EARL HINES -
IN CONVERSATION WITH TONY BALDWIN.
In September 1979 Earl Hines was touring Japan, where I had the chance to talk to him. Possibly because there werenít many fluent English speakers around at the time, he gave me far longer than I deserved, and was surprisingly candid with his answers about his early career.
At the end of 1928 Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong were about to part musical company for a number years. They had made the last of their remarkable OKeh small-group sessions in Chicago. Armstrong was heading for New York, and Earl was about to embark on a decade as the resident bandleader at Chicagoís mob-run Grand Terrace. Fifty years later, I asked Earl what he remembered about Weather Bird, his legendary duet with Louis on 5th December 1928:
"Nothing was worked out before. After the band had recorded [No-One Else But You; Beau Koo Jack; Save It, Pretty Mama] they said to Louis, "You and Earl play a solo." So I said, "What are we gonna do, Home?" ó I always called Louis ĎHomeí ó He said, "Iíll play something, you follow me." I said all right. So we went down the first time, I didnít know what he was going to play, so I followed him. Next time we went down, we just played it like, you got eight bars, I got eight bars. Thatís it. There was no music, I just followed him."
The following week, on 12th December, Earlís piano solo 57 Varieties seems to have been recorded in much the same spirit:
"It was an accident. I was recording with Louis, we were down making a session. In the intermission, the guys were all back in the room having dinner and drinking, having a ball. I didnít feel like it, so I was out front playing piano, just fooling around. Finally somebody comes out after Iíd played around awhile and he whispers, "Put an ending, put an ending." I didnít know they were recording me. So I put an ending, and they said "Shhh...weíll finish it." That was it. After I come out, they say, "What are we going to call it?". So one boy says, "His name is Hines, call it ĎHines 57 Varietiesí." I never played it since. I donít know what I did, I was just playing."
On December 28, Hines celebrated his 25th birthday by opening at Chicagoís Grand Terrace with his big band:
"In the 1920s, Chicago had a racial problem. The coloured people could only go so far... I think 45th Street was as far as they could go. There was a night club on 35th Street called ĎThe Sunsetí, and across the street was a club called ĎThe Plantationí. Well, King Oliver was over there, and Sammy Stewart was at the Sunset. Ed Fox was the manager. When they sold the Sunset, Mr. Fox bought the theatre on Oakwood and South Parkway, which is 39th Street. Then he called it the Grand Terrace, because the seating was in terraces. There were no poles, so you could see from any place in there. It was in the belt of the negro, but it was the whites that came mostly. After we started broadcasting, we began to get all the wealthy white people from the North Side. After two years the blacks started coming in, and then we had a mixture of people. Doctors, lawyers, senators, congressmen, shoe-shine boys, girls from the beauty salons... Everything was in there. We still had segregation in a lot of places in Chicago at that time, but there was none in the Grand Terrace.
When I first started there I had 11 men in the band, about twelve chorus girls, one dance act, one comedian, singers and ballroom teams. As it built up, we got sixteen chorus girls and eight parade girls ó who did nothing but walk around in pretty clothes. We had four floormen, whoíd bring you menus and what have you, and twelve waiters.
We used to open up with dance music. There was a great big dance floor. After the dance, weíd have an intermission. Then weíd put on a one-and-a-half or two-hour show. After the show, the broadcast... sometimes a half-hour, sometimes an hour. And after the broadcast, back to another show... two shows a night. Friday and Saturday, three shows.
They were beautiful shows, with great, wonderful acts, and you needed reservations. Tap-dancing was a great thing then, and people were doing some impossible things with their feet. Bojangles, Ethel Waters... all those people were in the show. It was something.
It was also a matter of having good musicians and good arrangers. You had to carry your own arranger to travel with you, because he knew the ability of every man. When he arranged he knew whether this man could make high notes, whether the trumpet player was good for beautiful tones or just a soloist. Same with the saxophones. Omer Simeon played first saxophone, beautiful clarinet. Darnell Howard, rough clarinet.
I found [arranger] Jimmy Mundy in Washington. When I first saw him, he had five arrangements. I said, "I donít want no more arrangements. Iíll give you five dollars apiece." So I bought them. Twenty-five dollars. Very good. So I said, "Well, Iíll take you along with me." He was very reasonable, and he got a good salary and did most of the arranging for the band. Then after we got to a place where my band sounded terrific, Benny Goodman stole him from me. Jimmyís numbers that Benny Goodman used as King of Swing were things Iíd been playing for years. Jersey Bounce and all that, that was in my band.
Goodman succeeded because he had good publicity. If you have a man behind you thatís on the ground floor, get to all the people, the public go by what they read in the paper. I can have the greatest band in the world, but if nobody writes me up, nobody knows it. Louis made a terrific reputation because he was always in the paper. The man that had Louis Armstrong [manager Joe Glaser] just kept him in the paper all the time. Thatís how a lot of people make those reputations.
