The Lost Interview: Red Norvo, 1994

February 5, 2015

red_norvo2In this second installment of our “Lost Interviews” column, we conclude Dan Del Fiorentino’s conversation with famed vibraphonist and composer, Red Norvo from November 5, 1994. In this portion of the interview, Norvo goes into more detail about his wife, famed singer Mildred Bailey, as well as his post-WWII recorded output. In truth, Part II finds Norvo’s narrative somewhat more scattered than what we saw in Part I, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to get the inside scoop on some of the most pivotal figures and moments in popular jazz from “Mr. Swing,” himself.

Dan Del Fiorentino: I guess what we should probably do now is ask you a couple of great questions about your wife. We were talking earlier about Mildred, when you met her. I guess you were in Buffalo when you got married?

Red Norvo: Right. We were at the Shea’s Theater in Buffalo.

And how was the acceptance of your marriage? 

By whom?

Well, those people that knew both of you, musicians in the band, and leaders, and other people that you knew.

Oh, the musicians… Well, they took to her, they all liked Mildred. They got along with Mildred very well. She was, like, the first girl singer, you know? And they more or less accepted her, see?

My understanding, from talking to different people and reading some books, is you and Mildred definitely had this ability to bond with people, and to become friends with just about everybody you knew.

That’s right. Well, Mildred was pretty straight up with people, you know what I mean? I mean, if anybody got out of line, you could be set on real good. She knew. She’d had a lot of experience. You know, she worked on the Barbary Coast before she came to Los Angeles. Did you know that? With Tommy Lyman – a great singer, café singer, one of the greatest that ever lived. And he had a club in New York after that, on the East Side. And he came to New York, too, and he stayed with us for a couple weeks, he and his wife, until he got set and everything.

Mildred gained tremendous success, especially on radio. What do you think was different about her than other girl singers at the time? 

Well, I don’t think there were any girl singers that didn’t look up to Mildred. Mildred could make a tune. I’d met a kid that was hanging around the Brill Building in New York called Johnny Mercer. And he’d written a tune – I’m trying to show you how Mildred affected people – he wrote a tune called “Lazy Bones.” And Mildred did it once on the air, and it was a big hit, a tremendous hit. Every singer in the country, I think, started to sing “Lazy Bones.” So I’ll show you how Mildred was. One Saturday, I had to go into town, to do something at the drum shop, and I went by the Brill Building. I walked into Johnny. And “Lazy Bones” has been a hit, and won the ASCAP award, and he had a big check. And he and Ginger [Meehan – Ed.] lived in Brooklyn, in a cold water flat in Brooklyn, and he worked for a guy that was a House of Representative in Washington, D.C. that wrote marches, and he had a contract with Miller Music that was owned by this guy. He’d write marches, and he was writing lyrics for marches. And so he’d written the first pop tune with Hoagie, and when Mildred did it, she made such a hit out of it, he got the award from ASCAP.

So I met him at the Brill Building that Saturday, and I said, “How you doing?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s a check from ASCAP. I don’t have any money to get home, and we don’t have any money at home. Nobody knows me and I can’t get the check cashed.” So I said, “Well, wait a minute.” I called Mildred. I said, “Mildred, I’m with Johnny Mercer. He’s got a check from ASCAP, and he can’t get it cashed” She said, “Bring him home with you. I’ll call Ginger.” She called Ginger and said, “You take a cab from Brooklyn over here, Forest Hills. I’ll pay for it. Don’t worry about it. Now, get in a cab and come over.” They came over and spent the whole weekend, and we took them over on Monday morning to the bank at Forest Hills and got the check cashed for them. [laughs] I think it was $20,000, which was a hell of a lot of money for him at that time. Of course, he made millions later, but we had a ball that weekend. Teddy Wilson and Irene [Wilson/Kitchings – Ed.] came out to the house on a Sunday, and he played, and they were making up lyrics, [laughs] singing the blues and making up lyrics, Mildred and he. It was funny. 

So you knew his wife. I guess Ginger just passed away this last week. [Ginger Meehan/Mercer passed away October 30, 1994 – Ed.]

Yeah, I know she did. She hadn’t been well. I’ve called her a number of times. After Johnny died… He died with the same thing that my second wife died with, Eve: brain cancer. But I called her after Johnny died. I saw her over at a delicatessen here once after Johnny died. She was going to Europe with her attorney and his wife, and then she came back. And I called her a number of times, and I knew she wasn’t right. And so I just called and leave a message, and the nurse took care of her, would take the message and write it down and give it to her. So I knew she died. Very sad. 

Mildred was a very good friend of another writer, who just adored her, Willard Robison. Did you ever hear him?

No, who was he?

 “Cottage For Sale”?

Oh, sure.

 “My Old Deserted Farm.” Oh God, he wrote a lot of them. Wonderful tunes. Willard was a great writer, lyric writer, and music writer. Well, you’ve heard Jack Teagarden play “Old Folks,” haven’t you?

