As Sarah Vaughan's accompanist between 1958 and 1960 and in 1963, Ronnell Bright learned how to listen hard to singers and anticipate the rich musical support they needed to excel. By the time Ronnell left Sassy the first time in 1960, he was one of the most sought-after accompanists in the music business. When he left again in 1963, he became Nancy Wilson's accompanist and rehearsed her band.
After his years with Wilson in the late 1960s, Ronnell remained in Hollywood and became increasingly involved in playing and arranging for television. He even appeared as a pianist on sitcoms and movies (Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, They Shoot Horses Don't They). He also continued to play on dozens of artists' albums, including Ella Fitzgerald's Misty Blue.
Throughout his West Coast period, Ronnell continued to compose, collaborating with Johnny Mercer and other leading songwriters. One day, in the early 1980s, he even got up the courage to call Ella and pitch one of his songs, Sea Mist.
In Part 4 of our conversation, Ronnell talks about his work with Nancy Wilson and bandleader Ray Anthony [pictured] as well as a revealing encounter with Erroll Garner. He also candidly relates the events that followed his visit to Ella's house, illustrating the tough breaks that often follow triumphs in the music business:
JazzWax: How was Nancy Wilson to work with?
Ronnell Bright: Beautiful. They called her “Sweet Nancy” because she had such a sweet disposition. She was a lot of fun. Even tempered, and she never lost her cool. We first recorded The Nancy Wilson Show! in 1964. It was live date at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. At this point, I was becoming more and more a part of the Capitol Records scene in L.A.
JW: Did that include meeting your boyhood hero?
RB: Nat? Nancy knew how much I loved Nat King Cole as a kid. So she went up to him out in Los Angeles and said, "Nat, my pianist is over there and would love to meet you." Nat came right up to me and put his face in mine and said, “Hi, Ronnell, I'm Nat Cole.” Just like that. I just shrunk. This is just before he got sick. He said he knew me from Sarah's records. For years, he was to me the epitome of class and artistry. I was speechless.
JW: When did you find the time to write songs?
RB: Sometimes on airplanes or while waiting in a line. I'd write the words first, like a story. Then I'd add the melody and chords. I've written about 120 songs.
JW: You wrote Tender Loving Care, the title of an album you recorded with Nancy, with Johnny Mercer.
RB: I wrote the melody and Johnny [pictured] wrote the lyrics. Nancy loved my song so much she asked Johnny to write the words. She first sent him a cassette tape of me playing, and he loved the song. When he finished writing the lyrics, he called me on the phone. He said, "You know, Ronnell, when I finish the lyrics to songs, I always call the composer first and read them to him." After he read them, he asked me, "Is it alright? If anything is out of sync or cumbersome, you let me know." I told them they were perfect and it was such an honor.
JW: Did you and Johnny Mercer collaborate on any other songs?
RB: Yes, four in total. When I played Comet in the Sky for him at his house, he asked me to add notes in places so his lyrics would work.
JW: What kind of person was Johnny Mercer?
RB: All I know is my experience with him. He was a stand-up person. I remember attending a big gala event with my sister, Lois, in the 1960s. It was like an awards dinner. When I arrived with Lois, they announced us over the speaker system, like royalty or something, and said we'd be at table No. 39. Johnny jumped up from across the room and waved my sister and me over and said we would be joining him, at table No. 1 with his wife Ginger and daughter Mandy. He made room for us. Then he introduced me to Paul Francis Webster, who had just written Shadow of Your Smile. I wrote a song with Paul as well.
JW: Did Johnny ever give you advice?
RB: Well, we met for lunch about three weeks after the gala, and he asked me what I wanted to do ultimately. I told him I wanted to write for the movies. He said, "Well, I don't know. I don't think the time is right." I have no idea what he meant by that comment, but it sure was disheartening.
JW: What did you do after Nancy Wilson.
RB: I played with Ray Anthony [pictured] in 1970. Quincy Jones had recommended me because Ray needed a player and writer/arranger. We were at the Miami Hilton for about three months. Milt Hinton was at the Fontainebleau Hotel, and I'd go by to hear him, and he'd come over to the Hilton. We talked about everything, including bass players.
JW: Who were Milt Hinton's favorites?
RB: He liked Richard Davis, Red Callender and George Duvivier very much. All of those guys came through Miami, and I had a chance to work with all of them.
