Jack Sperling’s experience with big bands, combos, show and studio conductors, network staff groups and as back-up drummer for star performers would be difficult to match—and this shows no sign of letting up. Yet, except for a few product endorsements, comments from Jack Sperling are rarely found. They’re a little overdue.
“‘Keep it walking, Jackie, keep it walking’— and Bunny would walk up and down in front of the stand. He’d take two or three minutes between tunes, and make the tune fit the tempo he wanted. There were never more than four different tempos on that band. ‘Jack, if you can walk to the tempo, it’s gonna swing.’ I learned about playing some time from this guy. A beautiful man.”
That’s Jack Sperling talking about Bunny Berigan. It’s interesting to see Jack’s eyes gleam and his smile spread as he warms to the subject of his early days—and nights—in the band business. It’s a business that’s never stopped for him, and he obviously loves every minute of it.
“Getting on the Berigan band was a lucky thing for me, a freaky thing, not because I was particularly talented. I was a good little teenage drummer; there were a million of us around, trying to do like Gene Krupa. I was playing in Trenton, New Jersey with the best band in town. Al Zahler was the leader. He was a drummer, but he wanted to play vibes in front of the band. He auditioned a bunch of young guys. I sat in with him, played two tunes, and he said, ‘You’re it.’ At the time, I was concentrating on doing the Krupa bit and I had it down very good. Al Zahler was a good musician, and he realized I probably had enough innate sense of time that he could guide me—and he did.
“He used to say, ‘Jack, you’re gonna have a lot more fun keeping time [rather] than playing solos. Think about the time.’ So I started to learn about really keeping time as a rhythm section player, not just as a kid making faces, chewing gum and playing solos. I joined him when I was 15, and played with the band about three years.
“Then Bunny Berigan’s band came through. He had a pick-up band out of New York. They weren’t making any money, and half the guys walked. He had bookings to do, debts to pay off, and he had no band. The guy who was managing us really pulled a shaft job on Al Zahler. He told Bunny, ‘There’s a great band in town where you can get some guys. They’ll go out cheap; they’re a bunch of kids.’
“Bunny came around to hear the band and he said, ‘I really love the drummer, but the guy who put some money in my band is my drummer. He owns the library.’ I was broken-hearted. So Bunny came out to my house and talked to my folks, and he said, ‘The hell with the library; we’ll pick up some stocks. I’d like to have your kid along ’cause I like him.’ So off we go, on a real panic thing.
“This was the greatest experience in the world for me, because Bunny taught me how to really play drums. I had never formally studied: just a few lessons—just picked things up—but I could take direction. Some nights we sounded fine. Some nights we sounded like what we were: a bunch of kids trying to swing. I was 18, the youngest guy in the band. All the while, I’m learning how to play time from this guy, and he’s putting up with me.
“So Bunny picked up a bunch of stocks, and eventually got some of his old stuff back, like ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ and the good things, and the band was coming around. We started leaning on him and said, ‘Stop drinking so much—you’ll kill yourself.” We got Bunny cut down from two fifths a day to a half pint. He went to a doctor and got himself straightened up and the band was coming along just fine. I learned so much from this guy about being a human being and thinking about music as an extension of what you are.
“And then his father died. He left the band for two weeks, and he came back a basket case. It was back to drinking, and he’d have the DTs right in front of the bandstand. Some nights Bunny would play beautifully; some nights like a kid the first time—and he’d turn around and spit blood into his handkerchief. I was 19 and very impressionable and I couldn’t stand it—I loved the guy. Bunny left the band to go to the hospital for two weeks with pneumonia. While he was gone, I put my notice in. When Bunny rejoined it was my last night on the band and I said, ‘Goodbye,’ and he said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I gotta study,’ and he said, ‘What are you gonna study?’ and I said, ‘I’m gonna study drums—I want to learn. I’m working too hard.’ Three weeks later I got a call at three a.m. and was told Bunny had just died.
