Here’s a story from Chicago bassist Joe Levinson: The late Joe Rumoro was one of the Windy City’s top guitarists, on call with the Chicago Symphony as a classical virtuoso as well as doing the cream of the jazz and commercial work in town. One day he got a call from a club date leader named Manny, who owned a violin but had no other musical credentials. Manny, who clearly had never heard of Rumoro, asked if he played the guitar and was open on Saturday. This created a devilish impulse in Joe, who had already booked a good-paying society job at the Conrad Hilton for that night. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m open. What’s up?” Manny said, “I have an important dance at the North Side VFW hall. I normally use five men, but they want a bigger band so I thought I’d add a guitar.” Joe told him, “Then I’m your man!”
Manny wanted to make sure. “You know all the tunes?” he asked. “Sure, I know lots of tunes,” said Joe. “You know lots of chords?” “Sure, I know thirds, fourths, even fifths!” Manny wasn’t reassured. “You know sevenths?” “Sure, I’m even getting familiar with elevenths and thirteenths!” Joe said. Manny growled, “Don’t kid me, pal. They ain’t no thirteenths. You must be some kind of kidder, Rumoro.” Joe backed off and admitted he’d been kidding about thirteenths. “You got a tux?” Manny asked. “Sure.” “Got an amp?” “You bet.” “Well, you’re on the job Saturday, and if you do well I can book you on a couple of other jobs I’ve got coming up.”
Joe took down the information and began making preparations for an elaborate put-on. After sending in a sub on the first job he had booked, he borrowed a beat-up old archtop guitar and a ratty looking amplifier from one of his students. From his basement he dug out a worn-out guitar case with a missing handle and broken latches, and an old piece of rope to hold it closed. He got out his oldest tux, which fit him poorly due to a weight gain, and a stained tux shirt. Since it was November, he needed an overcoat. He borrowed a terrible-looking one from a janitor who worked around the corner, and found a dusty fedora in the basement to top off the costume.
Rumoro purposely arrived at the gig just before starting time in order to be seen in all his glory by the full band. He dragged the rope-bound guitar case and the ratty amp with one wheel missing across the dance floor to the bandstand, where he pointedly attempted to shake hands with the leader. Manny hissed, “We don’t shake hands on the stand! Take off the coat and hat!” As Joe did, revealing his ill-fitting tux, the other members of the band quietly moved away from him. Joe feigned difficulty getting his guitar strap connected, and some of the other musicians helped him get hooked up. For the remainder of the gig he never took the guitar off.
Joe strummed away all night, never playing a melody line or straying from simple triadic harmony. When they finished Manny told him, “Sorry, I can’t use you on those jobs I mentioned. The check will be in the mail.” The surprise came in the ensuing days, when Joe discovered that Manny had called all the other bandleaders in town to warn them not to hire Joe Rumoro.
When Levinson heard this story, he asked Rumoro, “Late in the evening, as the job was about over, why didn’t you just rip off something brilliant?” Rumoro grinned and said, “If I’d done that, they would have killed me!”
Don Leight spoke to Leon Merian in Florida a while back and got this story from him: Back in the days of studio orchestras at ABC-TV, Leon found himself sitting in the trumpet section next to Bobby Hackett. Knowing Leon’s ability in the high register, Bobby whispered, “Leon, at the end of this tune, I’ll give you twenty bucks to hit a double A!” To make sure that Leon believed him, Bobby took out a twenty and slipped it into the breast pocket of his jacket with the edge peeping out like a handkerchief. Leon had an F written as his last note, but he couldn’t resist. He played it, then popped up to a double A and held it, loudly. He was still holding it for a moment after the rest of the band cut off. Conductor Abe Osser looked at him in disbelief as Frank Vagnoni, the contractor, ran out of the booth and told Leon, “If you ever do that again, you’re through here!” Leon nodded, and pocketed his twenty.
Russ Moy told me about stopping at a tavern with Rio Clemente and Ray Alexander after a gig in the wilds of New Jersey. After downing a few beers, Ray asked the bartender the best way to get back to Route 78. The bartender puzzled it over for a minute, and then suggested that Ray stop at the police station nearby and get directions from them. Ray asked, “Will those directions come with or without a sobriety test?”
In my September column, in the paragraph about Ethel Merman and the IRS, I inadvertently omitted the source of the story. It came from Eric W. Knight, and I thank him for sending it in.