Paul Weston

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Paul Weston was one of the true ‘greats’ of the American Recording Industry of the 20th century, and he is credited with having been a pioneer of ‘mood music’ albums. He was around for a long time, so it is hardly surprising that his talent was employed in several different aspects during his highly successful career. Many top singers owe a great deal to him for the perfect backings he provided to their songs, often resulting in hit recordings. He also achieved considerable fame in his later life as ‘Jonathan Edwards’, the pianist who had difficulty keeping to the right tempo in those excruciatingly funny parodies of off-key singers so brilliantly portrayed by his wife, Jo Stafford, as ‘Darlene’.


Some orchestra leaders are figureheads, replying upon the talents of others: Paul Weston’s success was entirely of his own making. When you hear his orchestra you are hearing Paul Weston. He was responsible for the notes on the music manuscripts that his musicians performed with such magical results.

How did Paul Weston achieve his pre-eminence in the USA, and what are the influences that determine how a career will succeed in what, by any yardstick, must be regarded as a risky profession?

It all began way back on 12 March 1912, when Paul Wetstein (later to become Weston) was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He grew up in Pittsfield, Mass. and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1933. Paul’s own instrument was the piano, although his particular favourites were saxes and clarinets. As a very young man he had decided to study arranging after an horrific train accident had almost killed him, needing to find something to occupy him whilst undergoing a long convalescence. It proved to be the turning point in his career, especially as he had previously failed an audition to join a dance band as a clarinet player. (Later he joined the same band on piano – The Green Serenaders at Dartmouth – and toured South America and the Caribbean playing with them on a cruise ship).

While still doing some graduate work at Columbia University, in 1934 he sold some arrangements to the Joe Haymes Orchestra. These were heard by Rudy Vallee, who engaged him to arrange for his Fleischman Hour on radio; around this time Weston also contributed arrangements to the Phil Harris Orchestra. When Tommy Dorsey took over the Haymes orchestra in 1935, he hired Paul Weston as his chief arranger. This association lasted five years, during which time the Dorsey band produced some of its most memorable recordings, including the legendary Song of India, Stardust and Night and Day. While with Dorsey, Weston met his future wife, Jo Stafford, who was then a member of the Pied Pipers vocal group; they eventually married in 1952.

After leaving Dorsey he worked with Bob Crosby and the young Dinah Shore. At Crosby’s invitation he went to Hollywood in 1940, and the following year he did his first film arranging for the Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire movie "Holiday Inn". Other films quickly followed, and while at Paramount he met songwriter Johnny Mercer, who in 1942 was in the process of forming Capitol Records in partnership with record-store owner Glenn Wallichs and composer Buddy de Sylva.

So in 1943 Weston joined the staff at Capitol, where he recorded with their growing roster of singers, including Jo Stafford. At the same time he was working extensively on radio in shows including "The Johnny Mercer Music Shop" and "The Jo Stafford Chesterfield Supper Club". His own "Paul Weston Show" was heard on CBS Radio in 1951 and 1952, and he appeared regularly on television with the "Jo Stafford Show" in 1954. In 1957 he joined NBC TV for five years. Thereafter he was picked by many top stars as their musical director.

In 1950 Weston had left Capitol for Columbia Records, where he built upon his previous successes with mood music 78s, by producing a series of LPs that soon accumulated healthy sales. Despite this, in 1958 he was sacked by Mitch Miller and returned to Capitol where some of his earlier big sellers were re-recorded in stereo. As a freelance he also backed Ella Fitzgerald on her ‘Irving Berlin Songbook’ for Verve.

Weston was no mean composer, and he collaborated on several big hits, among them Day by Day, I Should Care, Shrimp Boats, Autumn in Rome, Gandy Dancers’ Ball and When April Comes Again. His standing among his peers can be judged by the fact that he was a founder member and first president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the organisation which began awarding Grammys in 1958.

With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to split Weston’s career into several segments. Initially he gained recognition through his arranging, and he combined this with his conducting skills to good effect on the many vocal records he made, especially with his wife Jo Stafford. She enjoyed considerable success as a ‘straight’ singer, but in her later career it was her spoof performance as a poor amateur hopeful with an equally useless accompanist (Jo with Paul on piano as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards) that amused record buyers and even won them a Grammy. Weston also distinguished himself in films, and was a regular on US radio and television. But internationally it was his ‘mood albums’ that made him famous. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he liked to use the whole orchestra, not just a few sections. "All I did was add strings to a dance band" he once explained. "The reason it still swung was because I used good jazz musicians." These included soloists of the highest calibre, like Ziggy Elman, Eddie Miller, Paul Smith and Barney Kessel. He sometimes resisted the temptation to amplify the strings, by having the rest of the band play softly during important string passages, resulting in a chamber-music quality that went right to the heart of his kind of music.

Tim Weston (the son of Paul and Jo Stafford) can remember seeing his father working at home on scores, sitting at the piano with a pencil in his mouth. At the time the family was living in Beverly Hills, where they had moved in 1957, and like all busy musicians, Paul was frequently facing deadlines. In the days before faxes and photocopying this meant rushing scores by car to his copyists (Clyde Balsley and Jack Collins) in Hollywood. In 1980 the Westons sold their home and settled in Century City, a suburb of Los Angeles.

On the podium Paul could be a hard taskmaster, expecting high standards from his musicians. He would clap his hands when it was necessary to bring them to order. Away from work he was quite different – relaxed and good company. When constructing his scores he would always take special care with his introductions, and the links between the main theme and its subsequent reprise.

Paul Weston regularly employed a loyal coterie of musicians who were present on many of his recordings. The trumpets would be led by Conrad Gozzo, with Zeke Zarchy, Ziggy Elman and Don Fagerquist on hand for solos. Bill Schaeffer and Joe Howard were regulars in the trombone section, and Babe Russin could always be seen on saxes, often ably supported by Ted Nash, Freddy Stulce and Lenny Hartman. Paul Smith was a fixture on piano, and Nick Fatool and Alvin Stoller handled the drums. Jack Ryan was on bass, with George Van Eps (a true genius of the seven string) on guitar. At one time each chair in the violin section was the concertmaster of a leading motion picture studio orchestra. As recognition of their admiration for Paul Weston, they would often just take turns at sitting in the first chair. Many of the names on this list will be recognised as leading instrumentalists who had met and worked with Paul during the big band era, and who subsequently ‘migrated’ to the studio session scene in Los Angeles.

In 1971 the Trustees of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave its Trustees Award to Paul Weston. The citation read in part: "To Paul Weston, whose dedication, wisdom and strength led it (the Academy) through its earliest years, and whose inspiration and dedication ever since, has contributed so greatly to the Recording Academy’s development, acceptance and respect throughout the world." Paul Weston died on 20 September 1996, at Santa Monica, California, aged 84.

David Ades (2003)

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