I was out of the Army August 19, 1954, and a daughter was born the day after. The big dilemma was whether to head for Nashville or New York. And New York it was, since I had more of a chance for work in New York and I also knew people there. I’d have to start all over in Nashville. I already at least had a job connection with a relief band for Ray Anthony’s big band at the Hotel New Yorker Terrace Room for a few months.
For that winter of ’55, what could be better than to spend it playing with a band down in Florida? So, we headed for Nino’s Continental in downtown Palm Beach. The only problem was that society people only liked to dance to fast two beat music. So, every song, whether a ballad or up tempo had to be played only in that manner. Every song was the same and you couldn’t really get any kicks playing jazz or four beat or even slow two beat. So, as a musician, playing a high society job would become quite boring after several hours, however, it paid the rent.
It was a tough gig, but exciting inasmuch as some of Palm Beach high society were there nightly, giving us a glimpse of how some among them enjoyed their nightlife. People like Horace Dodge Jr. from the Dodge clan, Henry Ford II and wife, Anne, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were regulars among many. There was also Jimmy Woolworth Donahue, the son of Jesse Woolworth Donahue, a Palm Beach resident, and reportedly one of the wealthiest, of the Woolworth clan. Mrs. Donahue also frequented Nino’s.
The King had adjudicated and renounced the English Throne to marry perhaps the most famous divorcée in British history. And he went from being King of England to being the Duke of Windsor, and apparently hung out with high society among the Palm Beach crowd.
Instrument of Adjudication of King Edward the Eighth
And there were some pranksters rumored among them, whereas word got out somehow that there was laughing and bragging about one of them who was instrumental in recently shattering the letters “ES” on the New York Essex House Hotel sign making it read “SEX HOUSE” at night.
New York scene showing the Essex House sign
It was a seven nights a week gig and we never stopped playing even if there wasn’t a soul in the place. When we would get our five minute on the hour break, wed hang out in the kitchen and see how some great dishes were made, and fight over leftovers like shrimp scampi. It was the first time I had seen raw hamburger served.
With all that money floating around, we only got one tip the whole time we were there. After playing her favorite song every time she came in, one of the famous wives, at the very end of our engagement, gave us a $50 tip to split five ways.
Well, after witnessing higher than high society and their higher than high falutin’, it was back to New York with a long band job in Jersey, and 18 months at RCA Institutes studying radio, audio, and television. I commuted from Bayside, in Queens to RCA in Manhattan for school five days a week, and rode with the leader to the Mayfair Farms Restaurant in West Orange. It was a long hard grueling time of my life, playing and singing six nights a week and going to school five days a week, full time. There was hardly any time for study. But it would pay off on down the line.
To top it off in 1956, when we were playing in Jersey, five hours, 8 to 1 AM, at the time in the turning the clocks back an hour in the Fall, our brilliant leader expected that since the clocks were set back an hour from daylight saving time (1 AM back to midnight), that we should play that extra hour for no extra pay. No, he didn’t win that one.
It was 1957 and I was still writing my songs and doing my demos. One day I walked into MGM Records with my demos and asked to see Frank Walker, the president. I knew that he had originally signed Hank Williams, and since Hank’s death, he had been looking to find someone to replace him. I dropped a name of one of his artists who I said sent me and I walked right into his office. Well, damn if he didn’t sign me. I guess I really impressed him, because he sent me out to produce four country sides in New York on my own. My records were released and damn if they didn’t have me sounding like Hank Williams. He had put in a bid for Elvis’ Sun Records contract along with RCA a couple years before that.
It wasn’t long after that MGM session that Music Corporation of America (MCA) agent, Larry Funk, called me one day and said he would like to place me singing and playing with Guy Lombardo. I joined the band in September, 1957 and we went on the road working our way to the Las Vegas Desert Inn. LV STRIP HISTORY asked me to write about the times there for their publication and I couldn’t resist. So, I wrote:
“We were there for at least two months, seven nights a week in the big room. I sang and played upright bass with Guy Lombardo at the time at $350 per week. (7 nights a week at $50 a night) I was by far, the youngest in the band, 26, and they all called me Junior and kidded me. Larry Funk of MCA booking and big band fame put me with the band to use a spring board like other boy band singers (Merv Griffin- Freddy Martin, etc.)
So it was bass and tuba and on opposite ends of the stage. We had to guess if we were playing the same notes at the same time being about thirty feet apart. It was after Jones Beach and some road dates. I believe it was around September-October-November. In order to get to Disneyland and LA with no day off, I had to fly out right after the last show and fly back in time for the first show with no sleep. Shows were one hour and I had trouble staying awake. It was the funniest band ever. Brother Victor was the outcast and he had to dress with the sidemen. This was because he didn’t make it with his own band and he was punished. Like he wasn’t even family.
We flew from NY to Chicago to begin a string of one nighters on the way to Vegas. When I first got on the bus in Chicago, I went back found a seat and sat down. It wasn’t a regular bus, just another charter. But one of the “elders’ came back and said, “That’s my seat. I’ve been sitting there for 27 years.” Scared little me got up and waited for a seat and finally, Tuba player, Fred Exner invited me to sit with him. We became great friends back in New York. What was funnier was that each Lombardo brother, Guy, Carmen and Liebert had a girlfriend meet them at the bus and travelled with the band. It was also the drunkest band I ever worked with. We called Guy’s action with the baton the “goose” since he really didn’t conduct with it, you would always see the baton going up like when you would goose someone in the rear. Although I did sing a couple solos and with the trio. Carmen and Guy (and Kenny) thought Kenny Gardner was the best singer in the world. But when I started to be just a little bit better than Kenny, I got fired back in New York”. – Don Meehan
It was another seven nights a week job and the only way I could get to see MGM in Hollywood was to get there and back in one day. And I did. The only problem was after not getting any sleep was trying to stay awake during the comic’s routine.
We came back to New York in October of ’57 to a Command Performance and reception for Queen Elizabeth II at the huge Park Avenue Armory. We also did the Ed Sullivan show once, and then on to the Roosevelt Grill, Guy’s old stomping grounds. Well, I lasted a little bit past New Years Eve, 1957 to 1958, when they decided they didn’t need an upright bass and a tuba. I always felt out of place. And they referred to Kenny Gardner as the best singer in the world. So, Larry Funk’s idea of him being a springboard for me was a bust.
A screen shot of me playing bass in the hour long 1957-58 New Years Eve movie from the New York Hotel Roosevelt –This scene runs from 23:20 to 23:31
These are two screen shots if me with the band. The one hour long video is out there of New Years Eve. 1957-58 and there I am playing about 30 feet away from the tuba player on the other side of the stage, supposedly playing the same notes in sync. And I couldn’t even hear George the drummer most of the time. Once in awhile, Guy would motion to me to play softer, and I would soften down to nothing, making out like I was playing and nobody knew the difference.
Another screen shot from the 1957-58 New Years Eve movie
When I joined the band in the September before, it was on a record date at Capitol Records at their West 46th Street Studio in New York. When I asked where I should play, they said anywhere I want. And then, I waited for them to put a microphone on me and they never did. Well, that was easy money. Frank Abbey (Abbruscato), who had been an engineer at CBS Records since 1969, was at Capitol at the time, remembered the occasion when I jogged his memory. Not sure if he was the engineer mic-ing or not mic-ing the bass, but he was the first engineer ever hired by Capitol Records.
And like I said, it wasn’t only the drunkest band, but the funniest band I ever worked with.