Allegro Interviews Abe Osser
Volume CI, No. 6June, 2001
Perhaps the musical discipline that is least understood by the general public – and possibly by the musical community as well – is the role of the arranger/orchestrator. Unlike the visibility of the composer, songwriter, conductor and instrumental performer, the arranger’s contributions are rarely highlighted.
One Local 802 member who has had a remarkable career in this field – and as an instrumentalist, composer, conductor and musical coordinator/supervisor – is Abe Osser. An outstanding musician, he has worked in a variety of musical venues: live dance bands, concerts, radio, television, recordings, shows and pageants.
Osser, who has been an 802 member since 1936, began his remarkable musical journey as a child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in the small town of Munising, Mich. Early studies at the piano, violin, saxophone and clarinet in high school preceded his college study in music at the University of Michigan. He started out working toward a major in music education and learned to play many instruments as a prospective teacher, later switched to music theory, and graduated in 1935.
After graduation he worked in a college dance band. The band leader who took the group over advised Abe to move on to New York, where he would find more opportunities to utilize his talent as a music arranger, and gave him a letter of introduction to Charles Warren. Warren, the head of Robbins Music Publishing, became Abe’s mentor, providing him with recommendations that helped to open many doors.
Among his first jobs was doing two arrangements a week for the Bob Crosby band, which had been booked at the New Yorker Hotel for three months. On the strength of that association and Warren’s recommendation, Abe also began arranging for the Vincent Lopez orchestra, Al Donohue at the Rainbow Room, and Charlie Barnet at the Glen Island Casino.
This all took place during the economic depression of the 1930s, a period when live music was everywhere – in halls, hotels, presentation theatres and restaurants. Osser’s talent kept him busy; he also worked as arranger for other well-known bands of the period, such as Bunny Berigan and Ben Bernie.
His first foray into the radio scene came when NBC hired him as a staff arranger to work with Al Roth, a young conductor whom NBC was grooming to present a new musical series. Staff arrangers worked on a steady, weekly basis and were assigned to ongoing shows as well as special project shows. The arranger usually was responsible for an opening band instrumental number, accompaniments for singers, bridges and underscoring for any comedy skits, and also a closing number and the themes. It was not unusual for more than one arranger to be assigned to a show, if the requirements for music were particularly demanding.
Osser also found opportunities to work as a side musician on the sax and clarinet – most notably, with Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Brown was Abe’s closest friend, and he asked him to fill in at one point when the band was booked for the Edison Hotel. His third alto player could not play a steady engagement because he had not yet qualified for membership in Local 802. The union rules of that day seem archaic now, but the union was very strict in enforcing its bylaws.
In the spring of 1939 Osser also had the opportunity to work for Benny Goodman on his radio show, The Camel Caravan. Charlie Warren had recommended him to fill in for Goodman’s arranger, Jimmy Mundy, who was ill.
“The first week I was on, Johnny Mercer was on as a guest singer. Benny was playing at the Pennsylvania and Mercer went down to hear him,” Osser recalled in a recent interview.
“Ziggy Elman was in the band, and he and Noni Bernardi had worked out a song from one of the Jewish musicals, kind of a kazatski thing, that was very popular. Johnny Mercer said to Benny, ‘If you slowed that down a bit, it’s kind of a pretty melody. I could write a lyric to it.’ Benny told him to go ahead.
“A couple of days later Mercer came in with the lyric ‘And the Angels Sing.’ So Benny called up and told me to meet Martha Tilton, his band singer, down at Victor and make a vocal arrangement on this tune. I did, and they recorded it. That turned out to be one of Benny’s biggest hits.” Osser was not credited on early recordings; it wasn’t until some time later that the union negotiated arrangers’ credits on recordings.
His arranging work on NBC radio included commercial programs with Al Roth and Ben Bernie, the bandleader who also performed at the Taft Hotel. Another highlight was his three years as arranger on The Fred Allen Comedy Hour and the Prudential Family Hour.
Osser served in the maritime service during World War II. He was stationed on Hoffman Island, in New York Harbor, working with a band led by Emery Deutsch.
In 1944, after his discharge, he went to work for Paul Whiteman on ABC’s Philco Radio Hall of Fame. He clearly recalls the time Jan Peerce was scheduled to perform an aria on the show. “I had never conducted it, so I told Frank Vagnoni I’d like to meet him and go over the music with him.” Vagnoni, the contractor at ABC, told Osser that Peerce was out of town and would not be back until just before the rehearsal. “I said, ‘That’s terrible; I’ll feel like an idiot.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got a record of Caruso singing it and it’s going to be practically the same kind of phrasing. Just listen to that.’
