Friday, March 13, 2020

Revisiting Drummer Jack Sperling and the Les Brown Band

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In a town loaded with talented drummers, Jack Sperling held his own in any setting.

Never a showboat, Jack was the epitome of "hip, slick and cool."

Can you tell?

Imagine strolling into the Professional Drum Shop [PDS] on Vine Street across from Local 47 of the Musicians Union on a bright sunny day in Hollywood CA to buy a pair of drum sticks and, while doing so, coming across the illustrious group of drummers featured in this photograph taken by William Claxton.

Believe it or not, it was a common occurrence after Bob Yeager and Chuck Molinari opened the doors of the PDS in 1959.

Although not as well known to the Jazz public as Shelly Manne, Joe Morello, and Mel Lewis, Jack Sperling, wearing the dark glasses in the above Claxton photo, was one heckuva of a drummer.

[BTW – the other drummer in the lower left of the photo is Lloyd Morales, who, like Jack, would also work with Les Brown’s band and was very active on the Las Vegas scene in the 1960s.]

Jack was one of the very few drummers who could get around a two bass drum kit as easily as Louie Bellson.  He could do the showman stuff as you’ll see in the following video with Peggy Lee singing Fever [Max Bennett is the bassist], but most of the time, he played with very little, wasted motion.

Hank Mancini loved Jack’s drumming and used him on some of the early Peter Gunn episodes and on many of his subsequent albums, movie scores and TV soundtracks.

Jack could read up-side-down fly specks on a wall across a room. He tuned his drums to have a ringing sound so that the full beauty of the drum’s tone came through: his snare drum crackled, his tom toms boomed and his bass drum thudded.

It takes a great deal of tension on the drum heads to tune them this way. As a result, the stick rebounds come flying off the drums so you have to have the hand and wrist strength [and speed] to take this action back into the drums.

Jack’s fills [short drum breaks] were crisp and precise, his solos were musical and fit the tone of the piece and his time-keeping was impeccable.

I always thought that Jack along with Alvin Stoller and Irv Kluger were the unsung heroes among studio drummers. I’m sure that there are others who could be added to this list.

I first became familiar with Sperling’s superb playing when he was a member of the Les Brown Band. I also heard Jack on occasion with tenor saxophonist Dave Pell’s Octet. Dave was also one of the featured players in Les’ band.

During the heyday of Jazz on the West Coast, many musicians may have aspired to work with The Stan Kenton Orchestra, but Stan’s music was often daunting to execute and difficult to play; full of bravura.

While it could be daring in its own way Les Brown’s music was more accessible.

Seeing Jack Sperling in the Claxton photo also reminded me of the fact that the first, formal Jazz composition I ever played on was Dance for Daddy, one of the arrangements for his octet that Dave Pell made available through his music publishing firm.

In addition to Jack, Dave’s group also included others on the Les Brown Band such as Don Fagerquist on trumpet, Ray Sims on trombone and Rolly Bundock on bass.

Here’s a video tribute to the Dave Pell octet that features his group performing Dance for Daddy.

In the 1950s, Les Brown’s band was somewhat of a fixture at the spacious Hollywood Palladium. As Scott Yanow explains: “The Hollywood Palladium was the in-spot in Los Angeles It was open six nights a week and its daily attendance was between 5 and 8,000. The Les Brown Orchestra was able to satisfy both dancers and Jazz fans with its emphasis on standards, melodic playing and concise solos.”

During this time, Les and the band also had a long association with comedian Bob Hope’s radio and TV shows, recording contracts with Capitol Records and Columbia Records, not to mention the lucrative studio work which was ongoing throughout this period for many of the band members including Ronnie Lang, Don Paladino, Conrad Gozzo, Ted and Dick Nash and the aforementioned Messer’s Sperling, Pell, Sims and Bundock.

All of which combined to form the impression in my mind that Les and the band came of age in the 1950s.  Nothing could be farther from the truth as Les had paid his dues in the business dating back to the earliest years of the big band era.

