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Alan Rubin: Mr. Fabulous in Every Way

Nicholas F. Mondello BY

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In the Hebrew language, the ancient word "Rubin" translates as "Behold, a son!" Yes, Alan Rubin, trumpeter, actor, studio phenomenon, beloved friend, respected colleague, loving husband and soulmate to his wife, Mary, was something to behold. Many people—even non-musicians— remember Rubin as a stalwart member of the "Saturday Night Live" and Blues Brothers Bands and as "Mr. Fabulous" in the iconic 1980 and 2000 films. Rendered somewhat "studio anonymous" to the general public similar to other New York trumpet greats such as his friend and mentor, Bernie Glow, Mel Davis, and others, Rubin's career and the legacy of nearly 6,000 recordings resonates and offers high-caliber music to this day.

Beginnings

Alan Perry Rubin was born on February 11, 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. His family later resided in Queens. Alan's father, Philip was a decorated World War II vet who landed at Normandy on D-Day and who spent many months in a London hospital recovering from his wounds. A tenor saxophonist, in his twenties, Philip led his own club date band and also launched his own business, supplying restaurants and stores with butter, eggs, and other dairy products. Alan's mother, Blanche (née Nosnick) was a homemaker. Alan always said she could light up a room with her smile. An interesting additional familial note is the fact that Isser Yehuda Unterman, Alan's paternal great-uncle, was Rabbi of Liverpool, England and later Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1964 to 1972.

Rubin made an early name for himself both as a trumpeter and baseball/stickball player. He attended public school and began trumpet lessons at age 10. The father wanted the absolute best teachers for young Alan even to the point of bringing him to see and introduce Alan to pianist Bill Evans, requesting Evans to consider teaching the boy (Evans politely refused). Neighbor Dennis Beck, also a trumpeter, stated that he heard a teenage Alan leading a band at a dance at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. "What a sound he had! As a fellow trumpeter, I was amazed. At the time, I was then studying with trumpeter, Sonny LaRosa, himself a Juilliard alum. Even he knew about Alan Rubin."

Legendary trumpeter and educator, William Vacchiano, an integral person in Rubn's development, was a mutual nearby neighbor of both Beck and Rubin. While still in high school at age 16, Rubin was playing and recording with the stellar Newport Youth Band under New York music educator and valve trombonist, Marshall Brown. The Newport band preceded future elite youth jazz ensembles such as The McDonald's All-American Stage Band, The Disneyland All-American College Band, and others including the aforementioned Sonny LaRosa's Florida-based Youngest Jazz Band in America. In addition to Rubin, Brown's ensemble had future jazz greats such as trumpeter Nat Pavone, saxophonist, Ronnie Cuber, pianist Mike Abene, and others. Rubin recorded on the ensemble's first recording on May 25, 1959 in New York for Coral Records and was also a featured soloist on the band's second album, a live date recorded July 4th that year at the Newport Jazz Festival, also for Coral. The selection, a spotlight for Alan, was the Neil Moret/Richard Whiting ballad, "(S)He's Funny That Way"—a tune most popularized by vocalist Billie Holiday. On the track, Rubin belies his age with such mature musicianship, impeccable lyric phrasing, and trademark quality of sound. Mike Abene, who went on to play and write for Maynard Ferguson and many others, said: "I remember that performance to this day." The track, a veritable textbook of classic trumpet ballad playing, is available on You Tube listed as "09 She's Funny That Way."

Rubin attended Forest Hills High School in Queens (as did his future "employers," Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach). He graduated in 1960 and was accepted to Juilliard on a scholarship basis starting that Fall. While at Juilliard, Rubin continued his training under William Vacchiano. Vacchiano was quoted as stating that Rubin "was his best student." The legendary teacher and New York Philharmonic Orchestra trumpeter had visions of Rubin pursuing an orchestral trumpeter career, possibly with the Philharmonic. Among Rubin's more notable contemporaries at Juilliard were Chick Corea (albeit briefly) and celebrated trombonist, Dave Taylor. Taylor recollects: "My first year there was Alan's last. He was a standout." Rubin was at such a high level of musical proficiency that Paul Hindemith urged him to join him on a national tour. With his eyes focused on more of a commercial career, Rubin stayed at Juilliard up through 1963 and left school before graduating to tour with singer Robert Goulet as Goulet's lead trumpet for the incredible salary at that time of $400 a week, approximately $4,000 in today's dollars.

