The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 2

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 2

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Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1

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Both Conrad Thibault and Annamary Dickey have commented on what an unusual team you and Frank Black were. They said that in every observable way, the two of you seem to have nothing in common except being pianists, arrangers, and conductors. Considering those differences, would enable the two of you to work together so well in radio?

I can see the differences they’re talking about, but they didn’t see how Frank and I interacted as business partners. What made it work, really, was Frank’s sense of humor—which was never on display in the studio—and the fact that we accepted our differences. Frank was extremely ambitious and ultimately it paid off for him: he became the Music Director for NBC. He had wanted to become a nationally known conductor of classical music. He knew that I had no such goal and that I was more interested in leading a balanced life, being not only married but the father of four kids. I can conduct most of the classical vocal and symphonic repertory, but as Frank knew, my real interest was in popular music.

 

There are almost no photos in which Frank Black is shown smiling, so it’s hard to detect any sense of humor from photographs of him.

Yes, but he had one. After he got a doctoral degree, he began insisting that he be billed and called “Dr. Frank Black.” He wanted an honorary degree because NBC always referred to Walter Damrosch as “Dr. Walter Damrosch.” He had graduated from Haverford [College], and his fame on radio netted him an honorary degree from there. I have two honorary doctorates but to me they’re nothing more than that—they’re honors, not degrees. And by the way, they come with a price tag on them because you’re expected to give money to the college.

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Frank Black in the 1930s (left), and billed as “Dr. Frank Black”
on a World War II–era V Disc

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Anyway, I really used to give it to him about this “Dr. Black” business. I would be in my office and would deliberately buzz our switchboard operator and say, “Please put me through to Dr. Black, and when he asks you who’s calling, tell him it’s Dr. Haenschen.” I used to razz him about it—never in front of a performer, of course—but I might say to him, “Jeez, Frank, this elbow of mine is really giving me trouble. Would you take a look at it and write a prescription for me?” He’d laugh because the razzing was a private thing between us.

 

Did you socialize together?

From time to time I would invite him to join Roxie and me and the Meltons on my boat. Frank was very fond of Jim Melton, and they worked together on several of Jim’s radio shows. He always wanted Frank as his conductor, and Frank liked working with Jim. So Jim and his wife Marjo [Marjorie], and sometimes just Jim and Frank and I, would cruise around Long Island on Sundays.

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Haenschen aboard the yacht that Frank Munn and
James Melton helped him restore (1929)

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I’ve seen photos of what you call your “boat” but those who were on it say it was a full-fledged yacht.

Technically, it was because 56 feet qualifies as a yacht. It was a mess when I bought it. It was built before World War One, and I had to redo it completely, which I enjoyed. I had two very able “helpers” in Jim Melton and Frank Munn, along with my son Richard and several of his friends. Jim Melton was a self-taught woodworker, and of course Frank had been a machinist, so I called on both of them to help me redo this yacht. Frank [Munn] and I did most of the machining in my shop at the house, and Jim did some of the finishing with marine-grade varnish. We’d work on it for three or four hours, and then we’d go in the house and Roxie would have our cook make whatever we wanted to eat.

That boat—or yacht—project, along with Jim’s collection of antique cars, had a lot to do with how he and Frank Munn became good friends. I couldn’t count how many gears, pulleys, and body panels I made in my shop for Jim’s growing collection of cars. Frank [Munn] would come over and he would work with me to sketch the parts and do the [specifications]. I did all the welding because I was pretty good with either gas or electric welding, which Frank hadn’t done a lot of. As Jim watched us making these special parts, he came to admire Frank more and more.

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Antique-car enthusiast James Melton at the wheel, with members of the Denver Horseless Carriage Club (1950).

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It was the same with the yacht. Frank [Munn] and I tore out the steam powerplant that the boat originally had, and I put in a twelve-cylinder gasoline engine that I had bored out, and I added a supercharger to maximize the horsepower. I put in a smaller gas engine to drive an AC generator so we could cook electrically and use electric lights, fans, and other appliances. I designed the new drive system, and Frank [Munn] and I made the transmission and machined the main drive shaft. I bought the propeller, and after working on so many of them when I was in the Navy, I knew how to balance it to get the most out of it.

 

What you call your “shop” is a little like what you call a “boat.” Your “shop” is a metal-working factory, and I think you’ll agree with that.

Well, all right, I’ll go along with “factory” because I can make just about anything there, I built it when I bought the acreage we live on in Norwalk [Connecticut], and as you probably noticed, all of the machines were originally belt-driven. I left all of the drive shafts in place, including the big Westinghouse motor that powered them, but then I adapted each piece of machinery to be run by a separate motor.

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Haenschen as blacksmith (St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
April 23, 1939)

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Your son Richard told me a story that I’m sure you’ll remember because it involved Frank Munn and the entryway to the cabin.

