Friday, July 17, 2020

Earle Spencer and His New Band Sensation of the Year 1946

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Bold, brash, brassy, boogie-woogie, bouncy, bombastic - all these adjectives, as one would expect, - would apply to a big band birthed in the year following the close of World War II, especially one that was influenced by the Stan Kenton Orchestra which was formed five years earlier.

1946 was a year of hope, optimism and enthusiasm in the United States following the grueling war that had engulfed most of Europe, The Middle East and Asia and you can hear these aspirations in the big bands that were either re-formed with musicians returning from the war or those that were formed following it.

You can certainly hear this exuberance in the big band of trombonist Earl Spencer’s whose “pioneering big band” falls into the latter category. Like Kenton’s approach, Spencer’s music required musicians with a high degree of technical mastery to play it and often emphasized listening rather than dancing. Spencer tried to blend over this dichotomy by describing the music of his band as “ … futuristic and progressive yet keeping a danceable beat.” ! 

Earle Spencer's ambition was to be a progressive bandleader and a top-flight arranger-composer of an orchestra capable of playing his advanced ideas.

When the first Black & White label record by the new Earle Spencer orchestra came out the band was already a real sensation in Los Angeles.

But it was to be the classic definition of “an overnight sensation” as, like so many of the big bands that had prospered in the big band era that preceded the war, it would founder and fold in its wake.

However, thanks to Jordi Pujol and the team at Fresh Sound, the complete rare Black & White recordings 1946-1949 are available for the first time on CD in combination with recordings of an in-performance date by the band that took place on July 20, 1946 at the Casino Ballroom in Ft. Worth, Texas, and released as Earle Spencer and His New Band Sensation of the Year 1946 [2 CDs FSR 2501].

Robert Earle Spencer was born in 1926, in Weiborn, Kansas, first studied trombone at Northeast high school, Kansas City, formed his first band in Los Angeles at 14 and later had several other teenage outfits. He also took the band's male vocals but admitted: "I never gave Sinatra or Laine much trouble". 

In Earle's opinion, it was Stan Kenton who had the tightest band and he liked the way Rugolo arranged. Earle picked his first trombonist, Dick Kenney, as his favorite soloist on that instrument. He married Marlene before joining the Navy in 1944, and was discharged early summer 1946 after having been confined to a navy hospital for 15 months with rheumatic fever, forcing him to quit the trombone.

Once settled in Los Angeles, and studying trombone all over again, Earle's ambition was to be a bandleader, a topflight arranger-composer and to form an orchestra that would be able to perform his new and advanced ideas. 

Earle was a tall handsome man and he dreamed to one day emulate Stan Kenton. He joined forces with Bill Gillett, a 26 year-old talented arranger and fellow Rugolo fan, who played piano and worked in both radio and recording studios. As soon as they put together a songbook of standards and originals, they called a few students and studio musicians and started rehearsing together. The band never actually existed outside of the rehearsal rooms, yet managed to receive attention among the Hollywood jazz scene that summer, which led to their first official engagements as a relief band at the Casino Gardens Ballroom in Ocean Park, California. These first band appearances also caused quite a stir at Hollywood and Vine.

The echoes of those early shows soon arrived at the ears of Ralph Bass, the A&R director for the Black & White record company (located at 4910 Santa Monica Blvd.), one of the most active in the Los Angeles area. Bass, attracted by Earle's modern big band concept, decided to sign Spencer to record some sides for his label. Spencer recruited a crew of top studio and radio men for his first Black & White recording session, which took place on August 16, 1946 at Hollywood's Radio Recorders, under Bass's supervision. This band featured some fine soloists, such as altoist Les Robinson, tenonst Ralph Lee, trumpeter Paul Lopez, pianist Tommy Todd, bassist Red Callender, drummer Jackie Mills and guitarist Jack Marshall. They recorded Concerto for Guitar, Bolero in Boogie, Production on Melody, three tunes that show the kind of progressivism that the band was expounding. Altoist Les Robinson, featured throughout Soft and Warm blowing not unlike the title would suggest. Along with these four tracks Paul Nelson's vocal arrangement of the standard Lover Man was also recorded, sung by Annette Warren, which remains unre-eased. In the same session it is quite probable the band also recorded Earle Meets Stan - the right title for Frank Erickson's original, which was also left unreleased on Black & White, but appeared much later under the name of another unissued tune entitled Spenceria on a 10" record released by the Tops label (L 948) in 1955.

