In 1957, saxophonist Dave Pell was the leader of the Dave Pell Octet, the house band at the Crescendo on the Sunset Strip. He recently reminisced about performing there with comedian Lenny Bruce. Pell performs once a week with Johnny Vana’s Big Band Alumni at Los Hatos in the San Fernando Valley. Lenny Bruce died Aug. 3, 1966, at 8825 Hollywood Blvd. at the age of 40.

Well I was lucky, very lucky. I was there for five years and Lenny was there for almost the same amount of time. It was one of greatest moments of my life. He was quite a man. Incredibly funny, loving, kind, sweet… all the things that nobody ever knew about him. Nobody took the time to know about him. He was really a lovely guy, a lovely man, a funny man. We had a guy named Jack Sheldon in the band. Sheldon was the phenom of our time. A very funny cat. He and Lenny were dear friends. They used to do crazy things together.

We were a Be-Bop band that played for everybody.

Gene Norman (the nightclub owner) … says: “You have a home here… Stay as long as you wish.” It was the time where Mickey Cohen used to hang out at the club. He used to have his boys there. They were dear men. As big as gangsters as there ever were. He loved Lenny. He was their favorite of all.

We played for all the acts. Johnny Mathis and we played for the Mills Brothers and, you know, people of that nature. People played the club with us…. Lenny was in and out of jail every other day. He was there.

Then the narcotics people were hanging out. They were dear friends. They were after the guys selling to the band and Mickey was there every night. With Lenny there; he was changing the show every night and the band was absolutely loving it. Most comedians worked to the bands because they gotta hear the same material night after night. If they could make the band laugh then they knew they were funny… Lenny played to us. He and Jack Sheldon would do dialog together.

Lenny would say: “Did you see Mickey’s here tonight?” We’d be on the floor. A very hip band: Marty Paich on piano, Mel Lewis on drums, Buddy Clark on bass. It was the best band in town by far. We’d play the dumb Mills Brothers. We’re playing “You Want a Paper Doll.” Playing almost back to Dixieland and playing it straight. And Bobby Darin. Just an incredible thing.

The funniest thing. Lenny Bruce and Jack Sheldon decided to go on the amateur hour…. Do an Al Jolson song. Something was all set up and they’d play it and wear black makeup. They did the show… it was a car dealer that had the show … I wish I could remember. On Sunday morning… Jack and Lenny were going to be on and we were all set up to watch it. (This was apparently Compton car dealer H.J. Caruso, who was indicted on charges of forgery and grand theft in June 1957).

 They got on. They didn’t do the show they auditioned with. It got a little dirty and funnier and funnier and Lenny is yelling “Caruso is a thief!” “He doesn’t give good deals on cars!” They couldn’t get him off soon enough. They said, “This isn’t the way they auditioned.” They finally figured out it was Lenny Bruce.

I never got over that one. Funniest thing that ever happened with the band.
Every night, Lenny was a magnificent mind. If he took off, we had Mort Sahl. He would do a half-hour on Lenny Bruce. And they put him in jail and he’d try to behave. He got put in jail 50 times because they were trying to clean up the nightclub circuit.

Just the greatest time of our lives.

Lili St. Cyr, a  beautiful lady. Harry Betts was a trombone player with Kenton. He said, “Well you know she has this one little piece that needs a violin.” So we made him bring a violin. He played a solo behind her (Pell hums something from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”). Lenny would come up just to see the guys laughing… He didn’t play the violin well. She was dancing with all these lights. She was never naked, she wore a skin thing. We weren’t going to see nothing. Lenny Bruce made so much of it. God he was funny.

Between sets, they turned over people so fast, we’d go downstairs and play poker for an hour.

Johnny Mathis was doing seven or eight shows a night. People were around the block. Gene Norman had signed Johnny Mathis 10 months before he had a hit. He comes up with all his hits in one short time…. He was working for $350 a week… around the block crowds are waiting to get in. We would do a fast 20-minute or 30-minute show and the next one would start. They’d empty the house and do another one.

And of course Lenny … He’d say: “I can’t be very funny tonight I’m down to 10 minutes.”  So hip and so sharp… and I look back. Damn that was fun. Lenny was a marvelous cat and got in trouble and couldn’t handle it and died very young. His wife a very nice gal and a homemaker and tried to make him straight.

Jack Sheldon and Lenny Bruce. Jack almost started his career with Merv Griffin… doing comedy. All the timing he got from Lenny….

Five years. We had a ball… a lot was happening then.
When Lenny Bruce was downstairs, Mort Sahl was upstairs. When Lenny had to go to jail we got Mort Sahl… He’d read tabloids, and then do a show.

It was sensational. Edie Gorme, all the good singers. Everybody who was hot at the time was there with us. Marty Paich, in 1957 he couldn’t have been over 21 years old. Marty turned out to be one of the most successful jazz and big band arrangers of that time. We had him and Shorty Rogers and we never had the same band two nights in a row. The deal was you could take off any time as long as I approved the sub. We had record dates so there was a different band every night….

Bobby Darin says, “The band is sensational. It’s the best band I ever had.” He comes in the next night, it’s totally different. “The band is sensational.” Half the band was back the third night… He says “Dave I can’t handle it.  I can’t kid with the band, it’s never the same guys twice.” They’re playing for scale, so I say, “They can take off anything they want as long as they are the top guys.” The best band I’ve ever had….

Those things were so much fun… That whole club situation….

The club was on Sunset in the Playboy Building…. and then we were right at the middle of the strip. Across the street was Ciro’s, right across the street. Little nightclub on the West Coast. Ben Polack (?) had a Dixieland club that ran strippers. He had a good Dixieland band. Great players. We’d play the opener or closer. “Mountain Greenery.”

