A couple of months later, in June 1949, my mother Lillian and I accompanied my father to Los Angeles, where he was to meet the West Coast executives of Columbia Records and, under the guidance of already experienced recording engineers, learn how to engineer sessions he’d also produce. On his agenda was the recording of an album called The Glooby Game with The Modernaires, a popular quintet heard on the radio daily all over the country.
More important in my eyes was that he would also be meeting with Hollywood movie star and singer Dinah Shore to discuss the possibility of her recording songs and stories for children. Dinah and my father would have lunch with some other executives, and my mother and I would join them towards the end of the meeting and have dessert. I could barely contain my excitement about meeting Dinah Shore. I loved her song “Buttons and Bows.” She was the star of the movie The Belle of the Yukon, and I was going to sit at the same table with her. Best of all, she narrated the animated film Bongo, which told the story of a performing bear who escapes from the circus and tries to live in the wild. Wow! I was going to meet Dinah Shore!
The first night we were in Los Angeles, my mother, father, and I walked along famous Hollywood Boulevard. I imagined all the stars walking upon the same sidewalk my feet now touched. When we entered the lobby of the posh Roosevelt Hotel, where we were staying, I was sure it was a palace. A red carpet led the way to the check-in desk, where a man in formal uniform greeted us cordially. Gold-colored brocade couches, high-backed chairs with ornate designs in red, purple, and green, shining gold and silver ashtrays, and glittering crystal chandeliers met my eyes as I gazed around while my father took care of checking us in. The floors looked like the marble ones upon which Cinderella danced with the prince while wearing her glass slippers. I felt that I’d walked into a fairy tale or fallen down a hole like Alice to begin a most amazing adventure. I sensed that my father’s job had opened the door to Wonderland and to an enchanted life for me, his Juddie.
While I reveled in my excitement, my father braced himself for his most important task: delivering to singing cowboy Gene Autry the sheet music for Rudolph. My father sent a courier to Autry at his Hollywood home. This special delivery served to emphasize the importance of the song and was a faster way of delivery than regular mail, which, from New York to California, would have taken weeks. Autry delayed in contacting my father, and every time Hecky called, he got a different excuse as to why Autry was unavailable to talk. The days soon turned into a week, then another week. In two more weeks, we’d return to New York. Finally the phone rang. But it wasn’t Autry. “Well, Hecky?” said Lieberson. “Is it a go, or has your cowboy the same opinion of the song that I have?”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch—and the cowboy did have a ranch, in Berwyn, Oklahoma—the singing cowboy was still reluctant to give Hecky an answer. Autry described his hesitation a few years later: “Up to then, strangely enough, I’d never recorded what the trade calls a kid-disk—all my numbers had been pop, western, or country. Frankly, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about my possibilities. . . . It seemed a pretty drastic departure [but] I didn’t want to offend him. . . .”
As Lieberson called and called, Autry stalled and stalled. One night, knowing he had to reply one way or another, Gene Autry showed the song to his wife, Ina. She was a country-western singer and rodeo star herself. She went to the piano and played and sang it. Then she said, “Why, how sweet, how interesting—a song that tells the story of an underdog who finally manages to become a big shot!”
“I didn’t see that,” Autry told his wife. “All I was seeing was me recording a song for a kid-disk. . . . I mean, recording for kids? I don’t think so, though I like the message of the song, now that you’ve made it clear.”
“Go ahead and do it,” she encouraged. “You’ll never know about it until you try.”
Early the next morning, the phone in our hotel room rang. “Hecky Krasnow here,” said my father, clearing his smoker’s throat, his voice sounding three octaves lower than it would later in the day.
“I have a call for you from Mr. Gene Autry,” he heard. “Go ahead.”
“Hello, Gene. I thought I’d never hear from you.”
“Hecky, I must confess I’ve been procrastinating. I’m still not sure about the song.”
My father looked as if someone had just stuck a knife in his back. “Well,” his voice cracked as he reached for his cigarettes.
“But sure or not, Ina says I should do it, so I will record ‘Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ June 27 is good for me. Can you clear the studio for ten o’clock in the morning?”
My father’s expression of relief let my mother and I know the knife was now out of his back. “Let’s call it a deal. June 27 at ten in the morning it is!”
