“Flying Home” with Mr. Red Top
Interview by John Anthony Brisbin
Kansas City saxophonist Ben Kynard is best known for having written the jazz hit “Red Top.” The catchy instrumental, penned in 1946 and named for his red-headed wife, Joyce, has since become part of many a jazz and blues band’s repertoire.
Kynard has seen little money (or attention) for the song. It was written when he was a member of Lionel Hampton’s big band and a take-it-or-leave-it agreement with Hampton usually covered such situations.
To make matters worse, as the Kynard-arranged Hampton version of “Red Top” was being waxed for Decca in 1947, a Gene Ammons cover of the song on the Savoy label swept the country. It also forever identified Ammons with the hit. Even in a recent NPR retrospective, Greg Fitzgerald hailed Ammons’ version as “defining a genre soon to be called rhythm and blues.” Ben Kynard’s name was never mentioned. (Fitzgerald insisted the tune was named for Ammons’ wife!) Kynard did attempt legal action once or twice, but realizing that years might be needed to achieve redress, he accepted the matter with consummate grace.
Today Kynard is unfailingly kind in his comments about both Ammons and “Hamp.” And he grins broadly when recalling the excitement of his years (1946-53) on the road with the legendary vibraphonist. It was a glorious but exhausting stint that finally ended with Kynard “Flying Home” (the Hampton band’s anthem) to settle down in Kansas City where, for the next 32 years, he would work as a U.S. postal carrier. It was a day job that kept him off the road, but never far from Kansas City bandstands.
In conversation, Kynard places three others on the same pedestal with Lionel Hampton: drummer Pete McShann, in whose popular Kansas City party band Kynard spent much of the ’50s and ’60s; his beloved schoolmate and bandleader, the late Oliver Todd, with whom he worked on and off for 65 years, beginning when he was just 16 as a member of Todd’s “Hottentots”; and Kynard’s older brother, B.C., a veteran of the big bands of Clarence Love and Earl Hines. It was B.C. who gave Ben his first sax, taught him how to play, and handed him his big break with Lionel Hampton.
Throughout his long career, Ben Kynard has worked hard and maintained strict habits while honing his talent. His is a musical genius that comes wrapped in a gentle, congenial, unassuming manner. (I mean, he could be the mailman!) Ben is one of those I’m-here-to-help-you-out types who has played with the best, jammed with everyone, can repair and lubricate any instrument, and has helped shape hundreds of arrangements and compositions in the Kansas City songbook.
What follows is Ben Kynard in his own words. I spoke with him at length at the Mutual Musicians Foundation on January 21, 2000.
I was born in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
And my mother’s name was Amelia.
She was a very beautiful lady, had a lot of Creole in her. She kept me dressed well. I looked good in kindergarten school when I went there. I had to take those school clothes off when I came home and change into play clothes. I remember that, too.
My mother worked very hard washing clothes in the rub tub. I remember seeing her doin’ that. They didn’t have a washing machine. She was just 36 years old when she had a stroke. I was seven when she passed. Guess the work was just too hard.
My father’s name was Bennett. He married again three years after my mom passed and we moved to Kansas City with my stepmother, Mary Sissy. She was good to us and she was good to my father, too. Yup, she raised all of us. Iola was oldest. B.C. was the second oldest, and three of ’em died before I was born, including Marilyn.
So… I’ve been here in Kansas City ever since I was seven years old. I went to Keeling School, Stowe School, Northeast Junior High, Sumner High School, and Sumner Junior College for about a year. All of those are in Kansas City, Kansas.
In my neighborhood, everybody knew everybody. And everybody slept on the front porch ’cause nobody had no air conditioning. Slept with your front doors open, too. Everybody was real congenial, and everybody went to church on Sunday. I went to Baptist church all day long — Sunday School, church service, then B.Y.P.U. (Baptist Young People’s Union) at night. I wasn’t mischievous. I was a good guy. And I always took care of my pets. We always had cats and dogs. I still do. And I carry little snacks in my pockets to give to the animals.
The First Saxophone
My brother taught me how to play saxophone. I’m ten years his junior. He was named B.C. Kynard. Somebody called him Braithie Cornelius, but actually it was just B.C., just the initials. He was a very fine alto player. He gave me my first horn and showed me how to play it. It was a hardwood alto. I think he bought it at Sears. It played as good as a Selmer; it was the best little horn… at least I thought so.
