Interview – Buddy Bregman
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Buddy Bregman and welcome to haineshisway.com and our The Unseemly Interview Section. Now, some of our younger dear readers might not know who you are at first glance but when we get through with them they will be in awe, let me tell you that. So, Buddy Bregman, first of all, tell us how you got your start in the record business, both as a producer and as an arranger, conductor, orchestrator – I believe you were incredibly young at the time.
Buddy Bregman: As a kid my parents took my brother Bobby and I to see Jazz at the Philharmonic at the Chicago Opera House – where I first saw Norman Granz who produced the tours with Dizzy, Bird, Ella, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, etc… I could orchestrate at the age of 11 – because I was fascinated with the music I would hear coming from our turntable and wanted to ‘capture it’.
At 14 I heard my first chart being played by a rehearsal band in Chicago lead by the about-to-be famous Bill Russo (trombone guy and arranger with Stan Kenton’s band) – bad was the understatement of my work but I did hear what was wrong – it was every single thing.
I came to California and went to UCLA. I looked 12 and had no social life. I couldn’t date as there was no chance because I was so young so socially I was not in the running. So I threw myself into music… then the father of one of the kids from the Cheers put up the money for a session – and I did the orchestration and conducted 4 rock and roll songs and one was Lieber & Stoller song entitled Bazoom I Need Your Lovin. Three weeks later we made the charts – and my career took off. And that was the end of college for me. (BK’S NOTE: One of the Cheers was professional ball player and soon to be musical comedy actor, Bert Convy – their most well-remembered song was Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots)
Norman Granz heard the record. He tells me he just heard a record of mine on the radio and liked it. He was starting a new pop record company the next day. Would I like to work for him? I said YES.
On Monday it had no name and on Tuesday it was Verve! I became the A&R head of Verve Records and had a deal to arrange and conduct any sessions I wanted to. So that was the exact beginning of my career as a swinging arranger.
BK: So, there you are, at Verve Records, working with the incredible Ella Fitzgerald.
BB: My first meeting with Ella was a bit strained – it was Ella, Norman and myself. She didn’t say anything but I could read her as he did all the talking, like: “Who is this kid in jeans and a tee shirt – he certainly isn’t a musician?!”
There was a gentleness about this sweet and quite large lady. She had lovely eyes – nothing hidden behind them – a maternal look that was very attractive and even though I was in the presence of the Queen of Jazz I felt at ease. Even though she didn’t feel at ease. I can remember after meeting Ella I felt like she could have been someone I would have considered a favorite aunt. She was that nice and that sweet.
BK: Tell us, Buddy Bregman, about the albums you and Ella did together – and how the relationship worked: You as young upstart producer, Ella as seasoned artiste.
BB: We did The Cole Porter Songbook and The Rodgers & Hart Songbook together. And a group of singles, Beautiful Friendship, Silent Treatment, Too Young For the Blues, etc.
I picked every single song – in the afternoon in a darkened Night Club (The Oasis) on Hollywood Blvd. – me at the piano and Ella sitting on a bar stool next to me – and I would sing every song and then she would sing it back to me and probably half-way through we would either nod or shake or heads – we knew. This process took about a week of 5-hour days.
But when the list for each was finally over 50 – I asked Norman Granz who owned the company to cut it down as I was on overload and had to write the orchestrations as well as do my A&R job – I thought he would cut it down to 12-15 – but even he couldn’t cut them down below 32 which is why we ended up with double albums of both!
BK: One of the lovely things on those albums is that you do all the verses for the songs. Was that a mutual decision?
BB: I insisted on the verses because they are part and parcel of each song – I don’t think verses are ever written NOT to be sung! When we came to the verses that were difficult or really didn’t work, Ella would get uptight and say, “Why do I have to do this?” She had to spend time doing it and didn’t want to. Usually Ella would go in and do her songs very fast. She would do 2 or 3 takes at most, because that was the way she worked. The verses were a problem cause it meant working hard on them.
BK: Why did you use different-sized orchestras?
