It's tough to get a fix on Alvino Rey. Many people who are remotely familiar with the big bands of the 1940s think of the steel-guitar playing Rey as a novelty act. He wasn't. Given the enormous size of his orchestras, many assume Rey led a Mickey Mouse band. He didn't. His name wasn't even Alvino Rey—it was Al McBurney. He had changed it in 1929 to catch the rumba craze. He even disliked Hawaiian music—despite his steel guitar's "Island" sound.
What Rey did have was a sunny disposition, an inventive streak and a golden gut for talent. Johnny Mandel and Hal McKusick were both in Rey's mid-'40s bands. More with both legends in a minute.
Rey formed his first band in 1938 after he and the King Sisters left Horace Heidt's band. Rey had married one of them. After settling in California, Rey began to book his band himself, landing a job at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. After his band attracted 4,000 people in a single night, the band became a hit.
Rey formed one of his finest bands in late 1942, featuring the early arrangements of Neal Hefti, Ray Conniff and Billy May. In an attempt to outdo Stan Kenton on the West Coast, Rey's orchestra included 6 saxes and 10 brass with 4 bass trumpets and 7 vocalists.
Metronome editor Barry Ulanov at the time called Rey's '42 orchestra "the finest of all show bands." Unfortunately, the American Federation of Musicians' ban prevented it from recording, and there are no known discs of the band in action.
World War II shattered Rey's wide-body band concept. Too many musicians were drafted, and there was little consistency, since musicians didn't last long in their chairs anyway. In 1943, Rey slimmed down his band and took a day job inspecting radio parts for Vega Aircraft. To hold onto musicians, he got many of them jobs at the company until he joined the Navy a year later. After his discharge in 1945, Rey tried to form several bands but his pre-war musical concepts were outdated with bebop's emergence. To Rey's credit, he was quick to adapt the new sound, largely out of necessity to attract cutting-edge musicians and arrangers.
In 1946, in an effort to re-establish himself as more modern leader, Rey commissioned bop-influenced charts and called in musicians who could read them for a series of studio recordings. Some of the musicians had played in Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn's bands. Like all of Rey's orchestras, this studio group was large—and skilled.
The studio band included Stan Fishelson, Jake Gerheim, Russ Granger, Roger Ellick, Chuck Peterson and Frank Nelson (trumpets); Dave Bowman, Bob Swift, Sam Levine, Bob McReynolds and Johnny Mandel (trombones); Hal McKusick and John Gruey (alto saxes); Herbie Steward, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims (tenor saxes); Dean Kincaide and Jimmy Wise (baritone saxes); Rocky Coluccio (piano); Joe Mondragon and Eddie Robertson (basses) and a collection of drummers on different tracks—Don Lamond, Jimmy Pratt and Dave Tough. Band singers were Jo Ann Ryan, Betty Bennett, Dick Cathcart, Yvonne King and the Blue Reys. [Pictured from left: Ray McKinley, Eddie Sauter and Dean Kincaide at the Hotel Commodore's Century Room in New York in January 1947]
Listening to this 1946 recording today offers several revelations. Rey must have been a warm-natured hard-working bandleader, considering the musicians he managed to attract to the session. He also knew when to back off and let his musicians shine, which says a great deal about his spirit and ego.
I spoke to Johnny Mandel [pictured below] yesterday afternoon about Rey:
"Alvino was a great guy and a marvelous person to work for. He loved trumpeter Stan Fishelson—and rightly so. Stan could play the hell out of his part. Rey loved all of that bop stuff. He was a wild man in his quiet way. He was an excellent musician and a highly regarded Spanish guitarist. One of his duet partners was Andres Segovia.
"I was in Rey's '42 band. We played good charts but leaned heavily on the King Sisters, who were wonderful. It was a very musical orchestra.
"Alvino was really a very different kind of guy. When I joined the band in '42, we were on the road. One of the players warned me that if someone suddenly grabbed my shoulder, I shouldn't be alarmed. He said it would likely be Alvino trying to steady himself while trying to ride a unicycle. Alvino was hoping to get good enough on that thing so he could come out and ride up to the mike and announce songs. He was a lot of fun like that. The unicycle experiment was short-lived though. After he slipped a disc, that put an end to it.
"Alvino also was a highly technical guy who was into building his own amplifiers for his guitars—before Les Paul. I remember we were at the Strand Theater on 47th St. and Broadway in New York. There was a bell right near his dressing room. Every 15 minutes or so the bell would go off to announce an act. Alvino complained that he couldn't get a nap because of it.
"But when he complained to the theater manager, nothing happened. The manager didn't pay any attention to him. Alvino didn't have a violent fit. He coolly took out his tool kit—he could repair anything—and took apart the entire system. He disassembled the whole thing. From that point on, the Strand didn't have a bell, and someone had to go around announcing the cues.
"Alvino, Elliot Lawrence, Count Basie and Woody Herman were the nicest bandleaders I worked for. They were great musicians and leaders who never lost their temper."
I spoke to Hal McKusick over the weekend about Rey and the '46 the band:
"Alvino was quiet, well-organized and respectful of the guys in the band. He thought of himself as one of the guys, but you always knew he was the leader. He was tall and exerted a certain calm and assertiveness. That band didn't tour or anything. It was assembled just to record. It was just another one of those dates for me where you'd get the call from a contractor, you'd go to the studio and there would be all your friends. [Pictured: Hal McKusick]
"Rey wasn't an arranger but he knew who to turn to. Dean Kincaide did a bunch of the bop charts, as did Billy May. George Handy [pictured] arranged Stockinghorse. Dean was a peach of a guy. When you get into orchestration, you get into a different place. Writing takes on a whole different approach because you grow with it. You find out how far you can push the players. That's what Dean was doing back then.
"When Rey formed that studio band and commissioned those charts, he gave the writers plenty of room. Many of us who were on the date were already hanging out on 52nd Street and absorbing what we heard, so there was a huge bebop influence in the writing and playing. To his credit, Rey loved that stuff."
As the '40s wore on, Alvino Rey's steel guitar made less and less sense as a showcase jazz band instrument. By 1948, the alto saxophone rivaled the trumpet for dominance, thanks to Charlie Parker, Woody Herman and Jimmy Dorsey. What's more, country artists like Leon McAuliffe with the Texas Playboys began to feature the steel guitar extensively on independent recordings. These musicians transformed the instrument from one closely identified with Hawaii into one that conjured up images of America's open range. But for a brief moment in 1946, Alvino Rey and his steel guitar could bebop with the best of them.
JazzWax tracks: Alvino Rey & Hs Orchestra: 1946 is hiding at iTunes for $5.99. Or go here. Sample How High the Moon. Novelty band? Hardly.
JazzWax clip: Here's Alvino Rey's 1946 studio band on Dardanella. Johnny Mandel believes it was arranged by Billy May. Dig how tight and complex this chart is...