Category Archives: Royal York Hotel

Ginger Rogers: Still Cheek-To-Cheek

In my time at the Imperial Room, I had the great pleasure of working with Ginger Rogers. She was one of only a few true iconic movie stars who appeared with us. We usually think of Ginger as one half of the celebrated dance pair, Astaire and Rogers. The two danced together on screen for 16 years (from 1933 to 1949) and made 10 films during that time.

It was now February of 1976, and she could still sing and dance amazingly well (even though she was in her mid-60s). Ginger was performing solo by this time, because Fred – who was 12 years her senior – had stopped dancing professionally and was devoting his time to acting.

Her show was well produced, and I could tell she had a good choreographer. Backed by eight dancers, it was an absolute class act.  Though I don’t know the reason, early in the run she decided to add a number. She asked me to write an arrangement of an Irving Berlin tune from one of her old movies.  I did so quickly, and she liked it so much I gave it to her as a gift.

Her show ran for two weeks, and I was very moved by the way she closed the show each night. After the final chart and after her final bow, she stepped up to the microphone, gazed out – as if peering off to a far away place – and sweetly said, “Good night, Fred.”

A partnership as close as theirs, did not fade.

Fred and Ginger in their movie, "Shall We Dance" (1937)

Fred and Ginger in their movie, “Shall We Dance” (1937)

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Imperial Room Performers of 1976

To give you some idea of how varied the headliners in the Imperial Room could be, here is the full list (in order) from January to December of 1976:

 Ginger Rogers

The Fifth Dimension

Nancy Wilson

Raquel Welsh

Phyllis Diller

Joel Gray

Catherine McKinnon

Trini Lopez

Jack Jones

The Mills Brothers

Julie Budd

The Smothers Brothers

Vic Franklyn

Guy Lombardo

Tony Bennett

Marilyn Michaels

Frankie Laine

Tessie O’Shea

Chita Rivera

Buddy Greco

The Righteous Brothers

Ray Charles

Pat Boone

 This list covers 9 months of actual shows. We had summers off, so there were no performances from mid-June to mid-September.  Some acts performed for one week, others for two weeks.  Keep in mind that there are 12 more years worth of performers in addition to this one.  I have a lot of writing ahead of me.

 In next week’s post, I’ve got a touching story about Ginger Rogers that I’d like to share. (find the Ginger story here)

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Count Basie & His Orchestra – Still Swingin’ At The Top

During my time as music director of the Royal York, ninety-five percent of the Imperial Room headliners were either solo acts, or stars with their own trio. In all of these cases, my orchestra provided the music. The exception to this was the rare occasion when the headline act was an orchestra. My band didn’t mind giving up the stage in December of 1975 — the week that the Count Basie Orchestra came to town. We were elated to have them. In my opinion, the Basie Band typified Swing.

By this stage, the legendary players (Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Harry “Sweets” Edison) that came to prominence at the height of the Basie era, were gone. The one big name remaining was Freddie Green – an extraordinary rhythm guitarist. For over fifty years, Freddie was the “keeper of the quarter note” for Basie’s band. He perfected a style of playing “one note chords” which was so unique, it became known simply as the Freddie Green style.

Even with all the changes in players over the years, the band’s 40’s groove was still at the top. One of Basie’s secrets to success was that he knew how to hire good musicians. He also knew the value of good arrangements, and he brought with him his legendary Sammy Nestico and Neal Hefti charts. As his band played, the Count (most called him Bill) sat at the piano and added classy, yet very simple decorations. I’ll never forget the comment made by his manager as we talked about this great ensemble and its leader, “Bill don’t play nothin’, but it sure sounds real good.”

William "Count" Basie (left), Freddie Green (centre)

William “Count” Basie (left), Freddie Green (centre)

One thing that many didn’t know was that Bill was having trouble with his mobility. (Hey, I can identify with that.) He was in his early seventies and in a wheelchair.  With curtain closed, we would wheel him on stage and set him up at the piano. Then when they hit the opener (usually One O’Clock Jump), the curtain opened and there he was.  He played as well as ever and no one knew.

On Tuesday, the second night of their show, Basie was faced with an unexpected challenge that had the potential to undermine the band’s performance.  Their first trombonist, Al Grey, had to leave immediately to appear as a witness in court in New York. In a pinch Basie’s manager asked if I thought MY trombonist could cut the Basie book.  Our man was Jerry Johnson and I said “of course.”  Jerry filled in Wednesday and Thursday and his performance was spot on.  He had saved the day, and at the end of the week, Basie’s band players threw him a party.   To my knowledge, he is the only Canadian who could say that he played, in the Count Basie Band.

