I was the Chief Musical Producer at WBBM from 1948 – 1950. The musicians union required that WBBM keep forty full-time musicians on staff. Because I could read an abbreviated score, I became a pet of the musical conductor, Caesar Petrillo, brother of James Petrillo, the head of the American Federation of Musicians. Caesar had been a former trombone player in a circus orchestra and he favored large brass sections. The house orchestrations were written for seven brass and only eight string instruments. The bows were overwhelmed in tutti passages.
I hung a microphone in the middle of the string section and had the outnumbered players sit close together. By reading an abbreviated score I saw when the brass section was about to enter. I directed the engineer to close down all other microphones and boost the one above the strings.
The music played were the standard pop tunes of the time. Petrillo enjoyed slow, romantic music. At one rehearsal he spoke about the phone calls he received from married friends who had sex the night before while the house orchestra played, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
Caesar, like his namesake, loved splendor. Grandiosity meant milking the tempo, slowing down the downbeat.
The first violin, Fritz Siegel, later concertmaster under Eugene Ormandy, was annoyed. Fritz told me to watch my cues because he had decided to take the tempos not from the conductor’s baton, but from his elbow. Caesar’s elbow came down before the tip of his stick. You can do it. Put a pencil in your hand and do a downbeat. You’ll see the elbow falls before the pencil hits bottom. Fritz told me he got the idea from the Boston Symphony Orchestra when Serge Koussevitzky slowed the tempo. The BSO took its cue at the point when his baton passed the middle button on his coat, instead of the bottom button.
While I was appreciated as a producer, not much was said about my talent as a musician. Once, when I supposed no one was around, I went to the keyboard of a Steinway Grand, double the length we had at home, and played “Tea for Two” cross handed, and slid into my version of the blues. A saxophonist and a viola player listened. I overheard their conversation.
“Do you think this kind of music will ever come back?”
“This kind of music was never here.”
“It will never get here, either.”
My more positive contribution was to add narration between songs. The standard continuity for Music for You was, “The orchestra now asks the musical question, ‘Who?’”
The house tenor then sang “Who Stole my Heart Away” and the house almost-soprano (and mistress of the sales manager) would take the next eight bars, “No one but you, that’s who.”
I received permission to rewrite the scripts. I re-titled Music for You as Cloud Nine and I gave it the following plot—the same plot, week after week.
A door opens. Sound effect of a man seating himself and asking for “one of the usual—no make it a double”.
The sound man pours something liquid. A flute glissando slides up and up and is dissolved into a chorale stolen from Debussy. In awe, the tenor says, “We’re in Spain! And that senorita is beautiful!”
Then he sings:
Lady of Spain, I adore you
Why should my lips be concealing
All that my eyes are revealing?
Lady of Spain, I love you
For a half hour, ballads and show tunes with a slightly Spanish musical overtone. In the written copy, romance and seduction. Tenor and not-quite soprano get closer and closer to please Caesar and his friends, and yet stay within the bounds of mid-west norms of the period. But just before they leap in bed to the last line of “Lady of Spain” — “Lady of Spain, I love you” — just before the line which might be considered coital contact, that same flute that slid up– now slides down. The sound effects man pours another shot, the tenor says no thanks, and there is no on-air consummation. She’s gone – until next week.
The following week, Cloud Nine went to France, then Argentina, then Russia. The tenor and the almost-soprano never got laid in any language. The series became a hit, particularly with college students. So much of a hit that Wrigley Chewing Gum sponsored the program.
To be honest, the romantic songs of the time touched me. Good popular music is like good popular fiction. It calls to the imagination. Radio at the time I worked in it, called to the imagination. But imagination – mine at least- calls up no specific pictures. I don’t see snow when I hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I don’t see a face when I read about a character. I don’t see Emma’s face when I read Madame Bovary. I don’t see her hair, her breasts, her dress. Yet I feel for her. I weep for her. In the brain, imagination lies closest to emotion.
Television rarely calls to that deeper brain. That small screen is literal, factual. At its best, it teaches.
Cloud Nine, American English Idioms, panama.usembassy.gov/aei09.html