That was a hell of a thing. After I finished replacing the beams on the door frame of the cabin, Richard said to me, “Dad, that the space is too narrow for Frank to be able to go into the cabin.” That’s where the galley was, so we served our meals in the cabin. I couldn’t redo the entrance at that point, but I was so glad that Richard caught it because I special-ordered dining tables and large swivel chairs for the deck, and I had an electric awning that could cover the entire back of the deck so that I could always eat there with Frank. And on that subject, this will tell you about Jim Melton: he was just tall enough, about six-feet-three, that he had to watch his head when he went into the cabin. He used that as an excuse to eat on the deck with Frank and me.

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 (Left to right) Frank Munn, Lucy Monroe, and Gus Haenschen in a 1936 publicity shot for “The American Album of Familiar Music.” The program made its debut on NBC on October 11, 1931.

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The sad fact about James Melton was that he died young, apparently from alcohol poisoning. Would you ever have predicted that his life would come to such a tragic end?

No, I didn’t see it coming but later on, when I had to deal with that in my own family, I learned more about alcoholism. Being hyperactive is often a factor in alcohol abuse, and it was in Jim Melton’s case. Anyone who knew Jim will tell you that he was hyperactive. He had to be doing something all the time, and it was very hard for him to relax. He couldn’t sit and have a leisurely conversation with you—he just wasn’t made that way.

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Melton in the movies (1935)

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When he would come over to our house, if the weather was nice, I would ask him to help our son Richard get better at football. Jim had played football in high school, and maybe at the University of Florida when he went there. So he would go outside and throw pass after pass to Richard and any friends of Richard who might be visiting that day. That would help him burn off some of his energy, and then he’d be calm for a while.

 

What was it about him that enabled him to get so many radio programs in prime time, with some of the biggest-name sponsors?

He had a way with people, especially people in power, but his eagerness almost always got in his way. For instance, he got to know Henry Ford II and his wife, and on a boat trip with them he talked Henry Ford into sponsoring a radio program for him. If he dealt with Ford the way he did with other sponsors, he’d get what he wanted and then would either want more—usually more money—or else he would stop socializing with them, or do something that sent a message that he had gotten what he wanted and that was that. I always thought that Henry Ford gave it just to put a stop to Jim badgering him about sponsoring a show for him. He could be very pushy that way—and after a while Ford pulled the plug on that show.

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Frank Black (left), Dorothy Warenskjold (center), and James Melton during a “Ford Festival” broadcast in the early 1950s.

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He even managed to get Irving Berlin to let him do an entire program about “Annie Get Your Gun” a week or so before the Broadway premiere—and Berlin was even part of the broadcast.

Yes, but there were reasons for that. At first, Berlin wasn’t as confident about “Annie Get Your Gun” as he was with the shows he had done when he was younger. As I remember it, it wasn’t until Dick Rogers told him how perfect the score was that Berlin felt that the show was going to be a hit. From then on, Berlin took every opportunity to promote the premiere. Melton’s show had good ratings at the time, so it was a good program for Berlin to promote “Annie.” And trust me, there wasn’t one word in Melton’s script, or one bar of music, that Berlin didn’t approve during the rehearsals.

If you look at the number of radio shows that [Melton] had, many of them didn’t last. He had to be the singer and the emcee, which was a big mistake because he minimized the announcer’s role. All he wanted the announcer to say was, “And now, here’s our star, James Melton,” then introduce the commercials, and say “Tune in next week” at the end of the show. He thought he was a great emcee but he was adequate at best. Frank Black often had to tell him that he was talking too fast when he was introducing whatever song he was going to sing next.

 

Were you surprised when he made the transition from popular music into the tenor ranks of the Metropolitan Opera?

The Met had always been his goal. I remember his debut in The Magic Flute very well, which was done in English in that production. Jim had very good guidance. [Wilfrid] Pelletier helped refine his phrasing in the French and Italian roles. [Melton] looked great onstage because he was tall, broad-shouldered, and very trim. He was especially good in Traviata, which I saw him in several times.

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James Melton as Pinkerton in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly.

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He had always wanted to sing Pinkerton in Butterfly, which he did at the Met, but it wasn’t his best role. The tessitura was a little too high for his voice. He was at his best when he could sing a B-flat. Now, he could sing the B-natural and even the high-C, [but] they didn’t have the “ping” that a tenor needs to have if he sings Pinkerton.

 

Did you stay in touch with him after it became apparent that he was becoming more and more dysfunctional?

No. I had to cut him off. I had already seen enough in my life, going back to my own father, of how destructive alcohol can be to a family. Jim called me at home at all hours of the night, drunk and wanting money from me, so finally I just cut him off completely. He died in some fleabag hotel, drunk and alone. Roxie and I stayed close to Marjo and their daughter Margo, and we felt helpless because of the way he left them. He abandoned them. One thing that struck me was that his alcoholism never affected his voice. He made some low-budget recordings a year or so before he died, and he sounded just like he did twenty years earlier.

