Bobby built his chops while playing first trumpet in Buddy Rich's mid-1960s band. Though he was in the band just shy of two years, he became a favorite of Rich's, largely because of his all-out playing style and teddy-bear personality. When you speak with Bobby, you realize immediately that he's a strong, kind-hearted guy who loves jazz and fans who love the music. [Pictured: Shew, right, in a recoding studio with trumpeter Scott Wilson]
In Part 3 of my three-part interview series with Bobby on his Buddy Rich years, the trumpeter talks about the big band's most popular recordings and how he wound up leaving Rich:
JazzWax: Did the Buddy Rich band enjoy playing West Side Story Medley?JW: Was West Side Story Medley tricky for Rich, who didn't read music?
Bobby Shew: Very much. That was an arrangement by Bill Reddie. He was hired to write it for Buddy.
JW: Who was Bill Reddie?
BS: Bill led the house band at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Back then, all the big hotels had floorshows. Today, a floorshow seems passe compared to all the digital technology and larger-than-life stuff you see. But back then, a floorshow was an extravaganza. That's how the Vegas casino-hotels attracted guests, with homegrown entertainment. You'd have headliners, of course. But you'd also have these elaborate musical revues with dancers and orchestras. Reddie was the guy responsible for coming up with songs and skits and things for the Dunes. West Side Story Medley, with all its moving parts, was a natural for an arranger like Reddie.
BS: We rehearsed it with a different drummer while Buddy sat in the audience seats. It took us a few hours to put it together after rehearsing the different sections. After we had it down, Buddy jumped up and played it through without a single mistake. He had memorized the whole thing. The guy had the most natural instincts.
JW: What about Reddie's other charts?
BS: After West Side Story Medley became popular, he brought in Channel One Suite and Machine. They were taken out of his Casino De Paris show at the Dunes. I know because I played both of them there when I sat in.
JW: What was the origin of Channel One Suite?
BS: The Dunes show included a paper prop of a humongous TV screen. Showgirls came through the back of it. The channel on the prop was set to Channel 1. Bill just took that piece and brought it into Buddy's band. It was a great chart.
JW: The same thing with Machine?
BS: Yes. On the Casino De Paris stage, they had a machine set up. You know, The Octopus ride they used to have at amusement parks in the 1960s? It was black with all these mechanized tentacles and open cars attached. People would sit in the cars and get whizzed around when the tentacles started moving. Except in the revue, showgirls were in the cars. The song Bill wrote for this was called Machine.
JW: Reddie was a good writer?
BS: A hell of a writer.
JW: Where did Basically Blues come from?
BS: Phil Wilson wrote it for the NORAD band. After he got out of the Army, he sent it to Buddy.
JW: How did you wind up leaving Buddy's band?
BS: Buddy fired me in 1968.
JW: What happened?
BS: We were in San Diego doing a concert there. After the show, there were press people mingling on the other side of the curtain on stage. I got into an argument with Buddy and chewed him out. Now with Buddy, you could call him the worst names in the world when no one was around. But in this situation, the press had heard me.
JW: What did you say to Rich that got him so angry?
BS: Something like, Why don't you just play the drums and leave the music to us."
JW: What happened?
BS: I didn't know the press people were there but Buddy did. After I said it, Buddy got this look on his face. Then he very quietly said, You're through." In the past, when Buddy would fire me, there had always been screaming and then a call later asking me to stay. This time he almost whispered it calmly, and I felt what he said go straight through my chest. I knew I was done. There was no call later. So I left and that was it.
JW: You said earlier that the best compliment you had received from Buddy was after you left the band. What did he say?
BS: After I was gone from the band, Buddy's wife Marie, who was close with my wife and me in Vegas, would see us and tell Buddy later. She'd say, Hey, I saw Bobby and Lisa Shew today." Marie told me he'd go into this rage. One time, when the rant slowed up, Marie said she said to him, Buddy, why do you hate Bobby so much?" Buddy said, Because I haven't been able to replace his ass" [laughs]. In the music business, that's a big compliment [laughs].
JW: What did you do immediately afterward leaving Rich's band?
BS: I was with Ray Charles for a week and then Oliver Nelson's band subbing for Bobby Bryant. And it has been steady jazz and commercial work ever since.
JW: Was Rich competitive with everything and everyone?
BS: Pretty much. Especially with Ping-Pong. I remember playing with him. I thought it was going to be an easy-going thing, to help him relax. As soon as we started playing, he was trying to drive that thing down my throat [laughs].
JazzWax tracks: Bobby has recorded many hip, tasteful albums. I'm just going to highlight my personal favorites. All are available at iTunes and Amazon:
Playing With Fire was recorded with trumpeter Tom Harrell in 1986. There's a beautiful vibe on here with smart harmonies. The same is true for Bobby Shew, Gary Foster and Friends Play the Music of Reed Kotler (2001). And Tribute to the Masters shows off Bobby's technique and ideas on signature songs of jazz greats. Tracks include Nica's Dream, Whisper Not and This I Dig of You.
But if I were choosing just three Bobby Shew albums, I'd say my favorites are Heavyweights with Carl Fontana (trombone), George Cables (piano), Bob Magnusson (bass) and Joe LaBarbera (drums) from 1995; Salsa Caliente (1998), which features Bobby's love of Latin-jazz; and Sunshine Express (1976) with Bud Shank as the leader, a beautiful CD that is now hard to find.
But if I were just grabbing one, I'd go with Cancaos do Amor (2007), one of the most beautiful trumpet bossa-nova albums you'll ever hear. Trust me, it's a must own. Go sample it at iTunes or Amazon, and hear for yourself.
JazzWax clip: Go here to listen to a track from Cancaos do Amor.