Former Beneke sax man Cecil Hill still “swings his thing ”
An interview with Bob Knack
“My life as a professional musician truly began by auditioning for Claude Gordon’s Band in the summer of 1955 on a borrowed tenor sax as I only had an alto at the time," said Cecil Hill. “I was hired and I soon thereafter became the lead tenor player and road manager”.
Hill, who has worked with many of the biggest names in show business, was reminiscing about a life in music and his two recent CDs, A Saxy Affair and Cecil Hill Swings His Thing.
“One day Claude asked, ‘Cec, can you sing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but I can sure give it a shot’, and thus began another part of my musical life.”
The 1950s were a tough time for the big band business. In an attempt to lure fans back to the music, a Best New Band Contest sponsored by the A.F.M. was held in New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Claude Gordon’s band was judged the winner among 183 bands. One of the rewards was a contract with Warner Brothers records.
“We recorded three albums with Warner Brothers Records and one with Liberty Records", recalled Hill. "The Liberty album was ‘Jazz for Jeanagers’, which gave the DJ`S something to talk about as the cover showed teenagers in Levis jumping through a wall of red paper.” Billy May wrote arrangements and the band played engagements at the Avalon Ballroom on Catalina and the Hollywood Palladium.
“As we were returning from our national tour in 1959,” continued Hill, Oour Manager, the great Pee Wee Monte, arranged for us to work with Tex Beneke at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. We went on following Victor Borge for dancing in the Main Show Room for two weeks from 2 to 6 a.m. Try and figure out when to sleep on that schedule.”
“Tex had been my idol as a sax player since I was in high school. He was one of the nicest, most humble human beings it has been my pleasure to know. We would stand back stage and discuss which reeds to use. Claude’s Book was written for my lead tenor, alto, and baritone. When we played Tex`s book, I would play lead alto, but when we played Claude’s book Tex would make up his own second tenor part. He would say, ‘Why does this girl singer have to sing in violin keys.’ Her name was Darts Alexander. It was all a truly wonderful experience I will never forget.”
“I was with ‘Gordy’ until 1963. He left us a few years ago and I miss him dearly.”
Hill later joined Horace Heidt, Jr. “Over a two-year period, we were backing name acts such as Rosie Clooney and The Four Freshmen. During our stint with Dick Haymes, he signed a deal for Las Vegas. Dick’s manager, Bill Weems, asked me if I would like to form a nine-piece group and front it at the MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas. I did and with Horace’s blessing, I took nine men and away we went. I must live right or some angel is on my shoulder, because all of the people I have had the pleasure to know and work with have been excellent, including Richard Haymes, one of, if not the finest, Baritone voices ever heard.”
What were the beginnings of these two new CDs?
“I did a six-song audiotape for Capitol Records' album planning committee, which never was picked up,” Cecil explains, “The tape lay around in my library from 1962 until 1998. A friend of mine heard it and said, ‘If you don’t do something with that and add six more tracks to it, you are nuts." Hence the “A Saxy Affair” album.”
All good things, it seems, are worth waiting for.
“During my stint with Heidt Jr.,” continued Hill, “I had occasion to meet Johnny Mercer who was in the audience one night. I told him I had a reel-to-reel tape I would like him to hear. He said he liked the way I played and gave me his phone number and invited me to his home. When I arrived and was seated in his den, I said, “Gee Johnny, I’m sorry that none of these songs are yours.” He checked the titles and said, “Hell, Cec, four of them are—‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and three others.”
After “A Saxy Affair”, a dear friend of Hill’s from 1950 at North Texas State University Jazz School called and said, “You know that last CD you made? Well, I will finance the second one.”
“I didn’t know I was doing a second one,” said an amazed Cecil.
“Yes, you are.”
That old college chum was Dent Hand Jr., who plays second trumpet and is executive producer on the new CD project, which became Cecil Hill Swings His Thing.
Hill decided to go for broke. He wrote up a budget for nine men. He hired his neighbor from down the street, Pete Christlieb, on tenor and other great players such as Bob O`Donnel on lead trumpet, and Mark Stevens on drums. New arrangements were written by John Rodby, who was with The Dinah Shore Show for 23 years. They included swingers like “One O’Clock Jump” and haunting ballads such as “Sabor a Mi” and “When You Wish Upon A Star”.
“We called Conte Candoli in Palm Springs but he had just gotten back from months in Europe. I wanted him for the solos only. I offered to limo in him and his wife, about 250 miles, for the date and he agreed.” This is believed to be the last studio recording made by Candoli, and he is in great form.
It was Hill’s intention to get Jack Sheldon for the vocals on “Flat Foot Floogie” and “Two of a Kind”, but he was not available. Candoli said, “Get Med Flory, he sings well.” So Cecil, remembering Flory’s work with The L.A. Voices, called him and he loved it. Cecil handled the rest of the vocal chores himself.
His work on the novelty tune “Little Egypt” is alone worth the price of the CD.
“We were sitting in Pete Christlieb’s garage havin’ a drink,” concluded Cecil. “He builds race cars so that’s where he keeps the Scotch. I was extolling the virtues of my two late friends; June Christy and Bob Cooper and what a great solo Bob did on Natalie Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’. Pete quietly said, ‘No, Cec, that was me.’ I’m still wiping the egg off!”
Order “A Saxy Affair” and “Cecil Hill Swings His Thing” from your local record store or at amazon.com or cecilhill.com. Claude Gordon’s big band CDs are available on the Klavier label.
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