The Great Big Bands
Only a few days after arriving in Munich I received a phone call from the bandleader at the local radio station, the Bayerischer Rundfunk. The caller was a really marvellous person by the name of Christian Schmidt-Steinberg. I found out later that he was greatly respected all over Germany as a talented musician. He told me that all the musicians in town knew of my impending arrival, which only partly explained how the radio station came to have my number. Over dinner he asked me if I would play a carnival ball with the radio band, just for laughs, and, he added, a great deal of money. I accepted on the spot, and did the dance the next evening.
It was a big band, with the usual instrumentation, but it wasn't too good. Christian had already warned me about that. Apparently, after the war, all the German radio stations had searched around for local musicians to make up their Glenn Miller cloned orchestras. There weren't too many to choose from, so they had to do the best they could.
Christian had been called in desperation to try and bring some order into things, but it was a hopeless task, and, shortly after I arrived there, the radio station went through a massive piece of legislation to get rid of the band.
The carnival, or Fasching, is famous in Munich, and is a very colourful affair where everyone gets blind drunk, and anything goes, rather like the one in Basel. In the band the trumpet player on my left was the only one who spoke English, and he had been detailed to help me find the parts, and so on. I quickly discovered that he knew only very few words of English, and had, in fact, learned what he did have from song titles. ‘Why Don’t You Believe Me?’ he said, when we first met. Each time we had to play he cried, ‘Strike Up the Band!’ Later on he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Five Minutes More!’ Then came the interval.
‘Don’t you know any other words?’ I said. ‘Getting to Know You In the Still of the Night Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ he said, grinning happily.
There was a guest star in the band that evening, a local star saxophonist called Kookie Brandenburg. He came on at midnight to put on a little show, and started off at once with his version of Desifinado. Almost immediately it was obvious that something was terribly wrong with his saxophone, the keys had jammed, or whatever, and he whipped around in the middle of the tune and tried to wrench the saxophone away from one of the musicians sitting behind him. This guy wouldn’t let go by any means, and a tug of war took place that went on all over the stage, ending up in the wings with a shouting match.
We finished the number as a piano solo, and I never saw the sax player again. That little cameo showed me right from the beginning that German musicians aren’t an awful lot different from their British counterparts when it comes to that sort of thing, fondly remembering Vic Lewis in Geneva, and his fruitless chase after Ken Goldie’s trombone.
I had to go back to London now and then to look after certain things, one of them being to try and sell our house in Bushey Heath. On those occasions I’d usually do some studio work with Bill Russo, or John Dankworth. If some of the contractors heard I was in town they’d phone me, too.
I stayed at my mother’s house usually, and received a very mysterious phone call one morning.
‘Who’s that?’ I said.
‘The voice of doom,’ said the phone. ‘Be prepared to pay for your sins.’ It was Lawrence Leonard, the conductor of the West Side Story. He wanted me to come with the show to Vienna, but I didn’t fancy that. I’ve often wondered what would have happened to me if I had taken the job. Intriguing to think of all the turns my life could have taken.
John Dankworth asked me to go with the band on a short trip to Belgium, to a jazz festival in a place called Comblain-la-Tour, which I cannot now find on any map to verify the spelling. It was a tiny place, but had a yearly jazz festival put on by a grateful American, whose life had been saved by the village during the war. It had been a clearing place for downed airmen, most of whom had been smuggled back to England at the height of hostilities. This had been extremely brave of the villagers. The German army had only too often razed towns to the ground for less.
The festival took place in large tents, but it rained so hard that night that the star turn Bill Evans refused to play. A small waterfall had gushed from a hole in the tent just above the piano, filling the instrument with water, and rendering it unplayable. We seemed to manage with it all right later on, but he was adamant. (For a fuller version of this story see The Monastery)
We stayed the night in a nearby monastery. I had a small spotlessly clean cell all to myself on the first floor, and was able to take a nap in the afternoon before the festival began. Looking out over the fields, complete with grazing cows, reminded me of my youth, and, for one moment, I was terribly homesick, but not for Munich. I could see why anyone would want to be a monk.
After the concert we had a meal in the village and went to bed. At least—I went to bed. I dozed off for a while, but a shadow passing my window must have awoken me.
I thought at once of Charlie’s Room in Manchester, and got up to take a look. There in the half moonlight, two-stepping along a very narrow ledge under the windows, went Bobbie Breen. By the time I’d got the window open he’d disappeared into the dark.
