Saturday, March 29, 2014

Swing and Sweat with Dol Brissette

By Chet Williamson

A trumpeting brass section enters with great fanfare. After four bars they stop on count and an announcer's voice bellows: “SYNCOPATION FOR THE NATION.” The orchestra then skates into its theme song. A couple of bars into it, the disembodied voice returns confidently to proclaim: “From deep in the heart of New England, that's Worcester, Massachusetts, the National Broadcasting Company is happy to present from coast to coast music by Dol Brissette and his Orchestra with songs by Winnie Stone and Georgie Roy.”

With that, the tune approaches its cadenza. At song's end, the broadcasters returns to introduce the first piece of the show saying, “Dol digs deep into the files for this first tune, a classic of the jazz era you'll all remember as, 'That's My Weakness Now.”

The four bar intro is counted off by piano, bass and accordion before the full complement of the 12-piece ensemble joins in. The sound is archaic and ghostly. It instantly evokes the aural grist of radio's glory days.

The tune is a happy-go-lucky little fox trot reeking of sentiment. It features a Bix-wannabe who takes a hot trumpet solo before handing it off to the trombonist who takes it for a spin a la Tommy Dorsey. The piano player also gets to shine and squeezes out a few nifty blues licks before stepping back into the fold.

The live session was recorded sometime around 1940 at WTAG AM 580, when the studios were still on the fourth floor of the Telegram & Gazette building on Franklin Street. Other syndicated shows heard on NBC at the time featured such bandleaders as Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo and Benny Goodman.

In the October 19, 1940 edition of Worcester Telegram & Gazette there is a photo of the band. The caption reads: “Dol Brissette and his WTAG-NBC orchestra which will be an entertainment feature evenings at the seventh annual Telegram and Gazette Progress Exposition in the Auditorium next week. Left to right: George Krikorian [piano]; soloist Helen Dennison; violins, Elmer Johnson and Daniel Sylvester; saxophones, Frank Bicknell, Louis Alpert, Paul Rhode and Bernard Cormier; drums Joseph Parks, trombone George Robinson, trumpets. Lloyd Dinsdale and Frank O'Connor; director, Dol Brissette; bass violin, George Cove.”

Although it would certainly be a stretch to call him a a jazz musician, Brissette was a territory bandleader of the 1930s and '40s, who hired such players for his orchestra. Therefore he is an important figure in the development of the music locally. In his brilliant T&G article titled, Worcester Jazz: This being a requiem for the way it was when Al Hirt fell-in at the Saxtrum Club, Ev Skehan talked about the lost early days saying, “The territory bands were working the Worcester area then, playing ballroom and club dates, the Watson Brothers, Dol Brissette, Gene Broadman, Bob Pooley, and Phil Scott all had bands that featured a few good jazz men like [Ockie] Menard, [Emil] Haddad and [Paul] Kukonen.”

Adolphus J. “Dol” Brissette is originally from Haverill. He came to Worcester to study at Holy Cross. His intent was to become a lawyer, but after picking up the banjo – as a kind of a lark -- and discovering a natural inclination for the instrument, the birds of music took over.
An early bio written by a WTAG writer with no byline said: “He became so good that he was able to take a part time job playing banjo with Hughie Connors and the Bancroft Hotel Orchestra. After graduation he found that the magic of music was greater than the lure of the law. He stayed with Hughie Connors.”

Brissette built a name for himself at the Bancroft, playing five years at the hotel in the late 1920s and early '30s. By all accounts, he was a hum and strum banjo player – like that of Arthur Godfrey on ukulele. In the early '30s, Brissette also played the Palace Theater where he met such stars of the day as Ted Lewis, Gilda Grey, Trixie Friganza, and Joe Penner. However, Brissette reported that the single most important event was the opportunity to play duets with the king of banjo, the great Eddie Peabody at the Theater.

Brissette viewed himself as an “entertainer.” “Give them not only what they want, but more than they expect. That's showmanship,” he was quoted as saying. It was also reported that his favorite slogan was: “Don't kick the doorman, he may be the manager tomorrow.”

