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Balls R Us: High Society Bands


OK folks, high society bands are not high on my "heavy rotation" list, but it's tough to hit a good thrift store without running into one of these albums, so here's a quick Who's Who for reference.

Meyer Davis is the father of the modern high society band biz. He figured out somewhere in the 1940s that most of clients hired him for his name, not his players. Unlike the good big bands, which had rabid followers who tracked their sax section like baseball fans keep tabs on a team's bullpen, Davis didn't have to worry that some steel tycoon was going to ask, "Hey, Meyer--who's that playing bass? What happened to Joe Fillintheblanks?"

So he took the obvious but brilliant step of putting two bands together and booking them in parallel at different gigs. No one was the wiser, and the state of the art eventually progressed to the point that Davis had a running roster of musicians that he could package and deliver to whatever occasions were on the book for any particular night.

Lester Lanin followed Davis' lead and perfected the craft. He enlisted the help of his brothers Sam and Howard to cover the territory, and the Lanin enterprise continues today. A few others, like Jack Hansen and Griff Williams, contended for the business, but none of them could handle the Lanin throughput.

Peter Duchin parlayed the lucky combination of a famous name (courtesy of his father, pianist Eddy) and unparalleled connections with the upper upper crust (courtesy of his surrogate father, Averill Harriman), into a four decade-steady stream of elite NY private parties.

Zim Zemarel was based in Baltimore but worked north to Main Line and south into the quadrennial Capitol circuit.

In San Francisco, old money may only date back to the Gold Rush, but there's enough of it to keep a couple of society bands going. Ernie Hecksher and Anson Weeks cornered the market from the 1950s to the 1970s, with regular appearances on at the Hotel St. Francis and the Mark Hopkins. Peter Mintun and Dick Bright took over the franchises in the 1980s.

In Hollywood, Carmen Dragon filled in many a night between Hollywood Bowl symphony gigs with classy affairs, and even made a climactic cameo airlifting into a wedding in the film, "The In-Laws."

Why did these guys record, though? I mean, I can't imagine anyone rich enough to afford to hire them wanting to spin one of their platters to brighten a lonely winter night. And although Lester Lanin has a few fun records in his considerable output for Epic and others, most society band albums are predictable and uninspired strict-tempo medleys of interchangeable standards, so it certainly wasn't for the music!

Or was it--and it's a disheartening prospect to picture--to answer the needs of fathers too cheap to buy a real band and too pretentious to hire a accordion player? If this was the music they used, just imagine what awful food they must have served. Better off eloping.

And you--your life is rich and full without any of these records. Go replay a good record before plunking down 99 cents for Lester Lanin Goes to College.

Well, OK, maybe just one. After all, it's a big musical buffet out there, and it never hurts to test your palate with a new appetizer. But don't be disappointed if you find these particular canapes a bit stale.


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