For as Leonard Feather explains in his liner notes to the band 1953 Concert at the Palladium LP [Coral CRL 5700]: “It was a Duke University that Les, along with some fellow-collegians, started his first band. The Duke Blue Devils, as they called themselves, stayed together professionally until late 1937. After several months as a busy free-lance arranger, Les started a new band.

In later years his personal contributions as an instrumentalist and arranger became less and less frequent, though he continued to play clarinet occasionally. Though unwilling to feature himself as a soloist, Les is neither the figurehead nor the "businessman-only" bandleader type; he is the musical guide and mentor of everything that happens in the band.

The band business has undergone many vital changes in the past fifteen years. Of the few orchestras that have lived through all the vicissitudes of those years, some have made radical adjustments in style to cope with the new demands of a younger generation; others, through failing to recognize these demands, have waned in popular appeal. Still others have suffered inevitable and damaging changes in personnel.

Through the entire era, Les Brown alone has continued to move along smoothly in a straight line. His changes in style and personnel have been minor, his popularity has persisted unflaggingly. Yet he has never had the allegiance of the type of fan cult that has elevated the Goodmans, the Kentons, and Hermans to prizewinning pinnacles.”

The young musicians in my circle of friends and I referred to Les’ orchestra as the “fanfare band” because many of its arrangements began and ended with them.

In retrospect, it may have been an apt characterization because the band had a lot to celebrate: a bevy of great musicians, a wonderful sound, and a host of talented arrangers including Skip Martin, Frank Comstock, Wes Hensel, Ed Finckel, Bob Higgins, and Ben Homer.

Here’s a detailed overview of the band’s history from George T. Simon’s magnificent opus – The Big Bands 4th Ed. [New York: Schirmer, 1981] at the end of which you will find our video tribute to Les Brown and the Band of Renown.

The audio track features a nice sampling of Jack Sperling’s stellar big band drumming Frank Comstock’s arrangement of Juan Tizol’s Caravan with solos by Dave Pell on tenor and Ray Sims on trombone.

“LES BROWN refers to his band as "The Malted Milk Band." If you equate malted milks with leading a relaxed, youthful life, with liking and trusting people, with enjoying what you're doing, with retaining a certain amount of unabashed naivete, then Les's description is quite accurate.

This band had fun. The guys always seemed to take pride in their music, and for good reason: it was always good music. Maybe it wasn't as startlingly creative as Ellington's or Goodman's or that of some other bands, but it was never music that the men would have any cause to be ashamed of. The ar­rangements (many of the early ones were written by Les himself) were top-notch, and throughout most of the band's history the playing of them was equally good.

Les's spirit and musicianship pervaded his band. Few leaders have ever been accorded such complete respect by their sidemen. Back in 1940 I wrote in Metronome what now, more than a generation later, still holds true:

It's difficult to find a better liked and more respected leader in the entire dance band business than Les Brown. Of course, a healthy personality and an honest character don't make a great leader by themselves. But they help an awful lot when the guy can do other things such as make fine arrangements, rehearse and routine a band intelligently, treat men as they want to be treated, and then impress himself on the public by playing a good clarinet. . . . Talk to some of the fellows in his band. A number of them have had better offers, for there have been some lean Brown band days, but they've refused them. "This band's too fine and a guy can't be happier than when he's working for Les. He knows just what he wants, how to get it, and he treats you right." So explain men as they ruthlessly turn down a Miller or a Goodman or a Dorsey in rapid succession.

Though there always existed a warm, close relationship among the mem­bers of the band, a preoccupation with musical precision prevented an equally close rapport with their audiences. Thus, during its first three or four years, the band made a stronger impact on other musicians than it did on the public.

Organized at Duke University, the band, known as the Duke Blue Devils, left the college in the spring of 1936 as a complete unit. The men, almost all still undergraduates, spent the summer at Budd LakeNew Jersey, and then, with the exception of two men who returned to school in the fall, took to the road for a year. During the summer of 1937, they played at Playland Casino in RyeNew York. Les recalls that "the guys made twenty-five bucks a week, and I made all of thirty-five. I was pretty green in those days. I remember that the song pluggers used to come up to see me to talk business, but most of the time I'd go off between sets with the guys and play shuffleboard."

