Steve Little is best-known to jazz fans as the drummer on one of Duke Ellington’s most celebrated recordings, …And His Mother Called Him Bill from 1967. He also participated in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert and Duke’s octet for dancers at the Rainbow Grill. In that era Steve also performed and recorded with many other jazz greats like Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet and Terry Gibbs.
Prior to that, Steve was with Hartford Symphony under Fritz Mahler for the first American performances and recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in the mid-50’s. This was the beginning of “O, Fortuna” in American culture, and can be found on YouTube.
In the 70’s Steve was a regular session musician for the Children’s Television Workshop, playing themes and cues for Sesame Street, The Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, and others. The bassist on many of those sessions was Bob Cranshaw. Steve also worked for Broadway shows and all kinds of commercial, classical, and studio work in that decade, the 80’s, and the 90’s.
These days Steve is back to playing more jazz. Last summer a nice set of the Joel Press/Mike Kanan quartet with Steve and Tal Ronen was videotaped in action at Fat Cat by Michael Steinman. On “You’re Driving Me Crazy” you can hear the effortless authenticity of Steve’s cymbal beat. Younger musicians wishing to discover more about the tradition should should try to get next to Steve Little: he’s accessible, generous, and very swinging.
Thanks to Hyland Harris for transcribing the interview.
Ethan Iverson: When were you born and where are you from?
Steve Little: I was born February 20th, 1935 in Brooklyn New York, but I grew up in West Hartford Connecticut. I studied there and played in the Hartford Symphony in the percussion section. It was quite a good orchestra actually. We recorded Carmina Burana in 1955. Fritz Mahler was the conductor, he was a distant cousin of Gustav.
EI: You were playing in the percussion section?
SL: Yeah, xylophone, bass drum, or whatever would come up.
EI: You must have been playing some jazz too?
SL: Very very little. There was very little jazz in Hartford. I played some club dates. When I was a kid in school I used to go to the State Theatre (which was torn down many years ago) but all the big bands would come in. We would get there at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, see a show, then watched the movie, then you watched another show. They had a pit band playing before the name band went on.
I saw Tommy Dorsey. My father took me to see Louis Armstrong, when he had a big band. I used to always see Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich also. To pick up a lick, you had to sit through the stage show because the band would play something like three tunes and they would have comedians and everything. So if you wanted to pick up a lick you had to spend the afternoon at the State Theatre. Not like now where you go to YouTube and can learn a whole guy’s repertoire, sitting in front of your screen. You literally had to spend an afternoon at the theatre to pick up something.
EI: What did Gene Krupa play that struck you?
SL: That question needs a long, convoluted answer. It depends what age I was when I heard him. It brings to mind a very funny story, because even though he certainly was a great drummer he became very unhip.
EI: He’s hip when you’re ten but not when you’re twenty.
SL: Yeah, because the times and music had changed. When I was first in New York in the sixties I was trying to play like Elvin Jones or Philly Joe. I worked with this tenor player, Richie Kamuca, who gave me one of the best drum lessons I ever had in my life. Richie came to town around 1960 and we played together in Sal Salvador’s band and a bunch of others. I was always trying to play as hip as I could.
One day, a couple of years later about 1962, we were working at the old Copacabana nightclub. We would play with all the big name acts, sometimes a wonderful experience, but you also had to play 40’s style dance music until three o’clock in the morning. (You had to play until they emptied out the club.) One time I was really dragged so I went into my Gene Krupa imitation because I really had him down, I used to watch him all the time. Richie Kamuca turned around and said to me, “I realize you think you are being funny but that is the best I ever heard you play.” That gave me a lot of food for thought about what was important. You had to play the gig whatever it might be, not what you thought was hip. But anyway, I saw everybody at The State Theatre. Jazz at the Philharmonic would come to the Bushnell Memorial and I would hear jazz there. But there was very very little opportunity to play jazz in Hartford.
EI: You must have gotten a drumset at some point?
SL: Oh yes, I used to practice all of the time, particularly drum solos. I watched Gene and Buddy Rich especially, who I thought was absolutely phenomenal, and later Big Sid and Max Roach, who really turned my conception of playing around. I was also greatly influence by Philly Joe Jones and Shelly Manne and a whole bunch of lesser-known but great drummers in New York.
My first road gig was with Holiday on Ice. Now what could possibly be bad about that? I’m twenty-one years old and I am on the road with eighty girls and I am making 350 a week in 1956. We went to Havana Cuba for a month, Mexico for four months. One week we were playing in Cincinnati, Ohio, staying in this nice hotel and having parties every night in the bar etc. One day the Duke Ellington band came into the hotel and I was so envious. I said, “Oh man, would I like to be doing that gig!”
Of course, when the guys came off of the bus I saw that they had what we used to call “Road Stupor” – from traveling so much and not getting enough sleep. Well, about ten years later, I was in Duke Ellington’s band and we checked into that same hotel and I felt the worst because we had been traveling all day, and I thought, “Oh boy would I like to be back with that Ice show, the girls and the parties again.”
That goes to show you…
Anyway that was my first road job. Not too long after that I came to New York and started playing jazz gigs again.
EI: What year was that?
SL: The end of 1958. I started playing jazz gigs. The same kind you do.
EI: Jazz in 1958 was incredible. Did you see some of the guys playing?
SL: Sure, I used to see the guys playing all the time, but you understand as a player myself I was pretty green. There used to be a Union Floor.
EI: What was that?
SL: There was a Union Floor, it was in Roseland. Every Wednesday afternoon, about five thousand musicians would be there looking for work. There was a club date section and a big band section and a whole bunch of other sections.
I knew one guy when I came to New York and I don’t know where I got the courage to come up to him for help but I did. He said, “Sal Salvador is starting a big band and he is looking for a drummer. Why don’t you go up and audition.”
I was a very good reader and at that time a lot of the jazz drummers could not read. I got the gig and it was mostly a rehearsal band but it launched me in New York. We used to rehearse after the Union, every Wednesday, and people started hearing me play.
I started doing jazz gigs around, where we would earn about 18 dollars to play until four in the morning.
One of my big problems with jazz was that I had had it good. My first gigs were good-paying gigs. I’m talking economically and lifestyle. When jumping into this jazz thing, everything about it except the music and the musicians was very unappealing to me.
EI: That Sal Salvador group made a record.
SL: Yeah, everybody passed through that band. They were all young kids then. Herbie Hancock was there for a minute and Davey Frishberg was the piano player when we did the record. Michael Abene and a whole bunch of other people.
EI: Was it Salvador’s arrangements for the band?