Sure, yeah.

And… Oh, God, I got a bunch of them around here. I had most of his stuff. He’s a good friend of mine, too. In fact, after Mildred died, she was cremated, and we took her ashes up to her farm in New York, and sprinkled them on the farm, Willard and I.

That must’ve been an extremely hard time for you.

Right. You know, there are four singers that died at age 44? Did you ever know this? Yeah, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Ivie Anderson, and Velma Middleton, that worked with Louis Armstrong. I just happened to remember that – when I read it, it stuck in my mind. Ivie Anderson died at 44, and Velma Middleton.

Was Mildred sick? 

Yeah. We were divorced, and I had remarried. And I went to New York, and I had a daughter, son, and a young baby. So we were in New York, and I was working at the Embers in New York. It was a trio. It was Mingus and Tal, Tal Farlow. And so Mildred was very friendly – it was a friendly divorce. And so I came in and the trio was knocking everybody over in New York, the idea of a trio. Nobody had done that. So we were in that club, and Mildred had come in, and she’s very proud of it, and happy with the thing. And so we, on Sundays, we’d go out to the farm, spend the weekend out at Mildred’s, even the kids, and a doctor friend of mine, who was a good friend of all the bands. But Mildred, I don’t know. We lived here in in Santa Monica, when we came out with Woody, and we played, and we played over at Tommy Dorsey’s Pacific Ocean Park here that summer. And we just fell in love with Santa Monica. So when Woody broke the band up and went back East, we just moved here. And we’ve been here ever since. And I don’t know, it just worked out fine, living here. But I don’t know, Mildred – my wife was just going to have my daughter Portia, and she was pregnant, and was in her ninth month, and Mildred had caught a cold working in Blue Angel in New York. The air conditioning had affected her, and she’d caught a cold, and, I don’t know…

After a break in the conversation, Red and Dan continue their chat, picking up by discussing Norvo’s professional partnerships after World War II…

RN: Benny’s band broke up, and my band broke up, on account of the war. So finally after the war, that’s when Benny got the big band together. I went with that, too, because we did work theaters, you know? And then later I got a band for William Morris. When Duke left Irving Mills, he went with the William Morris Agency. And so William Morris, Jr. came to me and said, “I love that band that you had in Chicago at the Blackhawk [The Blackhawk – 1920-1984 – was a restaurant in the Chicago loop that became nationally known for embracing Big Band music – Ed.], and played the Commodore here in New York.” And he said, “We got Duke Ellington. We’re opening a band department. Will you get a band for me?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “If you let me get who I want to get, and the arranger I want to get.” Because when Mildred and I worked the Commodore Hotel in New York, with that band, it used to be Johnny Thompson, William Kapell, the concert pianist, and Eugene List and his wife. The four of them used to come, and they were students at Juilliard in New York. And they would spend every Friday night at the Commodore and listen to the band. So I formed a small band during a period when nothing was happening and we went down, played dates. That’s where I met Charlie Parker, who I later recorded with, he and Dizzy. But we went down to Texas and Dallas and Houston, outdoor concerts, and a fella danced by, and he waved, and I said, “Gee, I know you.” He said, “Yeah, I’m Johnny Thompson.” I said, “Oh, you used to come to the Commodore.” And so he read in the Down Beat where I was forming this band for William Morris. And he was getting married, and instead of coming to California for his honeymoon, he went to New York, and the first day I rehearsed that band, he walked in. And I put him to work all the way. He made all the arrangements of that band. And it was a very, very successful band. 

Yeah, that was a great band you put together then. 

Yeah, it was… Well, it was a woodwind section, five saxophones, six brass, and the record just came out of that. We had three trombones, three trumpets, and five saxophones. It was all doubled woodwinds. It was a wonderful band. And Bob Kitsis on piano. He left Tommy Dorsey to join the band, he was so thrilled with the band. The writing in the band was wonderful. Johnny Thompson made all the arrangements. I wrote a bunch of tunes, too.

I wrote a thing called “Suspicious Suspension,” and, oh, I don’t know, a couple other little things. Later when I came to California I was playing vibraphones, and Capitol Records talked to me and said, “We have taken a survey of schools and everything, and the most popular is the xylophone. Would you make an album for us?” I said, “My God, I don’t know. I haven’t played xylophone for a long while.” They said, “Well, you could play it. You play vibes.” I said, “Yeah, but the touch is different. Vibe players are not necessarily xylophone or marimba players. It’s all different mallets. The touch is different.” So I tell you, I said, “You give me two months, and I’ll get my nose to the grindstone, and I’ll try to get my chops back.” And they said, “OK.” So that’s when he made it, and Johnny made the arrangements. And we got through making that album at five minutes of 12:00, before the union would strike. Remember when you couldn’t make records?