My first little “gig” was playin’ behind a make-believe radio made from an orange crate. It had spools on it for legs. I’d stand behind it and play a solo on the saxophone for the kids.
B.C. taught me how to read music. He said, “Anytime you see a dotted quarter note with an eighth note tied to a half note, just think of ‘The Charleston’ and you don’t even have to count it.”
Same with another song called “Dig It, Jackson.” He said, “When you see somethin’ written out, an eighth note tied to a quarter note in a measure, that’s ‘Dig It, Jackson.'”
I learned how to read from the looks of things, not from, “One and two and…” That (approach) came in handy.
The Clubs & “the Kitty”
I’m 80 years old now. I started playing (professionally) in 1938 when I was 18. I was a youngster then, right out of high school. Over in Kansas I’d play in night clubs. I played with a fella named Celester White. He was able to get a lot of party jobs in the country clubs.
I also played with the Pruitt Brothers and with an older fella named Paul Banks. He would play these clubs where people would dance. So I learned all the old standards, waltzes and cha-chas, polkas, things like that.
In some clubs I played, they’d have a kitty. Anybody come up and want a request, they’d say, “Do you know ‘Tuxedo Junction’?”
Or sometimes people would come up and ask for an old song called “Ace in the Hole.” You’d put a little money in this cat’s mouth. It was a little statue, had a light in it. That was for tips.
During that time, believe it or not, we were making a dollar and a quarter a night. Sometimes we’d get about two dollars a piece in the kitty. That’s the reason learning all those songs came in handy!
Us Kansas fellas would also play in Missouri. It was so far to drive that sometimes we had to catch a streetcar to come over. There were a lot of jobs over in Missouri. At that time, the 1930s, a gig used to last six nights a week, and often you got it for several weeks. Before you’d leave, you’d have to give two weeks notice. And before they’d let you go, they’d have to give you two weeks notice. Now, it’s just one night stands.
My parents, they didn’t mind at all that B. C. and I were gettin’ into playin’ our saxophones. They enjoyed it. They were happy for us. Jobs were easy then and there wasn’t any violence or any hoodlums standin’ in front of the clubs. Women would come in and then leave by themselves. Nobody would bother ’em.
People went out to night clubs all the time. They’d sit and drink their beer or Coke. They liked to dance better than anything. And when I’d see them dancin’, it would make me play better. But sometimes the fella would have us cut down on the music so people would drink more.
When we weren’t workin’, we would come to Missouri to the KC clubs just to listen to the bands.
A fella named Franz Bruce played alto on 18th Street. and I used to enjoy his playin’. We used to go down to The Spinnin’ Wheel and listen to those fellas play. I think that was Bill Martin and his group, and Woody and Herman Walter.
Andy Kirk’s big band was down at 15th and Paseo. They used to have a sign right in the center of the floor to announce what it was they were going to dance to, like a waltz, cha-cha, tango, or swing. Women would come there from all around just to dance. When they would leave, they’d catch a streetcar and go on back to Kansas.
I saw Joe Turner and Pete Johnson a couple of times at The Sunset Crystal Palace. They had a square tobacco can that used to be on top of the piano for tips. Pete’d play that boogie-woogie; Joe, during that time, wouldn’t even need no microphone. He would just holler. He’d sing simple verses about hard times and good times. His face told a lot of the story. I copied a lot of his songs.
Oliver Todd’s band, The Hottentots, was a fantastic band here in Kansas City in 1936. I was in his band. (Ed. note: Ben Kynard went to high school with Oliver and Bernice Todd and was in the same class as Bernice. See the profile of Oliver Todd in the October/November 2001 JAM.)
We had four horns and three rhythm in that band. Oliver played the trumpet. And he was a very good trumpet player. He didn’t ever play real high; he would play more or less down in the register. Instead of playing a lot of high notes, he played real melodic lines because he was also a piano player. Piano players always hit the right chords.
The Hottentots had three different uniforms made by J. B. Simpson. We were sharp! We played a show in Kalamazoo, Michigan where we changed three times a night. That’s somethin’ bands don’t do now. They look like I-don’t-know-what on the bandstand.