The band broke up right after Labor Day—the parents of most of the boys had decided that their sons should go back to college and get their degrees. So Les moved in with' another arranger named Abe Osser, later better known as Glenn Osser, and supported himself by writing for Larry Clinton, Isham Jones, Ruby Newman and Don Bestor. For the summer season of 1938, Les returned to Budd Lake, fronting a local band which had also served as a road band for Joe Haymes. There he finally noticed a very pretty girl who had hung around the bandstand during the band's engagement two years earlier—noticed her enough to marry her. Today Les and Claire (Cluny) Brown are one of the most popular and respected couples in West Coast musical circles, parents of two grown children, a daughter, Denny, mother of two boys, and Les, Jr., a businessman, who married Missi Murphy, daughter of actor and former Senator George Murphy.

Meanwhile back at Budd Lake. The romance had been good; the band had been only fair. Les wanted out before the end of the season so he could go with Larry Clinton as chief arranger. But the customers liked Les and his band, so the management wouldn't let him quit.

At that time, RCA Victor had a very shrewd A and R chief named Eli Oberstein, who saw great promise in Brown. (Les had switched from Decca to Victor's subsidiary Bluebird label.) Oberstein convinced Les he should organ­ize a better band and arranged a booking in the Green Room of New York's Edison Hotel, for which Les received a hundred dollars a week—quite a salary for him in those days. The twelve-piece outfit wasn't an astounding success, but it satisfied the management and soon attracted booker Joe Glaser, who threw his support, financial as well as otherwise, behind the outfit. Thus began a warm relationship that was to last more than a quarter of a century.

Glaser was intensely devoted to the band. One summer, while Metronome was running its annual dance-band popularity poll, I received a telephone call from him. He wanted to buy 250 copies of the magazine. When I asked him why, he said he needed them for his friends, so they could use the ballot to vote for Les. When I told him we couldn't sell them to him because we wanted the contest to reflect a true picture of our regular readers' tastes (with our circulation, 250 votes could have made a strong impact), he said nothing and hung up. Our attitude must have made quite an impression, however, because for a long time thereafter, Les subsequently told me, Glaser kept referring to me as "What's his name—the guy at Metronome who couldn't be bought."

When it was formed in late 1938, the band had twelve men. As its engage­ments grew (it played the Arcadia Ballroom in New York and also spent a good part of the summer of 1940 at the New York World's Fair Dancing Campus), its personnel also grew, in quality as well as in numbers. It featured a couple of excellent tenor saxists in Wolffe Tannenbaum and Stewie McKay; a brilliant lead saxist, Steve Madrick, who later became the chief audio engi­neer for NBC-TV's "Today" show; and, starting in the summer of 1940, a very attractive seventeen-year-old ex-dancer from Cincinnati named Doris Day.

Doris had been discovered by the Bob Crosby band, but something went wrong. One report had it that a member of the band had made some pretty serious passes at the very young lady, which frightened her so that she gave her notice. In any event, Les heard her at the Strand Theater, was immedi­ately impressed, and, having heard the grapevine stories about her unhappiness, offered her a job in what was probably his most boyishly charming manner. She accepted and joined the band in New England in August of 1940, eventually to become one of its most important assets.

Twenty-five years later, Doris told me, "I was awfully lucky working with Les. The boys were so great. They softened things up for me when everything could have disillusioned and soured me."

Doris's stay with the band lasted less than a year. She recorded a few sides. Says Les, "I remember the first one was a thing called 'Beau Night in Hotchkiss Corners.' What was she like? Very easy to work with—never a problem."

How was she as a performer? I reviewed the band both at the Arcadia and at Glen Island Casino during the fall of 1940 and came away with this impres­sion: "And there's Doris Day, who for combined looks and voice has no apparent equal: she's pretty and fresh-looking, handles herself with unusual grace, and what's most important of all, sings with much natural feeling and in tune."