Yeah, well, just before that. There was twice it happened, but the first time was that album. We got through. And we had a wonderful cast. I had woodwinds and xylophone. And it’s still… I tried to buy it back from Capitol a few years ago. They didn’t even know they had the album [most likely Red Norvo at the Xylophone with Orchestra, Capitol Records, 1949 – Ed.]. 

Is that’s currently available, Red? 

I don’t know. I don’t know. I have a page of it. Now, I’m having lunch today with the English professor here at the school and I think he’s got a copy of it. I had a copy of it, but Yale came, and they wanted the arrangements that Eddie Sauter had made. They were in my garage, in a room next to my garage here, and they were just deteriorating. They were going to pieces, you know. So they called me and said, “Gee, we’d love to have them.” I said, “Look, if you want them, you come and get them.” So they came here, and I’d sold a lot of stuff that I had for about $2,000, first issues, like, of, you know, different musicians, like, oh, the alto player that went to Jeff. What’s his…? Oh, I forget some of these names. Anyawy, so when Yale came out to get these arrangements, I said, “Take those albums. You take them.” Because I said, “If I die, my grandchildren will probably throw them out in the ocean, sailing them out in the ocean here.” So I said, “You might as well take them.” So they took them, and they took a lot of tapes, too, that they shouldn’t have taken. So when I tried to get the tapes back, the guy that was out here had retired. So I was up against a wall. And that’s what’s going on now. I got a letter from Switzerland. They brought a tape that Benny had left in his house, this thing that he wanted to play to listen to, and they’re trying to put it out on CD. And then we were never paid for it. So Flip and Bill Harris and all these guys got money coming. Of course, Bill Harris passed away, but Jack Sheldon, and quite a band. But that’s what Benny’s best touring band in Europe was. He took the quintet that I played in Vegas with – Jerry Dodgion, Red Wooten, and the drummer [probably John Markham – Ed.], and Jimmy [most likely Jim Wyble – Ed.] on guitar, and myself. And he’d take that, and he’d add Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Bill Harris on flute, and the piano player. I forget what’s his name. I can’t think of it now. He’ll come to me in a minute. [probably Russ Freeman – Ed.]

[laughs] Red, this is, you know, just so exciting for me to listen to these great stories. I’m wondering, out of everything that we’ve talked about: what do you think you can consider the highlight of your career? 

Oh, don’t ask me that. [laughs] Because I don’t know! It’s been just one long highlight, to me. You know, because I remember going back, and tried to repeat is what I did. I mean, I went from 52nd Street Band with Dave Barber, and that bunch, and build a bigger band to go in the Commodore, and then fished it over to be in Chicago at the Blackhawk after we were in Syracuse. We played eight weeks in Syracuse at the Hotel, Syracuse Hotel. And that’s where I formed the band. 

Sounds like a great outfit.

Yeah, it was. 

Have you been out to see Shorty recently?

No, I haven’t been able to go, but my grandson went out yesterday and day before. His wife is staying at the hospital, too. She has a room at the hospital.

Oh, gosh. That’s too bad.

Yeah, he’s not good. Oh God, I don’t know how I say this. But [his wife] called me and said, “Shorty’s in a coma.” I said, “What?” This is a week ago. And I said, “Oh my gosh.” So I said, “I’ll say a prayer for him.” So all night I kept praying and saying, “Shorty, this is Red. Wake up, wake up.” So when she called me the next day, I said, “I kept praying. I said, ‘Wake up, Shorty.’” She said, “I told him, and he laughed when he woke up. He made it, and that’s it.” [laughs] He laughed, and I did, too. And we all helped him.”

That’s great.

So I felt good about it. You see, I was married to his sister.

That’s right, yes. He’s a remarkable musician, isn’t he?

Oh, he’s a sweetheart. But you see, he was the youngest in the family. He had an older brother, and Eve, and then him. And his mother was just getting into diabetes when she had him, so I think that’s… Everybody said, “Shorty didn’t drink, or he didn’t smoke.” But I think it was hereditary, this thing. She was at the end when she had Shorty, you see? Shorty was the youngest. But none of the others, like Eve, didn’t have [diabetes], and the older boy didn’t have it. 

Red, I have to tell you, I am just so excited to be talking to you today. You’ve taught me a lot, and I’ve been loving your music for quite some time.

That’s very nice. Do you know John Markam? He’s the drummer up there, San Francisco, that was with me. He’s got some tapes, by the way, of that concert in Basel, Switzerland. You might get a hold of him. He’s one of the best drummers in San Francisco.

Great, I’ll look him up.

Yeah. I don’t know, I heard he had a problem for a while with junk. I heard that from a drummer that was working with Sinatra in Vegas. Now, I don’t know if he still has a problem or he’s over it.

Well, I’ll look him up and see if I can talk to him.

Yeah, he’s an interesting guy… All right, I’ll hear from you again, Dan.

Yeah, thanks very much, Red. I appreciate your time.

All right, call again sometime.

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