“Just for your information, Hecky,” Gene added before they hung up, “it’s the message of the song that won Ina’s heart and made me decide to record it.”
Elated, my father said goodbye and turned to my mother. “Honey, Mr. Autry just confirmed why this song has something special. I am so thrilled the Autrys understand its appeal!” My father saw in Rudolph all the hard-working immigrant laborers who continued to build this nation without due recognition; he also saw the plight of the Jews, still stereotyped as having noticeable noses. His gut response was that the song would give all outsiders and little guys, all the common folks around the country, someone to identify with; he saw Rudolph as an underdog, offering a story of hope and courage. And the song was certainly entertaining.
* * *
June 27 arrived. “Rudolph” was the first recording session for Columbia that Hecky not only produced but also engineered. We got to the studio well before 10:00 A.M. My mother and I sat with my father in the control booth on a couple of chairs pushed against the wall, watching through a soundproof glass panel as the studio filled with musicians and singers. The tall, rectangular microphones of the era, with CBS in large letters at the top, were positioned so that the singers could stand or sit on a stool, as they preferred. Hecky was busy flicking a switch on and off so that he could talk to those setting up in the studio.
I watched with curiosity and great admiration as my father’s long, graceful fingers adjusted one switch and then another on the large and intricate board controlling volume, sound, and effects. Everything had to be perfect, since there were only two recording tracks: one that would record the vocalists and one that would record the orchestra. On each track, the volume could be raised or lowered and the base, middle, treble, and reverb set for the best sound possible. The process recorded a live performance: a singer could not overdub his or her voice (that would be made possible in the late ’50s by guitarist-singers Les Paul and Mary Ford). If someone made a mistake, the piece had to be rerecorded from the beginning. There was no mixing and mastering afterward. That couldn’t be done with two tracks and a final monaural product. What was recorded live in the studio is what listeners would hear on the record.
In the right corner of the control booth, in a closet-sized, glassed-in room stood a narrow, rectangular, table-high sandbox. For me, this little room was definitely an ear-opening experience. Several hooks hung on the wall. On each hook were gadgets from which an array of sounds could be made: lions roaring, bulls bellowing, cats meowing, ducks quacking, birds calling, horses neighing, boats whistling, cars crashing, horns tooting, trains chugging or whistling, and crowds applauding. While the musicians were setting up, the sound effects man, a short, round, balding, jolly fellow bouncing with energy whom everyone called “Baldy,” gave my mother and me a private demonstration. He pounded hollow melon rinds and coconut shells in the sand to create the sounds of a horse walking, trotting, cantering, or galloping. He handed the rinds and shells to me, and put his hands over mine, guiding me while I made the sounds. Then he let go, and I did it myself. I could make the horses go faster or slower, and my imagination went back to those covered wagons, Indians, and herds of buffalo. If this wasn’t exciting enough, Baldy, using his mouth, cheeks, tongue, and voice, emitted the sounds of a wolf howling, a faucet dripping, a saw cutting, and all kinds of sirens so real that, closing my eyes, I could imagine being back in noisy New York City. Later that night, in the hotel, I attempted to make the sounds I’d heard Baldy emit as he inspired a new profession in my dreams: to be a sound effects man.
My father talked with Baldy about adding winter sounds, sleigh bells and the like, to the recording of “Rudolph.” Not many were necessary, however, since they decided Gene Autry, the Carl Cotner Orchestra, and the Pinafores, the trio of backup singers, were all the simple song needed.
My father knew the old adage time is money and money is time. He understood that the bottom line does not make an exception for artistry in the recording studio. Lieberson had emphasized this before sending him off to California, once again expressing his feelings about “Rudolph.”
“I still don’t understand how you think a cowboy is going to appeal to anyone but those who watch cowboys, even if he has a nice voice. His movies aren’t for kids, his songs aren’t for kids, and we don’t all live in the Wild West fighting bad guys and Indians. This had better work, Hecky. It is costing this company a fortune.”
By 10:30 A.M., the band had arrived, the backup singers were there, but the singing cowboy was nowhere to be seen. You could always tell when my father was stressed: his shoulders started hunching up and he began emitting loud, deep, involuntary breaths. His shoulders were inching toward his ears now, and those involuntary breaths were becoming more frequent. My mother worried that tension would aggravate his stomach condition, Crohn’s disease. She tapped Hecky’s shoulder. My parents always addressed each other with the word “Honey.” The intonations they used varied with their mood, message, or feelings of affection, anger, or concern. HUHney was the emphasis my mother gave the endearment now. This cadence indicated that she was attempting to nip a tantrum in the bud. “HUHney,” she said again, tapping his shoulder. “Relax. Nothing is worth getting sick over.”