“He was one of the greatest trumpet players that ever lived. Louie Armstrong came to see the band a couple of times. Bunny was full of beautiful thoughts, and, of course, a lot of frustration, which was why he drank so much. He just couldn’t handle his personal life. From this guy I learned so much, and I’m sure that anyone that ever worked for him has got to say that he learned something from Bunny.”
Jack went to New York to study with Henry Adler, who was credited as collaborating writer on the then newly released Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments. “Henry was an excellent all-around drummer. He’d played with Larry Clinton and he knew how to turn his hands. He’d studied with violin teachers about how the hands moved—the easiest way—and he’d worked with doctors on which way the hands turn with the least amount of effort, and he came up with the Adler system.
“When I first went to him I thought I was pretty hot and could play fast. He said, ‘Play for me.’ So I played a little, and he said, ‘Boy, with you we gotta start at the beginning.’ He broke my back, man. I said, ‘Whatever you say, Henry,’ and inside of six months he had my hands looking good.
“I’d been holding the sticks awkwardly; moving my arms and wrists awkwardly. I was tense, overtrying, a little overenthusi astic. By turning them the right way, I noticed that little by little while playing at night, my hands were looking like they were supposed to look.”
Jack joined the Navy November 11, 1942, with the idea of being a Naval Air Cadet. The recruiter suggested he should join the Navy School of Music. “At the Navy School of Music there were six big military bands, each subdivided into two small dance bands, thus a need for twelve drummers. The day I got there, the drummer in the ‘A’ dance band had been thrown in the brig, and because of my Berigan experience, I walked right into that ‘A’ dance band. From then on, I kept getting yanked out of every theory, harmony and solfeggio class to play with all the other bands.”
After eleven months, Jack was shipped to the huge Naval Air Technical Training Center at Norman, Oklahoma. “Tex Beneke was being brought in as Chief Specialist to lead a hot priority band: Tex Beneke and the Gremlins. I was sent to join him and we got along just fine.”
At the end of the war, everyone was reshuffled, the band broken up, and Jack was back at the Navy School of Music. “I got a letter from Tex saying, ‘If you can get out of the Navy you can join me.’ He was going to head the new Glenn Miller band, and he’s offering me—who no one ever heard of—the job. He liked the way I played.
“I joined Tex and the band in March ’46. This was a big band with strings and a vocal group. On the first night, I found that half the [written] parts weren’t there. Tex opened with ‘On Brave Old Army Team’ at a wild tempo and I got into it. Roily Bundock, the bassist, looks over and says, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be alright.’ Every body helped. I was a lucky guy. Tex never let on, and it was a long time before I found out that the management of the band—and some of the bookers—wanted to bring in a heavy. But Tex wanted me.”
The Miller band—with Tex Beneke fronting—was one of the great post-war dance band attractions. When it reached the Hollywood Palladium in 1947, Life magazine reported that over 6700 dancers turned out for opening night.
From then on, the Miller band would play the Palladium twice a year—four weeks at a time—and each time a half dozen musicians would decide to stay and try the California life. When the band ar rived for a September ’49 Palladium date, Jack received an offer to join Les Brown.
“I always loved the Brown band because it was clean—the kind of band a drummer could really get into. I knew some day I’d love to live on the West Coast—it was nice here—but I’d never done anything except go on the road, and now I had a wife and little girl. Les had the Bob Hope [radio] show and was doing a lot of other work. He always had a good band, one of the greatest show bands ever—cuts anything on sight. I turned in a four-week notice, and Tex wished me well.”
Jack found that being based in Hollywood, with the Band of Renown, presented a number of advantages. He had time to study xylophone with Earl Hatch and soon found other work opening up.
“Hank Mancini, who is a very loyal guy, had left the Miller band [rhythm section] before I did, and had become a staff writer at Universal-International Pictures. When they needed a rehearsal drummer to work on a picture, or sketch drum parts, or work with a dancer, Hank would say, ‘Call Jack Sperling.’ Little by little, it started getting me into doing studio work at Universal.”
After four and a half years with Les, the drum chair on Bob Crosby’s five-day-a-week TV show—with the Modernaires—opened up, and the offer went to Jack.
