In September, 2004, a musical reunion took place in
Southern California reports FORREST PATTEN. This
event reunited a group of some of the most accomplished
and talented composers, arrangers and players in the business.
Organized by staunch RFS member composer-arranger Frank
Comstock, "Franks summit," as we affectionately
dubbed it, proved to be a marvellous opportunity for old
friends to come together and to share memorable stories
of the music business.
In order not to miss an opportunity like
this, Nancy and I packed our bags and recording gear and
headed to The Sportsmens Lodge, a venerable meeting
establishment and resort located in Studio City. Our good
friend and recent RFS member, Rob Keil, flew down for the
day to join the festivities and to assist us in our quest:
to obtain a series of exclusive interviews on behalf of
the Robert Farnon Society. Starting with this issue of Journal
Into Melody, wed like to present the first of
Van Alexander has had a wonderful musical
life. He literally was responsible for the launch of Ella
Fitzgeralds career by co-writing and arranging her
big hit "A Tisket A Tasket". He wrote a book on
arranging and has counted Johnny Mandel as one of his students.
He has provided numerous orchestral backings and arrangements
for the likes of Gordon MacRae and a host of other Capitol
Records recording artists. He has scored a number of memorable
films and television shows, including Dean Martins
long-time NBC variety series. Hes also released a
series of popular recordings featuring his own orchestra.
Heres Vans story.
Van, who will turn 90 this year, shows
no sign of slowing down. He recently completed some big
band charts on behalf of pianist Michael Feinstein for a
Carnegie Hall concert. EMI in the UK has recently re-issued
two of his popular Capitol albums on a single CD. Hes
won numerous awards and is very grateful for all of the
good thats come his way. In Vans own words:
"Its been a wonderful ride." I have a feeling
that this ride is far from over. Its like the best
"E Ticket" ride at Disneyland!
Interviewed by FORREST PATTEN
Forrest Patten: Van Alexander, on
behalf of the Robert Farnon Society, Id like to thank
you for joining us today for this very special interview.
I think our readers would be interested in the story behind
your tune "A Tisket A Tasket" for Ella
Fitzgerald and Chick Webbs band.
Van Alexander: It was the luckiest
thing that happened in my career. Pure luck. I was arranging
for Chicks band. In 1938 they were playing at Levaggis
Restaurant in Boston and were also on the air three or four
times a week nationwide. Naturally, all of the music publishers
were after Chick to play all the current hits. He was loading
me up two or three weeks ahead of time with writing assignments.
I was doing three arrangements a week plus the copying.
Ella had recently joined the band and I was doing all of
her early Decca arrangements. One day she said "Gee,
Ive got a great idea for a tune. Why dont you
try to work up something on the old nursery rhyme "A
Tisket A Tasket." I said, "Thats a great
idea, Ella. Let me think about it." But I didnt
have time the first week. When I came to Boston with my
arrangements, she asked me if I had thought about the tune.
I said, "Yeah I did, Ella. Maybe next week Ill
have something." Next week arrived and I still didnt
have anything. Now she got a little testy with me. She said,
"If you dont want to do it, just tell me and
Ill ask Edgar Sampson." He was the first saxophone
player in the band and a wonderful arranger. So I said,
"Hold the phone, Ella. Dont ask Edgar. Ill
get to it." The song is an old nursery rhyme that was
in the public domain. Anybody could have written an arrangement
for it. What I did was to put it into a 32-bar song and
added all of the novelty things. I took it to Boston. They
rehearsed it that day and put it on the air that night.
Robbins Music Publishing had a man in Boston named Leo Talent.
He called Abe Olman (who was a big man at Robbins) and told
him to "tape this thing off the air tonight and see
what you think." Well, everybody raved about it. Two
weeks later, they recorded it at Decca and it became #1
on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade show for 19 weeks.
The real irony of the story is that in 1986 (almost 50 years
later) because of that record, Ella, Chick and I were inducted
into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. Thats the story. If
I hadnt have done it, Edgar Sampson (or somebody else)
would have ended up doing it. It was Ellas idea. She
changed a lot of the lyrics. It was a happy marriage. It
was really her entry into the business, as well as mine,
too. Chick Webb was just starting to make it, but he didnt
last long enough. He was quite ill and was unable to really
cash in on "A Tisket A Tasket."
FP: Lets go back to your beginning
on the East Coast. You were influenced by some of the great
Black bands and Black musicians of the day. Tell us about
that time in your life.
