Making Music with Fred Astaire
After I completed my production of "Daydreams" at Gold Star recording studios, Stan Ross recommended I take the master tapes to a company owned by Fred Astaire called Ava Records. At the time, Ava was located in a relatively small office on Selma Avenue, in the heart of Hollywood, and had the reputation for recording a more sophisticated type of music. Among their roster of artists were well-known performers such as Elmer Bernstein, Carol Lawrence and a jazz group called the Pete Jolley Trio; all fine performers with their own followings. Although jazz groups didnít cost much to record, big artists like Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Bernstein required expensive sessions, so the company was spending a lot of money and not making enough in return.
Apparently, Jackie Mills, who headed up the company, decided it was time to get Ava Records into the Top 40 market. He seemed impressed with my relatively simple production of "Daydreams," and offered me a job as their Artist and Repertoire man, commonly referred to in the business as an A&R man. Jackie also informed me they had found a new office at the top of a high-rise building on Sunset Strip, where they would have the entire floor and a great view of the city. The whole idea of producing records for Fred Astaire, and having a view office on Sunset, sounded pretty good to me so I gladly accepted the job offer.
Meeting a big star like Fred Astaire was quite a thrill for a guy like me, who was born and raised in East Los Angeles, far from the glamour of the Hollywood elite. Although he seldom came up to the office, I well remember the first time I was introduced to him by Jackie Mills. The three of us were meeting in Jackieís office to discuss the companyís future on that eventful day. However, while Jackie spoke of contractual obligations still owed to certain artists and other such music matters, I couldnít help staring down at Mr. Astairís feet. The only thought going through my mind was that I was sitting across from the most talented feet God had created.
Aside from those elegant feet, which happened to be encased in a pair of ordinary brown shoes that day, I was most impressed by Astaireís gentle manner. His outfit was ordinary; he wore a striped black and white tie and an unassuming light gray suit draped over his tall, angular frame. Fred Astaire had not made a movie in quite a while, but my memory of him, by way of his film career, was of a man with unmatched energy and youthful sophistication. He was almost frenetic on screen, darting from scene to scene, singing and dancing his way into the hearts of the American filmgoer.
However, this was not the persona of the man sitting across from me on that day. Mr. Astaire was aging and the creases on his face were beginning to deepen, but he still had a certain grace about him as possessed by few. In person, he was reserved and almost a bit shy as he sat and listened while Jackie Mills and I exchanged views on the future of the company. Every once in a while, he would interrupt with a suggestion or two, but mostly he was content to listen. Although we would meet on future occasions, that first time was the time I remember with special feelings.
As Jackie Mills mentioned at that initial meeting, there were contractual obligations I was assigned to complete. My first session would be to produce the flip side to "Daydreams." After that was done, I was to record Dick Stewart on four new songs I had written. Dick was the host for the popular KPIX Television Dance Party in San Francisco, where I appeared as a performer only months before. Now he was to be the performer and the first "obligation" on my production agenda. Dick turned out to have a very pleasant voice, and although the arrangements and the songs were fine and the records turned out well enough, I knew they were not likely to go far on the charts, if at all.
During the next few months, I produced a few folk songs with another obligation Ava had under contract and reworked some jazz recordings Jackie Mills had produced for the with Pete Jolley Trio. But after that, the company just pooped out. I had spent most of my time at Ava Records rehearsing some Top 40 artists submitted to me by their managers, and going through the dozens of demonstration records mailed to me by various publishers around the country.
In addition, many independent record producers in L.A. would come to the office and submit their master recordings in person. Once, Leon Russell and David Gates came up and submitted a few masters they had produced together; unfortunately, they didn't have what I was looking for. In fact, I don't recall buying any master recording submitted to me. I think maybe we were a last resort for Top 40 producers, since Ava had a reputation for releasing a different genre of music.
All the preparations and contacts I made, and all the rehearsing and searching for new material, did not result in any new record sessions other than those I've mentioned. Either Mr. Astaire grew tired of the financial output or his dream of owning a sophisticated record company had been satisfied. Iím not sure exactly what the reasons were, but the company was shutting down before I had the opportunity to really offer what I was hired to do. I never had the chance to produce one commercial Top 40 record for them and that was very disappointing. However, making music with Fred Astair was still one of the highlights of my music career.