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The Era I Almost Missed


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The following is an excerpt from "Section 9: Les Elgart" of The Era I Almost Missed—An Autobiography by Ron Aprea (Self Published, 2021).

The Embers West / Richie Barz

Still rehearsing my band and looking for a room in Manhattan, my drummer Jimmie Young hooked me up with pianist Mike Longo. Mike just finished touring with Dizzy Gillespie, Arnie Lawrence, Ronnie Fink, Richie Barz, and me. Good players are busy, and everybody wanted to play Frank's music, but a one-nighter won't pay the bills, so there was a nucleus of wonderful players doing that gig. Some of them were Lew Soloff, Marvin Stamm, Clyde Reasinger, Bob Millikan, Jimmy Nottingham, Mike Longo, Chris White, Jimmy Cheatham, Britt Woodman, Bill Watrous, Garnett Brown, and Jimmy Owens. Also part of this band was vocalist Danny Riccardi. Danny and I went way back to my early rehearsal days in Jackson Heights. He would often come up to the studio with his girlfriend to listen. He later toured with the Dorsey Band under Urbie Green's leadership, as well as Si Zentner's big band. And Danny had a great book of Larry Wilcox arrangements. So, with Frank Foster's instrumentals and Larry Wilcox's vocals, this band always swung.

Arnie Lawrence had spent years working in the Catskills and when we met at Frank's rehearsal in Harlem, he had just made the move to Queens. So, my band was a good vehicle to help him meet the cats. After a set which featured a few solos by Arnie, my trombonist Jimmy Cheatham wanted to know who that alto player was, and asked for his phone number. I later learned that Jimmy was doing a lot of work with Chico Hamilton. Soon after that Arnie would be recording with Chico. One night, Chico came down to the Embers West to hear my band and I invited him to sit in. He did, and we had a blast.

The Embers West became the hot spot in town and I'd see folks like Joe Williams, Woody Herman, and Ella Fitzgerald in the audience checking us out. My baritone player, Richie Barz was also Les Elgart's manager. During a break Richie asks me if I'd be interested in doing a tour on lead alto with the Elgart band, and for a few extra bucks would I manage the band. I said yes to both and took a couple of weeks off from the Embers West and did the tour.

Les Elgart was born August 3, 1917, in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a swing jazz bandleader and trumpeter. During the 1940s he was a member of bands led by Raymond Scott, Charlie Spivak, and Harry James, occasionally finding himself alongside his brother Larry. They formed the Les & Larry Elgart Ensemble in 1945, hiring Nelson Riddle, Ralph Flanagan, and Bill Finegan to write arrangements, though their ensemble broke up in 1948. In 1952, they reunited and released albums on Columbia Records, including "Bandstand Boogie," used by Dick Clark as his theme for the television dance show American Bandstand. In the 1960s, Les and Larry Elgart's big bands were among the busiest in the business. Elgart has 30 albums to his credit.

The musicians for the Elgart tour met at Charlie's Bar in mid-town Manhattan. It was late afternoon and the bus would pick us up and head for New Jersey. An hour or so later the bus stops in front of a tavern and everybody gets out of the bus and heads into the pub. I'm sitting at the bar next to Les and I hear him order three martinis and a beer, and he starts gulping them down like they're sodas. I wasn't a drinker, and I started getting tired, so I went back to the empty bus. The most comfortable seat was the one in the back of the bus, so I spread out, and then immediately fell asleep.

I don't know how long I was sleeping but I wake up to a hail of punches. I open my eyes and I see Les looking like an insane man, throwing punches at me and growling "You're sleeping in the Skipper's bed." Then he added "Nobody sleeps in the skipper's bunk." Now in total shock, I put up my arms to protect myself, then push him back so that I can get up and figure out what the hell is going on. I make my way past him and now he's between me and the bathroom. With fists clenched for battle and staring into my eyes with the most insane look I have ever seen, he growls, "Now you're gonna have to fight the skipper." Am I having a friggin' nightmare? Les Elgart wants to fight me? I paused for a few seconds, and, trying to defuse the situation, I replied "I don't want to fight you." But he insisted "You have to fight me!" Les was drunk out of his mind and was having trouble just standing, so I repeated that I didn't want to fight. He then says "You're afraid." I said "Yep, I'm afraid." He said "I thought so." I said "I'm afraid that I might kill you." With that he unclenched his fists, laid down and went to sleep.

The remaining musicians at the bar returned and we were on our way. We drove through most of the night and checked into a hotel somewhere in the Midwest.