JW: Who was your favorite bassist?
RB: Ray Brown [pictured], because of those walking bass lines. When I play a single [solo], which I often did in the 1980s at New York's Essex House, I'd walk my left hand thinking of Ray Brown. I'd just turn my left hand loose and it knew what to do.
JW: Speaking of left hands, did you ever meet Erroll Garner?
RB: Oh sure. Erroll came by my house in California. He was playing at Donte's. We sat at my piano and he played and we talked about his approach. I said, “Erroll, how did you get your style?” He said, “Well, Ronnell, when I came along, pianists were all playing stride. Like Teddy [Wilson], Fatha Hines and Art [Tatum]. I never could do that with my left hand. But I could do it in one spot, in the same octave range. A lot of folks didn’t know I was left-handed. My right hand was weakest. I’d always have to play catch up with my right hand, which dragged a little bit.” That’s how Erroll’s style was born.
JW: Erroll must have been frightening to play with.
RB: He was. I talked to two bassists who backed him: Red Callender and Eddie Calhoun. They said you never knew what Erroll was going to do. He had no relationship to keys. He didn’t read music. He’d just play. They said sometimes they’d play Misty in B or F-sharp. The next night the song might be in E or A. Whatever Erroll heard at the moment. There were no difficult keys for Erroll. That's why Erroll always started songs by playing solo or vamping. It gave the bass player time to figure out the key.”
JW: What did Erroll think of you and your playing?
RB: He liked me. I didn’t realize that he had known me from my days in Chicago. He said, “I remember you at the Blue Note, with a trio. I wondered at the time why you were there. I thought you should be in New York.” That was nice to hear.
JW: Did you ever play with Ella?
RB: Yes, on a Country album called Misty Blue. I remember getting the call to play, and when I showed up, my fingers were all set for a swinging session. Instead, it was Ella on a Country date! At the time, they were trying to follow Ray Charles' model by mixing up her repertoire.
JW: Did Ella ever record your songs?
JW: Almost? What happened?
RB: Back in 1981, when my wife, Dianne, and I were living in California, on the beach. I called up Ella and told her that I had written a song called Sea Mist and that I thought it would be perfect for her. I told her I wanted to play it for her with hopes she might like it.
JW: What did she say?
RB: Ella said come on over. She gave me her address in Beverly Hills, and I drove out there. Her home [pictured] was stately and in the Spanish Mission style. When I arrived, she led me into a small room with a console piano. She asked if she could get me anything to eat or drink. I told her no thanks, that I couldn’t stay long and that I just wanted to play Sea Mist for her. And that if she didn’t like it, that would be OK, too. “You’re going to sing it, too, aren’t you Ronnell?” So I did.
JW: What did she think?
RB: Before I could finish the song, Ella was on the phone with Norman Granz [pictured] asking him to come over. She said, “Ronnell Bright is over here and he's playing it now.” A half hour later Norman was there, and I was playing and singing the song again. She and Norman spoke on the side. Then Ella asked if I could come back the next day. “I want Nelson Riddle to come over to hear it.”
JW: Wow, did he show?
RB: Oh yes. The next day I played Sea Mist for Ella, Norman and Nelson Riddle. Before I played, Ella told Nelson [pictured below] that Norman had raved about it and that it reminded him of a certain hit song from the 1930s. So I played and sang it again. At the end, Nelson asked Ella, “How do you want to do this?” Ella says, “I want to do it with the big stuff, you know, with violins, cellos, harp, everything.” So Nelson said OK, and he asked me to come with him to his office on Sunset Strip that day.
JW: What happened when you got there?
RB: I sat at the piano and played some of the substitution chords I was using that allowed me to go in different directions. Nelson [pictured] said Ella was going to Europe for two weeks and that he was going to score it for her during that time. A few days later, my phone at home rang and my wife told me Nelson Riddle was on the phone. I said, “Nelson Riddle? What?” I picked up the phone and Nelson said, “Ronnell? I just wanted to tell you that I just finished the arrangement of Sea Mist. It’s a beautiful arrangement. Thank you for letting me write a decent piece of music for a change. I’ve been writing such crap lately. The score is already at Ella’s house. When she comes back from Europe, she’ll find it on her piano."
