“Nina Never Knew”
Composed by Louis Alter (music) and Milton Drake (lyric); arranged by Bill Finegan.
Recorded by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra for RCA Victor on November 3, 1952 in New York.
Bill Finegan, celeste, directing: Joe Ferrante, Bobby Nichols and Nick Travis, trumpets; Vern Friley, Bill Harris, Eddie Bert, tenor trombones; Bart Varsalona, bass trombone; Bill Barber, tuba; Sid Cooper, first alto saxophone, flute and B-flat clarinet; Joe Palmer, alto saxophone, flute and B-flat clarinet; Al Klink and Charlie Albertine, tenor saxophones, flutes and B-flat clarinets; Danny Bank, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Ralph Burns, piano; Lou Stein, celeste; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Verlye Mills, harp; Herman “Trigger” Alpert, bass; Don Lamond, drums; Joe Mooney, solo vocal. Vocal group: Gene Lowell, Artie Malvin, Steve Steck, Florence Fogelson, Anita Boyer, Sally Sweetland and Lillian Clark.
The story: Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I will not get into all of the details of how I found myself in the home of some wonderfully welcoming and hospitable people in Wilmette, Illinois over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend for a couple of years PC (pre-COVID), but I will say that it was a wonderful experience. They took me into the bosom of their hospitality. My sole responsibility was to show up, behave myself, and enjoy their hospitality, and that of friends of theirs, in whose home we took what can only be described as a magnificent Thanksgiving feast.
On top of this, because I was riding on the coattails of a very loving and inclusive person, I was invited to a second Thanksgiving feast on the next night. It was held in the home of people in Glenview, Illinois, Robert Druzinsky and his spouse, Renee Friedman. As I appeared at their front door at dusk, they welcomed me heartily, took my coat and hat and guided me into the kitchen, where their family and friends were already celebrating. After I was introduced around, Robert directed me to the bar, where he suggested that I pour my own, which I did.
As I was doing this, I noticed a silver mug on a shelf above the liquor on which were engraved the words: To Robert “We Dig You The Most” Sauter-Finegan Orchestra July 11, 1954. That stopped me in my tracks. After I regained my bearings and finished pouring, I sought out Robert, Jameson in one hand and the Sauter-Finegan mug in the other. I asked him where the mug came from. He said matter of factly, “Oh, my Dad played harp in the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra before he got a position as the harpist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They gave him that cup right after I was born.” This revelation prompted me to begin to ask many questions of my host, who was the soul of graciousness and patience as he answered them. (Below – the Sauter-Finegan mug given to Edward Druzinsky to commemorate the birth of his son Robert. The indentations were made by baby Robert, as he tested his new teeth biting the bottom of the mug.)
As the holiday turkey was about to come out of the oven, Renee summoned Robert to the kitchen to help her get the dinner on the table. He introduced me to his brother Michael, who is a well-schooled musician, and went to his wife’s side. Michael and I quickly became engrossed in a conversation about music, which lasted through a few more Jamesons and dinner.
At dinner, between Robert and Michael, they filled in the details of their father’s involvement with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. Here is the summary of that story, provided to me recently by Robert: “I do not know precisely why Sauter and Finegan contacted my father in 1954. It probably had something to do with the fact that after the war he spent the late 1940’s and early 1950s living and playing around New York before he landed his first permanent job as the principal harpist in the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1951.”
The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was contracted to play at a club (I don’t know the name of it) on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles for the summer of 1954, and they asked my father to join the Orchestra for that gig during his summer hiatus from his primary job. (By that time he was in the Detroit Symphony.) He and my mother drove out to California to join the SFO. My mother was pregnant with me and I was born that summer in Hollywood. Decades later, at the end of her life, my mother would still get very excited when she recounted the story of the night she met Frank Sinatra when he came to listen to the SFO. (He was working at a venue down the street from the Sauter-Finegan gig.)
