Allegro Interviews Al Gallodoro

Volume XCIX, No. 11December, 1999

Erwin L. Price

Local 802 member Al Gallodoro, one of the saxophone greats of all time, began his remarkable career in 1927, at the age of 14, playing in big-time vaudeville in the RKO Orpheum Theatre in New Orleans. One of three saxophone-playing brothers and the son of a clarinetist, this largely self-taught musician went on to play in several notable orchestras, including the Paul Whiteman band and the NBC Symphony. Today, at the age of 86, he is still active – playing gigs in this country and abroad, and continuing to release CDs.

In a recent interview, he described some highlights of his career. It is also the story of an extraordinary musical period in this country’s history, when live and broadcast music had wide listenership and influence.

After playing at local New Orleans venues for some years, Gallodoro auditioned for the Isham Jones Orchestra. Six months after he joined the band, “we came to New York,” he recalls, and Jones said, “Kid, I have to let you go. It isn’t your playing, but you can’t hold a steady job in New York until you’re in the union for six months.”

Gallodoro loved New York and he stayed on. “I freelanced in club jobs, worked for the Lanin office and at a restaurant in Yorkville. And after six months, around the spring of 1934, I got my union card. I never forgot the president of Local 802, Jack Rosenberg.”

He went into the small radio orchestra at WINS, with Vincent Sory as the leader and Alfredo Antonini as pianist and contractor. Gallodoro played all sorts of engagements and spent hours each day practicing. He developed a technical prowess on the saxophone second to none.

A really big break came when he was hired in 1936 to play lead alto sax with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, a day he describes as “the happiest day of my life. A lot of people know how famous Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and the Dorsey brothers were – but I want to tell you, Paul Whiteman was the most famous. I was in that band from the spring of ’36 until he disbanded on May 30, 1940.”

Whiteman, originally a violinist with the Denver Symphony, was an innovator who assembled an orchestra that played popular music in a classical style. Nevertheless he had some outstanding jazz musicians of the period in the group – including the legendary trombonist Jack Teagarden and trumpeter Charlie Teagarden known as “Big T” and “Little T.” There was Sal Franzella, a great jazz clarinetist, and Gallodoro’s sidekick from New Orleans, Artie Drelinger, tenor saxophonist, who later became a staff musician at CBS in New York and was featured with the Ray Bloch orchestra on the Ed Sullivan show. Artie Ryerson, the guitarist, was one of the first guitar players to play fast, single string solos.

Musicians vied to play with Whiteman since his engagements were the best in the field: he played the Coconut Grove nightclub in Hollywood, the best hotels in Chicago and New York, and a wide range of musical radio broadcasts, including the Chesterfield Hour, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber show, and many more. “There was not one band that had that many commercials, except maybe Fred Waring, at that time,” Gallodoro said. “Our band really swung.”

After Whiteman disbanded the orchestra Gallodoro spent a few months with his family in New Orleans, and then returned to New York to play the Sonja Henie/Arthur Wirtz production of It Happens on Ice at the Center Theatre in the Rockefeller-Radio City complex.

His next engagement was another highlight of his career. He was in Hurley’s, the bar and restaurant at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 48th Street, one night and Joe Ussifer (who later was known as Paul Lavalle) asked, “Hey, Al, would you like to go with the NBC Symphony?”

“I said, ‘Oh, man, that would be nice.’ He said, ‘Well, they need a bass clarinet player. You’ll play some clarinet, but mainly bass clarinet.'” Gallodoro recalls that, during his audition, “The old man, Toscannini, was in the audience, and so were Dr. Frank Black and H. Leopold Stokowski. And I’ll tell you, I was nervous – I really was, because I had never played symphony. I’d played classical jobs, but not symphony. And I got the job. Within a day or two, I was hired.”

Gallodoro joined the ranks of some of the greatest classical musicians in the country when he began playing with the NBC Symphony. Although largely self-taught, he describes himself as “an all-around player. I started with my father, who taught me clarinet on the Albert System – that’s what Jimmy Dorsey played, by the way. And then in 1927, when I went to New Orleans, I changed over to the Boehm System and I taught myself. I know as many fingerings as anybody. And on alto sax I had a few pointers from Howard Vorhees. He showed me how to double and triple tongue. For the acts I was doing, you had to have a real fast tongue and technique. He sat with me, but I had to do the work at home – and I practiced all the time. I used to practice five, six, seven hours a day.”

Gallodoro’s colleagues in the NBC Symphony included Augustine Duquese as first clarinet and Louis Green, second clarinet. “Harold Freeman played third clarinet whenever necessary, but he mainly played E-flat clarinet, and I doubled the second part or played bass clarinet. If there was no bass clarinet, I still had to do the concert and just double.”

He played with the NBC Symphony until October 1944, when he left to freelance. Then he was hired to play on the staff at WJZ of the Blue Network (which later became WABC radio and television), where he was reunited with Whiteman, the network’s music director. Gallodoro played lead alto and clarinet and soloed several times each week.

Frank Vagnoni, the contractor for WABC, assembled an outstanding group of musicians: Concertmaster Bronislaw Gimpel and his brother, pianist Jack, violinist Arnold Eidus, Ruggiero Ricci, who later became a world-class soloist, brother George Ricci, the cellist. In the jazz department trumpeters Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett shared the spotlight and microphone with trombonists Charlie Small, Vernon Brown and Tom Mitchell. The drummers included George Wettling, Maury Feld, Joe Venuto and world-class timpanist George Gaber, who later became professor and chair of the percussion department at Indiana University Music School.

In addition to the instrumental staff, each network had a staff of arrangers at the flagship stations. The music and musicians were important to the operation, and music was specially composed and arranged for each show. Over many years vast music libraries were assembled of original and published music.

Al Gallodoro recorded a great deal and was in demand by many leaders. Along with Whiteman and Bernie Green, staff conductor at WABC, he worked with Abe Osser, Whiteman’s right hand man; Ernie Fiorito; Jack Shandlin, who conducted the movie Lost Boundaries, and on travelogues with Luigi DeFrancesco. He also worked circus shows – “the Royal Lippizaners, the Moscow Circus…I can go on and on.

“Right now, I’m doing gigs,” he said. “I can’t play “Hora Staccato” like I do on my CDs and all, but I’m better at the jazz now, because with jazz you improvise; you’re not reading notes. And I’m private teaching, and I teach at Hartwick College. I have six students there.”

He recently released some new CDs. “‘The Many Sides of Al Gallodoro’ – that has live performances, and prerecorded things. It runs 74 minutes. And I just did one in Holland, in March of this year. After doing ‘Saxophone Contrasts’ and the ‘Concerto for Doubles’ and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet and all, my daughter said to me, ‘Al, why don’t you do something lush?’ Well, that was my idea too, 20 years ago – do something lush, some jazz and ballads. And that’s exactly what I did. The CD is called, ‘Out of Nowhere.’

“People ask, ‘Are you retired?’ And I say, ‘No, only the coffin is going to retire me.’ As long as I can play good, I will. I was practicing an hour before you called.”

This article is based on an Oct. 1 interview with Al Gallodoro, with some additional information from an article in the Saxophone Journal of September/October 1989.