite often and listen to some great bands and great arrangements (which I was always interested in). After going there as often as we did, I struck up a "nodding acquaintance" with Chick Webb. One night I got up a little nerve and said, "Chick, I have a couple of arrangements at home that I think would fit your band. Are you interested?" He said, "Sure, bring them down Friday night for the rehearsal." Well, I was bluffing. I didn’t have any arrangements. I went home and scratched out "Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now" and the old Dixieland classic "That’s A Plenty." I brought them down to the rehearsal and, unbeknownst to me, the rehearsal started after the job. They’d finish the job at one o’clock, have some Muscatel Wine or something, and they’d start rehearsing about two o’clock in the morning. There were other arrangements in line before mine. Edgar Sampson would bring something in, as would Charlie Dixson (names I would never forget). Anyhow, they got to me about four o’clock in the morning. My mother was frantic. She called the police and told them that her son was out in Harlem. She wondered what he could be doing there at 4:30 in the morning!? I was just turning 19 at the time. Chick liked the arrangements and paid me $10 each for them. He really didn’t have the money so he took an advance on his salary from Charles Buchannan (who was the manager). There were other great bands at the Savoy. There was Teddy Hill, Willie Bryant and, through Chick, I got to write for all of these bands including Louis Armstrong (who had a big band in those days). I remember rehearsing Louis in a brownstone building up in Harlem and, later on, we did some TV shows together.

FP: Let’s talk about the formation of the Van Alexander Orchestra.

VA: The advent of my orchestra came about after "A Tisket A Tasket." There was a fellow by the name of Eli Oberstein who was the head of RCA Victor Records. He had formed what he called a stable of bandleaders/song writers. He signed Larry Clinton, Les Brown, and after "A Tisket," he thought he had another one! So he signed me. My band was fair. We did well for the first couple of years. Then the war came and we couldn’t get good musicians. It sort of petered out. I had an opportunity to come to California with Bob Crosby. The Capitol Theater in New York had been doing just picture shows during the war and since the war looked as if it was going to be over soon, they reinstated their big band policy. And the first one they booked was Bob Crosby. But Bob didn’t have a band! He had just gotten out of the service. So my manager at the time, a guy named Joe Glazer, cooked up a deal where it would be "Bob Crosby and the Van Alexander Orchestra." So we had a nice four weeks at the Capitol. Bob and I had a good relationship. He asked me if I’d like to come out to the West Coast. I told him I’d think about it. As I saw the handwriting on the wall where big bands were concerned, I took him up on the opportunity. And the story unfolds from there.

FP: Besides Ella Fitzgerald, you’ve arranged and conducted for a number of very talented artists, most notable at Capitol Records. The name Gordon MacRae comes to mind.

VA: Dear Gordon had one of the most glorious voices. When he did the "Soliloquy" from ‘Carousel,’ he made it sound as if it was a "real man" singing it. Gordon had just finished doing his two big pictures (Oklahoma and Carousel) and then there was a lull. Nothing was coming his way, partly because (in Hollywood) he was considered to be a kind of "Peck’s Bad Boy." He got a bit of a reputation in Hollywood and producers were a little bit afraid. He did one picture after those two blockbusters, ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free.’ He was going to go out on the road and make a little money based on the success of his two major musical pictures. He needed a conductor and arranger. A mutual friend, Marty Melcher (who was Gordon’s agent) and an old friend of mine who used to do publicity for my band got us together. It was the most wonderful relationship and turned out be very profitable because, through Gordon, I got my foot in the door at Capitol Records (where he was one of their artists). We did 12 or 13 albums together and, as a result, I became one of the in-house arrangers at Capitol. I got to record with other artists including Kay Starr and Dakota Staton. Gordon had four wonderful children and was married to the beautiful Sheila MacRae. Our kids sort of grew up together and I was on the road with Gordon for maybe 12 or 13 years, plus doing his records. When Sheila joined the act, she did so to sort of "solidify" Gordon and keep him on the straight road. They had the #1 nightclub act in the country and played all of the great spots. We had a wonderful time and got to meet an awful lot of people in the process. We even met Pablo Casals while playing Puerto Rico! I really miss Gordon. He sort of straightened out at the end of his life, but it was a little too late. He was a big gambler. In the beginning, he’d be making $25,000 a week in Las Vegas, but would lose it all at the tables. They’d have to pay tax on the money won and ended up owing the government over a million dollars. Sheila’s still around. I see and talk to her occasionally. But she’s having a bit of a financial struggle at this time in her life. It’s a sad story, considering all of the money they made.