“It paid much more than I was making, so I did 3 1/2 years with them. Then the show folded and I was scared to death. It was the first time that I was not with an organized band with a steady paycheck. Inside of two months I was so busy freelancing I was working seven days a week. Hank got the Peter Gunn show and he called all the guys from the old Miller band. I did Gunn with him and soon Mr. Lucky.”
Then came a call for Jack to handle the staff job at NBC-TV in Hollywood. “At first it was all live TV, and I was shuckin’ my way through, playing some vibes and timps.” The mallet study was now paying off on routine staff assignments such as This is Your Life.
But then came the era of the great musical shows originating from the West Coast and Jack Sperling was propelling the big studio bands on the Steve Allen Show, the Andy Williams Show, the Dean Martin Show, Laugh-in, the Roger Miller Show, Let’s Make a Deal and others.
In spite of this demanding schedule, Jack continued to be a most visible drummer on the local nightclub scene. A number of top arrangers and instrumentalists were putting together “kicks” bands, and booking them into local jazz spots. This gave the players, usually lost in the anonymity of studio work, the opportunity to play in bands that were musically exciting. It also provided the all-important ingredient so necessary to most performers: instant audience rapport.
Most of these groups were able to record, and some excellent Sperling big band work can be heard on Barnet ’67 (Charlie Barnet), Jung! The Big Band Syndrome (Bob Jung), Pet Project (Bob Florence), and a number of Henry Mancini albums—particularly Mancini ’67.
The combo albums with Jack featured during this period include The Page 7—An Explosion in Pop Music (Page Cava naugh), Jazz You Can Understand (Frank Flynn), and many albums with Pete Fountain. On Pete Fountain Presents Jack Sperling and His Fascinating Rhythm, Pete used a big band with the arrangements written to showcase Jack’s melodic concept of drumming. The album cover is a color picture of Jack at his double bass drumset.
“That was fun. I’ve done around thirty albums with Pete. He’s beautiful to work with. When Pete opened his club in New Orleans, he had Nick Fatool playing with him. But Nick had to come back here, so Pete phoned and asked if I could come in for a couple of weeks while he found another drummer. I got a two week leave of absence (from the staff) and had a ball. When the two weeks were up, Pete hadn’t tried anyone, so I got the leave extended. When I finally had to come back he still hadn’t tried anyone.”
Jack was an early user of double bass drums. “When I saw Louie Bellson with Duke about ’51, he said, ‘You oughta try two bass drums.’ I said, ‘I can’t take off six months to learn how to use them.’ Louie said, ‘You don’t have to. Just take them on the stand. That’s what I did.’
“So I got a double bass drumset and started using them. They can be very effective for some things.”
For double bass drum practice, Jack suggests cross paradiddles. “If you start the paradiddle with your right hand, then start with your left foot at the same time. It can be confusing for a while, but it starts freeing you.”
With a career filled with highlights, there are those that shine brightly. “When Buddy Rich’s band was working Marty’s on-the-Hill [a well-known L.A. jazz club in the ’60s], I got there about 11:00 one night, and Buddy had just left; he wasn’t feeling well. They asked me to sit in. That band plays itself. Buddy drives the time up their butt so hard they never relax. All I had to do was sit there and float along with it—and laughed all night. I’d bought all the records and had been to see the band several times, so I knew the book pretty well. If I needed, I’d read off of Chuck Findley’s second trumpet part.
“At about the same time, Basie was doing a week at Lake Tahoe. Sonny Payne was out, and Louie Bellson was in for the first four nights, but he had to come back here to do a concert, so Basie called me. I’d been waiting all those years for that band; they played the way I like to play. It was like putting on an old shoe—like sitting in front of a fireplace with a tall, cold one and your feet propped up. It was that comfortable.
“Basie was smiling. Roy Eldridge was also on the band, and he was the only guy reading, so anything I wasn’t sure of, I’d lean over and read the trumpet part. Basie called once a week for six months and would say, ‘Hey, wanna take a leave of absence for six days? Six weeks? Six months? Six years? ‘Cause it was fun with you.’ ” But commitments—both domestic and contractual—kept Jack close to the L.A. scene.
