Keith LaMotte and I are writing after seeing a new book review on Artie Shaw, a musician famous to audiences and radio listeners from 1936-1954. Shaw's style of dance band music were informative to other bands to follow, like the Rhythm Kings that originated at Eliot Jr High and Muir High School. Our classmates may find the connections interesting. -- Jack Truher

The Rhythm Kings from Eliot, Muir, Pasadena in the 1950s

Keith LaMotte writing on 2010-05-04

Artie Shaw was a paragon in our business. He did what he wanted to do and didn't give a hoot about what anyone else said - witness his eight wives and hobnobbing with celebrities. He was a genius player - to most musicians he was clearly the best jazz player of the three main clarinet band leaders - Shaw, Goodman, and Woody Herman. The only other jazz clarinet players that I think measure(d) up are Buddy DeFranco (who died within the last two years), and Eddie Daniels, who is still a very active soloist. A couple of years ago, the big band here in Spokane that I helped form in 1975 (Spokane Jazz Orchestra - google it!), did a concert featuring music of the Clarinet Band Leaders. We brought in a great guest soloist and the concert was a huge success. Begin The Beguine, Frenesi and Stardust were all on the program.

Rhythm Kings
standing: Jim Carr, Allan LaMotte, Pete Alexander, Bob Higbee, and Dick Crouter.  
	front row:	Don Crowell, Jay Clawson and Keith La Motte - 
			Rhythm Kings  - L-R:  in the Spring of 1953.

I recently had a long phone conversation with Eddie Moses about Jim Carr and his passing. I didn't realize that Eddie and Jim grew up in the same block up in NW Altadena in the Edison district, and remained lifelong very close friends. I had been trying to find out more about the circumstances surrounding his passing to forward on to the other members of the RK's that are still with us. Jim and I had shared many wonderful phone conversations leading up to the RK Reunion in 2005 (see below), and he made several CD's of music that he thought I'd enjoy. He also sent many digitally recaptured photos from back in the day and more recently as well. My favorite is one of him in an aloha shirt and shorts holding his old bass with the "head" hanging down because it had been broken off. Only the strings remained to keep the two parts together.

According to Eddie, Jim had lovingly restored the bass to it's original condition. I knew that Jim had throat cancer and that his body couldn't tolerate the dry air conditioned air in airplanes limiting his flying to short hops between the Islands. Despite impassioned pleas to recapture the past, the danger to his health logically meant it just wasn't going to happen. Eddie said that the cancer had been in remission for many years but had come back just recently. Apparently, while Sandy was out some swelling occurred in his throat, his breathing became labored, and when she returned he had stopped breathing. Very sad.

Speaking of the Rhythm Kings, we had a reunion of sorts? It grew out of the desire of the Classes of '55 from Muir and PHS to recapture some of those times for their joint '50th in 2005. Except for Jim, Jay Clawson and me, the other five guys were all in John Muir High class of '55. Since we had played for so many dances and concerts during the early 50's (as best I can establish we actually formed when I was in the 8th grade - '51-'52) at the Jr. Hi's that fed Muir and PHS, the organizers thought it would add history to their celebration.

Muir Tech
John Muir Technical School, 1936

So, absent Jim, Pete Alexander (died in early 90's I believe) and Don Crowell (who was in poor health), I was able to pull together the remaining guys to make an attempt to recapture the old magic. It was quite a scene. Only my brother Allan (lives in Coronado) and I have continued to play regularly. Dick Crouter came from Minneapolis. Our old classmate Carl Grinstead volunteered to come to Pasadena from Santa Maria to play the tenor sax in lieu of Pete, and Bob Liljenwall volunteered to play the bass in place of Jim. Bob Higbee lives on Whidbey Island in the Seattle area and actually went out and bought an alto sax and practiced for several months in preparation. He hadn't played since joining the Navy in @1958. Jay and Marcia Clawson are full time RV'ers, but he still had his original drum set that was stored at their son's home in Huntington Beach.

