Last October, a double-sided test pressing of Somebody Loves You
(L-1618-1, 2) of a dance band with vocal was offered through Kurt Nauck's auction list. It
was part of a batch of NYRL and QRS test pressings found at an antique shop in Port
Washington, Wisconsin. The band and its vocalist turned out to be Sig Heller and his
Today, the name of Sig Heller is not well known among collectors of dance band records. Although he is listed (incompletely) in the American Dance Bands discography having recorded for the Broadway label (owned by the New York Recording Laboratories), to me the name did not ring a bell until September 1999.
At that time I was working on one of the chapters of my book about the Wisconsin Chair Company. Going through the New York Recording Laboratories' L-matrix series for Grafton recordings I noticed that a group of Wisconsin-based artists had been issued on the Lyric label, among others. As a Lyric Music Shop existed in Milwaukee around that time 1, I wrote a letter to Milwaukee collector Michael Corenthal and asked if he had known such a label with artists like George King, George Porter, Glen Lyte, Lawrence Welk and Sig Heller, presuming the label had to be a local one, as original Grafton-recorded masters had been used.
Just two hours before my wife and I took off for a two-week holiday, a letter fell on the doormat. Corenthal replied in a way, through which I got overexcited: although he knew of no Lyric label 2, he wrote that he had interviewed Sig Heller two years before.
As soon as I got back from my vacation, I called Corenthal, asking if he knew if Heller was still alive. As he did not know he picked up the phone book and saw a S.E. Heller listed in Milwaukee. Thanking him for the information and the phone number I right away called the Heller estate. His wife Dorothy picked up the phone and told me her husband was not around at that moment but advised me to call back within 45 minutes. After that phone call many others followed until this day. Sig helped me fill in some of the gaps in my book with his personal stories of his recording activity in Grafton, Wisconsin. Numerous letters were sent back and forth and by March 2000, I was able to go to Wisconsin to do some research for my book. One of the highlights of this visit was meeting Sig, while being a guest at the Milwaukee Athletic Club in Milwaukee, a hotel where many local bands like Art Krueger and his Columbians played for dances during the 1920s and 1930s (Krueger also recorded for Broadway).
This man not only had a musical career for more than fifteen years, he had also been a more than average baseball player, still has his own company, the S.E. Heller Company, and wrote more than 200 songs, of which 22 were listed for copyright at the Library of Congress. One of the songs, "U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary March" is being considered as the national Coast Guard song. Having met with former presidents Reagan and Bush, Sr, this man indeed had to tell a story or two.
This article is a compilation of taped interviews, letters and phone conversations with Sig Heller, as well as news clippings provided by Sig.
Sig Heller was born July 8, 1911 in Milwaukee as a son of a German father and an Austrian mother. He started playing violin at the age of five, presumably influenced by his mother, she being a classical musician herself.
Sig Heller formed his first band around 1926 while on high school at Riverside High. The band consisted of Ralph Menge, alto saxophone and clarinet; Russell Dreazy, piano; Harold Zuehlsdorf, drums and tympani; Bob Clague, banjo and guitar; George Krueck, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Wilbur Koeppen, trumpet; and Heller, alto saxophone and clarinet
The band was originally named The Carolina Cardinals although none of the band members originated from that state. It was just a catchy name, but they later changed it into Sig Heller and his Orchestra, after Heller had been elected a bandleader. The reason for changing the band's name lay in the fact that schoolmates called the band the Carolina Criminals.
The repertoire of the band existed of jazz, blues, popular songs, waltzes and even hillbilly and other requests. Because the boys were under 21 years of age, Heller being one of the elder band members, their mothers had to go to City Hall to get working permits. "Twenty-five cents each, and no questions asked. The Union did not bother us because we always were paid more than the Union Scale".
The band soon enough became a popular one in and around Milwaukee. While still at high school the band got a chance to make a trip to Europe by boat. Heller remembered that his mother chaperoned them on this boat trip. "The Antlers Hotel [Milwaukee] gig was our last before going to Europe as an entertaining unit. We were given money to and from New York". In New York they boarded the SS Rotterdam for their trip to Europe.
