The image of an African American, eyes wide, trembling, fleeing from the scene because he has seen a ghost, is a familiar one to those who watch films of the 1930s and ‘40s. It was part-and-parcel of a handful of images used to demean Blacks people. The irony, of course, is that we would all behave that way if we encountered a ghost. In any case, as we celebrate Halloween on Monday, we will encounter said imagery in an otherwise wonderful Soundie titled That Ol’ Ghost Train featuring Les Hite and his Orchestra.
Les Hite was born in Illinois and had relocated to Los Angeles by the early 1920s. Throughout the decade he played alto sax in the bands of Paul Howard, Curtis Mosby and Reb Spikes. In 1930, Hite formed a band of his own and for the next decade was extremely active on the Los Angeles scene. While he did not record as often as other great black bands, he was almost always working, spending extended time at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City. Les Hite’s band was frequently used in films. It can sometime be seen in the background, sidelining to a soundtrack recorded by a studio orchestra. In other films it is up front playing its own style of big band swing.
Les Hite was busy enough that touring was not necessary to keep the band going. In 1941 the band did tour the country, finally landing in Manhattan for an engagement at the Apollo Theater. DownBeat (February 1, 1942) reported, “Les Hite and his bunch have been signed to make four Soundies for Minoco.” Unfortunately, none of the band’s great swing instrumentals was on the production agenda, although the band’s potential can be heard on two of the up-tempo numbers.
My good friend Joe Wilder talked about the four shorts after he had viewed them on videotape. About this Soundie he said, “I recall “Ghost Train,” it was a part of our book, a popular number in our stage shows. Maybe one of Les’s arrangements. I had just joined the band, my first time away from home, and I was playing lead trumpet. The trumpet solo is by either Walter Williams or “Stump” Whitlock. They were both into Roy [Eldridge] at this time. I think that’s Walter Cobbs on trombone.”
The men frightened by the ghosts, along with the ghostly dancers, were all drawn from a pool of performers provided by the Sun Tan Studios in Harlem.