“So I got the record. I had to re-orchestrate it because we didn’t have the opera orchestration. But I loved that music. I did it with Jan and I had no problem with it.”
Whiteman, who was also music director of the American Broadcasting Co., put Osser on the staff in 1947, when Philco went off the air. Osser remained there until 1969, when staff orchestras were discontinued.
Over the years, he worked under a series of different names – beginning during his stint as a staff conductor at ABC. “Bud Barry, the head of programming, didn’t like ethnic names – or even long names. Ray Carter’s name was actually Murray Krombein. Ralph Norman, a fine arranger and conductor, was Ralph Wilkinson – but Barry said, ‘Wilkinson’s too long. What’s your middle name?’ Ralph told him it was Norman. Barry said, ‘That’s your new name: Ralph Norman.'” Joe Usifer became Paul Lavalle. And Abe became Glenn Osser.
At one point, while Osser was a staff conductor at ABC, he was invited to write some arrangements for NBC’s The Alcoa Hour. ABC brass told him he could take the job, as long as he worked under a different name.
“Herb Borodkin, the producer of the NBC show, asked me, ‘What’s your middle name?’ I said Arthur. ‘And what’s your wife’s maiden name?’ Meisel. He said, ‘How do you do, Arthur Meisel!’ And that was my name when I did that show.”
He used a number of different names when he worked on ABC’s Dance Party, a Saturday night show that featured half an hour of different kinds of bands. “One staff conductor, Ralph Hermann, did a German band; he called himself Herman Weber. Dick Ridgely did a Latin band, as Don Ricardo. I had two or three different names. I led a Glenn Miller kind of band, using the name Bob Marvel.” It sometimes was a problem, he recalls, because “people would write in and ask for a picture of Bob Marvel, and I had already sent out a photo of Glenn Osser.”
When the network began promoting a new band, Maurice Pierre and his Continental Orchestra, Vagnoni told the musicians he was bringing a musician over from Paris. “He’s going to have a small band with fiddles and a tenor sax, one of those continental-type sweet orchestras.” But one day Osser asked him, “‘Who’s this guy coming over?’ He said, ‘He’s not coming over – you’re going to be the guy!’
“So I got Vagnoni’s secretary’s tam and put some eyeliner under my nose, like a mustache, and I walked into a rehearsal at two o’clock on Saturday saying, ‘Bonjour, bonjour!’ The guys got a big kick out of that.”
TELEVISION & RECORDING
When television came in, Osser started working on dramatic shows at ABC. He worked on The US Steel Hour, alternating every third week with Bernie Green and Ralph Norman on the one-hour live shows. Osser recalls that, when ABC built its big studio, no one gave much thought to where they would put the band. “So we used to play up in the clients’ booth, next to the engineering booth. You couldn’t put a 20-piece orchestra in there, but we had 12 or 14.”
Next, he began recording with singers like Johnny Mathis, Vic Damone, Jerry Vale, Della Reese, Tony Bennett and Robert Goulet.
In 1955 he started doing the Miss American Pageant, which he did for 33 years. His wife, Edna, is a lyric writer who wrote the lyrics to a big hit, “I Dream of You,” and they wrote a lot of original songs for the pageant. “And we also wrote a couple of things that were recorded by some of the big orchestras. One of them was, ‘Ah, Yes, There’s Good Blues Tonight.’ Les Brown and Tommy Dorsey recorded it.”
Abe Osser has an extensive discography of hundreds of recordings. I have known him for many years, but I had no idea how much he had written, arranged and recorded until I read an extensive interview with him that the Robert Farnon Society in England printed in their journal in 1987.
The interview was conducted by Serge Elhaik, who listed and detailed Osser’s discography. Many of his arrangements were for well-known dance bands such as Bob Crosby, Bunny Berigan and Benny Goodman. The list includes recording sessions conducting his own orchestra, with major artists, for all the major record labels. Elhaik also listed Osser’s original compositions for concert band, high school and college bands.
“We had some fun doing some of that stuff, and we’re still hanging in there,” Abe told me, when I visited and interviewed him in March.
The tremendous enthusiasm for life and music that Abe Osser has shown throughout his career is still very much in evidence. He is still doing some arranging for the Boston Pops. He and his wife now live in Harrison, New York.