I opened my bedroom door. Outside all hell was loose. Musicians were running all over the place, shouting, laughing and playing the fool. I grabbed hold of Ed Harvey and asked him what Breen was up to. He said that Ron Snyder had got a girl, or even one of the nuns, I wouldn’t have put it past Ron, up in his bedroom. Breen was out on the ledge determined to take a peep at them through the window.
I went back to bed. Next morning revealed that the ledge, which was about six inches wide, hung over a part of the monastery that had recently burned down. If Bobby had missed his footing he would have plunged on to some very sharp twisted iron girders below.
We were served breakfast in the great dining hall by nuns, who seemed to have taken the vows of silence. What they thought of the shambles of the previous night I can’t imagine; nothing showed on their faces. There were no monks to be seen at all, and no one volunteered any information as to their whereabouts.
Back in Germany I had to learn a whole new set of musical values. Quavers, crotchets, and minims were out, replaced by eight-notes, quarter-notes, and half-notes. A B-flat became a B, while a B became an H. To add a flat to any notes one suffixed it with es—thus Ces, Des, Es, Fes, Ges, A-es were all flats, just as Cis,Dis, E-is, Fis, Gis, and A-is were all sharps.
The Germans have a system of phonetic spelling used by everyone. The whole alphabet is to be found in all telephone books, spelled in this way, and musicians use it too. There is never any doubt about the spelling of words in Germany. To say my name down the phone one would spell it: Siegfried-Isar-Martha-Martha-Otto-Nordpole-Dora-Siegfried. Even the chance of mistaking the spoken zwei for a drei is avoided by saying zwo instead of zwei. One of my first problems in sorting this out was caused by a visiting Austrian arranger who invariably counted the band in by shouting ‘EINS-ZWEI-ZWO-ZWEI’. Because of this I named him that mad bugger. This tickled Benny Bailey up so much that he would meet me in the entrance of the studio on those occasions, saying, ‘We’ve got that mad bugger again today.’ On one session I pointed out a wrong note on my part to the Austrian. He took the part, studied it for a moment, tore out the offending note and handed the part back to me.
The only chaos that occurred in the German studios was with something that a British or American musician would normally pass over without comment. This concerned the repeating of a certain passage. The bandleader would say ‘Repeat Otto four times,’ and from then on it became pure comedy.
If the passage marked Otto (i.e., letter O) had a repeat bar already at each end of it, a fierce discussion would break out. As the passage was already being repeated once, thus played twice, did this mean we were now to play it eight times?
‘Ach,’ said the bandleader, ‘Of course I meant play it four times.’ But they weren’t having that, because of those repeat bars. ‘Well then, repeat it twice,’ he said, with finality.
Up jumped the foreigners in protest. ‘You mean—ve play it tvice, or four times?’ said the Hungarian, while the Yugoslav bass player shook his head in confusion, having already marked his part with a thick black marker pen.
Generally, at this point, Benny, Dick, Rich Richardson, Don Menza, and I wandered out into the canteen, telling them to call us when they had it all straightened out. The phenomenon is widespread, and, later on, I often wickedly started the discussion off myself in other studios. The German musicians then sat back with serious faces, nodding and saying, ‘Der Ron is right, you know.’
The German language is, of course, harsh and uncompromising. Because of the glottal stop it is one of the most unmusical languages in the world. Words like Strumpf and Schweinefleisch are offensive to the western ear.
A comparison was made to me by the Austrian tenor saxophonist, Heinz von Hermann.
‘Listen to this,’ he said.
When I began work in Max Greger’s band in Munich I realised that I’d been conned into the job. First of all we were in a different studio. This one was in an old converted cinema. Where the first studio had been light, airy and modern, this was dark and gloomy, the only lights being the shaded ones on our music stands.
A lot of the musicians I’d met before were gone—they’d only been booked for the recording, and there were just four of us non-Germans left, Dick Spencer, the first alto player from Florida, who later became the lead alto for Harry James, Rich Richardson, a valve trombonist from Chicago, and the jazz trumpeter Benny Bailey, who’d come straight down from Sweden after leaving the Quincy Jones band.