FP: In listening to all of the recordings that you’ve done over the years, I’m overwhelmed by the variety of styles that you’ve been able to achieve. You can go from some of the most swinging arrangements from your early roots to an album of hymns featuring a solo organ with chorus. And, of course, there were the operetta albums featuring Dorothy Kirsten and Gordon MacRae. Stylistically, you were like a chameleon where you could blend from one setting to the next.

VA: That’s nice to hear. Someone once called me a "journeyman" arranger. I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve done 22 feature pictures and hundreds of segments for different television shows that are still being shown.

FP: Let’s talk about some of the television shows and movies.

VA: I did many segments of Bewitched, The Donna Reed Show, I Dream Of Jeannie and Dennis The Menace. I had a deal with Screen Gems Television. The main show that I scored was Hazel starring Shirley Booth. Those early shows would use a twelve or a thirteen-piece orchestra. Today, most shows use a piano or guitar for a play-out! Through Screen Gems, I got a deal at Columbia Pictures. The first picture I scored there was a thing with Joan Crawford called ‘Straight Jacket.’ It was a horror picture. They seemed to like it so I got to do a second picture with Joan. I had one disaster over there, though. I had done four or five successful pictures. They had a Western film with Glenn Ford and Inger Stevens. They had changed directors in the middle of it, as well as writers. The picture was really in trouble. Following those four or five independent projects for Columbia, they said, "Why don’t we give Van a chance? Maybe he can save the picture." They gave me a very good price and I had plenty of time to do it. I was given an office at the studio. I did the score in about six or seven weeks. I had a big orchestra and they were all there at the scoring session (Mike Frankovich and the head of the music department, Joni Taps). They raved about the music and said, "My God. You’ve saved the picture!" I was on cloud nine. So now they had what they called a "preview" of the picture. This is where they show it to the public and try to get some feedback. With my wife and two daughters, we all went to a theatre out here in the San Fernando Valley for the showing. Well, it was a disaster. People were laughing in the serious parts and were hissing the villain. I wanted to crawl under the table. I thought that I had written a pretty good score and everyone at the scoring stage had approved. And now the Columbia brass sees the result in the theatre! Two days later, Mike Frankovitch calls and tells me that he doesn’t think that the music is right for the picture! I asked him if they wanted to change anything and he said, "No, I think that we’re going to throw it all out and re-score it with 10 guitars and make it a real Western." So they hired Mundell Lowe who is a great guitar player. He brought in 10 guitars, but that didn’t help the picture either. It never played in a theatre, but was on television about three weeks later. That made me feel a little better, but I felt as if I’d never do another picture! But I remember what film composer David Raksin once said: "You’re not a full-fledged screen composer until you’ve had a score thrown out of a picture." Many times, things that look like a disaster turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Right at that time, I got a call from my dear friend Les Brown who had the band on The Dean Martin Show. He asked me if I’d like to come over and do some arrangements for the show. They had a couple of other guys doing arrangements at the same time. I said sure and went to work for Les and Dean. During the war in Vietnam, Les would travel with Bob Hope overseas. In his absence, I got to conduct the shows. Greg Garrison, the producer, seemed to like me and gave me many other shows to do. Those included Emmy Awards broadcasts, Gene Kelly specials, and a series featuring the singing group The Gold Diggers. In fact, I got a couple of Emmy nominations but no wins. That was quite a period.

FP: Tell us more about your work on The Dean Martin Show. You actually put out an album with a number of the familiar cues from that show.

VA: We did that at the request of the producer, Greg Garrison. In retrospect, it wasn’t very good for us because he used a lot of those cues on Dean’s Celebrity Roasts programs where he didn’t hire a band. But, the guys wanted to do it as a record date. Dean Martin was a pussycat. He never wanted to rehearse, of course. He thought that the spontaneity of not rehearsing would benefit the show. On the other hand, someone like Perry Como would rehearse for three weeks for a one-hour program. If Dean was doing a duet with somebody like Peggy Lee, we’d make a cassette of a man and a woman singing the particular arrangement, and he’d learn it while driving to or from the golf course. If he loused it up in any way, everybody would laugh and they would do it over again. They just loved Dean. He couldn’t do anything wrong. I wouldn’t say that he was the most dedicated performer in the world, but he got away with it. He’d tell the director, "Point the Italian where you want him."

FP: Talking about television music, what’s happened to the idea of a memorable theme?

