Van Alexander

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In September, 2004, a musical reunion took place in Southern California reports FORREST PATTEN. This event reunited a group of some of the most accomplished and talented composers, arrangers and players in the business. Organized by staunch RFS member composer-arranger Frank Comstock, "Frank’s summit," as we affectionately dubbed it, proved to be a marvellous opportunity for old friends to come together and to share memorable stories of the music business.

In order not to miss an opportunity like this, Nancy and I packed our bags and recording gear and headed to The Sportsmen’s Lodge, a venerable meeting establishment and resort located in Studio City. Our good friend and recent RFS member, Rob Keil, flew down for the day to join the festivities and to assist us in our quest: to obtain a series of exclusive interviews on behalf of the Robert Farnon Society. Starting with this issue of Journal Into Melody, we’d like to present the first of those interviews.

Van Alexander has had a wonderful musical life. He literally was responsible for the launch of Ella Fitzgerald’s career by co-writing and arranging her big hit "A Tisket A Tasket". He wrote a book on arranging and has counted Johnny Mandel as one of his students. He has provided numerous orchestral backings and arrangements for the likes of Gordon MacRae and a host of other Capitol Records recording artists. He has scored a number of memorable films and television shows, including Dean Martin’s long-time NBC variety series. He’s also released a series of popular recordings featuring his own orchestra. Here’s Van’s story.

Van, who will turn 90 this year, shows no sign of slowing down. He recently completed some big band charts on behalf of pianist Michael Feinstein for a Carnegie Hall concert. EMI in the UK has recently re-issued two of his popular Capitol albums on a single CD. He’s won numerous awards and is very grateful for all of the good that’s come his way. In Van’s own words: "It’s been a wonderful ride." I have a feeling that this ride is far from over. It’s like the best "E Ticket" ride at Disneyland!


Interviewed by FORREST PATTEN

 Forrest Patten: Van Alexander, on behalf of the Robert Farnon Society, I’d like to thank you for joining us today for this very special interview. I think our readers would be interested in the story behind your tune "A Tisket A Tasket" for Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb’s band.

Van Alexander: It was the luckiest thing that happened in my career. Pure luck. I was arranging for Chick’s band. In 1938 they were playing at Levaggi’s Restaurant in Boston and were also on the air three or four times a week nationwide. Naturally, all of the music publishers were after Chick to play all the current hits. He was loading me up two or three weeks ahead of time with writing assignments. I was doing three arrangements a week plus the copying. Ella had recently joined the band and I was doing all of her early Decca arrangements. One day she said "Gee, I’ve got a great idea for a tune. Why don’t you try to work up something on the old nursery rhyme "A Tisket A Tasket." I said, "That’s a great idea, Ella. Let me think about it." But I didn’t have time the first week. When I came to Boston with my arrangements, she asked me if I had thought about the tune. I said, "Yeah I did, Ella. Maybe next week I’ll have something." Next week arrived and I still didn’t have anything. Now she got a little testy with me. She said, "If you don’t want to do it, just tell me and I’ll ask Edgar Sampson." He was the first saxophone player in the band and a wonderful arranger. So I said, "Hold the phone, Ella. Don’t ask Edgar. I’ll get to it." The song is an old nursery rhyme that was in the public domain. Anybody could have written an arrangement for it. What I did was to put it into a 32-bar song and added all of the novelty things. I took it to Boston. They rehearsed it that day and put it on the air that night. Robbins Music Publishing had a man in Boston named Leo Talent. He called Abe Olman (who was a big man at Robbins) and told him to "tape this thing off the air tonight and see what you think." Well, everybody raved about it. Two weeks later, they recorded it at Decca and it became #1 on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade show for 19 weeks. The real irony of the story is that in 1986 (almost 50 years later) because of that record, Ella, Chick and I were inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. That’s the story. If I hadn’t have done it, Edgar Sampson (or somebody else) would have ended up doing it. It was Ella’s idea. She changed a lot of the lyrics. It was a happy marriage. It was really her entry into the business, as well as mine, too. Chick Webb was just starting to make it, but he didn’t last long enough. He was quite ill and was unable to really cash in on "A Tisket A Tasket."

FP: Let’s go back to your beginning on the East Coast. You were influenced by some of the great Black bands and Black musicians of the day. Tell us about that time in your life.