SL: Larry Wilcox, Hank Levy, a bunch of different people. A lot of his old friends from the Kenton band. Charlie Mariano played for a while and Nick Brignola and Ronnie Cuber. Everybody came through that band. Eddie Gomez was the bass player even though he was a kid at the time. I remember John Beal did the record date. I don’t know if you know John Beal but he became sort of the premier recording bass player in New York for many years.
Different things led to different gigs and I started to work with Dick Haymes and singers and different acts. I met a writer named Fred Karlin, who wrote a lot of movie scores. He introduced me to Ray Wright, who was the guy who was arranging at Radio City Music Hall. Ray started using me on some commercial record dates. I’ll never forget the first one I did was an all-day long film date. When I got the check for it, I was absolutely astounded. It was what a jazz musician makes in a month of playing all night long in a club, not to mention the residuals that I got after. Before that I would work with weekend bands, the bands that would go out of New York. I worked with all of the commercial bands like Les Elgart. Urbie Green had a band. I worked with Neal Hefti, he had a band a few times before he went to the West Coast. I was on the road with Charlie Barnet for a while, which is ultimately how I got with Duke because 1967 I rejoined Barnet and we were working at Basin Street and Ellington came and sat in.
In the interim, I was working at Radio City Music Hall where Ray Wright was writing for the orchestra. This was also a great experience because I was playing drums for the Rockettes, which really was different, and I got to play some tympani and xylophone. It was very nice because there again, there were the Rockettes and the ballet company and I am the single young guy. What could be wrong with that?
Occasionally I could take off and play with somebody down at the Half Note or some other club. I remember playing with Zoot Sims, Herbie Mann and Clark Terry and a bunch of people in places like that. The same things as always, I loved the music but, wow, what a lifestyle. I pretty much had it, but I remember I got a call to go out with Pearl Bailey for a while to sub for her husband Louie Bellson. So I did. I went to Washington D.C. and we did the Apollo in New York. I would take off from the Music Hall, I would do things like that.
In 1966 Charlie Barnet came back to town and wanted me to do a month in Basin Street. He had a band which in a way was the best band I ever played with. He had Clark Terry and Snooky Young and Randy Brecker. He had a marvelous lead trumpet player, named George Triffon, who died recently. He had another great player named Clyde Resinger who went to Vegas years ago. He had five trumpets. The great alto players Willie Smith and Richie Kamuca. Danny Bank was the baritone player. Jimmy Cleveland, trombone, Nat Pierce, piano, Eddie Jones, bass. We also played a full half-hour concert on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
This gig was over New Year’s Eve of 1967. I went back to Radio City Music Hall in the spring. Jerome Richardson called me to play in the Lionel Hampton All-Star Alumni band. We played at the Metropole for a month and then went to the Newport Jazz Festival and they recorded us. I was the only non-alumnus and non-star in his All Star Alumni band. Everybody else was a famous jazz musician. What a trip that was.
EI: What was Hampton like to work for?
SL: I liked him. He treated us well with this particular band. Of course Jerome Richardson got the band together and was the strawboss and none of these guys would take any baloney. I liked playing with him.
EI: He had such rhythmic vitality.
SL: He was a great player and entertainer. Afterwards I went back to the Music Hall. Then Duke called later that summer. I thought I would never go on the road again. I had a chance to go on the road with Basie but I just did not do it. When Duke called I said, “I got to do this.” Duke was my favorite band of all time. You know it was different. It was completely different than any other band.
EI: How so?
SL: Every band had a book and every band had one or two outstanding soloists that you could recognize. Anybody else you could take out of the band and replace them and you really would not notice that much difference. Duke’s band was not like that. Everybody had an absolutely unique voice. The ensembles weren’t that great. They couldn’t read music very well and playing a show with an act that you had to read music for with them was absolutely embarrassing. It was like a High School band! But everybody had a unique voice. Well, everybody except me.
There was no drum book and that is something that really bothers me now. People listen to records I am on and they don’t understand a lot of things about this. It wasn’t like you went in and you played down the chart. There were no charts! And in …And His Mother Called Him Bill in particular: not only were there no charts but I did not know that music then. This stuff was brand new to me. I guess the the guys in the band played it years before as Billy Strayhorn wrote the music. But by the time I got there they had moved on to other stuff. I knew “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” but all this other music was rather unknown. That album is what made it known to musicians all over.
We played different music completely when we were working at the Rainbow Grill with the Octet and when the band first came back together to go on the road. I had only been with the big band for about three weeks, then we went into the Rainbow Grill with the Octet. During the engagement at the Rainbow Grill we did this record date …And His Mother Called Him Bill. As I said there were no drum charts and it was one or two times down. The guys in the band who had been there since 1927 knew this stuff. Cootie Williams was in the band, Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney. They were all there from the get go. I had no idea that this was going to be a big hit record of Ellington’s. If I had, I would have raised Holy Hell and said, I want to learn it, do another take please, I want to learn this music.
Like on “Blood Count” Duke said, “Play something exotic.” We played sixteen bars and we were off recording it in one take.
EI: It sounds like you go to the ride cymbal at the right place…
SL: Whatever I did, I did. It was almost a traumatic experience. [Laughter]
In fact On the Road with Duke Ellington, the television thing, was my first night on the band, when we played with a symphony orchestra in Michigan. There’s a drum solo in one of the pieces and I had no idea it was there. We were playing this uptempo thing and Paul Gonsalves turns around and says — and I’ll never forget how he put it — “Methinks you have a drum solo coming up.”
And I yell to him “How Long?” and by then he had turned around to play and all of a sudden I am playing a drum solo. I didn’t know whether to play five bars or five minutes. We also played “Harlem” with all the changes in tempo and feel and no drum part. All of this was being televised for the Bell Telephone Hour which was a big music TV show of its day.
I had absolutely no idea what was next. That’s the way it went down. From my vantage point now of a 77-year old guy, if I had something like that today, I would love it. As a 31 year old guy trying to make good, it scared the living daylights out of me.
EI: I guess all of the other bands you worked for had charts?
SL: Pretty much.
EI: Was there a drum book for Charlie Barnet?
SL: There was a very specific drum book for Barnet. Hampton had some parts but for the blues things, he didn’t. For the most part every band had charts.
EI: I guess you prided yourself on reading?
SL: Well, first of all, before someone calls me on it, let me say that playing drums is about listening and feel and time first. When I was coming up everyone I ever knew assumed that. I don’t remember that much analysing was done about how to play a cymbal beat etc. In fact it was almost a badge of honor not to analyze. Any, back to the question. I was used to playing with a band with charts. All of a sudden I am playing with a big band without charts. That was a whole different concept for me — and it would be for most guys now! It’s not like playing with four or five guys without charts.