The SFO had fantastic musicians in the ensemble. I met Wally Kane in the mid-1980’s, when I was living in the NYC area. Wally was one of the members of the New York Saxophone Quartet. Harvey Estrin was a flute and reed player who was also in the NY Saxophone quartet. They and other members of the Sauter-Finegan were later in the Tonight Show band, among many other prestigious gigs. (If you are old enough to remember the NBC spot in which the peacock opens its tail, the flute solo on that was played by Harvey Estrin.)”
Eventually, after returning to the Detroit Symphony, Edward Druzinsky became a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was then conducted by Fritz Reiner. He remained with the Chicago Symphony into the tenure of conductor Daniel Barenboim.
To see Edward Druzinsky in action with the Sauter-Fineegan Orchestra, click on the links at the bottom of this post.
After having that Druzinsky experience, I resolved to do a post at swingandbeyond.com on the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra.
Coming to grips with the music of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra has taken me some time. Decades, in fact. That is not because the music of that Orchestra is challenging to listen to, though it is, sometimes. It is certainly not because the music did not swing, because it did swing, almost always. It is not because the music is not performed well: it was performed with utmost integrity and skill by extremely talented musicians. And certainly, it was not because the arrangements written for the Orchestra by its co-leaders, Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan, were not creative and musical. They were uniformly created with all the skill and imagination of two of the most brilliant arrangers to have emerged from the swing era. (Above left: Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan – mid 1950s. Sauter holds the toy trumpet he played on some SFO recordings.)
In retrospect, I have concluded that I was initially put off by the fact that the music of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was not the same as the music Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan created for the top bands of the swing era, which included those led by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Red Norvo and Ray McKinley (Sauter), and Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey (Finegan). It was not only different from that music, it was decidedly different.
Recently, in preparing the materials for this post, I have gone back over dozens of the recorded performances of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, which date from late 1952 through the balance of that decade. That survey has made it clear to me that the musical legacy of the SFO is rich and varied. I had many surprises as I listened, most of them pleasant.
In trying to set the music of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in its historical context, I often wondered how such a musically exploratory orchestra could have existed in the 1950s, the decade we often think of as one of colorless conformity. Although the support the Orchestra got from RCA Victor Records throughout its existence was remarkable, it was far from an exercise in altruism. Initially, the sometimes far-out stylings of the SFO were encouraged and promoted by RCA to assist that corporation in selling its new high-fidelity record players, as well as its new 12-inch vinyl long-playing high fidelity records. The high fidelity long playing record was new to the market in the early 1950s. The thinking on the part of RCA was that the more musically varied the sounds its customers could hear on Victor records and RCA playback units, the better. Happily, this marketing strategy was successful enough to allow the SFO to exist, at least on records, from 1952 to 1960. In fact, some of the SFO’s early recordings became somewhat popular with the record-buying public, much to the surprise of Eddie and Bill, as well as the executives at RCA Victor.
The success of a handful of SFO singles, including “The Doodletown Fifers,” “The Moon is Blue,” “Midnight Sleighride” and “Nina Never Knew” encouraged veteran big band booking agent Willard Alexander to persuade Sauter and Finegan to take the Orchestra on the road. Their various tours from 1953 to 1955, on which they were very often booked into dance venues to play what essentially was concert music, were largely unsuccessful, plunging Eddie and Bill into substantial debt. From 1955 until 1957, when Sauter moved to Europe to work, the SFO existed only in recording studios, and made several more RCA Victor LPs that were modestly successful in terms of record sales. The music was what it always was – wonderful..
It is obvious from the first notes of this recording that Bill Finegan wanted to use human voices as the primary musical sound in this performance. He did just that with a choir of male and female voices in the descending introduction, employing them throughout the arrangement as he would the various instrumental sections of the orchestra. Those voices are supported by gentle rhythm, and complemented by fluttering flutes and a tinkling celeste. The effect is to immediately evoke an intimate mood. The ambient sound of this recording is very strongly suggestive of the early 1950s.
The tune proper (first chorus) begins with the voices again being deployed, at times with the men and women being heard discretely, at other times together, with the added voice of Joe Mooney, who was the solo vocalist. Finegan’s instrumental backgrounds are spare and include soft brass chords, a Harmon-muted trumpet played by Nick Travis, a harp arpeggio, more flutes. And of course, the human voices, humming at strategic points. Joe Mooney’s singing is understated, swinging, and suggestive of a subtle hipness.
