BY PHIL HOOD
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Bobby Morris played with more stars, in more different styles of music, than perhaps anyone in history.
He played Latin jazz with Tito Puente and Chano Pozo; swing and bebop with Benny carter and Zoot Sims; he was the musical conductor for Elvis; he booked and conducted Barbra Streisand in Vegas; and he was the drummer for singers Eddie Fisher, Bobby Darin, Lena Horne, and dozens of other bands. He was the fast-shuffle innovator behind the early ‘60s hit sound of Louie Prima, and he anchored house bands throughout Las Vegas during the high point of the Great American Songbook. He appeared on dozens of TV shows during the heyday of musical variety. His new book, My Las Vegas, lays out this most American musical life with a particular emphasis on his unique role as a drummer, bandleader, booker, and musical producer in Las Vegas.
Don’t Have To Live Like A Refugee
But his story begins much earlier, in 1937, when a nine-year-old Boruch Moische emigrated from Poland to the US. Within a couple of years he’d seen Gene Krupa play and decided he would dedicate himself to becoming a drummer. His journey began with lessons by legendary teacher Henry Adler, who introduced him to his lifelong friend and equally famous teacher, Freddie Gruber. Young Boruch, who changed his name to Bobby as a teenager, was a sponge for music, especially percussion, studying vibes, reading, hand drums, and every percussion instrument he could get his hands on. Acting on a friend’s advice he moved to Las Vegas in 1950 and soon found himself playing 10 or 20 shows a week and working in two or three bands simultaneously.
My Las Vegas was released to great reviews a couple of weeks ago. It’s a wow-a-minute blow-by-blow account of the gigs Morris played, artists he befriended, shows he developed, and characters he met over five decades of music. What’s most astonishing is the opportunities he had at a time when many jazz bands played every night of the week. By the time he was 24 the young Bobby Morris was often playing one band for an early show in one of the big hotels, joining another show at 11:00 PM, and then anchoring a late-night jam with the biggest stars in jazz. Such opportunities for constant playing and performing at a high level seem far away today, but were common in his Las Vegas. I talked with Morris by phone this week.
Bobby, the most astonishing fact about this book is the sheer number of different people you played with. Thousands, especially when you were in what is called the relief band. What was that like?
Well, I was with the relief band in Las Vegas for a few years. The relief band means that you play a different show every night, filling in for the regular bands that needed a night off every week. But you get paid twice as much. The relief band requires very good players to come in and do what the house band is doing for the entire week. So that means we backed up a big Vegas star every night, like Dean Martin, Frankie Lane, Eddie Fisher—anyone who played Las Vegas in those days.
Was there anyone you didn’t get to play with that you wanted to?
Sure. There was one that I missed out on with the relief band: Betty Hutton. Most of the acts, the singers, just brought a pianist or conductor with them. But Betty Hutton brought her drummer, a guy named Remo Belli.
He was a wonderful player and we became wonderful friends. As you know he later had the Drum City shop on Santa Monica in West Hollywood with Roy Harte. Later, either one of them could have owned this plastic drum head that had been invented by a professor. Remo took the drumhead and Roy took the drum shop and the rest is history.
I particularly like your story about the great Benny Carter, really one of the lions of classic swing and bebop, because it illuminates a different side of the issue of race in America during the early 1950s.
I was playing with Lena Horne at the time and Benny kind of liked my intensity. I always liked to play with digging-in type of playing. I’m never behind the beat, I’m kind of always on the edge of the top of beat.
Benny’s orchestra was opening up at the Moulin Rouge, which was on what was then the black side of town. The whole band was black with wonderful players like the saxophonist Wardell Gray, who was sensational. Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion, was the host of the hotel. And I was the drummer, the only white guy in the band. Later, Benny was invited to bring that band to Australia for a tour. But the promoter wanted everyone in the band to be black. It was what was called at the time a “Harlem act.” He told Benny, “You’ll have to replace your drummer because he’s not black.” And Benny told him, “If my drummer doesn’t go, I don’t go.”
It was during that time that [saxophonist] Wardell Gray died. He walked out of the hotel between sets one night and was later found dead. He was a tremendous loss.
The story of how you learned who the mobster Sam Giancana was and that he had a role in your wedding was a little scary but also hilarious.
