by John Tenney
Bill Weir ushered me into his spacious studio, housed in a converted garage. I was immediately struck by the staggering number of photographs on the walls — hundreds, certainly. “All of them are acts I worked with,” he said matter-of-factly, but with his infectious grin.
Bill became interested in music while very young, thanks to his parents. “During the vaudeville years, when I was about four or five years old, the Mexican Tipica Orchestra used to come from Mexico City, and they would perform at the Civic Auditorium once or twice a year. My mother was of Mexican descent, and she had friends that knew the players, and after the performance they would come to the house on Market Street. This was one night that my folks would let me stay up, and let me hear the singing and the instrument playing, and that’s when I became very interested in music.
“Soon he was playing the piano, though not always willingly. “I hated to practice — I still do, but my mother sat with me, and we had an old Milton upright piano, and there was a Big Ben clock that sat right next to the music, and I had to practice absolutely an hour a day. Now if the phone rang or the doorbell rang, the clock stopped until I came back. The kids would holler `come on out and play Kick the Can’ and all that jazz, and I said `I have to practice,’ and I didn’t like it, but I did it. Because I did love music.”
The piano was not his only instrument. In 1929 he started studying cello, and soon was playing in a WPA student orchestra. But he soon gave it up; the piano was demanding more and more of his time. By 1932, “my idols were Art Tatum and Fats Waller, and I used to sit for hours at one of these machines that you see here [a real Victrola], and I would play four bars, and keep repeating it, and take it off the record as best I could, and write it down. And naturally these old-time phonographs, they had a speed control, so you could gear it down to wherever you were, and I would gear it to a lot slower sometimes to try and get as many notes as I could.”
By then he was playing in public from time to time. He had started helping out his brother, who worked at radio station KQW: “My brother was the engineer, he washed the floors, he washed the windows, he spun the records, he answered the telephone, it was a one-man operation of course. And sometimes he’d call me up on the phone, and he’d say `c’mon down and play a half-hour program while I shave,’ or something like that. So I’d hop on the street car, and he would announce that I was going to play, and I played whatever came to my mind. I started playing a little pip then. My first pop tune that I ever played was `I Can’t Give you Anything But Love’ which is from about 1928 or 29. So this would happen maybe once or twice a week. I was thirteen or fourteen.”
Bill knew early on that playing the piano was what he wanted to do. “My folks wanted me to go to college, and I said, `no, Mom, I want to become a musician,’ and that was the end of that.” In the early Thirties he was still a teenager, but working frequently, and in one band earned five dollars a night. That was phenomenally good money for Depression times, and he knew he was onto a good thing. In 1936 he joined the union.
His first union job was in a big band at the El Patio Ballroom. “I went up to one of the saxophone players and I said, `Oh, boy, this is the life, gee, this [Goodman-style] band is really swinging, I’m really excited.’ At the time I was nineteen, the youngest member of the band. And he said `It’s all well and good, kid, but listen, you learn to play like Carmen Cavallero or Eddy Duchin and you always work.’ And I looked at him and I said, `Oh, but this is great,’ and he said `Take my advice.’ Well, I did take his advice, and I’ve been working ever since.”
His reputation grew, and he started getting requests to go on the road. He toured a little but “as far as going back East, I didn’t want to. I figured the leaders didn’t pay enough, I could make as much money playing around here, and I always worked. Even during the Depression, I worked pretty well. I had heard so many horror stories, the fellows getting stranded and so forth, so I thought, `what the Sam Hill? I might as well work around here, and I’ll be just as satisfied.’”
When he was drafted during World War II, his musical abilities were noted. “I had a letter which stated that I should be put in a band, but I was put in a forty-millimeter ack-ack outfit. I brought the letter to my commander and showed it to him, and he said `That’s very fine but you’re going to be in ack-ack.’” Eventually, after being shipped over to England, “a master sergeant in the battalion came to me and said, `There’s an opening in the band, are you interested?’ I said, `Are you kidding?’” The sergeant cut some red tape, and soon Bill was playing in the band — not just piano, but drums and glockenspiel as well.
Eventually he was in a “morale outfit,” entertaining front-line troops under General Patton. But later he worked behind the scenes, playing for the men who supplied the troops. “I split the 28-piece band into 3 little bands to play the depots, and geez, the guys used to get up and dance on the tables. They hadn’t been seeing any music or anything. These were the forgotten fellows. They never saw anything like the shows that came over [for the front-line soldiers].”
