David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• On 12 June 1936, Ella Fitzgerald recorded her first song, “Love and Kisses,” which she made with the Chick Webb Orchestra. The record was in a jukebox at a nightclub, but Ella was not allowed in the nightclub because she was underage. She remembered, “So I had some fellow who was over 21 go in and put a nickel in while I stood outside and listened to my own voice coming out.” The turning point in Ella’s life came in 1934 on an amateur night at the Harlem Opera House in New York City. She and two friends drew straws to see who would perform on stage, and Ella drew the short straw. She had intended to dance, but performing immediately before her were two sisters who danced much better than she did, so instead of dancing, she sang “Judy,” a song made famous by the Boswell Sisters. Ella was a hit with the audience and won $25. She called this “the hardest money I ever earned,” but added, “Once up there [on stage], I felt the acceptance and love from the audience — I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.” In her later years, Ella made a commercial for Memorex recording tapes. In the commercial, she hit a high note and broke a glass. Then a Memorex recording of Ella’s high note was played, and it broke a glass. The commercial then asked, “Is it Ella, or is it Memorex?” A boy once attended one of Ella’s concerts and afterward said, “I liked her singing all right, but she didn’t break no glass.”

• Country songwriter Harlan Howard knew that the young Hal Ketchum was planning to coming to Nashville, Tennessee, and so he invited him to stay at his house: “I know you’re coming up. You’re trying to get a publishing deal or a record deal. So just stay at my house.” Staying at Mr. Howard’s house had some major benefits, such as hearing people such as Mr. Howard, Waylon Jennings, Allen Reynolds, and Jim Rooney talk and play music. Mr. Howard told the young Mr. Ketchum, “Listen twice and talk once; maybe you’ll learn something.” Mr. Ketchum played a couple of songs that were clever rather than honest, and then he played a folk song titled “Someplace Far Away.” Mr. Howard listened to the song and then told Mr. Ketchum, “That’s it — that’s where you need to go.” He added, “One thing you need to bear in mind as a songwriter is that it’s all been said before. If you can just learn to say it from your own perspective in some kind of honest fashion, people will gravitate toward it. […] we’re all telling the same story, but if you do it from your own heart and your own perspective, people will get it.”

• Gerald Moore, world-famous accompanist, used to wonder why some Patronesses of Music knew so little about music. Emerald, Lady Cunard once grabbed Ida Haendel’s very valuable Stradivarius by its strings and held it up in the air — Mr. Moore compared it to grabbing a parcel by the strings. Emerald, Lady Cunard then demanded to know why it was so valuable. Mr. Moore also stated that in the same drawing room, the hostess asked Sir Thomas Beecham, who with his orchestra were performing at a large party, “Sir Thomas, when are you going to play that lovely piece of Delius that you were rehearsing this afternoon?” Sir Thomas replied, “We have just this very moment played it, my dear.” Speaking of Sir Thomas, one of his friends visited him in his dressing room after a Covent Garden concert and complimented him on the playing of his orchestra but also said that the orchestra had drowned out the singing of the vocalists. Sir Thomas replied, “I know. I drowned them intentionally — in the public’s interest.”

• Wynton Marsalis wanted to make his living as a musician, but many, many people advised him not to try. They told him, “Don’t major in music because it’s too difficult to make a living. You need a ‘real’ profession to fall back on when the dream dies.” Fortunately for music lovers, Wynton followed the advice of his father, a man who knew firsthand how hard it is to make a living as a musician. Wynton writes that his father is “a great musician whom I had seen killing himself to make barely enough to take care of his family.” So what is his father’s advice? His father said, “Make sure you don’t have anything to fall back on … because you will. This is not for the faint of heart.”

• Comedian Jack Benny loved music. Once he had the chance to get violinist Isaac Stern on the 3 February 1946 episode of his radio program. Mr. Benny’s show allowed him to pay $10,000 per episode to the guest stars. He had already booked Ronald and Benita Colman for $6,000. Mr. Stern’s fee was $5,000, but Mr. Benny gladly paid $1,000 out of his own pocket to book him. Mr. Benny’s comic persona was that of a miser, but he said, “I got my money’s worth. During rehearsals, I made him play about twenty solos for me, just for me, in my dressing room. I pretended I wanted to choose the best short number for him to play on the program. It was wonderful.”

• Songwriter Steve Earle is not shy when it comes to expressing his opinions. Wearing his cowboy boots, he once stood on songwriter Bob Dylan’s coffee table and proclaimed, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world.” He later met Mr. Van Zandt, writer of “If I Needed You,” who told him, “That’s a really nice quote, but I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and I don’t think [what you did] is a really good idea.”

• Bobby Hackett was a good enough musician to play for Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, but he was self deprecating. When he was selling one of his trumpets, he told prospective buyers, “It’s a good buy. In the upper register, it’s absolutely brand new.” While Mr. Hackett was going through Canadians customs, an officer asked if he were a musician. Mr. Hackett replied, “Sometimes.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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