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(Top) In 1948, Melton moved to Florida with his collection of antique cars and opened Autorama, a tourist attraction that closed following his death in 1961. (Bottom) Melton on a cut-rate Tops LP in the 1950s, an ignominious ending for a one-time Victor Red Seal star.

 

His style seems to have changed, though. After he left The Revelers, he sounded like an Irish tenor, but after the war he sounded more “mainstream” for want of a better word.

He was trying to sound like [John] McCormack at first, almost to the point that he sounded like an impersonator. He stopped that after he had a bad experience with McCormack.

 

Did you know John McCormack?

In a funny way, yes. We had the same dentist, a very well-known oral surgeon in Manhattan. I was surprised that McCormack let him do this—although it’s probably because McCormack didn’t have to pay him—but the dentist was very proud of a special set of dentures he had designed for McCormack to use in his concerts.

These dentures were very lightweight, and the upper plate had no artificial “roof”—it was just a U-shaped denture that left the roof of the mouth exposed. They were cosmetic, not for eating, and the dentist was so proud of them that he had a set in a display case in his waiting room, with a thank-you note that McCormack had signed.

Anyway, I was introduced to McCormack several times but I can’t say that I knew him. I had heard him in concert when I was in college, and maybe four or five times later on. There was nobody like him on a concert platform.

 

Returning to you and “Dr. Black,” how did the two of you and your other partners go about developing the World Broadcasting Company?

For the first three years, World Broadcasting was all-consuming. We had to hire lots of musicians, arrangers, and engineers for Sound Studios, which we built and where we did the recording sessions. The small independent stations were clamoring for more and more recordings, so we had to run Sound Studios almost like a factory. We started recording at 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, and took a half-hour break at 2:00 p.m., which usually lasted about forty-five minutes by the time we were recording again. We would record till 6:00 p.m., and that would be a typical daytime session.

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(Top) World Broadcasting / Sound Studios’ 1931 announcement of Western Electric Noiseless Transcriptions, embodying vinylite pressings and other improvements. (Bottom left) A standard World Broadcasting transcription label, mid-1930s; (bottom right) Sound Studios’ special “Superman” transcription label, 1940s.

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Since most of the guys we hired to play for us were in bands and had nighttime gigs, we started holding a midnight session that would last till 3:00 a.m. We did those on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We always had the best catered food—a really impressive buffet—at every daytime session and at those midnight ones as well. But the food, good as it was, wasn’t what enabled us to get anybody we wanted in our sessions. The key was that we paid everyone 25% over scale for each session. This was during the worst of the Depression, so a really driven guy like Artie Shaw would do a morning and afternoon session before playing an evening gig with whatever band he was playing in.

 

Aside from you, Ben Selvin, and Frank Black, who were the conductors you retained for the World Broadcasting sessions?

We used everybody we could get—Vic Arden, Ed Smalle, Ben Bernie, Jack Denny, Jerry Freedman, Harold Stanford, Don Donnie, Gene Ormandy, Don Voorhees, and of course Ben [Selvin]. For the first year, Ben, Vic [Arden] and Frank [Black] and I conducted the daytime sessions.

 

Were Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim with you at World Broadcasting?

No, they were in California by then. But we did give some aspiring conductors their starts as well. We may have been the first to have André Kostelanetz conduct, and also Edwin McArthur. Both were pianists and arrangers for us.

 

I’d like to make it a matter of record that when you and Eugene Ormandy happened to see each other here at Philharmonic Hall when he was with a group, he made a point of introducing you to each of his friends and said you had given him his start, but as a dance-band leader.

It’s true, and we also used Gene as an arranger.

 

We’ll also make it a matter of record that you said to him, “Good to see you, Gene, and if this symphonic gig doesn’t work out, I think I can get you some dance-band work.” From your files, it appears that every future leader of one of the big bands—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller—all played in World Broadcasting sessions. So did Jan Peerce, among the vocalists you used a lot at World Broadcasting.

He wasn’t “Jan Peerce” back then. He was “Pinky Pearl” when we first hired him. He was exactly the kind of performer we were always looking for. He was a violinist and a singer, and he could play “straight” violin as well as jazz violin. As he told you, his inspiration was Joe Venuti, the greatest of them all. Jan wasn’t the improviser that Joe Venuti was, but he was very, very good. As a singer, he could do songs from operettas like The Student Prince, Rose Marie, and the others, but he could also sing like a crooner. We used him under lots of different names.

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Jan Peerce (left) and Ben Selvin

 

I know that you wanted to get his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, for some World Broadcasting sessions, but I take it that Peerce blocked it. Is that right?

I had no idea that there was such animosity between them, but I found out when I mentioned to Jan that I’d like to use Tucker for some studio sessions. Tucker was doing the “Chicago Theatre of the Air” every week, and he was building a name for himself through those broadcasts.

