A Contractor Veteran Speaks

Meet the Contractors

Volume CV, No. 6June, 2005

Emile Charlap has been contracting for about 50 years. He has been a member of Local 802 since 1940 and is an honor member. In addition to being a contractor, he is also a trumpeter, copyist and arranger. He was the copyist for Dizzy Gillespie for many years and was a close friend of his. He also copied for many Broadway shows including “Sweet Charity” and “Do I Hear a Waltz,” and was music contractor for over 100 radio and television commercials, recordings and films. Charlap turned to music contracting in the mid-1960’s when the film industry had little presence in New York. He was partly responsible for a parade of movies scored in Manhattan, including “The Wiz,” “On Golden Pond,” “Reds,” “Ghostbusters,” “Dressed to Kill,” “The Cotton Club,” and too many more to mention. He contracted musicians on albums by Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett and Carly Simon. He also contracted jingles, including the ad spots for the 1992 Olympic games.

Allegro editor Mikael Elsila sat down with Emile Charlap and asked him about the business, then and now.

Mikael Elsila: A lot of young musicians call us and they want to know how they can get gigs and meet contractors. Do you have any advice for young musicians?

Emile Charlap: Well, guys used to hang out at Charlie’s Tavern, Junior’s and Joe Harbor’s. And everybody met everybody else. They would ask you, “Can you do the weekend for me? I’ve got a better job.” But there’s no place that kids hang out now.

ME: What did contracting used to be like?

EC: It used to be wonderful. I used to do three or four dates a day. The jingle industry might be called to do a major ad – like American Airlines. And then 50 jingle houses put together a band quickly to do one jingle! Now that doesn’t happen. We used to have Tony Bennett do a recording date, and God knows who else. I still work with Michael Feinstein; I do a lot of contracting for him, and John Oddo.

ME: When did you first start contracting?

EC: I remember the day. Ralph Burns asked me if I could contract a date. There was Hank Ross who worked for Perry Como. I asked him, “What do you do about contracting?” He said, “Buy me a drink; we’ll sit down and talk.” He used to contract for Perry Como. Once Burns told me to hire four French horns. So I hired the four French horns in the New York Philharmonic – lucky break! And then he asked me, “Where did you find these guys? Charlie’s Tavern? They can’t swing!” But they were the best horn players in the world! All my arrangers were marvelous and I worked for them, and they really set me going. Ralph Burns gave me my start; that was 50 years ago.

ME: You contracted for about 50 years?

EC: Yes. Some of the big names were Max Zeppos, Julie Held, and those guys. They all worked for Columbia or Decca or Capitol Records. The leader was considered the leader, and the composer or arranger brought the arrangement in. Then it turned around, where Ralph Burns asked me to contract a date, which was unheard of. I was his copyist. That’s where it all started. It was very beautiful in those days.

ME: Who are the big names you’ve contracted for?

EC: All of them: I was very successful. It was tremendous. These were record dates first; then the jingle business came in. Every artist used to have a big band, like Perry Como. I did about 250 films. Michael Small was a big colleague of mine; so was Michael Kamen, Elliot Goldenthal and Teese Gohl.

ME: Maybe you can tell me some interesting stories about your past. Did you ever meet Charlie Parker?

EC: He was wonderful – if he showed up. We were doing “The Still of the Night,” and as a vocal group was rehearsing, he walked in with his saxophone, and they were still rehearsing. He started to play. And Norman Granz said, “That’s a take!” I said, “What do you mean a take? The band didn’t even play yet!” He said, “How did Charlie sound?” I said, “Great!” He said, “That’s a take!”

ME: I know you were close to Dizzy Gillespie. What can you tell me about him?

EC: When I first met him, he was so glib you could never win an argument. He stole my girlfriend. He was very smart. As he grew older, he grew more sensitive. I took care of his library.

ME: What did you think of Dizzy’s music when you first heard him?

EC: When I first heard him, I never heard anything like that. That was the first time I heard bebop. I later went to his rehearsals in Harlem at 2 a.m. in this old church, not knowing that it might not have been safe to go to Harlem at that time of night. When I got there, Dizzy greeted me by giving me a soul kiss and knocked me right down.

ME: What if there was a young musician who came to you, who had the spark of music. What would you tell him or her, if you didn’t want to turn this person away from music?

EC: You got to practice, practice. Now let’s say you’ve got the stuff: you can play. Then you’ve got to surround yourself with friends. I made it because my friends made it: Al Cohn. Zoot Sims. They were my friends and they were marvelous musicians. I hung out with them and they recommended me for jobs. I also had an office in those days. There was Al Cohn, Billy Byers, Larry Wilcox, Gary McFarland, Bob Brookmeyer, Ralph Burns and Manny Albam all in the office. And someone said once, “You have everything here.” I said, “Yes, I do!” That was my office, and those were the great talents of the day.

ME: What do young musicians need besides talent?

EC: Contacts. You have to hang out in whatever area you’re in. The guys that go to Juilliard have all of their friends who do symphonic work. The guys who play jazz have to hang out with jazz musicians. And you’ve got to be good, or better! Because they’re all good, and they’re not working! You’ve got to be better. I wouldn’t advise my kid to be a musician. I wouldn’t want him to, in the worst way. All of the successful musicians are working Broadway shows. Dave Matthews has a big band that goes to Japan; that’s the only place they can play. But they make a few thousand dollars a week, and they love it: they work there for a month and that’s the end of it.