Benny had played lead trumpet with the Friedrich Gulda Jazz Workshop band the time I was on French Horn, so we knew each other. It was Benny who prevented me from going mad in the Greger band. But he was by no means pleased with the job either. Every day when he came into the studio I noticed that he kept his car keys in his hand while we played. For some reason this used to irritate Max.
‘Why do you always hold your car keys while you play, Benny?’ said Max one day, testily.
‘So I can get away quick, Max, in case I don’t like it here any more.’
Benny got away quick several times, and returned to the States, but he came back every time. There were no jobs to be had like this in America with a steady wage. Today Benny lives in Amsterdam and plays all over Europe, including jobs in a small group with Max Greger and Max, Jnr.
Upon arrival in Munich I had a month to spare before joining the band. Max phoned me one evening and said I should come down to the Salvator Keller to have a drink with the rest of the guys. I thought: Keller—cellar, and reckoned the place would be a London-type underground jazz club. A taxi deposited my wife and I at the gates of an enormous compound. Inside was a complete fairground, with dozens of stalls serving beer and sausage. Thousands of people were milling around.
‘Over there,’ said the taxi driver, pointing at the entrance to a huge building. Inside we were assaulted with a sound wave fit to break both eardrums. The room was roughly the size of a zeppelin hangar, and filled with about thirty thousand people, seated at long wooden tables. There was a military band on the stage, playing German oom-pah, oom-pah music. Every person in the place had his or her arms linked, and they were swaying left, right, left, right to the music. Waitresses in traditional Bavarian costume hustled around carrying up to sixteen two-litre beer steins at a time, and never spilling a drop.
‘How are we ever going to find anyone in all of this,’ asked my wife, plaintively.
I grabbed one of the waitresses.
‘Do you know a man named Max Greger?’ I asked, without much hope.
‘Over there,’ she pointed to a distant corner, and hurried away. I was impressed.
We sat down with the band and started in on the beer and Weisswurst. Soon I was swaying with linked arms with the rest of them.
After about a year Don Menza joined the band. Max had heard Don on the Kenton record Adventures in Time and had sent him an air ticket at once. Don made a lot of difference to the band, because as soon as he arrived he altered the lay of all the sax players’ mouthpieces with a pocket knife to get a bigger sound.
This completely ruined the squeaky noise that Max loved so much when we played Glenn Miller stuff like Moonlight Serenade with all that syrupy clarinet and saxophone stuff. Now it came roaring out rough and hearty.
The first time he heard it he ran up and down in front of the saxes with his fingers in his ears shouting ‘What’s happening?’
We spent the studio sessions partly in recording jazz productions, and partly in rehearsing for an upcoming jazz concert, to show off the new band.
Germans are sticklers for perfection, and Max’s idea of recording was to tape the takes and then play them back at half speed, to listen for any mistakes. The engineer, Willi Schmidt, had a thing we used to call the Black Box. With it he could slow down a piece of music, while retaining the original pitch, or, conversely, lower the pitch while keeping the same tempo. It was a piece of electronic wizardry, and was intended solely for the purpose of adjusting pieces of music to suit the various singers who came along. If the pitch was too high, but the tempo just right, Willi could take it down a tone or two.
Max cried with joy when he first saw the Black Box. He could now get the music we recorded played back at very slow speeds, but still up in the same pitch, not like a conventionally slowed down playback. Listening intently to the tape he could now gleefully point out tiny errors of timing, or intonation—things that would never be noticed at full speed. He would make us rehearse until we were thoroughly sick of each piece of music. He insisted that this was the only way of getting the best from every musician, when, in fact, he only succeeded in making us so fed up that we didn’t want to play any more.
Max had reportedly had an offer earlier on to join the Basie band. I often wonder how he’d have gotten on in that band.
On the big day of the concert we gathered in the Deutsches Museum to set up the stage. The first thing I noticed was that I had no music stand. Everyone else had one, neatly arranged before his chair. Only mine was missing.
I sat down, unconcernedly. I could see Max eyeing me up from the other side of the stage. Finally it became too much for him, and he came over.
‘Vere is your music stand?’
‘I don’t know. They must have forgotten.’
‘No vun forget. Until today your colleagues haff put up your music stand. Now I say, “Enough! He must do his own vork”. From today you must put up your own music stand.’
‘You mean—you have no bandboy? Surely not. Everyone has a bandboy!’
‘Ve haff no bandboy—now you are in Cher...’
‘I know, I know.’