The banjo player formed his own band in 1933 and before the year was out, The Dol Brissette Orchestra headlined the Holy Cross Fieldhouse. It was a prestigious gig on the national circuit. Two years later Benny Goodman performed there.

The Dol Brissette Orchestra live at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium

The Brissette bio states: “When WTAG decided to become that first station in Worcester to have its own live studio orchestra on call for daily performances and accompaniment, Dol Brissette and the studio orchestra was first intoned into a microphone in 1937 and repeated for the last time in 1945.”

Before joining WTAG, Brissette estimated that he had played more than 2000 dates including such places as the Totem Pole in Auburndale, Kimball's Starlight in Lynn, and the Bai-a-l'Air in Shrewsbury.

Another T&G photo from Brissette's glory days has a caption that reads: “Maestro Dol Brissette faces his orchestra, baton poised, ready to serve up at the downbeat for the show's first chorde (sic). And look at the glint in his eye, wouldja! Dol is liable to do anything from sleep to handsprings while he's directing. That coat comes off and his hair 'goes native' while working.”
Returning to the recording, the singing “soloist” on is not the aforementioned Dennison. The NBC announcer introduces her on the next track. “Wini Stone uses a familiar satellite as a measure of affection as she sings the romantic ballad from Two for the Show, “How High the Moon.”

Written by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, “How High” was also recorded by Benny Goodman with Helen Forrest supplying vocals in 1940. Stone no doubt heard the Forrest version, but gives her own competent, though somewhat affected reading.

Another T&G clipping from the period states: “Each day, on 'Noonday Revue,' you hear Dol Brissette and his band serve out musical hits to New England. But each Saturday the nation is audience to Worcester's Musical Ambassador when the National Broadcasting Company network carries this period of modern melody through the nation. This aggregation of 12 musicians and their dainty vocalist Wini Stone, are lined up particularly for our reception – usually, for correct microphone balance on the broadcast, you will find the band in much more separated positions.”

Singling out the group in yet another photo from the era, there is a shot of Wini Stone standing in front of a huge microphone with the WTAG call letters mounted on top. The caption reads: “That position is no pose for Wini Stone, “singcopator” on our NBC program “Noonday Revue.” She always folds her arms while singing. So carried away is she by her songs that at times she will completely forget the mike.

Another little tidbit on Stone is an item that reads: “Wini is a native New Englander who hates being called 'Toots,' and collects ashtrays as a hobby. She plays piano, too and is unwed – to date.”

Track number four is introduced by the announcer as “From the mighty west, the stomping grounds of the Lone Ranger, Dol Brissette plays an upcoming melody titled, 'Stagebrush Serenade.”

Brissette was quoted as describing his music as having “simple good taste,” the kind that “wears well.” The WTAG promotional bio material also noted that the orchestra was accorded national recognition by NBC when, “it was selected for network programming originating in Worcester.” It goes on to report that during 1939-40, Brissette was also the musical director on Sunday shows in the Worcester Auditorium, playing with such stars as Kay Kiser, Tommy Tucker, the Andrew Sisters and Betty Hutton.

The recording, which was transcribed from the original acetate recordings features 12 tracks, that includes, “Romance from Another World,” “Ain't She Sweet” (with George Roy on vocals), “In the Silence of the Dawn,” “My, My,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “We Could Make Such Beautiful Music,” and “The Woodpecker Song.”

At the closing of the show the announcer says “From the radio theater of WTAG at Worcester, Massachusetts the National Broadcasting Company has presented from coast to coast music by one of America's great young bands Dol Brissette and his orchestra with songs by Wini Stone and Georgie Roy. This program was heard in Canada through the facilities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.”

Brissette is not heard on banjo on these recordings. Chances are that he shed the instrument for the baton. Documents of his playing may exist, but as of this writing none are known.