According to Earle, he met the young arranger when Nelson was only 17 years old during the Casino Gardens Ballroom engagements after Nelson had hitchhiked from Phoenix to Los Angeles to audition his score of Lover Man. Earle said some time later, "The arrangement wasn't too bad", although he regretted not being able to record it, "mainly because we had no girl singer at the time. So Nelson thumbed his way back to Arizona, where he was attending Arizona State Teachers college, in his third year as a music major. Later on, Paul sent more scores, we got a girl to sing, found Lover Man was really fine, and finally received from him Polychronic Suite, in three parts, which we are still using. We hired him. He is the most talented young musician I've seen".

Again, Spencer's band, with a few changes, went to Radio Recorders, on September 5 and 6, 1946. For the first time an outstanding black soloist (the great Al Killian, formerly with Charlie Barnet's big band) replaced Paul Lopez in the trumpet section, and was responsible for all the exciting solos on these sessions. The main pianist on these dates was Milt Raskin, featured on E.S. Boogie Part I and II, and Rhapsody in Boogie Part I and II. At that time Milt was one of the busiest pianists in town, with two radio slots, recording dates, transcriptions and casual jobbing in between. On the first date the lead altoist was Arthur "Sheets" Herfurt, being replaced by Les Robinson on the tunes recorded on the 6th, on which two French horns, James McGee and Richard G. Hofmann were added to the exciting brass section. Also heard on these dates were tenorist Herb Stewart, guitarist Tony Rizzi, pianist Paul Francis Polena, trombonist Ollie Wilson, and vocalist Bob Hayward singing on the pleasant Amber Moon. Along with the available material trom the September 5, the aforementioned unreleased track Spenceria was also recorded, Paul Francis Polena and Harry Paul Wham were the chief arrangers for these two recording dates.

When the first record by the new Earle Spencer orchestra came out - featuring Bolero in Boogie and Production on Melody (Black & White 795) - the band was already a real sensation in Los Angeles. On October 19, a fourth session followed and again several changes appeared in the line-up. Frank Beach and Mike Bryan on the trumpet section replaced Salko and Jones; Ralph Lee, Don Lodice were on tenor saxes and Hy Mandell on baritone. In the rhythm section, Tony Rizzi remained on guitar and Morty Corb on bass while Artie Shapiro replaced Red Callender as second bass player; Hal Schaeter played piano, a young player, just 20 years old (who had already played with some big name artists, such as Ina Ray Hutton, Benny Carter, Harry James and Boyd Raeburn) and the illustrious veteran Sam Weiss on drums, who had just arrived in California after moving out of the New York scene This group recorded Ihe Kenton-slanted Gangbusters and Piano Interlude and probably Nelson's then-unreleased Polychronic Suite. On Five Guitars in Flight, is a setting for a guitar quintet led by the composer Arv Garrison (from Vivian Garry Trio), joined by Tony Rizzi, Barney Kessel, Gene Sargent and black guitarist Irving Ashby.

In November 1946, Spencer showed off his band again at Tommy Dorsey's 'Swing Shift Sessions' at the Casino Gardens (12:30 to 4:00 a.m. Sunday). Kermit Bierkamp, manager of the Casino introduced Earle Spencer's orchestra as the "New Band Sensation of the Year", The young bandleader, described his orchestra as "futuristic and progressive yet keeping a danceable beat". From its early Black & White recordings the avid Kenton disciple Earle Spencer attracted attention from devotes of "progressive music". At the end of the year, Spencer's band was voted by readers in both divisions of Down Beat polls, being placed number 11 in the list of swing bands; and number 25 of sweet bands.