He walked away. I just sat there. He came back.
‘Put up your music stand. At vunce. I insist.’‘
‘I don’t need one. I’ve memorised the music anyway.’
He was dumbfounded. ‘That’s impossible,’ he gasped.
‘Want to bet?’
He strode away and returned with the music stand, a complicated wood and steel affair guaranteed to skin knuckles and pinch little round black spots into your fingers.
‘Look! It is not difficult. I vill show you.’ He wrestled with the thing for several minutes, muttering curses. Finally it was erected, and he stalked off, red-faced. I noticed an odd piece of wood hanging down the back where it shouldn’t have, and drew his attention to it. He came back, and, with one mighty kick, removed the offending piece, demolishing the music stand completely in the process.
‘There! Now look vat you make me do! Now are you satisfied?’
The pianist, who had an electric train set, and also knew a lot about music stands, fixed mine for me.
Just before the concert began Max gathered us in an ante-room for a pep-talk. This consisted of a long monologue, delivered in a dispirited tone, as if he were briefing us for a suicide mission. I didn’t understand a word, but Dick was waggling his eyebrows at me comically, so I reckoned that he was giving us his final words of encouragement. (I discovered later that he had been telling the band that, as this was a live concert, there would be no second chances if anyone made a mistake, no dubbings, playbacks, etc., so it was going to be a catastrophe. But good luck, anyway.) Finally he trailed off dismally, and we went on stage to tumultuous applause.
I finally found out why Max had brought me over to work in his band. He had signed a contract to produce thousands of jazz titles for the second German television network called the ZDF (Zweite Deutsches Fernsehen). Presumably they would insert these titles between programmes as filler music. As far as I know not one single one of these recordings was ever played on the ZDF. They simply disappeared into the archives.
Meanwhile, the nightmare went on, and the Black Box became an integral part of it. Max only stopped using it after the celebrated arranger Russ Garcia turned up in the studio.
Russ made a habit of visiting Munich each year to buy a new Porsche, which he shipped directly back to Los Angeles. Max had heard about this and begged him to write some arrangements for the band. He gave Russ some really ghastly German tunes to write, like Wenn die Elizabeth which was a typically rubbishy pop song at the time.
Russ turned up with several excellent scores which we quickly recorded. What he thought of the band I can’t imagine—Russ had just finished working with the Los Angleles Neophonic Orchestra, which was really the Kenton band with horns added. He listened with us to our playbacks. In the control room Max was radiant.
‘Vot an arranger!’ he exclaimed. Then, turning to us he clapped his hands briskly, another thing that used to bug me, and said, ‘Come, come—let us play them through a few more times until ve get it right.’
‘Hey—hold on!’ said Russ. ‘You don’t need to record them again. They’re fine. Play them once more and you’ll lose the freshness and spontaneity.’
‘But ve haff time,’ said Max.
‘Well I don’t.’
Russ was just saying goodbye to the guys when Max got Willi to run the tape through the Black Box. He came back into the control room slowly.
‘What the hell is that?’
Max explained gleefully. ‘You see? You hear the mistakes? They are not together there—and there—and there.’
‘You’re out of your mind,’ said Russ, and left the studio. We heard the Porsche roar away.
‘The arrangements are no good anyway,’ said Max vindictively. ‘Even the Ferenc can write better than that.’
The Ferenc he’d mentioned was a very small fat Hungarian trumpet player, who had actually been the lead player in the band before I arrived. He was pretty choked off at Max hiring me, and made a few sarcastic remarks from time to time until I let him play a lead part on one of the recordings. Max was over in a flash.
‘Only you play lead. I pay only you for lead.’
Ferenc was a pretty good player, but had no idea of phrasing or style. Years later, when he went over to play lead trumpet in the band in Baden-Baden a lot of musicians told me that his style of playing had ruined the band.
One day I asked Ferenc if there were any more good players in Budapest.
‘I am the best,’ he replied, seriously, banging his chest. Behind me I heard Benny burst out into laughter. When he realised that Ferenc wasn’t kidding he changed it into a cough.
Ferenc was so small that there was a standing joke among the musicians and technicians. A producer would shout, ‘All the trumpets stand up—you too, Ferenc.’ He was even smaller than wee Archie Craig of the Squadronaires.
He invited me to his wedding. I was the only one of the band he asked.