EI: What’s different playing with a big band versus four or five guys?
SL: For one thing, when a big band has a brass figure, you kind of have to be specific. In a small group you can play through it, you can play around it, you can ornament it. You can do that with a big band too but if you don’t hit the figure precisely, you’re going to sound kind of lame. There are other ways to do it too. You can play around with a big band but I had not gotten that far yet. Most big bands had not gotten that far yet either, except Duke. I think this is why Sam Woodyard played so many backbeats because for the most part it’s going to work out no matter what the figures are.
EI: Did you hear a lot of Woodyard before you played with Duke?
SL: No. That’s a very interesting thing. Duke was very supportive. He called me up a couple of nights and said you’re doing fine and you have a wonderful feel for music. I said “Duke, look, I don’t know this stuff. Do you have some fo the records that I can listen to?”
Remember, it was a different time. When I was a kid, the records were 78’s. Even in the sixties, if you wanted to learn something from way back, you didn’t just put it on YouTube and you didn’t just go buy a record. Most of the records had stopped being issued. All of a sudden they are bringing them back but in the sixties, they weren’t there. If you wanted to check out all of the old Ellington, it was not all that easy. You had to go down to 19th street and Fifth avenue to the Record Hunter to see if they had this or if they had that. You would be running all over town. There was no way you could email people. You had to go hunt this stuff out.
So I said, “Can you give me the record so I can learn this stuff?” I’ll never forget what he said because no band leader said anything like this to me before. He said, “I don’t want you to hear it. I don’t want you to play like Sonny Greer or Sam Woodyard. Do your thing.” That was a very interesting comment because no other leader had ever said anything like that to. I always heard, “Do this, Do that, Sticks, Brushes, Louder, Softer, Faster, Slower.” That’s part of being a drummer in the music business. You know this, you’re in it.
EI: Did you have any other conversations like that with Duke?
SL: No. Once he said regarding drum solos, “Lift your hands higher. You’re making it look too easy.” The old guys used to put on a show. That’s the only thing I remember him saying to me. I stayed with him a while and I just did not like that lifestyle, constantly having to travel. I just wanted to come home so I left the band.
EI: I have a bootleg of the Rainbow Grill with the Octet. Was that a dance?
SL: We played dance music up there. We did play a jazz concert but when they put out that record, it was not the jazz concert. Most of that stuff was bootleg.
EI: It’s hard now to get a sense of it. At the Rainbow Grill, some people were dancing and some people were having dinner in the back?
EI: It’s closed now. Just to be clear, it wasn’t the same as the Rainbow Room?
SL: The Grill was a different, bigger room in the same building. I played up there with a lot of people at various times. I played up there with Duke. I played up there with Lionel Hampton with Cab Calloway and a bunch of acts. It was open for a number of years.
EI: Was there a lot of people there to see Duke?
SL: Oh yeah. Judy Garland was there every night. She was a big fan. Everybody came by to sit in. Dizzy used to always sit in. Roland Kirk sat in, Shirley Scott, Benny Goodman was there one night. If I remember correctly Ella Fitzgerald…I can’t remember for sure, it was almost fifty years ago.
EI: Seems like Duke would start solo, improvise a bit and the band would slowly assemble.
SL: Possibly. When I was there, Mercer was managing the band and he was keeping a pretty tight ship. Guys were pretty reliable. Well, Paul Gonsalves was a good friend and when we had a day off we would just go off and play, but Paul had a problem with alcohol.
EI: What was he like as a person?
SL: When he was sober he was brilliant. Very intelligent guy, well read and everything. Somewhere in his life, he did a lot of reading and had a good education. We shared a bridal suite one night in Detroit with 17 beds.
EI: He played so beautifully. One of the absolute greats.
SL: Wonderful. Wonderful player.
EI: What did he like to drink?
SL: I don’t know. I stayed out of everyone’s personal life. Nobody really used to hang. They had been around each other too long.
EI: Did Duke hang out?
SL: No. I ate breakfast with him once or twice. He was very nice and very supportive. You couldn’t ask for a better band leader.
EI: Were there any racial tensions?
SL: No. As a matter of fact when I left Mercer said to me that Duke wanted to know if I was leaving because I thought there was racial prejudice against me. I was sincere when I said I never even thought about it. It never even entered my mind at that point.
I am not trying to gloss over anything here. I was on a couple of gigs with other bands that I really got into it over race with some guys but I don’t want to get into that one now.
EI: Understood! But the guys in the Ellington band were cool with you on that point?
SL: As far as I knew. I never heard any race thing.
I rejoined the band, but not for long. In January of 1968 they called me up to do the Ed Sullivan show and the Second Sacred Concert at St. John the Divine. When I left, they got Sam back and he was having trouble again with alcohol. I don’t want to say anything against Sam, he seemed to be a very nice person but had a bad problem with alcohol and Mercer did not trust him on live televsion. So I did the Sullivan Show . . .
EI: .. and you’re both there for the Second Sacred Concert.
SL: Sam was there and I was there. Leading up to that I was getting overtures about coming back and I thought about it. Then something happened on the Sullivan Show that completely made me change my mind. We were playing opposite a band from Brooklyn called The Vanilla Fudge. It was a hardcore rock band. There were a lot of kids in the audience and The Vanilla Fudge just wiped us out. This is with guys like Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney still in the band but these kids from Brooklyn just wiped us out as if we weren’t there.
I was getting into rock a little and I realized that if I want to stay in the music business I was going to have to really learn how to play this music or I am going to be out of it. I decided to go home and get every rock record I could get my hands on and learn how to play this stuff.
EI: Not everyone of your generation made the commitment to learn rock rhythms and the new rhythms when they came in, but you did.
SL: I’ll tell you the most of the drummers were wiped out. There were whole new waves of drummers that came in when that happened because a lot of the guys from my generation fought it. Most of them said, “That’s shit.” The more I listened to it, the more I liked it. I think they wrote some great songs and some of the bands had some great feels. Not necessarily the most popular ones but some of them had great grooves. I liked it a lot and I still do. But now that music is old hat too.
EI: Well, history goes in one direction.
