Allegro Interviews Chris Griffin
Volume CI, No. 7/8July, 2001
At age 85, trumpet player Chris Griffin is one of three remaining members of the Benny Goodman band that played the historic 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall (the other two are Lionel Hampton and Martha Tilton). Last spring, I was happy to have the opportunity to interview him for Allegro – and to renew my acquaintance with Chris’s son, Paul, who is an old friend and also a fine trumpet player. Paul and his wife, Irene, run a bed and breakfast inn called the Griffin House in Jeffersonville, N.Y., and Chris, having recently lost his wife, is living with them. They kindly invited me up for a visit.
Chris was recovering from a broken right shoulder, but he is still sharp and was pleased to see me. After dinner we listened to a CD that Paul, who is also an audio engineer, had compiled of his dad’s recorded work from the early years on. Chris’ playing was truly beautiful – lyrical and mesmerizing. He played in tune, swinging, with a gorgeous tone and vibrato. It was easy to understand why Benny Goodman considered Chris one of his two favorite trumpet players of all time (the other being the wonderful unsung legend, Doug Mettome).
Chris was born Gordon Claude in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1915. He never cared for either name so he was pleased when, during a stint with one of his early bands, a foreign musician kept mispronouncing his name in a manner that sounded like “Chris,” and the name stuck.
The youngest of five children – the others were girls, all intent on spoiling the baby – Chris played a little piano as a youngster. While he was still in his early teens his dad’s business failed and the family moved to White Plains, where his father hoped to find more opportunities for work. Chris’ dad had a friend who ran music classes, and one day he asked whether Chris would like to take part. Chris attended his first music class clutching his older sister’s 3/4 size violin, an instrument he’d never played and had no use for.
He was instantly smitten by all the shiny brass, and begged for a trumpet. His father managed to scrape together $29.50 to buy a new instrument at the local music store. “It was a Pan American horn,” Chris recalls, “a cross between a trumpet and a cornet.” He soon started letting the instrument gather dust in the corner, but his dad laid down the law. “Gordon, I paid $29.50 for that horn, and you’re going to play it. From now on, you’ll get up with me every morning at 5 a.m. and you’ll practice something before you go to school.”
Chris, by then 16, was soon playing small local dates and learning his craft. He joined a Stanford, Conn., band run by saxophonist Johnny Caper, a boyfriend of one of his sisters. An older trombonist on the band, Bill Macy, took a liking to Chris and took him under his wing. Chris learned a lot from him, both musically and socially.
They gigged around the area until Caper contracted to play a job at a taxi dance hall located next to the Palace theatre in New York. Chris had to join the union, which was then located on 86th Street on the East Side. He remembers that the audition was a C major scale, and the initiation fee was $25. The move brought an end to his formal schooling.
He stayed with Caper until the gig was finished and then moved into a room in the Chesterfield Hotel on West 49th Street with five other musicians. “Lots of great musicians were living in the area at the time, including the likes of Artie Shaw, Manny Klein and Dave Barbour,” Chris recalls. “And although there wasn’t much work around – this was the heart of the depression – there were great jam sessions almost every night.” Sitting in with these great players was better than a college education, and Chris was quickly developing into a wonderful player.
He had become friends with Babe Russin, a member of the CBS radio staff. When Bunny Berigan left to form his own band, Russin asked whether Chris would be interested in going on staff. He agreed, but with great trepidation, wondering how he’d do under a stick and concerned about following a player of Bunny’s stature. The contractor at CBS was Angie Mattera, and the next day Chris got the call to audition.
In those days the bands would rehearse for about 20 minutes, take a ten-minute break, and then play the show. Chris did the rehearsal but didn’t get the show time straight. He was in the bar downstairs, listening to the radio, when he heard his program go on. He made a dash to the studio, figuring he’d had the shortest staff experience on record. Luckily, the leader was understanding and really dug his playing. Both the leader and the contractor thought he played with a lot of similarity to Bunny, so that did it. Chris Griffin, only 19, was on CBS staff at $110 a week, more money than he’d ever dreamed of making.
