by Christopher Popa August 2004
He wrote many catchy riff tunes in the 1930s, but when he adapted decades-old classical and operatic melodies into swing songs, Larry Clinton created something really special.
"It was very unusual," Bea Wain, featured vocalist with his orchestra, told me, over the telephone in August 2004. "I can't recall that anybody else did it."
For instance, Clinton added lyrics and a light syncopation to Reverie, composed around 1890 by French impressionist Claude Debussy as a piano solo, and made it into My Reverie, a gigantic popular success for his big band.
"I thought it was a wonderful thing that he did, and he had to be a darned good musician to be able to do it," she pointed out.
Clinton could be considered a swing pioneer, having played, arranged and/or written for the bands of Isham Jones and Claude Hopkins (1933), the Dorsey Brothers (1934), Jimmy Dorsey (1935-36), Glen Gray (1936-37), and Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, and Bunny Berigan (1937).
"I think it's okay, I don't see why not," Wain agreed. "I mean, he was around a long time ago."
He started his own group in late 1937, recording for Victor. In less than six months' time, he was booked six months ahead.
"Well, I think his greatest achievements were the arrangements he made, and the fact that he took things like Debussy's Reverie and made a popular song out of
it," she commented. "And he did that with several classics and operas. He did Martha, the opera, which I also sang, and it was a popular hit."
"Clinton, Larry," in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York: Grove's
Dictionaries of Music, Inc., 1988).
"Clinton, Larry," in Who Is Who in Music (Chicago: Who Is Who in Music, Ltd.,
Garrod, Charles. Larry Clinton and His Orchestra (Zephyrhills, FL: Joyce Music,
Melvin, Bob. "Larry Clinton," Joslin's Jazz Journal, May 2001, pp.6-7.
Popa, Christopher. Telephone interview with Bea Wain, Aug. 18, 2004.
Wilson, John S. "Larry Clinton, Band Leader Who Wrote 'Dipsy Doodle,'
New York Times, May 7, 1985, sec.II, p.8, col.3.
birth: Aug. 17, 1909, Brooklyn, NY
death: May 2, 1985, Tucson, AZ
father: George Martin Clinton
mother: Elizabeth (Price) Clinton, a
grandfather [maternal]: W.H. Price,
an accomplished organist -
composer, b.1861, d.1927
education: public schools, Brooklyn,
wife: Wanda Salik, m.Sept. 26, 1931
son: Larry Clinton, Jr., b.1940
military service: U.S. Air Force,
physical description: blue eyes,
brown hair, 160 lbs., 5'10" in
hobbies: flying, golf
memberships: AFM Local 802 (New
York City), ASCAP, and the VFW
residences: 231 Dover Rd.,
Manhasset, Long Island, NY;
Green Valley, AZ
trivia: he became a licensed civilian
airplane pilot in 1939; in his later
years, he wrote science fiction
Following an engagement at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, NJ, Wain left Clinton's band in early 1939.
"I was only with the band a year and a half," she noted. "Many people think I was with it much longer, because we did so much and made so many hit records. But I was married and I was very much in love. And I got tired of being on the road. And I wanted to make more money if I was going to work with him, which wasn't forthcoming. And so I talked it over with my husband and with Larry's manager . . . the other thing is that I had a lot of offers. I had the offer from the 'Hit Parade,' for instance. And I had offers to work in nightclubs, to be an individual. And to work in theaters, but as Bea Wain, not with the big bands. And the money was much, much better. And that's why I left."
Her long and successful marriage to radio announcer Andre Baruch was admired throughout show business.
"We were very lucky," she told me. "He was a marvelous man; he died in 1991. We were married for 53 years. And it was wonderful, and we worked together a lot . . . I won't say it was easy, but it worked for us. First of all, he was a terrific fan of me. He loved the way I sang and so forth. It was quite wonderful. I miss him terribly."
They had a son and daughter; son, Wayne Baruch, is in the entertainment business, producing big events.
"One of the things he did, for several years, he produced 'The Three Tenors' [concerts by opera tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras]," she proudly stated. "There was one time that I went to one of the rehearsals, and I was talking to Pavarotti. He was listening to some young, operatic singers. He did a very nice thing. He used to audition these people all over the country, and he would coach them, he would help them. He would tell them what they did wrong or what they did right, and it was a glorious experience for these singers. And one of the singers sang [Wain sings a melody]... this was Lullaby from 'Berceuse,' that was also a classic. After that was over, I was sitting next to him - it was in a theater, nobody was in the theater, I mean just him and the singers - and . . . somebody came over to him and said that I was a wonderful singer. So he said, 'Oh, I'd love to hear you.' I said, 'Well, as a matter of fact, I recorded one of the songs that you sing, that was Martha, and also that one of the young singers sang. I said I did a swing version of it. And he said, 'Show me, show me.' And I started to sing it. And he joined in - it was adorable - and he pretended he was a trombone player, and I'd sing la-la-la-la and he'd go [imitates a trombone]. And we had a lovely time. That was just a couple of years ago."