SL: The next day after the Sullivan show we started rehearsing the Second Sacred Concert. These guys had been on the road for so long their reading skills weren’t what they once were. They were great artists but they couldn’t read music very well. Jimmy Hamilton could read well and he would solfège the stuff in the ears of the some of the guys in band. He would go up to Harry and say “Here’s how it goes” and sing the line. You know band music is not Debussy. Reading-wise it is basically elementary stuff. In terms of the copying, getting the stuff together, putting it together and reading it…it was an unbelievable experience because we rehearsed for a week something that a New York studio band would have read down the first time.
What are you going to say? It is Duke Ellington with these wonderful, individual voices. Artistic voices. You saw that every kind of musician has different strengths.
EI: What about the bass players with Duke? Were there others besides Aaron Bell?
SL: It was essentially Aaron. My first night was John Lamb’s last night. Aaron was coming back. I hung out with him a lot.
EI: From what I can tell, you sound comfortable playing with him.
SL: Yeah it was. I don’t know if it was comfortable for him playing with me. I was more on top than Sam Woodyard was. That was the other thing Duke once said to me. He said, “On the uptempos, don’t let these guys pull you back. Keep it up.” I was aware of the fact that I was more on top than Sam did but Duke wanted it that way.
EI: Sometimes it’s important to have a certain amount of friction for the overall feel.
EI: Your beat seems very centered.
SL: Thank you. I remember when I was playing with Charlie Barnet and Eddie Jones was playing bass. Charlie and Clark Terry both told me that this guy is a great bass player…but you gotta hold him back, he plays way up. I always felt that Eddie was very much on top of the beat.
Then the last night I was playing with Barnett, Basie was playing at the Riverboat and the drummer was sick and they asked me to go down and play a night or two. Freddie Green was still in the band and when I was playing with Freddie Green it was like I could not play slow enough for Freddie. But when I was playing with Eddie I felt like I could never play fast enough for Eddie. And these two guys played with Basie together for ten years! [Laughter] I wonder how that happened.
EI: Maybe they blamed Sonny Payne.
SL: This is one of the things that makes music so interesting. It is not mathematics. It is so subjective. You just don’t know how to figure it.
EI: You remember who was on bass with Basie that night?
SL: No, I don’t.
EI: But you felt that Freddie Green was in charge, not the bass?
SL: Yeah, but I also felt the band was so much slower than Charlie’s band. It was a completely different feel.
EI: Any drummers in New York show you anything or did you hang with anybody that was helpful?
SL: No, I was never much of a hanger. One of the reasons I never did any hanging was because I played the vibes and percussion. Trying to keep all that stuff together, I simply did not have time, plus being more than a little shy in my youth. I learned from other drummers was by playing opposite them in clubs or working with them as a mallet player.
I remember one time working with Clark Terry at the Filmore East for some benefit. Thelonious Monk, who was always one of my favorites, was also on with Roy Haynes on drums. I learned more from listening to that hour-long set they played than I had in the previous year.
It was all very interesting to me. I played with a symphony orchestra that had a Ford Foundation grant that played at Avery Fisher Hall. I remember on one of my nights off from Charlie Barnet, when we were at Basin Street, I played tympani in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall. The next afternoon, I played a jingle on the xylophone. I found this all very challenging and very interesting. It’s a shame that most of the guys don’t get a chance to do that now. If you had to sub on a Broadway show, you had to go in and read it. It was the same at the Copacabana or the Royal Box, when you played for the acts. If you did the sub, you just went in and read it. If you read well and you had a good intuitive feeling for music, you were a hero. They would keep calling you back and you would be working. I had more work back then than I knew what to do with.
Then they invented digital recorders and the Xerox machines. Now for a Broadway show, some kid who just graduated from Juilliard goes down and tapes the thing and takes movies of the guy playing. He goes home and plays it four hundred times before he goes in and subs. It compresses everything. Like writing with spell and grammar checker, you don’t have to know anything about the English language. Now if you sub anywhere you have to be a clone. I think it’s a shame that it has gone that way. Even in jazz I find that. It used to be that if you played at either a session or somebody had a gig, or somebody is going to go in a club for a week, maybe you would have a rehearsal or maybe you wouldn’t and you would go and intuitively play. Now they are sending on the computer a chart, with a piece they did on the synthesizer or something on YouTube. So now you know the music when you get there. I guess there is a certain advantage to that but it’s taking something away from it. Jazz is supposed to be something expressive of yourself, which in my opinion this is taking away from.
EI: It’s true that there used to be a different kind of diversity. I was listening to Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea.” Don Lamond takes these catastrophic, wonderful, crazy drum breaks.
SL: You have no idea how much courage that took. Those drum breaks are astounding. It’s interesting that you brought that up. Every time I hear that playing somewhere and someone is around I talk about it. You know there could have been a breakdown in the take. If everybody didn’t come in, you couldn’t fix it back then. Everyone recorded in one room at the same time. The kind of drum breaks he played on that thing, with a studio band reading down a chart, were the kinds of things a guy would play in a joint with a four piece band. If someone came in early or late, you would find a way to get together. But this is a big orchestra, with strings and everything, reading this stuff. If it moved over just this much, you’d have to start the take again. That would have cost the record company money and that would have been the end of Don. Those things are incredible, those breaks.
EI: Did you know Lamond?
SL: Oh yeah.
EI: What was he like?
SL: He was a character. [laughter] I liked him a lot. He actually got me on a couple of gigs. When I first came to New York, the two big studio drummers were Don and a guy named Sol Gubin, who nobody ever heard of but he was also a marvelous drummer. Don of course had a big name from Woody Herman. He was still on Downbeat polls ten years after he never went out there anymore. He was great but also had an alcohol problem which unfortunately shortened his work years in New York. He moved to Florida and played at Disney World for a while before he died.
I had the pleasure of working with him, doing some studio dates on mallets and he was on drums. In fact I learned a lot about being a drummer by working with some of these great drummers by being the percussionist. I worked with Don and Sol and Osie Johnson.
EI: Osie Johnson was great. He’s another guy we don’t think of enough. What was he like?
SL: I didn’t know him very well but I worked with him. I loved the way he played.
EI: Beautiful cymbal beat…
SL: Yes, he didn’t have much technique but he was as musical a drummer as I have ever heard. He was originally a piano player, from what I understand.
EI: He and Milt Hinton were the rhythm section on a gazillion records.
SL: Right. Right. I also worked with this guy who was with one of those old bands…with Lunceford. What the hell was his name? I used to work with this guy.
EI: Not Jimmy Crawford?