I was playing with Eddie Fisher in Mexico City. Actually, I was going to propose to my third wife on that tour. But, Eddie really pushed me to get married on the spot. He said he’d be best man and then handed me a $1,000 bill. He had this friend there named Dr. Goldberg, who was always kind of mysterious. Dr. Goldberg also said, “I’ll be your best man, too.” And he handed me a $1,000 bill. Now, I’d never even seen a $1,000 bill. How many people have?
We went out to Teotihuacan, where Dr. Goldberg arranged for a Mexican judge to marry us. On the way back Dr. Goldberg said we’d meet at his villa. We came up on this large villa in and as we pulled in the driveway I noticed there were men on the roof with machine guns. I walked into the house and eventually I went into the kitchen and there was Dr. Goldberg, cooking a fantastic Italian meal for the wedding party. I said, “Since you’re my best man I hope you don’t mind me asking, but there were men on your roof with machine guns.” And Dr. Goldberg said, “There are some people who don’t like me. And since I was your best man, I will tell you that my name is not Dr. Goldberg. It’s Sam Giancana.” The woman who was with him at the time, who is in the photo of us all in the book, was Judith Exner, who also had an affair with President Kennedy.
I told that story to Daniel Glass, who plays at Birdland every Monday. He said “You’ve got to send me that picture.” So now a picture of my wedding party with Sam Giancana and Judith Exner hangs at Birdland.
The mob, as you know, was deep in the record business on the East Coast as well. Did you ever see it have an impact on the music?
No, not really. They might have had influence placing stars in movies or placing singers where they had a chance to do well, but as far as influence on the music itself, I didn’t see any of that.
Another interesting story involves you meeting legendary teacher Freddie Gruber as a young kid when you started taking lessons.
Well, I had just started, and I was doing paradiddles—Right-Left-Right-Right-Left-Right-Left-Left, you know—and Henry Adler said, “I want you to hear this kid I’ve been working with for a year. It was Freddie Gruber. He played the rudiments ridiculously fast, oh my god. After that I was determined to practice much harder. I practiced six to eight hours a day. I think I caught Freddie after about eight months. Henry Adler had a studio next door and he would let us wail away for hours.
I loved Freddie and I knew him longer than anyone. Whenever he came to Las Vegas we would spend time together and talk and talk. The last time I saw Freddie was at the NAMM show. I was guest of [Journey drummer] Steve Smith, great person and great drummer. We hung out for days and listened to all the drummers.
The most amazing thing to me is the way you played in all styles. You had a house band at the Black Magic that was straight-ahead jazz, but you go to play pop, and back crooners, show tune singers—Latin, Greek, any style, you name it.
Well, that was a special time. The Black Magic house band with Jack Prince and Joe Pass, we got to play with everybody. Every artist coming through town would sit in because we started at 2:00 in the morning when the shows on the strip closed down. All the really good players came by to sit in: Red Mitchell, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Harry James, even Count Basie and his band, Zoot Sims, Frank Rossolini, Kai Winding.
I was lucky. It was a busy, very fortunate time when I was in New York and learned to play with Latin bands, Greek bands.
You used to do clinics. What do you tell other players about learning styles?
Perseverance is important. You’ve got to practice. You got to listen. You can’t lay back and hope it happens for you. I actually grew up in Vegas. I mean, I came here as a kid at 22 in 1950. I had pretty good training and I could read very well. I had several teachers, not just Adler. I studied with Jim Chapin. I learned his book quite well beginning to end. We used to have a contest to see who could play the book from beginning to end nonstop. I could do it.
You played so many shows and tours, did you ever feel you missed out on playing more in the studio.
Not really. I think the biggest hits were what I recorded with Louie Prima. I also used to come to Los Angeles for some sessions. Paul Gilmore was the A&R man at Capitol. He loved my playing so he would have me come about and play sessions—just the rhythm section, no vocals. They would use those tapes on many songs. Financially it was very rewarding. I think I got $350 for a three-hour session, which was money in those days. He was wonderful to record with because he let you do your thing.
Las Vegas-area drummers can meet Bobby Morris on June 27 at a book signing at the Family Music Theater, 4-7:30 PM. At 2 PM that same day he’ll be with the Dennis Bono Show at Southpoint in Las Vegas. Morris says he’s been asked to sit in with the band, and even at 92, he’s looking forward to it.