Wain, born in 1917, was a member of a couple of choral groups which performed, respectively, on the Kay Thompson and Kate Smith radio programs. One day, Clinton was tuned in as she sang an 8-bar solo.
"I did a lot of singing, choral things," she recalled. "And he heard me on the Kate Smith show. He didn't see me. Actually, it was very strange, because . . . I had a call and went to the phone and this man said, 'My name is Larry Clinton. I'm starting a band and I'm looking for a girl singer and I would like you to make some sides with me.' Which was really cuckoo [laughs], 'cause I said to myself, 'He never saw me. He never really heard me, it was just a few bars. And he told me to meet him at RCA Victor the next week, he was recording, and he sent me a tune to do, and I did it. And the first time I saw him was when I walked in the studio."
Even today, she is able to recall the circumstances.
"It was very strange, though, that he sent the tune to me," she remarked. "It was True Confession. That was the name of the song. And he asked me on the phone to tell him what key I was going to do it in. And I called him and told him, and he said, 'Okay, I'll see you Tuesday at RCA."
Following the recording session, she would remain with the band.
"Oh, we didn't go into that," she admitted. "But I sort-of took it for granted that we would go further."
Wain continued to explain the circumstances to me.
"I was on the Kate Smith show, let's say it was Thursday night - I'm not sure about that," she said. "And when Larry was offered a program on NBC, to feature the band . . . the time they gave him was Thursday night at 8 o'clock, which was the time I was on the Kate Smith show . . . He said, 'Our next step is we're gonna do a sustaining program on NBC.' I said, 'When?' and he told me, and I said, 'I can't do that.' He said, 'Why not?' And this was so silly, because, really, it was a tremendous opportunity for me. But I was in the chorus on the Kate Smith show. And Andre Baruch was the announcer, and we were just getting to know each other, and I had a real crush on him. And I figured if I went off the Kate Smith show, I'd never see him again. I was very young [laughs]."
recommended listening - select list:
True Confession Bea Wain,
vocal / Victor, 1937
Jubilee Bea Wain, vocal / Victor,
I Double Dare You Bea Wain,
vocal / Victor, 1937
The Dipsy Doodle Bea Wain,
vocal / Associated, 1937
Martha Bea Wain, vocal / Victor,
I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble
Halls Bea Wain, vocal / Victor,
My Reverie Bea Wain, vocal /
Deep Purple Bea Wain, vocal /
In fact, she had the chance to work with other orchestras.
"Oh yeah, Benny Goodman had called me," Wain revealed. "He had heard about me, and asked me if, you know... he didn't ask me, but he said, 'Let's talk about it,' to sing with his band. Actually, the band thing didn't mean that much to me. I wanted to sing by myself, and there were radio programs and things like that that I could work on."
There was also one record she made with Artie Shaw, for Brunswick in September 1937.
"Yeah, that was a favor for a friend," she explained. "Artie was a friend of mine. Our mothers knew each other - I think they played bridge together, his mother and my mother - and I knew him. And he came to me, I was on the "Hit Parade" at the time. He came to a rehearsal and he said, 'Gee, I'm in trouble 'cause I got a recording date tomorrow and the girl singer is sick. He said, 'Would you help me?' I said, 'Sure.' He gave me the tune, which was If It's the Last Thing I Do, a pretty ballad, and I met him at the studio the next day, and I recorded it. They put on the label 'Beatrice Wayne' [sic], Beatrice is my name, and I think they spelled Wayne wrong. W-a-i-n is the way my family spells Wain. I think they did it the other way."
Clinton has been described as a realist, businessman, organized, and well-liked, but not outgoing.
"He was very intelligent, but he was... what's the word I want... he was a very quiet man," she said. "I was surprised when he became a bandleader, or that he became a bandleader, because he really didn't like standing in front of the band."
Clinton himself used to say that he had a "10:30 lip" (meaning that his weak embouchure would give out by 10:30 at night).
