(PssSt, I certainly did.)
Now playing, for your listening enjoyment, the one and the only Ella Fitzgerald, “The Bird, Charlie Parker,” Benny Goodman’s “Jazz at Carnegie Hall,” Mr. Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Lena Horn.
CIRCA 1948 — Dorsey High School — my alma Mater
Many years later, I can rhapsodize, going on and on and on – not as proof of anything in particular, other than my own self-satisfaction and, I guess the only true way of describing my blissful memories.
I was a boy, ten years of age when my Father bought me the trumpet that now sits on top of our piano in the family media room. (I smile when I refer to what we have today as a media room. It is a far, far, far cry from a Father and son planted in front of a radio in the living room of a small apartment.)
It was the era of Harry James. Can you possibly imagine my feelings of being able to meet the guy who I idolized as a young (and not very good) trumpet player?
At the time, Harry was not only a revered musician, but also the husband of the number one pinup girl of World War II servicemen — Betty Grable.
As a 10 year-old boy, the thought of anyone actually knowing Betty Grable was unfathomable, let alone being married to her. There was life, bigger than life, and then there was Betty Grable and Harry James — movie star and musician extraordinaire. At the time, Harry James was one of the prominent bandleaders in our country.
Many of the big name singers took a tour of duty with the Harry James Band. Frank Sinatra would have to be the most renowned warbler to take a turn, but then again people like Ella Fitzgerald were nothing to sneeze at either.
In all my years, as a fan and then as a professional in my lifetime industry of choice, there remain three women at the top of my all-time list: Lena Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, and at the very top, a lady I instantly fell in love with: Peggy Lee. (And I do mean fell in love with.)
You’d have to have seen Peggy Lee up close and in a nightclub atmosphere to understand what I am about to say. Please remember da harv was only a young guy of 21 at the time. I’ve described our meeting before, but because it still remains a turn-on for me, I’m duty-bound to talk about the lady again.
1954 Sunset Boulevard
A limo pulled up in front of Ciro’s and, on schedule, a man was there to open the back door. At this time, a conversation with myself was taking place. (I’ll remove the expletives.)
“Oh my God… I think that’s Peggy Lee. I think I’m going to shit… I know I will, if she talks to me.”
Dave Barry, who was her opening act, had told me in advance he was going to introduce Peggy to me. But, since Dave was a comedian, I figured he was putting me on.
“Peggy, I’d like you to meet my friend Harvey Kalmenson,” Dave said.
Peggy extended her hand, and I did the perfect thing – perfect, that is, if you happen to be afflicted with any form of mental paralysis. It didn’t affect Miss Lee. She remained looking right into my eyes, her hand remaining in place.
I felt a slight nudge similar to an elbow in my ribs. Dave was signaling me to come out of my coma. Now, there wasn’t any way in hell I could possibly come off as being a cool guy. But, it didn’t bother Peggy one bit. She knew what to do and exactly what to say.
I managed, “Please to meet you, Miss Lee.”
She gently shook my hand and, while standing no more than two feet from me offered, “Have we met? You look so very familiar. Dave tells me you recently returned from serving in our United States Army…”
(I nodded my head)
“Thank you for serving,” she said.
Peggy, Dave, and yours truly, along with the two really big guys who accompanied her, entered Ciro’s together. On the way to her backstage dressing room, Peggy made it a point to walk to the piano that was off downstage, to the audience’s left. She hesitated at the piano for a moment, then took a seat and ran through some chords. It took her less than a minute to guarantee the piano had been tuned to her liking. The lady was all business. Later in the evening, Dave filled me in with the information about how her contract had a stipulation about the piano being tuned each day to her liking and approval. And, although I dreamed about some day working for or with Peggy Lee, it was never to happen.
My memories will be there forever.
That evening, everyone in the audience would have to agree — Peggy Lee was the most sensual singer of her day. All of us were glued to her every move; a strange thing to say about a woman who in actuality did very little moving around the stage. Take it from me, nothing was wasted.
The evening has served me for a lifetime.
Today, television brings almost everyone into our homes, creating a hard to grasp past era. As teens, when we attended a movie and a stage show, it was like a little kids dreams coming true.