VA: As a teenager, a lot of us were so-called "jitterbugs." We loved to do the "Lindy Hop" and so-forth. The place to do it and hear some great music at the same time was in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom. We’d go there quite often and listen to some great bands and great arrangements (which I was always interested in). After going there as often as we did, I struck up a "nodding acquaintance" with Chick Webb. One night I got up a little nerve and said, "Chick, I have a couple of arrangements at home that I think would fit your band. Are you interested?" He said, "Sure, bring them down Friday night for the rehearsal." Well, I was bluffing. I didn’t have any arrangements. I went home and scratched out "Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now" and the old Dixieland classic "That’s A Plenty." I brought them down to the rehearsal and, unbeknownst to me, the rehearsal started after the job. They’d finish the job at one o’clock, have some Muscatel Wine or something, and they’d start rehearsing about two o’clock in the morning. There were other arrangements in line before mine. Edgar Sampson would bring something in, as would Charlie Dixson (names I would never forget). Anyhow, they got to me about four o’clock in the morning. My mother was frantic. She called the police and told them that her son was out in Harlem. She wondered what he could be doing there at 4:30 in the morning!? I was just turning 19 at the time. Chick liked the arrangements and paid me $10 each for them. He really didn’t have the money so he took an advance on his salary from Charles Buchannan (who was the manager). There were other great bands at the Savoy. There was Teddy Hill, Willie Bryant and, through Chick, I got to write for all of these bands including Louis Armstrong (who had a big band in those days). I remember rehearsing Louis in a brownstone building up in Harlem and, later on, we did some TV shows together.

FP: Let’s talk about the formation of the Van Alexander Orchestra.

VA: The advent of my orchestra came about after "A Tisket A Tasket." There was a fellow by the name of Eli Oberstein who was the head of RCA Victor Records. He had formed what he called a stable of bandleaders/song writers. He signed Larry Clinton, Les Brown, and after "A Tisket," he thought he had another one! So he signed me. My band was fair. We did well for the first couple of years. Then the war came and we couldn’t get good musicians. It sort of petered out. I had an opportunity to come to California with Bob Crosby. The Capitol Theater in New York had been doing just picture shows during the war and since the war looked as if it was going to be over soon, they reinstated their big band policy. And the first one they booked was Bob Crosby. But Bob didn’t have a band! He had just gotten out of the service. So my manager at the time, a guy named Joe Glazer, cooked up a deal where it would be "Bob Crosby and the Van Alexander Orchestra." So we had a nice four weeks at the Capitol. Bob and I had a good relationship. He asked me if I’d like to come out to the West Coast. I told him I’d think about it. As I saw the handwriting on the wall where big bands were concerned, I took him up on the opportunity. And the story unfolds from there.

FP: Besides Ella Fitzgerald, you’ve arranged and conducted for a number of very talented artists, most notable at Capitol Records. The name Gordon MacRae comes to mind.

VA: Dear Gordon had one of the most glorious voices. When he did the "Soliloquy" from ‘Carousel,’ he made it sound as if it was a "real man" singing it. Gordon had just finished doing his two big pictures (Oklahoma and Carousel) and then there was a lull. Nothing was coming his way, partly because (in Hollywood) he was considered to be a kind of "Peck’s Bad Boy." He got a bit of a reputation in Hollywood and producers were a little bit afraid. He did one picture after those two blockbusters, ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free.’ He was going to go out on the road and make a little money based on the success of his two major musical pictures. He needed a conductor and arranger. A mutual friend, Marty Melcher (who was Gordon’s agent) and an old friend of mine who used to do publicity for my band got us together. It was the most wonderful relationship and turned out be very profitable because, through Gordon, I got my foot in the door at Capitol Records (where he was one of their artists). We did 12 or 13 albums together and, as a result, I became one of the in-house arrangers at Capitol. I got to record with other artists including Kay Starr and Dakota Staton. Gordon had four wonderful children and was married to the beautiful Sheila MacRae. Our kids sort of grew up together and I was on the road with Gordon for maybe 12 or 13 years, plus doing his records. When Sheila joined the act, she did so to sort of "solidify" Gordon and keep him on the straight road. They had the #1 nightclub act in the country and played all of the great spots. We had a wonderful time and got to meet an awful lot of people in the process. We even met Pablo Casals while playing Puerto Rico! I really miss Gordon. He sort of straightened out at the end of his life, but it was a little too late. He was a big gambler. In the beginning, he’d be making $25,000 a week in Las Vegas, but would lose it all at the tables. They’d have to pay tax on the money won and ended up owing the government over a million dollars. Sheila’s still around. I see and talk to her occasionally. But she’s having a bit of a financial struggle at this time in her life. It’s a sad story, considering all of the money they made.