One of the missing links was the music itself. That led to me tracking down Susie Fishburn, who was Pete Alexander's wife. Miraculously, she still had a bunch of the music that her daughter had kept after Pete died and Susie remarried. That, plus additional music that Allan and I rounded up enabled us to put together enough "period" music to recreate the Altadena Town & Country Club atmosphere for the joint PHS/JMHS Class of 1955 Fifty Year Class Reunion. The reherarsals were at Westminster on Lake St., and were pretty funny. It was emotionally and personally extremely gratifying - musically, not so much, but nobody seemed to mind that we didn't sound like Glenn Miller! Among the music that Susie's daughter had were "bookkeeping sheets" which listed all the jobs we played and how much we got paid!

By the way, despite the growth in popularity of the Rhythm Kings in 1954, I seriously doubt whether either the RK's or Keith LaMotte played any role in the retirement of the Artie Shaw Orchestra in 1954. Legend in the big band business is that he was totally disgusted by what was happening in the "pop" music world. That, plus he concluded that he and his band had done everything that could be done with a big band, so why continue to play in the face of what was happening to music. This would be consistent with what his son said about his ego. And, it took fifty years for me to actually form a band of my own, which is working as we speak.

Every time I have an occasion to reconnect with our era in Pasadena is a special time.

Regards to everyone,


On May 2, 2010, at 5:42 PM, Jack Truher wrote:

Ruminations about Eliot Junior High  -- Jack Truher

Keith LaMotte and I are writing after seeing a book review on a musician famous from 1936-1954, Artie Shaw. Other Eliot classmates may find the connections interesting.

When we Eliot kids arrived at Eliot Junior High from everywhere else, it was all a mystery.  But we were delighted and amuzed by Rhythm Kings and other musical groups, with the likes of Keith LaMotte and other talented musicians.  The dances at the Altadena country club were puzzling for being so all grown up, but it were still a great trip.  Thanks for all that music, Keith.  I wondered, "How did that get started?" Who knows how far back in years?

However all that dance music came to be, must have included considerable inspiration from groups such as Artie Shaw's.  I remember reading in the student Elioteer in an interview with lead musicians then that "having my own band" was a frequently chosen career path.  I wondered about that at the time.  I learned just today that  Artie Shaw stopped playing in 1954, according to a new book.   Maybe he saw Keith coming.

I asked about the same time how the Eliot gymnastics team had won the city championship for the previous 30 years.  I was told that was because there was a tradition of the Eliot seniors tutoring younger athletes, a pattern never done quite as well at the other schools.

Who would think it would be so easy to find Artie Shaw still now all over youTube

with "Stardust sounding" just like the radio in the 40s.

Subject: Re: Artie Shaw & the Rhythm Kings
From: "Dr. Gretchen Janssen"
Date: Sun, 02 May 2010 18:07:33 -0400
To: Jack Truher

Hi, Jack,

Glad you changed direction and shared this with all of us.  I knew next to nothing about Artie Shaw so you filled a gap in my education!  Fascinating.  I also loved seeing the photos!!  Good stuff.

Hope all is well with you.


PS  I just saw the equally fascinating article on Altadena where I was born and grew up for my first 13 years about two blocks from Christmas Tree Lane and thereafter across from the Altadena Town and Country Club.  I remember lots of the places mentioned but had never heard of the Balian Estate.  Very interesting; makes me want to come back and go to all those places!

Thanks again. 


Three Chords for Beauty's Sake    The Life of Artie Shaw
book review    By Tom Nolan        (W.W. Norton; 430 pages; $29.95)

reviewed by Ted Gioia, Special to The Chronicle

Sunday, May 2, 2010    San Francisco Chroicle

I'm not sure how many people younger than 30 would even recognize the name Artie Shaw these days. Yet Shaw was not only the most famous musician in the United States on the eve of World War II, but he also virtually invented the modern concept of the celebrity. True, other performers enjoyed popularity and a large following before this clarinetist became the hottest entertainer in America, but more than any other musician of his day, Shaw anticipated the later cult celebrityhoods of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and other megastars.

