In this exclusive feature for ‘Journal Into Melody’,
FORREST PATTEN interviews the famous American musician
FORREST PATTEN: Frank, tell us how it all began.
FRANK COMSTOCK: When I was eight years old, I just had to have a trombone. I thought that was the greatest horn in the world. My folks bought me one and I started to play in a local marching band in San Diego. That’s where I learned the horn. During the 1930’s and 40’s, most of the junior high schools had some sort of a dance band. While playing trombone in my school’s band, I asked the teacher if he could come up with some better arrangements than what we were playing. He said he couldn’t at that time but asked me if I’d take a crack at writing something. I told him I wouldn’t know where to begin. So he took some musical notation paper and on each staff wrote where the individual instruments would play middle C. That helped me to transpose the instruments and get them right. And that was it. I think that was my only legitimate training or lesson in music arranging. I went home and started copying all the Basie, Lunceford, and Goodman records that I could. Little by little, things started coming together and sounding right.
By the time I graduated from high school at 16, I was making a few bucks around town and doing pretty good. I went to high school with two outstanding musicians. One was trumpeter Uan Rasey and the other was pianist Paul Smith. They are both masters and have played on just about every date that I did.
I had a small dance band in San Diego for a few months. Suddenly, I got a message from Uan letting me know that he had landed a job with the Sonny Dunham band. He told me to get on the next train because Sonny needed an arranger and a trombone player. I left for the big time! I’ve been very fortunate in my career in that I have never really had to "look for work." It’s all been by word-of-mouth. All my life I went from one place to the next and never had to rely on an agent of any sort.
FP: As an arranger, did the individual bandleaders dictate how they wanted their charts to be, or were you given a free reign?
FC: I was very lucky. I never had a bandleader who told me what to do or demanded that I write something in a particular way. They requested an arrangement of a song and seemed to like what I turned out for them.
FP: Tell us about your time with the Sonny Dunham band.
FC: I liked Sonny very much, although I didn’t get to know him that well. I was with him for six or eight months both playing and writing. Then one day his manager made the announcement that the band was going to break up. He came up and told me that he had another job lined up for me with the Benny Carter band. He said that Carter didn’t want to spend months writing and wanted to just play his horn with the big band. This same manager, by the way, also represented Stan Kenton. Before I joined Benny Carter’s band, I did about three or four arrangements for Kenton which, I believe, he recorded.
Unfortunately, because of the recording ban that was going on at the time, none of my work with Sonny Dunham was ever recorded. Benny recorded four or five of my arrangements a year or so after I left his band and joined Les Brown.
FP: Tell us about your time with the Benny Carter band.
FC: Benny was a super guy who I dearly loved. We had more fun and laughs in that group. I sat next to J.J. Johnson. Behind me were Snooky Young and Gerald Wilson from the Lunceford band. Paul Webster was there, too. It was a great organization. Not too long after, Benny announced that he was breaking up the band. About that time, Les Brown brought his band to town. One of the trumpeters (who had been with Sonny Dunham) told Les to hire me as I could produce good arrangements. Because Benny was in the process of dismantling his band, he told me to "take the job and run!"
FP: So from there, it was on to Les Brown and his Band Of Renown.
FC: Les hired me as an arranger. That was it. However, right before we left the Hollywood Palladium for a road trip, one of the trombone players announced that he was not going any farther than Los Angeles. Les told me to bring my horn and I ended up playing in the band for a year and a half until he found another trombone player! In 1944, I settled into writing arrangements for Les full time. I was with him practically every day from 1943 through 1995.
FP: Your career seems to have progressed very naturally.
FC: I’ve always had great luck. Things just seemed to fall into place. An example is when Doris Day left Les’s band. .She wanted me to come along as her arranger-conductor. I was still writing for Les, but I went with her because she was heading back to California. As that was my home, I was very happy! When Doris went to get her screen test at Warner Bros., she took one of my arrangements. Ray Heindorf liked it and I began writing vocal and dance scores for her pictures. One of Heindorf’s best friends was Jack Webb and that’s how I got to work for a number of his shows. Webb then introduced me to Lowell Frank, one of the top recording mixers at Columbia. And that’s how it went.
