“Happiness is a Thing Called Joe”
Composed by Harold Arlen (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyric); arranged by Ralph Burns.
Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra for Columbia on February 26, 1945 in New York.
Woody Herman, directing: Ray Wetzel, Pete Candoli, Charlie Frankhauser, Saul “Sonny” Berman, Carl “Bama” Warwick, trumpets; Bill Harris, Ralph Pfiffner, Ed Kiefer, trombones; Sam Marowitz, John LaPorta, alto saxophones; Joseph “Flip” Phillips, Pete Mondello, tenor saxophones; Skippy DeSair, baritone saxophone; Ralph Burns, piano; Hy White, guitar; Chubby Jackson, bass; Dave Tough, drums. Frances Wayne, vocal.
The Story: My pursuit of music and jazz over the last several decades has led me to meeting and learning from a number of extraordinary people. Some of these people were/are musicians. And a few were not. One non-musician who was responsible for leading me to an immense amount of wonderful music was Joe Boughton.
Joe Allen Boughton (1934-2010), was quite a guy. I met Joe in the mid-1980s when I first attended what was then called the Conneaut Lake Jazz Festival. That event was held in the summer at Conneaut Lake Park, an old amusement park with a roller-coaster and a ballroom, which lay alongside a beautiful lake in northwestern Pennsylvania. Conneaut Lake Park was/is located about six miles west of Meadville, Pennsylvania, where Joe lived. It struck me as odd (but fortuitous) that there would be a jazz festival at Conneaut Lake Park, or indeed anywhere near the wilds of northwestern Pennsylvania. (I lived about a two-hour drive to the west in Ohio.) But I was reasonably certain, given the advance promotional materials Joe mailed to me and seeing the names of the musicians who would be performing (after I sent him a letter requesting them), that I was in for some fine music if I decided to attend. I did attend, found Conneaut Lake Park and environs to be delightful, and was blown away by the quantity and quality of the music that Joe presented. Joe wisely mixed veteran musicians with younger performers. All of the musicians were top-flight talents, and everyone inspired everyone else.
Despite the fact that I knew many of the musicians Joe presented by reputation before I attended my first Conneaut Lake Jazz Festival, I didn’t know any of them in any personal sense. I also didn’t know any of the attendees at first. Joe, in his smiling way, did make sure to seek me out each time I attended, shake my hand, and ask me if I was enjoying the music. Gradually, I met many of the dozens of patrons who returned year-after-year, and many of the musicians who were presented. I also slowly began to get to know Joe, despite the fact that he was busy from morning until the wee hours of Friday and Saturday nights. (Joe reveled in having a taste with the musicians each night in the Hotel bar after the last note had sounded.) In fact, I always, after my first visit to Conneaut Lake, requested tickets at a front table, which perforce meant I would be sitting near Joe. He noticed, and slowly we began to get to know each other.
Conneaut Lake Hotel – 1986.
Joe’s passion for mainstream jazz and American Popular Song was boundless. His interactions with the musicians were friendly, but authoritative. Joe was a detail guy, so he thoroughly thought of and planned for most contingencies. If there were any hitches in any of the presentations, and there were from time to time, I was none the wiser, until I later heard tales being told by the musicians. Joe was a master at smoothing out the wrinkles.
The format of the early Conneaut Jazz Festivals was that there would be piano music (initially) at the antiquated but pleasant Conneaut Lake Hotel dining room, starting around 5:30 on Friday evening. Perhaps a few other musicians would join the pianist for quiet dinner music until about 7:00. Then there would be a one-hour break, and festivities would move to a building at the water’s edge called the Beach Club.
The Beach Club (pictured above, but now gone – it was destroyed by fire a few years ago), appeared to be a small ballroom facility, having a good-sized bandstand, and chairs set up on the dance floor. There was continuous music with a changing cast of musicians at the Beach Club from 8:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. On Saturday morning, a brunch was served in the dining room of the Hotel starting at around 10:30. Once again, a pianist would start things off, and would gradually be joined by more performers. The music continued until 12:30 or so, when there would be a break until the dinner session started in the evening. The dinner and night sessions on Saturday would follow the same format as Friday. On Sunday, music would start in the Hotel dining room at 10:30, as on Saturday, and continue until 1:00 or 1:30, when the event ended.