There was just nothing in this world like it. The theater darkened, the big band’s theme music came up as the stage began to rise. The lights hit the brass instruments with spectacular color; then, there he was — center stage — the trumpet pressed to his lips, the crowd cheered to an almost uproar of vibrations up and over the sound of the music, with all instruments now at full let out.
Kids of all shapes, ages, and sizes jumped from their seats into the aisles, taking partners and dancing to the sounds of Mr. Harry James and His Music Makers. The Paramount Theater, and New York City were the Mecca of the Big Band Era. And, Harry James wasn’t by his lonesome.
World War II had ended — the guys and gals were on their way back to civilian life. There was a lot of catching up to do. Holding on to one and another was the order of the day; what better way to recapture feelings too long having stayed numb than by dancing, swinging, and swaying to the musical pulse of our country being reborn. Every newspaper and magazine celebrated the return of our troops, along with the reestablishment of families and friends.
Performers yearned for their shot of appearing before an audience at any number of the well-known theaters along “The Great White Way.” World War II was a driving force for Americans in a desperate search of ways to ease the constant anxiety of the unknown. The Silent Movie Era gave way to the Talkies and the Big Bands, along with the most popular entertainers the country had to offer, seemingly brought back the variety entertainment of Vaudeville.
The adults described their outings as “going to take in a movie and a stage show.” What began in 1927 came to its end somewhere around 1960. As more and more electricity was plugged into instruments of all description, the singing — to my ear — seemed to suffer from the electrocutions as well.
The Paramount began hosting live music, along with its feature films, as the Swing Era got underway. Glen Gray’s orchestra was the first live band to play there during the week of Christmas 1935. Over the following years, the Paramount became the leading band house in the United States as performers such as Benny Goodman, Jack Benny, Tommy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters, Harry James, Phil Spitalny, Xavier Cugat, Fred Waring, Eddy Duchin, Gene Krupa, Bill Kenny & The Ink Spots, Glenn Miller, and Guy Lombardo played extended runs there. Later, Leo Fuld, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis all enjoyed success performing there.
Note: I had experienced the very best when those performers I idolized were at their youngest and most vibrant.
The need for entertainment intensified. It was a new time and a new country. Radio shows were at their all-time most popular. The same performers who strode the boards of Broadway, provided a coast-to-coast theater on the airways. Movies, dances, radio, musical comedy, and — moving briskly from out of the wings — a thing called television.
But Wait, There’s More
Being there in person spells out the totality of the advantages I had as a kid growing up, especially here in Los Angeles, circa 1948. Sure, New York and its stage shows were a hot and special kind of a thing for anyone to experience, but for me I had the unbelievable good fortune of moving from one huge hub of entertainment to another. Once again, Harvey Kalmenson had the blessings bestowed upon him; he got to see them all up close and personal.
I arrived in Los Angeles from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York at the ripe old age of fourteen.
There aren’t too many out there who understand what a music capital Los Angeles happened to be. It wasn’t a question of being first at integration – music, in general claims, the no barrier title.
In L.A., we had our own version of stage shows. Hollywood was a nightclub performer’s dreamland. There weren’t too many clubs yours truly missed out on. I frequented just about all of them. At age twenty-one, with my army service still remaining as a far too vivid implant, the artists of the day kept my painful recollections cloaked, while effortlessly providing me with the truest form of education — so necessary in order for any subjective art form to be understood and, in my case, thoroughly engulfed in. The Macambo, The Interlude, Ciro’s, and The Crescendo, were just four of the more formidable venues of the day. Jazz clubs abounded.
But, aside from the well-known and famous names, in Los Angeles there existed a huge divergence of talent appearing whenever and wherever. L.A. was a magnet for talent. It’s always been that way. Most of us thought in terms of young actors and actresses making their way here from all over the country to be discovered and become stars of the silver screen here.
For me, it was a much different pursuit. We were a group of guys who loved the sights, the smells, the people, and above all, the sheer magic of the music. My high school friends shared an equal love for the jazz music played around town. We frequented places and were out among ‘em well beyond any legitimate guidelines for teenage high school boys.