“Life has its tense moments,” he barked, defensive and worried. “Where the hell is Gene Autry?”
The Carl Cotner Orchestra, which accompanied Gene on most of his recordings, had tuned up and now sat twiddling violin bows, cleaning woodwind mouthpieces, polishing finger smudges off wooden instruments, sipping endless cups of coffee. The Pinafores had warmed up their voices and practiced their harmonies, then shown one another wallet photos and put on lipstick. All the microphones were in position. The singing cowboy had yet to arrive. The telephone rang.
“Hecky, has the session begun?” It was Lieberson.
“Goddard, we’re all set to go.”
“I want this one done quickly.”
“It won’t take long. From what I understand, Gene Autry is not one to do several takes. We’re set to go.”
To pass the time and try to cut the increasing tension, Hecky told the orchestra to do a run-through. The musicians sight-read their music without delay. He rehearsed the Pinafores. They knew their harmonies well. More than 30 minutes passed. Each minute cost a fortune. The telephone rang again.
“How many takes have you done thus far, Hecky?”
“We’ve been rehearsing.”
“Rehearsing? I assume you’ve hired professionals. How much rehearsing do they need?”
At that moment, Hecky looked up and saw Gene and Ina Autry, at last.
“Goddard, Gene Autry has just arrived. Now we can get going.”
“Just arrived? You didn’t tell me he was late. That’s over 30 minutes of our money wasted!”
“We’ll do a quick run-through, and then, I am certain, we’ll have it on the first take.”
“I have it in mind to call this off if you aren’t finished within an hour!”
My father hung up the phone and walked out of the control booth to Gene and Ina. He didn’t have to be told that Gene had imbibed too much Christmas cheer well before the holiday season.
Ina preempted any questions. “Just get me some milk and orange juice, and we’ll have him singing in no time. Gene’s not an alcoholic, but whenever he belts down a few scotch-and-sodas, he doesn’t tolerate them very well, not even the day after.”
My father left Ina, who seemed experienced in these matters, to tend to her husband. “Gene,” my father called through the booth a few minutes later, “while we’re waiting, let’s do a run-through.”
Gene slowly walked to the mike. His pitch, words, tempo, and rhythm were sluggish. He sounded tired, not mellow. Hecky sat in the booth tapping his fingers all over the board making geometric designs, first circles, then squares, and then circles again. His extreme nervousness and, more important, extreme anger permeated the studio. Since the Crohn’s restricted my father’s intake of alcohol, and one of his brothers was an alcoholic, he found the reason for the delay doubly distressing. “So this is the singer I thought would be good for a homey, warm family sound,” he muttered.
“Honey.” (This time it was huhKNEE.) My mother put a hand on each of his shoulders. “Worse than tension is anger. Calm down. It’s not your fault.”
“I know it, for God’s sakes.” His voice became a shout. “I know it already!” When my father raised his voice this way, it indicated that he knew my mother was right, but his anger had reached a point where it was almost impossible for him to calm down, as though his blood was simmering, reaching boiling point as he felt there was no way out of a bad situation. He lit another unfiltered Chesterfield. We heard a few more of those involuntary breaths. Then he said, “I still think it will be a popular song—a hit, in fact—if he sobers up. But the clock is ticking!”
He flicked the switch to be heard in the studio. “Ina, how long do you think it will take for him to sober up? Goddard Lieberson is on my back and saying he’ll call this session off in one hour!”
My mother sat down in her chair again. She had a leak in her aorta due to a bout with rheumatic fever when she was 16. Her neck harbored a vein that worked hard to pump blood when she was nervous or upset. This vein now made a dart that tried to escape from under her skin and hit a target with the force of a bullet. The vein pumped out, then in, out, then in. Some lines from a folk song I’d heard many times popped into my head. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/I’m a long way from home.”
