Jazz historian Dan Morgenstern told me about this LP when I interviewed him for my Wall Street Journal piece on the history of Taps last week. We were talking about the influence of Taps and bugle calls on jazz and popular song. "I seem to recall a Phil Silvers album, where he's in his Sgt. Bilko outfit on the cover, and bugle calls were used as the basis for songs," Dan said. A little research later and voila! Phil Silvers and Swinging Brass. [Pictured above: Nelson Riddle]
Based on the cover above, you would think this album was a complete piece of junk. Instead, it's actually fabulous. Why? The composer and arrangers—and the guys on the date. The music was composed by Nelson Riddle, and the album was arranged by Frank Comstock and Warren Barker. The date was done for Columbia in New York in 1957, which means the very best of the East Coast's available studio scene was there...
Bernie Glow, Jimmy Maxwell, Bob McMickle and Charlie Shavers (tp); Warren Covington, Urbie Green, Jack Satterfield and Chauncey Welsch (tb); Hymie Schertzer and Sid Cooper (as); Al Klink and Boomie Richman (ts) [pictured]; Harold Feldman (bar); Artie Baker (cl); Hank Jones (p); Steve Jordan (g); Frank Carroll (b); and Don Lamond and Terry Snyder (d).
Why this album? Who had the idea? Here's Columbia producer Irving Townsend's liner notes at the time:
"The earliest seeds of the idea were sown during the second World War, when most of us were in the service. Nelson Riddle was a Tech Sergeant stationed at Camp Croft in South Carolina, with no greater affection for bugle calls than any other GI. Then in 1952, Riddle was asked by the musical director for the Armed Forces Radio Service to write a couple of compositions for broadcast to the troops overseas. Enough years of civilian life were between Riddle and his discharge to give him a humorous perspective on those once irritating bugle calls, and he composed swinging versions of Mail Call and Mess Call to the delight of service men all over the world.
"Then in 1956, another famous sergeant named Bilko was casting around for an idea for an album. He was told of Riddle's two compositions, and for the next few months, Nelson Riddle was encouraged, even hounded by Phil Silvers and Columbia to add 10 more bugle calls to his repertoire.
"The problems presented by this idea were about as restricting of a composer as any since the days of Gregorian Chants, for bugle calls are limited to three notes, the same three notes at that, and to make these notes serve 12 different compositions was no easy task. If you've ever been in the Army, however, you know what it must have been like to have Sergeant Ernie Bilko prodding you on. And as usual, Bilko won out.
"Another sergeant was also involved. Sergeant H.M. "Mike" Moran, with the famous Rainbow Division during World War II, and coincidentally Riddle's brother-in-law, helped in the research for the collection. And it took research. How many of you ex-GI's remember, for instance, Rain Call?
"Nelson Riddle finally chose his bugle calls, expanded them into delightful, swinging tunes and commissioned arrangers Frank Comstock and Warren Barker to turn out the 12 classics recorded in this album."
All of the tracks are gently jaunty and swing hard. My favorites are Scramble; Chow, a Can and Cow and Thou and Let It Rain, Let It Pour, with Riddle signature opening to kick it off. Lights Out, the last track, is pretty groovy as well. All of the compositions here are highly inventive and turn bugle calls into colorful works of art.
JazzWax tracks: The original cover was so impossibly dopey that two different covers of this album are at Amazon—one with the original cover and the other with just a portrait of Phil Silvers. I suppose this was done to gird against potential buyers being scared off by what would appear to be an awful pop record. You'll find Phil Silvers and Swinging Brass at iTunes and at Amazon here and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Phil Silvers singing Top Banana...