Born: January 26, 1924 Primary Instrument: Guitar
Bob Bain earned his place as the number one guitarist for many Hollywood studios in the 1950s and ’60s. He played on countless jingles, albums, and soundtracks for television and movies. There were also many years of live radio.
Records by Frank Sinatra, including Young At Heart and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, featured Bain on guitar, as did records with his favorite male vocalist, Nat King Cole including Unforgettable. He also played on albums by Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, and Rosemary Clooney.
In the ’70s, a young, talented crowd of guitarists raised their axes and slowly began to dominate. Bain continued to record, write, arrange, produce and for 22 years he held the guitar chair for one of the greatest television orchestras of all time The Tonight Show Band. Through the years, Bain’s talent, respect, and generosity opened the doors for many other studio guitarists, arrangers, and musicians.
Bain was playing with the Phil Moore band, when a record date for bebop. Frank Sinatra wanted to record a bop record, so they decided Phil’s group was the one. So we did this record with Sinatra called Bop Goes My Heart, a sort of novelty bop recording. Sinatra had a little trouble hitting the flatted fifth.
They worked at places like The Macambo, on the Sunset Strip and La Papillon. When Phil worked there, Howard Hughes had the best table in the house, and it was reserved every night for him. Nobody ever sat at that table. No matter how crowded the place was, that table was empty. One memorable night, about midnight, Hughes, wearing a sports coat, tie, and tennis shoes, sat at the table. He requested I’m Gonna Take A Slow Boat To China, which the group played straight away. Hughes stayed about 30 minutes, then left.
When World War II began, Bain ended up in a U.S.O. group in Europe with actor George Raft and singers Louise Albritton and June Clyde. The troupe toured England and North Africa, and spent time in Italy. George fell ill and returned home, but Bain and the ladies stayed.
Bain eventually came home, and in late 1945, he received a call from guitarist Dave Barbour. Dave played in the Benny Goodman Band and later married the band’s singer, Peggy Lee. He also worked with xylophonist Red Norvo and his sextet. Barbour told Bain he was working with Tommy Dorsey at the Casino Gardens in Los Angeles, and that he was going to stay in town when the band went on the road. Barbour arranged for Bain to sit in with the band one night and when Dorsey asked if he would like to play with the band, Bain responded with a resounding, “Sure!” He finished the remaining eight weeks at the Casino Gardens and went out on the road. Included in that band was Nelson Riddle on trombone, Buddy DeFranco on clarinet, and Buddy Rich on drums.
“I sat next to Buddy Rich for almost two years,” Bain explains. “He was the highest-paid member of the band, by far, and he had a feature spot in every stage show. It would just break the place up. There was nobody like Buddy. But he and Tommy would get into personality clashes, especially if Tommy made a motion that the tempo was not right. Buddy would get really upset with him for that. When Tommy called a ballad like I’ll Never Smile Again or There Are Such Things, which were very slow, Buddy would put his sticks down. He had a newspaper and he’d put it on the tom tom and while reading it, he would look at Tommy. That left guitar, bass, piano, and this big band. Tommy would be looking at me, and so the rhythm guitar had to move the band. It really got to be not funny. It was a constant bickering.
“Tommy’s gag was to walk off the stage while Buddy was playing his drum solo and walk next door to have a drink. He’d come back and Buddy would still be playing his solo. Buddy would play until he dropped. Tommy had to bring the band back in to get Buddy to stop his solo. It was that kind of a thing.”
When Bain joined Tommy Dorsey, a recording ban was in effect. On August 1, 1942, James Caesar Petrillo, the elected national president of the American Foundation of Musicians, ordered his musicians to stop all recording. His argument was that if the record companies could not create some system whereby musicians were paid for the use of their recordings on radio programs and in juke boxes, he wouldn’t let them record at all. Practically all the big band leaders disagreed. Thus, there were recording marathons scheduled to beat the ban deadline, and many arrangements were done on-the- spot. At Decca Studios, Bain and Hoagy Carmichael recorded many tunes in this fashion.