We were playin’ a place out here in Kansas City once, at 39th and Main, called La Casa Fiesta. I’ll never forget that. We had these three saxophones and one trumpet. Now, Oliver Todd, he would memorize all the parts. We had our music, but Oliver Todd would be up there leadin’ the band, standin’ up there on the side. He’d be playin’ the lead part but he knew all the others by memory. After a certain length of time, we knew some of the songs too, but not as well as he did. Sometimes we just had three saxophones and a trumpet, so the trumpet would have to play the second part, too. Oliver would play his horn with a felt hat (over it) to make it sound like a reed section. I enjoyed that band immensely.
“Where’s the Melody?”
One time I was playin’ at a place over in Kansas… Tenth and someplace. The bandleader’s name was King Jones, a big fat piano player. He knew all the songs you ever thought about. He said they needed a saxophone. This was in 1937. I was still in high school.
Now I was a pretty good carpenter at the time, so I made a kitty that had a metal plate in the bottom. That way if a person dropped a dime or a nickel in it, you could tell just what it was by the sound. So at this gig in Kansas, a man passed by. I saw him put his hand in the kitty, but I didn’t hear anything tinkle. He said he wanted “Stardust.” I started to play all the different chords that came to my mind. He comes back and says:
“I just put five dollars in there. When you gonna play my request?”
We said, “We just played it.”
He said, “I haven’t heard any ‘Stardust.'”
King Jones said, “He wants you to play the melody of the song first, then improvise, then go back to the melody.”
From that day on I’ve played requests just like that. I always try to get that melody down for the people so they know exactly what you’re playin’. Then if you’re playin’ a solo, don’t drift too far off it. Then come back to that melody.
That was way back in 1937, when I was still in high school. But I do that to this day.
Years later, at my first recording session with (Lionel) Hampton, Bing Crosby was there. They had a great big Indian statue there in Decca Studios in New York City. It was saying, “Where’s the melody?”
The Army Years
B.C. was a good friend of Arnett Cobb, who was the straw boss for Hampton. Arnett was also the leader of Hamp’s reed section. My brother knew him in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Hamp needed an alto player. So, Arnett said:I was drafted into the army in 1943 and stayed three years and nine months. They had a very good Army band. I studied those army charts, the John Phillip Sousa marches and all.
Well, my brother had been out for about three weeks by the time I got out. Again, he was a wonderful saxophone player, played for Clarence Love and Earl Hines. But when he got married, he had to come off the road.
“B.C., we’ll be through Kansas City to play at The Pla-Mor Ballroom. We want you to join us.”
B.C. said, “Okay, I’ll be ready.”
So Arnett got to town and said, “B.C., come on over to The Streets Hotel. We’re gonna have a rehearsal of the reed section.” The Streets Hotel (at 18th and Paseo) was the best black hotel in town.
“I can’t make it,” my brother said. “My wife doesn’t want me to leave home.”
Arnett said, “Well, God-darn, we had a fella down in Tulsa who could’ve made the job! I wish you would’ve told me sooner!”
B.C. said, “Well, my little brother can do it.” And Arnett said, “Bring him on over.”
I was pretty sharp that day ’cause I’d been reading all those army marches and concert band stuff. This was the first week I was home from the army.
I’ll never forget the first song I rehearsed with Arnett. It was Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.” This white Jewish boy named Herbert Fields played the clarinet solo. My part was the background, alto horns doin’ “putt-putt”… ya know, downbeats. I was playin’ alto sax then. Lotta times I’d get lost, but my ear would tell me where it was.
I got through that and, not bein’ egotistical, I could read real good. And I could cock my ear real good. That counts a lot in music, too. What I couldn’t read, I would cock my ear and play along. The things that I missed, I knew where to jump to reattach myself.
Next they went to another song, “Montgomery Breakdown,” written by a guy named Joe Morris. It was uptempo, repeat the same eight (bars), play the bridge, and then come back. So, I played that for them.
Then they wanted some of the ballads. I was playin’ second alto, but on this particular ballad, the first part was written on the second alto. Not braggin’, but I played it very good. Hamp came over and said, “Come on down to The Pla-Mor Ballroom tonight. Get there a little early.”
When I went there, they had the uniforms. Good thing the last fella was about my same size. I dressed and we started playin’. But we didn’t complete the job. We played about a half hour and then the valet, he started to take the vibes down. I’m still up there lining my music up when he said that Hamp had pulled the band. They canceled the job.