I thought that my sister and I would end up motherless children if this recording session continued. Our mother’s words of worry rang in my head, too; for sure, my father would have a bout with Crohn’s. Maybe he would die. Maybe we’d not only be motherless but fatherless—orphans to be placed in a horrid home like Oliver Twist! At this moment, my father’s new job did not seem like a journey into an enchanted life at all.
The phone rang. “What is going on, Hecky? You have 40 minutes left, and then I am calling this off, and it goes, pardon the pun, on your record as a failure of judgment.”
Ina Autry gave Gene milk and then orange juice to drink. The passing time could be seen in the cigarette butts piling up in the ashtrays, the stained and discarded coffee cups, the emptying box of peanut brittle (a snack supplied by one of the Pinafores), till finally a lone peanut sat amid the white ruffled cups that had held the sweet, sticky candy.
Twenty minutes later, with 20 left to go if Lieberson ended the session as he’d threatened, Gene miraculously sobered up, or at least could act and sing as if he had. The band and the Pinafores took their places at the microphones. Except for the sound of breathing and a swallow here and there heard through the microphones, quiet filled the studio. “Stand by for take one,” Hecky’s voice cut through the silence. He counted to five and signaled the orchestra to begin. Then he cut the musicians off. “I want to adjust the equalization a little more. Carl, have the band play a few measures.” Hecky listened through his earphones and fidgeted with the knobs on the board. “That’s it. Okay, stand by for take two.”
After the introduction, accompanied by the sound of chimes, Gene’s warm and pleasant voice sang out: “You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen . . .”
But Hecky, not one to function well under a ticking clock, had forgotten to silence the ringer on the telephone. This had been a good take so far, with promise of being the final one. Should he pick up the phone? Distracted by the ringing, he finally stopped the recording.
“Wrap it up, Hecky. Time’s up,” came Lieberson’s voice.
“It sounds good, Goddard, really good. One more take. Trust me on this one. One more take will do it.”
“Thirty more minutes. That’s it.”
My father took a deep breath. His shoulders inched their way down. What he’d heard before the phone rang made him happy. The words and melody were already stuck in his head—a hook, it’s called in the trade: that combination of words and melody that goes through your mind over and over again, even when you haven’t been listening.
Hecky flicked the on switch. “Take three,” he announced through the glass. Then he sat down at the control board and donned the leather earphones inscribed with the letters CBS. He lifted the pointer finger of his left hand and flicked it in the direction of the band, gesturing to Carl Cotner and the musicians to begin. He waved his right hand, his fingers playing an arpeggio in the air, signaling Autry and the Pinafores to sing. His dark, unruly eyebrows went up and down, his characteristic way of saying, “Okay, let’s go.”
As he listened, his fingers touched one lever and then another, bringing up the volume of the band or lowering it, adding reverb to the voices, sliding the levers on the big master soundboard up and down for more middle, treble, or bass. The sound enveloped us as it poured through the control room speakers. My mother sat back and smiled. I felt the fairy tale return. My life was enchanted, for sure. Gene’s mellow voice sang:
|You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,|
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glowsAll of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Then all the reindeer loved him
Autry finished singing. The band played the final few notes. “That’s the take! Thank you everyone,” Hecky said as he lifted the receiver of the telephone again. This time he asked the operator to dial a number: Columbia Records and, once it was reached, the office of Goddard Lieberson. Only 15 minutes had passed since Lieberson’s last call. “Goddard,” my father said, “we’re done early. ‘Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ has been recorded. We’re calling it a day.”
* * *
The song was transferred by electricity from sound waves onto a new recording device, magnetic tape, and then imbedded through grooves onto vinyl. It made history as the first record ever to go platinum, selling over one million records. As Columbia’s biggest hit, “Rudolph” would bring in huge sums of money for the company and make millions for Gene Autry and for its composer, Johnny Marks, who would continue to be a prolific writer of popular Christmas tunes. “Rudolph” spawned dolls, picture books, party costumes, toys, an annual television special, and the sale of millions of videos each and every year.
As an employee of Columbia Records, my father received his biweekly paycheck and a $500 bonus. But he’d earned the respect of Goddard Lieberson and the industry’s other moguls, and as Columbia’s president, Edward Wallerstein, told him in a thank-you letter, “In spite of the tribulations the industry has gone through, you have helped to put Columbia today in the strongest position it has ever held.”
Hecky was at the start of a brilliant career.
© Copyright 2008