However, the band's chief failing still remained evident: it lacked intimacy, "Only at times does it ever get really close to the dancers," continued the same review. More novelties and more spotlighting of soloists were suggested.

That winter the band went to Chicago for a two-week engagement at Mike Todd's Theater Cafe. It stayed for six months. But before it returned East, Doris had left. She'd fallen in love with a trombonist in Jimmy Dorsey's band, become Mrs. Al Jorden and retired — temporarily.

During the following summer, the band really found itself. It spent the entire season at Log Cabin Farms in ArmonkNew York, where the guys had a ball. Most of the men lived in houses in the area, and during the day they played softball and tennis and went through quite a health-kick routine. The band took on a new, even younger girl singer (some reports stated she was only fourteen, though she didn't look it) named Betty Bonney and with her made its first hit record, a timely opus called "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio." Inasmuch as the band was made up preponderantly of avid Yankee fans (Joe Glaser had a season's box at Yankee Stadium that Les and his friends fre­quently occupied), the effort proved to be quite a labor of love.

The band's approach, which up till then had been good but always quite serious, began to reflect the personalities of its members, and the rapport between musicians and audiences that had been missing for all the previous years was finally established. They had a very personable, romantic singer named Ralph Young, and a brilliant clarinetist named Abe Most, each of whom had a wild sense of humor. One of their favorite gags involved Most's pretending to sing a pretty ballad. Abe happened to have a horrible voice, but Ralph would sneak a mike off behind the bandstand and supply the sounds while Abe would lip-sync. Then, of course, as Abe would reach the climax of his chorus, Ralph would sing ridiculous lyrics or stop singing altogether, while Abe continued mouthing to no avail.

But the band's big novelty hits were performed by a cherubic baritone saxist named Butch Stone. "I caught him first when he was with Larry Clin­ton's band at Loew's State Theater in New York," reports Les. "I remembered he did a thing called 4My Feet's Too Big,' and he broke me up. Right after that, Larry was commissioned an Air Force captain, and so I offered Butch a job, and he's been with me ever since."
Stone was just one of many replacements Les started to make—not all of his own volition—when the draft started gobbling up some of the best musi­cians around. "It got so you wouldn't hire a guy," Les reports, "unless you were sure he was 4-F."

But the band continued to sound better and better all the time. And it found the formula for reaching the dancers and holding them—not merely through novelties but via some lovely ballads, like "Tis Autumn," which Les arranged, and a series of swinging versions of the classics, most of them scored by Ben Homer, including such items as "Bizet Has His Day," "March Slav" and "Mexican Hat Dance." Obviously the band had found its commercial groove. In October of 1941, it started a one-month engagement at Chicago's Blackhawk Restaurant and I stayed for almost five. It followed that with a series of lengthy dates at top hotel rooms like the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania, New York's prestige room, and the College Inn of Chicago's Hotel Sherman, the most coveted spot in that city. In 1942 it scored a big hit at the Palladium in Holly­wood, made its first movie, Seven Days Leave, with Lucille Ball, Victor Mature and Carmen Miranda, then began a whole series of appearances on the Coca Cola-sponsored radio show that emanated from service camps throughout the country. "We'd just travel and blow, and blow and travel, and travel and blow some more," Les relates. "Tommy Dorsey was supposed to have done the most of those Coke shows, but I'm sure we were a close second —it must have been something like eighty-two for him to seventy-six for us."

For several years, Les had been calling Doris, who by then had become a mother. For him she had remained the ideal girl singer—the ice-cream-soda girl for the ice-cream-soda band—and he wanted her back. It was during the band's Coke travels that he called her one more time. "We were in DaytonOhio, and I told her that's as close as we'd be coming to Cincinnati, where she was living. 'So how about it?' I asked her. And when she couldn't quite seem to make up her mind because of her kid, I told her the band would send her son and her mother ahead to the Pennsylvania Hotel, where we were going to open in a few days, and fix them up there and everything if she'd join us right away in Ohio. That's when she agreed to come back."