What happened was this: Cab Calloway was in town and some people brought him by The Pla-Mor to sit in the audience and hear us. Durin’ that time there was prejudice. They wouldn’t let him in on account of him being black. The Pla-Mor was a white ballroom.
I said, “What’ll I do?”
Hamp said, “Be ready to leave tomorrow morning. Our first stop will be Newark, New Jersey.”
It was at that job in Newark that I wrote “Red Top.”
See, during that time, in theaters, they would show a movie or a newsreel and we’d be backstage waiting to go on. We used to do five shows a day. At the Apollo Theater in New York, it was six.
It was kind of quiet backstage in Newark. And I couldn’t practice my horn; but there was a little piano down in the dressing room area. I was tinklin’ around on that, I picked out the melody to “Red Top” and wrote it out. Actually, I didn’t know what it was. It was just this little simple blues song. The reason I called it “Red Top,” was that my wife, Joyce, during that time, had red hair. It’s gray now (laughs).
I didn’t bother with it anymore till about a month later, when we were playing Washington, D.C. We had more time between the shows, so I started writin’ this arrangement (of “Red Top”) for the big band.
The arrangement turned out fairly well… but anytime you wrote somethin’ for Hamp, you had to list him in as co-writer. I signed it Lionel Hampton and Ben Kynard as the writers. I got paid and I turned the charts over to Charlie Fowlkes, our copyist who copied our arrangements. It was in Hamp’s book a year before we started to play it. Then he would play it, not too often, but it stayed in the book for a long time. And we had a large book.
With Hamp’s permission, Charlie would send different arrangements to a young fella in Chicago named Jimmy Fox who had a mixed (interracial) band. Hamp wanted to help this young band get a start.
Jimmy Fox was also a tailor, so he, in return, would give Charlie Fowlkes a tailor-made suit. Charlie had to wear tailored suits on account of he was so large. He was about six foot five, weighed about 350 pounds, but was built in proportion.
So, Charlie Fowlkes sent Jimmy Fox this arrangement, “Red Top.” And they were playin’ it a long time.
The way “Red Top” really came in prominence was that Gene Ammons, a heck of a tenor player, was having a recording session and he recorded it exactly as I wrote it. Gene Ammons’ version was popular and really sold. It was a hit tune — one of the only jazz tunes that’s come up a hit in years and years.
We were out in California, playin’ a night club. We were sittin’ at a hotel and the guys said, “B.K., your Red Top is on a record down stairs!”
I went down and heard it. It was a smaller group that did it. So, God darn, I went down to the music store to see it… but my name wasn’t on it! The arrangement was Hampton and Jo Jones, or Hampton and Benton.
We started playin’ these one-nighters down south and every jukebox we saw had “Red Top” on it. But I was just happy to have them record somethin’ I wrote.
Royalties for “Red Top” haven’t earned me hardly anything. Hampton received the majority of that money. I didn’t get, oh, but about $6,000. I shoulda gotten a hundred or two hundred times that.
Aw, I definitely felt cheated. I hired a lawyer one time, but he kept puttin’ it off. Just like this guy that wrote “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie” for Hamp. He spent all kinds of money chasing those royalties.
These big people can keep puttin’ the case off, but you gotta keep payin’ that lawyer. I got tired and just gave up on it.
I’m not such a great musician. I just happened to write something. And it was the right time and right place to write it.
Some songs catch on, some don’t. “Red Top” caught on.
I guess it’s because it’s so simple. You can see the simplicity of the song. It’s just blues. Blues is the foundation of a lot of things, just three chords basically.
It was also kind of melodic. Me bein’ a jazzman and doing it so simple, it was kind of amazing. If ya heard it once, you could hum it.
I wrote “Red Top” in 1946. I didn’t get what I earned on it, but I am happy to know that 55 years later, it’s still in everybody’s repertoire. A lot of people know my name as the one who wrote it.
The other song I recorded was called “Reminiscing Mood.” But it didn’t sell. I wrote ten or twelve songs with Hamp. I wrote the music behind the different acts. Ya know, they’d want to change routines and I had to write out new music for it. I did it for big band and small groups, like trumpet and two saxophones. Like Dinah (Washington), I wrote her a couple of arrangements. I enjoy arrangin’ more than playin’.