The Studios and the New York Scene

At that time, the New York studio scene was at its most active. The opportunities for a player with skills and versatility such as those Rubin offered were vast. Returning to New York from the road, Rubin began an exceptionally busy and lucrative career as a commercial trumpeter— both as a lead trumpet and a section player. Rubin's distinctive sound, range, technical proficiency, "ability to sight-read flypoop," (as Jon Faddis remembers) and play the entire spectrum of music brilliantly, resulted in non-stop days recording in the studios. From jingle dates, pop and rock, film, and big band sessions, Rubin was, along with players such as Doc Severinsen, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Jon Faddis, Marvin Stamm, and Randy Brecker, et al, in a whirling dervish of recording activity. Recording with Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Deodato, Frank Zappa, John Tropea, Gil Evans, and many others, Rubin was a studio fixture and a phenom. The legend, Doc Severinsen, even personally hired Rubin for a unique brass group he directed. From Doc: "Alan did a really fine job. Studying with Benny Baker, as I did, certainly had something to do with that!" Rubin also subbed in Severinsen's "Tonight Show" band. Two very notable recordings among the many thousands Rubin did that stand out: his swinging lead work on Sinatra's "After You've Gone" on Frank's last album, L.A. Is My Lady, and his accompanying pal and fellow prankster, Lew Soloff on Blood, Sweat & Tears' mega-hit, "Spinning Wheel." On that track, Rubin was subbing for B,S&T's regular trumpeter, Chuck Winfield at Soloff's personal request.

The ultimate professional and armed with a razor and sometimes caustic wit, Rubin was very much at home in those high-pressure playing situations and he always delivered. Dave Taylor stated that "Alan was so good at what he was doing, and, so professional in what the music should be, that he would regularly 'stand up for' band members with record producers and other studio staff. He was adamant of the fact that the musicians warranted respect and A-1 professional treatment." When the music and performers that Rubin and crew were presented with weren't of the highest quality, after such situations he was known to comment to Lew DelGatto and others: "We polish turds." In a well-known studio incident, singer Eddie Fisher was recording a re-make of his earlier hit, "Oh, My Papa." Fisher's effort was less than stellar, however, he said to the engineer's booth: "There's something wrong with the trumpets." In a flash, "That's because you suck!" rang out from the trumpet section and across the room. With the musicians guffawing, Fisher had no idea what generated the hilarity. Yep, it was Alan as vocal critic.

As was the case with lead trumpet mentor, Bernie Glow, there are few examples of Rubin jazz soloing. The handful of jazz solos he did are superb examples of awesome, yet controlled technique, and impeccable improvisational genius. You Tube offers a handful of such marvelous Rubin solos that were transcribed by Gio Washington-Wright, himself a brilliant musician and recognized expert on both the New York and L.A. studio scenes. The Rubin solos are well worth studying for trumpeters and all musicians.

Rubin's hesitancy to solo and small solo output was ironic given his skills and the many opportunities to possibly deliver them. The rationale behind that is best detailed in an anecdote from SNL and Blues Brothers compadre, saxophonist, Lou Marini. "Alan could stretch out and improvise as good as anyone. However, he had such high expectations on himself that he always wanted to deliver a great solo without errors of any kind. We once were jamming together on a tune and he was blowing some great stuff, then he "clammed" and immediately stopped and wouldn't go on—even at my urging. That was how dedicated he was to excellence in every aspect of his playing."

Regarding Rubin's interest in jazz from a listening/analysis standpoint, it was keen. Famed lead and jazz trumpeter Dan Miller recollects that he, Roger Ingram (both with Harry Connick, Jr. at the time), and Alan would spent many hours at Dan and Roger's Brooklyn pad numerous times talking trumpet players and listening to Booker Little sides (a special interest of Rubin), re-playing tracks and discussing them for hours on end. Dan added: "Alan liked hearing those tracks in chronological order. He was an incredible musician and trumpet player and one of the funniest guys I've ever met."

Saturday Night Live and The Blues Brothers

Saxophonist and tuba player, Howard Johnson was the original contractor for the band on Saturday Night Live. Johnson was aware of Rubin's rep in town as a dependable, highly-versatile player with great lead chops as well as stage presence. Keyboardist Paul Shaffer, who had come down to New York from Canada to perform on Broadway in The Magic Show starring magician Doug Henning, vividly remembers Rubin from that period. "Alan's sound was so unique—full and brilliant across the entire range of the horn. He was also very much a perfectionist in terms of his musical interpretation. That was something that, quite respectfully, was somewhat different than some of the others on the band whose playing was a bit more blues and jazz oriented. Alan had a genius—more than a sixth sense-about him in terms of how things should be played. He was rarely, if ever, wrong."