FP: All of the greats that you have worked with over the years must have felt that you had the "Midas touch" when it came to creating top quality arrangements.
FC: I have to be honest with you. I never once wrote an arrangement that I really liked. Everything that I wrote, when I heard it, I always felt that it could be better. It was never really tough for me. I just wanted to do it another way, only better.
FP: Who are some of your favorite arrangers?
FC: Bob Farnon would be one of my super number one guys. I also like Billy May and Bill Finegan. There’s also Eddie Sauter and Neal Hefti. These are good old pals and arranger friends that I like very much. Sy Oliver is the "Robert Farnon of swing" because just about every band had a "Sy Oliver" flavor to it somehow. He was the leader of that sound. Les Brown had a trumpeter, Wes Hensel, who wrote some beautiful things for Les. Had he not played such beautiful trumpet, he might have been known as a fine arranger. When you talk about the studio people, there’s Eddie Powell who, working for Alfred Newman, must have orchestrated just about everything Twentieth Century Fox turned out in the last 100 years! Herbie Spencer was another beautiful writer that I loved. Ralph Burns, who worked with Woody Herman’s band in the mid 40’s, is another favorite. Fletcher Henderson was an early inspiration. There are many others that I’m leaving out. I’ve appreciated the fine work that they all did.
FP: What about classical composers?
FC: I couldn’t continue without mentioning Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Strauss. I listened to them constantly and, hopefully, something rubbed off.
FP: How did you discover the music of Robert Farnon?
FC: Gene Puerling (who I’ll talk more about later) and I were working on the first of maybe ten or twelve albums that we did together. He brought some tapes over to the house that we listened to for hours and just flipped over them. As I recall, the two albums were TWO CIGARETTES IN THE DARK and FLIRTATION WALK. I think Gene and I both learned some things from listening that day. As far as Bob’s writing is concerned, I think the best thing he did for everybody (where they all benefited from him) was to say "Do what you want to do. Open up the chords. Add some more fat chords. Do anything you want." There was a period in the studios where things were so rigid that you couldn’t add a flat note. Bob’s writing said "Hey, come on. Let’s do something!" Even with a dance band like Les Brown’s where I didn’t have the strings or the woodwinds, I think that we pushed the envelope quite a bit in those days. I can only thank Bob over and over for the idea of "doing what you want to and it’ll come out well." I think that philosophy has benefited a lot of people.
FP: Were you responsible for the "sound" of the Les Brown band?
FC: I guess that something must have rubbed off after 60 years of writing for that band. The sound that he did acquire at one time was my idea. Les said that he wanted a "sound" so that when ever anyone heard it, they’d know that it was the Les Brown band (like the Glenn Miller sound with the clarinet lead). So I came up with the simple idea of having the trumpets in four-part harmony play in "harmon mutes." And underneath them (an octave lower) using the same notes, the trombone players were playing with either a hand over the bell or maybe a soft felt mute. Underneath that, I had a guitar playing the melody again, and it was a real nice sound. In later years, Les cut the band down a bit. He cut one trombone player and the guitarist. The sound never quite worked after that.
It was easy to write for. Through the years, Les and I had many arguments about tempos; but other than that, we had no problems about writing. I don’t think he ever once said that "you have to write this sound or this chord or whatever." He would ask for an arrangement of something like "Blue Skies," and I would write it. I never really had anything in mind. I just started to write and whatever came out was it. When I first joined the band, he also asked me to write an improved arrangement of his theme "Leap Frog." Les had been using an old stock arrangement that was written for three trumpets and two trombones plus three or four saxes. Since he had four trumpets, four trombones, and five or six saxes, half of the guys were faking it and trying to find the right notes. I took the original arrangement, put a few little "bumps" and "kicks" here and there and orchestrated it (as opposed to arranging it) so he could play it with his big band of eight brass and five saxes.