After his discharge, he landed in New York City and called his wife. She told him he had a job waiting at the prestigious Bal Tabarin club. “Holy mackerel! I was really surprised.” He got across country as fast as he could, and started working with Bill Clifford on violin and trombone. “There was Jack King and Bernie Kahn, and Gene Bardoli on drums. I can’t remember all of them.” He stayed there a year before he began playing the Chinese clubs.
In the late forties there was a highly developed nightlife in Chinatown. Bill went into the Club Shanghai, where he played three shows a night: 8 P.M. to 2 A.M., six nights a week, plus rehearsals. Only the band was Caucasian; the singers, chorus line, fan dancers, etc. were all Chinese. Next door was the Chinese Skyroom, where he would play occasional private parties. “They’d say it was a Chinese private party, closed to the public. Well, holy mackerel! I remember, `47, `48, `49, watching these Chinese gamblers throwing thousand dollar bills down on the table.”
In 1951, during the Korean War, Bill started the next phase of his career, working for Joe Brigandi. Joe was a true hustler. “He used to commandeer girls from the telephone company, from PG&E, to come dance with the sailors. They weren’t paid; it was being patriotic. The very first job, some guys got into a fight. They started throwing bottles, food and everything else, and that was the end of the job. I was there ten minutes and it was over with. I came home and my wife said, `What’s the matter? Did you get fired?’” Bill laughed uproariously before going on with his stories about Joe.
“Brigandi got a tremendous amount of work. He would literally go out in a rowboat and row up to these ships. That guy was the greatest businessman in the world, and he sure knew how to sell music, so he’d say to the Navy brass that he’d try and stay away from the booze if he could, but if the commander said `Well, these guys haven’t had a drink in six months or a year’ or whatever — well, Brigandi put a bottle on the table. And he’d get the food, the girls, the music, everything. He did very well. I worked with him from 1951 — eight nights a week. It was unbelievable, the work that man had. Then it started to dwindle a little bit around 1954.”
As Brigandi was slowing down, Bill had his feelers out, and soon landed a job at Bimbo’s 365 Club. Soon he was asked to take over the six-night-a-week band, but he preferred to stay with the “sub night” group. Before long, however, he was working two nights a week after the Musicians’ Union began to limit the “long shift” to five nights.
Many of the photos on Bill’s studio wall are from Bimbo’s. The acts worked seven nights a week and changed once every three weeks. “It was not an easy job, at all, for anybody”, he recalls. He played a schedule similar to what he had done at the Club Shanghai: cocktail music from 7 to 8 P.M., then three shows a night between 8 P.M. and 2 A.M. Eventually Bimbo cut back on rehearsals except for piano, so Bill was covering those too with the acts. “I would come in around 5:30 and have dinner, and sit down with a tape recorder, take the score in front of me, and try and direct the show. Pretty rough.” Jimmy Schlicht, Bill Wagner, Joe Disch, Bill Nawrocki, John Derning, Don Bergesen, Mark Teel, George Elliott —- “That was just the basic band, which they’d augment. In the fifteen years I was there, I had two complaints, so I didn’t think that was too bad.”
He was well-established all over town. He had begun private teaching in 1951, and calls it his “day job” with a smile. In 1962 he began working at the World Trade Club, in the Ferry Building, for strolling violinist Al Wallace and his group (Ed Meneken, George Currie, Joe Coates, Al Thomas, with John Derning on bass). He is still there, 37 years later, not playing as many parties as he used to, but doing a Christmastime stint that has kept him working every night.
By the mid-1960’s he was doing the World Trade Club, sub nights at Bimbo’s and Finocchio’s, and many dates for Albert White. Usually this kept him busy from Sunday to Thursday, leaving him free for casuals on the weekends. He had also been playing radio shows for years, on the local NBC and CBS stations. He remembers one particularly grueling show, when Arthur Godfrey came to town for a week in 1956. The shows rehearsed from 5 to 7 A.M. all week. Godfrey did one of his shows from the Balclutha at the Hyde Street Pier. “It was pretty cold doing a rehearsal on the Balclutha, believe me, five o’clock in the morning,” he admits. But it paid well — over $1200 for the week. With the proceeds, he paid cash for a Volkswagen.
Bill has stayed active, both as a performer and a teacher. He can’t see slowing down. The World Trade Club closed at the end of this past February, but is looking for new quarters, and Bill will be going along with it.
He probably could have told me a thousand more stories about his career, and about the personalities behind the photos on his wall. But he neatly summed up the interview with a philosophical thought distilled from his sixty years of work. “You know me, John. I kind of fool around on the bandstand, and I’ve always done that. I like guys to have fun on the bandstand. You can do a better job as far as I’m concerned.”
Then he got up, grinning broadly. I knew what would be next on his agenda — a cigar.