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Ella Fitzgerald: My First Encounter With The Great Lady of Song

I have worked with literally hundreds of great performers over the course of my career, and I often get asked the question, “Who was your favourite of all time?” Without hesitation my reply is always, Ella Fitzgerald.  So it is only fitting that I begin the “Royal York” series with my first experience with the iconic singer.

I had just started my contract when Ella was booked to appear at the Royal York in September of 1974.  As you can imagine, I was excited. When I read her contract, one of the requirements was for an 18-piece band (double the size of our house band). I also noticed that instead of the usual 2 ½ hours of rehearsal, she had stipulated that we must have four. Her charts were tough, and I heard that she had been less than happy with the previous bands she’d worked with. Ella always felt that her audience deserved a first rate performance.

On the afternoon of her arrival, we anxiously awaited the downbeat at rehearsal.  Ella always travelled with her trio, and on this day, they were the first to arrive on stage.  Tommy Flanagan was her music director, with Keter Betts on bass and Bobby Durham on drums. (My band later told me that Durham’s playing was so dead-on, they didn’t even need to count rests.) The trio ran through a few charts with us and then Ella’s manager brought her down from her suite.  She walked straight to Flanagan and they began a private dialog.  (It is customary for a music director to let the performer know what they are up against.)  I couldn’t hear what they were saying because they were speaking in lowered tones, but as he spoke I could see a smile come across her face.  That was a good sign.

Ella had us run through all the charts with her– which took under two hours.  Just when I expected her to start at the top and do it all again, she said, “That’s fine, boys. We won’t need to run through them again.” Everyone was dismissed to go home.  We had met her approval and didn’t need the four hours of rehearsal after all.  I was very proud of the band – they were some of the finest musicians in the country.

That evening after the guests had finished dinner, the band set up to play a half hour of dance charts.  These were pops charts that I’d written, and they were intended to get the audience up dancing before the headliner. The crowd that night was younger than the regular Imperial Room clientele.  The big band/jazz singers – like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee – always brought in a younger crowd.  As you might expect, the place was packed!

Everyone was abuzz with anticipation when the moment finally arrived and Ella was cued to enter.  She appeared classy and elegant in a long, beaded gown. There was no need for elaborate lighting or extravagance – her mere presence was enough to fill the room.  When she sang, her voice was captivating. She could really make you feel the mood of the song. She had flawless intonation and a wonderfully broad range.  She hit every note without the slightest hint of effort.  She was sensational.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

Her show ran for two weeks, and we were fortunate to have her appear five more times before she retired. Each time she returned I got to know her better.  I’ll be sure to add more stories about these shows in later blog posts.

If you have a memory of Ella Fitzgerald, please feel free to share it in a comment below.

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The Imperial Room At The Royal York

From 1974 to 1986, I was music director of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.  I was mainly responsible for the Imperial Room, a 400-seat dining room featuring nightly dancing and a cabaret-style stage show. We were considered the last great cabaret in Canada (and the second last in North America, after San Francisco).

I fronted a nine-piece house band, to which we added players as needed. For example when Ella Fitzgerald performed, we needed eighteen musicians; Tony Bennett required an orchestra of twenty-four.

The house band consisted of:

Trumpets:  Erich Traugott,  Bobby Herriot
Trombone:  Jerry Johnson
Saxophones: Harvey Kogen,  Jim O’Driscoll
Piano: Bruce Harvey
Bass: George Kozub
Drums:  Bruce Philp
Band Leader: Howard Cable
 

Additions to the house band (as required):

Trumpets: Sam Noto,  Bram Smith Jr.,  Jeff Reynolds,  Al Stanwyck
Trombones: Alastair Kay,  Rob McConnell,  Ron Hughes
Saxes: Moe Koffman,  Bernie Piltch,  Vern Dorge,  Jerry Toth
Guitar: Andy Krehm, Bill Bridges
Percussion: Marty Morrell,  Peter Appleyard
 

During my 13 year tenure, many stars were featured – a new one each week. Our performers included Broadway stars, movie stars, legendary singers of the Big Band\Swing era, television personalities, R&B acts, and more.  Almost all of the big names of the 70s and 80s played during that period. Although the list is quite long, over the course of this blog, I will try to write at least something about each of them.

I often get asked the question, “Who was your favourite performer of all of these?” My reply without hesitation is: Ella Fitzgerald.  So it is only fitting that my first Royal York performer post will be a fond memory of the great lady of song.

Pure Ella (Verve Records)

Pure Ella (Verve Records)

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