FP: Do you have any favorite Les Brown arrangements or recordings?
FC: There’s a recent CD "The Best Of The Capitol Years" with a lot of great stuff on it. There’s also the old Coral LP set "Les Brown—Live At The Palladium" which was done in 1953. The band didn’t know they were being recorded so things were really loose. You can hear the guys pounding their feet and laughing. It’s a great record worth listening to (if you can ever find it!). As I listen to all of these re-issued old LP’s containing tunes from Les’s band during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s (on CD), I think of my old arrangements and wonder how the hell did I write half that stuff. I couldn’t even start to find the chords now!
FP: You mentioned Doris Day. What was it like working with her?
FC: She’s an old pal of mine, really. When she joined Les’s band, she brought her son Terry (who was a few years old at the time) with her on the road. She also brought her mother to take care of Terry while she was working. One night, Terry went whipping out the front door of the hotel with Mom Day chasing him. Everything was icy on the sidewalk and Mom Day ended up slipping and breaking her leg. The only guy in the band who was free at night and didn’t have to be on the bandstand was the arranger! And guess who I had to baby sit every night? He was a little devil, but lots of fun. We’re still friends. I’d have to chase him all over the hotel, up and down the stairwells. We had a ball. I think that’s how Doris and I became such good friends because I saw her a lot. And writing her songs and arrangements was part of the story, too. We’ve been good friends for years. When she went for a screen test, she’d take my arrangements with her. Then I’d get hired on. I can’t remember exactly how many pictures I did with her and, although it wasn’t her fault, I know that it took six or seven years before I actually got a screen credit. That’s part of the Hollywood mystique. Doris was a part of my "laughing gang."
FP: Your "laughing gang"?
FC: When I had a record date, I just wanted to enjoy and have fun. I made great efforts to find the players who were all laughers. We had a ball. I think that’s a good secret for a lot of show business experience. There’s so much pressure and you have a lot of idiots yelling at you. It’s just nice to have a bunch of guys around you who can laugh and roll with the jokes. My late wife Joanie and I used to spend a lot of time with Doris at her place up in Carmel. We’d get laughing about the old days. I still talk to Doris every couple of weeks or so. Every time we talk she says "I wish we were back on the road, Frank. We had so much fun." I keep telling her "Yeah, we had a lot of fun but we were both 19 or 20 years old then. There’s a big difference." I think we’ll remain friends until we die.
FP: Tell us about Gene Puerling and the Hi-Lo’s.
FC: That was one of the happiest periods in my life. They were something else and fun to work with. Gene has such a great sense of humor. We joked about everything. I think if Gene and I were honest, we both pushed the envelope trying to top each other! He’d write something and I’d think I’ve got to get in there somehow. I’d write a line that was a little harder or wilder. On every date we’d have fun doing all those kinds of things. About three or four years ago, I called Gene to wish him a Merry Christmas. He said "You made my day. I’ve only had two phone calls today. One was from Bob Farnon and you’re the other one!" I can’t say enough about Gene. I feel that he’s the top vocal arranger of all time. I don’t know of anybody else who had the nerve to write what he did.
FP: How about some of the other artists that you’ve worked with?