More About Hamp
Anyway, that’s how I first got the job with Hamp. There are a lot of good musicians, but you get jobs through breaks. I got that one ’cause my brother didn’t want to travel.
I stayed with the band for seven years and nine months, 1946 to 1953. It was a lot of fun. And it was a very good band.
There were guys who played as good or better than I did, but Hamp enjoyed my punctuality. If there was a rehearsal, I was there on time. If the band left at a certain time, I was gonna be there. If the band hit at a certain time, I was gonna be there. And I could read good, too. When we were on tour, we ran into the most fantastic soloists you ever heard. Then sometimes those guys couldn’t read (laughs). One time a fine trombone player joined the band. They put him back in the section; he finally had to say, “I can’t read this music!”
Hamp was friendly, sure. He’d ride the bus with us all the time, studyin’ his Bible. He was a Seventh Day Adventist. Sometimes he’d travel in a car if he had to get there early for an interview or somethin’.
Majority of the time he’d ride up in the second seat behind the bus driver. He was lively, and fun. I didn’t see him ever ball anybody out except for the punctuality. Then the guys didn’t last long. Ninety-five percent of the time, he had good guys who were on time, who would dress well. He’d run around with the guys everyplace.
Hamp’s wife, Gladys, she took care of all the business with the band. She would keep Hampton in line. After we would finish playin’, we would go out to a night club (laughs). Small or large, he was gonna play. Hamp would jam! Gladys would send the valet, Leroy, to pick him up and bring him back home.
Hampton’s band played all the fine theaters in L.A., Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, New York and Chicago. The Strand Theater was in New York, downtown on 45th Street.
We also played the Paramount and the Apollo and the Capital Theater in New York. In Washington, it was the Howard Theater. That was the black theater. And there was the Earl Theater in Philadelphia.
In L.A. we played that “million dollar theater” up on Main Street and a couple of others. They were all gorgeous inside, plush seats. And the lobbies were magnificent, a lot of décor with statues and artistic detail.
Hampton would always book us into the real nice hotels near the theaters but, God-darn, them hotels was too high! We’d jump in a taxi cab, drive around the corner and find a cheaper hotel (laughs). We were payin’ our own room rent and food bills. Only thing he bought was the uniforms. We traveled by bus the majority of times, by train sometimes. I didn’t like trains because, from trains, you had to get a taxi to go to the hotel.
One time in Denver I jumped in a cab at the train station, told the guy to take me to the hotel. The guy drove me for about a half hour. Goin’ back to the train station at the end of the gig, I told the fella out in front of the hotel that I was tryin’ to catch a taxi to go back to the train. He said, “Just grab your bags and walk. It’s only two blocks.” That cabby was just runnin’ that bill up there!
Those theater jobs you enjoyed, and you stayed two or three weeks. First show started ’round 11:30 a.m. and ya’d do about five shows. Each one would last about an hour and a half, last one ending at 11 p.m.
During that time, you’d also have other acts mixed in — like the Choclateers, Man Tan Moreland, Sammy Davis and the Will Masterson trio. In fact, Sammy Davis and the trio traveled with us a long time, startin’ in 1948. That was Sammy Davis’ uncle, and his father; they were all relatives. There were three guys and Sammy Davis out front there. He was the star, singin’ and tap dancin’ and doin’ the jokes. Then all of ’em would dance, all in tuxedoes.
Sammy would finish and get a great big applause. He’d go right back to his uncle and his uncle would say, “Well, you didn’t do that and you didn’t do that.” He’d ball him out even though he got big applause out there! Sammy would take all that criticism to heart.
All of Hamp’s arrangements were melodic and swingin’. When we would play hotels, he had a different book. He’d bring out that book with all the soft and sweet tunes. You wouldn’t think it was the same band. In theaters, he liked the flamboyant music. So he had that book out. When Hamp would play in the theaters, he’d always watch the front row. If those kids weren’t pattin’ their foot, he would change the tunes right there.
You couldn’t play in Hamp’s band unless you could pat your foot. We had a trumpet player named Joe Waller. He played in all the studio bands up in New York. He could play his head off, but he couldn’t ever pat his foot. Hamp said:
“Joe, you gotta pat your foot. It don’t look like you’re enjoyin’ yourself.”