The participants in the 1986 Conneaut Lake Jazz Festival, L-R rear: Bob Haggart, Johnny Varro, Marty Grosz, Ray Sherman, Johnny Mince, George Van Eps, Michael Moore, Buck Clayton, Joe Boughton (impresario), Joe Wilder, ??, Gene Estes, Bob Havens, Bud Freeman, Ray McKinley; front: Jackie Williams, Eddie Miller, Ross Tompkins, Scott Hamilton, Randy Reinhart, Don Lamond, Mahlon Clark, Ed Polcer, John von Ohlen, Dan Barrett, Howard Alden, Chuck Wilson. This photo was taken by Nancy Miller Elliott with the musicians on the stage of the Beach Club.
In addition to the musicians pictured above, I was able to hear the following musicians at events staged by Joe Boughton: Maxine Sullivan, Billy Butterfield, Dan Levinson, Vince Giordano, Andy Stein, Milt Hinton, Nikki Parrott, Gene Bertoncini, Johnny Frigo, Bill Crow, Duke Heitger, Randy Sandke, Ken Peplowski, Harry Allen, Bobby Gordon, Keter Betts, Larry Eanet, Erica Ovette, Mark Shane, Keith Ingham, David Morgan, Dave McKenna, Scott Robinson, Jon-Erik Kellso, Kevin Dorn, Bob Reitmaier, Becky Kilgore, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill, Dick Hyman, and many more.
I attended many Conneaut Lake Jazz Festivals, and later when Joe moved the site of the event to the Chautauqua Institution on Lake Chautauqua, New York, I attended there as well. But starting probably in the early 1990s and for the next 15 or more years, Joe also presented other, far more intimate jazz weekends, usually one in the fall, and another in early spring, at a venue called the Market House in downtown Meadville (pictured above). The performance space for these events was a small room called the Gardner Theater on the second floor of the Market House. The format was two one-hour sets on Friday and Saturday nights starting at 8 p.m. There was maybe a fifteen-minute break between the sets, and then after the second set, a reception was held in the small art gallery across the hall from the Gardner Theater, where the performers and audience members could talk, have a snack, and sip beer and wine. The atmosphere was relaxed but convivial. On Sunday, music started around 1:00 p.m., and lasted until 2:30 or 3:00, when the event ended. (In the hallway between the Gardner Theater and the art gallery/reception area, Bill Garts, one of many aides-de-camp Joe had, manned several long tables laden with classic jazz CDs and books. Bill sold these items to the music lovers who attended Joe’s events.)
As much as I enjoyed the summertime festivals, I enjoyed these jazz weekends more. It was at these events that I was able to talk at length with many musicians, as well as hear them perform in a setting that was ideal for listening to unamplified music. It was also at these events that I really got to know Joe. (A recent event at the Gardner Theater is shown above.)
The Gardner Theater is a rectangular room, probably 25 feet wide and 40 feet long. There is a cozy stage at one end of the room which when Joe was presenting jazz events there contained a mid-sized, properly tuned grand piano (loaned to Joe by patron/jazz fan Wheaton Spence). The audience sat on folding chairs (with cushions) that were arranged with small tables in front of them to hold glasses or bottles for libation, chips and pretzels. There was a well-stocked bar in a small kitchen at the back of the room, occupying the wall opposite the stage. It was staffed by volunteers who helped with all of the details at these events.
Joe was an excellent emcee. He always introduced the musicians at the beginning of each performance, and laid down the rules for the audience, paramount of which was that there should be no talking while the artists performed. Most of the people who came to these events really wanted to hear the music, so audience misbehavior was minimal. Joe would then sit adjacent to the stage, at stage left, with a glass beer stein filled half with beer and half with scotch, and enjoy the performance. Every once in a while, he would invite me to sit next to him. When he did, I felt honored, though there was absolutely no conversation between us while music was being made. On a number of occasions, I joined Joe and one or more of the musicians after the festivities on Friday or Saturday at a bar near the Market House. One of Joe’s favorites, it was called Zipper’s.(1)
Over the years, I saw and heard a number of female vocalists sing the song “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” at various events staged by Joe Boughton. They did this to express their gratitude for the extraordinary work Joe did over more than 25 years to present high-quality musical programs that featured classic and mainstream jazz, and American Popular Song. Joe was too much of a curmudgeon to show outwardly that he was affected by these tributes, but I know that he was. On more than one occasion, while this song was being sung, he had to get out his handkerchief.