He booked smart in those days, three or four shows a night….

t was a great home for me. I was working at a record company during the day. It would be the Dave Pell band and I’d be at a record date. Gene Norman and I went to high school together (so that wasn’t a problem).

It was a record company. I’d record in the afternoon and rush over to play the first gig at the club. I’d be tired but had a such a good time… such an incredible time. Not a dumb gig at a nightclub, it was the hit nightclub and Lenny being there with us killed us.

It was the funniest thing going day by day. Mickey Cohen…. Lenny would come and play to them. Call them the stars of the government…. highest government officials in town and Mickey Cohen… everything was so cool.

I used to be in  the record business. Sold them in the supermarkets for 99 cents. I’d record “Dave Pell Plays Benny Goodman,” “Dave Pell Plays whatever.” I must have made 50 albums, “The Best Songs of Italy.” I’d go to England for a couple weeks and record 20 albums. Put them in Kresge, Woolworth, the same albums but change the songs on each one…. It was the beginning of the compilation disc.

I’d have 75 string players over in England. The albums were gorgeous… The label was TOPS records… I put out 20 other labels for everybody else. Everybody had their labels. You’d go into Sears and there’d be a rack near the door. I sold millions. People never had to go to the record store.

I’d work at night.. Edie Gorme would come to sit in. People didn’t realize it was her. Didn’t recognize her… They’d wonder who is singing with the band?

It’s marvelous, at 10:30 every Tuesday morning… at Los Hatos at Balboa and Nordhoff… They can’t get in the joint. Oversold every Tuesday morning. We play till 12:30. The band is excellent… Johnny Vana’s Big Band Alumni… Everybody played with the big bands, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich…. producing a new album we did live a couple of weeks ago…

Lots of bands out there… They say we’re the Glenn Miller Band, or the Harry James band. All picked up for the night. They sound fair. This band plays all the bands… We have a great band… One of the guys got sick, so they asked “Pell, would you like to play?” Love to. I don’t have to set up, don’t have to bring mikes. Just sit in the band. I love it.

The other day they gave me a red tie that I can keep so when I play around town I don’t have to borrow a tie… It’s a good band.

A guy came in and recorded it… We only get a one-hour set and then a 20-minute set. He figured he could do an album in two days… The album was almost really done the first morning it was so good. It was fun and we go out and do the shows and the band is very happy. We call it a rehearsal, so the guys can keep their chops up.

Lots of clubs tried to do that but they don’t seem to get the crowds that this thing does. People still really want to dance, do the jitterbug. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll.

Sound clips courtesy of Davepell.com

Email me.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in #Jazz, Mickey Cohen, Nightclubs, Sunset Strip. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Voices

  1. Bill Hilser says:

    The amateur TV show was called Bob Yeakel’s ‘Rocket to Stardom.’ Bob sold Oldsmobiles at the time. His sister, Betty hosted the show held at the Olds showroom. It it was on from Midnight Saturday night til 6am Sunday morning. No need to audition, just come on down, show your talent, and become a STAR! We watched it every week. It was a laugh-riot watching people who couldn’t sing, young baton twirlers and jugglers drop everything, and especially the people who went on, only to get stage fright and start crying as they walked off the stage. It was fun only after a half-case of Miller Hi-Life beer. The more you drank, the funnier it became. Later, poor Bob was killed in a plane crash on his way to his Palm Springs home.
    Yer pal, Bill Hilser


  2. L W Fugett says:

    Mr. Harnisch, are the photographs of Mickey Cohen public domain, available for publication, such as a novel?
    LW Fugett
    Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Adieu LA
    –Thanks for your interest. No, those are Los Angeles Times photos, not public domain.
    –Larry Harnisch


  3. Jeff Finley says:

    I was watching an early Stanley Kubrick film called “The Killers”, starring Sterling Hayden. Hayden, after the race track heist goes into downtown LA to a luggage shop, I bet it was on Main St. In any event, next to the shop, there was a burlesque house with a hand painted sign proclaiming …”comedian Lenny Bruce” as an attraction. The film was made in 1956. I saw the Dave Pell Octet at Long Beach City College in 1961. Great blog, floods me with memories of old LA when I was a kid.
    Jeff Finley
    Yuma, AZ


  4. Alice Wymer says:

    To Mr. Bill Hilser
    As a young girl l was on the Bob Yeakel’s Rocket to Stardom and three out of the four times l was on l won. l wish there was some way l could get a video of the shows. l had so much fun. l was told l could only sing one song but after l sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” Betty came out and took me by the hand and said that even though they were pressed for time she wanted to know if l could sing another song. So l sang “Summertime” l don’t know why l took two songs with me. But it was a good thing l did.
    l will never forget the thrill of winning that show three times!
    Just call me


  5. Chuck Miller says:

    I was a Sub Pianist in 1956 and 57 for Bill Lockwood at times when Bill was the main piano player for the TV Show “Rocket to Stardom” which was hosted by Betty Yeakel, and of course Bob Yeakel Olds paid for the show each week from 12 midnight to 6 A.M. on weekends. I have often wondered if Bill Lockwood is still living and alive in the Los Angeles, Calif area? Does anyone know? If you do, E Mail me at dixiemusic@hotmail.com Bill Lockwood also had for many years the “Three Arts Studio” in Hollywood, CA as well. Are there any old tapes or recordings at all of one of those “Rocket To Stardom” shows????? Sincerely,
    Chuck Miller


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