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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A Fabulous Lifestyle At Beaumaris Yacht Club

This is Part 3 of 3   (Find Part 2, “Smoking Hot Charts!” here.)

After the terrible fire at Chateau Gai, which turned my new charts into ashes and left me jobless, the summer of 1940 was not looking very promising from a music point of view. But when luck smiles on me, it is usually ear to ear. That same week I received a call from young Denny Vaughan.  Hearing about our situation, he informed me of two job openings at the Beaumaris Yacht Club on LakeMuskoka. They were looking for a trumpet player and a pianist for their dance band. It would be 4 nights a week, for a salary of $12 per week, plus room and board. Fred Davis and I grabbed the opportunity.

The band, which was a pick up group, played stock arrangements – and did so quite well. The group was fronted by a non-musical business man who, though he looked the part, most likely got the job because of his business connections rather than his musicianship. Our ballroom, complete with balcony overlooking the lake, occupied the entire second floor of the 1911 yacht club building.

The area of LakeMuskoka near Beaumaris was popular with wealthy American bankers and steel tycoons– almost all from Pennsylvania. They built lavish mansions along miles of shoreline, and it wasn’t hard to see why the area earned the nicknames “Little Pittsburg” and “Millionaire’s Row.”  (Although today it would have to be called “Billionaires’ Row” to have the same meaning.)

The Beaumaris Hotel, where we had our lodging, was up on the hillside a fair distance from the yacht club. There was a very distinct separation between the status of the patrons and that of the employees, and we were quickly informed of the “rules of the establishment.”  The hotel’s front grounds and lobby were for the guests only. Musicians were on the same social tier as maids and kitchen staff, and as such our only access was through the back door. We were also required to walk the back path down to work, rather than the shorter route down the front.

While the hotel catered to tourists, the ballroom was frequented by the wealthy Americans from the surrounding area. Reminiscent of the novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, they would arrive in style — in our case by boat. I remember watching from the balcony as the beautiful Muskoka cruisers pulled up one by one to the dock. They were magnificent hand-crafted powerboats finished in gleaming mahogany. To my surprise, almost all were chauffeur-driven. The men with the caps would wait 3 hours, like livery people used to do, for their employers to have their fill of alcohol and dancing, then drive them back to their cottage estates.

Beaumaris was my first taste of how very different the world was for the fabulously rich. I really didn’t know that lifestyle existed prior to this. (And if you are thinking to yourself, “Howard, didn’t you at least catch a glimpse of that lifestyle on TV?” Remember that households didn’t have television yet.)

All in all, this dance gig provided a great opportunity for all the members of the band. Not only were we teenagers who were being put up in a hotel, but we got to play dances in beautiful Muskoka all summer long.  We played 4 nights a week, and had the rest of the time for ourselves.  Fred spent his free time socializing, while the other guys did the typical things that teenage boys do while away from adult supervision.

And me? I sat on the upper balcony of the yacht club re-writing my lost arrangements.

Beaumaris Yacht Club Dance Band  (summer 1940)

Beaumaris Yacht Club Dance Band (summer 1940)

 

 

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Band Photo From 1938

In a previous post, I spoke about my first band, “Howard Cable and His Cavaliers” and the fact that I  have only one photo of all the members of the band together. This weekend, while searching through the archive, I found a second photograph from this time period.  In it are Frank Wiertz (note his initials on his drum) and I with our female vocalist, Audrey Moody.  She occasionally joined us to sing the ballads.  We had a second vocalist, Fred Wilmot, who did the scat singing.

Audrey Moody, Frank Wiertz and Howard Cable 1938

Audrey Moody, Frank Wiertz and Howard Cable 1938

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Smoking Hot Charts! — But not in a good way.

*This is Part 2 of 3  (Find Part 1, “A Young Cable Forms His First Band”  here.)

Put four eager young musicians into their first band and what do they want to do??  Play every club that will have them!  And so it was with “Howard Cable and His Cavaliers.”

After playing our first few gigs, word got out that we were “dance-able.” We were booked for dances in Toronto and Kitchener, and then secured a steady summer gig at the Georgian Pavilion in Honey Harbour. We played 3 nights a week, and because this beautiful part of Georgian Bay attracted many vacationers, the dance hall was always busy. We were thrilled that the job lasted three whole summers (1937, 1938, 1939).