Being a NBC affiliate, WTAG was a major promotional outlet for touring groups at the time. Between 1941 and '42, the station interviewed such jazz stars of the day as “jitterbug orchestra leader,” Ina Ray Hutton; Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald (who was appearing at the Plymouth Theater); Duke Ellington; Jimmy Lunceford and Charlie Barnet. Others entertainers who stopped by the station for conversation were Sigmond Romberg, the Mills Brothers and Bill “Bojangles Robinson.

Local guitarist Peter Clemente, Sr., had a daily show where he was featured on his “electric guitar” and future movie and television actor, Tony Randall was a broadcaster at WTAG during those years.
Brissette kept various versions of the band together until 1945. A photograph of one of the last editions has the caption that reads: “A quintet made up of members of WTAG's first own live studio orchestra conducted by Dol Brissette with drummer Jack Morrissey, clarinetist Paul Rhode, saxophonist Joe Ferrezano, trumpeter George Ray, pianist George Gregory and vocalist Mary Conlon.”

After breaking up the group altogether, Brissette became the program production manager at WTAG. It's been said that if his music was in “simple good taste” the same has been said of his skill in his new role at that station.

Richard “Dick” Wright worked at WTAG for 37 years and was quite familiar with Dol Brissette, the program director. “He hired me,” Wright says. “I came from New York state. I applied for the job in 1952 and he hired me three years later. I’ll never forget the day he called. I was out of radio at that point. I had lost my job in Manchester. I had to earn a living so I had been doing private investigation work in Brooklyn. I had applied at virtually every radio station on the East Coast.”

Wright was hired in 1955, 10 years after Brissette quit the band business. “His band was long gone by that time,” Wright recalls. “That all took place in the 1940s. He gave up the band business, like so many of them did, at the period in history when big bands were going out.”

Wright doesn't know exactly when Brissette became the program director, but says he definitely knew how to manager a radio station. “Dol was the one who hired and fired, scheduled and taught people,” he says. “He knew what he was doing. Extremely intelligent. Very well read. He kept his finger on what was going on. We started in the morning doing news at five o’clock. He had already read the three additions of the Telegram to make sure you got it all. If you missed something he’d just call up and say, 'Did you happen to notice there was another story?'”

In his tenure, Wright worked for Brissette as an announcer and newscaster. “Jim Little was the news director at the time. He left and they game me the job,” Wright recalls. “Then after Dol left us, I became news and program director and eventually station manager and eventually vice president and general manager.”

Brissette died in 1970. In his radio tribute Wright said, “As far as he was concerned, the radio station, its programs, its success depended on people who worked here and [Brissette's] first concern always was for his people.”

Commenting further about his former boss, friend and mentor, Wright today adds,
I tell you he was one of the greatest men I have ever known. He taught me a lot of things about people and the way to live your life. He was always gracious. He always could see the other guy’s position. He was firm and played it by the book. If you performed you were great. If you didn’t you heard from him.”

Tony Guida was a freshman at Holy Cross in 1959 when he first met Brissette. Today he works for WCBS in New York City. His online bio opens with this statement: “It began after the Great War but before Woodstock at WTAG in Worcester, Mass. Mr Guida prospered under the wise tutelage of Adolph J. "Dol" Brissette who whispered the secret to radio success: 'Always write down your ad-libs.' It is advice that Mr Guida has tattooed to his left forearm.”

When contacted to comment further, Guida, speaking by phone from the NYC studio says, “I looked at him and I didn’t know what it meant. I thought this guy is losing it. I’m 20 years old, what the hell do I know. When I think back on it, I didn’t know a microphone from a fishing rod. It took me years to realize the wisdom, the Zen.
He had such a remarkable way of saying things. He was a very quiet man. He was a minimalist. Very present in his role as program director. He was always soft and gentle. He was like a cat. He was just a remarkable man.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at:  Also see:  Thank you.


1 comment:

  1. Nice article. Just today my wife ended up rescuing a box of old 78's that was being thrown out. Lots of home recordings, one of these contains a snippet from a WTAG January 1, 1941 broadcast of Dol Brissette's Band. In a curious 2 degrees of separation. Richard "Dick" Wright mentioned in the article hired me at WTAG fresh out of college in 1984.