Harry Cohn, Columbia Pictures and the Musical Short Subject
While none of the movie moguls was particularly beloved, few were as reviled as much as Columbia’s Harry Cohn. While Cohn was a successful studio head, he was also a crude, vile, manipulative, and exploitative individual. An oft-told story relates the huge turn out at his funeral, where Red Skelton quipped something like, “Well, it only proves what they always say — give the people something that they want to see and they will come out for it!’”
As film historian and former Columbia executive Michael Schlesinger has noted, “Short subjects were a minor part of every studio’s slate, and by and large the moguls paid no attention to them. (Harry Warner famously believed his studio was the home of Mickey Mouse.) Cohn was fond of the comedy shorts because he liked the Three Stooges, but he still didn’t get involved with their actual production; it would be like President Obama asking what kind of dishwashing liquid the White House kitchen staff used. In his biography, Cohn supposedly said that he only cared about one “big” feature film a year; the rest ‘we just shit out every week.’ Needless to say, his interest in shorts must have been less than zero, as long as the ink remained black.”
Columbia Pictures, as well as many of the other Hollywood studios, often turned to independent producers to put together their musical shorts. For example, Milton Schwarzwald’s New York-based Mentone Productions turned out shorts that were released by Universal Pictures and RKO. Schwarzwald also served as musical director for New York producer and director Ben (Benny) K. Blake, whose Tru Pictures produced short subjects for Columbia in the late 1930s. By the early 1940s, however, Columbia was ready to produce its musical fare “in-house,” and in September 1943 a “niche series” dubbed Film Vodvil was premiered nationwide. Later in the decade, beginning in 1946 and continuing for at least three and a half “seasons,” Columbia released a series of one reel shorts that featured some of the finest big bands of the period.
It seems strange that Columbia would begin a series of band shorts at this late date. Certainly, the big bands were on the wane. But it is important to remember that, modern jazz and solo vocal artists notwithstanding, big band music, sweet and hot, was still immensely popular. Television had yet to find its place in a large number of American living rooms, and the generation that had grown up during the Great Depression, and had fought valiantly during the Second World War, still loved this music. When moviegoers visited a motion picture theater, they expected a full show for the price of admission. Various films preceded the features, and musical shorts were still a requirement for many audiences members. As it turned out, Columbia’s Thrills of Music series worked well for theater owners and viewers alike!
Thrills of Music
The origins of this series — that is, who conceived of the series and when — is lost to history, or hidden in Columbia’s files. The release of the first one reel short in the Thrills of Music series in the fall of 1946, MACHITO AND HIS ORCHESTRA, suggests a summer production date; this would mean that the series was discussed, planned and approved somewhere in the spring or early summer of the year.
Directing most, if not all, of the twenty-four shorts in the series was Harry Foster, a Columbia veteran who spent his whole career as a producer, director and editor within the Columbia short subjects department. His sole opportunity to direct a feature film appears to be LET’S ROCK, a 1958 teen rock film that seems curiously devoid of genuine rock-and-roll talent. Featuring Julius La Rosa, Conrad Janis, Della Reese and Paul Anka, the film is pretty much an oddity, although worth the investment of eighty minutes of viewing time.
The Thrills of Music shorts are hard to come by, and the prints in my collection do not have a producer credit on screen. IMDB suggests that Foster may have served as producer as well as director. In any case, whomever selected the talent certainly had a eye and ear for music. The list of performers is both eclectic and, at times, surprising. The presence of Ray Anthony , Louis Prima, Ted Weems, and Les Elgart, for example, reflect selection based on popularity. However, there was a keen eye paid to Latin sounds, with features for Machito, the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Miguelito Valdez. Ina Ray Hutton’s re-formed all-woman band is presented in a 1949 entry. But what is most interesting, beside the fact that there is not one black band featured on screen, is that the producer was willing to gamble on bands that were playing progressive, bop-influenced, big band jazz, including the orchestras of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Claude Thornhill, Boyd Raeburn, Elliott Lawrence, Charlie Barnet and the subject of this article, Ray McKinley.
