Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Due Recognition

Two American musical innovators pass on

By Ron Wynn

APRIL 26, 1999:  Jesse Stone and Red Norvo were both American music pioneers whose ground-breaking accomplishments were too often overlooked during their lifetimes. Stone, who died Apr. 4 in Florida at age 97, was among the last of the founding generation of rock 'n' roll composer/arrangers. Former Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler described Stone this way in his 1993 book The Rhythm and the Blues: "Jessie's musical mind had as much to do as anyone's with the transformation of traditional blues to pop blues--or rhythm and blues, or cat music, or rock 'n' roll, or whatever the hell you want to call it."

Norvo, who died in a Santa Monica nursing home Apr. 7 at age 91, helped make the vibraphone a legitimate jazz instrument during the late '30s and early '40s, while also giving guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus the chance to develop their immense talents. He was equally skilled at using two or four mallets and often turned off the resonator on his vibraphone to get a cleaner sound. His nimble lines, graceful accompaniment, and rhythmically complex solos debunked the notion that the vibes were a gimmick or toy instrument.

Both men got their start in vaudeville, Stone as a child pianist and Norvo as a teen tap dancer. But Stone, who was born in Atchinson, Kan., got his musical schooling in Kansas City clubs, becoming a capable boogie-woogie stylist and bandleader during the '30s and '40s. His first major composition, "Idaho," was recorded by Benny Goodman in 1944.

Three years later, when Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun launched Atlantic Records, the former tabbed Stone to join the label. For the next nine years, Stone was the company's principal songwriter, arranger, and de facto talent scout. Using the name Charles Calhoun, he wrote such hits as "Money, Honey" for the Drifters, "Shake, Rattle & Roll" for Big Joe Turner, and "Losing Hand" for Ray Charles, while providing arrangements for the Clovers, Ruth Brown, and numerous other Atlantic acts. He left Atlantic in 1956 for Aladdin, but stayed there only one year before forming a publishing company. Since 1983, he'd been in retirement in Florida.

Born Kenneth Norville, Norvo began playing marimba at 14. After switching to xylophone, he joined Paul Whiteman's orchestra in the late '20s, where he met and later married vocalist Mildred Bailey. During the '30s, his fame grew after he enlisted arranger Eddie Sauter to provide charts; together, he and Bailey were known as Mr. & Mrs. Swing and ranked among the most popular acts of the era.

Norvo was among the first swing bandleaders to embrace the newer sounds of bop. He recorded with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-'40s and was a member of Woody Herman's first Herd in 1946. Norvo switched directions again in the '50s, ushering in a trio that emphasized tight harmonic interaction and amazing musicianship. The unit, whose ranks later included guitarist Jimmy Raney and bassist Red Mitchell, was a forerunner to the chamber, Third Stream, and cool ensembles that came later in the decade, but its music was so infectious that it attracted fans like Frank Sinatra and old comrade Goodman, who co-led a group with Norvo during a 1959 European tour.

While Stone voluntarily left the music business, illness forced Norvo to depart. He overcame both a serious ear operation and other personal problems until the mid-'80s, when a stroke forced his retirement. Neither Stone nor Norvo has ever fully been credited for his innovations. But those with any appreciation for American popular music should take a moment to pay tribute to these two men, for the music world has lost two more irreplaceable giants.


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