The International Writers Magazine:Music & Mad Men
The Influences of Brubeck
Music performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet so musically satisfied me that I brought a phonograph and Dave’s recordings along on my Honeymoon.
Years later, for a music magazine article my description of the group was:
“Desmond soars to unimagined heights then settles to become the perfect contrapuntal twin to Brubeck’s brilliant right hand, while Morello never misses with his rock steady beat, nor Wright with his perfectly placed rhythmic swinging bottoms”.
If you know Brubeck, you know what all that means.
Being at the peripheral of the music scene for 35 years, performing, lyric writing and session producing, the advent of Dave Brubeck’s 90th Birthday, returned me back to past involvements and pleasures.
As a young Clarinet player I easily matched my elementary and High School fellow reed players. At the New London Coast Guard Academy where I’d been sent to learn Yeoman skills, I thought playing in the band would make the experience more fun. So showing up at a dance band rehearsal I learned one reed chair was open, Baritone Sax. Could I play it? “Of course I could”, I said, never having honked one in my life.
I was given a horn and sheet music for a radio broadcast scheduled the following evening. Down at the shore where my noisy honks were lost among boat sounds, I worked away. I’d played some Alto and I could fake my way on a Tenor, but the Baritone was something else; it’s mouthpiece twice the size of my Clarinet’s’. So, honking and honking, I managed to hit and hold some squeak-less bottom notes, figuring they would be sufficient to anchor the reed section. The next night, I was ready.!?! The band was played Tommy Dorsey’s Sy Oliver arrangements. First up was “Swanee River”, next “Jumping At The Woodside”, on which I was written in to play an 8 bar Clarinet lick. Wetting my Clarinet Reed till it felt right, I placed the stick into its floor rack with the cap on. Repeating with the Bari, I was ready. Sure enough, my anchor notes locked down the section on the rich toned, sax strong ” Swanee River” opener. Next up, “Woodside”.
I ended my Bari playing a full 2 bars before the group, to get ready for my solo. Lifting my much lighter Clarinet, it almost flew out of my hands. I realized no way would my mouth close tightly around that small mouthpiece. Telling the fellow next to me to play while I stood and faked it, we pulled it off. The radio audience must have wondered why there was so much laughter from the band that night.
Years later, now a civilian, with a dance band I crossed the country playing one nighters. Our bus soon followed Robert Burns direction “You take the High Road”.I doubt if our wheels ever touched the ground, there was so much elevating “Weed” we probably emitted exhaust pipe smoke-rings.
Somewhere in the Dakotas an enterprising radio station engineer did a wax recording. Next morning we heard the playback. What I had played the night before, which I believed was a magnificent 8 bars, was one note for 8 bars; the original 1-note Samba; but, a beautiful one note. Thereafter, I sat up front. Even there, second hand smoke was a lungful. From then on, I exercised an open window policy, even when it snowed.
My first New York ad agency Creative Director was Myron Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s nephew. Myron wrote early jingles for major New York ad accounts, Barney’s, Adam Hats, Manischewitz Wine, National Shoes and Ronzoni Pasta. Myron proved an excellent first teacher. Five years later, when we made a move to a Detroit Ad Agency, my CD there was Jack Elliot, composer of “It’s So Nice To Have a Man Around The House”, “Elmer’s Tune” and “Sam’s Song”. Learning from Jack, it turned out I could write a worthy, selling/telling commercial lyric. That got me the job of producing what I wrote.
For R. G. Dun, a cigar account we serviced, I was in Hollywood to produce TV ads with a director I had worked with many times before. Invited to his home for dinner and a music night, I shared the table with the great Brazilian Guitarist Laurendo Almeida featured in the Stan Kenton Orchestra. It was Laurendo who helped introduce the Bossa Nova to the US. Also at the table was Billboard’s # 1 Drummer, Shelly Manne and Jazz trumpet All-Star Shorty Rogers. Jerry, the Director played a solid melody guitar himself. As things got liquidy, Jerry said let’s see your storyboard. After looking at the 4 vignette concept, they decided a Bossa Nova track would work beautifully for the commercial, the first ever Bossa Nova to be used in a US commercial. We recorded a few days later in Shelly’s Club, The Mannhole. Filmed and finished, to me the spot was a winning breakthrough. In Detroit, the client kept looking at it not saying anything until one of his younger assistants asked, “What kind of Music Is That?” I should have said a 1-step or a fox trot. Instead, I said, “Bossa Nova!” He asked where it was from? “Instead of saying Hamtramck, I said, “Brazil”. That’s when the old man tore into me. “We have a great American Cigar, not a Brazilian cigar. Write me a good American jingle where people sing the name of my cigar. Then to show me what he meant, he unwrapped one and with relish lit up. As I walked out of the room, I was tempted to say, “Ah, blow it out!”. I wrote him a jingle with people singing the praises of his “American Cigar”.
