Back in the 1970s, long before DVDs, and even longer before youtube, a 16mm film print was often the only way that one could view jazz on film. Times have certainly changed, and what was once rare or unknown is now commonplace. The 1938 Warner Bros. short subject Saturday Night Swing Club is a strong case in point. It has been released (or bootlegged, as the case may be) on videotape and laser disc, circulates among collectors in many forms, and can be viewed at your convenience on the Internet.
But in the mid 1970s, when I located a 16mm print of the short, the film was relatively unknown, and an absolute revelation. The main interest to me, of course, was the Bobby Hackett combo. But the Leith Stevens orchestra swung mightily, and even though I knew very little about the Saturday Night Swing Club radio program, I was thrilled when I was told that Billy Gussak, the drummer with the Stevens band, lived less than an hour away from me, in Westlake Village, California.
In retrospect, I missed a golden opportunity when I met with Billy and his wife. Not knowing all of the questions that I should have asked, my interview was woefully lacking in seeking out important details regarding the day-to-day life of a CBS staff musician. However, Mr. Gussak did lay the foundation for a more complete understanding of this short subject, and I am happy to share his reflections and comments in the following article. I was also able to speak with Johnny Blowers on many occasions, and his thoughts about this film, as a member of the Bobby Hackett combo, are also quite enlightening.
The Interviews: Billy Gussak and Johnny Blowers
The interview with Mr. Gussak took place during the winter of 1978 or 1979, and I can clearly recall the drive out to Westlake Village from West Los Angeles to share this special film with Billy and his wife. Home VHS recorders were a relatively new technology, and the means of transferring film to tape somewhat expensive, so I carried a projector, the film and a screen along with me. What follows is the essence of my conversation with Billy.
“It’s so nice to talk to someone about the old days in jazz. Most people want to talk about … well, I’m sure you know I was the drummer on [Bill Haley’s recording of] Rock Around the Clock, and that’s what people seem to be interested in.”
“I was born in 1906, and by the early 1930s I was working as a professional musician and believe me, I did my share of scuffling. But I got to be known as a guy who could read and swing at the same time, and that started getting me jobs. One of my first was with Charlie Barnet in New York, and all they say about him being a wild type of guy, it’s pretty much true. We did some recordings, not too much to speak of. Someone sent me a tape a while back and they were just pop songs. There was a fellow who made it as a radio announcer [Harry Von Zell] on the date.”
“But later I did another jazz date with Charlie, only it was issued under Red Norvo’s name. You know who Red Norvo was? And at that date —no, there were a couple— we produced some great music. You say I’m on a record date with Will Osborne, but I don’t recall the details. But by this time I was starting to do radio, and also getting calls for occasional recordings. There were some recording with some guys who were at CBS with me, but I forget the details [an ARC date or dates issued under Dick McDonough’s name], and also some with a vocal group, The Six Hits and a Miss …. no, The Smoothies, with Babs Ryan and her two brothers.”
At this point we watched the Saturday Night Swing Club short three times, and Bill identified the personnel, and continued his comments.
“Now, let me tell you a little about the orchestra. I started with CBS sometime late in 1936, if I remember correctly, but I wasn’t the only drummer on call. You see, there were many bands that played Swing and popular music on the network, in addition to Leith Stevens on this [Saturday Night Swing Club] show …. Freddie Rich, Mark Warnow and his brother Raymond Scott, and Johnny Augustin. And there were other drummers, of course …Johnny Williams and Sammy Weiss and, oh, there were others, too.”
“Anyway, I got a lot of calls to work with Leith Stevens, but it could have been one of the others that got the call for the short we saw, and then maybe we wouldn’t be here this evening. The guys in the band were all pros, and I mean they were the best. They could read and most could improvise when called upon, even though they all didn’t necessarily see themselves as Swing [jazz] musicians. But Toots [Mondello] did, and so did Will [Bradley]. Walter Gross thought he was a great improviser, but nobody else did. But I really shouldn’t talk that way after so many years.”
“You should also know that the sidemen in the band weren’t always the same, that there would be substitutes on occasion. Like, you’d come in and our regular tenor soloist, Hank [Ross], would be playing with someone else, but Babe Russin would be there instead. Things like that, but there was a relatively small group of musicians that they called upon, and you could pretty much assume that the members of the band would be from that group. And you knew most of them, too.”