 

Was Peerce already at the Met at that time?

Yes, and he was doing very, very well. He was managed by [Sol] Hurok, and he was one of Hurok’s personal favorites. I don’t know what [Peerce’s] problem with Tucker was, but Jan blew his top when I brought up his name, and it really put me off. I knew several of the guys who helped Jan when he was coming up, and I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t let anybody help his brother-in-law. But fate has a way of taking care of things, and Tucker is the “king of the Met” and Jan isn’t there anymore. He did well on Broadway, though, in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

I was able to help Tucker after all, and I know that Jan found out about it. I had heard from John Charles Thomas that he was having trouble getting a summer replacement on “The Westinghouse Hour,” so I suggested Tucker to John, and Tucker ended up being his summer replacement.

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(Left to right) Conductor Emil Cooper, Richard Tucker, Paul Althouse (Tucker’s teacher), Jan Peerce, and Edward Johnson after Tucker’s Metropolitan Opera debut (January 25, 1945)

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Who were some of the other singers who made World Broadcasting transcriptions?

Most of the singers we had at Brunswick—Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, Frank Luther, Billy Hillpot, Billy Mann, Morton Downey, Scrappy Lambert, and of course Frank Munn—worked for us at World Broadcasting. We also used Irving Kaufman, and sometimes his brother Jack, when they were available.

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A 1939 ad for World Broadcasting’s Library Service. Along with Associated, NBC, and others, World offered a subscription service that provided radio stations with long-playing, multi-selection transcriptions by nationally known artists—some of whom appeared under aliases because they held exclusive contracts with the commercial labels.

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Vaughn Monroe shows up in some of the World Broadcasting sessions. Was he one of your singers?

No, Vaughn played trumpet with us, although he did sing in trios, quartets and such. He was like Jim Melton, who doubled as a sax player for us while he was in The Revelers.

 

Let’s stay with the saxophone, because just about every sax player seems except Carmen Lombardo played in those Sound Studios sessions. I’m assuming that you know all of the Lombardos, am I right?

Oh, sure. I had tried to get them during my last year at Brunswick. Ben [Selvin] signed them to Columbia, and he really helped them. You know why Guy is the leader, don’t you? It’s because he’s the only one of the brothers who wasn’t a good musician. Supposedly, he played the violin but he wasn’t any good, yet he was nice-looking and he had a good speaking voice so he became the leader. Carmen [Lombardo] is the one who came up with the Lombardo sound, and he was always the behind-the-scenes leader of the band. Guy’s real passion is boating. I think he’s still competing in big-league powerboat racing.

 

Your friend Tony Randall is on a television campaign to bring back Carmen as the band’s vocalist. Do you think that will happen?

As long as Carmen doesn’t have to be interviewed, he might do it for Tony because they’re good friends. Anybody who knows Carmen will tell you that he’s nothing like the caricature of him. Of the brothers, Carmen is the one who’s known for liking the ladies, and they like him. He also has a great sense of humor. So do Victor and Lebert and Guy. Their philosophy has always been that the more they get made fun of, the more attention the band gets, and they laugh all the way to the bank. But make no mistake about it, Carmen is the leader and the main arranger, and always has been. The precision of that sax section is Carmen’s doing. They play so tightly that even their vibratos are in synch.

 

One of the sax players you used in many World Broadcasting sessions was Fred MacMurray, whom I never knew was a musician.

Fred was a very good tenor-sax man. He was with George Olsen’s band, but he did as much freelance work as he could get. He did some singing with George, as did Fran Frey, another of George’s sax men. We used Fran in some of our sessions, but not as much as Fred. Later on, Sid Caesar did some work for us [at World broadcasting] and he played in one of my radio bands.

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Future comedians Fred MacMurray (top left) and Sid Caesar (top right) did session work for Haenschen at World Broadcasting, as saxophone players. Below, Caesar with the Coast Guards’ Brooklyn Barracks Band (center, standing with clarinet).

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The comedian Sid Caesar?

Yes, that Sid Caesar—a hell of a good tenor sax man. He had been playing sax in the Catskills while he was doing comedies and impersonations there. He was in the Coast Guard during the war, but he was stationed in New York and he played for us as often as he could.

 

How would the great sax players of what’s now called the “Big Band Era” compare with such greats as Rudy Wiedoeft and Benny Krueger, whom you recorded at Brunswick?

If Rudy or Benny were still here, they would tell you that the Brown brothers, or the Six Brown Brothers as they were billed, were every bit as good as they were. Tom Brown led the band, which was a saxophone quintet at first—two alto saxes plus a bass, baritone and tenor sax. The other brothers—Bill, Percy, Alec, Fred, and Vernie—played the bass, baritone, and tenor saxes. For me, though, Rudy Wiedoeft was the best sax player I ever worked with, but I also knew him better than the others.