FC: Rosemary Clooney. I did her TV show and the Hi-Lo’s were singing on there, as well. Every week we had to do several numbers. I also did an album with the Hi-Lo’s called RING AROUND ROSIE. It had some nice stuff on it. She was a nice girl. I didn’t get to know her too well. Frankie Laine. I knew Frankie before he made it big. He was singing in a little nightclub on Vine Street in Hollywood. After he became well known and had recorded some rather wild things, he decided that he wanted to do a "pretty" album. We did a couple together. One was TORCHIN’ and the other was YOU ARE MY LOVE, both for Columbia. He was always off on tour somewhere so we never became "bosom buddies" as they say. Norman Luboff. He was my pal. He used to call me "Smiley." We worked on a lot of shows together. When he started making vocal albums of pop songs, he’d call me in to write the rhythm and horn parts. Dick and Ted Nash played fill-in solos between the choruses. We lost track of each other after a while. I know he’s no longer with us. That happens. Margaret Whiting was Bob Hope’s singer for many years. I did her work on Bob’s television show plus several outside projects. She was a good singer and a nice gal. I knew Andy Williams from Doris Day’s old radio show before she joined Les’s band. While she was on radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, she was backed by the Williams Brothers. Andy was just a young kid. I think I did a record date with him some years later. He’d call every other week or so when he needed a little extra something for his TV show. That’s the same story for the Carol Burnett Show. Her husband, Joe Hamilton, was an old friend of mine. He sang with Six Hits And A Miss. He’d always call when they wanted a big production number or something like that.
FP: We can’t forget your work on the Bob Hope Show.
FC: I started writing for his show in 1947 (when Les Brown became his bandleader) and quit in 1964. That was quite a job. We never knew where we were going to be half the time. It might be a bus, a boat, a train, or a plane. I remember that we once did a tour of 90 towns in 60 days! I finally had to quit because I was getting so much studio work.
FP: How were you able to balance all of those shows with your arranging assignments?
FC: When you look at my bio, you’ll see all of these different shows that I worked on. Of course, in many cases, it wasn’t every day or every week. Most of the big musical shows had staff arrangers who would get swamped and would call. People like me, Billy May, and others would end up working all night on those shows just to help out, with no credits. I want to emphasize that all of my arranging assignments were just another job. Many of us would work with our fellow arrangers to help them finish a project. I also used to do a lot of ghost writing for Andre Previn.
FP: Tell us about some of your work in the movies.
FC: At Warner Bros., Norman Luboff was known as the "vocal man" and I was known as the "hot man." In the old days of radio, television, and studios, you really got pigeon-holed. They wouldn’t let you do anything that wasn’t in your "style." I remember when I started working there (thanks to Doris) they let me do all sorts of things in addition to her projects. However, I wasn’t allowed to write any "dramatic" cues. Because I had written for Benny Carter and Les Brown, they considered that "hot" music. Therefore, I became their "hot man". So if anybody sang or danced in a picture, I was the guy who’d get the job. That lasted for years and years. Ironically, after I’d been working for Jack Webb for some years, I had a shot at doing another picture. I talked to somebody and they said "we can’t hire you because all you do is dramatic stuff." Give me a break! What can you do about that? Everything is a challenge in the movies because there’s always so much going on. Where they add sound effects like car screeches and other elements, you’ve got to be careful with the music that you’re not stepping on somebody’s toes.
FP: I’m going to mention just a few of your films and have you fill in some background. Let’s start with the all-time classic SOME LIKE IT HOT.
FC: Somebody called me and asked me to do a few numbers. I said "fine." You know, young guys have to get the work where they can. I did two or three songs for Marilyn Monroe. One was "I Want To Be Loved By You." I just walked in, did it, and walked on to the next project.
FP: THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.
FC: I did several orchestrations for Dmitri Tiomkin on some of his movie theme records. I guess he liked them because he asked me to do a couple of orchestrations (including the main title) for THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. I also did the arrangement for another Tiomkin theme, GIANT.
FP: THE MUSIC MAN.
FC: Gus Levene and I were both doing orchestrations for musicals like that. We both got a screen credit. My big number was "Marion The Librarian." It was tough. It seemed as though it went on for 70 days. When you see a picture like that, you’ve got to realize that the arranger has to sit down and watch the dancers for a week, six months or whatever. So when they kick on certain beats, twirl on this beat, and jump up the stairs---those actions have to be put on beats somewhere. You then have to go home and write something that sounds like the music that you’re supposed to be arranging that still captures the "tricks" (choreography) that the dancers do. I did several other numbers for that picture, as well.
FP: CALAMITY JANE.