While on board, "we had tea dancing at 4 o' clock and dancing at the dining room at the beginning at 7 o'clock, if I remember right. In the English Channel we got seasick a couple of times. We landed at Bremer Haven. From the North we worked down. Then we went to Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Vienna, Stuttgart". Besides touring Germany and Austria, the band also gigged in Switzerland, France, Italy and Holland, returning on the SS Veendam. The trip probably took place during summer vacation.
By 1930, "we [had] joined the union when we started to broadcast on WHAD, WTMJ, WISN, etcetera. These were remote pickups at the Eagles Club on 24th and West Wisconsin Avenue and the Roof in Milwaukee. The band as it developed into a very solid unit, broadcasted over MBS coast to coast twice a week".
After high school all the band members decided to go to Marquette University in Milwaukee. "It was $100 per semester. As a band we had a rather nice workload as we always intended to return to Marquette in the fall, which meant work in summer. We played the Elks Club in Fond du Lac every Friday night, Playmor in Kaukauna on Saturday and Waverly Beach in Appleton each Sunday. In this way we were able to have sufficient funds available for the fall term".
In July 1931 Sig Heller had the chance of playing clarinet behind one of the greatest jazz artists, Louis Armstrong. "During the summer in those days bands would travel and pick up what they call one nighters; big money for one-nighters. Louis came to Milwaukee, he played in Chicago, can't think of the name of the place, once every summer as part of what they called the Bread Making Barn Storming. His clarinet player was in the hospital in Chicago, so the [Milwaukee] union sent me to play with him for two weeks before he went to Minneapolis. From Minneapolis I don't know where he was going. But he played such great horn, I never played clarinet like that in my life before and never again. It was unbelievable. He just takes you along. I was ashamed to take the money. The union scale wasn't as much in those days, $25. It was big bucks, especially considering it was depression".
While playing a gig at the Eagles Club they were asked by a man named Charlie Eggert if they would consider making recordings. Eggert had contact with people of the New York Recording Laboratories that produced the Broadway label.
Besides Eggert there were other local talent scouts working for the record companies, sending prospective bands to the recording studios. As most popular band of Milwaukee Bill Carlsen contacted some of the local bands. Another manager for bands who provided them recording sessions was Fred Dexter from Madison. Dexter handled vaudeville acts. He managed Jack Penewell, well known recording artist with his six-string guitar who recorded for Marsh Recording Laboratories and made several titles in Grafton for the Broadway label in 1931. Dexter handled other bands like the Pennsylvanians, who recorded for Gennett in 1930, but also hypnotists and juggling acts. He would book up people until the 1960s.
Besides the Wisconsin Roof, the place to go for dancing was a Chinese restaurant, Toy's restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue and the son of the people who ran it recorded for Broadway as Wing Toy and his Orientals. So talent scouts went down to every place that had live music and if it was like a dance band, they were hooked up with the NYRL. This explains why a lot of Milwaukee-based bands ended up on the Broadway label.
About his discovery as a recording act Sig Heller remembered: "I guess Charlie liked the way we played because he liked jazz, even the kind of syrup jazz. He knew most of the biggies at that time. Of course, we as a bunch of young kids did not know". The band members never thought of making records, and Heller agreed to stay in touch and let him know what the band's decision was. After the band agreed on an evening's rehearsal Eggert contacted the record company and Heller as a bandleader received a letter from Henry Stephany, dated October 16, 1931 (which was a Friday).