SL: Jimmy Crawford! Yeah, I worked with Jimmy Crawford and I worked with Bernard Purdie who I always considered to be sort of the “Papa Joe Jones of rock drummers.” It was wonderful listening and watching to all these greats but the one thing I learned is that all the crap I took as a drummer, they took too. I heard some of the stupidest remarks made about the things they were playing by the know-nothing producer-types in the booth or somebody else who didn’t know anything. You know, “Make it sound like a snowflake.” “Make it sound like a guys falling down the stairs backwards.” I really heard that once. “Too loud, Too soft, Can’t you do this, Can’t you do that.” I realized this is the same crap I am getting on a club date. It doesn’t matter who you are, this is just part of being a drummer so just tune it out.
When I was with Dick Haymes and Fran Jeffers in the early sixties, one was complaining about too fast and the other was complaining about too slow, on the same song. Yeah, that is standard procedure.
EI: After you played with Duke and it seems like you decided to go back into the studios. What happened next, around 1969?
SL: When I left Duke, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I had only done a few months of college at the Hartt School of Music. I wanted to go back to school and see what else was out there. So enrolled, essentially as an American History major. I had a job with Ray Nance who had a little band at a club called Jimmy Weston’s. On the East side. I remember Ray Nance, Milt Hinton and Hank Jones. I remember one night Jo Jones came and sat in. Oh, he was funny. He was a great drummer and he was kind of nuts, as everyone knows.
Anyway I decided I wanted to go back to school so I quit this gig and took a job on Broadway playing the last few years of Fiddler on the Roof. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. At any rate I went to school for a year or two and I am getting calls for record dates. I am scuffling trying to be in school and covering the record dates. One day I had an American History exam and I had a jingle, an Old Spice jingle. I was playing xylophone and it was a really rough xylophone part. The exam was right after the jingle and I am trying to think of American History while I am paying this jingle and I am screwing up some notes on the xylophone and they had to do another take. I go to the American History exam and I am thinking that I screwed up that part and they had to do another take. Maybe he won’t call me again. I go home that night and I couldn’t sleep all night. I am screwing up the History exam, I am screwing up the jingle, this has got to stop. I went to the Dean and I dropped out of school. I was doing very well, I was an A student and I asked if I could come back when the recording thing stops because I am making a lot of money. He said I had great grades so I could always come back. Well my luck lasted thirty more years, so I never went back.
Then when Sesame Street started I also did that and then The Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact. I was playing drums on those and I was playing some vibes on some soap operas. I was doing some movies and jingles. They were great years.
In 1980 I got married. My wife plays french horn and got called to do this show, 42nd Street. I got called to do it too, in a strange way: my best friend played the show on drums out of town. He came to New York with the show and a month later he went into the hospital and died of cancer.
EI: What was his name?
SL: Maurice Mark, a very fine underrated drummer that nobody ever heard of, but he was known in the business. So I did the show in the evenings and did not do any jazz in this period. I would walk down to the theatre, I’d leave my apartment at 7:30, we’d hit at 8 and be through around 10 PM. I would walk home and 10:30 I would be back. Our daughter was born so I was doing that and I was doing record dates in the daytime. Making good money and not even tiring myself out with it. It was so easy.
EI: Let’s talk about Sesame Street a little bit. Where I came from there was no music except for whatever I heard on the TV, and I owe a lot to Sesame Street. In fact, there was some kind of documentary about Sesame Street and you were on there with Bob Cranshaw. I don’t remember much about it because I was 14 or 15, but I already had …And His Mother Called Him Bill so I knew your name. I figured it had to be the same guy. Did you play drums on the theme to Sesame Street?
SL: Yeah. Every once in a while I sent in a sub but I did it from pretty much the beginning to 1993. Ed Shaughnessy did some of it in the first year. We did the Electric Company in the second year, which incidentally we all thought was a better show.
EI: That’s funkier music.
SL: Yeah, it was all pretty much like 60’s rock.
EI: The music of the Electric Company is actually a cult hit with certain younger musicians, with the wah-wah guitar and stuff. But my show was Sesame Street. There’s a piece [sings the melody] “One, Two-Three, Four, Five —Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten — Eleven, Twelve.” Did you play on that one?
SL: Probably. You know we had lead sheets. It hard to remember when we did what. We never had arrangements. There was very little talking done. It was sort of like playing with Duke, without music. We’d see the song and play. Half the time we didn’t know if we were playing rock or a rhumba. I did not always really know whether it was in “two” or in “four” or whatever. We did all different kinds of music and we would do twenty cues in an hour, instead of one cue in twenty hours, like sometimes you’d do.
EI: Was it different composers?
SL: The first few years it was Joe Raposo.
EI: What was he like?
SL: Joe went to Harvard and was very smart and very quick. Somewhat of a procrastinator. Sometimes he would write the music on the way to the studio in a cab. Sometimes we would have big movie dates that would be canceled because he hadn’t done the stuff in time. But a very talented guy.
Here, this is the original theme from the day that we did it. That piece of paper is about 46 years old.
EI: That’s Raposo’s handwriting?
SL: Oh yeah, that’s the original piece. I should preserve this. It never occurred to me.
EI: So there is no rhythm part, just a lead sheet?
SL: No. That’s what everything we did looked like. That was it, so we just played.
EI: I can see where someone put in an alternate change.
SL: I probably did. I probably did that when I was messing around on the vibes or somebody told me to put it there.
Most of the hits were Joe’s. “C is for Cookie,” “Being Green, “Sing a Song,” and others. Now that I think of it Jeff Moss wrote “Rubber Duckie.”
EI: So you are on all of that stuff?
SL: Mostly. I was the drummer for twenty-four years.
EI: There’s a nice groove on “C is for Cookie.”
SL: Yeah, I guess. You know we did it and that was the end of it. You never hear of it until somebody brings it up. We played with a lot of the acts that came on. The only time I remember being on camera was with BB King. My daughter was around three years old and that was going to be my big moment as Daddy the musician. My daughter would see me on Sesame Street. But she wasn’t impressed at all. She just said, “Oh, that’s you.”
EI: I used to wait to hear Dizzy Gillespie play “Birk’s Works.” Was that with his group?
SL: I know that one time he played with us. I can’t remember how many times he was on. The one thing I remember, they wanted him to play the theme and he said he didn’t know it. Joe had a lead sheet but he didn’t want to play it so we played two pieces of his. I can’t remember which ones they were.
EI: The one I remember was “Birk’s Works.” A minor blues. He was surrounded by the kids but I don’t think you see any of the sidemen.
SL: No, we weren’t on camera with him for that but I really can’t remember. We had everybody on.
EI: That was a great show and great music but you guys liked the Electric Company more.
