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Joe Mooney: Sauter-Finegan

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The other day I posted on singer-pianist Joe Mooney and his two fabulous albums for Columbia in 1963. To shed light on Mooney and these vital recordings, I spoke with guitarist Mundell Lowe, who wrote the arrangements for both LPs. Today, I'm focusing on Mooney's five brief recordings with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in 1952 and 1953. I'm also going to share with you a conversation I had yesterday with a 1950s music executive who played a major role in Mooney's Sauter-Finegan recordings. And as a special treat, there's an audio link to an extremely rare Mooney recording with the Sauter-Finegan band.

First, let's roll the clock back to the early 1950s. When big-band arrangers Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan formed the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in 1952, their aim was to have superior studio musicians play near-symphonic jazz scores using a seemingly endless combination of instruments. While the results sounded somewhat lightweight for jazz and unashamedly corny, the instrumental sophistication was not lost on a younger generation of arrangers, including Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, Johnny Richards and Billy May.

Originally conceived strictly as an instrumental aggregation, Sauter-Finegan in the fall of 1952 agreed to add vocalists. The move most likely came after pressure from RCA, which wanted to give the somewhat wooden format a more human touch and popular appeal. This was the pre-rock era of earnest vocal groups like the Ames Brothers, McGuire Sisters, Four Aces, Four Lads that appealed to the rapidly expanding suburban market.

When Joe Mooney arrived to record with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in late 1952, he was there to provide vocals that wouldn't overshadow the band's six-lane orchestrations. Backing Mooney were two vocal groups: the Ray Charles Singers: Gene Lowell, Artie Malvin and Steve Steck; and the Doodlers: Sally Sweetland and Lillian Clark. The tight choral parts were written by veteran vocal arranger Ray Charles.

The first track Mooney recorded on November 3, 1952 was Nina Never Knew, a song written by Louis Alter and Milton Drake. The lyrics gently related the story of an innocent teenage girl giving in to the narrator's advances. The arrangement featured the wandering trombone of Kai Winding. Also recorded that day was Love Is a Simple Thing, a song with a bouncy melody that had had its debut months earlier in New Faces of 1952, a Broadway revue.

Soon after Nina Never Knew was released, the song became a minor jukebox hit, reaching #13 on the Billboard charts by December. The song would be the orchestra's second biggest seller after Midnight Sleighride, which had peaked at #12 in August. Mooney returned to the studio on November 18 to record Hit the Road to Dreamland, a mid-tempo tune that leaned heavily on novelty instrumentation. [Pictured: Musicians in the Sauter-Finegan orchestra cast shadows on a bandstand wall; photo: William Claxton]

After touring with the orchestra for several months, Mooney and the band went back into the studio on April 6, 1953. The first tune recorded that day was Time to Dream, a Mooney duet with female vocalist Florence Fogelson. The next track was Fogelson alone on Pale Moon. Then a third track was recorded: It's Mutual, a song Mooney co-wrote.

This third track was something of an anomaly. For one, recording sessions typically captured an even number of tracks to complete sides of singles. For another, there was no choir arranged behind Mooney. Which leads me to believe that It's Mutual was a demo to show RCA executives what Mooney could do as a lead singer.

Stanley Cooper is a dear friend and my favorite 1950s music industry source. A retired Brill Building executive, Stanley worked for Redd Evans Music and later Barton Music pitching songs the music publisher owned to singers he believed could make them hits. When I called Stanley yesterday and asked him about Mooney and the Sauter-Finegan sessions, he replied in his Runyonesque New York accent: “Did I know Mooney? I was the one who brought Nina Never Knew to RCA's attention in 1952 and requested that Mooney sing it." Pay dirt!