Joe said, “Well, I don’t like to pat my foot.”
Hamp said, “If you play a high note, raise your arms up.”
Most all the guys would do like Hamp wanted. But Joe wouldn’t do nothin’.
Al Grey was a master showman. He knew how to sell the audience. He’d put his hands up with the high notes. He’d end the notes there and then bend down and smile at the people. They’d start applauding.
Hamp made us into showmen. He had us do all these different moves, whooping horns, throwin’ the saxophones up and down, brass swayin’ like that.
People said, “God, they must be intoxicated.” But we were just doin’ our show.
“Toot! Toot! Toot!”
Hamp had a funny habit. Before he’d play, and before the curtain opened, he’d be lookin’ all dismal. Then he pulled the tongue of his right shoe, pulled it five times. And then he’d put a smile on his face. He was brand new then. He’d play like he’d just awakened.
We had a song called, “Slide, Hamp, Slide.” All the trombones would slide the same way. We had one trombone player named Britt Woodman. He played with Duke. He knew all these fundamentals of trombone. There are all these tricks where you make notes without slidin’. This guy could play all the stuff right in five or six inches and make all them notes. But Hamp enjoyed seeing you slide that trombone way out like that because it sold more. He would say: “If you’re going to play something, sell it!”
He’d be walkin’ behind ya, clappin’ his hands, sayin’ “Toot! Toot! Toot!” That meant just hit the high note and hold your horn out. So I’d “Toot! Toot! Toot!” and wave my horn back and forth. And people in the audience are saying, “God durned, that guy is sure playin’!”
And I’m just hittin’ one note.
Lips & Chicks
There was this trumpet player named Bennie Bailey. He could play first trumpet and fourth, ya know, way down low.
Now Bennie was always late. He’d be comin’ into the Strand Theater in New York a minute or two before curtain. He would barrel in, hop on stage, be jumpin’ into his uniform pants. He’d have warmed the trumpet up somehow.
Our openin’ song was “The L and M Special” with all those high notes in there. High C was the first note, and he was right there. Hamp’s book was kinda hard on trumpet players. We’d have to put lubricanol on our lips on our day off to keep our lips strong. But this guy Bailey, he’d hit it.
No, it’s not a myth that musicians on the road have a lot of women. They did. During that time, there was pancake makeup. Guys would sit in front of the mirror and put pancake makeup on their faces, do their eyebrows. And they had their hair all slicked up good. Them lights shine on you, God-darn, you look pretty!
People looked good who came to see us, too. You look at the old pictures of Hamp’s band. We were all dressed up, had white shirts, black ties, suits and everything. We played the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, and it’d be packed. People would just sit on the floor to be around the bandstand.
The women were crazy about us.
Once we were playing at The Aquarium Restaurant down on Broadway (in Kansas City). Those people down there were drinkin’ beer and wine mixed together, half and half. Kids, ya know. Anyway, (drummer Ellis) Barti was playin’ with James Fuller. His band was workin’ all the time. George Jenkins was Hamp’s drummer (then) and George’s girlfriend was Dinah Washington. Some kind of way George Jenkins couldn’t make it. He had a falling out with Hamp. Hamp would ball George out because the drum wasn’t loud enough. During that time, they didn’t have these microphones on drums. Hamp would say:
I can’t hear the drums like I want.
George would get mad and say, Well, I’m playin’ as loud as I can.”
Ellis Barti sat in for Jenkins at The Aquarium. He got his job with Hamp from playing one song, “Way Down on Swannee River.” It was a two-four Lunceford beat. Lot of people can’t play a two-four beat. Hamp was amazed, he said, “You’re my man!” So he got that job away from George Jenkins.
There were no microphones on the drums back then. Hamp would give a drummer a bonus if he’d break a foot pedal during a show. He liked the downbeat, boom boom! Loud! His valet would always have three or four different foot pedals, so you’d always see him back there puttin’ on a foot pedal.
Hamp had different signals, too. Crossed fingers meant a backbeat on the snare. Clubbed fist meant a bass drum and like this (gestures) meant hit the sock cymbal. Barti would follow these instructions implicitly — other drummers would keep on playin’ what they wanted to play for themselves — but Barti was like remote controlled. Whatever Hamp thought in his mind practically, he played it.