Our theme at the Grand Terrace was Deep Forest [comp. Reginald Foresythe], but nobody remembers it now. After 1940 I travelled around quite a bit, and we didnít use theme songs so much then. In the one-nighters, what the heck, people wanted to start right in to dancing. They didnít want to hear no theme song. The only time time youíd use a theme song after that was in a theatre or a club, where people are sitting down.
I learned an awful lot about show business from directors and producers in the twelve years I was at the Grand Terrace. Knowing how to produce a show, knowing how to set up a format for a show. The element of surprise means a lot in show business. On stage we used to open the curtain and thereíd be a scrim. You couldnít see anything, just images, until the screen opened, the spotlight hit and then youíd see everybody.
Ellington and myself and Jimmie Lunceford, we used to try different ways of catching the public. I always used to say, "Smile before you frown. Because if you donít, then I think you need dental work." The guys used to laugh at that. I even had illuminated gloves! When the curtain opened, all youíd see was white fingers in the dark. Sometimes we started by lighting just the bell of the [tuba] horn. You could hear the band, but you couldnít see them.
Ellington and me, we were like brothers. He used a lot of my people: Herbie Jeffries, Dolores Parker, Ray Nance. Ivie Anderson, the very first girl he used, was out of my show and out of my band. He used to pester me, so, if I didnít need them Iíd tell him to take them óbecause I was on location, and he was travelling a lot. He was a sweetheart of a man. Very intelligent. Knew what he wanted. He insisted that his type of music was what was going to be played, and if you didnít want to listen to it, that was okay with him. He recorded his band many times where he took it out of his pocket, paid the men himself. He had over $30,000 a year in royalties from ASCAP. He said, "Iím not going to give it to the government, so Iíll put the band on half-salary when theyíre laid off."
Sometimes journalists had a tough time getting a straight answer out of Ellington. Well, after you get out here for a while, there are some people who want to challenge you all the time. Theyíre not sincere with what they do and they have a lot of animosity that was hidden from a guy like Ellington. Because heíd been so successful, theyíd want to tear him apart. He realized that and heíd get angry. Itís the truth, and it happened a lot of the time.
I remember in 1935, when I had the big band, we had an accident in Minneapolis. The pit-band played the overture about four or five times while I was waiting for my band to come in. A reporter came in wanting to interview me, and I said,"I canít talk to you now, Mister. I have an accident." He asked me, didnít I want to talk about it. I said, "No, I donít. Itís very hard for me to try to control myself. I got friends in that band, I understand one of themís dead. Give me a break." [tenor-player Cecil Irwin was killed-AB]. So he wrote a story about my big head, and who did I think I was. And thereís my band out there, some of them with knees crushed, some cut up with flying glass and so on. The sight that I saw was miserable. So I talked to the head of the Associated Press and said I thought it was the lousiest thing this man could have ever done. So he fired him, and they retracted the statement. Then I saw the guy one day in New York. He was on another paper, and he apologized. But thatís what happens with a lot of these journalists.
These days people donít know why big bands used to be so popular in the 1930s and Ď40s. You see, America at that time was dancing. Everybody wanted to dance. The more people kept coming to dances, the bigger the places the promoters had to find. Like weíd go down south, theyíd use a great big tobacco warehouse. Run the bus in, you could hardly see the bus, the place is so big.
So you had to add musicians. From the mid-í30s I had three trumpets, two trombones and three saxophones. Then three trombones and four saxophones. Then four trumpets, five saxophones, and so on. I had three rhythm, then I had four rhythm. It was according to where you were playing and the kind of money you were getting.
In the war years, I had an all-girl string section. I wanted to try something different, because thatís what all the big bands were doing. I talked to this guy in New York, and he said, "Earl, Iíve got a bunch of girls that Iím rehearsing all the time,í" and I said, "Fine. What have you got?" He said he could get me four violins, two violas, a cello, a bass, a harp and a guitar. The theme number we used was Holiday for Strings.
We started it out and people said, "Oh man, what is this?" They didnít realize we had a girl that was a terrific harpist. She was great! I had a girl played first violin, named Angel. She sounded like Eddie South. Very good.
It went along for a while, but it was just too much to carry on the road. Too many people. We had the baggage with the harp, the bass fiddle, the timpani, the drums, the cello. Every time we set out, it was, "Oh no, I canít take all this stuff."
In those days we chartered buses. We used to get a bus out of Chicago for 28 cents a mile, and weíd keep the bus with us. If we pulled into a town and were playing a theatre, the bus driver would pick us up and take us back and forth to the hotel. If we were staying right next to the theatre, heíd take the week off. But then we had an awful lot of one-nighters, and the theatres used to break up the one-nighters. Sometimes weíd go to a town like St. Louis and be there three or four weeks in a nightclub.
The one-nighters werenít too much of a strain at that time, because the distances werenít far. Youíd play Chicago, then youíd go ninety miles to Milwaukee. We very seldom had to go a long distance. That was the reason we kept the bus. Weíd stay all night in the town and get up the next morning about nine, ten oíclock, and everybody had breakfast. Then weíd go 150 or 200 miles, arrive in the afternoon, check in, and play that night. The same thing went every day like that.