Ferenc had just married a Turkish girl, God knows where he’d found her. She was very strong and beautiful, with a heavy face, matching bosom, and long black hair. She was a good bit taller than him to start with, but in her high heels she was nearly twice his size.
The company at the reception comprised her Turkish relations, and as many of his Hungarian family as could make it to Munich. They sat on opposite sides of the room. No one could speak the other's language. Even Ferenc couldn’t talk to the Turks. He could hardly talk to his new wife.
We did a lot of nodding and backslapping, and drank some really terrible Hungarian red wine and a lot of thick black mud that the Turks kept brewing in little brass pots. One sip and my heart started racing like a sewing machine and I collapsed, gasping, on the sofa..
‘Good eh? Dis Turkis caffay. Good for system. More, OK?’
A week after our jazz show Duke Ellington played a concert in the Deutsches Museum. There had been some mix-up with the band luggage coming from Vienna, so the concert started late. We sat around for about an hour, then, just as the audience was beginning to get restless, Sam Woodyard walked on stage, carrying his drums. He proceeded to set them up, to a mixed reception of cheers and jeers, then gave us bit of a drum demo as he tried out all the bits and pieces.
There was a lull, then on came Ray Nance, carrying his fiddle. The two of them then started playing C-Jam Blues. The effect was hard to credit, just the drums thumping away in the background, and Ray standing there dead-pan scraping out the melody. I don’t care who he was, and what he represented, it sounded utterly ridiculous.
One by one the others crept on, sheepishly, and joined in. Finally on came Duke, telling us that he loved us madly. The people didn’t like all that, and there were quite a few boos and catcalls. The band never really took off that night.
In the interval I went down to the bar with Benny, and we spoke to one or two of the guys. Cat Anderson came over to say hello. As far back as I can remember Cat always carried his trumpet with him, wherever he went, and kept his hand capped firmly over the mouthpiece, so that no one could see what he was playing on.
‘Hey man! Whatcha playin’ on there? Lemme see that,’ said Benny, who knew darn well that Cat wasn’t going to show us. Cat shrank away, holding on to the mouthpiece like a kid afraid of losing his favourite toy.
‘Oh, yeah, well—you know—it’s the same one, man,’ he muttered, and disappeared.
We stayed down there when the band went back on and listened for a while to the mad thumping coming from the stage above us. This was a phenomenon I’d noticed before with the Ellington band. With a band swinging the way they do you’d think that the guys would be banging their feet down together with some sort of collective rhythm, but they don’t. Each man has his own specialty—some thump before the beat, some after, while others only bring their feet down on syncopated notes. One or two specialists rock up and down with a regular heel and toe movement, as if working an old-fashioned sewing machine. The result sounds very much like people in boots running wildly around on stage.
I left the band after a couple of years. Don Menza had recommended a pal of his from the Maynard Ferguson band as Max’s new lead trumpet, to take my place. His name was Rick Kiefer, and he had gained fame as being the only trumpet player ever to get to play a solo on one of Maynard’s records. Normally Maynard would screech about in the high register with a lot of fireworks, and get on your nerves after a while, but Rick had upstaged him on a low soulful solo on a thing called Bossa Nova de Funk that was really beautiful.
Max kept playing the record in the studio and shaking his head in wonder. He couldn’t wait for Rick to arrive.
When he did he turned out to be a very nice, quiet person, rather like his solo. He hardly spoke, and seemed to be more interested in baseball scores than music. Max was a bit choked off at this, but for some reason he wouldn’t let Rick play the lead until I had left.
Johnny Scott and Bill le Sage arrived in Munich on a cultural visit. I invited them to the studio to meet Benny and Don Menza. John brought the score of Blues in 7/4 which we’d recorded with Bill Russo, together with a complete set of copied parts, and presented them to Max.
When we recorded it I got one hell of a shock. We had worked with Bill Russo in London for six months before he'd let us record anything. He wanted us to play his charts exactly as he had them in mind. When we heard the playback we'd just made I couldn't tell the difference between Bill's recording and this one, and neither could Johnny. So - that's gotta prove something! There wasn’t much wrong with Max's band.
Once Rick Kiefer was in command he showed Max at once that he wasn’t going to put up with any of his nonsense. Now there were five Americans in the band and Max began to feel the heat..
