Bill Crow’s Band Room

Volume XCIX, No. 8September, 1999

Bill Crow

During his years playing horn with the CBS Symphony on radio, nobody ever suggested to Fred Klein that his baldness wasn’t acceptable. But when he began to do the Ed Sullivan Show, contractor Lou Shoobe called Fred into his office one Thursday and asked if he had a toupee, since the orchestra would be onstage that Sunday. Fred said, “To oblige, I went to a human furrier and asked for one.” The rugmaker couldn’t do a custom job that quickly, but he already had one made up for a Canadian customer who wasn’t due to pick it up for a week. It fit Fred okay, so he bought it and the toupee maker began work on a replacement for his other customer. Fred said, “Three hundred dollars lighter, but much hairier, I was all set. The irony was that the band was onstage accompanying Yul Brynner!”

Percussionist Howard Hirsch developed a reputation that had nothing to do with the excellence of his playing. He told me, “I worked with Danny Kaye for three years, and he died. I played with Judy Garland for 10 years, and she died. I worked with Richard Burton for two years, and he died. I worked for Dean Martin for two years, and he died. I played with Sammy Davis, Jr., for two years, and he died. When I started to work for Sinatra, he said, ‘Hello, Howard. I heard about you. Stand over there.’ ”

I was down in Atlantic City a little while ago and ran into Jimmy Miller. He told me about a big band gig he once played at the old Brooklyn Paramount with an Alan Freed rock and roll show. The guitars and drums were so loud that nobody could hear what they were doing. Bill Vaccaro had to take off one night and couldn’t find a sub in time, so he had his father put on a blue suit and sit in his chair holding Bill’s trumpet up to his lips. The other trumpet players covered Bill’s part, and no one out front knew the difference.

Ethel Merman did a concert with the Norfolk Symphony (now known as the Virginia Symphony) in 1978. Tympanist John Lindberg happened to be playing the drum set on that concert and he told me that, shortly afterward, he was called before the Internal Revenue Service. It seems that 170 of his W-2 forms had been lost, one for each performance he had done the previous year. He had a feeling of impending doom as he looked at the stern faces at the IRS office. But suddenly someone called out from a back room, “Hey, aren’t you Ethel Merman’s drummer?” “Yes, I am,” said John, thanking Merman and God at the same time. The voice belonged to the manager of the office, who was a Merman fan and had loved the concert. John was immediately given celebrity courtesy, and his W-2 problem was quickly negotiated to everyone’s satisfaction. Merman would have been pleased to know the extent of her influence.

Mark Patterson described a job he did with Joe Cabot in a three-horn front line that was faking some tunes. At the end of one tune, Joe said, “Just play unison.” Dick Meldonian replied, “We are playing unison.” “Then,” said Joe, “tune up!”

Dave Moore is dismayed that so many people in the current generation have grown up without exposure to musical instruments. Like many bassists, he is often asked by strangers if his instrument is a cello. But he was really surprised when a friend of his, a harpist, entertained a visitor in her apartment, where her instrument sat uncovered. The visitor looked at it and remarked, “Gee, I just love the cello!”

John Signorelli told me about a bandleader, Anthony Pisani, that he and the late Marshall Brown used to work for at the Hotel Grand Concourse in the Bronx. One Friday night Pisani called and said, “John, I’m sending you on a job in Jersey tomorrow with my son, Anthony Junior. Help him run the job and call the tunes. It’s his first job as a leader since he returned from Rome. He’s now a surgeon at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital, doing cardiac bypass operations.” John took care of it and the job went smoothly. On Sunday morning he got another call from Pisani senior: “John, my son told me how helpful you were, and said the band did an excellent job. Everyone was satisfied. Thanks.” And then he added, “And if you ever need an operation, it’s on the house!”

Steve Voce, the English jazz writer, once interviewed Sidney Bechet when he visited London. They sat down at a long oak table in the green room of the concert hall where Sidney was playing. Steve began by saying, “We all loved your clarinet playing. Yet in the late ’40s you decided to abandon the instrument and stick to the soprano sax. Why was this?” Bechet replied, “That’s a very interesting question. I’ll answer it with another. What the bloody hell has it got to do with you?” And he got up and walked out of the room.