Hamp would play piano in the show. I mean, with two fingers, the top part. Milt Buckner would do the comping. Any change that Hampton played, if he’d run off to another key, Buckner was such a phenomenal piano player that he followed exactly what he was playing.
Then Hampton would leave there and go to his vibes. And then he’d get on drums, do a magnificent solo. He’d always have a tom-tom about three feet from him. It stood about two and a half feet high. At the end of a song, Hampton would jump flat-footed on top of that tom-tom. It just had three legs holding it up. Ta ta ta ta ta… and BOOM; he’d land on the tom-tom holding his hands up.
And he’d sing. His main song was, “Hey Bop-A-Rebop! Yes, your daddy knows. Mama says this, Papa says that…” And all the people in the theater would join in. That’s still his fanfare now.
…and the “Airmail Special”
“Airmail Special” was a big one at the shows. Sometimes we used that for our opening song; it was real fast. Johnny Griffin had his special solo on that. He sounded good because they knew exactly what he was gonna play a lot of times. Cat Anderson, he was the high note man with Hampton. He went with the Duke after a while. Then we had a guy who could play a note higher than Cat Anderson. So we nicknamed him The Whistler.
Sometimes we’d get to town and get into playin’ and some of the guys would be feelin’ bad; but Arnett Cobb would sound good every time out, especially on “Airmail Special.”
I’d say, “God darn! How you sound that good all the time?” He said, “I wrote out my solos and I play ’em the same every time. Different towns you go to it’s always a different audience, so you can play that same thing over. It’s okay! Play it the same way so next time you play it, you don’t have to scuffle. If you’re feelin’ bad, you’ll sound good. If you’re feelin’ good, you’ll sound good.”
So I got into it that way, especially — like I said– on “Flyin’ Home.” I learned that thing note for note. I knew every note they was gonna play. I could play it the same way Johnny Board played it on the record.
“When Joe Turner Starts Weavin’…”
We were playin’ somewhere out in Los Angeles with Hamp.
There was this blues singer who was tearin’ it up. Joe Turner was sittin’ out there in the audience. This guy had a real ego and everybody was clappin’. He said, “I see we got Joe Turner. Come on up here, Joe!”
Joe said, “No, no, no.”
The guy kept insistin’, “Come on up and sing a song!”
“No, no, no.”
Finally Joe got up and started singin’. And ooh, he sang. Everytime he’d finish one verse, he’d go to another. He’d sing, “Hello, little girl, don’t you remember me? I’m the same guy who brought you from Tennessee.” And he’d reach into his pocket and start sippin’. And then he’d start weavin’. And when Joe Turner starts weavin’, you’re in trouble (laughs).
Joe kept on weavin’ and he kept on singin’. So that young singer started easin’ on out. And when he came back to the bandstand most of an hour later, a lot of his ego had been lost. He realized then what he’d done by having Joe Turner come up there. Like I’ve always said, ya can’t beat experience.
Repairs and Other Tricks of the Trade
Up in New York I used to take my horn to this guy named Lyons to have it repaired. I used to see him run this little light, it was like a Christmas bulb. He’d run it down your horn to find out where the leaks were. I watched him. I learned how to do it myself and it came in handy. So I would repair a lot of guys’ horns, too. I always kept my light in my bag so I could run it down there. You had to take a match cover and bend it twice. That keeps the keys down. If you don’t see any light, the problem’s over (laughs).
For sticky valves, the guys would put on grease, but then they started putting cold cream on ’em. On the road you don’t have no chance to keep your horns up. So all that came in handy. I kept a rubber band to help, like, if a spring broke. Charlie Parker was real good with that. Old Charlie… I seen him sometimes with a rubber band all around a key.
Saxophone reeds? This boy named John Jackson, he played with Jay McShann’s band. A reed on an alto horn is about three and a half inches long. He could cut that reed down to about an inch and a half with a knife. It’d still blow good.
For mouthpieces, I learned this from Arnett Cobb when Arnett played for Jimmy Lunceford. I think I had ’round about ten, twelve mouthpieces, trying to get the right sound. Arnett said, “Ben, you get yourself some plumber’s putty, line the inside of the mouthpiece with it. You can make the chamber smaller or larger. I tried it. God darn, that thing blew like a son of a gun! Different guys, I would fix their mouthpieces for them, too. Since I wouldn’t blow into their mouthpieces, I’d have to push the putty in and take out a little more. That’s on the inside of the mouthpiece.