SL: The show was just off the wall, all the inside humor and everything. With Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman, and Bill Cosby. It was just some funny stuff.
Then we did another show called Feeling Good that only went one season. We had all these big stars come on and they would sing one original tune. Joe did not do this. Joe was gone then. It was a health show so we did Heart Attack music and Cancer music. We thought it was pretty funny. You know — gallows humor, I believe it is called.
EI: I don’t remember that show, but I do remember a later CTW production, 3-2-1 Contact, especially the little detective segment at the end “The Bloodhound Gang.”
SL: You remember these shows better than I do.
EI: It was my childhood. I was glued to the set.
SL: You’re like me with Jack Benny. I can remember the radio shows, word for word.
EI: [Sings] “Wherever there’s trouble, we’re there on the double…We’re the Bloodhound Gang.”
SL: Oh, right. Right. That brings back memories. Walt Levinsky did some of that. He was a wonderful musician.
EI: Steve, if you are up for it, I’d like to play some CDs to see if would spark some more memories?
SL: Go ahead, put them on. Let’s see what you got.
EI: You’re on a lot of records. I could see the jazz records at the Tom Lord Discography, but I didn’t know how to find the classical ones. What are some of the classical records you are on that you are proud of?
SL: Oh I still like that Hartford Symphony record of Carmina Burana. I did a thing with bassoonist Maurice Pachman, Alvin Brehm’s Dialogues for Bassoon and Percussion. George Antheil; we did something at Carnegie Hall. We then recorded with Maurice Peress. You ever hear Ballet Mécanique? I played xylophone on that. I got a CD of that and you can see our picture at Carnegie Hall. We recorded it later and it is a really bizarre piece. On the Carnegie Hall recording of it, there is a part for prepared piano and it goes on for about twelve minutes. You know with the piano rolls. It’s a stange thing that I swear sounds almost like a rock rhythm section. You gotta hear the thing, it is absolutely bizarre.
EI: Some of your jazz records are hard to find. Johnny Richards’s We Speak Spanish with Clifford Jordan and Chino Ponzo was reissued recently. You are on percussion, maybe guiro. Ronnie Bedford is on drums.
SL: I don’t know. I remember playing some tympani and some marimba. I may be playing some guiro. Do you know they did not put Johnny Richards’s name on the record? They put Johnny Smith’s name on the LP. They couldn’t find it when he went to get it played on a disc jockey program. He lived across the street and he died over there. He died owing everybody money. One bad thing happened to him after another. He was a nice guy and great musician. He did a lot of stuff for Stan Kenton.
And Ronnie Bedford. Yeah, I started playing drums after he left. Good drummer. I think he lives in Wisconsin or Wyoming.
EI: I tried to find the Terry Gibbs record with Alice McLeod but couldn’t. Do you have that?
SL: No, but it was released because a photographer came here in the 90’s and said he wanted to take a picture of me for a record I did with Terry Gibbs. I said, “I never did a record with Terry Gibbs.” He said, “Oh yes, you did.” Then I started recalling. It was around 1962. I don’t have it but it’s out there. I can’t imagine what I sounded like.
EI: I heard Alice played good bebop on that, before she became Alice Coltrane, of course.
SL: Yeah, she was great and so was George Duvivier. Remember him? He was absolutely a perfect bass player. That’s the only way I could describe him. He was perfect. I think I played with him with Gibbs and then with Lionel Hampton. That Lionel Hampton band was great.
EI: So is this band: Have a listen.
(“In A Sentimental Mood” from Duke Ellington Octet at Rainbow Grill)
SL: I hear people.
EI: This is the Rainbow Grill.
SL: I have not listened to this stuff in so many years. This must be the octet then?
EI: Yeah, but this is just the quartet at the beginning of the set. Duke is playing rhapsodically here. Did you feel that you had to adjust?
SL: The only thing I remember was …(laughter) it’s been a long time. You’ll see when you’re 77.
EI: No doubt! It’s amazing how much Duke is playing on this. He is playing out.
SL: He is playing a lot. You’re right.
EI: I never heard him do this before.
SL: I haven’t either. We’re doing something here that we very seldom did, we’re playing with an octet. It was the first time he had ever done that. That’s where the band business was. For the summer he couldn’t book the big band, unless maybe he just wanted to stay in town.
EI: Maybe he wanted to write during the day and play a dance gig at night?
SL: Right. I remember Paul’s other feature was “Body and Soul” and he would play it up there at an incredible tempo. Really up there…way up.
EI: You mentioned Mercer. Did he hire you or did Duke hired you?
SL: Mercer didn’t even know me. Duke sat in with Charlie Barnet and played with me, then told Mercer to call me.
EI: Let’s play the next track. I am struck by the double time bass that Aaron Bell plays at the top.
(“Rock Skipping at the Blue Note” from …And His Mother Called Him Bill)
SL: This is “Rock Skipping.” There is so much new music to hear now. I don’t really go back and re-listen to this stuff very often. I always wished I knew the music a little better.
EI: It sounds like you know that chart.
SL: Maybe he gave us one run down and that was it. I was guessing all the way. Some of it was easier than others. There’s one little section in the middle there where it gets loud. There are brass figures there and what I am playing is not quite what I wanted it to be. I was kind of just guessing. I was looking at their lips.
You know playing with a big band, you didn’t skate on top of the time, like guys can do now with amplified bass. You were the carpet. They used to call it, “Laying it Down.” Particularly in a big band but even in a small group. Even listening to Philly Joe when he played with Bill Evans or with Miles. He played a big bass drum and he played four-four on it. A very audible four-four. Not feather footing. He really played it. In a big band, that’s the way you really had to play it. When playing fast tempos, back then you couldn’t skate over the time. When playing in a huge dance hall or theater the horn players certainly could not hear a two and four on a high-hat or sometimes even a cymbal beat.
The bass players were largely un-amplified. The bass drum was the bottom of everything. And you really had to play a cymbal beat. You had to really go “Ding Dinga Ding Dinga Ding.” When the tempos got faster, you had to keep it all going. It is really some work.
In a spot like that with the brass figures, you have to really be accurate in order to do what is required. In hindsight, years later, guys can listen and say a lot but they weren’t there. It was a completely different drum “head.”
EI: One of things I always liked about Duke’s big bands was that it wasn’t about the drummer always setting up figures, like it was for Charlie Barnet or later Basie. There is some extra mystery there that I find appealing.
SL: Colors rather than figures. I know exactly what you are talking about.
EI: In “Rock Skipping” you are not setting up all the brass figures but it has more mysterious elements. Also there is a rogue soloist playing against it all. It’s more chaotic but I like it!