The brief instrumental sequence includes dense harmonies, varied instrumental sounds, a bit more of Mr. Travis’s muted trumpet and Vern Friley’s open trombone, played gently, with a touch of the voices added in the background, for more warmth. The climax is brief, and includes the entire orchestra and all of the voices.
The finale has Joe Mooney returning briefly, then the male and female voices, concluding with sparse instrumental (largely woodwind) sounds set off by masculine and feminine whispers. (At right: Joe Mooney.)
This performance is one of the most creative uses of human voices in the swing canon, and it inspired a good number of musicianly vocal groups in the 1950s, including The Four Freshmen, The Hi-Lo’s, and later ,The Singers Unlimited and The Manhattan Transfer, to expand their musical palettes.
“Nina Never Knew”
Music composed by Louis Alter; original Bill Finegan arrangement revised by Lew Quadling.
Recorded by Frankie Carle and His Orchestra for Dot in 1968 in Hollywood.
Lew Quadling directing and playing celeste: Frankie Carle, piano. (Probable personnel): Shorty Sherock, Cappy Lewis, Graham Young, Uan Rasey trumpets; Dick Nash, Milt Bernhart, Lloyd Ulyate, tenor trombones; George Roberts, bass trombone; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone, flute and B-flat clarinet; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Clifford “Bud” Shank, flute and B-flat clarinet; Gene Cipriano, tenor saxophone, B-flat clarinet and flute; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Bob Bain, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Alvin Stoller, drums. Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone soloist.
The music: When listening to this performance of “Nina Never Knew,” it quickly becomes clear that arranger Lew Quadling took a somewhat different approach to this song than Bill Finegan had in the Sauter-Finegan recording, which had been made sixteen years earlier. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Quadling used different musical means to achieve the same musical ends Bill Finegan achieved in the earlier recording.
First, this performance is instrumental, where the SFO recording spotted both a solo singer and a choir of singers. In lieu of human voices, Quadling assigned melodic solos to tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld (shown at right), and to pianist Frankie Carle, both of whom perform beautifully. Second, Quadling largely revised the Finegan arrangement to include much more of the mixed woodwind sound of flutes and clarinets to create colorful musical backgrounds for the melodic solos. Bud Shank, (shown at left), is predominant playing flute in the various woodwind mixes. There is also a much larger role for trumpet section, whose horns are often heard in Harmon mutes, which create smoothly subdued and gentle sounds, and a sumptuous sounding trombone quartet, led by the velvet-toned Dick Nash (pictured at left).
But what Quadling captures in this performance of “Nina Never Knew” as perfectly as Finegan had, are the intimate mood and floating rhythms. Carle’s minimalist piano solos are the melodic signposts that guide the music. Auld’s playing, though a bit more abstract, is also very melodic, as is Dick Nash’s, when he leaves the trombone section to play a brief solo. These solos are so well integrated into what the ensemble is doing at any given time that one is barely aware of them as solos. They are more like sonic tiles that are a part of Quadling’s lovely musical mosaic.
In short, Lew Quadling in this masterful and sophisticated arrangement, which is performed beautifully by the band, out-Fineganed Finegan.
Here is a link to a video clip of Bill Finegan and Eddie Sauter introducing and then the Orchestra performing in exuberant fashion Finegan’s take on “Midnight Sleighride,” from Prokofiev’s wonderful The Lieutenant Kije Suite:
And here is another video clip of the Orchestra playing Eddie Sauter’s “Holiday”:
Here are some of Eddie Sauter’s great arrangements from the swing era:
With Red Norvo:
With Benny Goodman:
With Artie Shaw:
And here are some of Bill Finegan’s:
With Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey:
And here is a beautiful Finegan reinvention of a great George Gershwin tune played by Larry Elgart and His Orchestra:
Finally, here is a link to the standard “Deep Purple,” with a stunning arrangement by Bill Finegan, and a great performance by Carol Sloane:
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