“Theme From Exodus” (1962) Bernie Lowe with Walt Levinsky and Al Cohn

“Theme from Exodus”

Composed by Ernest Gold; arranged by Sid Feller.

Recorded by Bernie Lowe and His Orchestra for Cameo in early 1962 in Bayside, Queens, New York.

Personnel unknown. However, I will go out on limb and identify the clarinet soloist as Walt Levinsky and the tenor saxophone soloist as Al Cohn. If anyone has any information about the personnel for the band that made this recording, I would be thrilled to receive it. I will post it here and give the intrepid swing detective full credit for the information he/she provides.

The story: This post is about “spin-offs.” “Spin-offs” are defined as: any product that is an adaption, outgrowth, or development of another similar product. The world of commerce, among many others, loves spin-offs because by definition, they have a built-in hook–the similar or familiar product from which they have been spun-off. Consumers seem to find spin-offs to be clever and attractive.

The remarkable series of LP albums made by Glen Gray at the end of the 1950s, wherein he “recreated” in excellent high-fidelity stereophonic sound many of the great performances of the bands of the swing era using a band of Hollywood studio musicians, were spin-offs, and were very good sellers for Capitol Records. Swing era music fans in the late 1950s were already familiar with the classic music of the great bands of the 1930s and 1940s. That was the hook. The new twist was that that music was now being presented in hi-fi stereo sound, which was a definite improvement over the sound one heard when listening to the 78 rpm records on which the music of the swing era was first marketed. The arrival of stereo recordings in the marketplace in the late 1950s was a very big technical advancement, and one that was used by the record companies to stimulate interest in their products. The Capitol producer assigned to work with Gray, Dave Cavanaugh, was a savvy purveyor of recorded music aimed at record buyers who were then between thirty and fifty years old, and who had lived through the swing era. Glen Gray, of course, had led a band before, during and after the halcyon years of the swing era, and was well-known among fans of the music. He was also a skilled conductor of swing bands who knew how to facilitate great performances.

After Gray and Cavanaugh did well with their big band recreations, they tried a couple of other gambits built around presenting the big band sound in stereo, performed by top-flight Hollywood musicians who were veterans of the classic bands of the swing era. One of them, an LP called Shall We Swing, from 1961 is in many ways the ultimate collection of swing treatments of “classical” themes. On that LP (produced by Tom Morgan), Gray was assisted by Billy May, who wrote the brilliant arrangements that were used to swing the classics. The performances were superb. Another Capitol/Glen Gray LP, from 1962, was built around the trumpet-playing of Jonah Jones, who started his career in Chick Webb’s band, and who was experiencing a wave of popular success in the early 1960s with a small group. But these LPs were not as successful as the Glen Gray swing era recreations.

Across the country, in New York, Bernie Lowe had inaugurated a slightly different variation on these themes. His spin-off involved recording in high-fidelity stereo sound then-current pop music hits in the big band style, using Manhattan studio musicians who were also alumni of the great bands of the swing era. To create a “hook” for audiences who liked big band music, Lowe had arranger Sid Feller cast these hits in the familiar styles of certain great bands, like for example Benny Goodman’s, Glenn Miller’s or Artie Shaw’s. Lowe’s first production using these ideas was an LP entitled: If The Big Bands Were Here Today… , which was issued probably in early 1962, on the small Cameo label. Lowe was not a name bandleader like Glen Gray. In fact, no one knew who he was outside of the music business. Nevertheless, to the surprise of many, this LP had strong sales, even on a marginal label with limited distribution.(1) and (1A)

Back in Hollywood, Glen Gray and Dave Cavanaugh noticed Bernie Lowe’s success. Before long, an LP of then-current pop tunes was produced by Capitol under the leadership of Glen Gray that melded early 1960s popular melodies with those of well-known swing era hits, creating an even stronger link between the currently popular melodies and the classic hits of the swing era. This was another spin-off, a refinement of what Bernie Lowe had done. It was called: Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra Play Today’s Best. The hype on the back of the dust jacket for that LP proclaimed: The Hits of Today …Swung Superbly in the Classic Styles of Yesterday’s Big Band Hits! Utilizing Capitol’s strong distribution network, this LP sold a lot of copies. A follow-up LP was soon planned and produced. Unfortunately, Glen Gray was seriously ill with cancer during the recording sessions for this second LP, which took place in the summer of 1963. Gray died in August of that year. Nevertheless, the LP was issued by Capitol in either late 1963 or early 1964, and was successful. Yet another follow-up was later produced using Glen Gray’s name, this one returning to recreating classic swing era hits, but with Latin rhythms added, another spin-off. That LP was the final one in the series of a dozen or more Glen Gray Capitol LP albums that had begin in the mid-1950s. The series had been very successful.

The music:

The feature film Exodus, produced and released in 1960, is a dramatization of the founding of Israel in 1948. It was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, and was based on the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the “Hollywood Ten,” who were victims of McCarthyism in the 1950s. The leads in the film are played by Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. (Shown above.)

Otto Preminger earned praise for openly hiring and working with Dalton Trumbo, who as a result of being blacklisted by Hollywood producers through the 1950s, had been forced to work under assumed names. Together with the film Spartacus, which was also written by Trumbo, Exodus is credited with ending the practice of blacklisting in the U.S. film industry.(2)

At the time of its release, Exodus was characterized as a “Zionist epic.”  The film has been identified by many commentators as having been enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel in the United States. While Preminger’s film softened the anti-British and anti-Arab sentiments of the Uris novel, it remains somewhat controversial for its depiction of the still ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

The stirring performance of Ernest Gold’s bold “Theme from Exodus” presented with this post is excellent. Sid Feller’s fine, well-balanced arrangement employs several musical devices that successfully evoke Artie Shaw’s music. It is well-paced, and serves to showcase the clarinet solos of Walt Levinsky, and the tenor saxophone solo of Al Cohn most effectively.

Levinsky’s serpentine clarinet is present at the beginning of this performance, in the introduction, which also serves to tease the listener with an oblique reference to the main melody of “Exodus.” The tempo and groove set by Bernie Lowe and maintained  by the unknown drummer, who swings with his high-hat cymbals  throughout this recording, are perfect.

As the first chorus begins, Levinsky does what all the great swing era soloists did– he plays a swinging paraphrase of the melody to orient the listener. He is backed by the saxophones and cup-muted brass. The tune’s bridge is delivered robustly by the saxophone quartet consisting of an alto, two tenors and a baritone (2), with syncopated coloration added by the muted brass. Levinsky returns to complete the first chorus. (Above right: Walt Levinsky.)

The interlude between choruses is filled by the snippet of Artie Shaw’s theme song, “Nightmare.” Then a new sound appears, that of the three open trombones playing the melody, with contrasting backgrounds played by the saxophones and by Levinsky blending his clarinet with the straight-muted trumpets, another subtle Shavian touch. (Feller uses this scheme throughout chorus two.) This is followed by a muscular tenor saxophone solo by Al Cohn. Like Levinsky before him, he paraphrases the melody, and swings it.

The final chorus returns Levinsky to the spotlight, now playing in his upper register, something Shaw did with consummate skill and artistry. The mutes are now out of all of the brass instruments, and they add considerable brightness and warmth around Levinsky’s clarinet, which pops in and out of the sonic mix. The spiraling high-note clarinet finale is yet another tip of Levinsky’s musical hat to Artie Shaw. (At left: a drawing from the early 1960s of musical inspiration Artie Shaw.)

Post script:

Artie Shaw, after having lived in Spain for several years in the late 1950s, was back in the U.S. by the time this record was issued and in general circulation in the mid-1960s. At that time, he was growing irritated by the Glen Gray/Capitol “recreations” of big band music, including of his big band music. When the Capitol “recreations” were resumed in the late 1960s under the direction of Billy May, Shaw sued, alleging that the producers of that series were in essence stealing his music and his name. Nevertheless, that project went forward very successfully for Capitol Records, which partnered with the Time-Life magazine publisher to handle distribution of the records by mail-order. In 1968, just before the resumption of the Capitol big band “recreations,” Shaw produced his own collection of recreations of his hits from the late 1930s. Ironically, the LP Shaw produced was on the Capitol label, and the clarinet solos that he had made famous thirty years before were duplicated by Walt Levinsky.

The recording presented in this post was digitally transferred from the original Cameo LP by swingandbeyond.com friend Frank Jellison. Frank then sent me the transfer, and I did some audio restoration and digital remastering on it. Thanks Frank for alerting me to this great recording and performance, and helping me to produce this post.

Notes and links:

(1) Cameo or Cameo-Parkway Records was a Philadelphia record label that operated from the late 1950s through much of the 1960s. Bernie Lowe was one of its founders and a major driving force in its business. The label’s most successful artists were Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker.

(1A) The idea of merging the melody of a current tune, the theme from the 1955 blockbuster Hollywood feature film Picnic, with the melody of the vintage swing era hit “Moonglow,”  came from veteran swing era arranger George Duning, who was then having success at Columbia Pictures in the mid-1950s. Duning, who composed the melody for the Theme from Picnic, starts the memorable musical sequence in that film (directed by Joshua Logan) with William Holden dancing with sweet, callow Susan Strasberg on a lakeside dock to the melody of “Moonglow,” beautifully played by piano, guitar, bass and drums. Then Kim Novak descends the stairs to the dock, swaying in rhythm to the music, sexual frisson arrives, and the scene is transformed, as the music transposes imperceptibly (ah, those strings!) to the romantic Theme from Picnic. Here is a link to that famous and most effective cinematic achievement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgZce3Bwp60

(2) The details about the film Exodus are derived from the Wikipedia post on it.

(3) The baritone saxophone playing in the Bernie Lowe ensemble is superb throughout this performance of the “Theme from Exodus.” I wonder if it was the work of Manhattan baritone specialist Danny Bank.

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3 Comments

  1. I acquired this album as well as the follow-up Volume 2 in 1962 when I was in high school. I still have both records and I frequently play them. Volume 2 is just as good as the the first one, and I suspect both albums were recorded at the same time, I thing I like about Sid Feller’s arrangements is that although they are in the style of Shaw, Goodman, Miller and James, they are not rigidly straight jacketed into particular arrangements of the bands they salute. That is unfortunately the problem with the Glen Gray “Hits of Today” album and the reason I never bought it. I do, however, own all of the other Glen Gray Capitol albums, including the hard to find “Swingin’ Southern Style” and “Solo Spotlight,” both of which are very good. In my opinion, the best of the lot is “Jonah Jones/Glen Gray,” arranged by Benny Carter. I think that is one of the best big band albums ever recorded. Interestingly, the “Shall We Swing” album was issued in Europe as being by Billy May and his Orchestra, which makes me question whether Glen Gray actually was involved at all. Similarly, I suspect “Swingin” Southern Style” may originally have been a Gus Bivona project, since he is so prominently featured.

    Finally, I think it is hilarious that the Bernie Lowe albums were titled “If the Big Bands Were Here Today” inasmuch as several of the saluted band leaders were still performing in 1962!

    • Michael, thanks for your comments. They help to illuminate the difference between Bernie Lowe’s approach and Glen Gray’s approach to presenting big band versions of early 1960s pop hits.

      Regarding Glen Gray’s participation in Capitol’s LP “Shall We Swing”?, Gray was definitely involved in the project. At the very least, his name and image were used to promote the original Capitol LP. He is shown standing with Billy May on the front of the dust jacket of that LP. Beyond that, there is confusion. In the Jack Mirtle May discography (page 232) it is noted that May replied in a letter in 1992 to Mirtle “Glen Gray was the leader, but the album was split between us–I picked the tunes that I thought would work best.” Then, after the Los Angeles AFM session sheets were reviewed in 1994, and revealed that May was both arranger and leader on the sessions, Billy adjusted his memory to accept the fact that he and not Gray led the band on the recording sessions.

      I have both the Glen Gray “Solo Spotlight” and the Jonah Jones/Glen Gray LPs in my library, and they both have a lot of good music on them. The “Swingin’ Southern Style” LP to which you refer is one that I had forgotten about. I do remember the photo on the front of the dust jacket with Gray, all six feet five of him, dressed in a white suit with two “southern belles” in front of a southern mansion. Beyond that, I have no recall. I am in touch with Gus Bivona’s son, Gary Bivona, and will ask him about that project.

  2. While the Glen Gray :”Hits of Today” series have a different feel than the Bernie Lowe records I enjoyed them very much. I was impressed by the arranger’s ability to incorporate the original arrangement with the newer song.

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