Blues Brothers as we know them—black suits, shades, hipping, hopping, and gyrating -came about through a comedic skit on the SNL show seen on January 17, 1976. It featured SNL regulars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi who were dressed as "killer bees" singing Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee" along with Howard Shore and his All-Bee Band. Shore, like Shaffer and Aykroyd, was another Canadian who was SNL's Music Director. Previously he was an original member of the celebrated jazz-rock group, Lighthouse of "One Fine Morning" fame. Howard knew SNL producer Lorne Michaels as a teen back in Canada. After leaving SNL, Shore would eventually go on to become an Oscar®-winning film composer for The Hobbit, et al.

On one particular Saturday night, the show ran approximately three minutes short. In a bind, Michaels approached Aykroyd and decided to give the Blues Brothers an opportunity to perform. They did to rousing applause, closing the show. The following Monday, the NBC switchboard exploded with fans clamoring for more "Jake and Elwood." Aykroyd was a pure blues music fan and colleague Belushi favored heavy metal. When the first Blues Brothers movie was in the process of pre-production and the band was being organized for it, Bernie Brillstein a well-known talent agent (and who was both Belushi's and Lorne Michaels' manager) was the Executive Director of the film. He knew of Alan from the trumpeter's gigs in New York State's Catskills' resorts (affectionately known as "the Jewish Alps") and also from his stellar work on SNL. Bernie had Alan brought in as the group's trumpeter for the film and it was Belushi who gave Alan and his character the moniker, "Mr. Fabulous." As Paul Shaffer (who was not on the first film, but in the second) recollected that as the repertoire of music for the film was being planned various genres of blues were evaluated; from Delta blues, Chicago blues, et al. Eventually, the selections agreed upon were covers of more popular R&B tunes such as "I'm a Soul Man." Filming took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and one scene in Milwaukee. (The second film was filmed in Toronto).

Interestingly, in the film, Rubin is seen onscreen acting as trumpeter doing a side gig as a waiter. Putting their band together again, "Jake and Elwood" implore Rubin's character, a maître d' at Chicago's chi-chi Chez Paul restaurant, to ask him rejoin the group. Miles Evans stated: "Alan was so terrific in that role. Wanna know why? When he and Lew Soloff were touring on the Gil Evans band that I led after my father's death, Alan knew all of the finest restaurants in Europe and elsewhere. He knew vintage wines and all the trappings of haut cuisine. That's why that scene worked so well." After Belushi's passing and in the second film, Blues Brothers 2000 (1998, Universal Pictures), Paul Shaffer came on the film band. Rubin recreated his role as trumpeter, "Mr. Fabulous." Shaffer mentioned that on one track, a cover of The Beginning of the End hit, "Funky Nassau," Paul wanted a little trumpet musical "afterthought" on the tune's final note— preferably something in the harmonic minor. With slick instrumental humor, Rubin plays a neat upper register lick that Shaffer agreed is a " bar mitzvah lick." It was yet another perfect example of Rubin's musical wit emanating from his genius psyche and golden horn.

That Uniquely Beautiful—and Memorable—Sound

Nearly every musician interviewed for this article brought up Rubn's legendary sound. It was opulent, resonant, and supremely engaging— memorable. Trumpeters, as do all wind players, would endlessly "strive for tone," but also attempt to develop a sound that is personal and uniquely theirs. And, as was the case with Alan, Doc Severinsen, Miles Davis, Clark Terry, and others both classical and not, all have a sound that is immediately recognizable. A player's equipment, while important, has less of an impact on sound than how the player's "mental aural image" depicts it. Rubin studied with great teachers such as Vacchiano (who was known to be gifted with a huge, resonant oral cavity) and Benny Baker (also of the New York Philharmonic and who integrated the secrets of "Yoga breathing" into trumpet pedagogy), both of whom had glorious sounds. Alan's sound from early on was his guiding light. He's quoted as saying: "When it's about the music, it's about beauty." And, what emanated from his instrument was so beautiful, pure, and engaging that other trumpeters—a highly critical and sometimes jealous bunch—admired, imitated, and surely reveled in it.

Multi-talented musician Michael Leonhart recollects, "My dad, bassist Jay Leonhart. played with Alan on hundreds of recording sessions and concerts and had raved to me about Alan's rich and velvety trumpet tone being the "Gold Standard, but it wasn't until the day I sat next to him as he warmed up that I grasped his complete mastery of the horn. Alan's buttery sound and exquisite phrasing would stop you in your tracks, whether he was playing a soft ballad or blowing lead trumpet. No wonder Vacchiano called him his 'best student.'"

