- Historic Sites
An Interview With the King of Swing
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
We were doing broadcasts somewhere in Brooklyn. Russ Columbo, the crooner, had a manager named Con Conrad, who had also written things like “Barney Google,” “Margie,” and “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.” He heard about me, and told me Columbo wanted to get a band for a job up at the Woodmanston Inn. I got guys I knew—Gene Krupa on drums, Joe Sullivan on piano, Babe Russin on tenor sax—and we worked there for the summer, and I was the leader. Columbo sang and walked around with a fiddle under his arm, and everything seemed okay. It was a good little band—but Conrad wound up getting mad at me, because whenever we played for dancing, people seemed to really like it. I mean, we’d play “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” or some song like that, and all of a sudden the joint was rocking. He’d say, “Hey, wait a minute—you guys aren’t supposed to be the attraction here,” and he meant it.
Did that experience spur greater ambition to lead your own band?
No, not really. I don’t think so. All I knew was that I was bored as hell, playing in stupid little radio bands, playing for “Pick and Pat,” and all sorts of other acts. I think the idea that was foremost in all our minds was that we wanted to play some kind of music. Good music. And we just grabbed any opportunity that presented itself.
You were then on the verge of great success, an extraordinary pattern of success and good judgment, even good luck. Still, a lot of people played good clarinet and a lot led good bands. But once things started happening for you, they never stopped. What’s your explanation?
Well, you can call it luck if you want to. But I’d go a little further, and say that there are, always have been, people out there who have just a little bit more than everybody else has got. In musicianship, in stamina. You can even call it a certain kind of integrity if you want to. The important thing, to me, has always been setting an example: an orchestra’s got to follow what you do. If you’re playing five shows a day—that’s five shows—and they see you’re not complaining but are instead up there really giving everything, they’re not going to complain either.
Some people run a good store and some don’t. I remember Glenn Miller coming to me once, before he had his own band, saying, “How do you do it? How do you get started? It’s so difficult.” I told him, “I don’t know, but whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep on going. Because one way or the other, if you want to find reasons why you shouldn’t keep on, you’ll find ‘em. The obstacles are all there—there are a million of ‘em. But if you want to do something, you do it anyway, and handle the obstacles as they come. ”
Didn’t you also have doubts at the start? Weren’t there times when you wanted to give up?
Well, in a way, I guess. After we got the job at Billy Rose’s Music Hall on Broadway at Fifty-fourth Street—it’s now the Ed Sullivan Theater—I had moments. It was tough as a son of a bitch. I couldn’t pay any money. I didn’t know, night after night, who was going to be there and who was going to send in a sub. Sometimes I’d stand outside the front door and think, “Shall I go inside or not? Maybe I should just get out.” But even then, after we’d been there six or seven weeks, I was listening one night and remember thinking, “Gee, this is a pretty good band!” I think it was right after that that we got our notice.
Was that about the time you got a job on that late-night NBC radio show, Let’s Dance? That proved to be a turning point for you, didn’t it?
You know what I remember about all that? I remember the fact that we had to audition for the job—well, really it was an audition to audition—and I was worried. We had to be heard by some people from the ad agency that was helping put the show together—McCann Erickson, I think—and if they thought we were the kind of band they wanted, then we’d be able to audition for the show. I kept after this one guy to find out what time they were coming to the Music Hall to hear us because I had to get hold of the players and make sure they’d be there for that hour or so, nail them to their chairs if necessary. Think how it would have been if we’d had a band full of subs that night. Also, we had maybe fifteen special arrangements in the book—“Cokey,” “Bugle Call Rag,” “Nitwit Serenade,” some of those. That meant we had to do our numbers and then get those people out of there, because we didn’t have any comparable new material.
It went off fine. But toward the end of the set, I went over to the agency people and said, “Well, you know, nothing really happens after this.” I have to laugh now—they were probably going home anyway. Anyway, to jump a little, when I got the call telling me we’d gotten the job, I didn’t believe it. All I could think was, “Well, this is the moment. Take advantage of it, because you’re not gonna get too many chances like this.”