In January 1947, the orchestra was dropped by the Thompson & Gillett marketing team publicity due to unfavorable publicity surrounding the band. Spencer's crew tried to get a date as a relief band at the Avalon Ballroom with a barrage of phone calls and box office attacks asking about the band's date. The Avalon officials became suspicious and decided against hiring Spencer, filling the spot with Billie Rogers's new sextet instead. In February 1947, Edward ("Gabe") Gabel, for several years personal aide to Stan Kenton, left Kenton to become the young bandleader's personal manager, with Kenton and his manager Carlos Gastel's blessings. Gastel was personally interested in Spencer and gave all his support to a drive to get the youngster and his band on the road to fame. All denied that any financial tie-up was involved. Gastel concentrated his efforts on Spencer's records and, by March 1947, twelve of the sides recorded for Black & White had been released.

From the September sessions, an ambitious 3 record-album, Progressions In Boogie (Black & White 621 was released. Spencer said in the liner notes- "The purpose of this album is to illustrate the advancement in boogie, from the early stages to what future ideas are now in the making. On E.S. Boogie, Part I is boogie as it was probably conceived in its very beginning. Part II shows how it has advanced from piano styling to what we might call boogie blues. Spencerian Theory, Part I & !l establishes a melody, which is used on both sides, somewhat in the form of semi-classical boogie. Rhapsody in Boogie, Part I shows boogie as it is being played today. Part II is our version of how this same boogie melody will be played in years to come."

"The piano work on Spencertan Theory is played by Paul Polena, and is our first chance to let the public hear this new and exciting pianist. The melody on this album was also conceived by Paul, and whatever assistance that I have rendered him was done for the purpose of creating something sensational and new in the progressions of music. We have chosen boogie as the subject because so many varied forms of this type of music have been created."

The arrangers who participated in the writing of the six sides of this album include Bill Gillett (E.S. Boogie, Part I and II), Frank Erickson (Spencerian Theory, Part I and II], and Harry Paul Wham [Rhapsody in Boogie, Part I and II]. Contemporary critics were divided on the means of those studio recordings -the same critic deploring the "trumpet screeching" whilst praising the "good trombone unisons". Also some critics said that Spencer's music was too pretentious and based on too many elements which Kenton had already exploited. However, most recognized Ihe genuine talent of the band, one of the most powerful, invariably playing ensemble figures at fortissimo with the drummer Jackie Mills' strongly executed drum accents punching the rhythm out, at times so startlingly thunderous that the sound would swamp the recording apparatus levels.

In early October 1947 the band played its first date outside Los Angeles. The band's opening night at San Francisco's Edgewater Beach dancehall was fog bound, but the rest of the days were good. Earle reportedly outdrew Woody
Herman and Jan Garber, by 700 heads. 

The Edgewater show gave Spencer several airings on NBC and Mutual, with the latter being a coast-to-coast broadcast. Among the new men in the band was 22 year-old tenorist Tommy Makagon, who also played clarinet. He had been with Spencer's first kid band, when both were 16 years old, but the war brought about their separation. Tommy worked combo jobs around L.A. before joining Spencer in September 1947. Another newcomer to the band was Howard Phillips, a 19 year-old baritone, whose favorite soloist on his instrument was Leo Parker. The rest of the personnel included in the trumpet section lead Tony Facciuto, ex-Kenton player Johnny Anderson, plus Bill Steers and Keith Williams; Jr. Durward Morsh, Ollie Wilson, Chuck Gales, Earle Spencer, trombones; Matt Utal, Bob Gillette, alto saxes; Carter England, tenor sax; Steve Perlow, baritone sax; Bob Clarke, piano; Dave Sperling, bass; Walt Eleffson, guitar; Bobby White, drums; Walter Silva and Earle Spencer, vocals; Jr. Durward Morsh, Bill Gillett, Morty Corb and Paul Nelson, arrangers. The band then returned to Los Angeles, opening at the Million Dollar theater.