FP: In listening to all of the recordings that you’ve done over the years, I’m overwhelmed by the variety of styles that you’ve been able to achieve. You can go from some of the most swinging arrangements from your early roots to an album of hymns featuring a solo organ with chorus. And, of course, there were the operetta albums featuring Dorothy Kirsten and Gordon MacRae. Stylistically, you were like a chameleon where you could blend from one setting to the next.

VA: That’s nice to hear. Someone once called me a "journeyman" arranger. I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve done 22 feature pictures and hundreds of segments for different television shows that are still being shown.

FP: Let’s talk about some of the television shows and movies.

VA: I did many segments of Bewitched, The Donna Reed Show, I Dream Of Jeannie and Dennis The Menace. I had a deal with Screen Gems Television. The main show that I scored was Hazel starring Shirley Booth. Those early shows would use a twelve or a thirteen-piece orchestra. Today, most shows use a piano or guitar for a play-out! Through Screen Gems, I got a deal at Columbia Pictures. The first picture I scored there was a thing with Joan Crawford called ‘Straight Jacket.’ It was a horror picture. They seemed to like it so I got to do a second picture with Joan. I had one disaster over there, though. I had done four or five successful pictures. They had a Western film with Glenn Ford and Inger Stevens. They had changed directors in the middle of it, as well as writers. The picture was really in trouble. Following those four or five independent projects for Columbia, they said, "Why don’t we give Van a chance? Maybe he can save the picture." They gave me a very good price and I had plenty of time to do it. I was given an office at the studio. I did the score in about six or seven weeks. I had a big orchestra and they were all there at the scoring session (Mike Frankovich and the head of the music department, Joni Taps). They raved about the music and said, "My God. You’ve saved the picture!" I was on cloud nine. So now they had what they called a "preview" of the picture. This is where they show it to the public and try to get some feedback. With my wife and two daughters, we all went to a theatre out here in the San Fernando Valley for the showing. Well, it was a disaster. People were laughing in the serious parts and were hissing the villain. I wanted to crawl under the table. I thought that I had written a pretty good score and everyone at the scoring stage had approved. And now the Columbia brass sees the result in the theatre! Two days later, Mike Frankovitch calls and tells me that he doesn’t think that the music is right for the picture! I asked him if they wanted to change anything and he said, "No, I think that we’re going to throw it all out and re-score it with 10 guitars and make it a real Western." So they hired Mundell Lowe who is a great guitar player. He brought in 10 guitars, but that didn’t help the picture either. It never played in a theatre, but was on television about three weeks later. That made me feel a little better, but I felt as if I’d never do another picture! But I remember what film composer David Raksin once said: "You’re not a full-fledged screen composer until you’ve had a score thrown out of a picture." Many times, things that look like a disaster turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Right at that time, I got a call from my dear friend Les Brown who had the band on The Dean Martin Show. He asked me if I’d like to come over and do some arrangements for the show. They had a couple of other guys doing arrangements at the same time. I said sure and went to work for Les and Dean. During the war in Vietnam, Les would travel with Bob Hope overseas. In his absence, I got to conduct the shows. Greg Garrison, the producer, seemed to like me and gave me many other shows to do. Those included Emmy Awards broadcasts, Gene Kelly specials, and a series featuring the singing group The Gold Diggers. In fact, I got a couple of Emmy nominations but no wins. That was quite a period.

FP: Tell us more about your work on The Dean Martin Show. You actually put out an album with a number of the familiar cues from that show.

VA: We did that at the request of the producer, Greg Garrison. In retrospect, it wasn’t very good for us because he used a lot of those cues on Dean’s Celebrity Roasts programs where he didn’t hire a band. But, the guys wanted to do it as a record date. Dean Martin was a pussycat. He never wanted to rehearse, of course. He thought that the spontaneity of not rehearsing would benefit the show. On the other hand, someone like Perry Como would rehearse for three weeks for a one-hour program. If Dean was doing a duet with somebody like Peggy Lee, we’d make a cassette of a man and a woman singing the particular arrangement, and he’d learn it while driving to or from the golf course. If he loused it up in any way, everybody would laugh and they would do it over again. They just loved Dean. He couldn’t do anything wrong. I wouldn’t say that he was the most dedicated performer in the world, but he got away with it. He’d tell the director, "Point the Italian where you want him."