BB: The reason for the varied size of orchestras used in both the Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart albums: If you’re doing any composer’s ‘complete’ works, there’s inevitably certain sameness in the pattern of the writing. I wanted to get away from being locked in with all big-band arrangements, because that would emphasize the sameness. So I used a different size orchestra on every session. Norman Granz claims he wanted to use Nelson Riddle as arranger and finally decided on me because I had such an ‘affinity for the material.’
BK: So, did you and Ella hang together?
BB: I was kind of reticent around Ella, as I never wanted to say the wrong thing. Even after rehearsal and I took her back to The Watkins Hotel where she lived and we had a drink at the bar after 3-4 hours of rehearsal – I was cautious – I was also the only white person in the place. They all liked me there – I even sat in with the trio – Milt Buckner on organ – I’d play the piano and Ella would sing along or just enjoy the music. Not my piano playing – she had had enough of that!
That’s why we worked so well together – oil and water – a well-to-do kid from Chicago and an orphaned middle-aged black jazz singer from New York; Ella Fitzgerald and Buddy Bregman; Ella and Cole; Ella and Rodgers & Hart; a jazz singer singing show tunes.
BK: Of course, back then, you didn’t have all this fancy-shmancy technology we have today (and I’m not sure that this fancy shmancy technology is always for the better) – was Ella on the floor with the band?
BB: Yes, but she was covered up by a folding sectional baffle with windows in it to sorta isolate her voice – and it sorta worked.
BK: If she messed up did you have to start completely over from scratch?
BB: Yes, we always did no matter what – unless it was after the vocal or instrumental then we just did a pick up.
BK: How long would it take to record an album like the one you did with Ella?
BB: We did 8 sessions per album over a 4-day period spread over 2 weeks – 1 session in the afternoon and one in the evening. 2 with Big Band – 2 with Big Band and strings – 2 with only strings – 2 with rhythm section.
BK: When did your association with Verve end and why?
BB: I got an offer to go to NBC to be MD of the Eddie Fisher Show – this coincided with the end of my 2-year Verve contract – and this was my chance to get into TV on one of the biggest shows of the next season.
While on The Eddie Fisher Show as Musical Director/arranger/conductor at the time and they had seen me on camera with the midget Eddie and Voila gave me my own show – Buddy Bregman’s Music Shop – a poor man’s Dick Clark show – 13 shows – I was not good – but had great guests on it – Richie Valens, Sam Cook were on the 1st show – Sam Butera – George Burns – Jerry Lewis – etc…
BK: You’ve worked with some pretty amazing people. Can you give us some thumbnail sketches?
Well I sort of was part of the family. One day I asked him about recording with me. And when I asked if he would record with me he said, “What do you want with an old bastard like me – you’re young and too jazzy for me.”
Of course I talked him into it and it became Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings. I love that album – we had to record at 9AM as Bing said that’s when his voice is still low. After noon it gets too high and he doesn’t like the sound.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
I was with Sammy for between 2-3 years, did 4 albums, his first single act for The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and was his ‘beard’ where Mai Britt was concerned. I even did a play with him, Desperate Hours. I played the FBI guy. The albums with Sammy were: Porgy & Bess, Sammy Awards, Mr. Entertainment, four 10 minute showstoppers, the greatest ever done on Broadway: Soliloquy, Trouble, Where Is The Life That Late He Led? and Gesticulate! – plus lots of single tracks for various other albums.
I had the world’s biggest crush on Eydie. It was awful, and I can’t think of a better singer I have ever worked with from the standpoint of getting all the drama out of the lyrics with a voice to die for!
I scored his film, The Delicate Delinquent and his first single act for The Sands in Vegas. I arranged and conducted his album, which had our monster hit of Rockabye Your Baby in it. Working with him was a blast. When he got the gold record from Decca for sales over a million, he said I should have one too as it was my idea. So he did get me one: A BLACK & WHITE 8X10 GLOSSY PICTURE OF THE GOLD RECORD! Enough said.
I did the album Something Wonderful with Carmen, for Columbia. We paid homage to the great ladies of Broadway. The arrangements I did were okay, nothing thrilling and working with her was the pits. She was angry every minute of every day. I hated working with her. But she’s one of my favorite singers – go figure. Teo Macero produced it. We did all medleys from King & I, Two on the Aisle, Bells Are Ringing, etc… I had half the Basie Band on the date – and Carmen’s Rhythm Section.