Ray McKinley and the Formation of his Band
The vastly underrated Ray McKinley was born in 1910, and was working professionally before turning 16 years old. He had relocated to New York City from his native Texas by 1931, and he was soon recording with such musicians as Red Nichols, Bunny Berigan, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey. His early work with Dorsey obviously impressed the jazz clarinetist, and McKinley was asked to join the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra when it was formed in 1934. The orchestra was at first just a recording band, although by March 1934, with a somewhat stabilized personnel, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was playing gigs in and around the New York City area. The band famously broke up a year and a half later, and McKinley opted to stay with Jimmy Dorsey, anchoring the rhythm section of the band until the summer of 1939.
In September 1939 McKinley teamed with Will Bradley to form a new jazz orchestra billed as Will Bradley and his Orchestra, featuring Ray McKinley. McKinley served not only as the rhythmic spark plug for the band, but he sang rhythm tunes and novelty numbers as well. His prowess as one of the finest big band drummers can be heard on the band’s recording The Lonesome Roadi> (Columbia 35849, October 17, 1940)
The Bradley/McKinley orchestra had a number of hits with big band boogie woogie arrangements. In June 1942, however, a disagreement between the two leaders …. Bradley wanted to broaden the band’s approach, McKinley wanted to remain true to the success of the boogie pieces … led to the breakup of the partnership.
McKinley was then drafted (or perhaps he enlisted), and Ray was promptly selected by Glenn Miller to fill the drum chair in Miller’s Army Air Force band. McKinley was with the band until the end of the war, co-leading the orchestra with Jerry Gray after Miller’s death in December 1944. McKinley would return to the Miller organization ten years later, leading the Miller ghost band, now billed as The New Glenn Miller Orchestra, for almost a decade.
In January 1946 McKinley reentered the big band derby with a new orchestra that, surprisingly enough, ignored the boogie woogie stylings that had proven so successful five years earlier. Instead, McKinley turned to one of the most progressive arrangers in jazz, Eddie Sauter, to build a book of instrumental pieces for the new orchestra. While the arrangements heard in this short subject are more straight ahead than many of those written for Benny Goodman in the early 1940s, they are fine pieces of jazz composition and arrangement. A contract with the small, independent Majestic Records allowed the band to record on a regular basis, with Sauter providing the arrangements for most of the tunes.
Ray McKinley and his Orchestra
The band that McKinley assembled in early 1946 was together for about four years, and there appears to be less turn over than in many bands of the period. This may be attributed, in part, to McKinley’s likable, easygoing personality, positive leadership skills, and excellent musicianship. Bill Harwood, section trombonist, was a good friend, and we corresponded quite a bit about this band.
“McKinley was wonderful to work for, a terrific leader who knew how to lead a band without being a martinet, like Miller. Perhaps his experience with Miller allowed him to pick those leadership qualities that worked, and let go of the other approaches that did not work with musicians. You see, not a lot of turnover in the band, and that’s because we enjoyed working for Ray, and especially playing Eddie’s arrangements.”
“Now, Ray had his hands full, leading the band, taking care of business things, playing drums, singing. So he needed someone to handle the drums when he was out front. I forget the first drummer on the band [Rollo Laylan], but later he got Paul Kashian [Kashishian], a fine drummer who was with him for the rest of the band’s life.”
“The band was full of great soloists, most of the trumpets, at one time or another, also Vern Friley, Ray Beller, Peanuts [Hucko], Mundell [Lowe] and Lou [Stein]. Many of us section men would be given a chance to work out [that is, solo] later in the evening, during the last set. Boy, it was a blast.”
I had the opportunity to interview Mundell Lowe by telephone in January 2015, and his comments also help us understand the success of the band.
“I got on the Ray McKinley band right after leaving the services, Second World War, you know. It was John Hammond who got me on the band. It was a fine band, and we all enjoyed playing the music. The great thing is that the arrangements were by Eddie Sauter, and that made for interesting, swinging music. Dean Kincaide, who sometimes played baritone, also wrote arrangements. They were Dixieland things, and we would play a few of them during each show. But it was Eddie [Sauter] who made the band sound like it did, and he really wrote the way he wanted. Mac just loved his music. It was a few years later on that I was instrumental in getting him to team with Bill Finegan with their great band.”