SL: In hindsight what I would have done is asked him to let me learn this or I would have stayed out of there completely. Just play time and let the figures play by themselves.
EI: What you did was perfect. Sort of in-between. That is fine too.
SL: Thank you. I guess it depends how you listen to it. I know what you are saying.
EI: “Bloodcount” has an entirely different feel.
SL: Duke said, “Play something exotic.” I didn’t know really what he meant. I had some mallets and I started with some mallets. We played the first sixteen or so bars of it and then we did a take and that’s it. Now they have written the part out to play with orchestras. Dave Berger wrote the part out and said to someone I know, “This is what Strayhorn wrote,” but it wasn’t what Strayhorn wrote. It’s what I played off the seat of my pants.
EI: When you say the guys in the band couldn’t read… there’s a lot of notes on this record. They’re reading the notes.
SL: When I say they couldn’t read, I don’t mean that literally. It was very very slow compared to what I was used to. You got to understand where I was coming from. The guys who I would always play with were superb readers. At least for band music. (I don’t know if they could read Bartók.) The guys in Duke’s band were very slow and if you brought new stuff and you’re playing for a show, it was very slow going. This is not saying anything against their artistic stuff. They were great. It’s just a different skill. They learned the music over time. The band played every day for years.
EI: Was there a rehearsal before the record date?
SL: Absolutely not. The band wasn’t even together before the record date. We were playing at the Rainbow Grill with the octet and the engagement was coming to an end. We were there for either the summer or a month, I can’t remember. The band was getting together to go out on the road. The first time we got back together was in the studio with these dates. Most of the band knew the music from before.
(“Blood Count” from …And His Mother Called Him Bill)
SL: I would have been a little bolder with this if I was doing it now. I was very timid. Johnny Hodges sounds great, doesn’t he? You don’t hear the sax played like that anymore. Every note means something.
EI: It’s perfect when you bring in the ride cymbal like that. What’s that smile?
SL: I remember what I was thinking when I played this: play the way Stravinsky would have written a contemporary drum part for something like this, along with just my intuitive feel. L’Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky: to me, that is the greatest 7-piece band thing ever written. I think the way he wrote for the drums in this piece in 1913 is absolutely amazing: It sounds Max Roach-ish in 1913.
EI: You said you didn’t know the music but “Blood Count” seems like a very accurate drum performance.
SL: It sounds like I knew it more than I thought I did then. I guess I had a little more intuitive feeling towards it than I thought I did. Maybe I was just too tired to care. I remember us being insanely tired. I think we did these dates in the middle of the night. I think we were playing at the Grill. It was like the last day or two.
EI: So you played the gig and then to the recording session?
SL: I am not sure but it was something like that.
EI: You told me about driving with Harry Carney somewhere?
SL: The first night I was supposed to play with the band was at Central Park and we were rained out. We had a record date right after and I had a convertible Volkswagen at the time. So it was Harry, myself, and my drums. The roof was open and it was raining, one of those summer day thunderstorms, with the sun out. So Harry, who’s standing up through the sunroof, puts his umbrella up over the Volkswagen. We’re driving down Fifth Avenue and the people are staring at us and a cop nearly stops us. It looked like the ad for Mary Poppins plus a Volkswagen. It was a bizarre looking thing. We went down to the recording studio and Chris Columbo was there.
You know they had a couple of different drummers after Sam. They had Chris Columbo in the band. Before they had Chris Columbo they had Elvin Jones and they had Rufus Jones. Duke was not happy. He needed a mainstream drummer, like Louis Bellson. I was told the guys couldn’t play with Elvin. Maybe all the accents on upbeats, I don’t know. Chris was like an old-time Sonny Greer and Duke didn’t want that. So I just sort of fell in and I guess it worked. Anyway Chris Columbo did that date with me. Duke wanted to hear if I could play with his band. The two of us are on that. That’s the thing that Joel Press brought up to Mike Kanan’s studio and gave me the record. I never heard it before.
That was the first night I played with the band. I think maybe we played one other place and then we went out to Michigan and that is when we played the for the Bell Telephone hour. They televised us and it ended up on that On the Road with Duke Ellington documentary. That’s when Paul said “Methinks you have a drum solo coming.”
EI: Did you know Harry Carney well?
SL: He was friendly and very supportive. He used to travel with Duke. Duke didn’t like to fly. So the two of them would drive everywhere and the rest of us flew. I don’t know how they did it but Harry was the driver. He had been with Duke since the original band. They had a long relationship.
EI: This next track is sort of an oddball. See if you recognize this.
(“Take the A Train” from Ray Nance, Body and Soul)
SL: (immediately) Where did you find that?
EI: I have my ways.
SL: Yeah, that’s Ray Nance.
EI: It’s a weird record with the two guitars going all of the time. Jaki Byard is on this and takes a great solo. I am a huge Jaki Byard fanatic. I love the piano solo coming up. Sometimes he puts his whole arm down on the piano.
Seems like a nice guy.
SL: He was a nice guy. I liked him. I used to play with Jaki at the 82 Club. It was on 4th street. It was a transvestite show. It was a seven or eight piece band. It was phenomenal. They used to line up all around the block. It was just a bunch of guys dressed up like women and they used to put on a show. I used to sub there when I was working at Radio City Music Hall. We would be through at the Music Hall around 10 PM and they would start at the 82nd Club around 11 PM. The first show was 11 PM and the last one was four in the morning and Jaki worked there six days a week. It was literally a transvestite show. They always had one real woman and you were supposed to figure out who the one real woman was. They would pack them in.
EI: Was it jazz they were playing?
SL: Some. It was a show. There was a lot of written music and a lot of improvised music. They all essentially did strips of one type or another or sing and you’d get to play some. They were a hoot.
EI: Do you know what year that was?
SL: 1965, 1966 or 1967. Something like that.
EI: I figure Jaki would be busy with Mingus around that time…
SL: Still, he needed a job. I remember Reggie Workman playing there one time that I subbed. I remember Renauld Jones, the old Basie trumpet player was the regular trumpet player. Everyone needed a gig. When people could get a gig they would. That was not a good paying gig but it was a gig. The romance and the appeal and the glamour that the younger guys, looking back, think was around then… at the risk of sounding a little dark, the glamour was never what a lot of the guys think it was. It was a rough row to hoe.
EI: Anything about Ray Nance that you remember?
SL: He was a wonderful player. Very nice guy. Is this on a CD?
SL: This was another one of those “one take on everything” recordings.