VA: As a teenager, a lot of us were
so-called "jitterbugs." We loved to do the "Lindy
Hop" and so-forth. The place to do it and hear some
great music at the same time was in Harlem at the Savoy
Ballroom. Wed go there quite often and listen to some
great bands and great arrangements (which I was always interested
in). After going there as often as we did, I struck up a
"nodding acquaintance" with Chick Webb. One night
I got up a little nerve and said, "Chick, I have a
couple of arrangements at home that I think would fit your
band. Are you interested?" He said, "Sure, bring
them down Friday night for the rehearsal." Well, I
was bluffing. I didnt have any arrangements. I went
home and scratched out "Keepin Out Of Mischief
Now" and the old Dixieland classic "Thats
A Plenty." I brought them down to the rehearsal
and, unbeknownst to me, the rehearsal started after
the job. Theyd finish the job at one oclock,
have some Muscatel Wine or something, and theyd start
rehearsing about two oclock in the morning. There
were other arrangements in line before mine. Edgar Sampson
would bring something in, as would Charlie Dixson (names
I would never forget). Anyhow, they got to me about four
oclock in the morning. My mother was frantic. She
called the police and told them that her son was out in
Harlem. She wondered what he could be doing there at 4:30
in the morning!? I was just turning 19 at the time. Chick
liked the arrangements and paid me $10 each for them. He
really didnt have the money so he took an advance
on his salary from Charles Buchannan (who was the manager).
There were other great bands at the Savoy. There was Teddy
Hill, Willie Bryant and, through Chick, I got to write for
all of these bands including Louis Armstrong (who had a
big band in those days). I remember rehearsing Louis in
a brownstone building up in Harlem and, later on, we did
some TV shows together.
FP: Lets talk about the formation
of the Van Alexander Orchestra.
VA: The advent of my orchestra came
about after "A Tisket A Tasket." There
was a fellow by the name of Eli Oberstein who was the head
of RCA Victor Records. He had formed what he called a stable
of bandleaders/song writers. He signed Larry Clinton, Les
Brown, and after "A Tisket," he thought
he had another one! So he signed me. My band was fair. We
did well for the first couple of years. Then the war came
and we couldnt get good musicians. It sort of petered
out. I had an opportunity to come to California with Bob
Crosby. The Capitol Theater in New York had been doing just
picture shows during the war and since the war looked as
if it was going to be over soon, they reinstated their big
band policy. And the first one they booked was Bob Crosby.
But Bob didnt have a band! He had just gotten out
of the service. So my manager at the time, a guy named Joe
Glazer, cooked up a deal where it would be "Bob Crosby
and the Van Alexander Orchestra." So we had a nice
four weeks at the Capitol. Bob and I had a good relationship.
He asked me if Id like to come out to the West Coast.
I told him Id think about it. As I saw the handwriting
on the wall where big bands were concerned, I took him up
on the opportunity. And the story unfolds from there.
FP: Besides Ella Fitzgerald, youve
arranged and conducted for a number of very talented artists,
most notable at Capitol Records. The name Gordon MacRae
comes to mind.
VA: Dear Gordon had one of the most
glorious voices. When he did the "Soliloquy"
from Carousel, he made it sound as if
it was a "real man" singing it. Gordon had just
finished doing his two big pictures (Oklahoma and
Carousel) and then there was a lull. Nothing was
coming his way, partly because (in Hollywood) he was considered
to be a kind of "Pecks Bad Boy." He got
a bit of a reputation in Hollywood and producers were a
little bit afraid. He did one picture after those two blockbusters,
The Best Things In Life Are Free. He
was going to go out on the road and make a little money
based on the success of his two major musical pictures.
He needed a conductor and arranger. A mutual friend, Marty
Melcher (who was Gordons agent) and an old friend
of mine who used to do publicity for my band got us together.
It was the most wonderful relationship and turned out be
very profitable because, through Gordon, I got my foot in
the door at Capitol Records (where he was one of their artists).
We did 12 or 13 albums together and, as a result, I became
one of the in-house arrangers at Capitol. I got to record
with other artists including Kay Starr and Dakota Staton.
Gordon had four wonderful children and was married to the
beautiful Sheila MacRae. Our kids sort of grew up together
and I was on the road with Gordon for maybe 12 or 13 years,
plus doing his records. When Sheila joined the act, she
did so to sort of "solidify" Gordon and keep him
on the straight road. They had the #1 nightclub act in the
country and played all of the great spots. We had a wonderful
time and got to meet an awful lot of people in the process.
We even met Pablo Casals while playing Puerto Rico! I really
miss Gordon. He sort of straightened out at the end of his
life, but it was a little too late. He was a big gambler.
In the beginning, hed be making $25,000 a week in
Las Vegas, but would lose it all at the tables. Theyd
have to pay tax on the money won and ended up owing the
government over a million dollars. Sheilas still around.