“When I first joined the band Mac kept staring at me, and it went on and on. Finally he approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you play more like Charlie Christian?’ That really put me off, and soon after that we were on stage at the Circle Theater in Indianapolis, and when the stage came up Mac could see that I had written ‘I quit’ on my music. Well, after that he accepted me, told me to play my own way, and he was like a father to me from then on.”
Much of the band’s strength can be traced to McKinley’s employment of one of the finest, most forward-looking arrangers of the period, Eddie Sauter. While the three Sauter arrangements included in this film are more straight-ahead Swing, his work on many McKinley recordings, Hangover Square, Sandstorm, Tumblebug and Borderline included, are as progressive as anything George Handy was writing for Boyd Raeburn during this period, or Gil Evans with the Thornhill Orchestra. Sauter’s use of advanced harmonies is ten years ahead of the time, and the recordings are well worth seeking out.
Thrills of Music: Ray McKinley and his Orchestra
Production files are not available for this particular series, but we can make some rough assumptions about the production date. A December 1946 copyright date, and a comparison of on-screen personnel with the recording personnel as noted in standard discographies, suggests recording and filming ca. summer-fall 1946, in Columbia’s New York facilities.
We cannot be certain that the recording personnel is that which we see on screen, but since the recording and sideline dates were probably quite close, we can assume that the identical personnels are heard on soundtrack and seen on screen; both Jim Harwood and Mundell Lowe felt that this was indeed the case.
Ray McKinley and his Orchestra
Drums, vocal and leader, Ray McKinley
Trumpets, left-to-right: probably Jack Steele; Joe Ferrente; Nick Travis; unidentified, although discographies would suggest Chuck Genduso
Trombones, left-to-right: Vern Friley, Irv Dinkins, Jim Harwood
Reeds, left-to-right: Peanuts Hucko, tenor sax; possibly Billy Ainsworth, alto sax; Ray Beller, alto sax; probably Pete Terry, tenor sax; probably Walt (Wally) Milford, but certainly not Dean Kincaide, baritone sax
Piano, Lou Stein
Guitar, Mundell Lowe
String bass, probably Ward Erwin Drums, Paul Kashian (Kashishian)
Many of the films in the Thrills of Music series are hard to come by, and my print of this film turned up only a short time ago. I must confess that the two opening numbers are among my current favorites in all of jazz on film.
The short opens with a unique version of McKinley’s theme, Howdy Friends, played in a swinging arrangement by Eddie Sauter. In performance, and on record, McKinley used this title to introduce the featured soloists in the band. And while McKinley sings an extended introduction to the short, the identification of the soloists per se has been relegated to the second number. Much of the charm of this number, and the one that follows, comes from the fact that McKinley seems so comfortable and happy in front of the band. His vocal is spot on, cool, swinging, and nuanced. As my good friend Tim Hauser used to say, “He is too hip for the room.” The lyrics are well-written, introducing the film in a humorous manner.
This is Ray McKinley saying, “How’d ya do.”
And all the boys in the band say, “Howdy,” too.
So, what ever you’re doin’, please disengage
While I tell you ‘bout the folks sitting on the stage.
Miss Chris Adams sings a song or two.
Which we hope you like and, if you do,
You’ll go for Brother Teddy Norman who will have his say
About romance and heartaches and etcetera.
And somewhere down the line I will interfere,
Just to sort of justify my presence here.
And in case you’re wonderin’ who writes our stuff
Why it’s Brother Eddie Sauter …. sho’ nuff.
But it’s the boys in the band who, without a doubt,
Can get most of the credit, so from hereon out,
I’ll go and give the drums a little wear and tear
Gentlemen, take it from there.
In many ways, this is one of the most unique and swinging openings to any one reel short. It is worth noting that with Ray singing out front, second drummer Paul Kashian can be seen on drums in the background.
