One of the best and most ambitious big band albums of the 1950s is Johnny Richards' Something Else. Of all the big band albums I own from the decade, I probably have listened to and enjoyed this album more than any other in my collection.
From song selection and arrangements to the personnel and solos, Something Else is exciting on every level. The charts are complex, powerful and swinging, while the energy level of the players—a monster ensemble—is unmatched. The album re-launched Richards' career as a leader and raised the visibility of this type of arranging, which is something of a cross between film scoring and jazz orchestration of the highest order.
Richards (born Juan Manuel Cascales in Toluca, Mexico) immigrated to Los Angeles with his parents, three brothers and a sister when he was 8 years old. Richards and his brothers, who were also musicians, had their first lessons from their mother, who taught not only classical music but also jazz, composition, and arranging. Richards graduated from San Fernando High School in California, and attended California's Fullerton College, where he played in the college orchestra.
He wrote his first orchestration at age 14, and by 21 he was wooed to England by film moguls to score British films. A year later, in 1933, Richards was in Hollywood at Paramount Pictures working as Victor Young's assistant, where remained until 1940, when he formed his own orchestra. Richards' band lasted until early 1946, when he ran out of money.
After folding his band, Richards arranged for Boyd Raeburn's orchestral band and for Raeburn-bandmate Dizzy Gillespie. Even in 1946, Richards' writing was intricate and ahead of its time, requiring top notch musicians who not only could read what he wrote but also innovate along the way. Richards soon left to arrange for the burgeoning film industry in Mexico City, South America and Cuba—a period Richards said had a profound affect on him.
By 1950, Richards was back in Los Angeles, writing for the U.S. film industry and heading up an orchestra that again backed Gillespie (Dizzy Gillespie Plays, Johnny Richards Conducts). By 1952, Richards had relocated from Los Angeles to New York and was arranging steadily for Stan Kenton.
In 1953, Richards wrote arrangements for a band that backed Sonny Stitt on the album, Stitt: Playing Arrangements from the Pen of Johnny Richards. The band included Don Elliot, Kai Winding, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus and Don Lamond.
Also in 1953, lyricist Carolyn Leigh added words to a Richards original called Moonbeam. The song was renamed Young at Heart and published later that year. Sinatra recorded it almost immediately, and Young at Heart went on to become Sinatra's comeback hit. The song was so popular that a film Sinatra was making with Doris Day in 1954 was renamed Young at Heart to capitalize on its popularity. The song also became Richards' theme song.
In 1954, Richards wrote another series of charts for Gillespie (Dizzy Gillespie and Strings), and in early 1955 he recorded Annotation of the Muses, a classically influenced orchestral jazz album.
In March 1956, Kenton was asked to compose the ceremonial ballet music for Grace Kelly's wedding to Prince Rainer. Kenton had never written a ballet before nor had he been in touch with Prince Rainer. He said the royal request came through a third party and was a complete surprise. He turned the project over to Richards. In an interview in Stan Kenon: Artistry in Rhythm by William F. Lee (1980), Kenton said:
"It seemed that, just before our arrival in England for the 1956 tour, Prince Rainier of Monaco was interested in music from us...However, because of my busy schedule, it was impossible for me to take time out to compose anything for the Wedding Ballet but I went around to Vic Lewis' place and Vic and I talked it over. Then we telephoned Johnny Richards in New York."
On returning to the U.S. at the end of April 1956, Kenton's band began rehearsals in New York for a new Capitol album conceived, composed and arranged by Johnny Richards. The album would be called Cuban Fire, and it was recorded on May 22, 23, and 24. When the Latin-influenced orchestral LP was released, the polyrhythmic album became a jazz-Latin crossover hit and put Johnny Richards on the map as a major arranging talent with enormous, eclectic ability. He moved again to Los Angeles.
Cuban Fire caught the ear of Bethlehem Records' West Coast executives, who quickly offered Richards a chance to record his first 33 1/3 LP as a leader. Under the label's head of A&R, Creed Taylor, Bethlehem was known for giving musicians complete artistic freedom. By late July 1956, Richards' charts were finished, and he began making calls in Los Angeles to handpick the band. The cream of Hollywood's jazz session readers and soloists jumped at the chance, and recording was completed in just two days day—August 2 and 3.
The band featured Charlie Mariano Richie Kamuca, Ronnie Lang and Bill Holman on saxes; Stu Williamson, Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Childers, Pete Condoli and Shorty Rogers on trumpets; Vince De Rosa and John Cave on French horns; Frank Rosolino, Tommy Pederson, Don Kelly and Milt Bernhart on trombones; Al Pollan on tuba; Marty Paich on piano; Buddy Clark on bass; Stan Levey on drums; and Lou Singer on timpani.
Said Richards at the time: "I've given up all my other work just to concentrate on this and to keep at my studies. Everything has to be pattered after the style of the orchestra. That's why I picked the instrumentation I did, so that I could offer the whole orchestral gamut with it."
Six of the eight tracks on th album were Richards originals, and the arrangements were as spectacular to the ear as they were tricky to read.
After the release of Something Else, Richards moved back to New York, formed a band and recorded albums that included Wide Range (Capitol/1957), Experiments in Sound (Capitol/1958), Rites of Diablo (Roulette/1958), Softly Wild (Coral/1959), My Fair Lady—My Way (Roulette/1964), and Aqui Se Habla Espanol (Roulette/1966).
During this period, Richards also wrote arrangements for Kenton's 1960-63 "mellophonium band" (Kenton and Richards actually developed the instrument); Live at the Las Vegas Tropicana (1961); West Side Story (1962), which continues to be essential listening; and Adventures in Time (1962).
Johnny Richards died in 1968 at age 56. Yet his Something Else remains one of the great jazz orchestra albums of the mid-1950s. Its musical density and steamy West Coast sound set a new standard, influencing many composers and arrangers of the time—from Quincy Jones and Bill Holman to Billy May and Gil Evans. It also is Richards greatest musical achievement.
Wax tracks: Something Else is newly available on Spain's Fresh Sounds label and is available here. (It's coupled with Softy Wild.) Many of the other Richards albums mentioned above have been released on a Mosaic Select three-CD collection available here.
A CD of Richards' band in 1957 and 1958 is available at iTunes as Johnny Richards: Live in Hi-Fi Stereo 1957-1958 Radio Broadcasts. It captures much of the band's live excitement.
Wax pages: Johnny Richards, the Definitive Bio-Discography is available here for about $20 from Barnes & Noble.
Wax video clip: While there are no video clips up on the web of Johnny Richards' bands, there is a clip of Stan Kenton playing Maria from West Side Story. The arrangement is by Richards and the clip is here.