RIP Dave Pell: “I’m an Old Cowhand” (1957)


(Above: The LP jacket for Swingin’ In the Old Corral)

Word filtered to me that jazz saxophonist Dave Pell passed away in May on 2017 at the age of 92. Dave Pell is not a household name, except perhaps to those who collect the “lounge” music of the 1950s. In the 1990s Capitol released a series of Ultra Lounge CDs; of course, I managed to accumulate the whole set, because why wouldn’t I? One of the discs in that set, Cocktail Capers, features Dave and his band on a fantastic rendition of “This Could Be The Start of Something Big.” But to those who know, the Dave Pell Octet released a ton of material: about two dozen LPs in the 1950s alone. Pell started working on his own albums in 1953, right before leaving Les Brown’s band (he played with Les starting in 1947). Among the LPs of note are The Dave Pell Octet Plays Rogers and Hart, Jazz & Romantic Places, and – a favorite – Swingin’ School Songs, in which the octet performs most of the fight songs from the Big 10 schools as well as standbys like the Notre Dame Victory March and USC’s “Fight On.” (I note that Michigan State, one of my almae matres, is not included.)

One of Dave’s LPs, Swingin’ In the Ol’ Corral, is a particularly important one to me. I mentioned in an earlier post that my maternal grandmother died in 1979, leaving behind an apartment full of, well, stuff.  Even at the age of 10 I thought not to let the records go to a Dumpster; most were 78s, but a few LPs survived. One of them was an original RCA copy of this Pell album.  It was marked “promotional,” and Grandma had an RCA Victor console in her living room (I would like a time machine to reclaim that, based on what they sell for now), so I’m guessing it was thrown in with the purchase as Grandma was not, to my knowledge, a jazz aficionado.  I took the record home and listened to it, and took a liking to it. Around that same time is when my friend Dave and I were getting together on weekends in sixth grade and all throughout junior high school to “play radio.” Needing some sort of theme music for our show, I thought to grab this discarded jazz album and use it. “I’m An Old Cowhand,” a hit for Bing Crosby, was the first song on the album, and that became the theme song for any of the various talk shows that we produced. (Some of the talk shows were just ridiculous: in one instance, we interviewed Jimmy Carter and Phyllis Schlafly, doing the voices ourselves.  We were not normal 12-year-olds.) Often I’d sit and listen to the whole LP, enjoying Pell’s arrangements of Western standards like “I’ll Be Hanged,”  “Across the Alley From the Alamo,” “Cool Water,” (from which I tried to lift the intro since it reminded me of incidental music from a sitcom), and “Camptown March and Blues,” which I turned into an off-color ad for Arlington Park Race Track.

After Dave and I stopped playing radio, and I started playing it for a living, I dug the album back out.  I had learned a lot more about music in those subsequent years and came to fully appreciate being exposed to something completely different at a young age. The back liner notes about radio station KHJ made a lot more sense to me, too: before it was a legendary Top 40 station it was a jazz outlet, and there’s a picture of Dave Pell in the studios featured. It brought a bit of radio history full circle for me.

A couple of years ago I learned that Dave Pell was still alive, and I attempted to buy some copies of recordings in a digital format from him.  We never did complete the deal, but I was able to write a note of thanks for the inspiration and assistance his music provided in those early days of thinking that I was a talk show host in a back bedroom in the Chicago suburbs. For that opportunity I am grateful, and learning of his passing encourages me to write more notes exactly like that while I am still able.

Host your own talk show!  You can listen to “I’m an Old Cowhand” by clicking here.


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