Another R.G. Dun Story actually involved Dave, who this year celebrated his 90th Birthday. Dun was about to introduce a small cigar about the size of a “Between The Acts”, a 5-minute smoke. The year was l959 and Dave’s recording of “Take Five” was being played everywhere. I connected the idea of using the “Take Five” music as the commercial background for the new cigar, actually calling the cigar, “Take Five”, a five minute smoke. Through music friends, I reached Dave only to learn from him that is was Paul Desmond who composed “Take Five” not he and that Paul was flying to San Francisco. He gave me the name of the hotel where he would be staying. I thanked Brubeck, telling him that I was one of his greatest fans, getting back what sounded like a very sincere, “Thank you”.
Next, I left a message at the hotel. The following afternoon Paul called back. After hearing my idea, he laughed, saying it was a terrific concept, but just the day before he concluded a sale of the rights to RCA and he guessed that they would charge a fortune even for non-exclusive use. Hearing the disappointment in my voice, Paul in his dry manner suggested, “Have your client make a little larger cigar and I’ll write “Take Ten” just for you.”. Discussing it with my agency president, we decided not to pursue it, because that client would never understand the nuance, which probably lost us all a marvelous piece of new music. Today, the cigar name is R.G. Babies.
My third mentor was Henry Russell, composer of music for our National Brewing Company client. As agency producer, I had the privilege and fun of working Hank’s recording sessions. Sadly, Henry passed. While in grief, I also recognized a personal opportunity, so I asked my agency head if I could try to follow his path. It worked out. Soon I was writing lyrics and working with other composers and arrangers. Doing sessions with Flip Phillip’s music Director my lyrics for Colt 45 Malt Liquor featured Harry Belafonte’s lead female background singer who belted out our theme Gospel style with a ton of “Ah-Huhs” that helped successfully introduce the brand to that segment of the market. Wanting a stronger foothold in white sales, we recreated the late Ernie Kovac’s “Nairobi Trio” routine, in which all three participants including Ernie at the piano wore ape costumes and tin helmets. To a very deliberate repeated melody, on the beat the drummer hit the guitar player on the top of his metal helmet. Doesn’t sound funny, but the deliberate nature of the sequences made it hilarious. Ernie’s widow, Eadie Adams, had kept the costumes and offered to work with us to recreate Ernie’s idea, she as the piano player with 2 of her dance performers playing the other roles. It went off beautifully and helped white market sales as hoped. The next campaign reached every one. It featured a non-plussed actor unperturbed by planes buzzing his head and other like outrageous visual concepts, yet he always got excited when served a Colt 45. “In the dull and commonplace occurrences of day-to-day living, one thing stands out as a completely unique experience. Cold 45 Liquor.” Colt 45 proved to be such a huge success, the brewery was bought by a competitor so they could roll the product nationally.
There are other equally highlight memories. Lyrics sung by a young studio musician, Glen Campbell, just before “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” hit, commercials sung by the Randy Van Horne Singers and BJ Ward. Sessions in London with a young drummer named Ringo and a picker named Eric. Then, there was that night in 1965 at the New York Imperial Theatre when I sat on a folding chair in the last row of the Orchestra seats to see if friend, Heschie Bernardi who was losing his voice, could still make Tevya hit the back of the hall. He could.
For Mexican TV, working with the multi-talented Bebu Silvetti, a great pianist, conductor of Symphony Orchestras, a gifted arranger for many Latin stars and whose name graced Billboard charts for years, we introduced the first all Black Performer commercial ever seen in Mexico, rocking on the tune “How High The Moon”. For a Don Pedro Brandy spot, we filmed in my L.A. pool which had been dressed as an ocean bottom, just after “Jaws” hit the screen, we were able to rent the actual Jaws nose and tail props. The scenario had our hero, an underwater photographer, “shoot” the shark with his camera. In Part 2, on the deck of an upscale yacht with people dressed to the nines, he exhibited his shark pictures while the product was being served. For the music track, I’d chosen the 4th movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. Bebu had to arrange the best parts into :60 and :30 second tracks . I can still hear his voice and see him wagging his finger at me, saying “Russell, Russell, you did it to me again, That Tchaikovsky, he wrote a effing ton of notes.”.
Finally, ten years ago, I blew dust off my clarinet case and had fun playing duets with my Trumpet playing grandson. Today, in university on a music s cholarship, we still talk the talk, but I wouldn’t dare duet with him; he’s so far advanced beyond his “Pop Pop.”
So thanks for the memories and Happy 90th Dave. Wouldn’t it be neat if Paul Desmond were here to celebrate with you.
© David Russell November 2011
Catch Darius Brubeck and his Brothers as they tour the UK this Fall
More life stories
BRUBECKS PLAY BRUBECK (Part 2)
Guildford: Monday, November 14th
G-Live - 7-30PM
London Road, GU1 2AA UK, tel. 0844 7701 797