She used to look at me like “Why am I working with this guy?” But but but she is the best female singer I ever recorded with – ever ever ever – and the worst experience – the verse on Just in Time and the rest of it with her wry delivery is classic. Those few bars of the verse are classic full understanding of what the lyrics meant!
My first assignment was to make a commercial album with Anita O’Day. The album that came from that session, Anita, sold very well. Honeysuckle Rose is one of my most well known charts for her on that album. That made me sort of a star in the jazz arena. Our second album Pick Yourself Up contains one of my most famous arrangements for Anita: Sweet Georgia Brown.
A lovely lady. It was a nice album and has sold continually throughout the years. She was always wonderful to me and I only remember her with great fondness.
We recorded the jazz version of GYPSY for Pacific Jazz . Annie is a gem, a double gem, a triple gem. I loved her as a kid and the same goes now. What a pro and a wonderful lady. It is a wonderful album, and what a band. Wow! Frank Rosolino’s trombone solos should be singled out as some of the greatest of all time, especially on Some People. The same goes for Pete Candoli and Stan Getz! Mel Lewis on drums – Jim Hall on guitar – Russ Freeman on piano – I mean come on! Annie sang the s— out of Let Me Entertain You and Roses! Oh, man…
One of the best things about the album is that Stephen Sondheim wrote a special lyric for All I Need Is a Girl (Boy) for Annie over the phone. I asked him and he said “Do you have a pencil?” “Yes.” “Okay, here it is…” And reeled it off … “Got my five yards of Crepe de Chien on now all I need is a strong arm to lean on!” Wowwweee!!!
I was Ethel’s personal arranger and every time she sang, I wrote the orchestration. “Blow Gabriel Blow”, “Anything Goes”, etc… and even on a duet like “You’re The Top” with Frank, I had to do the chart. It was a great relationship. She was very funny. She put down everybody, that’s where I learned it. I was probably the only young straight guy she liked and dished with. All the other ‘dishers’ were gay.
I produced and directed “An Evening With Ethel Merman” at the BBC, my very first show for The Beeb in London. It was great. Her professionalism was beyond professional – in a category of her own. Two weeks of coffee klatches with Ethel Merman every few months, writing 3 or 4 new orchestrations for her over a 2-year period was unbelievably gratifying.
Judy Garland was introduced to me by Bobby Van who was preparing an act for the two of them. He was her 2nd banana. I was at The Coconut Grove to see Eydie Gorme on her opening night. I had done the charts for her act as well and Bobby and Judy were there. He introduced me to her. I went to my table. He said to Judy we should get Buddy to do our act. She said she hated my work. Eydie finished her show to a standing ovation. Bobby turns to Judy and asks how she liked the act. She loved it. He said, “Buddy did it!” She said, “Hire him!” That’s Judy.
Judy – was Judy – and she understood everything, and working with her was a nightmare. Yes, I was thrilled to work with Judy Garland. And yes, I hated every minute of it. You never knew what was going to happen. I like to get up early and get to work on whatever I’m doing, which means I need to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
With Judy we’d start at 8PM! PM! And go until……… she never went to sleep until – I guess – the sun came up.
BK: I’d bet that very few of our dear readers know that you, Buddy Bregman, did the wonderful orchestrations for the film version of The Pajama Game. How did that come about?
BB: I got friendly with Richard Adler – he had heard some of my work and liked me enough that he asked if I would do some of the orchestrations on PJ Game – I almost fainted – “Of course – I’ll pay you”
In doing the orchestrations in the film “Pajama Game, I split the chores with Nelson Riddle. Not only did I do the orchestrations for the numbers they kept me on to do the underscoring as well. So I wrote all of the background music based on the Adler and Ross Score – another real thrill as well.
BK: Did you do all those big Fosse production numbers?
BB: I did all the big Fosse Dance numbers on PJ Game, Once a Year Day – 8 minutes long – hundreds of bars of music – one the longest in film to this day. Hernando’s Hideaway, the whole 10 minute sequence which was broken up with the ‘find the locket with the key attached moment’ – very funny with Carol Haney and Eddie Foy Jr., 7 1/2 Cents – the whole Union vs. Management sequence.