Where I had occupied my time in insulting film studio gatekeepers and porters when they refused me entry because I was a foreigner Rick went one step further and insulted the producers.
After a blistering bout with one particularly obnoxious show director the man came over to Rick and demanded his name. He produced a notepad and pencil and poised importantly to write it down.
When Rick had finished with him the man fled in panic.
‘We’ll never work there again,’ said Max, shaking his head sadly. ‘What have I done? The Ron—he was an angel compared to this—this—’ Words failed him.
Rick left quickly to join Kurt Edelhagen in Cologne and Ference was back once again on lead trumpet. He now played exactly the same way he’d played when I joined the band two years earlier. On that day Max had said to him, ‘Listen and learn everything you can from the Ron. He will not be staying long.’
But from the Ron, the Rick, the Benny, and all those other great American players he had learned absolutely nothing.
Benny, Dick, Don, and Richard left almost at once, the ZDF job folded when the music boss was arrested, and the music went rapidly downhill. Overnight the Max Greger band became just another pop commercial band.
While Benny was in the band he learned circular breathing. He demonstrated it during a solo by holding one note on for twelve bars and wandering about the stage, blowing it into various microphones. Max watched him throughout with his mouth open.
On one occasion, during a show, something went wrong and there was an embarrassing gap in the music. Max rushed immediately over to Armin Rusch, the pianist, screaming, 'Play something! Play something - or - I'll - I'll kill you!'
With that Armin slammed down the lid of the piano, narrowly missing Max's fingers. 'Play something yourself,' he said.
Hans Hammerschmid, and the Yugoslav Boris Jojic, our chief arrangers, always wrote great jazz scores. On more than one occasion Max wandered over to me, just minutes before a broadcast, complaining about them.
'I don't know what they were thinking of,' he said, wringing his hands. 'The arrangements are too difficult. The band can't play them. It's going to be a catastrophe.' Then, as he went away he added, 'Don't play high. Play everything down an octave. You're going to miss everything. Oh God! It's going to be terrible.'
With these words of encouragement ringing in my ears we began. Of course I didn't take any notice of him, but I could see him watching me with a look of horror on his face during all the high passages. It's a wonder he didn't have a nervous breakdown right there on the stage. I discovered later that he used to go into a nerve clinic during the summer holidays. Obviously he just couldn't help it.
Dick Spencer had his moments with Max too. One one occasion that I remember with glee Max had gone over to him just before he was about to play an alto solo on a live broadcast and hissed at him, ‘Don’t play high.’ This was enough to set Dick off and he played the entire solo up in the stratosphere, with screaming harmonics and everything.
Max was furious, and verbally attacked Dick in the bandroom. They yelled at one another while we stood around waiting to leave. It was Easter, and Max had brought a whole load of enormous Easter Eggs along to give us, each one about two feet high. When the argument ground to a seething halt he spun around, picked up one of the eggs and thrust it into Dick’s arms.
‘Here, happy Easter.’ This looked so ridiculous that we all fell about laughing, which caused Max to stalk out indignantly.
Max was the only bandleader I ever worked with who looked after his musicians at Christmas. Everyone received an enormous hamper containing champagne, wines, fruits and chocolates. The only other present I ever received from a bandleader in fifty years of playing was a Quincy Jones LP from John Dankworth.
A sequel to all this was that once I’d left the band, and taken a job at Radio Free Berlin, Max began phoning me regularly to complain bitterly about everyone in his band. Once he even phoned me in Tokyo. Nobody liked him, apparently, and nobody talked to him.
‘They all hate me,’ he muttered. I didn’t have the heart to tell him why. (At the time of writing Max has mellowed somewhat. He has now written to me, sent me tapes and CDs of that period, telephoned and showered me with compliments on my playing. A little late, but no less welcome.) Benny has sent me an E-mail about Max's new image. 'Remember how he used to bust everyone's chops?' he said.
I was particularly sorry for Don Menza. He had come out of the fabulous Stan Kenton orchestra to land into all this. But no one could have guessed what things were going to be like in this band.
Don was in the Kenton band at the time they had to stand up and sing some numbers like September Song. The record of this tune had been a hit, so Stan had several other songs written like it. Don was standing there singing along in the band one day when the humour of it all struck him and he began to laugh.
Kenton was at his side in a flash.
‘What’s the matter, son?’
‘Man, I came in the band to play tenor, not as a choirboy.’
