Wednesday, January 11th, 2017...1:51 pm
‘You didn’t want to get on Frank Sinatra’s bad side’
Trombonist Sam Hyster reminisces about his days playing with the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra
By GLORIA FREDKOVE
Sam Hyster spends most of his time these days watching sports in his room at the Sholom Home in St. Louis Park. The 94-year-old loves the Miami Dolphins and the New York Mets.
I learned about Sam through his great-niece, Jill Brazner, who told me about his music background as a trombone player with the best of the big bands, after I mentioned my 84-year-old brother, Jack Bass. Jack has expertise in the subject of jazz. It turned out to be a match that was bashert (“destined” in Yiddish).
Jack visits Sam regularly, and they enjoy reminiscing. Jack brings Sam homemade spaghetti and meatballs, which Sam enjoys for many meals. When I first met Sam, he said, “Jack knows even more about jazz than I do.” That may be true, but it’s also true that Jack is equally impressed with Sam’s remarkable career as a jazz musician with the greats.
Sam had a difficult beginning. When he was just 10, his father died. A week later, his older brother, Louis, was killed in a car accident. Sam and his twin brother, Phillip, were devastated by those losses, which left their mother to care for the remaining seven children by herself.
The family was resilient, having been through bad times before. They had immigrated to America in 1921, after a pogrom in Russia. “My mom said the Russian soldiers set up machine guns in her dining room and the battle was right there,” Sam explains.
In America, Sam and Philip got jobs selling newspapers in downtown Minneapolis to help the family out. When he was in high school, Sam joined the orchestra to help him “get his head straight.”
Sam’s first break came at a supper club called the Happy Hour, on 16th Street and Nicollet Avenue, when the Ray Herbeck Orchestra visited from New York.
“A guy I played with, Don Jones, asked if I would like to join the band. So when the band left, I went with them, headed for New York. Whatever earnings I had, I sent back to my mother,” Sam recalls.
At the age of 22, he was invited to join the Vaughn Monroe band. He played with them from 1944 to 1949. After his stint with Monroe, Sam played with Tommy Dorsey, until 1954 — a time he describes as “pure joy.”
That joy is visible in an album of black and white photos that Sam showed us. Jack and I could see that Sam has not lost his good looks. His hair is more grey than black; but his personality is upbeat, and his smile is as warm as the sun.
While Sam was with Tommy Dorsey, they had an engagement at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. “There were three hotels,” Sam says. “The Flamingo, the Town Casino (later the Sahara) and Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, where Frank Sinatra made his Vegas debut and became a regular performer.”
Jack’s memory was ignited: “The Flamingo was the first casino Ben (“Bugsy”) Siegel built. And Wilbur Clark went partners with Dan Topping to buy the New York Yankees.”
What did Sam think of Frank Sinatra?
“Well, you didn’t want to get on Frank’s bad side,” he remarks. “He had a bad temper, and if he didn’t like you, you’d find your place out in the desert, someplace. He was actually a nice guy, though. He was very generous, and put $50,000 into the new Buddy Rich Band.”
Sam and Glen Booth were friends who had both played in some of the “territory bands,” bands of 10 to 12 musicians that toured across the country as backing for dancers.
Sam recalls that Glen said, “You better come out here because they’re desperate for musicians and you can start working right away at the Sahara Hotel on the Donald O’Connor show — with dancers.”
In the mid-1950s Sam also played with Buddy Rich. Jack asked Sam to tell me what Buddy Rich’s Jewish name was. Sam tells me it was Bernard Richman.
Sam started to sing a few bars from songs of his day: “Dance, Ballerina, Dance” and “Racing with the Moon,” Vaughn Monroe’s theme song.
Sam married Lois Ashford, a trumpet player from Eau Claire, Wisc., who converted to Judaism. “She showed up in her 1955 T-Bird to visit a friend who was working in Vegas,” Sam comments. “Three of her brothers played in an orchestra. Robert, the oldest, was the principal trumpet player with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.”
Jack asks Sam if he remembers the first big tune that Paul Whiteman played.
“Rhapsody in Blue.”
“You’re right. He was a big society orchestra, Sam. Paul Whiteman … played in the White House, he played everywhere.”
During that time, and in the ’70s, Sam was employed mostly at the Sands, as well as at some of the other Las Vegas hotels. He continued to play the trombone, but there were times the competition was so fierce that he couldn’t find work. But Sam was no stranger to challenges and managed as best he could.
Sam’s wife Lois died in 1990 of tuberculosis, and Sam never married again but keeps in touch with Lois’ children. He also keeps in touch with a friend in California that he used to play with, Gene Cipriano, from the Tommy Dorsey band.
Most musicians have a good sense of humor, and I wanted to know if Sam remembered any good jokes from his past.
“I have a list of all the musicians’ jokes,” Sam replies. “If Beethoven were here today, what would he be doing?”
Sam has fond memories of his life as a trombone player. What does he miss most about those days?
“Just playing music that I liked, with Buddy Rich, Tommy Dorsey and Vaughn Monroe. You know, all those bands. That was what gave me joy.”
Sam had to give up playing the trombone in 2002, when he had surgery for cancer of the lip, but luckily for Sam and his friend Jack their shared memories bring the past back into play.
Gloria Fredkove lives in Minnetonka.
(American Jewish World, 1.13.17)