Henry Stephany at that time replaced Art Laibly who had been sales
manager and recording director until spring 1931. Stephany joined the NYRL in 1925, which
was part of the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington. The NYRL held its office at
the second floor of the main office building on Pier Street, Port Washington. This office
only held the advertising business. There never was any recording activity in Port
Washington, despite the presence of artists in the city such as Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey
and Blind Lemon Jefferson3. Originally working
with Laibly on the advertising business, Stephany succeeded Laibly, as the latter could
not produce a hit record for the company, which was not surprising as a Depression was
going on and hardly any orders for records came in by this time. Working hours at the
shipping department in Grafton had dropped to 18 hours a week. Only 100 packages per day
with sometimes one or two records in it left the factory, said Mrs. Cordell Hackett Shine
who worked there from late 1930 until around August 19314.
Heller remembered that he and his band recorded a week or two after receiving the letter, and said it had to be on a Saturday or a Sunday, because they were all going to Marquette University at that time. So, the band recorded approximately on October 31 or November 1, 1931.
Heller was asked to record four songs: How's Your Uncle, Blue Kentucky Moon, Who Am I, and Faded Summer Love, all popular songs of the day.
On the day of recording Heller and the other band members packed Heller's car with their instruments. While on their way, a little stage fright got hold of Sig, asking him self if they were good enough to make recordings, would they be laughed out?
When entering the Grafton studio their stage fright seemed to have been reinforced by what they saw: a heavily draped recording studio of thirty square feet with a padded floor. "It felt like walking on pillows, even the door was padded. We were used to having large room acoustics so it was rather difficult to play when a note was gone as soon as played".
Grafton, Saturday October 31, 1931 or Sunday November 1, 1931
Gene Kuehnel: alto saxophone and clarinet; Ted Riedeburg: baritone sax and clarinet; Harold Zuehlsdorf: drums and tympani; Leroy Vick: trombone; Sig Heller: alto saxophone, clarinet and vocals; George Krueck: tenor sax and clarinet; Russ Dreazy: piano; Marlin Brusberg: bass; Wilbur Koeppen: trumpet
L-1206-2 Who Am I (Newman) Broadway 1500-B
L-1207-1 Blue Kentucky Moon (Donaldson) 1500-A Lyric (Aus) 3413
Faded Summer Love Broadway ?
How's Your Uncle Broadway ?
Heller remembered that there were multiple microphones in the studio.
They were shaped like a pie. During recording sessions the saxophone players stood in one
corner in front of a microphone, the brass section in another corner in front of their own
mike, and the rhythm section stood in front of a third mike. The band however, was used to
play in a section. "You sit with each other and you can hear each other. You match
your vibrato, your intonation; you manage your tact and everything as a team. When you go
sit there, and you go sit there, etcetera, poof, it's gone!!"
Heller described one of the microphones as a round object that could be used on both sides. The microphone for the brass section hung on the ceiling. The cable had rubber wrapped around it 5.
Heller remembered Alfred Schultz, foreman of the pressing plant, being present during this recording session. Alfred's daughter Janet Erickson said that her father helped to give directions for the artists where to stand. Heller remembered him tall and skinny. Schultz was nicknamed Spike because he was so slim.
"The engineer then gave you a signal with his hand to proceed. If he didn't like it he gave you a signal to stop. They had a green light. Green light meant keep on going, red light meant they didn't like what they heard, or the recording machine broke down, or they needed a new needle". During one of the recording sessions the recording machine broke down.
Heller was very disappointed about the result of the recording, that is the quality of the sound and the studio's dead sound. He did not want the record to be issued, afraid it would harm the band's reputation. The studio personnel seemed reluctant on it and said they thought the result would be ok to release.
It is unknown if Faded Summer Love was issued under Heller's name. The title was issued under Isa Foster and Her Ambassadors on Broadway 1499, as well as on Australian Lyric 3411 (insert Montgomery Ward 1933 catalogue). Of this session Heller received no test pressings.
"We were supposed to get 2 cents a record. The record sold for I think 28 or 29 cents. I was a poor businessman. Very poor. Bunch of young kids, we didn't know what the score was. So we ended up in taking up a lump sum".