FP: Talking about television music, what’s happened to the idea of a memorable theme?

VA: You mean what’s happened to melody. Dean’s identification theme was wonderful ("Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes") written by Ken Lane. An incident happened on the show that benefited me, but I’m still rather chagrined about it to this day. The producer, Mr. Garrison said, "Why don’t we have our own theme for the show?" People kind of shook their heads and wondered how they could replace Ken Lane’s song that had already established such a strong identification with Dean. They asked me to write a new theme where they could own the publishing. It could be very valuable based on performances. I went to Ken Lane and told him he’d have to go to Dean and tell him what’s happening because he (Dean) was rather oblivious to what was going on. Ken asked me if I knew what Dean would say if he’d go to him with a complaint? Dean would throw up his hands and say, "Aw, what’s the difference? Forget about it." As it turned out, I wrote a closing theme that they used for the last year of the show. It was great for me because I got ASCAP performances. But I felt terrible for my dear friend Ken Lane (who passed away a few years ago).

FP: There was another tune from that same album that I remember playing on the air during my early days in radio. In addition to your recording, Ernie Heckscher also covered it on one of his albums. What’s the story behind "The Bar-rump Bump"?

VA:That was an original composition that I wrote for a Dom Deluise special. Following a joke, Greg Garrison would always say "bar-rump bump." He asked me if I could come up with a song using that title. I wrote it and they liked it. Ernie Heckscher recorded it. I actually did five or six albums with Ernie (two of which he actually paid for himself to record). Columbia released a couple of them.

FP: Van, a couple of years ago, ASCAP presented you with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Tell us about that.

VA: They said I was deserving of it because of my multi-faceted career. I’ve been in ASCAP since 1941 (right after "A Tisket"). Coupled with the pictures and television shows that I did, Marilyn Bergman called and said that they had had a board meeting and decided that they had wanted to honour me. I told them that I didn’t know whether or not I was really deserving of a Lifetime Achievement Award, but I was highly honoured. It was a nice evening. I was proud that my whole family was there along with a lot of friends. It’s a nice "notch in the belt," as they say.

FP: Let’s touch upon your three Capitol albums: THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET, SWING! STAGED FOR SOUND and LET’S DANCE THE LAST DANCE.

VA: THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET was actually the pseudo-name for the Savoy Ballroom. But nobody knew what "the home of happy feet" was. So Capitol withdrew that and re-issued that album as THE SAVOY STOMP. Consequently, it sold like hot cakes. I wish it had sold like records! It was an artistic success and it had a lot of great players on it. I know that Uan Rasey played on the dates, as did Barney Kessel. Bob Bain was there on the Swing! Staged For Sound sessions. The Savoy album was a re-creation of, as far as my memory was concerned, tunes that were associated with bands that played at the Savoy. We did Andy Kirk’s "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," (which was his theme); and Chick Webb’s theme "Let’s Get Together." There was Lucky Millinder’s "Ride, Red, Ride" that featured a vocal by Joe Howard and some great trumpet work by Shorty Sherock. The other album, Swing! Staged For Sound was a series of duets accompanied by a big band. We had three drummers (Shelly Manne, Milt Holland and Irv Cottler) and two trombones (Milt Bernhart and Dick Kenney). We had Plas Johnson and Babe Russin on tenor sax. And Henri Rose and Bobby Stevenson were featured on two pianos. It was a good album.

FP: I was blown away by the two pianos on "I Won’t Dance."

VA: That’s where we interpolated Chopin’s "Revolutionary Etude" and tied it into the final arrangement.

FP: Who were your early musical inspirations? I know that your mother was a concert pianist.

VA: Growing up, I loved listening to Andre Kostelanetz and all the things that he did. As I got a little older and started listening to the big bands, there were the Dorseys, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and Benny Goodman. I never dreamed that someday I would have a chance to write for some of them. My all-time favourite was Billy May. I also like Pete Rugolo. There were so many. And there are so many great writers today.

FP: Do you have a personal message that you’d like to send to Robert Farnon?

VA: Well, how does he do it? He’s had a marvellous career and he’s still going; exploring new frontiers all the time. I’d love to meet him personally someday.

FP: Van, we want to thank you very much. You’ve had a wonderful career and are, indeed, a true legend in the music world.

VA: Thank you.

Forrest Patten conducted this interview with Van Alexander on 8 September 2004.

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