Bob Bain - the famous American Guitarist is Interviewed
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."
FORREST PATTEN interviews
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