He had heard rumours of sales figures of his first issued record of around 30,000 copies in 30 or 40 different cities. He stressed that it was only rumours. The late John Steiner had access to information on label copy orders from Forester Label Works, Milwaukee and said that he only saw one order for 30,000 record labels from around this period, an order that he found quite unusual during the depression. It is not known to this date for which record the order had been made 6. Collector Dennis Klopp didn't think "that any of those people sold, outside of one or two local people like Bill Carlsen. None of those people cut over 300 copies. A lot of those dance band records are very rare, some are rarer than blues" 7.
On June 16, 1932 Sig Heller again was asked if he wanted to make
another set of recordings in Grafton. This time they were to record six titles. The letter
stated that Heller had contacted the company early spring. Heller himself had never been
in direct contact with the company and said that Charlie Eggert managed all the business.
The letter further stated that the management of the NYRL should be contacted promptly
whether or not they were interested in making these tunes. Stephany must have been well
aware that the company was at its last legs. After this session only some twenty other
recordings were to be made before the Grafton studio was closed. The band agreed on going
and arrived late June or early July for a second session in Grafton. The session took
place after college was over and prior to July 15. The latter date was the day the band
left off for another boat trip, to England, this time.
For this second session " they had one microphone standing up, because Charlie [Eggert] said, "These guys are used to work this way". It worked better, although the conditions were so different from broadcasting sessions from The Roof or the Riverview, Schwartz in Hartford. And Charlie said: "[were gonna] Try to pick up the best of the bunch". So we recorded quite a bunch. Sig Heller showed his own Wall of Fame, still owning framed copies of his issued records. He even had test pressings from his second session.
Grafton, late June, early July 1932
Personnel same as above
L-1613-1, 2 Kiss By Kiss double-sided test
L-1613-1 Kiss By Kiss (Rose-Meskill-Klages) Broadway 1510-B
L-1614-18 Dancing On The Ceiling (Hart-Rodgers) Broadway 1508-B
L-1615-1, 2 Kiss Me Goodnight double-sided test
L-1615-2 Kiss Me Goodnight (Gottler-Nicholls) Broadway 1508-A
L-1616-1, 2 Tired double-sided test
L-1616-2 Tired (Loron-Kurrus) Broadway 1513-B Paramount 1513
L-1617-1, 2 Snuggled On Your Shoulders double-sided test
L-1617-2 Snuggled On Your Shoulders (Young-Lombardo) Broadway 1509-A
L-1618-1, 2 Somebody Loves You double-sided test
L-1618-2 Somebody Loves You (Tobias-De Rose) Broadway 1513-A, Paramount 1513
"We still had a recording contract for sixteen more sides, but
apparently they [NYRL] stopped recording for reasons never given to us". The NYRL
finally withdrew from the record business late 1933, after 18 months of almost complete
inactivity, except for some shipping orders.
By May 1932 Heller and his band were invited to tour England as part of a package. Paul B. Nelson arranged the trip.
Shortly after their final Grafton recording session, the band travelled by bus from Milwaukee to Detroit. They embarked the Duchess of York, a steamer that left Montreal on July 15, 1932 for London. The ship "wasn't topflight accommodations. It was passage and that's what we wanted". A week later the band landed at South Hampton. The group had a seven-day stop over in England before the Empress of Britain would make the home voyage. From South Hampton the group travelled by bus to London, where it played several gigs. In London they played at the Astoria Ballroom, the Hippodrome Theatre, the Savoy Hotel, La Club, and the So-Ho Club. On July 30, the Empress of Britain brought them back to the USA.
Within the year the band drove by car to Manhattan, New York City to make recordings. They stayed in the Lincoln Hotel at 44th Street and 8th Avenue. Heller was unable to remember for which company or other details on the session. Heller DID show a master file tape of the several 78s he recorded, which included recordings of Jazz Jump and Can't Believe (Piano Jump) on Audiodisc and Western Sound & Elec.
In 1933, under the management of Ray Hall, Sig Heller's band was part of the RKO vaudeville program. They were invited to play for the dancing and were able to play some numbers of their own as well.