"I started professionally gigging and recording around NYC at 13 years old, and at age 15 began struggling occasionally with endurance problems and inconsistency with my sound. Alan knew of my playing and was gracious enough to come over to my apartment one school night after dinner. He was legendary for his biting sense of humor and sarcasm, but as we began talking shop and playing tunes, Alan saw how disheartened I was and responded in kind with compassion, patience and empathy. I asked him: 'Am I doing something wrong? Is there something I need to change?' Alan warmly laughed and said: 'Nah, stay on the path. You're doing everything right; it's just a hard instrument. Stay focused and patient, keep working your butt off and you'll be in great shape.' Alan's words were the perfect antidote to my doubt and anxiety and gave me the calm and confidence to keep working hard and creating. Thank you, Alan. I miss you and your music."

In an anecdote indicative of Rubin's ability to "deliver" his superior sound, Mary Moreno tells this episode: "In 1988, I was producing a jazz arrangement that I had written of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at An Exhibition" for a commercial project. We had already laid down the rhythm tracks and I needed a trumpet solo. I asked Alan if he would be willing to do it and he agreed. I was working on a tight deadline and the only time my studio had available for the overdub was 5:00 AM. Alan gamely showed up at that ungodly hour, trumpet slung over his shoulder, and proceeded to blow us all away with his unrehearsed solo!"

Alan's speaking voice was also a thing at which to marvel. A natural baritone, the depth and resonance of that voice, according to Mary, "was one of a kind: smooth, velvety, intimate and sensuous. The first time I heard him speak on the phone, I almost melted. I always told him he could have easily had a second career as a voice-over artist."

"Wonderboy" and the Legendary Trumpet

Like King Richard's "Excalibur," Patton's pearl-handled pistols, and Oddjob's deadly Bowler hat, Rubin also possessed an iconic weapon of choice. But, there's a back story first. Since his youth, Rubin's other passion was baseball. He loved playing and watching the game. Neighbors felt He could have gone into the game professionally. And, one of his favorite films was "The Natural" (based on the Bernard Malamud classic novel) in which character Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) employs a magical, powerful bat he named "Wonderboy." Roy made it from an oak tree that was struck by lightning. Its power was awesome. Always in pursuit of a mouthpiece that would meet his unique playing needs, Rubin had multiple telephone conversations with mouthpiece gurus Bob Reeves and John Snell at Reeves Mouthpieces in Los Angeles. The staff at Reeves relished the opportunity to work with Alan. Bob Reeves recollects that "Alan knew exactly what he wanted and was very precise with his direction. And, in the times he visited our shop, he was so very professional, always impeccably dressed, and amicable. A pro's pro." John Snell adds: "When Alan would call the shop, I would get incredibly excited dealing with him. He was so great to work with. And, I was so much a Blues Brothers fan that my first son is actually named 'Elwood.'"

Like many trumpeters, especially lead players, Rubin had many mouthpieces. The "Wonderboy" mouthpiece that Reeves developed with him was similar to a 3C/3D rim (that is a fairly common commercial mouthpiece size) and as you can see, like "Hobbs' bat, depicted a lightning bolt. Reeves said that he spoke numerous times with Rubin over the phone and through a trial and re-trial process, "Wonderboy" the mouthpiece came to be. As for Rubin's trumpet, he had quite a few, including a Schilke S42. Alan played a Gold Bach Lightweight 72. Unlike other horns in his touring arsenal, it was always a carry-on. And, along with the "Wonderboy" mouthpiece that Gold Bach was the horn he played in the "Blues Brothers 2000" film and up until his passing. Mary Moreno still has both articles as loving keepsakes with the "Wonderboy" mouthpiece resting cherished on her nightstand.

Moreno and Rubin -One Heart, One Soul

No profile of a celebrated personality such as Alan Rubin is complete without a look-see at the person. Gifted with killer looks, Rubin was a magnetic being. Mary Moreno, later his wife and a tremendous musician, poet, and writer in her own right, recalls first meeting Rubin at a demo session of hers. Moreno, originally from Chicago came to New York working on jingle production with folks such as Barry Manilow and all the various "Jingle Queens and Kings." At her own recording session, she was awestruck by everything about him and vice versa. "He walked into the room and I was done for," Moreno said. "I couldn't take my eyes off of him throughout the session. When it was over and the guys were packing up, I walked over to him and said: 'Thanks for playing my music. He kissed me on the lips and said: 'I'm going to fall in love with you.' What followed was nine intense and crazy months that culminated in his going on the road with the Blues Brothers and leaving me behind. We would meet up again nine years later at New York's legendary jazz club, "Mikell's." I'd dropped in to hear Lew Soloff who was playing with Peter Gordon's band, French Toast. I was sitting alone at the bar when Alan walked in, also alone. The chemistry was still there and this time it held. We were joined at the hip from then on."