I see and talk to her occasionally. But shes having
a bit of a financial struggle at this time in her life.
Its a sad story, considering all of the money they
FP: In listening to all of the recordings
that youve done over the years, Im overwhelmed
by the variety of styles that youve been able to achieve.
You can go from some of the most swinging arrangements from
your early roots to an album of hymns featuring a solo organ
with chorus. And, of course, there were the operetta albums
featuring Dorothy Kirsten and Gordon MacRae. Stylistically,
you were like a chameleon where you could blend from one
setting to the next.
VA: Thats nice to hear. Someone
once called me a "journeyman" arranger. I feel
like Ive done it all. Ive done 22 feature pictures
and hundreds of segments for different television shows
that are still being shown.
FP: Lets talk about some of
the television shows and movies.
VA: I did many segments of Bewitched,
The Donna Reed Show, I Dream Of Jeannie and Dennis
The Menace. I had a deal with Screen Gems Television.
The main show that I scored was Hazel starring Shirley
Booth. Those early shows would use a twelve or a thirteen-piece
orchestra. Today, most shows use a piano or guitar for a
play-out! Through Screen Gems, I got a deal at Columbia
Pictures. The first picture I scored there was a thing with
Joan Crawford called Straight Jacket.
It was a horror picture. They seemed to like it so I got
to do a second picture with Joan. I had one disaster over
there, though. I had done four or five successful pictures.
They had a Western film with Glenn Ford and Inger Stevens.
They had changed directors in the middle of it, as well
as writers. The picture was really in trouble. Following
those four or five independent projects for Columbia, they
said, "Why dont we give Van a chance? Maybe he
can save the picture." They gave me a very good price
and I had plenty of time to do it. I was given an office
at the studio. I did the score in about six or seven weeks.
I had a big orchestra and they were all there at the scoring
session (Mike Frankovich and the head of the music department,
Joni Taps). They raved about the music and said, "My
God. Youve saved the picture!" I was on cloud
nine. So now they had what they called a "preview"
of the picture. This is where they show it to the public
and try to get some feedback. With my wife and two daughters,
we all went to a theatre out here in the San Fernando Valley
for the showing. Well, it was a disaster. People were laughing
in the serious parts and were hissing the villain. I wanted
to crawl under the table. I thought that I had written a
pretty good score and everyone at the scoring stage had
approved. And now the Columbia brass sees the result in
the theatre! Two days later, Mike Frankovitch calls and
tells me that he doesnt think that the music is right
for the picture! I asked him if they wanted to change anything
and he said, "No, I think that were going to
throw it all out and re-score it with 10 guitars and make
it a real Western." So they hired Mundell Lowe who
is a great guitar player. He brought in 10 guitars, but
that didnt help the picture either. It never played
in a theatre, but was on television about three weeks later.
That made me feel a little better, but I felt as if Id
never do another picture! But I remember what film composer
David Raksin once said: "Youre not a full-fledged
screen composer until youve had a score thrown out
of a picture." Many times, things that look like a
disaster turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Right at
that time, I got a call from my dear friend Les Brown who
had the band on The Dean Martin Show. He asked me
if Id like to come over and do some arrangements for
the show. They had a couple of other guys doing arrangements
at the same time. I said sure and went to work for Les and
Dean. During the war in Vietnam, Les would travel with Bob
Hope overseas. In his absence, I got to conduct the shows.
Greg Garrison, the producer, seemed to like me and gave
me many other shows to do. Those included Emmy Awards broadcasts,
Gene Kelly specials, and a series featuring the singing
group The Gold Diggers. In fact, I got a couple of Emmy
nominations but no wins. That was quite a period.
FP: Tell us more about your work
on The Dean Martin Show. You actually put out an
album with a number of the familiar cues from that show.
VA: We did that at the request of
the producer, Greg Garrison. In retrospect, it wasnt
very good for us because he used a lot of those cues on
Deans Celebrity Roasts programs where he didnt
hire a band. But, the guys wanted to do it as a record date.
Dean Martin was a pussycat. He never wanted to rehearse,
of course. He thought that the spontaneity of not
rehearsing would benefit the show. On the other hand, someone
like Perry Como would rehearse for three weeks for a one-hour
program. If Dean was doing a duet with somebody like Peggy
Lee, wed make a cassette of a man and a woman singing
the particular arrangement, and hed learn it while
driving to or from the golf course. If he loused it up in
any way, everybody would laugh and they would do it over
again. They just loved Dean. He couldnt do anything
wrong. I wouldnt say that he was the most dedicated
performer in the world, but he got away with it. Hed
tell the director, "Point the Italian where you want
FP: Talking about television music,
whats happened to the idea of a memorable theme?