It wasn’t as if we were juvenile delinquents — although some of us looked that way, what with the black leather jackets, and motorcycle boots (the uniform of the day and night). We were all aware that being out until all hours of the next morning on a school day wasn’t the acceptable norm for any young lad. It was more fun than should be allowed. We were clearly intoxicated by the sounds and the intimacy of pure jazz.
A couple of my friend’s parents had family connections. Although we were under age, it enabled us to get in and sit in the back of the room. It meant that the family was aware we were out well past any legitimate curfew, not to mention in those days a strictly enforced rule about not being sitting in the proximity of a bar if you were under 21 years of age. We were instructed to enter and not call attention to ourselves. The manager of the club had been informed in advance of our arrival. None of us drank any of the hard stuff, anyway.
On one particular night we found ourselves at a club on Crenshaw Boulevard, West Adams district. At one time West Adams Boulevard was lined with mansions, side by side. These were the homes of many of the silent movie stars. These estates remained in good repair, but many of them had been converted into private commercial establishments of one kind or another. A rebirth was taking place in Los Angeles, and I guess one might say a very young da harv was enjoying being a part of it.
What was going on, call it transpiring if you will, during the 50’s was a new settling in, a new way of listening to what was being called “rhythm and blues.” We didn’t know it at the time, but we were being given one of the greatest eras of music our country had ever experienced.
Single out any number of jazz performers of the early 50’s and you become privy to what was freely developed a long time before the likes of Louis Armstrong. I have no recollections of seeing Louis Armstrong in person, but there were hundreds of well-known musicians we did get to experience during what our gang referred to as “sessions.”
One evening, my friend Phil asked if I’d like to come with him to a place we had never been to before. It was during a spring semester and I was in a very strenuous workout regimen as I prepared for the upcoming high school baseball season. Our team was favored to become the Los Angeles City Baseball Champions.
NOTE: The predictions were accurate. Dorsey High did become the City Champs and amassed a winning record of 42 straight games. Most likely, the record still exists today.
I had always made it a point not to stay out late cavorting around town during the baseball season. But, I was curious so I began questioning Phil about what he had going down that night.
“Nothing much,” Phil replied. “Only Lionel Hampton.”
Phil stood there very quietly knowing the effect the name Lionel Hampton would have on me. The man had become my idol. I had actually drawn a chart depicting the musical life and times of this performing genius.
I looked at Phil and asked, “What time are you gonna pick me up?”
That night, Lionel Hampton was in town to film a series of musical shorts that were attempting to look like he was performing live at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Trust me, Phil and Harv were not in Harlem. This turned out to be one in a series of shorts made for television. Our actual location was at a studio sound stage some where in Culver City. The important thing was another spectacular lifetime memory that, for better or worse, had a noticeable effect on my future life’s pursuits.
Seeing Lionel Hampton, standing and doing his shuffle on a tom-tom drum and then seeing him seemingly playing more instruments than I can remember, was priceless.
Perhaps those of you who have listened to my criticism of some of our so-called celebrity entertainers of today are now able to understand where I’m coming from. Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra would be a Super Bowl half time show all by itself. As a matter of fact, watching Lionel Hampton each and every time one of his men did a solo was another entertainment show in its own merits. His band members were more than a who’s who of Jazz — they were the embodiment.
“God will not have his work be made manifest by cowards.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Much has been written about the life and times of Lionel Hampton. He was a most courageous American patriot.
A Little More About Lionel Hampton
In 1930, Lionel was called into a recording session to perform as a drummer with the band backing Louis Armstrong. He sauntered over to the vibraphone for an impromptu session with a couple of his fellow band members. Hamp finished the Armstrong recording session on the vibes. He immediately became known as “King of The Vibes.”
When Benny Goodman heard Hampton play, history was about to be made. He joined Benny and his Quartet and recorded the soon-to-become jazz classics: “Dinah,” “Moonglow,” “My Last Affair,” and “Exactly Like You.” It was the first racially integrated recordings of jazz musicians of the time.
Leave a Reply