"You know, he played a few instruments, but none of them were solo instruments," she stated. "I mean, he played, like, third trumpet and fourth trombone, just so that he had something to hold on the bandstand. That's not quite fair, but it's true."
He didn't give her any instruction on how he wanted her to sing with the band.
"Absolutely never," she said. "He never told me what to do or how to do it, just handed me the song and said this is what we're gonna do and what key do you want it in?"
A different kind of inspiration for a Clinton original came from a baseball player.
"Yeah, Carl Hubbel. He was . . . with the Giants - he was a pitcher," she recalled. "And evidently, he threw a pitch that he called 'the dipsy doo,' or 'the dipsy,' or something like that. Larry was a fan of his and he named [a song] The Dipsy Doodle, which became very popular. The interesting thing about The Dipsy Doodle, though . . . we played it on the air a lot. But in those days, if one of the bands recorded a tune, nobody else did it. And Tommy Dorsey recorded The Dipsy Doodle, and we never did."
Dorsey, like Clinton, was signed with Victor, and since he was a major bandleader, the label gave him the first choice of songs. So Clinton and Wain were able only to make a non-commercial recording of it, for Associated Transcriptions.
The Night We Met in
Honumu Peggy Mann, vocal /
Howard Gibeling, arranger / Victor,
Bolero in Blue RCA Victor, 1956
A Study in Brown RCA Victor,
In a Persian Market
I told her I read once that her father was a big opera fan.
"Oh yeah," she confirmed.
So what did he think of, for instance, Martha, adapted by Clinton from Friedrich von Flotow's 1847 opera of the same name, and featuring her vocal?
"Well, he was my father, so he just loved everything I did," she kidded. "He would walk around the house singing the legitimate operas. I mean, he wasn't in the business or anything, but that's what he really loved."
"Some of the records I made were silly," she commented. "They were funny songs, and we kidded around with them."
Did she mean like Scrapin' the Toast?
"Oh, God, that was awful," she claimed. "We did something called Ferdinand the Bull, which was a cartoon character. I did everything: I did ballads, I did swing tunes. I could really swing."
Besides the big hits, what recordings did she personally enjoy?
"Oh, there was a song at the beginning called, well, the first one... True Confession. That was our first record, and that was nice. I did something called The Masquerade Is Over. I don't know if you know these tunes," she said. "I did a few of those classics. After Martha was a hit, he took I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, that was an opera.
Once, at the Victor session held on June 3, 1938, Carole Bruce sang in place of her.
"Carol was a lovely singer. She was a fairly good friend of mine, and she ended up on Broadway. She did the musical shows," Wain said. "But I had strep throat. I was sick. And that's when we were at Glen Island Casino. And I was terrible. I was in bad shape, and I couldn't sing. I had to take off a couple of weeks. He hired Carol to replace me, and she sang at Glen Island for a couple of weeks . . . When the band went on the road, it was Larry Clinton and Bea Wain - my name was in the contracts, which I didn't know until much later. And if I didn't appear, they didn't get paid. So, when he went on the road and I was sick with the strep throat, Carol went, and she had to sign my name, on autographs."
In any event, she took a chance, and decided to join Clinton.
"I thought it was a very good dance band," she observed. "I think the rhythms and the beats were wonderful, and I think the people loved to dance with the band, to the band."
"But the funny thing about that, about my name," she continued, "is that when I started making records with Larry, they didn't have room on the label for my name. So they cut it to 'Bea' Wain, they cut the 'Beatrice' out to 'Bea.'
Did anyone at Victor ask her permission first?
"No," she responded. "I was just a little old girl singer. But that's the truth, so that's how my name became 'Bea Wain.'"
Clinton continued to find source material in the works of Tchaikovsky, among others, from which he wrote and arranged a good portion of his band's music library.
"I think he did most of them," she observed. "I can't give you a percentage, 'cause I don't know. But I'm sure he did most of them, because that was his thing."
He also wrote many originals which included unison clarinets and trombone-trio glissandos, elements of both swing and sweet.
"Oh, no, it's swing," she remarked. "I thought it was swing."
In the summer of 1938, the band was hired to play the season at Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, NY, and it proved to be the turning point.
"Oh, definitely," she concurred. "I'll tell you why: when you played at a place like the Glen Island Casino, you had radio wires (they called them) throughout the week. We were on the air at night - usually 10, 11 o'clock at night . . . the announcers say 'And now from the Glen Island Casino, we hear the music of Larry Clinton and His Orchestra.' And we did a half-hour, let's say, of dance music. And that made the band, 'cause people would hear it all over the country. And then when we went on the road, people would say, 'Gee, that's the band we heard.'"