Earle Spencer, after signing with the General Artists Corporation, finally managed to take his band out of California. In summer 1948, he reorganized yet another young band. Among the new men were lead-alto Rubin Leon, and solo-altoist Anthony Ortega, 20, a Charlie Parker fan, both also double on clarinet; Others were Tony Facciuto, Jon Nielson, Jerry Munson, trumpets; Dick Kenney, Earl Hamlin, Carl Arvidson, trombones; Tommy Makagon, Stan Heaney, tenor saxes; Neil Cunningham, piano (who played with Georgia Auld, Al Donhaue, and whose favorite pianist was Joe Albany); Jess Harris, bass, who had not played with any other bands before coming to Spencer; and Frank Isola, drums, who had been playing with Bobby Sherwood and who was a fan of Don Lamond. Dick Schumm, was the business manager. "There are good, young, and sincere musicians," Earle claimed, "who should get a chance to climb to success but who are hampered by the antics of the fakers". In July at Fort Worth's Casino Ballroom, Texas, according to manager Bob Smith, Spencer did the best two weeks in that dancery's last three-year history. In Salt Lake City, when Rainbow Randevu was standing, the band drew the best crowds, during any given four week period, in five years. But after these successful engagements Spencer's crew disbanded once again in 1948.

Dissatisfied with the "tread lightly" tactics of local bookers, Earle, and new personal manager Ray Hatfield, a 45-year old clarinetist, hit the road to find a series of dates in the Pacific northwest. Hatfield decided to stick around to see if someone other than Carlos Gastel could build a young band. In November Earle re-formed the band with an impressive roster of young players. For the first time Earle told the press, "I'm satisfied with all the men in the band". Earle's arranging staff featured Paul Nelson, Bill Gillett, and Frank Erickson. The band did a string of one-niters from San Francisco to Vancouver, B.C. and back again.

The band members for this West Coast tour were Tony Facciuto, lead trumpet; Jerry Munson, Bob Crocker and Johnny Chick, trumpets; Johnny Mandel, Carl Arvidson, Earl Hamlin, trombones; Woody Gordon, Bob Lively, alto saxes; Tommy Makagon, Stan Heaney tenor saxes; Howard Phillips, baritone sax; Shannon Fletcher, piano; Buddy Jones, bass; Roy Hall, drums; Jerry Hexemer and Toni Aubin (married to Howard Phillips) vocals; Lefty Gregg, band boy, and Spencer, trombone and vocals.

In December 1948, Stan Kenton, the pianist who created "progressive jazz", fired all members of his band in New York. Rumors said Stan had definitely quit the music business to study medicine. Soon after, in February 1949, Earle landed six of the ex-Kentonites for his own band. The newcomers included Buddy Childers, Art Pepper, Harry Belts, Harry Forbes, and Laurindo Almeida. They all were with the band for the recording on February 7, 1949. During the session four tracks were recorded: Oh! You Beautiful Doll, Jazzbo (a tune dedicated to the popular radio announcer Al "Jazzbo" Collins), Box Lunch (At the Factory), and Sunday Afternoon, sung by the band's vocalist Toni Aubin, in a style very close to the one of June Christy, The fine bop solos from this recording session came from trumpeter Buddy Childers.

In spring 1950, Earle Spencer, who wouldn't give up his one-off local slots, appeared with a newly formed orchestra: eight brass, five saxes, three rhythm and girl singer. Although the band contained most of the necessary ingredients (fine arrangements and excellent soloists) to make it to the top, once again without a large agency to sustain the interest created, the band's days were numbered, being the most short-lived recording band ever to have played ‘on the road.’ 
We believe that Earle's band deserved to make it-but that's really a matter of opinion.”



  1. Do you happen to have a link to order the cd's? Earle was my grandpa, & it would be amazing to be able to order these.

  2. I am Earle Spencer's daughter Michelle from his marriage to my mother Maxine Miller, born in KC in 1952. Due to recent info from DNA research, I find myself in the company of heretofore unknown siblings and extended family who are most interesting in tracing connections. I'd love to chat/explore any info the blogger has that might help shed some light for all of us; eternally in your debt if you can further our quest!

  3. I am Earle's sister and met Jeff a months ago.

  4. I found Earle Spencer by surprise on Spotify....LOVE everything I listen to. My favorite big band, by far!


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