FC: That was the first screen credit I ever got in my life for orchestrating. I think I did almost everything for that picture. In fact, the last time that my wife and I went to see Doris Day, she greeted us at the airport singing one of the songs from the movie. We had a good laugh over that.
FP: THE DESERT SONG.
FC: That was a tremendous effort for Norman Luboff and me. We had to work and work to get everybody lined up. We had some people there who were not professional singers. We had to cut bars and slice notes to get it to sound right. That was another case where I went in, did what I was asked to do, and then moved on to something else.
FP: FINIAN’S RAINBOW.
FC: Gus Levene and I shared that credit, too. I did five or six tunes. I think I was the last guy who ever wrote a dance number for Fred Astaire. He was so gracious and kind that I couldn’t believe it. He gave me a nice compliment. He told me that this was the only dance arrangement that he had done where he didn’t have to change a single note on it. That was a very flattering comment to me because I always prided myself on getting every beat and every note right where it should be.
FP: WHERE’S CHARLEY?
FC: I was called in by Ray Heindorf who told me that I had to go down and look at that picture in Room 12 and "fix it up." To this day, I really can’t recall what I did. I was quite embarrassed because I had been asked to "fix up" something that Bob Farnon had done in London! My only thought on that is maybe the dance numbers were elongated or that Ray Bolger, the star, had changed some of his dance steps. I know I did a couple of numbers, but couldn’t tell which ones they were. I don’t think that film ever had wide distribution. I talked to Bob (Farnon) about it one day and he really didn’t remember that much about it either!
FP: Frank, in addition to being an arranger, you’ve also done some composing. Tell us about some of those pieces that we might recognize.
FC: I wrote the original theme for Jay Ward’s TV cartoon series ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS. I also wrote the segment themes for "Fractured Fairytales," "Bullwinkle’s Corner," and "Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History." Those cues were sent to Mexico where they were recorded by a small orchestra conducted by Fred Steiner. If anybody looks at those cartoons, they’ll notice that there really isn’t any "scoring" to the pictures. There’d be the "main title" and then we’d play the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" theme. When that faded out, they’d go into their cartoon segment for three to five minutes. When that finished, we’d do a quick reprise of the theme for a quick play-off. Then we’d play a theme for another segment of the show. Because there was no scoring to picture, I think that’s what made it so good. You didn’t have a set of notes emphasizing every bit of action. A couple of years after we got going, somebody got to Jay Ward, the producer of the show, and told him "Frank Comstock is making all the money on the music because he owns it. You gave it to him and told him to go publish it." He didn’t think about that at the time. He found out, though, that if he owned the music, he might make fifty cents out of a dollar. So he hired Fred Steiner to write four new themes to replace the cues I had written. From that point on, you’d hear a combination of Fred’s pieces along with my pieces. I think that the music editors still liked what I had written, so they never really took my cues out of the show. Dennis Farnon also wrote quite a few tracks for Steiner and Jay, as well. It was a hip show that adults could enjoy because the humor really went over the heads of most kids. I hate to say it, but I did pilots for about 20 or 30 shows that never made it on the air. Hopefully, it was because of the script or something and not because of the music!
FP: And, of course, there was this fellow named Jack Webb.
