Back in the late 1940s, the number of radio stations in the U.S. multiplied rapidly thanks to the F.C.C.'s willingness to hand out licenses. Many of these stations filled airtime with records rather than live musicians. As a result, a station's success was highly dependent on the personalities and tastes of their disc jockeys. To promote their dj's and image, stations developed jingles and promotions. One of the first to help them with this strategy was Larry Greene—a Los Angeles jazz pianist, jingle-writer and advertising entrepreneur. [Pictured: Larry Greene in the early 1970s]
In the 1950s, Larry and his wife Toni became a one-two punch for radio stations. Stations brought them in to write catchy melodies and lyrics that sold stations like a box of detergent or a pack of gum. The Greenes' jingles were so catchy that listeners would tune-in just to hear them. And that was the point. This was certainly true of WNEW in New York, which by the late 1950s began commissioning the Greenes for large variations on the theme they had created.
In Part 2 of my two-part conversation with Larry, the 85-year-old jingle writer talks about coming up in the business and how he created the famed WNEW theme:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Larry Greene: I was born in Sioux City, Iowa. I had health problems, so our family doctor recommended more exercise. My mom enrolled me in dance classes. By the time I was 3 years old, I was making stage appearances. I also was singing, tap dancing and playing the ukulele on a local radio station in Sioux City. A year later, we moved to Los Angeles for the warmer weather.
JW: Did you keep dancing in L.A.?
LG: Yes. When we came to L.A., my mom took me to a dance teacher named Dave King. Mr. King was associated with Fanchon & Marco, which owned all of Paramount's theaters. In those days, live stage shows accompanied the movies. I guess I was a cute kid and a bit precocious, because about a year later I was appearing in short films and stage revues with a bunch of really talented kids like Dickie Moore and Jackie Cooper. [Pictured: Paramount Theater in Los Angeles in 1933]
JW: You must have been quite a dancer.
LG: Pretty good. In 1932 Dave King entered me in the Dance Olympics, and I won. After that, I sort of lost interest in dancing. But I really liked a girl who also was a student of Mr. King's. The girl's mother was our rehearsal pianist, so I kind of hung around the piano when she rehearsed her daughter, Frances.
JW: Who was the girl?
LG: By the time she signed a contract with MGM, Frances' name had been changed to Judy Garland. But back then, I was through with dancing and singing. Instead, I was into learning to play the new piano my folks had bought me.
JW: What kind of music did you play?
LG: I started by taking lessons from classical teachers. But it wasn’t until I started listening to jazz that the piano became a passion of mine. We had moved to Fresno by this time, and big bands would roll into town once a month. I would see Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie. By the time I was 14 years old, I was playing with my first band led by Kenny Baker.
JW: Where is Toni from?
LG: Toni was born in New York. We met in San Francisco. A friend of mine was in the steel business and opened a nightclub and talent agency. I went up to San Francisco to see how things were going for him. When I walked into the talent agency, there was Toni. She came down to L.A. on a modeling job.
JW: How did you get started in advertising and jingle writing?
LG: I had been involved in a number of things. I was a pianist who worked at the studios and taught students. I was into commercials, and one of my students worked for an ad agency. He said he had to come up with a jingle. That was Bob Sande. So we started making sound commercials. [Pictured: Album by the Sande & Greene Fun-Time Band]
JW: When was this?
LG: This was in the late 40s. We were one of the only production companies out here that worked exclusively on sound. Most agencies did print and hired outside people to make sound ads. Jingle writing came easy to me. We worked with ad agencies that would give us a feel for the demographic we were trying to reach, and we'd create them. Naturally, we did a lot of work for radio stations.
JW: How did you start writing radio jingles?
LG: Back in 1957, Toni and I created a jingle for KFWB in Los Angeles. By then, Toni was my wife and was learning the ad business. She had a fabulous, natural touch as a lyricist. After the ad with the jingle started airing, the station had a meteroric rise, going to #1 in the market in just 90 days. It was the first time a single melodic line was used to identify the station’s logo.
JW: What was the next big break?
LG: Harvey Glascock, the general manager at WHK in Cleveland, wanted a similar package, as did WNEW in New York. Harvey loved what we gave him. I guess I was riding high on the enthusiasm that WHK showed for what we had done. So I sat down at the piano after everyone had left the room and started to play. And there it was—the WNEW jingle that wound up remaining on the air until the station went dark in 1992. Without Harvey’s intervention, I never would have had the opportunity to write for WNEW at all. [Pictured: Aretha Franklin at an WHK event]
JW: How did the “in the style of” series come about?