Rudy, Benny [ Krueger] and all of the top-notch sax players back then had what reed players call a “diaphragmatic vibrato.” Some of the later sax players used jaw muscles for the vibrato. Tex Beneke could do both, but a lot of the time he used the “jaw vibrato.” If you watch film of Tex playing, and then watch Rudy Wiedoeft, you won’t see any movement of the jaw in Rudy’s playing. That’s the difference between a vibrato that comes from the diaphragm, like an opera singer has, and a “jaw vibrato.” Sax players can get away with a jaw vibrato, but a clarinetist can’t because the embouchure, or the way the lips are placed on the mouthpiece, is much tighter than on a saxophone.

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Haenschen plays Detroit (May 2, 1940)

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You had another reed player who has done very well for himself: Mitch Miller.

Mitch was one of the best oboists in the business—I can’t think of any other oboist who could match him.

 

He and Percy Faith, with John Hammond, remade Columbia Records. Was Percy Faith in any of the Sound Studios sessions?

No, he wasn’t in New York in those days. He’s Canadian, and the Lombardos helped him get work in Chicago as an arranger and conductor. He worked for Jack Kapp at Decca, and later on he conducted “The Contented Hour.”

 

That was one of your radio shows, wasn’t it?

Yes, and most of the band had also done World Broadcasting sessions with me. Both of the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, and I think Artie [Shaw] were in “The Contented Hour” band during my time with the show.

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Do you remember if Benny Goodman was in that band? Was he a “doubler” like Shaw was?

Benny Goodman is one of the finest clarinetists I’ve heard, but he was also one of the worst sax players I ever heard. What amazed me was that he couldn’t tell the difference. He couldn’t hear how bad his tone on the sax was. Now, Artie, on the other hand, was every bit as fine a sax player as he was a clarinetist. The same with Jimmy Dorsey, who was equally good on both instruments. I would put Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw up against any sax players, even Rudy Wiedoeft, and they would hold their own.

 

Do you recall the incident that Artie Shaw talked about, the incident between Benny Goodman and him during a rehearsal that you were conducting?

That was for one of our radio shows, not World Broadcasting—but yes, I remembered it when Artie brought it up. The two of them were side-by-side in the sax section, and Artie always played the lead and Benny the second part. All I remember is that when we ran through a passage a second time, the lead sax was under pitch and had this buzzy sort of tone. I stopped and said, “Who played that?” Benny jumped up and said, “I did!”

I remember questioning Artie, and him saying that Benny had asked him to play the lead for change. All I said was, “Don’t do that again” and went on with the rehearsal. If I didn’t know Benny, I’d think he still holds that against me. But I know him, and he’s just plain dense. There are so many stories about what an oddball he is, and most of them are true.

 

Did you have black players in the World Broadcasting sessions, along with white players?

Definitely. The sax players, for instance, included Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, who were terrific players, and they were good clarinetists too.

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Benny Carter (top) and Johnny Hodges.

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Was there any resistance from white players?

Not unless they wanted to get fired. Seriously, though, every player we had—and I can’t think of a single exception—were in awe of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington because they set the standards for jazz. I had recorded Duke at Brunswick, but that was before he developed his own style. That’s just a short list if you think of the pianists of that era—James P. Johnson in particular, and Fats Waller, who was a classical organist in addition to a terrific pianist.

A lot of the small stations in the South and the Midwest wanted gospel songs, so we brought in groups from the Tuskegee and the Fisk University singers. Often we used members of the choirs of the big congregations in Harlem.

 

Especially in the Midwest, there must have been a demand for “hillbilly” music. Did you import any performers like the ones Jack Kapp brought to you at Brunswick?

No. When Jack [Kapp] was recording those backwoods players, he was using field-recording equipment most of the time. We never did field recordings. All of our sessions were done at Sound Studios.

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1937

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You had some of the finest brass players ever—and yet there was one whom neither you nor Ben Selvin have any memory of: Bix Beiderbecke. When I interviewed both of you and brought up that name, Mr. Selvin said, “Oh, he was great,” or words to that effect, and then he said, “Didn’t you think so, Gus?” Your reply, which I transcribed, was, “Benny, I don’t know how many people have asked me about him, and to tell you the truth I never heard of him.” That prompted Mr. Selvin to say, “I thought I was the only one! I’ve been shown pictures of this guy, and I swear he was never in any band that I recorded!”

But that’s the truth. The stories I’ve heard are that even Louis Armstrong considered him an equal. I find that very hard to believe, but Artie [Shaw] said he roomed with [Beiderbecke] and that he was in several World Broadcasting sessions. Jim Lytell remembered him very well, too. All I can say is that if the guy was in any band that I directed, he must have sneaked in, played, and sneaked out.

 

It’s more remarkable that Ben Selvin had no memory of Beiderbecke because it was Ben Selvin who got Paul Whiteman to sign with Columbia, and Bix Beiderbecke was in the Whiteman band at that time. Is it possible that both of you didn’t know all the players you used at World Broadcasting and on some of your radio shows?