Stanley's story sheds some light on Mooney's It's Mutual, a song that was issued only once in 1956 on a Sauter-Finegan LP and to this day has never appeared on CD:

“Back in '52, I was a fan of Joe Mooney's. I knew his work well. He had a great sound. Soft, but smart. When Redd Evans of Redd Evans Music picked up the rights to Nina Never Knew, he asked me to find a singer who could make it a hit. The first person I thought of was Nat [King Cole]. Nat was the nicest guy in the world. But when I asked him to record the song, he turned it down. Nat said he didn't like the name Nina. I have no idea why. Maybe he once had a girlfriend named Nina or something. I don't know.

“So I shopped Nina Never Knew around to different A&R men. When I reached Dave Kapp, the head of A&R at RCA, he loved the song right away. Most music publishers who went to Dave brought along sheet music and demos by the pound. I never did that. When I went to see him, I brought only two songs, and usually just one. Dave knew that if I had a song I liked, he could figure out fast whether or not he liked it and which of his artists should record it. So he liked me.

“Dave said the best he could was have the newly signed Sauter-Finegan Orchestra record it. I said fine, but the song had to have a vocalist. Dave asked me who I thought would be ideal. I said “Joe Mooney." I chose Joe because he had a voice that was closest to the singer I originally wanted--Nat King Cole. The song needed that savvy, jazzy, relaxed sound. Dave liked the idea and sent for Joe.

“When Mooney came into the RCA studio that day, he and I spoke briefly. I told him how much I liked his voice and why I wanted him for the date. He thanked me. He was a very pleasant guy. Then I went into the [engineer's] booth with the A&R men and my boss, Redd Evans, to listen to the recording.

“When the band started and Mooney began to sing, I couldn't believe my ears. As soon as I heard the first four bars I knew right away that I was right about matching Mooney with Sauter-Finegan and that the song had a real shot. It was like being in a trance listening to that sound. I recall Mooney went off mike a few times so they had to start again and bring him back in. But that's all I noticed with my eyes. My attention was my ears. Listening to that sound for the first time was amazing.

“I don't know why Mooney never recorded more with Sauter-Finegan or on his own with RCA. It was a natural fit. I do know that RCA offered him a multirecord deal with the label and that there was some disagreement over money. Dave Kapp was the kind of guy who made an offer and if you didn't take it, he never came back to you with it. A lot of people didn't like him because he was a cold fish. But I liked him, and he was a good music man. He truly liked music people. I guess that's what happened. It's a shame really. They sounded perfect together. The band was easy-going but square. Joe was easy-going and hip. He gave them a little more edge. I can only imagine how great the music would have been if they had recorded more sides together.

“If you listen to Sauter-Finegan's recordings from the early 1950s, the orchestra was way ahead of its time. It was in the same league as Boyd Raeburn's band of the '40s, in terms of experimentation. Joe warmed them up tremendously. And I have no idea why It's Mutual was never released. I'm listening to it with you now for the first time, and it's wonderful. I didn't even know the track existed. It's clearly a beautiful record."

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Nina Never Knew and Love Is a Simple Thing on a double-CD set called Sauter-Finegan: Inside the Sound (Jasmine) at eBay. Hit the Trail to Dreamland and Mooney's duet with Fogelson, Time to Dream, don't seem to be available on CD.

It's Mutual was released only once, on the 12-inch expanded version of Sauter-Finegan's New Directions in Music, released in 1956. The song has never appeared on CD. But after a bit of web research, I found it buried on a radio show podcast called Rare But Well Done, hosted by Ray Hall.

To hear It's Mutual, go here, click on the “Listen for Free" box on the right-hand side. A smaller QuickTime box will appear and the radio show will begin. Take your cursor and grab the lower right-hand corner to widen the box. Then use your cursor to move the track ball about 25% of the way across the bar until you hear Hall announce the song. Dig that instrumental intro!

And there it is--the mystery Mooney recording that almost launched the singer's mass-market pop-recording career for RCA.

I, for one, would love to see Mosaic Records issue the complete RCA sessions of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in a box set.

JazzWax clip: While there are no video clips of Joe Mooney singing with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, this should give you a sense of the complexity of the band's near-mad arrangements and musicianship...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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