My phone rings in the morning, and it's Les, and he invites me to have breakfast with him. I'm hoping that he was too drunk to remember what went down the night before, so I meet him in the dining room of the hotel. What a sweet man. And a completely different person from the maniac who wanted to fight me the night before.

I was surprised at how he opened up and talked about his drinking problem and how it caused him to be violent. He also explained that he didn't understand it himself, but he always attacked the people who he liked the most. Well, he didn't know me so I still didn't know why he attacked me. But I listened, and realized that I was experiencing something deeper than anything I'd previously encountered. We ended the conversation with him telling me to never challenge him when he's drunk. He told me to just say "Les, be cool" and that would stop him. This was so weird. Les Elgart preparing me to stop him when he couldn't stop himself. Could this be the same Les Elgart whose albums I listened to for years? Yes, really weird.

Larry Elgart played lead alto on the recordings and he had a very unique soft tone, which was the trademark sound of that band. For this tour I would be playing Larry's book, and I was concerned about duplicating his style. So, for a few days prior to the tour, I listened to the only Elgart record in my collection, and practiced along with that recording, trying my best to sound like Larry. Well, we get past the "Sleeping in the Skipper's bed fiasco," and we're on our first gig. Les must have been reading my mind, as right before the downbeat he walks over, and standing in front of my stand, he softly says "Don't worry about sounding like Larry...nobody can." Then adds "Just do your best to play in that style." Wow, that relieved a lot of pressure. I did my best, and that subject never came up again.

This two-week tour felt like two years, with one crisis after another. Les went after one of the trumpet players on the bus and fell awkwardly, twisting his knee. His knee blew up badly and we dropped him off at a hospital and headed for the next town. We were doing 300 to 500 miles a day and they were all one-nighters. So, Les had to get his knee fixed and fly to the next gig.

I remember playing a gig in Sylvania, Ohio and Les was nowhere to be found. Didn't see him for the entire gig until the very end of the last set. Looking pretty disheveled, he drags himself up to the bandstand, and while walking toward his spot in the center of the stage the audience starts booing. A few objects were also thrown... the audience was pissed. Les grabs the mic and in a weird drunken plea he starts explaining how hard it is to be on the road. I'm right behind him and I want him to shut the fuck up and play some music. So, trying to stop what could turn into a major scene, as inconspicuously as possible, I said "Count it off Les." But he continued his rant, and I repeated "Count it off Les." He turned and looked at me the same way he did on the bus that first night...fists clenched and walking towards me, clearly in his fighting mode. I looked him square in the eye and said, "Les, be cool..."and like magic, he stopped and said, "Count it off Ron."

The craziness continues somewhere in the Midwest. Les' wife meets us and spends an evening at our hotel. Les hadn't started drinking yet on this day and he introduces me to his very pretty wife. We talk for a while and several musicians from the band congregate in their room. The drinking starts and Les and his wife get into a screaming match. She accuses him of loving his dog more than he loves her, and he screams that he knew the dog longer. Then she gets in his face and tells him that his brother Larry takes the good gigs and is playing at the Riverboat in New York City, and sends Les out on the road playing one-nighters. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. Pow! He smacks her. I jump in and restrain him and she runs out and makes arrangements to get her own room. Around 1 a.m. my room phone rings and it's Les' wife. She wanted to know if I had a beer. I did, and I brought it to her room. Her demeanor was a little odd, and I'm feeling like she's hitting on me. But I'm counting the days for this tour to be over and there's no way that I'm gonna get involved with this craziness. Besides, in a strange way I loved Les and certainly respected his accomplishments in the world of music. I flipped her the beer, smiled and said goodnight.

I was handling the payroll and it got a little tricky with the exchange when we got to Canada. But back in the U.S. as per our contracts, some venues paid in cash. Les wanted cash from certain gigs so we could take care of salaries and advances for the band members. But with all the wackiness going on I didn't want the responsibility of carrying thousands of dollars, so those cash gigs were paid directly to Les, and he held onto the money. Apparently, a box with a few thousand dollars disappeared in Chicago and the police were called to investigate. The box somehow reappeared, and I think that the bus driver saw the box of cash on the bus while Les was drinking, and brought it to his own room. Case closed. But I always suspected that the bus driver had plans for a bonanza, but got cold feet when the cops arrived.

The one bright spot, and maybe the only bright spot was playing alongside Lew Tabackin every night. Lew was new in town and had just come to New York from Philadelphia when he got the call for this tour. Les would feature Lew every night with just the rhythm section and Lew always sounded amazing. Lew and I became good friends and after the tour he played in my band at the Embers West. How lucky was I to have Lew Tabackin, Frank Foster, and Arnie Lawrence in my sax section at the same time?


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