LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, May 20,2017 – Billie Holiday and The Wrecking Crew: Not many musicians played with both the fabled jazz singer and the legendary cadre of Los Angeles studio musicians.
Add to the list Nat “King” Cole, Dwane Eddy, James Taylor, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bing Crosby and The Everly Brothers.
Now, if you look very closely, you would discover the one common element is an extraordinary string bass player named George Callender, known to everyone musical as “Red.”
There are those stories, with such amazing and wonderful coincidences that one says, “You couldn’t make this up.” But this sort of thing indeed happens, and that is the nature of our story this month.
Mark Cantor had met Red Callender a number of times, and knew his musical history quite well: a recording premiere in 1937 with Louis Armstrong, followed by a gig with the legendary Lester and Lee Young band in Los Angeles.
After that, a career as a free lance string bass player featured with just about every famous name in popular music.
How many musicians could claim to gave been on more than 500 recording dates, including two dozen under his own name?
Although Red had never been to one of Mark’s clip programs, the two knew each other from encounters at jazz performances in the Los Angeles area.
Red called Mark one afternoon and asked if he could come over to watch some of his old films. None of Red’s work was available on videotape, and this was years before the Internet.
JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, featuring Red along with Lester Young, and NEW ORLEANS, a rather dour film that included musical performances by Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, were totally unknown to most jazz fans.
Red knew that Mark had them on 16mm film, and , as he explained to Mark, he wanted to see himself “back in the day.”
Midway through the afternoon … the two had already watched a large number of films, some with Red and some not … the doorbell rang. It was the postman, who needed a signature for a package delivery.
At that time films were arriving three or four times a week, and Mark had no idea what had been delivered. It turned out to be a mid-1940s SOUNDIE, an early jukebox short, with Roy Milton’s popular rhythm-and-blues band.
Red asked what it was, Mark told him, and Red said something like, “Hey, I remember Roy. Always liked his music, can we see the film?” So Mark threaded the film up and turned on the projector.
And then Red and Mark almost fell off of their chairs … because there was Red, in the band, taking the first solo in the performance. The film was, of course, repeated … and then twice more … as the final film, in the afternoon.
Red didn’t remember ANYTHING about the film, didn’t remember the date, didn’t even recall ever working with Roy. “It must have been a ‘day’s pay for a day’s work,’” one that came and went and was forgotten until that moment!
And in all fairness, why would Red remember a job that lasted perhaps two days, one for recording and one for photography, in a career that spanned more than half a century?
On the other hand, the performance by the band, backing vocalist June Richmond, is one of those very important films that bridge jazz and blues and rhythm-and-blues, pointing the way toward rock and roll.
Take a look and see if you can hear the connection between this music, and what would develop and flourish in the second half of the century:
As mentioned above, one couldn’t write something quite like this, although there were many other such occurrences at Mark’s home screenings.
Next time we’ll discuss the amazing Panoram jukebox – music videos from the 1940s, decades before MTV – and another wonderful coincidence, as unlikely as the one with Red.
Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.
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