For more than a year, no major company made any records with instrumentalists. Singers, however, were allowed to record, usually with chordal backgrounds. Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole would use “vocal ground” in the background to substitute for the band. Bain recalls a lot of “illegal” after- midnight recording happening with Hollywood big bands in 1943.
Finally, in November 1944, when the recording companies agreed to pay a union royalty, the strike ended. Unfortunately, the singers had taken over and the recording field would never be the same for the big bands.
During the ban, Tommy Dorsey compiled many good tunes written by Sy Oliver, including Opus One, Chicago, and Sunny Side Of The Street. These and many other songs and new arrangements in the book that had not been recorded were part of a studio marathon that lasted two weeks, two sessions per day, at RCA.
Bain left Dorsey and toured with the Bob Crosby Big Band. This was a more relaxed band, in contrast to the tight ship run by Dorsey. Crosby had a good book, a good band, and good arrangers working for him. And like his famous older brother, Bing, Bob sang ballads with the band.
However, in these great bands, the guitar was restricted to rhythm parts. Bain has always believed Les Paul was responsible for bringing guitars to the forefront. With two Ampex (microphones) in a room in Las Vegas, he and Mary Ford performed, and made records in their hotel room, going from one machine to the other. He often drove by Paul’s house on Sunset Boulevard.
“You could see Les’ garage from Sunset because it was right on the corner,” he said. “His light was always on and I’d just pull into the driveway, go back, and there’d be Les in his shirt sleeves, with two turntables, going back and forth, overdubbing. He was always wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and he was covered with solder burns. He was always tinkering with something. He was one of those guys, when you were talking to him, he’d pick the scab off. I’d say, ‘Les, that thing!’, and he’d say ‘I know, I can’t help it.’ He just kept doing it.”
Bain’s own band, The San Fernando Playboys, made recordings in Les’ living room. He later played local gigs and recorded with Harry James and his big band and then with Andre Previn and his trio.
At that time, Previn was working at MGM Studios and was one of the first film composers to write parts for the electric guitar. Fortunately, Previn brought Bain in to play them. The guitar intro section to the song Mona Lisa, recorded by Nat King Cole, was Bain’s idea.
“In the early studio days, the orchestrators would have the violas pick afterbeats with the horns arranged symphonically. Then they began to use rhythm guitar, which sort of got popular. At MGM, they were still using only one microphone to get the whole orchestra and one microphone on the piano. I had to sit on a riser. I needed a small ladder to get up on the riser, which gave me a shot at the microphone hanging from the ceiling.”
Bain played a blond Gibson L-5 with high action because its sound cut through the orchestra. He recorded several albums on RCA with Previn, still using his workhorse, the Gibson Charlie Christian model. The combination of his adept sightreading and studio finesse quickly put Bain in the first chair at several major Hollywood studios.
“Originally, in motion pictures, the only things you played were rhythm parts, which were chord symbols. A banjo part might have the melody written out. You would rarely get a mandolin part because most of the time, a violin player would double on the mandolin. Most guitarists tuned their mandolins like the first four strings of the guitar.”
Later, Bain began to record more mandolin and banjo. Examples of his banjo picking can be heard on the soundtracks to Thoroughly Modern Milly and Around The World In 80 Days.
As the guitar became even more popular, leaders often incorporated several guitars for the sessions. Producer Jack Marshall did a TV show called The Deputy with Henry Fonda. He had five guitars as the main sound of the orchestra. Bonanza featured the big guitars of Bain, Tommy Tedesco, Al Hendrickson, and Laurindo Almeida.
In fact, during Bain’s nonstop work at Capitol, he had to turn down a personal request from Frank Sinatra. “I did all the early stuff with Frank. When he wanted to do a concert tour of Europe I told him, ‘You can’t pay me enough to go, Frank. I’m making too much money here.’ Frank understood, and Al Viola went on the tour. Once Al did that, he continued working with Frank.”