Well, if you want to be literal about it, it’s possible but very, very unlikely, especially at World Broadcasting. We always had five or six players on call for every instrument in those sessions. We had to have that many because of the number of recording sessions day after day.

Now, it is possible that a player we didn’t use very often—and keep in mind that we hired players based on recommendations from the other players on our payroll—it’s possible that some player might not stand out because of the type of music we were recording. We weren’t recording jazz, we were recording pop instrumental music.

To be honest about it, most of the players who were “regulars,” and I’ll use the Dorseys as an example, played in our sessions for the money because that’s all that was in it for them. I’m sure Tommy Dorsey couldn’t stand many of our arrangements, but it was steady work and very well-paying work. Payday was every Friday, and if a player needed an advance, we’d give it to them and deduct it at the end of the week.

You have to remember that these guys were known to each other, but not to the public. In 1932, Artie Shaw could walk down any street in broad daylight and nobody would know he was. Ten years later, he would be hounded everywhere he went. But during the worst of the Depression, all of these players needed the money, and we were paying more than they were getting anywhere else. Our sessions went like clockwork, so they were in and out, and maybe back again for a second or even a third session. World Broadcasting was a business, and we ran it like one. We were the Ford Motor Company of the radio business.

J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1

Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

 

The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 1

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering the Brunswick years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen recalls his equally remarkable career in radio.

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Some radio historians credit you with pairing Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, and also for putting together The Revelers and making them popular nationally. [1] What do you recall of them, and your role in their popularity on radio?

Where do these stories get started? I had almost nothing to do with the radio success of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, nor with The Revelers’ success. At Brunswick I had directed a lot of recordings of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, but as separate performers. In fact, one of our early Brunswick recordings of a male duet was with Ernie Hare and Al Bernard, not Billy Jones. [2]  If you look at the Brunswick files, you’ll see that I had put a lot of male duos together—Frank Bessinger and Frank Wright, Ed Smalle and Billy Hillpot, for example.

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Al Bernard (left) and Ernest Hare, c. 1920.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Ernie Hare was with [Brunswick] almost from the start. We used him mainly for popular ballads. I don’t think we signed Billy Jones until a year or so after we had Ernie [Hare] under contract. Billy was a light baritone [sic; tenor], and we had him record ballads and novelty songs for us. I can only remember two recordings we did of Jones and Hare together. [3] One was some novelty song, nothing memorable, but it didn’t sound anything like the Jones and Hare of network radio. A little later, we wrote an arrangement of a novelty song, one of many that sprang up after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, a ditty called “Old King Tut.” These were acoustical recordings, as I recall, and of the two only “Old King Tut” sold very well for [Brunswick].

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Billy Jones (left) and Ernest Hare, in the early days of radio
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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While we’re talking about record sales, you may remember when Gene Austin made a comeback in the 1950s. He was a guest on Red Skelton’s television show, and Skelton told viewers that he had done research on Austin’s career and that he had sold over 80,000,000 recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. Is that figure even remotely possible?

That’s nonsense—absolute nonsense! When you interviewed Ben Selvin and me, you’ll remember that we had a big laugh about how many of Ben’s recordings of “Dardanella” were sold. Some so-called researcher claimed that that recording sold 6,000,000 copies. As he and I said when we laughed about it, during the 1920s if a record sold 100,000 copies it was considered a big money-maker. In the early-1930s, as I said before, the record market almost dried up because of the Depression. And let me tell you, Gene Austin probably got a big laugh out of Red Skelton’s “research.” [4]

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Gene Austin, c. 1927 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Thanks for clarifying that. Going back to the subject of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, did they work for you at all on radio?

Not that I recall. They got into radio early, and they attracted very good sponsors. You probably know their radio theme songs: “We two boys, Jones and Hare / Entertain you folks out there / That’s our hap-hap-happiness,” when they were sponsored by the Happiness Candy Company, and “We’re Billy Jones and Ernie Hare / We’re the Interwoven Pair,” when Interwoven Hosiery sponsored their show. They became one of the most popular duos on radio, but I didn’t have anything to do with it and I certainly didn’t “put them together.”

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Jones and Hare, as caricatured by Gaspano Ricca in 1929. The caption refers to their split with the Happiness Candy Company, and subsequent loss of their “Happiness Boys” billing.

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Did you play any role in The Revelers and their radio popularity?

Frank Black gets the credit for The Revelers. It was Frank’s up-tempo arrangements and the hours and hours he spent rehearsing them that made The Revelers one of the most popular groups on radio. [5] Until he began working with them, they were just another male quartet—the Shannon Quartet, or the “Shannon Four” as we billed them at Brunswick. I’m not sure about this but as I remember it, the original group, the Shannon Quartet, had Charles Harrison, Wilfred Glenn, Elliot Shaw, and Lewis James. Ed Smalle was their pianist, and sometimes he sang with them while he was at the piano.