Johnny Blowers also commented on the short on a number of occasions: “My first film appearance, great, huh? Well, I do recall a couple of things in particular, in addition to the excitement of making a film. First, both Eddie [Condon] and I were not particularly happy with the way George [Brunies] mugged on screen, but since the director was happy with this, George was asked to his slide on the floor bit.” “Now Chauncy Morehouse, he was a jazz drummer who went back to the 1920s, and out he walks in this very strange black outfit to play on tuned drums. Some of the guys cracked up at first, but for the most part we kept out mouths closed because Morehouse had a history and we respected him for it.”
The production date for this film cannot be set with any certainly, but with a seventy year gap between the production of the film and the present date, a question of six months difference in time is not a major issue. Warren Vaché, in his marvellous biography of Johnny Blowers (Back Beats and Rim Shots, The Johnny Blowers Story, Scarecrow Press 1997), notes that the Hackett band appears on the Saturday Night Swing Club program (February 5, 1938), Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom (February 6), and a Vocalion recording date (February 16). He then states, “This was quickly followed by a film version of ‘The Saturday Night Swing Club,’ made on the Warner Bros lot in Brooklyn at 8:00 A.M. AM February 18.” Obviously the short subject would not have been completely produced on one day, so if this date is correct it would be for soundtrack recording, sideline photography, but not both.”
Ron Liebman, in Vitaphone Films (McFarland Press, 2003), cites a production date of April 1938. And Harold Jones, in Bobby Hackett: A Bio-Discography (Greenwood Press, 1998), suggests “ca. July 1938.”
Now, it is certainly possible that the film was recorded in February and filmed in April (or even later), but this somehow does not seem reasonable to me. The film was copyrighted, and probably released, in December 1938. This does not help at all is terms of production date. To be fair to all concerned, I think it is reasonable to question Jones’s summer suggestion (he provides no backup data) and to date this film as “ca. February-April 1938.”
The Band Personnel
As Billy Gussak notes, the personnel for the Leith Stevens CBS radio band was fairly settled and stable by early 1938, a fact reinforced by personnel noted in Ken Vail’s Swing Era Scrapbook: The Diaries of Bob Inman, 1936-1938 (Scarecrow Press, 2005). There were, as Gussak also notes, occasional substitutions, and many of these are identified in Bob Inman’s listings. However, the personnel cited by Gussak is amazingly close to that noted by Inman. The personnel for the film follows, with musicians noted left-to-right on screen:
Leith Stevens and his Orchestra (Leith Stevens, leader; Lloyd Williams, trumpet, upper left; Ruse Case, trumpet, upper right; Nat Natoli, trumpet, lower left; Robert Johnson, trumpet, lower right; trombones, left-to-right: Joe Vargas, Will Bradley; reeds, left-to right: Hanks Ross, Toots Mondello, Artie Manners, George Tudor; Walter Gross, piano; Frank Worrell, guitar; Bobby Michaelson, string bass; Billy Gussak, drums)
Edith Dick, appearing as vocalist with the band, was not a regular on the program and was brought in just for this film short. Ms. Dick is a competent and “perky” singer, if somewhat generic in terms of her approach to a vocal chorus. She appeared on radio during this period, and was also featured in the 1939 Paramount short Hoagy Carmichael, featuring Jack Teagarden and his Orchestra. The Hackett band was the regular working combo of the period, and its formantion is shared in detail in Warren Vache’s biography of drummer Johnny Blowers, Back Beats and Rim Shots (Scarecrow Press, 1997). However, a brief summation here is certain appropriate. Hackett had been playing professionally since age 14, doubling on cornet and guitar (and occasionally banjo). During the early 1930s he performed along the East Coast, and finally settled in New York City in 1937. He worked first in society bands (Howard and Lester Lanin, Meyer Davis and others), and a bit later with leading jazzmen.
In late 1937 Sharky Bonano, leader of the house band at Nick Rongetti’s club in Greenwich Village, gave his two week’s notice. Rongetti contacted singer Red McKenzie who, in turn, suggested the band that opened at the club on December 17, 1937, and later appeared in the film short under discussion. Bobby Hackett and his Band, as identified by Blowers, included the following musicians:
Bobby Hackett and his Band Bobby Hackett, cornet; George Brunies, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Dave Bowman, piano; Clyde Newcomb, string bass; Johnny Blowers, drums.