Now he was expected, on Max’s TV shows, to act as well. Before he’d been in the band a week he was standing before the cameras in a New York cop’s uniform, while scantily dressed floozies paraded before him up and down swinging their handbags and chewing bubblegum.
They even had Benny dressed up as a US Army MP with a steel helmet and a big white billyclub. He looked pretty damn menacing, at that. The rest of us were supposed to act around in the background, dressed like adagio dancers, while the playback wailed out Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
We did that show and then flatly refused to do anything like it again. Max said that we were spoilsports.
On the next show he said that we would only play the instruments, no fancy costumes or clowning around.
We were loaded into a train, out of the windows of which we were supposed to be madly playing as it drew slowly into a station. Then we had to pile out, still playing, and march merrily up a small hill into the local zoological gardens.
This we did, but the producer made the mistake of having me lead the procession. Spotting a Kneipe or pub at the top of the hill I veered right and marched the lot of them inside, where we quickly downed a few beers while the producer was running up the hill behind us yelling ‘Cut!’.
There was hell to pay about that because it was all being shot on one camera, and we had to get back in the train, which had to reverse out of the station and then come back in again for the first shot.
When we got into the zoo it was the children's section, with lots of swings and roundabouts. On these contraptions we now had to crouch, still pretending to play while they whizzed around. Benny was squashed into a kids’ gondola on the Ferris Wheel, which gave him the horrors because it creaked a lot, and he reckoned that the chains weren’t strong enough to hold him.
It was all supposed to be playback, but musicians usually play along with playbacks just for fun. When we did that now most of the animals galloped away screaming, and we were begged not to.
At one point we arrived in front of the lions’ cages. The producer wanted a shot of Don blowing away with one of the lions in the background. He positioned him before the bars of a cage containing a very, very old lion, and retired to converse with the cameraman.
‘Hey!’ said Don to me. He pointed at a sign bolted to the bars of the cage which said: ACHTUNG! LÖWE SPRITZT!
‘What does it mean?’
‘How the hell should I know? I’ve only just arrived here.’ There was no one around to ask, but seeing the word ACHTUNG I quickly moved away a few yards.
The producer started the shot. As soon as Don lifted his tenor and the music started the lion moved gracefully over behind him and peed through the bars all over Don’s dinner suit. I started forward. ‘Hey! that means ...’
‘I know what it means,’ said Don crossly, stripping off his clothes as if they were on fire.
A large chimpanzee seemed to be fascinated by the music, and swayed backwards and forwards, nodding his head to the beat. The producer had one of his brainwaves.
‘How about a side shot—just one clarinet—a la Goodman, playing music to soothe the savage beast?’ He positioned Dick before the bars. After a few seconds he stopped the music. ‘You’ll have to get closer,’ he said. ‘I can’t get you both in the frame.’
‘I’m not getting any closer,’ said Dick. Max gave him a couple of death looks so he moved over closer to the cage.
The music started. Quick as a flash the chimp reached through the bars with an arm at least eight feet long and grabbed the clarinet.
‘Hey!’ shouted Dick, and hung on for all he was worth while we all fell about helplessly behind him. A tug-of-war took place. It was Keystone Kops time. Luckily for the chimp, the clarinet came to pieces and he wound up clutching the bell. This went straight into his big, wet, slobbery mouth. He then climbed quickly up to the roof of the cage, where he hung by one leg from an old motor tyre with the bit of clarinet sticking out of the corner of his mouth, looking remarkably like Edward G. Robinson smoking a cigar.
He viewed Dick, who was dancing up and down screaming with rage, with unconcern. The keeper arrived at a run. ‘Don’t shout! Don’t shout! You’ll give him a complex.’
For the show’s finale we lined up along the edge of a large pool. For some reason, German TV producers at the time seemed to be convinced that a musician could only look genuine if he kept swaying from side to side when he played.
For the final shot, Max was silhouetted playing tenor in front of a couple of flamingos, playing the tune Flamingo, i.e., Max, not the birds.
As he blasted away, eyes closed, in his favourite Earl Bostic style, I noticed that the flamingos in the background were swaying from side to side, in perfect time with the music. ‘How did you get them to do that?’ I gasped to the producer.
He looked at me coldly.
‘They are German flamingos. They vill do as they are ordered.’
I'd had enough, gave notice, and left for Berlin.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved