OSO Big Band of North San Diego County
By Tom Morrow
One of the unique stories of North San Diego County is the wealth of musicians we have (or had) living in our community. I had the good fortune of meeting and working with many of these men and women who brought so much Great American Songbook enjoyment and memories to our area.
Of the many musicians I worked with, interviewed, and/or played with in my band, included some of the best during the big band era of the Great Depression and World War II. They included singer/songwriter Hugh Martin, White House orchestra conductor/arranger Sammy Nestico, Paul Tanner, who was the first trombonist hired by Glen Miller. Also, famed Indian composer/sitar musician Ravi Shankar, and at 94, the world’s oldest trombonist John Smith, who used to jam after LA gigs with the likes of renowned jazz musicians and brothers Jack and Charlie Teagarten.
This music filled the air for many years here in our community. In 2002, I was introduced to Ray Mahoney of Vista who led a small eight-piece band he called his “Society Orchestra.”
That year I began singing and playing trumpet solos with Ray’s band. I hadn’t played in 45 years, but it’s amazing how fast the ol’ lips toughen up, and it didn’t take long for me to once again read those chicken-scratch notes on the charts. I warbled well enough to keep up with the modest of church choir singers.
Ray retired that year and I took over the group playing in the trumpet section. Our trumpets included the fabulous Eddie Kruck, who had been one of the top L.A. area soloists, and Morris Redding, formally a member of a popular ensemble in Las Vegas. I played in the section for a short time until Dick Bouchard joined us. Dick had played trumpet for 10 years with the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C. With three far better buglers than me, I stepped aside and stuck to singing and managing the band.
Our rhythm section included Phil Burns on piano and Boyd Rogers on the drums. Phil, had a gentle touch to the keyboard. A country & western musician, Boyd was an inductee in that genre’s California Hall of Fame. Boyd also was a real pro on the guitar and violin. When he retired, John Will took over on the drums. Pete Heid was on stand-up bass. Later, Don Skelton took Pete’s place and finally the bass was played by Mark Phelps, music director of Oceanside High. And the fabulous guitarist Armand Frigon stepped in after the very gentle Sol Tomberg passed away.
The trombone section included Walt Kelber, Stu Gibson and John Smith, who at 94, was arguably the world’s oldest on that instrument. Later, bass trombonist Art Perlman added great depth to the section.
Up front we ended up with one of the best saxophone sections anywhere. Led by Tom Brawner on tenor and baritone, we had John Rider on tenor, and the versatile Carl Cabaniss, who also played clarinet and flute. On alto sax was Ron Rithalter, who also doubled on the clarinet and Bonnie Hall, who doubled on soprano sax. She had replaced the retiring Bill Hendrix. Back in the seventies, Bill had backed up famed Barbara Mandrell and her family; and, at one time Ron was a member of Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians when Guy’s brother Carman died.
Joining me up front in the vocal department was old friend and partner Bill Stromberg and songstress Diane Scholfield. Diane soon decided our type of music wasn’t her preference because of her background in the theatrical arts. A delightful pixie named Janet Barton became our permanent songbird and Bill had spent more than 30 years in Hollywood as a special-effects artist. He sang and served as the band’s “roadie,” which meant he set up the sound equipment for the band. Janet had been a country & western singer until I introduced here to big-band swing. She became one of the best singers anywhere. Later, two outstanding trumpet players Les Samenow, who retired as music director at San Marcos High School, and San Diego’s “high note” wizard of Jack Lang joined the section, making it one of the best in quality of sound and ability.
We finally became a traditional 19-member, very danceable big band. We weren’t in it for the money, but occasionally a few bucks flowed our way, especially on New Year’s eves. I managed the band for 11 years, stepping down in 2013, turning over the helm to sax section leader Tom Brawner and trumpet and vocal soloist Rick Evans. Janet managed play dates.
Like so many other organizations, the Covid-19 pandemic tore our group apart. For more than a year now the band hasn’t been together, able to meet and rehearse. Many members have given up ever playing together again. But we can’t blame Covid altogether. As those of us who are big band enthusiasts fade away, most of the early rock ‘n’ rollers of the fifties now are dancing on the front lines. They never really cared for swing and slow dancing to our so-called “Mickey Mouse” music.
I first became acquainted with many area musicians as an emcee and singer with Oceanside’s Big Band & Jazz Hall of Fame Orchestra. Many of its members played in one or more other area groups, including mine. One of the great many memorable performances of the Big Band Jazz Hall of Fame Orchestra was at the outdoor Oceanside beach band shell featuring world renowned pianist Kevin Cole playing George Gershwin’s famed “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was the climax of the first Oceanside (Gershwin) Music Festival in 2002.
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To those who joined the OSO Big Band and filled in on an interim basis, sorry if I’ve left you out … mark it up to memory slippage. It’s a shame the beat of the “Greatest Generation” is being lost to the ages. But we did our part in keeping that important musical history alive as long as we could. And for a while longer, the “beat goes on,” just not by the Oceanside Society Orchestra.