Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Swinging Sheppard Brothers

By Chet Williamson

Harry Sheppard tells this great little story about how his brother Harvey used to wake him up in the middle of the night and carry him into downtown Worcester to hear some of the all-time great jazz artists jam. 

Harvey is Harry’s older brother. He’s 88. The kid’s just celebrated his 80th on April 1st -- No foolin’. Back in the late ’30s, early ’40s, Harvey had a studio on Front Street, overlooking the common.

“Quick story,” Harry says, speaking by phone from his home in Houston. “Bands would play at the Plymouth [Theatre on Main St., now the Palladium]. My brother would run his jam session after hours at the studio. Nobody was invited but musicians.

“My brother would come home and get me out of bed and in my jammies, he would take me down to the studio. I would sit and listen to these guys play. I was a little kid. My folks never knew that he took me out of bed. I enjoyed it so much.”

The wily veterans have an intercom phone and Harvey jumps in and says, “I rented it so we could woodshed. We used to get all the bands coming through. Gene Krupa's band. Will Bradley's band with Ray McKinley. The guys wanted to drink a little and just jam.”

The Sheppards were born in Worcester. Harvey in 1920. Harry’s date is 1928. They both started out on drums, but later switched to vibes. 

While Harry is better known, having played with among others, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Coleman Hawkins, Harvey has also remained active throughout his career performing in Europe as well as New England, Florida and Texas. His group, “The Tune Timers,” played the “Arthur Godfrey Show,” and also was the opening act at the Sands in Las Vegas for Louis Prima and Keely Smith for many years. He also opened for Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin, among others in Vegas.
Harry says he grew up in Worcester, Leominster and Leicester. “My first grade of school was in Leominster. Two years later we moved back to Worcester. I went to Chandler Street School. Then in the sixth grade we moved to Leicester.”

Harvey says, “I went to Classical. The Hurricane of '38 forced me to finish at North.”

While in Worcester, the Sheppards lived on the second of a three-decker on Dale Street, which is off Murray and Jacques Ave. “It was 23 Dale Street,” says Harvey. Teddy Lane [trumpeter] also lived in the neighborhood.

Harry recalls that there was music, “all over the street,” he says. “Don Fagerquist lived right across the street from us. We used to hear him practicing. We also had music in the family a very famous music publisher, Robbins Music Corporation. Jack Robbins was my mother’s brother.”

Harvey left Worcester in 1942. “We are only talking about 65 years ago,” he says, laughing. “I left to enlist in the Army.”

By the time Harry was of age, he too cut out of town, by joining the Navy. Before leaving however, both Sheppards were very active in town playing with many of the notable musicians of the day. “I was mostly playing commercial around Worcester,” Harvey says. “I worked with Jerry Goodwin, a good local band at the time. George Greece, a wonderful trumpet player and Jack Kaplan, a trombone player, were in that band.

“I worked with Dol Brissette -- ‘swing and sweat with Dol Brissette.’ I did a few things with Dol. I did the home show at the Auditorium. I worked at the Moors on Rte. 9 with Emil Haddad. He was a terrific jazz player.”

The brothers might be octogenarian percussionists, but neither one of them has missed a beat in the way of memory. “In those years I worked all the clubs,” Harvey says. “I started with the Lido on Pearl Street. It was an upscale supper club. I played there with Ned Cosmo.

“I was still a drummer then and Cosmo says, ‘Why don’t you get vibes?’ I said, ‘I don’t want vibes.’ He said, ‘If you don’t get vibes, I’m going to get a drummer that’s got them.’”

Harvey says he finally relented. “I went downtown to Carl’s [Seder] Music Store. I paid $250 for a set of Ludwig vibes. If I could find Ned Cosmo -- whether he is in heaven or hell -- I would send him a thank you note. Because if I was still playing drums, I would be home watching television and my brother would still be playing drums.

After high school, Harvey headed off to Boston. “I studied percussion at the New England Conservatory with George Lawrence Stone. I never got a degree. I took arranging, keyboard, solfeggio and percussion.”

From there, he spent a memorable summer in playing at the Cape. “I got a summer gig in West Falmouth at the Barclay Club,” he says. “I was there with a bass player Mary Francis Conlon. She went to Classical. Bernie Cormier on tenor saxophone and Al Mercury on drums.”