LG: It was an “ah-ha” moment. The idea just came to me. I thought, “Why not kill two birds with one stone?” I could use the WNEW theme to underscore the station’s brand and also highlight the type of music the station aired. It would personalize their programming and add another subliminal dimension to the sound of the station.
JW: Where did the idea start?
LG: When I had begun to create packages of jingles for radio stations, I had always written a long version of a jingle, usually as an instrumental. These versions were basically as long as an average 45-rpm single. Not only were the station’s call letters and frequency featured on vocal versions but also the city or coverage areas, and sub-themes, like seasonal versions. The sub-themes were longer and allowed me to introduce jazz solos and melodic lines to enhance the call letters and frequency logo while keeping the listener’s interest in the music.
JW: Sounds like making a record.
LG: It was. As a matter of fact, our pop instrumental version for WHK ended up on Cleveland jukeboxes. In Baltimore, the long version we wrote for WCBM was featured by the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, and Lalo Schifrin did a recording of the WNEW Metropolitan Radio Thematic called New Fantasy.
JW: In New York, was the Stan Getz and Bill Evans recording of the WNEW theme inspirational?
LG: No. I had produced many in that series way before Stan and Bill did their version of the WNEW thematic in May 1964.
JW: How many "in the style ofs" were there?
LG: I lost count. We started working with WNEW in 1959, completing a number of sessions a year. We continued on with Metromedia after the exclusivity part of our contract ended in 1973 or 1974 and kept doing stuff for WNEW and Metromedia until the late '70s.
JW: Whose styles did you replicate?
LG: Off the top of my head, we did Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Hank Mancini [pictured], Ted Heath, Neal Hefti, Billy May, Woody Herman, Joe Harnell, Nelson Riddle, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Les & Larry Elgart, Burt Bacharach, Wes Montgomery, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Peter Nero, Toots Thielemans, Wynton Kelly, Les Brown, Perez Prado, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Pete Jolly and Strings, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Mantovani, Si Zentner, Mason Williams, Marty Paich and Cal Tjader. We even did Spike Jones, Guy Lombardo and other comedy cues.
JW: Who was in the band?
LG: The spots were recorded on the West Coast. So we used top studio musicians of the period, including Ray Linn, Don Fagerquist, Al Porcino, Frank Rosolino, Milt Bernhart, Marshall Cram, Lloyd Ulyate, Ronnie Lang, Herb Geller, Gene Cipriano, Plas Johnson, Bud Shank, Hal Blaine, Shelly Manne, Alvin Stoller, Emil Richards, Larry Bunker, Lou Singer, Jack Costanzo, Red Callender, Chuck Berghofer, Morty Corb, Al Viola, Dennis Budimir and Alan Reuss. I was on piano or Paul Smith, Pete Jolly and Bobby Hammack.
JW: Pete Jolly?
LG: Pete Jolly was only known locally when I first used him. Soon he did a couple of albums, so we decided to do an “In the Style of Pete Jolly” spot. As I wrote the spot, I left the solo for Pete to improvise. Pete asked me what I wanted him to do, and I told him to “Play Pete Jolly.” I finally had to sit down at the keyboard and show him what distinguished his playing.
JW: Did you arrange them?
LG: I did all the instrumental and vocal arranging, all of the key contracting, most of the producing, and some of the piano work.
JW: Which “in the style of” gave the band the most trouble?
LG: None of them did. I used pros who could read and play anything, and everything was written out for them. Even the solos were somewhat sketched out.
JW: Who plays the Charlie Barnet [pictured] sax solo in the Barnet version? It sounds like Plas Johnson.
LG: I don’t remember for sure. Plas may have played it, but I think I used Justin Gordon on that particular cut.
JW: The Count Basie spot sounds pretty authentic.
LG: It’s funny, when I spoke to Count Basie, he remarked how well he remembered doing the recording session. Of course, it’s not him. Subsequently, I was told other principals thought they remembered cutting the spots that we had produced. That was the height of flattery for me.
JW: Sounds like you've had a lot of fun.
LG: I have. I’ve had a lot of great memories—playing for Count Basie [pictured], playing gigs on Central Avenue as a teen, playing a command performance for the King of Thailand, how I got Toni involved in the business writing lyrics... a lot of stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. Thank you for the opportunity to think about my life. I will be forever grateful to you for that.
A JazzWax thanks to Joe Fay at WNEW.org.
JazzWax clips: Here's another one of Larry Greene's WNEW themes from the "in the style of" series...