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The Revelers in the late 1920s: Frank Black, Elliott Shaw, Lewis James (back row, left to right); James Melton, Wilfred Glenn (front row, left to right)

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When Frank [Black] took over as accompanist and arranger, he changed the Shannon Four to a quintet by adding Franklyn Baur as the lead tenor. Between Frank Black’s innovative, tight-harmony arrangements and Franklyn Baur’s voice as the new lead tenor, plus the name change from “Shannon Four” to “The Revelers,” the quintet really took off on radio. Frank [Black] and I did feature them on our first radio program after I left Brunswick, “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” I wrote the introductory theme song for the show, which I titled “March of the Champions,” and we called our studio orchestra “The Champion Sparkers.”

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Haenschen (inset, and back row, third from right) and Frank Black (far left) with The Champion Sparkers (1930)

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Did you know Franklyn Baur very well? I ask because the arc of his career was rather short, and he seems to have disappeared from radio and recording for reasons that are unclear.

I knew Baur only as a performer for us, but I didn’t socialize with him or have any involvement with him other than in rehearsals and on the air. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that he made the difference in the success of The Revelers. He had a distinctive voice—a good tone quality, very good intonation, and a range that was more than adequate for the music he sang. He was a good musician with a precise sense of rhythm, which was necessary for the type of arrangements Frank [Black] wrote for The Revelers.

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From Radio Revue (March 1930)

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Do you recall anything specific about working with Franklyn Baur?

He was easy to work with for the most part, although as The Revelers got more press, he tended to want more of the limelight for himself. That created some tension with the others in the group because they were more experienced—most of them were veterans in the [recording] industry, while he was a newcomer by comparison—and, so to say, they were not as impressed with Baur as Baur was with himself.

One funny thing about Baur that used to drive Frank Black nuts was that Baur “conducted” while he was singing. He’d “conduct” with his hand and index finger, and Frank [Black] felt that he did it just to call more attention to himself. Frank had to lay down the law with him about that, but [Baur] would still do it every once in a while.

 

The conventional wisdom about Franklyn Baur’s brief career was that he wanted to become an operatic tenor and performed a recital of French and Italian arias and songs at Town Hall, but received negative reviews and abruptly retired because of those reviews.

That’s not true. His Town Hall recital [on December 4, 1933] went very well and the reviews in The New York Times and the other major newspapers were very good. He toured as a recitalist for another two years, maybe more, but as happened with other pop-music tenors before him, he sang too often—he was still on radio too—and some of the arias he chose for his recitals were wrong for his voice. [6] He developed a nodule on one of his vocal cords, and unfortunately the operation to remove the node wasn’t successful and left him with an impaired voice. That’s what shortened his career.

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Baur’s December 1933 Town Hall recital received generally positive reviews. These excerpts are from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (top left), Brooklyn Times Union (bottom left), and Hartford (CT) Courant (right).

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After Franklyn Baur left The Revelers to pursue his recital career, did James Melton replace him as the lead tenor?

Frank Luther took Baur’s place at first, if my memory is correct, and then Jim Melton succeeded Frank Luther. [7] Melton was a better tenor than Baur, and his performances with The Revelers were exceptional. At that point in Melton’s singing career—he was a tenor-sax man with us before he began singing and before he replaced Frank Luther in The Revelers—he was young and eager and very easy to work with. But he too had bigger ambitions and as time went on, his ambition got in his way. As good as Baur had been for The Revelers, Frank [Black] and I thought that Melton was even better.

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Frank Black in the NBC studio (March 1930)

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Back to your and Frank Black’s first radio programs, I had the impression that “The Palmolive Hour,” which you directed, was your and his first radio show, and that Frank Munn and Virginia Rea sang under the pseudonyms “Paul Oliver” and “Olive Palmer.”

“The Palmolive Hour” was our second show. It was better known because it was in a better time slot and was promoted a lot more than “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” And yes, Frank Munn was our tenor on the “Champion” program, just as he was on the “Palmolive” show, but he sang under his own name on the “Champion” program. Incidentally, I never asked Frank to sign any exclusive contract with us. I wanted him to be able to perform on as many programs as he was offered and could also continue recording for Brunswick and any other labels. Frank and I had become very close friends by then, and I wanted to see him have the best career he could possibly have.

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From Radio Revue (December 1929)

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I’m not sure this is the right time and place to ask to you recount the conflict between James Melton and Frank Munn, but I will ask you to repeat what happened, and what your role was during and after the incident.

Well, it happened in midtown Manhattan after a late-afternoon rehearsal for “The Palmolive Hour.” As I’ve said, Frank was very sensitive about his weight, so he only felt comfortable in certain public places. One of them was his favorite restaurant, just a small place in midtown Manhattan that served good food and treated him like the star he was. He and I had dinner there a lot, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together because Frank was such a sweet guy.