FC: I really enjoyed working for him. We had a lot of fun together. When we were both single, we used to travel around to all the clubs listening to the big bands. He was a great lover of jazz. It was always a challenge doing his shows. You always wonder how you could make something sound better or find a new chord. For PETE KELLY’S BLUES, I did the dramatic scoring. Matty Matlock, who was a clarinetist in Bob Crosby’s band, did the small band jazz things. That band had people like Dick Cathcart, Morty Korb, and Ray Sherman playing in it. It was fun to do. For DRAGNET, Jack Webb wanted to pep up the theme that he had been using for years. I really couldn’t change the melody, so I ended up putting a real wild chord in every hit of the melody. I added a ninth and a sixth and all these other "blue" or "hot" notes. I put in a French horn counter melody and it ended up sounding pretty good. You couldn’t do very much musically on a show like that because it was so stylized. For ADAM 12, I got to write just about anything I wanted to and it was a lot of fun. As in the case of all the other things I did for Jack, he’d tell me to go down to the stage, see the picture, and write some music for it. There were never any demands or anything like that. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) helped a lot because they sent out a sheet explaining all of their radio calls. When I was reading a script and came across a "Code 3 or Code 4," that meant that things were pretty settled and you didn’t have to rush to get to the scene. I would know right away that I didn’t have to write screaming chase music or something like that. If it was a "Code 1," then I’d have to write something with a little more excitement to it. I did have some help on that show since we did it for eight years. Every now and again, the music editor would tell me that I wouldn’t have to write anything for a certain cue because he had a pretty sizeable library of tracks to pull from when he needed, let’s say, a two-second segment or something. That was a big help! Composer John Williams had it right when he said, "In TV, they don’t want it good….they want it tomorrow." Anyone who’s ever worked in the system will know exactly what I mean.
FP: You also worked with the late Axel Stordahl on Ernest Borgnine’s ABC-TV series McHALE’S NAVY.
FC: Axel was a good friend of mine. He was doing the HIT PARADE show on radio with Frank Sinatra. After Doris Day left Les Brown, she became the female vocalist on the show and continued using my arrangements. When Axel got the "McHale" show (he wrote the theme and incidental cues), he called me in one day to help him with something. Not long after, he passed away. The studio then asked me to finish the series and that lasted a couple of more years until the show was cancelled.
FP: Tell us about HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY.
FC: They were something else. My friend Pete King got the job and asked me to help him during the first season. They had something like 60-to-80 tunes from the 1950’s (which they got clearances on) that needed to be re-recorded (without the original artists) for use within the shows. I think they ended up using most of that stuff in the malt shop scenes where you’d hear it coming out of the jukebox. Our job was to take the original 1950’s record and copy it note for note. Besides the clearance issue, we did it in order to get a cleaner sound without all of the pops and clicks from the original records. So we took the old records and made new versions of them. We’d bring in some good players and some vocal impressionists. We’d have them do Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, or Johnny Mathis. It saved the studio a lot of money! At the end of the first season, Pete King came down with spinal meningitis. He recovered from it, but he became stone deaf. He couldn’t hear a thing. As much as the studio tried to compensate on his behalf, he gave up the shows soon after. He asked me to continue and the studio wanted me to, as well. It was rather sad because Pete and I had done so many shows and movies together. It got to a point where we wrote so much alike that nobody could tell the difference.
FP: One of our RFS members, Ron Hare, has described your approach as "happy music" or a "happy sound."
FC: That’s the way I’ve always felt about everything. I hate to have any kind of dissension and I love to write swinging, happy music. Even on ballads, you can find a spot to throw in a little double-time to give it a little pep or cuteness. I used to write music without any conscious awareness of what I was doing. Somebody would say that they needed an arrangement and I’d start writing. Whatever came out came out. As I mentioned earlier, I always liked working with guys who came in with an "up" attitude. It’s tough enough going into a record or movie date, sitting there and trying to play everything perfectly. If you’ve got some fun-loving guys who are doing their best, it will come out just great. We had a fun time doing it. I hired people like Pete Candoli, Dalton Smith, and Uan Rasey. Alvin Stoller used to break us up when he’d drop his drumsticks. He’d do this when we had to do another take. Do you realize that almost every great studio recording musician came from the dance band days? I guess you had to be in a dance band to develop a sense of humor like that because we had some pretty tough times in those days.
FP: Frank, I know that a number of our readers would be interested in hearing about some of the recordings that featured the Frank Comstock orchestra.