"Brothers" Above All

Rubin and pal Lew Soloff, both Jewish by religion, culture, and a "New York Jewish Thing," had a very special bond and a comedic, yet quirky commonality. They were soul brothers since first meeting as teenagers and that relationship continued till the end of Rubin's life. When that occurred, Lew was inconsolable. Soloff, reflecting on their bond, tells the story about being "fired" from Blood, Sweat & Tears and Alan, when offered the slot, refused to do so stating "I have to talk to Lewis!" Sometime later in a different situation, the roles were reversed, but, the result was the same. Lew said no to the offer. Lew was Alan's Best Man at his wedding. Alan is Godfather to Lew's first-born daughter, Laura. Soloff would recount the names of many players for whom Rubin opened doors to the business, launching their careers. Some of those same people "sadly betrayed him," according to Soloff.

The Razor Wit

Rubin could be very demanding, yet professional with his fellow musicians. A perfectionist's perfectionist, Rubin's expectations on others was only surpassed by those he placed on himself. He did not tolerate musical fools lightly. In a telling anecdote, Tom "Bones" Malone, then 19 years old, recalls an incident when a young Alan Rubin—who was in town from his Robert Goulet gig -was brought in as an emergency replacement for big bandleader/trumpeter Lee Castle's lead player for a gig at the Rainbow Room in New York. Castle was leading the Jimmy Dorsey band. After sight-reading and nailing the date and sounding much superior to the usual lead player, Rubin saw Castle for payment. Castle commended Rubin: "You played pretty well, kid." Rubin, straight-faced quipped: "Well, I sounded a helluva lot better that you did!" Another time at a studio date Rubin, a car buff was proudly displaying a wallet photo he had of a Mercedes 230 SL Roadster he owned. "The suit," AKA, the Client, with an obvious condescending air queried Rubin: "Gee, how does a trumpet player like you get to own a Mercedes?" Not missing a beat, Rubin barked: "I play flugelhorn, too!" Not even crickets. Rubin most likely had that hair-trigger wit as a natural gift. Drummer/producer, Allan Schwartzberg one of Alan's longest friends, said he thinks that comedian Don Rickles -he of legendary sarcasm, bon mot, and the good-natured "insult"-might have possibly influenced Rubin's comedic sense. Rickles and Rubin actually knew each other when the comedian opened for singer Robert Goulet in Las Vegas and Alan was playing lead for Goulet. One day, according to Schwartzberg, Rubin decided to get a "celebrity shave" at the hotel's barber shop. Rickles, recognizing Alan in the chair even though the trumpeter's face was covered in hot towels, walks over picks off the towels from Rubin's head, and yells: "Rubin, you lips are shot!" Of course, Alan and Lew Soloff, a brotherly sort up until Alan's passing in 2011, also had running gags. Randy Brecker recalls one: "Once when Soloff was going to play out in Aspen, Colorado, Alan quipped: 'Hey Lew, let me know if you see and Jews out there!'" All of the very many anecdotes that musicians shared about Alan Rubin are lavished with love, respect, and mutual admiration. The subject of all of the comments was a musician of the highest caliber who demanded as much or more of himself than his fellow players -a professional's professional without doubt.

Alan Rubin passed away on June 8, 2011 of lung cancer in New York. His loving widow, Mary Moreno carries Alan's love, spirit, light, and legacy on in her life and heart and in her own wonderful music, poetry, and writing career. Alan Rubin was truly a beloved soul and sui generis. He was much, much more than "Mr. Fabulous." When he would be asked about his prodigious career, he would usually quip: "Been everywhere. Played with Everybody." Alan Rubin was indeed "a son to behold"—both everywhere and by everybody. Go ahead. Cue up "He's Funny—and Fabulous—That Way." And, deeply and lovingly missed.

Many thanks to Mary Moreno, Sharyn Soleimani, Tom "Bones" Malone, "Blue" Lou Marini, Jon Faddis, Miles Evans, Mike Abene, Randy Brecker, Lew DelGatto, Dave Taylor, John Tropea, Dennis Beck, Paul Shaffer, Allan Schwartzberg, Bob Reeves and John Snell of Bob Reeves Mouthpieces, Doc Severinsen, Cathy Leach, Gio Washington-Wright, Dan Miller, Michael Leonhart, Amy Mondello, Heidi Glow, Fabiola Grassi, and the Juilliard School for their kind assistance on this article.

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