Much like today's pop idols behaving badly, Shaw became almost more famous for what he broke up and destroyed - bands, marriages, relationships - than for the masterpieces he created. With Shaw, we also encounter the blurring between public and private life so familiar to fans of today's stars. Above all, Shaw set the pattern for future celebrities in his paradoxical stance toward the media, which he both scorned and manipulated with the same virtuosity he brought to his clarinet.

Now Tom Nolan tries to tell the story of this mercurial life in his new biography, "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake." Shaw presents challenges to any would-be biographer. First of all, the musician left behind a well-known personal account, the eccentric and rambling book "The Trouble With Cinderella," and no fewer than three of his ex-wives published their own memoirs. A researcher today might want to second-guess these firsthand narratives, but given the fact that Shaw was born 100 years ago - the centennial of his birth takes place on May 23 - few are still living who can contradict the surviving documents.

But the bigger challenge here is where to find a balanced approach to such a polarizing figure. Ted Hallock, who worked with Shaw on a lengthy radio project, told the biographer: "He's got to have been the most selfish man who ever lived."

"Artie was probably the most egocentric person I've known," adds the artist's own son Jonathan. Yet countless people - not just the eight wives, most of them well-known celebrities themselves, but also the millions of fans - succumbed to the appeal of the man, and the emotional power of his music.

I've seen other biographers stymied by such complex figures, with the result that they either get caught up in tawdry gossip or else settle for shallow hero worship. But Nolan does an admirable job in avoiding both extremes, and instead somehow manages to capture all the sides of this multifaceted figure.

We get the rags-to-riches story of the youngster, born as Arthur Arshawsky, the son of poor immigrants who became the great bandleader with movie-star looks. We also follow the drama of his later relationships, including the passion and conflicts with spouses Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Yet Nolan does not neglect the body of Shaw's work, as he guides us through the tremendous period from 1935 through 1954 when Shaw made recordings that still delight fans today.

Even before he became a household name, Shaw had impressed fellow musicians with his exceptional clarinet work, and was in constant demand as a sideman, session player and, finally, leader of his own orchestra. Then Shaw's 1938 recording of "Begin the Beguine" became a runaway hit and allowed him to charge $10,000, an astronomical sum in those days, for a week's engagement at a theater. Yet, at the peak of his fame, Shaw startled fans by disbanding, and heading off to Mexico. But this retreat from the public eye was just a cat-and-mouse game for Shaw, and before long he was back with more huge hits, including his immensely popular performances of "Frenesi" and "Stardust."

Breaking up the band and the marriage would serve as repeating patterns for Shaw. He also called it quits on his orchestra in 1941 and again in 1942. Despite his constant complaints about the indignities of the musician's life, he kept coming back for more, until his final retirement from performing in 1954. As his final recordings make clear, Shaw was still at the top of his game. Yet, though he would live another half century, he would never again play the clarinet in public.

Nolan follows Shaw's trail over the ensuing decades. Even after ending his performing career, Shaw did not give up his ambitions. At various stages, he planned to be a novelist, a sharpshooter, a dairy farmer and a movie mogul, among other pursuits. Finally, Shaw returned to the stage in the 1980s, but only as a conductor, with the clarinet left untouched. "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake" follows Shaw's various zigzags with aplomb, and Nolan shifts gears adeptly in pursuit of his subject. The book is well paced and never lags, while the author addresses everything from litigation to personal rivalries with fairness and a deft touch.

Toward the end of his life, Shaw grumbled about the impossibility of making sense of his personal odyssey. "I don't know a damn thing," he lamented. "I don't know what it's about. The longer I live the more mysterious it all is." Tom Nolan deserves credit for penetrating this mystery, and making sense of a turbulent life that even Artie Shaw himself had given up on explaining.

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