Now itís the worst, because the agents realize that you can travel by plane. And when you do that, look at the expense. Theyíve been trying to get me to have a big band again, and I say, "What for? It costs too much." I donít want to play no one-nighters. I got a small combo, and soon Iím going to the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago for six weeks. Then I come over on a tour to England. I play two weeks in Ronnie Scottís, then I cover the continent with Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, doing concerts. I come back to New York, then off to Boston for two weeks, Philadelphia for two weeks, Washington for two weeks, Annapolis for four weeks. See what I mean? No more one-nighters. Gives me the chance to rest up a little bit. This is why Iíd rather have a small group than a big band.
I used to play classical music. If I really wanted to, I could go home and get back on the chromatic scales, the thirteenths and so forth. But what Iím afraid of is, if Iím playing all this odd stuff, the people who come to hear me are going to say, "What the hell are you playing?" So I have to be very careful, but once in a while I stretch out there. Iím going so fast, they donít know whatís happening. Then I go back to the melody.
With the big band, if you had a melody and the people could sing along with it, that always worked. I remember when we used to play these dance halls, some of them had a great big screen in the middle of the hall. We would play a number, the lyrics would come up on the screen, and the people would sing while they were dancing.
One thing that stopped people dancing was when jitterbug came in. They were throwing the girls over their heads. Youíre dancing, and, man, here come a girl flying. What do you do? You donít want to be out there with all that wrestling, so you end up being a spectator.
But the main reason that people eventually stopped dancing was the musical arrangers. Modern music came in, and the arrangers were writing for the excitement of the musicians. First there were just straight chords. Now the people who play those straight chords are dixieland musicians. We had musical scientists, like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, great adventurers who kept stretching, kept looking, kept searching for different chords. Years ago you never heard of a flatted fifth or a double augmented chord. Thereís nothing new in music, because all those things are in classical music. But sometimes it used to get too way out for the general public. Everything was up in the fast tempo, like Dizzy, so people got to the place where they couldnít dance. Theyíd say, "What the hell, weíll go sit down." Some of the bands, you didnít know what the hell they were playing. So people got out of dancing altogether, and then they just stopped coming.
Thatís what made rock come in so big, because it went back to rhythm and blues. Finally they got to a place where people could pat their feet with band tempos that were sensible, and they danced. Thatís why I gave up the big band in Ď48. I went down to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where some wealthy people had a private club and gave this big affair with lots of beautiful guests. Right next door to the hotel where I was staying was a garage that had been turned into a dance hall, with a rhythm and blues group, about six of them, I forgot the name. We had about 300 people to our dance at the club, but when I come back there was about 3000 people outside the garage and about 8000 inside! Just that little band ó you could hear the music for two blocks.
At one time I always used to have four or five records on the juke boxes. This time when I went to Tulsa, there wasnít a big band on there. Nothing but rhythm and blues. So I said, well, thatís it. Thereís no need to try to fight that with a big band. So I got out of it.
When I gave up the big band, first I went with Louis. Joe Glaser said, "Will you go to Europe with us?" What I didnít know was that heíd already sold me over there! So I signed up with Louis for eight weeks and ended up being with him three years, because every time I got ready to quit, heíd keep adding money. But then I wanted to get out, because I had made myself a reputation as a bandleader and a soloist, so I didnít want to be stuck with Armstrong. We were very good friends and all that, but I just wanted to be on my own.
When I moved to California, I was supposed to go there just for eight weeks as a soloist. My family was in Philadelphia, so I went out just to see what it was all about. The proprietor of the Hangover Club, Doc Dougherty, had heard me in Vegas and knew Iíd had a big band, so he wanted me to build a house band for him in San Francisco. I got to rehearsal on a Thursday at twelve oíclock and found that the musicians were a bunch of old guys... [trombonist] Jimmy Archey, Ed Garland, the bass player. The only one I knew was Darnell Howard, who used to be in my big band. So I find out itís dixieland, and Iíd never played no dixieland music! Iíd just got rid of a swing group, and hereís old Ed Garland slapping the bass...oh, Jesus Christ. And the drummerís hitting two beats.
I told my wife, "I canít stay here. Damn, Iím going to put my two weeks notice in. I canít make it." But the house was packed. So she said, "Well, stay there eight weeks, because I like the weather out here." Just before my eight weeks was up, Dougherty come running and said, "I like you to stay three more months and Iíll raise your salary." My wife liked the extra money, so we stayed. Next time it was six months, and he kept raising my salary. You know, every night was a Saturday night...every night. I stayed there five years. I made this man so much damn money, he retired.
But, you know, in my career all the musicians were great. Not only Louis or Dizzy, everybody. Because they loved to play, everybody had a lovely disposition. Itís like you go to a store and work with people, you donít know what theyíre like when they go home. Sometimes they come to work and they donít feel good, well, you donít know what it is. Itís the same with musicians. Thereís no difference."
Transcribed from a taped interview by Anthony Baldwin with Earl Hines at the Grand Palace Hotel, Tokyo, 7th September 1979. Part of this originally appeared in the Asahi Evening News.
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