BOB THIELE (By Tony Wilkinson)

Born 27 July 1922, Brooklyn, New York City

Died 30 January 1996, New York City

Strictly speaking Bob Thiele was not so much an artist but more a talent spotter, songwriter and producer. Whilst his great love in music was jazz, one of his justifiable claims for rock 'n' roll immortality was that he was in part responsible for the commercial success of Buddy Holly and The Crickets.

Born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in the roaring twenties, he became attracted to the glamour of the entertainment industry when in 1935, his father took him along on a business trip to Los Angles and he became acquainted with the Hollywood life style. However back in New York, he got to hear the music of bandleader Hal Kemp and pianist Art Hodes and for his thirteenth or fourteenth birthday, he got a phonograph player. Gradually he became obsessed with music, especially jazz and swing. He began to visit various New York nightspots and earned the friendship of many musicians based or visiting the city. He learned to play the clarinet and formed a 14-piece band that played at schools and beach clubs but did not earn many return engagements. He also obtained an unpaid fifteen-minute weekly radio show in 1936 on WWRL during which he played his selection of jazz records. This eventually developed into an hourly show, five nights a week, on station WBYN and thereafter on WHN.

In 1939, he and his friend Dan Priest launched the magazine 'Jazz', the first to specialise in that field of music. As a consequence, he frequently visited Harlem and heard the music of Chick Web, Andy Kirk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmie Lunceford and many others. When World War 2 broke out, he joined up and was assigned to the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard barracks in Brooklyn. He was billeted with the musicians of the Coast Guards band whose members included Lew Brown (arranger/conductor for Jerry Lewis) and Shelly Manne. However, before he enlisted, he had set up his own Signature Record label when he was sixteen or seventeen and amongst the artists he recorded were the Chicago Rhythm Kings, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell. Eddie Condon and James P Johnson. When the war ended, Signature Records went public and set up its own pressing plant. The label expanded into the pop field and signed up Alan Dale who had hits for the label in 1947 with such 'memorable' tunes as ' Kate (Have I Come Too Early Or Too Late)'. However, the old malady of distributors not paying for records eventually caused the demise of the record label. He went on to form other independent labels such as Hanover-Signature with Steve Allen and which recorded Jack Kerouac reading poetry backed by the likes of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

Thiele's next move (1952) was to join (US) Decca Records where he took over the running of the subsidiary Coral label from Milt Gabler. Bob then produced a series of hits for the label for the best part of the next decade with the likes of the McGuire Sisters, Debbie Reynolds, the aforementioned Alan Dale, Buddy Hackett and Teresa Brewer who eventually became Mrs. Thiele.

The rock 'n' roll era was hitting big and Murray Deutch of Southern Music played him some recordings by Buddy Holly and The Crickets that had been received from Norman Petty. Deutch had hawked the demos around all the majors such as Columbia, Decca and RCA and leading independents such as Atlantic where seemingly Jerry Wexler reacted negatively. According to Thiele, he recognized the potential of the recordings from the outset and wanted to purchase the masters for $2,500 but did not have enough budget at the time. Bob eventually persuaded the powers to be at Decca to buy and release 'That'll Be The Day' on its race music subsidiary Brunswick Records. The rest is record history and the disc became a monster hit. According to Thiele, it was his idea to have Holly record as a solo name on Coral and as the Crickets on Brunswick. Thiele states that he co-wrote 'Mailman Bring Me No More Blues' for Holly under the alias of Stanley Clayton for Holly plus he recorded/produced 'That's My Desire' and 'Rave On' in the Bell Sound Studios in Manhattan without Petty being present. He also got to know Sonny Curtis who sang the song 'Sugartime' to him during a visit to Norman Petty's house. Thiele arranged for the McGuire Sisters to record this in New York with Neil Hefti arranging. The original cuts were made with a sixteen-piece big band but as the session went on, Thiele states that he stripped down the accompaniment until he was left with just a rhythm section, which resulted in the second number one, hit for the act.

Another act that Thiele was responsible for signing was Jackie Wilson when he was offered Billy Ward And The Dominos but states that he was only interested in signing Wilson. Bob produced 'Lonely Teardrops' at the Pythian Temple with a sixteen-piece band. Other acts that came under the Thiele banner were Pearl Bailey, Erroll Garner and Gato Barbieri. Of course, he had his failures such as Marvin Hamlisch who Thiele told not to consider a career in the music business. This is before Hamlisch wrote the scores for movies of the ilk of 'The Way We Were', 'The Sting' and 'A Chorus Line'. Another example was that he told Jann Wenner that his idea of a monthly rock 'n' roll culture magazine was the silliest idea. The magazine in question was 'Rolling Stone'.

Another act that Thiele produced was Alan Freed with whom he became friends. In his book 'What A Wonderful Life', Thiele writes about visiting the Freed Home at Stamford, Connecticut and when asked about the upkeep of the estate, Freed is quoted as saying that one record company does the lawns whilst another cuts the shrubs and a third cleans the pool.

Eventually, Thiele left Coral and joined Dot Records and persuaded Lawrence Welk to make a similar move. Debbie Reynolds and Steve Allen also followed. After a dispute over the previously mentioned Jack Kerouac album that label owner Randy Wood declared to be a 'pornographic outrage', Thiele was asked to leave the company. From here it was onto a stint at Roulette and interestingly Bob speaks highly of Morris Levy. Here he produced an album by Louis Armstrong with Duke Ellington, which today is regarded as a classic in its field. Then it was onto ABC Paramount where he took over the running of the Impulse subsidiary, a jazz label originally founded by Creed Taylor. Here he made several albums with John Coltrane. In total, Thiele produced around 200 LPs for the label. He also produced 'pop' recordings by such as Frankie Laine, Judy Garland and Della Reese and was responsible for the launching of Bluesway Records. Blues greats BB King, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Eddie Cleanhe ad Vinson and Joe Turner were amongst the signings. The biggest international hit produced by Thiele whilst at ABC Paramount has to be 'What A Wonderful World' by Louis Armstrong that was recorded despite the protestations and actions of label boss Larry Newton. From the story told by Thiele, it was a minor wonder that the record was even cut and then released.

After leaving ABC Paramount, Thiele founded Flying Dutchman Records and thereafter the Doctor Jazz label that was subsequently transformed into Red Baron. The first mentioned was primarily a vehicle for his wife Teresa Brewer. Bob kept active in the music business until his death in January 1996. A colourful character that I suspect is missed.

Bob Thiele's Ten Favourite Self-Produced Albums:

1.. Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington (Roulette)

2.. John Coltrane 'A Love Supreme' (Impulse)

3.. Coleman Hawkins & Lester Young 'Classic Tenors' (Signature)

4.. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse)

5.. John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman (Impulse)

6.. Duke Ellington & Teresa Brewer 'It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing' (Columbia)

7.. David Murray 'Saxmen' (Red Baron)

8.. Louis Armstrong 'What A wonderful World' (MCA)

9.. Jackie Wilson (Brunswick)

10.. The Bob Thiele Collective 'Lion Hearted' (Red Baron)

Suggested Reading:

'What A Wonderful World - A Lifetime Of Recordings' by Bob Thiele as told to Bob Golden. Published by Oxford University Press (New York) in 1995.

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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