David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

Ron Sweed, aka the Ghoul, hosted several mostly bad movies on a television program airing in Cleveland, Ohio, during the 1970s and 1980s. The Ghoul tended to show the same bad movies over and over because the station bought the rights to very few movies. To keep things interesting, The Ghoul used to change the sound tracks. For example, an actress in “Attack of the Mushroom People” sang a song on a cruise ship. The Ghoul disliked the song, so when she sang, he dubbed in “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” or “Who Stole the Kishka” or some other song instead. And when a disembodied head babbled in “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die,” he played a song whose lyrics went “PAPA-OO-MOW-MOW.”

Early in his career, comedian Jay Leno met Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind African-American jazz musician. They worked together, with Mr. Kirk performing his black nationalist rap in front of a black nationalist audience that was thinking “Get Whitey” throughout his performance. Mr. Kirk then introduced the very Caucasian Mr. Leno as a “brother.” This had Mr. Leno worried, but he broke the ice by telling the audience, “Hey, maybe you haven’t noticed — Rahsaan’s blind.” The audience laughed, and Mr. Leno followed with a very funny set.

Buffy Sainte-Marie became a professional folk musician by accident. She had learned to play a second-hand guitar as a child, and in 1963, during a visit to New York City, she sang and played for fun at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village. A music critic for the “New York Times” happened to be in the audience, and he gave her a glowing review. Soon she was performing concerts and making records. Despite her long-term success, Ms. Sainte-Marie says, “I never expected to last more than a year or two.”

Live recordings were difficult to do in the days when recordings were made on wax cylinders because the microphones often picked up sounds that should not have been picked up. One live recording of a Cesar Franck symphony was ruined when near the end of the symphony, the wax cylinder recorded a woman saying quite loudly and clearly to another woman, “Tell me, dear, where do you buy your stockings?”

In 1835, Theobald Boehm designed a new flute that allowed musicians to play compositions that had previously been impossible for one musician to play. He took his new invention to composer Gioacchino Rossini and demonstrated it. Rossini was amazed and said, “You cannot play that!” Mr. Boehm pointed out that in fact he was playing it, but Rossini insisted, “I don’t care if you are — it is utterly impossible.”

  • Frequently, people get upset over the violent lyrics in rap music. Michael Moore, author of “Stupid White Men,” wonders why these people don’t get upset over lyrics sung by Johnny Cash (“I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die”), Bruce Springsteen (“I killed everything in my path / I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done”), or the Dixie Chicks (“Earl had to die”).

When he was 11 years old, Leonard Bernstein started taking piano lessons. He immediately loved the piano, and sometimes early in the morning, he would get out of bed and play. His father once told him, “Lenny, don’t you know it’s two o’clock?” Young Leonard replied, “I know. But the sounds are in my head and I just have to get them out.”

Charlie “Bird” Parker is one of the greatest jazz saxophone players of all time, but even he had to learn how to play well. When he was a teenager, he played some jam sessions with local musicians. At one jam session, he made numerous mistakes and the drummer threw his cymbals at him in disgust.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini failed to get the vocal effects he wanted while rehearsing a soprano with two prominent frontal developments. Finally, he grew so frustrated that he jumped on stage, grabbed the soprano’s two enormous talents, and shouted, “If only these were brains!”

Before giving a concert, Sviatoslav Richter was invited to try the piano. Mr. Richter sat briefly at the piano, then rose and said that he was satisfied. When asked why he didn’t actually play the piano, he replied that he would not because he was always disappointed by the sound.

Al Jolson was a huge star. While appearing on stage in the musical “Big Boy,” he once asked the audience, “Do you want me, or do you want the show?” The audience shouted, “We want Al! We want Al!” Therefore, Mr. Jolson let the cast have the night off, and he entertained the audience solo.

Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel once made an excellent criticism at a rehearsal, saying to a conductor, “You are there and I am here. But where is Beethoven?” The conductor took the criticism to heart and thereafter did things Mr. Schnabel’s — and Beethoven’s — way.

Texas Guinan was the hostess of the El Fay Club on West Forty-fifth Street in New York City. This club was frequently raided, and whenever federal agents came in to make yet more arrests, the club’s band would start playing “The Prisoner’s Song.”

Conductor Georg Solti once told singer John Lanigan, “John, dear, I beat it in twelve here.” Mr. Lanigan replied, “Don’t worry, Maestro. I never look.” Sir Georg laughed. (Don’t worry — this anecdote uses music jargon that doesn’t need to be censored.)

Serious music can pop up when you don’t expect it. George Balanchine’s “Square Dance” includes a lot of swing-your-partner steps and do-si-dos — but they are performed to the music of Italian composers Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi.

Sir Malcolm Sargent once publicly rehearsed a piece written by Vaughan Williams, making alterations as he went along. Suddenly, a voice came from the audience, “Hey! What are you doing to my piece?” The voice belonged to Mr. Williams himself.

Camille (Charles) Saint-Saëns once attempted to accompany a duet sung by two girls who were never together in their vocals. He stopped playing, then asked, “Now tell me, which of you two am I supposed to accompany?”

When singer Nat King Cole lay dying in a hospital, Robert Kennedy sent him a note that said, “I have decided I will not sing publicly again unless it is with you.”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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