The accordion's post-war popularity in America starts with Ernie Felice in 1946. Though George Shearing had recorded on the instrument in London in '39, followed by Art Van Damme on two sides in '45 and Joe Mooney in mid-'46, it's not until after Ernie's success with the Benny Goodman Sextet in late '46 and early '47 that the instrument began to be taken seriously as a jazz option by record labels.
Of course, prior to 1946 there were plenty of other American musicians who played the instrument with some acclaim, including Julie Gardner, who in 1939 entertained audiences in Harlem and in 1943 performed standing behind Charlie Parker in the Earl Hines Orchestra [pictured above].
Invented in Europe in the early 19th century, the accordion actually predates most other jazz instruments in the American recording studio. The accordion's first documented jazz date came in 1913—though Pietro Deiro's session in New York for RCA was technically a rag.
In the mid-'40s, Ernie's taste and dexterity stood out. Van Damme's and Mooney's early records had a novelty spin while Shearing's handful of dates were a bit frantic—exploring the accordion keyboard much the way he played bop piano. By contrast, Ernie had a smooth, swinging style that neatly meshed improvisation with harmony.
Working mostly with his quartet—accordion, clarinet, guitar and bass—Ernie was an amazing talent. He played and sang, appeared in movies, was featured on the radio and TV, and recorded for Capitol. He also was a fixture in Hollywood at a time when club artists like Page Cavanaugh, Matt Dennis and others specialized in a high-shine jazz-pop fusion. [Pictured above, clockwise from bottom: Ernie Felice, Chick Parnell, Mike Andre and Bill Ainsworth in the '50s]
I first came across Ernie a few years ago while watching June Christy in a series of YouTube clips from 1950. I recently re-watched them and once again was caught up in the Ernie Felice Quartet's voicings. Before you read on, let's dig Christy here singing Taking a Chance on Love with Ernie's quartet (with Dick Anderson on clarinet, Dick Fisher on guitar and Rolly Bundock on bass—with Claude Williamson added on piano)...
I had a few minutes, so I went online and did a little research. Ernie is still on the scene, and his recordings are available through a site managed by his son Dan. I reached out to Dan and asked if he could ask his Dad a few questions for JazzWax about his background and the Christy date.
Here's what Ernie had to say...
"As a kid, I listened to Benny Goodman for inspiration. I loved the way Benny's full saxophone section played, and that's how I followed with my style of swing. The clarinetist in my groups played lead and I played what would have been four or five instruments underneath on the accordion. My voicing emulated how Benny's sax section sounded.
"The funny thing is, one day I did. In 1946 I was invited to Benny's house to audition for his group. Benny played notes and music on his clarinet and asked me to try and follow. I not only was able to follow, I returned the favor and played a riff on my accordion, asking Benny to try and follow me, which he had some difficulty doing.
"Benny hired me for his sextet and we recorded an album of 78s called Benny Rides Again, on which I was featured on many of the songs. Benny's the reason I received a Capitol recording contract in 1947. He arranged for me to meet the record executives and they signed me as one of their recording artists.
"In 1950, June Christy [pictured above] was singing with Stan Kenton. There was a recording service at the time called Snader Telescriptions that brought together musicians they wanted for a filmed recording date so they could lease the results to TV stations.
"When all the musicians came together for the recording in Hollywood, we rehearsed for 30 to 45 minutes until everyone felt comfortable. Then we recorded the songs. In rehearsal, June told us she wanted to sing a chorus and a half on songs, so I'd play behind her while everyone else would get the feel.
"Everyone was professional and knew what they were doing and how to do it. Very few re-takes were needed. In most cases, as I recall, the first take was good. We weren't really nervous having cameras there to record since we all had been in front of them before. It was just another day at the office for us, so to speak.
"My quartet never had a piano. From what I remember, Claude Williamson was provided by Snader to create the sound they wanted. Dick Anderson was the first clarinet player I had in my quartet and he was the best. A terrific player. When we played together, we played as though we were four saxophones. Dick Fisher was a great guitar player but medical issues forced him to quit later."
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Ernie Felice's site here. At the site, you'll find a page with three CDs for sale here as well as DVDs. The three CDs offer 96 tracks—most featuring Ernie's quartet. Other tracks include Benny Goodman, the Pied Pipers and others. It's sublime music. If you love the accordion, as I do, these CDs provide nearly four hours of easy-going reedy bliss.
JazzWax clips: Here are two clips from the recordings offered at Ernie Felice's site:
This Love of Mine...