There were times, however, that Heller had not enough work for his band and had to work as a sideman for various other Milwaukee bands. He played with Fred Sa'ge, Verne Betz, Johnnie Davis, Jack Teter and Bill Carlsen. The latter three had all recorded for Broadway in Grafton during the early 1930s.
By 1934 Heller was considered a veteran by local newspapers when he joined the Fred Sa'ge Orchestra as a vocalist. Sa'ge, together with Les Rohde, Joe Smith and Jack Teter, was one of Milwaukee radio station WTMJ's new directors of dance orchestras on remote control points. Sa'ge and his orchestra, with Heller as vocalist, opened early May at Toy's Restaurant, "that well known dine and dance nitery".
Heller's popularity led him to an arrangement with Holton Saxophones from Elkhorn, Wisconsin. In return for using his portrait in advertisements, the company supplied Heller with a new saxophone and a $50 bonus every year. He even wrote a column for Down Beat, during its residence in Chicago. "When Down Beat moved to Hollywood, I had to resign as the distance was just too great", Heller explained.
By 1936 the band disintegrated as most of the members became married and some moved away. After playing as a sideman during 1934 and 1935 in various bands, he met Hilliard Hansen, Everet Engerson, Bill Ehlert, Ralph Hildeman, Russ Zarling and Sammy Armato. "We were finally lucky enough to be introduced to Murphy Deitz who had been on the road with Henry Busse, a name band at that time". Two of his former band members, Ted Riedeburg and Wilbur Koeppen also joined Heller's new band. "We were fortunate to have arrangers like Percy Ziegler of Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Fabian Andre of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
When Decca opened its studio in Chicago Heller tried to arrange a recording session. "They promised to call us, but they had a very full schedule and would let us know. By the time they called, the War Effort was on and the band disintegrated very quickly".
On December 7, 1941 Heller and his band played in the Eagles Club, a remote pick up for radio station WTMJ, when the engineer gave them a signal to cut off the performance, because groundbreaking news had just come in: Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
In the 1950s Heller shortly reunited with some of his old friends and even made some private recordings on Record Disk and Nypher.
Although not actively playing any longer, Heller still writes and arranges songs. For his wife Dorothy he wrote Day After Day in 1951, which he rewrote as Year After Year in 1994.
Operating his S.E. Heller Company since 1947 and working for the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1940s and 1950s, he wrote a march in 1951, which is being considered as the national anthem for the U.S. Coast Guard as of today. Quite a few of his songs were recorded, "but there's no way of tracing to see if you're getting cheated or not [on royalties]. It would cost more to check it all, than would be worth".
During my visit in March 2000 Sig handed me his remaining test pressing of his July 1932 recording session for the NYRL. This double-sided test with Snuggled On Your Shoulders will remain in my collection as a treasure. Six months later, in November, Sig sent me another parcel with his last set of issued Broadways and some other test pressings of later recording dates. It ended as a nightmare, as the parcel has never arrived to this date.
Although his health has its ups and downs he hopes to reach his 91st birthday in July.
Thanks to Beverly Teter and Dennis Klopp for additional information. All photographs unless noted courtesy of Sig Heller.
1 Milwaukee city directories for 1931
2 Ross Laird from Australia explained to me that the label was Australian and part of Clifford Industries
3 Although it has been suggested that prior to 1929 a recording studio was present in either Grafton or Port Washington (see Laurie Wright: Dating Paramount's recording sessions, Storyville 1998/99), this information seems to have been misinterpreted from my article in VJM 105. Dorothy Bostwick confirmed this story
4 Phone conversation with Mrs. Cordell Hackett-Shine, June 23 2000
5 This information has been confirmed by Janet Erickson, in a November 18, 1998 letter
6 Interview with John Steiner, March 20, 2000 at his house in Milwaukee, WI
7 Taped interview with Dennis Klopp, May 26, 2001
8 A one-sided test pressing with a different take exists, according to Dennis Klopp; phone conversation August 13, 2001
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