One-nighters were part of the scene, but even they could be enjoyable.
"Well, it depends on where we played," she replied. "If we played in an elegant ballroom, it was very nice. We played a lot of colleges, and that was fun. As I said, I was very young. We played at Yale, we played at Princeton, we played [at] the University of North Carolina... you know, we just went on the road, and you went from one to the other. And they all couldn't wait until the band arrived, because the band became very popular on account of these radio broadcasts."
The idea of being a singer with a name orchestra, up on the bandstand in front of hundreds or thousands of people, sounds exciting.
"What used to happen, we'd be on the bus, and we'd arrive at a ballroom, and just about on time to start playing," she said. "And that was hard. I remember all of this very distinctly. I would dress in the boys' locker room at a college. The band would start playing and I'd hear my introduction, and I ran out and started singing . . . It was good because the people were wonderful to me."
For a while, her mother traveled with her on the bus.
"She was the chaperone at the college dances," she explained. "It was really very cute, because all the dances... I'm talking about the senior proms and the dances... they had chaperones. I guess they still do. And they invited my mother to be one of them, which was kind of sweet."
Any other stories from the road?
"They left me once, in Mississippi," she revealed. "They didn't know I wasn't on the bus. And suddenly, they left town . . . and I was in the hotel, waiting to be called. And then somebody says, 'Hey, where's Bea?' And they came running back."
There were challenging moments every so often, too.
"There was one time I remember in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania," she began. "It was a rough place, that particular ballroom was a pretty rough place, and the crowd was a rough crowd. And when I stood up to sing, a lot of the guys would be standing around the bandstand, kind of, uh... being a little crude. And we had a trombone player who was a wonderful guy and a great musician, and he'd get up and play his horn, pushing the slide out into the audience. I don't know if you can picture this."
Clinton had a trombonist named Ford Leary, who sang novelty songs, but this is not who she meant.
"No, I'm speaking of Joe Ortolano," she indicated. "He was the [band's] first trombone player."
"On the road was really very difficult, but it was fun," she reflected. "I was married then, I must tell you. And they all knew my husband, and they all knew me and they took care of me. They really were like a bunch of big brothers . . . 'cause I was a straight kid, and they knew it."
Among the players who were part of the band were Bob Cusamano (trumpet), Tony Zimmer (clarinet/saxophone), Sam Mineo (piano), and Henry Adler (drums).
"They were all good musicians," she affirmed.
Hugo Winterhalter joined in the fall of '38, and played tenor sax.
"He sure did," she affirmed. "And I didn't know until much later that he became a bandleader and an arranger."
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Clinton, meanwhile, joined the U.S. Air Force, entering on February 4, 1943 as a Lieutenant. Upon completion of Flight Officer training at Greenville, MS, he became a flight instructor on AT-6 and B-25 aircrafts. In June 1945, he was transferred to the China-Burma-India Theater and was
co-pilot of a C-46 plane known as "The Hump."
After his discharge in 1946, he became a recording director for a couple small labels, then started another orchestra and kept it going for a few years. He also made more records, including "Larry Clinton in Hi-Fi," a 1956 album re-creating his hits in high-fidelity, but with a studio band and Helen Ward as vocalist.
"I know that," Wain said. "Well, he was still working around."
With no disrepect to Ward, I think the logical, preferable choice for the singer on that LP should have been Bea Wain.
"I'll tell you a funny story," she offered. "During that period, Andre and I were on the air in New York, playing records (we were disc jockeys) and I sang live, of course. We had guests on the show and one time, Larry called and said, 'Hey, I've got a new album. Can I come on and be your guest?' We said, 'Of course.' You know, we were friends. And that was the album. And he came on and on the air he said to me, 'Boy, I wish you were on that album.' And I said, 'Why didn't you ask me?' And that was the end of that."
Clinton left music around 1961, and lived in retirement until his death from cancer at age 75.
"I don't know how Larry would like to be remembered," she observed. "Just play his music, and love his music."
Wain's singing, happily, continues.
"Actually, I've had a wonderful life, a wonderful career," she said. "And I'm still singing, and I'm still singing pretty good. This past December, I did a series of shows in Palm Springs, California and the review said, 'Bea Wain is still a giant.' . . . It's something called 'Musical Chairs' . . . I did six shows, in six different venues, and I was a smash! And I really got a kick out of it!"
Along with the other memories she so kindly shared with me, that was her latest true confession.