FC: My first solo album was A YOUNG MAN’S FANCY where I tried to write nice, happy, chuckling kind of music. It was produced by my friend Paul Weston who was, at the time, A&R man for Columbia Records on the west coast. We were originally going to call it COMSTOCK’S LODE, named after one of the greatest mining discoveries of all time. Dear Mitch Miller in New York shot it down because he didn’t know what it meant. He insisted that if I had written and recorded it in New York, it would have been a much better album. You can imagine that Paul and I just about blew our stacks. We continued to do what we wanted to do out here. In fact, Miller went so far as to say that the album was never really released---it escaped! We did a couple of other albums and Paul always gave me carte blanche. He told me to write what I wanted and go with it. I did an awful lot with Columbia and their artists (writing background accompaniments). I can’t thank him enough for being the kind of man he was.
FP: For Warner Bros., you did an unusual concept album with an outer space approach. You had the regular orchestra augmented with some rather unique electronic effects. Tell us about PROJECT COMSTOCK.
FC: The outer space album was really a ball to do. We had one electric organ and several repeating amps that they were starting to use with woodwinds. For example, a flute player might play a short phrase and it would repeat constantly until he would play the next phrase. It would do the same thing. We employed a few little tricks like that. We didn’t have any synthesizers back then. When I wrote the scores on paper, I’d take the last note and put it first and vice versa. The bottom line there is when somebody played that note, there was no attack and it came out backwards. Think about it. Any note, whether soft or loud, has an attack on it. In this case, the accents were all in the back. We recorded them that way, and played the tape back three or four times faster making the trombones sound like trumpets. The stereo era was just beginning and the labels were trying to come up with crazy sounds to help demonstrate the new left/right effect. We were playing nice songs that everybody knew, but we also threw in some pretty far-out items. I think that Lowell Frank, the engineer, went mad trying to find all of the parts as we cut them apart and pasted them back together again. The album must have sold three copies.
FP: You also got to work with Warren Barker while at Warner Bros.
FC: We’d been old friends for years. I never knew why he quit in the middle of his career. He moved to Northern California and opened a cattle ranch. While he was in Hollywood, we did quite a few things together. Warner Bros. assigned us to do an album of TV Themes. Neither of us really wanted to do it. We flipped a coin to see who would lose! We each got six songs to arrange. When we came back, we actually ended up having a lot of fun because we had a really great band. There were five trumpets, five trombones, five saxes, three or four percussion, and harp. It was wild. Some people asked me how I ever got back into Disneyland after arranging "The Mickey Mouse Club March." Warren and I used the same band. He conducted his six pieces one night and I conducted my six pieces the next night.
FP: Of all the things you’ve done, do you have a favorite arrangement?
FC: That’s really hard to say. I was never really thrilled with anything that I wrote. I always wished that I had done something else with bar 12 or whatever. I always felt that I could do better on everything. I’m really a shy guy who finds it hard to take compliments from people. That’s the kind of attitude I’ve always had. I scared my darling, late wife in bed one night. I sat up all of a sudden and yelled "I should have written a Bb for the third trumpet on bar 12" on whatever tune it was. The arrangement I was referring to was something that I had written maybe 20 years before! I don’t know why I thought of it then. What can I say? Maybe all musicians are nuts.
FP: Earlier, you talked about Paul Weston. How about some of the other musical greats you’ve worked with.
FC: Billy May is one of the funniest arrangers of all time. A great arranger, but funny. He called me once and said "Hey, Bill Finegan is in trouble. He’s got a record date tonight and he forgot about it." So Billy May, Skip Martin and I all sat down and wrote at least two tunes apiece. Bill Finegan had his record date that night without any problems. Another time, Billy May really got me laughing when he said "Let’s go to the Arranger’s Society meeting. I’ll introduce you to all of the young guys who don’t know that you can write for brass and saxes at the same time."
FP: Will your scores ever become available for the new generation to study?
FC: I don’t have much to show. The producers and the studios own everything that you write. So when I wrote an arrangement for somebody, the studio got it. They could publish it, whatever. The only things I have are the arrangements I did on my two albums for Columbia (A YOUNG MAN’S FANCY and PATTERNS). I don’t know who’d want to copy that sound now. If you want to work, then you’ve got to give the studios the rights to publish and sell your songs.