Our closer was always “Flyin’ Home.” I remember it note for note, even now. All the reeds would go out front so they had it harmonized, four-part harmony with double lead. The baritone was on the lead part all the time. I didn’t know my part (laughs), so what I did was, between travelin’ things, I’d slip it out and while we were on the bus, I’d be fingerin’ the solo. We had the parts written out, so I’d learn it on the bus with my fingers.
About five or six times I’d do this till I learned all the harmony parts. When Hamp played it, there was always five saxophones (who) went up and played. And there was two soloists: me and Illinois Jacquet.
After the shows, people would come backstage. Hamp would always say, “How did you enjoy our music?” If they would say something detrimental, he would take it seriously and rectify the problem. A lot of artists aren’t like that. They say, “Take me or leave me.” But Hamp was not like that.
Leaving Hamp (twice)
I left the band twice. One time was in 1949 when I was trying to get an 802 card (for the New York City musicians union). I wanted to get off the road and stay put. I was tired of travelin’. A lot of the gigs we played were one-night stands. TV was just starting to come in. Theaters were closing.
During one of the off-times with Hamp I was in Newark, New Jersey. I heard some guys playin’. Joe Thomas was one of them. I had been in pickup bands with Joe at the Follies Theater in KC. A lot of time, big headliners would come through town and they’d have a pickup band. Anyway, I knew all these little songs Joe and the guys were playin’. “Stardust” and “Moonglow,” “In the Mood,” things like that. They weren’t travelin’. They said they’d been at that gig six months. All of ’em had homes there in New Jersey. I liked the idea that they went home every night after they got off work, no hotels, no movin’ around. I said, “God darn, I’d like to have somethin’ like that.”
So I put in my notice with Hamp.
I left in good standing.
Then later Hamp was back in town at the Strand Theater in New York. I went backstage to see him. He said, “How about coming back to the band?” Charlie Fowlkes had gone with Count Basie’s band. I was playin’ alto at the time and Hamp asked me if I’d play baritone. He said, “I’ll buy you a baritone.” So he took me on back. He bought me a Buescher saxophone. Horns were cheap at that time. Didn’t cost but $680. Same horn costs $4000 now. He had another very good baritone player named Lonnie Shaw. We were playin’ the same part for a year or more.
I left Hamp the second time again ’cause I got tired of travelin’ a lot. Used to have seven or eight one-nighters in a row. Whoever booked us, booked us close. Oh, it was Joe Glazer. He was a big booking agent, had these jobs lined up from town to town. I talked to other bands; they’d jump from Kansas City to California to Florida.
Mail by Day, Jazz at Night
Things were gettin’ a little tight. And I saw the handwritin’ on the wall. So, when I left Hampton for good, I moved back to Kansas City and settled down. I was playin’ music at night and carryin’ mail during the daytime. I carried mail for 32 years and played nighttimes with drummer Pete McShann’s band. That’s Jay McShann’s cousin. He used to get a lot of jobs. He had an organ. He didn’t play organ; Oliver Todd played organ with him. Pete would lug that organ around and I would help him. We used to lug that thing up flights of stairs often times. But that organ made him sound like a great big band. People liked that.
Back to the Present
A year or so ago they had a little surprise get-together for me down at the Blue Room at 18th and Vine. Had three bands including Eddie Baker’s big band; a very fine turn out. They gave me several awards and a monetary gift. I got an award from the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas.
Lionel Hampton was here last year. He’s 92 now, had a massive stroke a while back. Also, he was in a big fire in New York. He has a lot of investments in housing in New York. His wife passed on, so he’s by his self now. But he’s doin’ fine. He just loves to travel and make music. I don’t know why. He has plenty of money — plenty of MY money (laughs). When I came in, he recognized me right off. He said, “Ben Red Top!” We had a long conversation.
I love Lionel Hampton. He did give me a job in his band. I appreciate that. There were plenty of good musicians. I was just one of the lucky ones. I was able to perform like he wanted me to.
I can say this: I’ve been lucky all my musical life.
I wouldn’t trade it for nothin’ in the world.