VA: You mean what’s happened to melody. Dean’s identification theme was wonderful ("Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes") written by Ken Lane. An incident happened on the show that benefited me, but I’m still rather chagrined about it to this day. The producer, Mr. Garrison said, "Why don’t we have our own theme for the show?" People kind of shook their heads and wondered how they could replace Ken Lane’s song that had already established such a strong identification with Dean. They asked me to write a new theme where they could own the publishing. It could be very valuable based on performances. I went to Ken Lane and told him he’d have to go to Dean and tell him what’s happening because he (Dean) was rather oblivious to what was going on. Ken asked me if I knew what Dean would say if he’d go to him with a complaint? Dean would throw up his hands and say, "Aw, what’s the difference? Forget about it." As it turned out, I wrote a closing theme that they used for the last year of the show. It was great for me because I got ASCAP performances. But I felt terrible for my dear friend Ken Lane (who passed away a few years ago).

FP: There was another tune from that same album that I remember playing on the air during my early days in radio. In addition to your recording, Ernie Heckscher also covered it on one of his albums. What’s the story behind "The Bar-rump Bump"?

VA:That was an original composition that I wrote for a Dom Deluise special. Following a joke, Greg Garrison would always say "bar-rump bump." He asked me if I could come up with a song using that title. I wrote it and they liked it. Ernie Heckscher recorded it. I actually did five or six albums with Ernie (two of which he actually paid for himself to record). Columbia released a couple of them.

FP: Van, a couple of years ago, ASCAP presented you with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Tell us about that.

VA: They said I was deserving of it because of my multi-faceted career. I’ve been in ASCAP since 1941 (right after "A Tisket"). Coupled with the pictures and television shows that I did, Marilyn Bergman called and said that they had had a board meeting and decided that they had wanted to honour me. I told them that I didn’t know whether or not I was really deserving of a Lifetime Achievement Award, but I was highly honoured. It was a nice evening. I was proud that my whole family was there along with a lot of friends. It’s a nice "notch in the belt," as they say.

FP: Let’s touch upon your three Capitol albums: THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET, SWING! STAGED FOR SOUND and LET’S DANCE THE LAST DANCE.

VA: THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET was actually the pseudo-name for the Savoy Ballroom. But nobody knew what "the home of happy feet" was. So Capitol withdrew that and re-issued that album as THE SAVOY STOMP. Consequently, it sold like hot cakes. I wish it had sold like records! It was an artistic success and it had a lot of great players on it. I know that Uan Rasey played on the dates, as did Barney Kessel. Bob Bain was there on the Swing! Staged For Sound sessions. The Savoy album was a re-creation of, as far as my memory was concerned, tunes that were associated with bands that played at the Savoy. We did Andy Kirk’s "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," (which was his theme); and Chick Webb’s theme "Let’s Get Together." There was Lucky Millinder’s "Ride, Red, Ride" that featured a vocal by Joe Howard and some great trumpet work by Shorty Sherock. The other album, Swing! Staged For Sound was a series of duets accompanied by a big band. We had three drummers (Shelly Manne, Milt Holland and Irv Cottler) and two trombones (Milt Bernhart and Dick Kenney). We had Plas Johnson and Babe Russin on tenor sax. And Henri Rose and Bobby Stevenson were featured on two pianos. It was a good album.

FP: I was blown away by the two pianos on "I Won’t Dance."

VA: That’s where we interpolated Chopin’s "Revolutionary Etude" and tied it into the final arrangement.

FP: Who were your early musical inspirations? I know that your mother was a concert pianist.

VA: Growing up, I loved listening to Andre Kostelanetz and all the things that he did. As I got a little older and started listening to the big bands, there were the Dorseys, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and Benny Goodman. I never dreamed that someday I would have a chance to write for some of them. My all-time favourite was Billy May. I also like Pete Rugolo. There were so many. And there are so many great writers today.

FP: Do you have a personal message that you’d like to send to Robert Farnon?

VA: Well, how does he do it? He’s had a marvellous career and he’s still going; exploring new frontiers all the time. I’d love to meet him personally someday.

FP: Van, we want to thank you very much. You’ve had a wonderful career and are, indeed, a true legend in the music world.

VA: Thank you.

Forrest Patten conducted this interview with Van Alexander on 8 September 2004.

Submit to Facebook
Page 71 of 77

Login Form RFS

Hi to post comments, please login, or create an account first.
We cannot be too careful with a world full of spammers. Apologies for the inconvenience caused.

Keep in Touch on Facebook!    

 If you have any comments or questions about the content of our website or Light Music in general, please join the Robert Farnon Society Facebook page.
About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.