The Ted Weems band was a singerís delight ó or, to be completely accurate ó a many singerís delight. It was a good though never great musical outfit that turned in a whale of a job entertaining in a modest, intimate sort of way, presenting a whole slew of singers, one after another, all of them different-sounding and all well above average in talent.
The most famous of them, Perry Como, says simply that "the band was really built around itís singers. I canít recall that it ever played a straight instrumental."
Weems, a college man who had started on violin, switched to trombone and, realizing his own limitations, had settled for a baton, devoted most of his time to dates in the Midwest, especially in and around Chicago, where he was starred at several hotels and the Aragon and Trianon ballrooms. He interspersed his crisp, unsophisticated ensemble sounds with the crooning of Como; the sweet, ingenue-singing of little Mary Lee; the more sexy emoting of Marvell Maxwell (who later changed her name to Marilyn Maxwell and became a Hollywood star); the novelties of Red Ingle, whom Como calls "one of the most talented men Iíve ever met" and who later made a hit record of "Timtayshun" with Jo Stafford; the straightforward rhythmic singing of Parker Gibbs, now a top NBC radio producer; the stylized, semi-hillbilly performances of "Country" Washburn, and the whistling of Elmo Tanner.
"Ted was a good businessman and a gentleman in every sense of the word ó in his actions and in his dress and everything," recalls Como. " I donít think the man had a mean bone in his body, unless you could call what he did once in a while to Elmo Tanner Ďmeaní "
Tannerís whistling was one of the bandís features and Weems depended on Elmo to deliver when called upon. But once in a while, for reasons best known to Tanner, himself, his precious lips would pucker up uncontrollably. Perhaps to impress upon Elmo the need for remaining in proper condition, Weems would, on those special occasions, call for the most virtuoso whistling bits in the book, such tunes as "Nola" and "Canadian Capers" and "Stardust," for Tanner to wrap his lips around. " I used to sit there in the bandstand and watch, and my heart would really bleed for the guy," says Como.
Weems was in a good mood in Warren, Ohio, the night in 1936 when he offered Como a job. As Perry tells it: "I was singing with Freddy Carloneís band in a gambling casino. Ted came in and played the Ďdouble-ohí in roulette and it came in. Then he came downstairs where we were working, and he heard me sing. Art Jarrett had just left him, so he offered me the job."
Weems recalled that evening too. "Como was introduced in the floor show," he wrote several years ago, "and had to do about six encores before the audience would let him go ó a scene I was to see repeated many times in clubs and hotels throughout the country."
"I talked to Perry about joining my band, and he was interested. I believe Paul Whitmanís manager phoned from New York that same night and asked him to come to New York for an audition, which he didnít want to do."
Como joined Weems several weeks later. According to Ted, "We were on the stage when he arrived, and during the show I saw him standing in the wings. I interrupted our regular program to tell the audience about hearing Perry in Warren and I would like them to hear his first song with us. He came on stage and sang one number to a wonderful hand."
However, reaction to Como during the first year was not always enthusiastic. When the band played the Palmer House in Chicago, radio station WGN threatened to discontinue Weemsí broadcasts if, according to Ted, "the new singer didnít improve. I had recordings made of a number of Perryís songs taken from air shows, and one night I had Perry stay and listen to them. He commented, Ď I canít understand what Iím saying.í I told him that he had been endowed with a fine voice and there was no need to embellish it with vocal tricks. Just open up and sing the words from the heart. From then on his enunciation improved and so did his professional stature."
Perry, as relaxed and as personable as he is now, stayed with Weems for six years and grew to love the band. "It was a really happy group and a good entertaining one too. It did especially well when Ted could get us all close to the people, like in hotel rooms. But when we went out on one-nighters and followed the big swing bands like the Dorseys and Goodman and Miller into the huge ballrooms, it was a different matter. After all, youíve got to remember that we had only seven musicians, just three brass instead of the six or seven or even eight that the others had, and four saxes and four rhythm. Sometimes Iíd notice groups of kids hanging around the bandstand, sort of giving us the eye, and then after two or three sets of our novelties and singing, one of the hipper ones would slip up close and lean over and say something like ĎAre you guys kidding?í "
Weems very wisely never tried to compete with the big swingers. He concentrated on making the most out of what he had, even if it was something as basic and simple as a whistler, a whistler who helped him create his bandís biggest hit record.
Ted had probably forgotten all about that record of "Heartaches" when a North Carolina disc jockey began plugging it on the air in 1947. Weems had recorded it back in 1933, but for some inexplicable reason, the novelty version, with itís washboard rhythm sound and Tannerís homespun whistling, suddenly caught on fourteen years later and within a few weeks Ted had a huge, full-sized hit record on his hands. And it was an arrangement that he had nearly tossed aside.
As Weems reported in 1947: "We were working in Chicago about fifteen years ago, and the publishers of ĎHeartachesí had been begging us to put the tune on the air. So one night he introduced it. We played it just the way you hear it on the record, with that corny sort of half-rumba rhythm and with all those effects. After the broadcast, the writers and the publisher called me on the phone and they really let me have it. They claimed I was ruining their song, that we had given it the wrong interpretation and all that. And do you know that I havenít heard a word from them, even though theyíre raking in all the dough from the performances ó not even a word to say that maybe I wasnít such a complete idiot after all."
The "Heartaches" rediscovery revived a Weems band career that had begun to fade like those of the other name bands. "Funny how surprised a lot of the kids are when they see me in person," he noted, perhaps a bit ruefully, at the time. "Lots of them are so young that theyíd never heard of me until they heard "Heartaches," and so naturally they expect to see some young upstart."
Ted Weems, who passed away a few years ago, had in fact already paid his dues by 1947. He had completed approximately a generation of successful band leading (there had been a hitch in the Merchant Marines with almost all his musicians during World War II), when he was suddenly "discovered" by the kids. And so "Heartaches" turned out to be just a welcome dividend for one of the kindest men the band business has known.George T. Simon THE BIG BANDS Copyright 1967, 1971 and 1974
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