Happy Years Making Music: John Derning (1911-1993)

by Jack Bethards

As a youngster, John Derning decided to make music his career. He never seriously considered anything else and never had any regrets. He thoroughly enjoyed playing bass and tuba, always feeling lucky that his career spanned the golden age of commercial music in America. The San Francisco music scene was greatly enhanced by both his talent and his smiling persona. Looking at early pictures of John, there is a surprising resemblance to Harold Lloyd. Perhaps there was some cosmic connection between the two because John certainly shared with the screen star a quiet but impish sense of humor. John had a very pleasant life, and it was not just good fortune; he knew the art of making a lemon into lemonade.

A San Francisco Mission District native, John was born on July 26, 1911. His grandparents emigrated from Canada, and his father owned a shoe store at 956 Valencia Street. The family had no musical background, so it is somewhat of a mystery how John became so infatuated with music so early. Doubly interesting is that his brother Robert Derning also became a professional musician — also a bass player! Early scrapbooks showed John playing in school bands and orchestras, but he also took part in athletics and theatricals including some Shakespearean acting at Mission High. John was quite active in scouting and on finishing high school joined the 250th Coast Artillery of the California National Guard.

His earliest musical jobs were in small dance combos such as The El Ray Orchestra while he finished school.

His first full time job was on a boat trip to South America via the Panama Canal with a five piece orchestra. Pictures show him having a good time, but he seemed to have formed some negative opinions of working away from home quite early. John managed to stay put in San Francisco for almost every engagement in his three score year career. He did, however, develop quite a liking for taking ocean cruises as a passenger and did so many times with his wife Thelma in later years, but we are

getting ahead of the story.

John’s first major job was with Mahlon Merrick’s Palace Hotel Vagabonds. (The band included Alvino Rey and Clancy Hayes. Merrick went on to Hollywood to become Jack Benny’s music director.) John also played in the Olympic Club Band, casuals at Guernewood Village, Rio Nido, and Tahoe Tavern and some short hotel band stints in Los Angeles and Portland — all the jobs typical of young musicians getting started in the depth of the depression. At one point he considered conservatory training leading to symphonic work, but the infinitely fascinating variety of the commercial field won out. He continued playing limited steady engagements and casuals until, having done enough theater work and commercial shows, he was tapped for a job in radio — a real stroke of good luck for a musician who didn’t want to go on the road with a name band. Radio was at the height of its popularity in the late 1930s, and John joined the staff at CBS and their then local station, KSFO. At that time several shows each day featured live music from the new Palace Hotel studios, but there was also plenty of time in between for casual engagements, mostly with the prominent leaders in town — including Eddie Harkness, Anson Weeks, Al Wallace, Art Weidner, Ernie Heckscher, Ray Hackett and just about every other prominent maestro in the business. A highlight of John’s pre-war work was the 1939 world’s fair, where he played many engagements.

By 1941 John’s career was in full swing, and he decided to settle down and get married. He and his wife Thelma bought some property on upper Market Street, and he proceeded to design and build the house with a spectacular view of the Mission and the Bay beyond which Thelma still enjoys today. John’s lifelong hobbies centered around his home. He was an avid gardener and woodworker doing home improvement projects and making fine furniture.

John continued with CBS after the local outlet changed to KQW. (At the same time, his brother Bob was at NBC.) One highlight John remembered was playing for the three-day musical memorial tribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The staff musicians played continuous classical music, requiring long hours and reinforcements. It was a time of great prosperity in the music business, and the top players were working constantly — sometimes playing two casuals a day in addition to the studio work. Later John moved with Phil Bovero to ABC and KGO. KGO soon added television, and John appeared at the Golden Gate Theater on the first KGO television show to feature live music. Later he appeared on such programs as Join the Gang, San Francisco Tonight with Don Sherwood, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, The Jack LaLanne Show, and many others.

Since John had been so active in the casual field, he continued to be just as busy as ever when the broadcasting networks ceased employing staff orchestras. He started doing more steady theater work including musicals for the San Francisco Civic Light Opera and the Hyatt Music theater in Burlingame. He also played for the Ice Follies and countless convention and fashion shows. He had a long run in the orchestra at Bimbos 365 Club and was a member of Albert White’s Orchestra, which started the tea dancing craze of the 1970s at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Earlier he had worked with Al as a sub on the Masters of Melody Show, and in the Station J dance orchestra. Since John had always doubled tuba, he played many band engagements for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, the 49ers, and the Raiders.

He even played his share of parades, including the Chinese funerals which have made up so much of Local 6 musical lore. For a long time John was with the Red Garter Band which often traveled around the financial district on a bandwagon. He also played lots of Oktoberfests with German bands. Because of his ability to improvise, he often performed with small groups, including many years at the Hilton Inn with Maurice Anger and casuals with Bill Weir.

Through all of these engagements, John became very popular with his fellow musicians and with leaders. First of all, he was a wonderful player. He not only could handle the most demanding parts, but knew just about every tune ever written. He never failed to play an appropriate bass line — even for the most obscure tune a leader could request. Peter Mintun, a renowned expert on music of the 1920s and 1930s, said that he could never stump John, no matter how obscure the tune; John had an absolutely flawless sense of harmonic structure. He was especially adept at substituting in very demanding situations which required solid reading ability and steel nerves. Therefore, he was first-call substitute on every imaginable kind of job.

The second reason for his popularity was his great personality. He got along with everybody and never failed to bring a touch of humor to each job, no matter how tedious it might be. In other words, John Derning was a musician’s musician. He was also popular among all of the stars for whom he played. His scrapbooks are loaded with beautiful thank-you notes and inscribed photos of the grateful artists he accompanied.

There is an interesting photo of the Derning Shoe Store on Valencia Street with signs proclaiming “Our Patrons Wear Smiles,” and “Your Approval is Our Ambition.” Although John Derning did not go into the family business, he certainly carried out his father’s motto to the letter.

Jack Bethards is a life member of Local 6. He is writing a biography of John Derning for the San Francisco Foundation.