THE GOODMAN BAND
A while later he had his foot up at the Famous Door Bar, a hangout for CBS staff players, when he was approached by Mannie Klein and John Hammond, Benny Goodman’s friend and mentor. Trumpeter Harry Geller was leaving Benny’s band, and they wondered if he’d care to audition the chair. Chris was thrilled at the offer but there were two problems: he and his fiancée, Helen, had a wedding planned in the near future, and he’d have to give six weeks notice to leave staff.
When Chris explained his concerns in a phone conversation that night, Benny said not to worry about staff, since Hammond would take care of that. He suggested that Chris and Helen get married immediately and make the trip out to the coast their honeymoon. Helen thought it was a great idea, and Hammond took care of the staff notice problem. As Chris was later to discover, “John Hammond could take care of just about anything.”
The first time Benny spoke to Chris in person was to ask him how much he wanted. Chris said he was making $110 on staff – and Benny, true to form, said, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks.” Chris argued the point to no avail, and found himself doing one niters on the way out to the coast for ten dollars a week less than he’d been making at home on staff.
Chris joined the band in 1936, sitting next to trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin. Years later, they would become partners in a music school venture. Since Chris was the newest member of the group, he and Helen were forced to travel in the back seat of the leader’s car while vocalist Helen Ward sat in front with Benny. Chris says that Benny was the worst driver he’s ever seen: constantly distracted, racing around trucks without knowing what was coming the other way, and generally putting all their lives in jeopardy.
Chris gave notice a number of times but Benny kept him on each time by throwing another ten dollars a week his way. When Chris finally left the band in 1940, he was making $175 a week. That was big-time money in those days, and almost as much as Harry James was earning.
Other trumpet players came and went, but when John Hammond planned the historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert the trumpets were Chris playing lead, flanked by two giants playing most of the solos: Harry James and Ziggy Elman. It was the first time a jazz ensemble had performed in a classical setting. The concert became a landmark in the music business, and brought worldwide attention to American jazz.
As the years passed, the band’s closer – “Sing, Sing, Sing,” featuring Harry James, Gene Krupa and pianist Jess Stacy – became the most famous big band record of all time. Harry’s solo is copied to this day and is presently a feature in the show Fosse, played by trumpeter Glenn Drewes.
LIFE OFF THE ROAD
Meanwhile, Chris’ family was growing, and in 1940 he left the road scene for good. He called Lou Schoobe, who had been assistant contractor at CBS when Chris had been on staff and was now the contractor. Lou brought Chris back on staff – but again this lasted only a short time, as Chris found out he could do better on the outside. His mentor at the time was Ray Bloch, who was freelance conducting half a dozen radio shows, and wanted Chris on all of them. Between Bloch and the recording studios, Chris was able to purchase a home for himself, Helen and their six children.
At CBS radio he worked on The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, The Phillip Morris Show and The Camel Caravan. He also worked in the recording studios, with such performers as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Chris was one of the pioneers of television, performing with the Ray Bloch Orchestra on Toast of the Town, which ultimately became The Ed Sullivan Show. He also performed on the shows of Kate Smith, Milton Berle, Patti Page, Eddie Fisher, Gary Moore, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason.
After many years in television, he worked in country club bands. He also formed his own band, the Chris Griffin All Stars, which had a steady job at the Tamiment Hotel in the Poconos. Chris stayed an active player well into the ’80s.
One of the anecdotes he related during our interview last spring illustrates his stature in the business. Chris had played lead on the Frank Sinatra Old Gold show, and became quite friendly with Frank. Shortly before he ended his playing career, he accepted a one niter in Detroit with Sinatra. When Frank showed up at rehearsal, he and Chris saw each other about the same time, and greeted one another warmly. Later, as Chris was leaving for dinner with trumpeter Joe Ferrante, trombonist Sonny Russo joined them. He said he’d just bumped into Sinatra, who remarked, “Sonny, isn’t it wonderful the way Chris Griffin recognized me right away, after all these years?”