The gig was not far from Edwards Air Force Base, which eventually led Harvey into the military and out of town. “I was in regimental band,” he says. “We had guys from Vaughan Monroe’s band, Tommy Dorsey’s band and Ruby Newman's band. They called it the All-American Army Band."

Harry says like his older brother, he too, first played drums. “As a little kid he started me off. I guess I was around seven. The idea was as we grew up I could be the drummer in his band. He knew he was going to go for vibes.”

That never happened. “He went into the service for four years, got married and left,” Harry says. “I never did gig with my brother. When he was in the army I was still a kid. When he came back from the army he went onto bigger and better things. The years separated us.”

Before going into the Navy, Harry played in his own backyard of Leicester. “Our music director was a guy by the name of Ted Hopkins. I was maybe 15. I wasn’t supposed to be in these places. We played the Hillcrest Country Club.”

When he got out of the Navy, Harry went to Berklee College of Music. “My second semester I added a secondary instrument,” he says. “I figured if I pick a horn I’ll never get a sound in a semester. I could fiddle around with vibes, because they were always around the house. By my third lesson I said, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do.’ I practiced five hours a day for a year and a half and that was the end of the drums.”

Harry on vibes and Betty on bass
His first gigs on vibes were with Perry Conte. “Perry would say, ‘Bring them along. Play them at the end of a tune, a chord, something.’ They were very instrumental in inspiring me to learn,” Harry says. “Perry would book us with different bands. On a Saturday night he would have a bunch of bands. There was a lot of work. Sometimes he’d send me out with his brother Al Lopez, [Loconto]. If it wasn’t for that whole family I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do what I do. They really pushed me into it.”
Johnny Rines
Accordionist Johnny Mason and guitarist Johnny Rines were two musicians in particular that made an impression on Harry. “There were a lot of good accordion players around Worcester, but Johnny Mason was in a class all by himself. He played more like Count Basie. He would be like a whole sax section. Johnny Rines would be playing a solo and Mason would back him up like he was the whole Basie band. He had a big band sense. Nobody got a sound like that and he could do all the Art Van Damme stuff too. He had great facility. He was a wonderful swinger.”

He begins his thoughts on Rines by saying, “He was such a sweet guy. He could have worked with anybody in the country. He just wanted to do his thing. He was working with Emil Haddad. When I left and started to do stuff in New York, like the “Steve Allen Show.” Johnny grabbed me one day when I came back to Worcester to visit and said, “I’m so proud of you. You did it. You left Worcester.’ He was so proud that I went out to New York.

“Johnny Rines was one of the great jazz players. He could have played with anybody in the world. He was totally unsung. Nobody knew about him except in Worcester. You couldn’t really compare him to anybody. He was just so clean and so full of fire. There’s nothing he couldn’t play. He could really swing.”

Betty and Harry 

Before heading off to New York, Harry also had a group with his former wife. “Her maiden name was Betty Ann Miller. She went to Commerce High. She was a singer. She later took bass lessons in New York and became a very good jazz bass player. She now lives in Atlanta. Of course, we are divorced a thousand years now, but we are still friends. She remarried and never went back to music.”

See: www.jazzriffing.blogspot.com -- Swinging Betty Sheppard 

Harry in the shades and Betty
Harry was active in New York throughout the 1950s. His long list of credits includes stints with Billie Holiday, Cozy Cole and Benny Goodman. His touring highlights include the world with Lana Cantrell, in Paris with Georgie Auld and Doc Severinson, South America with Benny Goodman. Harry has an extensive discography to his credit including more than a half dozen as a leader. He has also recorded with among others Chubby Jackson, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ruby Braff.

Harry's publicity shot

These days Harry and Harvey are back together again like their early days on Dale Street. “Harvey’s living here on my property,” Harry says. ”He’s still playing. He does four or five retirement homes a week.”

Harvey's early pub shot 
Just before hanging up, the Sheppard brothers are asked if they know Moe Kaufman. Harvey laughs indicating he gets the joke. Harry takes it a step further by saying, “The flute player that wrote ‘Swinging Shepherd Blues.’ No, he didn’t write it for us. He would have spelled the name right.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com.  Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.

This piece was originally written and published in 2008. 

Here's a clip of Harry with Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DmtPvFa_W8



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