Many jazz orchestras had a “Meet the Band” number in their book. Duke Ellington’s VIPs Boogie, and Benny Goodman Oh-Oh-Boom, come to mind, and I am sure there are many others. As noted above, McKinley used his theme, Howdy Friends, to serve this purpose. But in this film short, the patter and solo statements have been transferred to this number.
In terms of pure jazz performance, this number must rank among the best in the 1940s. Hoodle Addle is basically a 12 bar blues, artfully arranged by Eddie Sauter, and played in two tempos. The number starts off medium tempo, with an introductory solo by pianist Lou Stein, followed by Ray’s vocal. The tempo then increases for the solos by members of the band. Interestingly enough, on recordings and broadcasts the song is often played at a more lazy, loping tempo.
Ray Beller is up first, with a 12 bar solo that is fascinating in its tone and approach. The actual note choice and phrasing are influenced by Lester Young, with a touch of early Bird. But it is Beller’s tone that is somewhat startling. Elsewhere, on record, and in earlier film appearances, Beller uses a vibrato that recalls such masters as Benny Carter. But here there is no vibrato, and a “dry” tone that one would later associate with Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond. But this is 1946, and neither Konitz nor Desmond would have made their voices known enough that they may be thought of as an influence on Beller. The solo is only 12 bars in length, but it certainly points to an alto style later to be dubbed “cool.”
Guitarist Mundell Lowe, trombonist Vern Friley, pianist Lou Stein, and Peanuts Hucko, here heard on tenor sax as opposed to his more familiar clarinet, present coherent solo statements clearly within the stylistic boundaries of the Swing Era.
The trumpets are then called upon to trade two bar solos, but only the first two are heard before a rough cut in the soundtrack leads to a unison statement by the four trumpets, and then three arranged choruses by the band. The poor editing of the trumpet solos notwithstanding, this is a superior piece of big band jazz on film!
The opening two songs are difficult to follow, and what follows is somewhat of a letdown. Taboo is a popular song, performed in the “exotic” mold, written by Marguerite Lecuona (cousin to Ernesto). It was a favorite with the big band audience, and it was recorded by such leaders as Artie Shaw, Harry James, Stan Kenton, and Dizzy Gillespie. This performance features tuned kettle drums played by McKinley, and understated vocals by Chris Adams and Teddy Norman. A change of pace, to be sure, but nothing that adds much to our knowledge of the music in the mid 1940s.
We return to big band instrumental swing with the closing piece, again arranged by Eddie Sauter. It is a number that features Ray McKinley on drums titled Comin’ Out. Not one of Eddie Sauter’s finest arrangements, perhaps, but the feature for McKinley works as an ending to the short. There is some intricate writing for the reeds, well played, to be sure, and McKinley doesn’t disappoint, but for some reason the material is not suited for an extended drum solo. This is not to say that the performance is a failure, just that the aforementioned solo feature on The Lonesome Road is much more representative of McKinley’s abilities. It was apparently well-received by studio brass, and the number was lifted from the short and reused in the 1948 Columbia feature film, MAKE BELIEVE BALLROOM.
In all fairness, most of the films in the Thrills of Music series could be given the analysis afforded this short. They are all well made, if somewhat rudimentary in visual approach, but almost all have something to present of musical worth. This short seems to be even a step above that average.
Ray McKinley was a talented musician and band leader who has an attractive presence on screen. He and the band seem to be having fun, something not always evident in jazz films, but something that seems to lift the music in the short. His foresight in hiring Eddie Sauter resulted in a book of fine, advanced arrangements, put together for a band of accomplished musicians.
We can certainly bemoan the fact that there isn’t a better feature for McKinley, or that there isn’t more to hear from the trumpets and Ray Beller. Perhaps a better song for the vocalists? But we must also keep in mind that this is a commercial short meant to appeal to the widest of audiences. Not everyone who liked big band music enjoyed jazz, and to include three jazz numbers in a ten minute short is certainly something to be celebrated. (The Boyd Raeburn short, for example, includes music that could have been presented by any name band of the period.) And so, when all is said and done, we must thank Harry Cohn, reviled as he might have been, for allowing the film to be released for a music hungry public!
Give the people something that they want to see and they will come out for it!