EI: You’re playing four on the bass drum here?
SL: Oh, yeah. Of course. We could have used another take on one or tow things.
EI: The Lord discography says you are on a track with Weather Report, “Scarlet Woman” was always one of my favorite Weather Report tunes. Do you remember this? Dom Um Romao is listed as the drummer and you are the percussionist. The percussion is mixed very low.
(“Scarlet Woman” from Weather Report, Mysterious Traveller)
SL: I remember recording with them. It says I am on it? I remember playing tympani on one and marimba on another one. It’s possible I am playing tympani on this…Aha, I remember I am playing the tom-toms. Two green Gretsch toms that they had in the studio. This must be forty years ago.
EI: What else should I have brought?
SL: There’s that Lionel Hampton record at Newport that I am on.
EI: Do you like that?
SL: Some of it. I like the Charlie Barnet recoding very much — the band was wonderful — but the recording of it is so bad because it was done with a home tape recorder. Nat Pierce did it. He had his home tape recorder under the piano and someone got a hold of it and they released the album years later.
EI: All the issues of these bootlegs that have come out, you never got paid for any of that?
EI: Has anyone even sent you a record?
SL: Yes, the guy who has Hep records who put out the Barnet record, although the guy wrote in the liner notes, “Steve Little has retired in New York with the money he made doing the Muppet Show.” That infuriated me. I went to his website and said, “How would you like it if I said the guy who puts out Hep records retired and is not putting out records anymore? How dare you say I am retired? Who told you that?” Aside from that I did not play in the pit of the Muppet Show!
He said, “I’ll send you some CD’s and by the way I am going to be in New York and I’ll meet you for lunch.” (I paid for lunch.)
EI: I bought the Duke Ellington Octet at Rainbow Grill at a store, issued on Gambit. But I bet they never contacted you, sent you a record, or gave you any money.
EI: How about reissues of …And His Mother Called Him Bill: Did they send you any copies?
SL: No. But the last reissue took my name off the tracks that I did and put Sam Woodyard’s on. I was not happy about that. It was like when they put Johnny Smith’s name on Johnny Richards’s record. Companies seem to do thinks like that regularly. Imagine how much really important history of the world has been rewritten.
EI: How about checks?
SL: No. For sidemen there never was that kind of thing.
EI: Do you remember how much you got paid for …And His Mother Called Him Bill? Union Scale?
SL: I really don’t remember. I know that most of the jazz things back then were not Union pay.
EI: Interesting to think about this stuff. Well, I’ll chase down the Hampton and Barnet at some point. Anything else?
SL: I had not thought about what I want to play. There is a lot of stuff that I did but I don’t have. I once contracted a gig, the only gig that I ever contracted. It was around 1969. It was a few concerts and a record date that I have a tape of. I played it recently for some musicians and I told them to guess what band it is and most of them guessed Wynton Marsalis. I said no, because I had the real guys. [laughter]
It was back in the days when a lot of those guys were around and we were doing this thing for the city. A composer friend had written some stuff and we were playing with kids that were singing the most amazing things. We were playing stuff in 7/8 and 5/8. Rock 7/8 and they were doing it! We had a lot of rehearsals and we recorded it. I have a tape of it but I have no tape recorder. If I did I’d play that for you.
EI: Who was in that band?
SL: Do you remember George Dorsey? He played lead alto with Jimmy Lunceford. Guys like that. Guys like Eddie Barefield, Ray Nance, Dick Vance, I think Jimmy Cleveland, a lot of the old guys and some in my age group. This was about 45 years ago.. Some of these guys have not been around for years and years.
EI: We should make a digital version of that tape.
How about film scores and other TV work that you have done? Any memorable moments? You must be on thousands of commercial dates.
SL: That I can talk to 5:30 in the morning about. Some of the things you remember don’t come off too well when you tell it to people. These things that would happen were dumb or dark. Those are the things you remember. You don’t remember when you had a good time. You go home and you forget it. It was fun. But you remember all of these absurd things that happen.
A lot of times it was under the most adverse circumstances. You can’t imagine the things that would happen that shouldn’t have happened and you had to get something done really quick.
I’ll give you one example. This doesn’t really reflect on anybody. It is just something that happened. The networks decided they were going to bring back the big orchestras for the soap operas. Of course they did that for a minute. You know how long that would last…but they did it. I was working for this one guy and we are recording all of this music for soap operas. He then decided he was going to feature each section of the orchestra. We’ll do the strings for this section and then we’ll do the brass…then our time came up, the percussion section.
So the day of the date, we go to the studio and we are going to read this in the studio. This isn’t like reading band music. These guys are composers, they’ll come in with classical composer-type stuff. So we go to the studio and it was myself and Phil Kraus who was the first call percussionist in New York at the time. He wrote some famous books for mallets and stuff. He wrote the first vibraphone book that was theory… how to voice a dominant 7th or 13th on a vibes, etc.
And an old guy named Harry Brewer, who used to play all the radio shows on the xylophone. He would tell me stories about the Fred Allen and Jack Benny shows. If someone made a mistake during the show, they would have to do the whole show again because it was on acetate. You couldn’t even splice back then. That’s why some of those gaffes are really gaffes, because they didn’t want to do the whole show over.
Anyway we’re there and the instruments are ordered from Carroll Music and they don’t show up. So it’s 10 AM and they start rehearsing the other instruments. 11 AM the instruments are still not there… 12 PM and they are still not there.
EI: What studio were you in?
SL: It was a big studio. I forget if it was A+R studios or RCA studios. This is back in the 80’s. Finally about ten minutes after 12, the instruments show up. The truck had gotten lost and they wheel in the vibes, the xylophone, and tympani and all the time we have left is to take it. AS I said, this is not band music. This is legit composition and the rest of the orchestra rehearsed it while we were waiting for the instruments. So we had to sight read this stuff on one take because we had to be out of the studio at one! I tell you, it was hard. I thought I would have a heart attach. This was the caliber of the guys who played in the studios then. When you say reading, a lot of guys have the wrong idea about that. There’s reading and then there is reading. It isn’t just a question of playing the notes. It’s every aspect of the music that you have to do quick. It was quite daunting and that type of thing would happen all of the time.
I don’t consider myself to be a great jazz artist. I had some good gigs with great players for whatever the reason and had a good time doing them. It was great playing all that other different kind of music too. I have no regrets that I didn’t just stick with jazz, although quite honestly I would like to have the reknown that jazz sometimes brings now because it would help me get gigs.
EI: Okay, thanks for your time. And thanks for all the music!
SL: My pleasure.