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NAT SHILKRET
From "Nat Shilkret and the All Star Orchestra: More Than Satisfied" (1926-1928)
Vintage Music Productions 0181 (CD)

ALL STAR ORCHESTRA

By 1928 and 1929, record displays abounded with bands which, despite their big-sounding names and the hit songs they covered, never seemed to warrant much attention. That such bands did not play the theaters and hotel ballrooms, where others basked in the light of newspaper reviews and radio feeds, was only part of the problem. More significant was the fact that, aside from a few lines scribbled in a recording ledger, these bands did not really exist. They were studio bands which, more often than not, employed whatever musicians happened to be available, to record whatever popular songs happened to be making money. And if many of these "bands" sounded suspiciously like so many others, it might have been more than just the stock arrangements they shared. It might have been that they were, in fact, the same band -- same personnel, same instrumentation, same session -- releasing the same recordings under several different names, for several different labels. Such was the reality of a typical studio band, in the late 1920s.

Then, there was the All Star Orchestra.

In contrast to so many other studio bands of the era, the All Star Orchestra consistently employed an impressive lineup of talent, to record versions of songs that were anything but "stock." Nat Shilkret, the band's director, was apparently given wide latitude, by Victor executives, to put together bands that would do much more than simply pad the margins on record sales. Among jazz circles, some of the band's musicians, who recorded with the All Star Orchestra, were already legendary, including Miff Mole, Joe Venuti and Carl Kress. Others, such as Jimmy McPartland, Chauncey Morehouse and John Cali, would later be remembered as some of the great musicians of their time. Still others were destined to become among the world's most popular bandleaders of the coming decade. These included Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.

Of course, no corners were cut, on the band's vocals, either. Among the band's singers were some of the era's biggest. These included Gene Austin, Johnny Marvin, Scrappy Lambert, Franklyn Baur and Frank Munn.

In all, the All Star Orchestra made 18 recordings, from December 1927 to November 1929. Of these, 16 were released. While jazz enthusiasts will find much that is significant in these recordings, there are two which stand out above the others. These are the recordings of "I'm More Than Satisfied" and "Oh, Baby!" Both were recorded on March 21, 1928. The session was Benny Goodman's first, in New York. It was also the very first time that Benny Goodman recorded with Tommy Dorsey.

At first glance, the band's name might appear to be just another case of over-used hyperbole. Except among those who were most acquainted with the band's members, this might have seemed the case, even in 1928 and 1929. But looking back, today, we know that Nat Shilkret kept the band true to its name. For it was, in fact, an All Star Orchestra.

 

NAT SHILKRET

Nathaniel Shilkret was born Naftule Schüldkraut, December 25, 1899, in Queens, New York. His parents, Wulf ("William") Schüldkraut and Krusel ("Rose") Zeiger, were immigrants from Austria. In addition to Nathaniel, they had four other children: Jack (who would later record as a bandleader and pianist), Harry (who would record on cornet), Lew (who would record on piano) and a sister named Ray.

By 1895, at age five, Nat Shilkret was already studying violin and clarinet. Two years later, he was also playing the piano.

In 1896, Shilkret became a member of the New York Boys' Symphony Orchestra. Six years later, in 1902, the orchestra advertised Shilkret as a 9-year old, "clarinet phenomenon," though he was, in fact, three years older, at the time. Thereafter, Shilkret may have continued to misrepresent his age, since even his own later memoirs show apparent discrepancies of about three years.

By 1905, he was a member of the Russian Symphony Orchestra and Arnold Volpe's Orchestra. Two years later (1907), he was playing in the New York Philharmonic. During the next decade, he is reported to have also played with the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, Victor Herbert and Arthur Pryor, among others.