JW: What did you say?
RB: I said, "Wow, thank you very, very much." He said, “See ya.” Dianne and I celebrated with champagne on the beach. We couldn't believe it.
JW: Did Ella record it?
RB: Hang on. Two months go by. One day I’m at the musician’s union office in L.A. and I run into Al Aarons, the trumpet player who was with Basie [pictured]. We were there picking up checks for studio gigs we had done. Al told me he was on his way to do a recording session with Ella. I said really, what is it? He said it’s a Norman Granz-Nelson Riddle date. I said, “Oh man, I’m supposed to have a song on there. Ella didn’t call me, though.” Al said, “Hey, if you have a song on there, come ride with me.”
JW: Was it the right session?
RB: Oh, yes. When I walked onto the sound stage at the Universal lot, they were already rehearsing. Marshal Royal was there, Jimmy Rowles, Bob Cooper, Joe Pass, Shelly Manne and a full string section. I went into the booth and sat down next to a friend. I looked back at the controls and saw Norman [pictured]. I waved, but he dropped his head. There I am, anticipating Sea Mist. So I’m waiting for it to come up but it never does. On a break, Ella came into the booth and asked if she could talk to me outside for a minute.
JW: What did she say?
RB: We went outside, and she said, “You know, Ronnell, we’re not going to be able to do your song.” She said that Oscar would be so mad at her if she recorded it. Oscar? I thought to myself. What does Oscar Peterson [pictured] have to do with this? He has his own claim to fame. Maybe he wanted her to record something he wrote and she didn’t and that this would ruffle him. I don't know.
JW: Did she let it go at that?
RB: No, that was more of the set up. She continued that they were all ready to record the song but at the last minute, Norman decided he didn’t want any original material on the album, only standards people knew, to be sure the record sold. Ella said he substituted The Best Is Yet to Come because she hadn’t recorded it yet.
JW: What a blow that must have been.
RB: Tell me about it. When that album came out, I saw that the song they put in became the album title. I just sat there and just looked at the album. I was so sad.
JW: Hey, that score must be kicking around somewhere.
RB: Now hold on a minute. I’m not finished. So several years go by and I’m playing at the Essex House [pictured] in New York and living on 56th St., on the 31st floor. During the years Ella and I had kept in touch, exchanging Christmas cards and such. One day I get a call from Nelson Riddle’s road manager. He says he’s in town and that Ella asked him to call me. He asks if I can meet him in the lobby of his hotel on Sixth Avenue.
JW: Ella wanted to record it?
RB: Hang on. So I went over, we met, and he handed me the Nelson Riddle score to Sea Mist. He said Ella always felt terrible about what had happened and wanted me to have it as a gift. It had Nelson Riddle’s name on it and Ella’s name.
JW: You're an arranger. When you look at how the parts are written, how does it sound in your head.
RB: It’s plush, man. It's Nelson Riddle plush.
JW: Did you ever hire an orchestra to hear how it sounds?
RB: The closest I ever came was having the University of Kansas orchestra play the brass part. I was doing a concert there. But I have never heard the strings and orchestra parts together. One day, hopefully, one day.
Tomorrow, Ronnell shares other music business experiences in California with Barbra Streisand and Doris Day.
JazzWax tracks: Ella Fitzgerald recorded Misty Blue for Capitol Records in December 1967. A Country-themed date arranged and conducted by Sid Feller, the orchestra included a band, strings and choir. The CD is out of print, but copies are available at Amazon from independent sellers. To hear a sample of the title track, go here.
Ronnell's song, Tender Loving Care, can be found on a Nancy Wilson import CD that combines From Broadway with Love (1965) and Tender Loving Care (1966). The CD can be found here. Ronnell plays on both albums. I personally find these albums to be among Nancy Wilson's best. The edge in her voice is softened and her delivery is superb, backed by lush strings and orchestra.
Sea Mist, the song that almost was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, is available on an out of print Bill Watrous CD called Trombone Summit: Smooth Talk (1990), on which Ronnell plays piano.
But you can also find Sea Mist on a 1996 Buddy Collette CD called Jazz for Thousand Oaks. While the CD is out of print, it is widely available from independent sellers at Amazon for about $8. If you go here, you can sample Sea Mist and hear Ronnell singing and playing his own composition. You can also buy it here.