To round out the featured artists in the band short, Chauncey Moorehouse performs on tuned N’Goma drums, and Paul Douglas serves as announcer. Morehouse was, of course, a pioneer jazz drummer, best known for his work in the orchestra of Jean Goldkette. His recordings with Bix Beiderbecke are amongst the most important in early white jazz. Here he appears as a novelty act, playing his composition “Ku-Li-A”. Finally, Paul Douglas has a lengthy career both as a radio announcer and personality, and as a film actor.
Behind the Camera
By 1938 the Vitaphone unit in New York City was a well oiled machine, churning out shorts on a weekly basis. The three primary directors were Roy Mack, who was given a high percentage of shorts featuring jazz and black talent; Joseph Henabery, who had penchant for low cost optical effects; and Lloyd French, who favored straight-ahead filmed musical performances.
Born in 1900, French, who directed this short, began working in film in the 1920s, serving primarily as an assistant director of comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studios. He moved into the director’s chair in the 1930s, working during the early part of the decade at RKO. He then returned to the Hal Roach where, among other efforts, he directed comedies featuring Laurel and Hardy. From Roach he moved to the East Coast where he began a long association with Warner Bros. In addition to comedy shorts, French directed band shorts that included such talent as Jimmy Dorsey, Larry Clinton, Adrian Rollini and Freddie Rich.
Holding the Baton
Leith Stevens had a long and successful career in film and radio, and is one of the unsung musical heroes of the 1930s and 1940s. For many years he served as a bandleader, arranger and musical director for CBS radio. In addition to Saturday Night Swing Club, Stevens was associated with such programs and The Abbott and Costello Show, Arch Oboler’s horror drama series Lights Out, The Burns and Allen Show and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
During the war years Stevens joined the Office of War Information and served as radio director for the Southwest Pacific Area. He then moved into writing and scoring music for both feature films and television, working in that capacity until his death in 1970.
Van Cleave – In the Arrangers’ Workroom
Van Cleave was a composer and orchestrator for film, television, and radio. He is responsible for the arrangement of the first tune in the short, “Panamania,” and may have arranged the other band titles as well. Born in Bayfield, Wisconsin, Van Cleave moved to New York City where he studied music with Joseph Schillinger. Van Cleve worked in radio, as a staff arranger for Paul Whiteman, Andre Kostelanetz, and as an all-purpose arranger for CBS. In 1945, Van Cleave moved to Los Angeles, and began composing and orchestrating for motion pictures. He later moved to television, and his work on The Twilight Zone introduced the theremin to millions of listeners.
Satuday Night Swing Club – Musical Performances
1. Panamania (Coslow-Siegel) (Van Cleeve, arranger) Leith Stevens and his Orchestra (soloists: Russ Case, trumpet; Will Bradley, solo trombone)
2. Bob White (Hanighen-Mercer) Edith Dick, accompanied by Leith Stevens and his Orchestra
3. At the Jazz Band Ball (LaRocca-Shields) Bobby Hackett and his Band
4. Ku-Li-A (Moorehouse) Chauncy Morehouse, tuned N’Goma drums, accompanied by Leith Stevens and his Orchestra (Hank Ross, tenor sax “fills”)
5. The Dipsy Doodle (Clinton) – entire cast
The main interest in this short, of course, is the wild and quite wonderful rendition of At the Jazz Band Ball by Bobby Hackett. This is one of the earlier uninterrupted examples of Chicago-style Dixieland jazz to be found on film. All musicians perform well, with special nods to Hackett and Russell, and if we find Brunies antics a bit dated, so be it; this was part of his act at the time.
The Stevens orchestra is also strong, well rehearsed and quite swinging for a band that would be expected to play everything from jazz to dance numbers, from vocal accompaniments to novelty pieces. It is certainly nice to see and hear such soloists as Case and Bradley on screen.
Edith Dick performs in the first of two film appearances, and acquits herself well. Certainly the most dated part of the short is Chauncey Morehouse’s performances on tuned N’Goma drums. But even this allows a look back at the era, and this radio series in particular, and the demand that hot jazz be blended with novelty performances.
In summary, this is certainly one of the better Vitaphone shorts from the 1930s. Its companion piece, Saturday Night Swing Club “On the Air” from the following year is equally strong and will perhaps be the subject of a further article in this series of jazz on film.