In June 1914, he married Anna Finston, sister of a fellow musician. The following year, in March 1915, Shilkret's only son was born. His name was Arthur. It was during this same year that Nat Shilkret began working for Victor Records, as arranger and conductor. In 1921, he and Eddie King, another Victor executive, co-directed the "Shilking Orchestra." This was Shilkret's first credited recording. In 1923, he conducted John Philip Sousa's band, during the first of several of the band's sessions under his direction. During this same period, he was also appointed Director of Light Music, for Victor. It was in this capacity, in 1924, that he formed the Victor Salon Orchestra, which he later described as a "concert orchestra that [played] popular music in novel arrangements." [Phonograph Monthly Review, Oct 1926]

On January 1, 1925, Nat Shilkret and his Victor Salon Orchestra made their first broadcast over WEAF radio, in New York. Later that year, the Victor Salon Orchestra began performing on NBC's "Eveready Hour" radio show. By 1926, the band was also doing broadcasts as "Hire's Harvesters," for Hire's Root Beer.

In 1926, Shilkret wrote the first of several autobiographical installments for Phonograph Monthly Review. The series was entitled "My Musical Life." In December 1926, he recorded his one and only piano roll. It was released by QRS.

By April 1927, Nat Shilkret was directing the Maxwell House Coffee Hour Orchestra. Later, in the same month, he conducted Paul Whiteman's band, for the electrical re-recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue." Shilkret took the baton, after Whiteman stormed off the podium, during an argument with Gershwin. Though Shilkret received no credit on the disc, Gershwin must have approved of the recording. Two years later, in January 1929, Shilkret was asked to direct the radio premiere of Gershwin's "An American In Paris." Eight years after that, he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, during a memorial broadcast of the same work.

During the 1930s, Shilkret's radio work continued. He was the orchestra director for several shows, including "Music That Satisfies" sponsored by Chesterfield (CBS 1931-1932), "Songs You Love" sponsored by Smith Brothers (CBS/NBC 1933-1935) and the "Palmolive Beauty Box Theater" (NBC 1934-1935).

In 1934, Nat Shilkret received an Honorary Doctorate in Music, from Bethany College, in Kansas. A year later, Shilkret moved to Hollywood. There, he conducted orchestral accompaniment for popular vocalists, especially those who starred in film. He also began composing, arranging and directing music for film. As early as 1928, Shilkret had composed the feature song for "Lilac Time" (Warner Brothers), and he had provided music for other films, as well. By 1936, however, his work in film accelerated. His credits included "Mary Of Scotland" (RKO 1936); "Swing Time" (RKO 1936); "Winterset," for which he received an Academy Award nomination (RKO 1936); "Everybody's Doin' It" (RKO 1937) and "Toast Of New York" (RKO 1937).

Besides providing music for several Laurel and Hardy features, including "The Bohemian Girl" (MGM 1936), "Way Out West" (MGM 1937) and "Swiss Miss" (MGM 1938), Nat Shilkret was also the music director for a number of Walter Lantz cartoons (or "Cartunes," as they were called). These included "Lovesick" (1937), "Keeper Of The Lions" (1937), "The Mysterious Jug" (1937), "The Lamplighter" (1938), "Yokel Boy Makes Good" (1938) and "Trade Mice" (1938).

In the 1940s, Shilkret established the Nathaniel Shilkret Music Company (1940), and continued to provide music for films, including "Shall We Dance?" (RKO 1942), "Ode To Victory" (MGM 1943), "Calling All Kids" (MGM 1943), "Hoodlum Saint" (MGM 1945), "Boys' Ranch" (MGM 1946) and "Faithful In My Fashion" (MGM 1946). During this same period, he began devoting himself more to the composition of classical works. In 1942, he composed his "Concerto For Trombone" for Tommy Dorsey. After its premiere performance, the concerto was lost and remained that way, for almost 60 years. It was not performed, again, until 2003. A similar fate befell the "Genesis Suite," which Shilkret co-wrote with Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and others. The suite was performed, in 1945, at the Wilshire Ebel Theatre, in Los Angeles. Except for partial copies kept by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the entire score was lost in a fire, at Shilkret's house.

During the early 1950s, Shilkret continued to conduct, for a number of LPs and short films. However, after his wife's death, in 1958, he considered himself retired. Sometime prior to 1963, he returned to New York, to live in Massapequa. He was living in Franklin Square, New York, when he died, on February 18, 1982.

~ Jeff Hopkins
October 2005

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