Joe, wherever you are, thanks again for all of the great music and camaraderie you provided your audiences, and for all the work you provided for the musicians.
The Music: The song “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” was written for the 1943 M-G-M musical Cabin in the Sky, and was introduced in that film by Ethel Waters. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in a film in 1943, but lost out to “You’ll Never Know.” A young singer known professionally as Frances Wayne, became fond of “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe,” and eventually one of her friends, Ralph Burns, wrote an arrangement of it for her. Burns himself later filled in the background: “We had a job in the Mayfair nightclub in Boston, which was a big nightclub then. We had six pieces, and Frances was the singer. I moved in with her family. They lived in Somerville. (Burns was from nearby Newton, Massachusetts.) I loved that family. They were like my own family. I was very close to all the brothers, Vinnie, and Cosmo, and little Louis, and the mother and father (The family name was Bertocci. Frances’s real name was Chiarina Francesca Bertocci. She is pictured above right in October 1945.) Vinnie used to manage us.”
(Sometime in late 1940) “…we went down to New York and auditioned for Kelly’s Stables one weekend and got the job. We were there, off and on, for at least a year. We were the relief band, a little jazz band patterned after the John Kirby style, but a bit more modern. I started writing for that band. What a thing to be thrown in with! It was great! Art Tatum and his trio, Coleman Hawkins and his group with Thelma Carpenter. Wow! I couldn’t wait to get through working so I could sit and listen. Then Nat Cole came in with his trio.” (2)
“Frances went with Charlie Barnet. Charlie needed a piano player, and she got me the job. That’s when I started writing for big bands. Frances then went with Woody. Chubby Jackson had also been with Charlie Barnet. Woody offered Chubby a job. Woody wanted to change the sound of his band. So Frances and Chubby said, ‘Why don’t you get Ralph? He writes and he plays piano.’ On their recommendation, Woody called me, and I was hired.” (3)
“It seems to me that my first arrangement for Woody was ‘Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.’ I had done it for Charlie, and when I came to Woody, he wanted me to do it for him because Frances wanted to sing it. So I really did the same arrangement (for Woody) that I had done for Mary Ann McCall with Charlie’s band.” (4) (Ralph Burns is pictured at left – 1947.)
As a special treat, I am presenting what is in effect the dress rehearsal of Woody Herman’s February 26, 1945 Columbia recording of “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.” It is a live recording of a CBS radio network broadcast emanating from Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey on February 18, 1945. The personnel of Woody’s band is the same, except that Billy Bauer is playing guitar on this live recording.
This performance differs from the Columbia recording only in that it contains a marvelous alto saxophone solo played by Woody Herman, which reflects his great admiration for Johnny Hodges. The manic howl you will hear was created by Chubby Jackson. (The photo above right is of Woody Herman and Frances Wayne (*) in late 1945.)
“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”
Notes and links:
(1) The Talon Zipper Company, which manufactured zippers, was headquartered in Meadville throughout the Twentieth Century.
(2) Leader of the Band …Woody Herman, by Gene Lees (1995), 92. Frances Wayne had another brother, Nick, who was known professionally as Nick Jerrett. He led a band in Boston in which Ralph Burns played piano.
(4) Woody Herman …Chronicles of the Herds, by William D. Clancy with Audrey Coke Kenton (1995) 56.
(5) Here is a link to some more music by Woody Herman that was created by Ralph Burns: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/10/28/summer-sequence-part-4-1947-and-early-autumn-1948-woody-herman/
(*) Frances Wayne and Neal Hefti, a trumpeter and arranger in the Herman band, were married in Somerville, Massachusetts on November 2, 1945. They remained married for the rest of her life. She died on February 6, 1978 from cancer. Hefti, in his post-Herman career, went on to major success as an arranger, and composer for Hollywood films and television.
Here are yet more links to great performances by Woody Herman here at swingandbeyond.com:
And here is a link to one of Ralph Burns’s later works and performances:
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.