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A Conversation with Bill Flanders (1913 – 2005)

On a clear winter day, after weeks of rotten weather, life member Bill Flanders sat down with me in his kitchen and regaled me with stories of his long life as a musician.

He was born in 1913 in a Chicago suburb. His father was “a pro from beginning to end. He was a trumpet player par excellence, probably as good as anybody in the whole Chicago area, and a conductor too.” He worked frequently in pit orchestras on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit as well as for silent pictures. Young Bill was exposed early to the world of show business. “I was always completely enchanted with music,” he told me with eyes shining. “I doted on going to rehearsals at the theater, and I always wanted to sit at the end of the pit where the drummer was, and I could go home and sort of hum and beat time like I was playing the drums.”

His mother, too, was hooked on the theater. “She always saw at least one performance of every show, and she always had a yen for making up with the stage manager so she could watch shows from the wings, and that way she got acquainted with all kinds of acts that came back year after year to wherever we were living, and pretty soon they were all hosted by my mother at our home between shows.” Jack Benny — just out of the Navy at the end of World War I, in his sailor uniform, and already holding his violin  was an act he particularly remembered.

One day Bill announced that he wanted to play the violin. His grandparents bought him one, and soon he took his first lessons, with one Skinny Bump, the local theater orchestra leader. He only got half a dozen or so before he went to live in a small town with his grandparents. “My folks were not in a very good financial position, then or ever,” he told me matter-of-factly. So, at age eleven, it looked as if his musical education was over.

Not for long. Soon his school hired an itinerant “Music Man” who came to town once a week on the train, “teaching, and selling cheap, bad instruments to unknowing, gullible parents. The only thing he didn’t do was uniforms.” A band and orchestra came next, and “all of a sudden they needed a drummer, what do you know? It’s my big time to do something.” He wrote his father asking for a drum, and it soon arrived by parcel post, with sticks and an instruction book. “I started studying the book on my own, and presently I found myself reading drum charts like mad.” He sang in the glee club as well, and listened to the radio constantly after finishing his homework, humming the songs that he heard. It wasn’t long before he played his first job.

He was thirteen. A baker in town had a seven-piece band that played stock arrangements at “barn dances, which didn’t mean Virginia reels, they were like ballroom dances today except that they danced up in the loft of the barn. I was the only drummer in town so [the leader] didn’t have any other choice.” Bill got paid three dollars a night, very good money for those days. “Would you believe that the next Monday I’d go down and put it in the bank?”

By the time he graduated from high school, the Depression had begun. No one in his family was working. He had taken a correspondence course in engineering, but couldn’t find a job in the field. “I have to tell you, some days there wasn’t too much to eat.” He went back to high school as a “post-graduate,” played drums in the band, studied harmony for the first time, and soon joined the orchestra on violin, which had been gathering dust for some time.

It wasn’t long before Prohibition ended and taverns opened up everywhere, all featuring live music. Bill found several nights of work a week as a drummer, and eventually a steady job in a gangster-operated nightclub with a casino in the back room and prostitutes upstairs. During that gig, he and the band’s guitar player began playing short intermission sets, oriented more toward jazz than dancing. They were already aficionados of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, and soon Bill was invited by bandleader Orrin Tucker to go on the road. He accepted.

Soon Tucker’s band was cheated on a contract; Bill resigned, went home, and took up again with his former bandmates. “We descended into lower and lower paying jobs because of the Depression, playing all kinds of crummy clubs, but still it was the only income I had. In fact, I was buying the groceries at home.” Six months later, Tucker called him at intermission on a job. “He says, `Willie, would you give any consideration to going on the road with me again?’ And he kind of laughed, you know, embarrassed-like. And I said, `Well, that’s quite an interesting question. What have you got in mind?’” It turned out that Tucker had a solid three week job in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time. Bill went to one rehearsal and was convinced, so he gave notice to “the boys back home” again, and hit the road. “And that’s how that all started.”

But there were more dues to pay. Tucker’s band made the two thousand mile trip south in a ramshackle old limousine hauling a trailer. There were few “stocks” available for tenor band  Tucker’s new configuration, with only a single trumpet for brass  so Bill wrote arrangements every night for two weeks. As if that weren’t enough, he soon started singing with the band as well.