FP: Your philosophy, then, has been to always be happy and to keep moving forward.
FC: Maybe it was my upbringing or the greatness of my parents, but I’ve always had to be doing something. When I was not working on a picture, I’d be out building a model railroad. I’ve built three over the years. I love to work with tools. When I felt that I couldn’t write up to my standards anymore, I simply quit and took up painting. I don’t know if my art is up to anybody’s standards, but I’m having fun doing it. My motto is: I’ve got to do better the next time, but enjoy yourself while doing it.
FRANK COMSTOCK: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
---Frank Comstock and His Orchestra
1. Jazz Lab -- Starlite 7003, 2. A Young Man's Fancy -- Columbia CL 7003, 3. Patterns -- Columbia CS 8003, 4. Project Comstock: Music From Outer Space -- Warner Bros. 1463, 5. TV Guide Top Television Themes (6 tracks) -- Warner Bros. 1290, 6. Real Gusto -- Mark 56 #513, 7. Dipsy Doodle Disco -- Mark 56 #816 ---The Hi-Los w/ orch. arr. & conducted by Frank Comstock, 1. Listen! To The Hi-Los -- Starlite 7006, 2. The Hi-Los On Hand -- Starlite 7007, 3. The Hi-Los Under Glass -- Starlite 7005, 4. Suddenly It's The Hi-Los -- Columbia CL 952, 5. Now Hear This -- Columbia CL 1023, 6. Ring Around Rosie (w/ Rosemary Clooney) -- Columbia CL 1023, 7. Love Nest -- Columbia CL 1121
---Les Brown And His Band Of Renown / arr. by Frank Comstock
1. Dance With Les Brown -- Columbia CL 539, 2. That Sound Of Renown -- Coral 57030, 3. College Classics -- Capitol T-657, 4. Concert At The Palladium (2 volumes) -- Coral 57000/57001, 5. All-Weather Music -- Jasmine 1019, 6. The Best Of Les Brown (6 tracks) -- MCA 2-4070,
---Frankie Laine w/ orch. arr. & conducted by Frank Comstock
1. Torchin' -- Columbia CL 8024, 2. You Are My Love -- Columbia CL 8119 ---Doris Day w/ arr. by Frank Comstock, 1. Personal Christmas Collection (4 tracks) -- CBS Sony LGY 64153 (CD), 2. Lullaby Of Broadway (4 tracks) -- Columbia B-235
---Ray Heindorf w/ arr. by Frank Comstock
1. Top Film Themes Of '64 (7 tracks) -- Warner Bros. WB 1535, 2. Finian's Rainbow (Sound track) (6 tracks) -- Warner Bros. WB BS2550
Footnote from FORREST PATTEN: Gene Puerling describes Frank Comstock as the greatest arranger in the world who was fun to work with. He added that Frank knew how to balance his orchestral parts with the demanding vocal group arrangements. This is high praise coming from one musical legend to another. As you read the above interview, you will have seen that the idea of "fun" seems to be a recurring theme.
When you meet Frank Comstock, it’s like you’re spending time with an old friend. He’s a very modest, almost shy man who was never quite satisfied with his final product. He always wanted to do better. Here’s a guy who has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, arranged for countless movies and television programs, recorded several instrumental albums, and has composed some very memorable pieces. He’s a very down-to-earth individual who really appreciates the opportunities that life has offered. Putting quality arrangements together is something that comes very naturally to him. It’s a God-given talent.
Today, Frank lives in Hunington Beach, California and will reach the age of 80 on September 20. He still keeps in touch with many of his musical friends and associates. He also is enjoying another artistic outlet --- painting. In December, 2001, Frank became a member of the Robert Farnon Society.
To cover every important milestone in Frank Comstock’s career would require a separate volume on its own. For this exclusive interview, we touched upon some highlights of a very special musical journey.
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