I just loved to get together and play music, so when the job ended I organized a rehearsal band in Toronto. One of the musicians in it was Murray Ginsberg, and I’ll share with you the very kind words that he wrote in his book, “They Loved To Play”:

“In 1939, when he was 19 years old, Cable organize a rehearsal band which met every Sunday on the third floor of Selmer’s Musical Instrument Store on Shuter Street, across from Massey Hall. Most of the players were teenagers or in their early twenties . . . . . We were all eager to try Howard’s new arrangements, which bore strong Duke Ellington influences. Those were exciting times. Cable’s energy and passion to rehearse and learn from his musical ideas—to see what worked and what didn’t—was infectious. Each new arrangement was a discovery – a touch of the Duke’s ‘Jumpin’ Punkins’ and ‘Jack The Bear’, a whiff of Charlie Barnet’s ‘Cherokee’.  The rehearsals ended much too quickly and we couldn’t wait for the next Sunday to roll around.”

In my opinion, Ellington was the finest musician of the Big Band/Jazz Era and I wanted to be like him. I wasn’t writing charts for the band because I thought I was good, but rather because I knew I wasn’t. This hands-on experimenting was one way I knew would help me grow to the arranger I wanted to be.  I spent the whole winter writing for this group.

At the beginning of the summer of 1940, the “Cavaliers” got a booking at Balm Beach near Midland. We opened at the end of June and one week later, on July 1st, the Chateau Gai Pavilion burned to the ground.  We lost everything.  All of our instruments and all of my charts (I had written several dozen by then) went up in smoke. We returned to Toronto penniless.

Shortly after our return to Toronto, I got a call looking for a trumpet player and pianist for the band at Beaumaris Yacht Club on Lake Muskoka.  My friend Fred Davis and I grabbed it! We stepped right into a scene from the Great Gatsby – except this wasn’t a book, this was real life.

I’ll tell you all about it in my next post (which can be found here in Part 3 of 3).

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A Young Howard Cable Forms His First Band.

When I was a teenager, Big Band music was in style!  Dance clubs were filled with the driving sound of Swing, and young men would take their ladies out for a night of some real Fred & Ginger style, cheek-to-cheek dancing.

But I was a musician, not a dancer, so I loved to go out and just listen to the Big Bands. I frequently did so with my friend and schoolmate, Fred Davis.*   From my home in Parkdale, it was a short walk down to the Palais Royale on the waterfront. There we would be treated to the sounds of great bands like Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Spivak or Woody Herman – LIVE!

We could not go inside the Palais — not so much because of age restrictions, but rather, because we didn’t have ladies. In those days it was understood that these dance nights were couples events and young bucks like us could not just wander in unaccompanied.

That did not matter to us. The stage could be seen through the big windows, and with the hot summer weather those windows would be open, allowing the magnificent sound of Swing to stream out loud and clear.

As I stood in the night air and took it all in, the sound energized me so much that I thought to myself, “I’d like to DO this”.  So I turned to Fred and said, “I think I’ll form a band.”

“Can I be in it?” he asked.

“Sure, what do you play? ”

“Nothing.”

“Well you’ll need to play a horn.  Which one do you want to learn?”

I recall that he was fond of listening to Bunny Berigan, so I was not surprised when he chose the trumpet as his instrument.  He bought a “10 Easy Lessons” book, and with some mentoring from Ellis McLintock, he soon became my trumpet player.  With the addition of Frank Wiertz and Harry Dowton, I formed my first dance band, “Howard Cable and His Cavaliers”.  That was 1937.

Our first gig was a commencement dance at the Argonauts Rowing Club on Lake Shore Boulevard. I’m not sure as teenagers if we sounded particularly great, but we certainly looked the part.

The accompanying photo is the only one I have of this band. It is one of the few times you’ll see me without a moustache.

(*Fred went on to host Front Page Challenge from 1957 to 1995.)

Howard Cable and His Cavaliers 1938

Howard Cable and His Cavaliers 1938

*This is Part 1 of 3  (Find Part 2, “Smoking Hot Charts! here)
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Howard Cable embraces social media !!

My music career began in 1939 and has continued uninterrupted to the present day. Over and over again I have had to adapt to the changing times to stay afloat. By all calculations I must be on my eleventh life by now. (I get 18 of them, by the way.)

My newest adaptation is not a musical one, but rather a decision to move into the computer age.   This is a big step for a man who has long considered himself a “techno-rebel”.  I refused to learn the Finale or Sibelius programs, because I prefer to write music with a felt pen and score paper.  I do not know how to work a VCR or DVD player. I do not know how to program that funny cable box to record TV shows when I’m not home.  But none of this worries me, because knowing  things like this are not all that important, really.  But I will tell you what IS important — MUSIC !

So I will do whatever I have to do to keep the great eras of music alive.  If it means learning how to blog at 92, then so be it.

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