One day about a month later, a call came from Mercer Ellington at 4 p.m. Duke was scheduled to do three concerts in Riverside, about 60 miles outside L.A. The first show was at 8 p.m., and something had happened to Sam Woodyard. Could Sperling help out?
“I threw the drums in the car and raced out there. Again, there were no drum parts, and I only knew one tune—’Take the A Train’—and even that was a new arrangement in waltz time. Cat Anderson, Cootie Williams, Paul Gonsalves—all the guys cued me. Duke was beautiful. He’d say, ‘Brushes here, fingers on the cymbal here.’ What a pleasure; they made me feel at home.”
By the early “70s, the great television variety shows had vanished and the staff orchestras dissolved. Over the years Jack had still done record and club dates with Les Brown, and this association was resumed on a rather steady basis. Any mention of Les Brown should bring visions of Bob Hope and the Big Band that has accompanied him on travels throughout the world. The Korean tours in 1950 and ’51 are vividly etched in Jack’s mind.
“What a gratification when you see 10,000 guys ranging in age from 18 to 22 and they’ve all been out there getting shot at. They all look 20 years old going on 85— that’s the look about them. We played for the 1st Cavalry one month before the Red Chinese wiped half of them out. We went over the 38th parallel before everything was secured—into North Korea—to play a show for those guys. They marched back from the front and sat in the mud while we played and froze.
In 1970 and ’71 Jack was again with the Hope overseas tours, this time in the Vietnam theater. On a show played at sea on the bitter cold deck of the aircraft carrier JFK, “The other guys wore parkas and gloves, with holes cut for fingers. I couldn’t play that way. I wore turtleneck sweaters and no gloves.” Would Jack do it again? “Absolutely. You’ve never heard an audience like 10,000 GIs, man, when Hope would walk out on the stage.”
Throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s, Jack’s services as big band drummer and as back-up for top names in the entertainment world has continued. Tex Beneke makes several appearances in Southern California each year and the drum-chair call goes to Jack. Big Bands magazine recently reported that “Jack Sperling’s solo on ‘American Patrol’ brought down the house” at a special December holiday show with the Beneke band at the Hollywood Palladium.
When Tony Bennett and Lena Home brought their critically-acclaimed “Tony and Lena Sing” show to the Shubert Theater in L.A. for a week-long engagement, Jack accompanied Tony’s act, and was one of the key musicians introduced onstage. The program notes credited Jack with over 500 albums. This vast experience gives his comments on the current music scene a rather unique validity.
“The new, contemporary music is great. It’s not the Count Basie roaring kind of jazz we knew, or the Benny Goodman kind of 4/4, or any of the good swing bands. It’s a different thing, but it’s good. The only thing is—and I’m sorry to see it—in a lot of areas, the young guys are completely deserting that early concept of relaxed swinging. Music that swung didn’t have to be all complicated, didn’t have to have a million notes, didn’t have to have every guy in the band amplified, playing as loud as he could play. Free form—I don’t believe in that. If you can play swing, if you can improvise and say something worthwhile within a given structure, you’re a hell of a lot more musician than if you blow anything you want to. That’s like giving a monkey a paint brush.
“Free form drum solos—bull. Some guys can say some beautiful things, but most of it’s garbage. It’s my contention that if you can’t say some very pretty things and make your point in two or three choruses, you’re scuffling. You’re spin ning your wheels. If you’re musically educated, you can please the people without boring them off the dance floor or out of their seats while you’re concertizing by blowing twenty choruses. It isn’t necessary.
I think it’s a lack of musical good taste, or the ability to get to the point immediately.
“My thing was to play big band drums, cut shows, fit with the situation. Playing drums—that’s it for me. I may be less of a human being because of it. If you’re that involved and love to do it that much—and it pays you off in personal gratification that much—maybe you shortchange other aspects of your life. Maybe you’re not the father, the husband, the good friend you should have been. It’s really a full-time thing, if you’re going to go after it all the way.”