Henry Mancini was another leader who preferred Bain. “Hank would always ask for me. In the 1960s, Bob Bain’s association with Mancini was extensive. Mancini played piano with the Tex Beneke Band, and Tex once played tenor for Glenn Miller. The band had a vocal group called the Meltones, featuring Mel Torme. When Mancini left, he moved to L.A. to get work as an arranger. When the Glenn Miller Story was being filmed, Mancini was hired as orchestrator. He knew the Glenn Miller sound because of this association with Beneke.
“Hank became very popular and everything he did featured guitar, especially the Peter Gunn Theme, Bain said. “I would get calls from New York. Somebody you never knew. The guy would say, ‘Are you the guitar player that works with Mancini?’ Yeah. ‘Well I got a leader coming out there and he wants Mancini’s guitar player for this record date. Would you hold it for me?’” This sort of thing happened a lot.
In 1958, Mancini became friends with producer Blake Edwards, who had this idea for a television show that eventually became the Peter Gunn series. Hank wrote all the music. The show sold and became an immediate bestseller. The session musicians were John Williams on piano, Rolly Bundock on bass, Jack Sperling on drums, and Bain on guitar. The same lineup was featured on the Mister Lucky series as well. Other great Bain/Mancini partnerships include Breakfast At Tiffany’s, accompanying Audrey Hepburn on the timeless classic Moon River, and The Great Race, with Natalie Wood doing The Sweetheart Tree.
Bain also performed on many radio shows over the years, usually with a small orchestra. These included The Jack Benny Show' Fibber McGee and Molly, and the Judy Canova Show. He played the Canova Show for 39 weeks every Saturday for three or four years. There would be a Saturday morning rehearsal, one show at 5 p.m. for an 8 p.m. broadcast in New York, a break, and then record the show again at 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. for the West Coast. All were done live.
Bain continued his busy studio regimen, recording some of the most memorable television themes to date. The theme from M.A.S.H.', Mission Impossible (played on a Silvertone bass), The Munsters, Batman, The Pink Panther and The Ozzie and Harriet Show. These themes were more like anthems for a generation; who can forget the melodies? The guitar’s perfect voice calling out, pulling us away from whatever we were doing, sitting us down in front of the TV, and preparing us for the drama, suspense, or laughter to follow. Bain’s guitar did just that.
Speaking of Bain’s guitars, compared to the arsenal of instruments and equipment brought to most of today’s sessions, Bain’s covey of songbirds filled his needs quite nicely. A 1953 Telecaster (the “Gunn” guitar) did the bulk of his film work. Its distinctive tone, combined with Bain’s touch, gave personality to the characters it supported. Think about it; Peter Gunn, Herman Munster, Batman, and the Pink Panther, can you think of another tone that would work?
Bob continued working in the studios until 1972. When they got word “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson may come to the West Coast. A few of the original members were Pete Chrislieb and Tommy Newsom on tenor, Ed Shaughnessy on drums, Ross Tompkins on piano, Jimmy Zito on trumpet, and Joe DiBortolo on bass, all under the direction of Doc Severinsen.
Bain played with “The Tonight Show” band for 22 years. Today, he continues to write, record, and produce. Recently, he has been performing with the legendary George Van Eps, and as always, thoroughly enjoys his family and remains a humble, gentle man.
Tonight Show Band
Music from Peter Gunn
Music from Mr. Lucky
The Pink Panther
Breakfast At Tiffany's
The Great Race
Days of Wine and Roses
Soundtrack from Hatari
How The West Was Won
High Plains Drifter
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
Bye Bye Birdy
As Side Musican
Martinis With Mancini
Mancini '67(The Big Band Sound)
The Blues and the Beat
Que Sera Sera
Come on a My House
Nat King Cole
I've Got You Under My Skin
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