After Mardi Gras, the band was laid off, stranded with no prospects of another job. The boarding house the musicians stayed in gave them credit, and “some days I’m walking around the streets down there like the other guys, tossing a quarter in the morning to see if we’re going to have breakfast or dinner.” Somehow they managed to hang on until they were booked into a posh Colorado resort for the entire summer of 1935. The pay was lean, but they had the run of the property and ate the same food as the guests. Bill vividly remembers Benny Goodman’s band coming through Denver for a one-nighter en route to California. “Krupa knocked me flat on my butt. I said, `He can’t do that!’ But I ate it up.”

After the resort closed for the winter, the band got work in Kansas City, and Bill became the radio announcer for the band’s remote broadcasts, which were fed to several midwestern stations. Finally things were rolling. “From that point on, I don’t think we ever had a lapse between engagements. We did a hell of a lot of barnstorming, ballrooms, one-nighters, all over the place…” Sometimes the band had long engagements in Chicago, and Bill would study with the retired concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, Ludwig Becker: “A great teacher and a great friend.”

The band’s time had finally come. Soon it was playing the best hotels, like the Palmer House in Chicago, the Roosevelt Grill in NYC (“Guy Lombardo’s hangout, one of the top spots in New York”), the biggest ballrooms, eventually a theater tour playing between film showings. “I just ate that up. I could do six shows a day and never get tired.” One night, at a 2 A.M. rehearsal after the job  a tradition of long standing a song plugger brought them an old song, “Oh Johnny Oh,” that he thought would go well for their “girl singer,” Bonnie Baker. Tucker was convinced, Bill arranged it “a cutesy thing,” he called it and the band recorded it. It sold a million copies.

Now they were genuine celebrities. “We got to the point where people didn’t dance, they’d just crowd up around the bandstand, and they’d reach over, even to the guys at the rear, like the bass player, wanted his autograph. They waited for us at the stage doors.” They had long left their old limo behind, traveled now in buses and private Pullmans. The jobs kept getting better: the Waldorf Astoria and the New York World’s Fair, the Mark Hopkins and the San Francisco World’s Fair, the Lucky Strike Hit Parade broadcast from coast to coast…

By then Bill had married his sweetheart, Marion, from back home  they are still married after 63 years  and they were traveling together whenever possible. Finally the band landed the job considered the best in the country: the Paramount Theater in New York, for four weeks. “We had as many people wound around the block in Times Square as Sinatra did two years later.” How much higher could the band climb?

It was 1940, and Bill took a long, hard look at the future. American involvement in the Second World War seemed inevitable, and he feared the music business might be adversely affected. After much discussion with Marion, he decided to leave the band and try once more to take up engineering. “They gave me a going-away party and a gold watch and all that stuff. I still have it.” Back in Chicago, he hit the books, and was able to play casuals around town to support the two of them while he tried to break into engineering. He found fairly steady work with Anson Weeks, who specialized in playing off-nights at hotels, and eventually landed his first drafting job, “at a ridiculous salary.”

He hung on, and started moving up the ladder. Eventually he was working for The FMC Corporation, which needed an assistant chief engineer for its large division in San Francisco. He and Marion fondly remembered their sojourn in San Francisco during the World’s Fair; he interviewed for the job, got it in 1951, and kept it for 29 years. During much of that time, his work load caused him to stop playing music altogether, but eventually his Elks Lodge decided to organize a concert band, and he signed on as drummer. He’s still with it, after more than 35 years. As if all that weren’t enough in his busy life, he began trumpet lessons with San Francisco Symphony stalwart Charles Bubb in the mid-1970s. He also began playing casuals again, and soon becoming one of the most sought-after violinists on the “strolling circuit,” which he pursued until recently.

After telling me his story, he leaned back, in a contemplative mood. “I think I’ve been very fortunate,” he said, “because I think I’ve always worked, by and large, and that’s going back to some of those early scroungy days, with people that were good in their profession, and carried on in a professional way. I never got into that jaded, devil-may-care, `what the hell, what’s going to happen tomorrow, I don’t care’ stuff that is attributed to professional musicians, especially back in the swing era days. And I’ve learned from almost everybody I ever worked with.” His scrapbooks bulge with clippings dating back to the 1920s, though he hardly needs them, with such vivid recollections of his long career.

Bill said goodbye, and I walked out into the sunshine, smiling. A good day had gotten even better.