With Doris in the band again, Les started turning out a series of successful records, such as "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time," "You Won't Be Satisfied," and Doris' biggest hit with the band, "Sentimental Journey."

The first time the band played the tune, the reaction was negligible. "It was at one of those late-night rehearsals we used to have at the Hotel Pennsylvania," Doris recalls. "Nobody was especially impressed. But after we played it on a couple of broadcasts, the mail started pouring in. Before that I don't think we'd even planned to record it. But of course we did—right away—and you know the rest."

This was the same period in which Les recorded his other big hit, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." To show you how imperceptive recording companies can be, it wasn't released until almost five years later. "We did it between recording bans," Les reports. "We'd taken it along as one of those extra numbers you sometimes get a chance to do on a date, and we did the whole thing in fifteen minutes. For years after that it stayed in the barrel at Columbia.

"Then one night in 1948, when we were running out of tunes, we played it as a band number on one of our Hope shows. The reaction was terrific. Right away we got a wire from Columbia telling us to get into the studio the next day and record it. I wired back, 'Look in your files.' They did, and of course they found it and released it, and it became a big hit. I've often won­dered if Columbia had released it when we first did it whether it would have been as big for us. I have a feeling it might not have made it then. And you know what? Columbia still has a lot of things of ours that they've never released."

Actually, by the time the record came out, Les had given up his band, sup­posedly for good. It happened late in 1946, and the move wasn't entirely sur­prising to some of us. In the February issue of Metronome, after praising the band, especially saxists Steve Madrick, Ted Nash and Eddie Scherr, trum­peters Don Jacoby and Jimmy Zito, trombonist Warren Covington, pianist Geoff Clarkson, and Doris Day, "now THE band singer in the field, who is singing better than ever and displaying great poise," I concluded with: "As for Les himself, he is becoming sort of an enigma these days, apparently more interested in songs and the publishing field, less eager and enthusiastic about his band. . . . Such a change is discouraging and causes some uneasy wonder­ing about the Brown future."

A few months later he verified his retirement plans, first verbally, then actively. He quit in December, 1946. "I wanted to settle in L.A., where the weather would be nice and I could relax. It rained steadily for the first twelve days."

Les's plan was to take twelve months off. But he had a contract for a March date at the Palladium. "I'd forgotten all about it. The guys had taken other jobs. But the management wouldn't let me out of it, even though I had no band." So he reorganized. "I think we rehearsed about three times before we opened. We had some great men. But the band was uneven."

They broadcast twice a night from the Palladium. "Stan Kenton heard one of our early shows one night and, according to the guy he was with, said he thought the band sounded terrible. He was right. But then later on that same night, he tuned in our second broadcast, without knowing who it was, and asked the same guy he was with, 'Whose band is that? It sounds great!' He was right again. That's just how unpredictable we were with that new group."

Two years later, Les still had a band. But, he noted then, "I've given up the idea of being the number-one band in the country. It's not worth it. I'd much rather stay here in California, maybe doing radio work like I'm doing. . . . I've got a home here and I can be with Cluny and the kids and I can make a pretty good living."

Thirty-five years after he had emigrated to there, Les was still in Califor­nia. For most of those years he earned an excellent living from radio and television shows—Bob Hope's, Dean Martin's, the Grammy Awards salutes, etc. He and his band also traveled extensively with Hope to service camps all over, a regimen that Les gladly surrendered in the latter 1970s in favor of one that allowed him to remain at home in his warm, delightful, early-Amer­ican style abode in Pacific Palisades,, where he and Clare spend evenings lis­tening to classical music and entertaining their many friends.

Several nights a week, Les still leaves home to play west coast gigs with his band, but in the winter of 1981 he concluded what he insisted would be his final one-nighter tour. And this time, even more so than in 1946, when he issued a similar statement, he really meant it. Or at least, that's what he was saying!” [pp. 99-106].

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