BK: Were you on the set when they were shooting? Was everything prerecorded at once – orchestra and vocals – or were there just guide tracks to shoot to and then the orchestra was laid in?
BB: No, no, no, no, no – I was on the set every day – we pre-recorded every single number with an orchestra of 65 pieces minimum. So when they would dance or do whatever when dialogue came in the playback was cut out and I would ‘conduct’ the action – waving my arms in tempo.
Of course how do you keep the tempo going for a 3 minute take – you don’t – but the music editors do their miracle stuff and everybody dances to the ‘rhythm of the beat’ even though the Bregman Beat wavered somewhere between 110-130. Hey, I got nervous!
BK: I’d bet that very few of our dear readers know that you, Buddy Bregman, had a very famous Uncle, who was a major force in the Broadway musical theater. In fact, they don’t come much more famous than your Uncle Jule Styne. Tell us about him.
BB: Uncle Jule – do you have a year for me to tell all. He was my total influence – my surrogate father – and via the nepotism network hired me on Ruggles of Red Gap, Panama Hattie, Anything Goes. We spent summers living at his house in Beverly Hills and of course when I went to UCLA I would mooch dinners at his house and The Whitings house etc… but I saw Sammy Cahn and Jule write right before my eyes. I remember as a child I remember Time After Time – songs actually written in my quiet presence in 5 minutes – I remember songs from High Button and Blondes – Bye Bye Baby – Leo Robin lived across the street on Elm Drive as well.
Jule would sit at the little red piano in the den and either Leo or Sammy would come over with lyrics they have sweated days over and Jule would dash off the melody in minutes – “One day you will spend at least an hour writing a melody.” “Never.”
BK: In addition to all your other talents, you’ve also produced and directed for movies and television. Tell us about some of those projects.
BB: Well, I got tired of sitting home writing charts, recording, this and that and I had “Been there-done that!” I wanted more and knew I could do more but didn’t know how to go about moving into producing – I had learned from the best in the biz on TV and movies so with the ‘osmosis’ factor taking hold of me and the pre-Chorus Line song I Can Do That ringing in my ears I said to myself I had to move up the ladder from being a musical director-arranger-conductor – the #4 guy in the hierarchy – behind the producer, director, choreographer, and be a producer – never thinking about directing just then. After all I had run a record company, been the guy who ran the music area on many TV shows and films, etc… I knew/thought I had the ability to do it.
BK: Was it the BBC you went to work for first?
BB: Yes, the BBC took the unprecedented step of inviting me to come to London and produce shows for them. I guess it was NIRVANA – Heaven’s Gate in the truest sense of the word. It was so spectacular for me to literally have my own unit there and produce some wonderfully creative shows I can hardly put it in words. We loved living in London.
London had just hit! The Beatles had burst onto the scene, and we had the good fortune of meeting Paul at Alma Cogan’s party (big-time singer at that time and died of cancer in her 30’s) within weeks of arriving. Every day the girls were screaming outside my studio – #1 – which was next to #2 where they did Top of the Pops! I’m rehearsing with Ethel Merman in #1 and they’re recording TOTP in # 2 – and on their break while I was working with Ethel on the floor, Paul and John stood near me and Paul said, “What could be better than Ethel Merman singing Cole Porter?” (I Get A Kick Out Of You). John answered with “Nothing!” Paul said to me, “Man are you lucky to be working with her.” I nodded and smiled back at him.
There we all were, studios 1&2 taking the tea break – which would become very familiar for me later – but this was my first week! Sitting amongst The Beatles, The Stones, Gerry & The Pacemakers, etc… during the tea breaks and lunch and drinks in the BBC Club (one had to be invited) became pretty routine – except for the screaming girls outside the glass walls when they spotted one of their faves sipping a cuppa which they did within days after our arrival.
Our flat on Baker Street at 83 Berkeley Court was enormous and at one-hundred pounds a month, was a steal. Later when asked to buy it at 16,000 quid we thought it was too much. A few years later it sold for $1,000,000.00.