As we were leaving the restaurant and waiting for our driver, I saw Jim Melton approaching us. He was wearing a tuxedo, so he was probably going to a performance after eating a light dinner. In those days, by the way, not only the soloists and the conductor but everyone in the orchestra wore tuxedos. At NBC, the feeling was that through radio we were coming into the listener’s home, and that we should be formally attired even though no one but the studio personnel could see us.

As Frank [Munn] and I were leaving the restaurant and I saw Jim Melton walking toward us with a small group around him, I could tell from his gait and from the look on his face that he was drunk. I don’t like to say this, but Jim Melton was an obnoxious drunk—I don’t know how else to describe him when had been drinking. He walked up to me and said to me, in front of Frank Munn, “Why do you let this fat pig sing on your show instead of me?” Then he turned to Frank and began calling a “pig,” “hog,” and a string of vile curse words.

Melton kept it up and kept it up, and then said sarcastically to Frank, “Oh, Mr. Munn, you’re such a big star, I want your autograph!” Frank just looked down at the sidewalk while Melton was acting out this mocking rant. It went on until suddenly Frank grabbed Melton’s arm in a vice grip—a group so hard that Melton’s knees buckled and he was writhing in pain. Calmly, Frank used his other hand to retrieve from his vest pocket his prized Duofold “Big Red” fountain pen. After uncapping it with his teeth, he wrote his signature across the starched white “bib” of Melton’s tuxedo.

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James Melton (left) and Frank Munn, c. 1930

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When he [Frank Munn] finally capped his pen with his teeth and let go of Melton’s already swelling forearm, he stared at Melton and said, “If I ever hear of you saying terrible things about me again, I will hunt you down and I will break you in half!” By then I had stepped between them, but there was no need because Melton was moaning, his forearm was swelling rapidly and he was coming out of his drunken state.

The next morning at my home, I got a frantic call from Jim [Melton], telling me that his wife told him what he had done the night before and how sorry he was for the insults he had hurled at Frank Munn. He pleaded with me to ask Frank, if he would agree to it, to come to my home so that Melton could meet him there and apologize to him face-to-face.

Jim [Melton] arrived first, his forearm wrapped in medical tape and in a sling, and soon Frank Munn arrived at my house. We sat at my dining-room table, and Melton was so distraught that he actually began to cry. He asked Frank how he could ever forgive him for what he had said the night before. Frank never took his eyes off Melton, and never said a word until he saw how genuinely sorry Melton was.

At that point, Frank extended his hand across the table and waited until Melton grasped his in a tearful handshake. “Jim,” Frank said reassuringly, “it never happened. I have always been an admirer of your singing.” Melton broke down again, but when he regained his composure he assured Frank had he also admired Frank’s voice and artistry. That whole incident was scary, believe me, because I knew Frank Munn’s raw strength. He could have easily fractured or even broken Jim Melton’s forearm. Yet from then on, the two men became each other’s biggest promoter.

James A. Drake
Merritt Island, Florida

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1929

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Editor’s Notes

[1] Victor held exclusive rights to The Revelers name on records; therefore, the group appeared on Brunswick as The Merrymakers.

[2] Bernard and Hare both began recording for Brunswick in late 1919, immediately after the company switched to the lateral-cut process. As a duet, they first appeared on Brunswick 2004, the fourth lateral-cut release in the standard Brunswick series.

[3] Jones began recording for Brunswick c. November 1920. His initial session produced one solo and one duet with Ernest Hare. The team of Jones and Hare actually made numerous recordings for Brunswick from 1920 through 1925, some with top billing, and others as vocalists with dance orchestras that included Haenschen’s own.

[4] Haenschen is correct in asserting that these figures are grossly inflated. In early 1928, for example, the Managers’ Committee of the Victor Talking Machine Company reported the following average sales per release for several of the company’s popular artists: The Revelers (71,900 copies per release); Jesse Crawford (70,000); Johnny Johnson’s Statler Pennsylvanians (47,134 copies); Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Orchestra (46,000); Irene Bordoni (32,134). The figures were significantly lower for Red Seal artists. Rosa Ponselle, one of the line’s better sellers, averaged only 10,740 copies per release for the same period.

[5] Ed Smalle was The Revelers’ original pianist and arranger. Frank Black began working with the group in late 1926, based upon evidence in the Victor files, which reveal that other pianists (including Frank Banta and Milton Rettenberg) were occasionally substituted for Black at the group’s recording sessions.

[6] Baur was also one of the most prolific recording artists of the 1920s, making countless sides (often under pseudonyms) for cheap labels like Banner and Grey Gull, in addition to his work for the more respectable brands.

[7] Luther, soon to be better known for his country-music duets with Carson Robison, replaced Baur c. September 1927 and stayed only briefly, being replaced in late November by Melton, based upon the Victor files.

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Read  Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

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