VA: You mean whats happened
to melody. Deans identification theme was wonderful
("Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes")
written by Ken Lane. An incident happened on the show that
benefited me, but Im still rather chagrined about
it to this day. The producer, Mr. Garrison said, "Why
dont we have our own theme for the show?" People
kind of shook their heads and wondered how they could replace
Ken Lanes song that had already established such a
strong identification with Dean. They asked me to write
a new theme where they could own the publishing. It could
be very valuable based on performances. I went to Ken Lane
and told him hed have to go to Dean and tell him whats
happening because he (Dean) was rather oblivious to what
was going on. Ken asked me if I knew what Dean would say
if hed go to him with a complaint? Dean would throw
up his hands and say, "Aw, whats the difference?
Forget about it." As it turned out, I wrote a closing
theme that they used for the last year of the show. It was
great for me because I got ASCAP performances. But I felt
terrible for my dear friend Ken Lane (who passed away a
few years ago).
FP: There was another tune from
that same album that I remember playing on the air during
my early days in radio. In addition to your recording, Ernie
Heckscher also covered it on one of his albums. Whats
the story behind "The Bar-rump Bump"?
VA: That was an original
composition that I wrote for a Dom Deluise special. Following
a joke, Greg Garrison would always say "bar-rump bump."
He asked me if I could come up with a song using that title.
I wrote it and they liked it. Ernie Heckscher recorded it.
I actually did five or six albums with Ernie (two of which
he actually paid for himself to record). Columbia released
a couple of them.
FP: Van, a couple of years ago,
ASCAP presented you with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Tell
us about that.
VA: They said I was deserving of
it because of my multi-faceted career. Ive been in
ASCAP since 1941 (right after "A Tisket").
Coupled with the pictures and television shows that I did,
Marilyn Bergman called and said that they had had a board
meeting and decided that they had wanted to honour me. I
told them that I didnt know whether or not I was really
deserving of a Lifetime Achievement Award, but I was highly
honoured. It was a nice evening. I was proud that my whole
family was there along with a lot of friends. Its
a nice "notch in the belt," as they say.
FP: Lets touch upon your three
Capitol albums: THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET, SWING! STAGED
FOR SOUND and LETS DANCE THE LAST DANCE.
VA: THE HOME OF HAPPY FEET
was actually the pseudo-name for the Savoy Ballroom. But
nobody knew what "the home of happy feet" was.
So Capitol withdrew that and re-issued that album as THE
SAVOY STOMP. Consequently, it sold like hot cakes. I
wish it had sold like records! It was an artistic success
and it had a lot of great players on it. I know that Uan
Rasey played on the dates, as did Barney Kessel. Bob Bain
was there on the Swing! Staged For Sound sessions.
The Savoy album was a re-creation of, as far as my
memory was concerned, tunes that were associated with bands
that played at the Savoy. We did Andy Kirks "Until
The Real Thing Comes Along," (which was his theme);
and Chick Webbs theme "Lets Get Together."
There was Lucky Millinders "Ride, Red, Ride"
that featured a vocal by Joe Howard and some great trumpet
work by Shorty Sherock. The other album, Swing! Staged
For Sound was a series of duets accompanied by a big
band. We had three drummers (Shelly Manne, Milt Holland
and Irv Cottler) and two trombones (Milt Bernhart and Dick
Kenney). We had Plas Johnson and Babe Russin on tenor sax.
And Henri Rose and Bobby Stevenson were featured on two
pianos. It was a good album.
FP: I was blown away by the two
pianos on "I Wont Dance."
VA: Thats where we interpolated
Chopins "Revolutionary Etude" and
tied it into the final arrangement.
FP: Who were your early musical
inspirations? I know that your mother was a concert pianist.
VA: Growing up, I loved listening
to Andre Kostelanetz and all the things that he did. As
I got a little older and started listening to the big bands,
there were the Dorseys, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra,
and Benny Goodman. I never dreamed that someday I would
have a chance to write for some of them. My all-time favourite
was Billy May. I also like Pete Rugolo. There were so many.
And there are so many great writers today.
FP: Do you have a personal message
that youd like to send to Robert Farnon?
VA: Well, how does he do it? Hes
had a marvellous career and hes still going; exploring
new frontiers all the time. Id love to meet him personally
FP: Van, we want to thank you very
much. Youve had a wonderful career and are, indeed,
a true legend in the music world.
VA: Thank you.
Forrest Patten conducted this interview
with Van Alexander on 8 September 2004.