BK: You have a beautiful daughter, who’s also quite a good actress, named Tracey Bregman.
BB: You are right – she was born ‘Tracy’ – but added the ‘e’ Tracey as a Chinese numerologist sain she needed an extra letter to her name for luck for life. So it is now Tracey Elizabeth Bregman. Tracey has been playing Lauren Fenmore on Young & Restless for many years – and is the light of my life. Tracey is a mom – 2 young fabulous boys – Austin and Landon – and still an Emmy-Award-Winning TV star on 2 shows Y&R and Bold & Beautiful.
BK: You, Buddy Bregman, and I, Bruce Kimmel did an album together called It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing. Tell us about how that project came about and the experience of doing it.
BB: Well I thought we were going to meet on an album idea I had of a Broadway Composer Series of CDs but with my charts – taking all the seminal ideas of the original Broadway Show Tunes and giving them the Bregman Jazzy Twist… but then you sprung on me your idea which was really different – taking the old swing chestnuts and putting my own special twist to them – but as you so rightly put it – “Pay an homage to the original.”
BK: Your charts on that album are really excellent and I’m as proud of that album as anything I’ve done. How was it for you to work with another producer – because you’ve produced most of your own albums.
BB: How was it with another producer? Well, Bruce, I hate to say thins but you were really a great producer – now I know what a real recording producer does – I had never had one and did all the sessions myself – the charts, the producing, the rehearsing, etc… this was a real groove – so many people put their name on an album as producer – but you proved what a real producer does. You even did the mix-downs running the ship and telling Vinnie ‘what for’ – man you snapped the whip and I loved it – you did a great job and on top of it hired great musicians – I had no say in it and it turned out great – so that tells you something. Kudos!
BK: What are you up to now, Buddy Bregman? I hear you have a website, is this true, yes or no?
BB: Yes I do – it’s www.BuddyBregman.com – it’s interesting and also has some great photos on it – you have to keep bringing up the next page where it says ‘more’ – etc… and you get some lovely photos.
BK: Our readers are endlessly interested in the difference between arrangements and orchestrations, both of which you do. I’ve explained the difference to them, but I’d like to hear your take on those two very different jobs.
BB: An arrangement of the song is the layout of the way to do it – I just finished 3 one-hour Cabaret Shows that I produced-wrote-directed – staged-arranged and orchestrated.
The most important part was the ‘layout’ of the songs – how they weaved in and out of each other – and giving each Musical Moment the most compelling structure! This is my strongest point as I have a very theatrical mind and can take a song ‘through its paces’ like hardly anyone does anymore. Not for recordings as much as personal appearances where one takes familiar and unfamiliar music and weaves a musical web.
Now that said and done – when the orchestra comes in they have to play some notes – and putting the notes onto the ledger lines for every instrument in the orchestra is what is called the orchestration. The assembling of each note for each instrument. So that is the difference in my mind.
The layout – the thought behind how the song should flow in what kind of tempos – be it Salsa or funk or ballad is part of the arrangement. The trumpet players’ notes are a part of the orchestration.
BK: On our swing album, you were doing new arrangements and orchestrations of some pretty oft-recorded material. How did you come up with the ideas to keep it fresh-sounding while also honoring the style of the originals?
BB: The ideas fly into my mind as I am writing the orchestration – I don’t know where it comes from – I wish I could tell you how I found the pattern in the high woods/saxes on Opus #1 – it just flew into my mind – the Dixieland Verse on It Don’t Mean a Thing – who knows where it came from – The train chugging out of the station in Chattanooga Choo Choo – the African drum stuff in Sing, Sing, Sing – I don’t know I just did it – totally NOT pre-conceived. Of course driving around town and thinking about the job at hand sometimes throws me into what ends up on paper – but how it flies into my brain I do NOT know!
BK: Is it fun when you find yourself hip again, and rediscovered by a whole new generation?
BB: Yes it does Bruce and it’s all due to you.
BK: Well, you’ve been a delightful interviewee, Buddy Bregman, and we tip our hat to you and toast you with the official beverage of haineshisway.com – Diet Coke.
BB: I love Diet Coke – and I’m glad you wised up to it!