Vignettes Of Dr. Leonard B. Smith
When I was a kid, I saw a 12" record called "Award Artist Series" featuring Leonard B. Smith on the cornet. I really didn't know who he was, but since the album sported "The Carnival of Venice" by Clarke, of whom I did know, I bought it. I was not disappointed! Though I found his playing a bit stiff, it was flawless and the tone was secure throughout. I endeavored to mimic it on my cornet. I purchased and learned every piece on the album. Little did I know that one day that man would dedicate a piece to me and tell me I was "the son he never had". I still have that old record, and have kept it pristine and playable.
Sept 18, 1977 I took a job in fundraising with The Salvation Army in Detroit. Prior to leaving Boston to go to Detroit, a professional trumpet player friend, Wilfred "Bob" Roberts, pressed me to look up his old teacher and friend . . . Leonard B. Smith in Detroit. I did so and it was an explosive love affair from the start. Leonard and I were inseparable. Even when I moved an hour away from his Grosse Pointe haunts I would arise in time to drive that hour and still be on time for breakfast with him at 5:30 a.m. when the local Big Boy restaurant opened. This, often six days a week!
Leonard frequently opined that the reason his marriage had lasted with his actress/publicist wife Helen Rowe was because he was a morning person and she a night-owl . . . meaning they spent relatively little time in the same place. She would often still be up when he arose! Dinnertime was generally their only time together outside of band and social commitments. Anyone who spent much time in his jam-packed office will attest that he was quite sharp with her on the phone, often to the point of rudeness, sometimes worse. It seemed to roll off of Helen like water off a Duck. She was fiercely loyal to his banding mission and indefatigable in her efforts in his behalf. Persons very high in the publishing chain today (then with the local media), who shall remain nameless herein, used to joke about Helen's incessant calls. They claimed that when Helen called they would grunt and say "uh-huh" into the phone from time to time and even go to lunch laying the phone down and she'd still be talking when they returned! Anyone knowing Helen will know how these jokes came to be. The lady could talk . . .
To know Leonard was to know that there were two ways to do anything, his way . . . and the wrong way! If one could keep this little rule straight, and live with it, one found a most affectionate and eager friend in Leonard B. Smith. If not, one had better watch their backside. Leonard was manic in his affection. He loved with a deep (albeit very conditional!) love and hated with an equal hate. Both were instant in coming. Let me give an example. One day he took out a photo of himself in his Conductor's uniform, with all the medals and inscribed it for me with something like "With ever-growing respect and admiration, Leonard B. Smith". Great . . . but he was very careful to have not put my name on it! This was prophetic and one believes that even "the son he never had" would run afoul of him one day . . . which we did some time later. Just about everyone who ever got close to him became suspect sooner or later. It had happen to the great trombonist Bill Lane before me. Eventually one could get back in his good graces if enough crow was eaten.
I mentioned Helen as an actress. Apparently she had done a film or two earlier in life, which fact surfaced from time to time. The Helen I knew was the aging remnant of what surely must have been a rather strikingly beautiful woman in her youth. However, she retained much of the 1930's look a little too long. Huge waves in her hair and bright red lipstick did not do her any favors.
Very often Leonard and I would take Helen and Barbara to Anton's (our favorite haunt among many high-end restaurants). As the hostess led us in saying "Walk this way please", Leonard would mutter to me (with a "ain't I cute?" Benny Hill blink) "If I could walk that way I wouldn't need talcum!" He had a dozen or so of these favorite one liners that he got great pleasure out of proffering. On these nights out, Leonard was the supreme gentleman and treated Helen and Barbara like queens. The men's room sported a sign advertising outrageously expensive Gardenia corsages for sale, and we never failed to surprise the ladies with these rare and fragile flowers. Leonard was the tightest man I ever met, yet when on these outings the sky was the limit.
Regarding "his way" . . . I recall once writing a little solo for kids on "Take Me Out to The Ball Game". I tried to make it fun by having "wind-up" trills in the piano followed by "strikes" for the soloist in the introduction. I then avoided cliche harmonies in the accompaniment to make it interesting. I achieved a listener-accessible but unique setting of the old favorite tune. I did not "Stravinskyize" it by any means, I just made it interesting. Leonard fairly exploded when he saw it! "It's all wrong!" said he. He then, in my absence, scratched out a most prosaic version, using 100% anticipated diatonic harmonies, and tossed it at me when I returned (I still have it). "THAT'S what it should sound like!" says he. He later bragged that "I've never written a wrong chord", which really meant he'd never written anything but textbook harmonies (used creatively, but expected nonetheless.)
He took his training with the great Erik Leidzen very much to heart and was very proud of that lineage (who wouldn't be?) Leonard could write complicated band arrangements absent any score. He was a most competent and facile writer, never a wrong note in a part. Many was the day that I sat with him while he was writing something for the band. He could do this while carrying on a lively conversation, firing off instructions to his unbelievably (really unnaturally) devoted assistant Marylou Hornberger, and listening to his police scanner . . . all at the same time!
As a bandmaster he was ferocious. His first rehearsal of the season laid out the rules about sitting up straight with ones back away from the chair, no booze on the job, be early and learn the book before we start, etc. Speaking of early, all rehearsals possible and all recording sessions started in the very early morning. He opined that everyone was at their best then, having rested all night. We might have been "at our best", but it didn't make anyone happy! He was strict and tolerated no mistakes, even in rehearsals, like a viper! Recording sessions were incredibly tense affairs, as were performances. All that was on his mind was how much it was costing him per second . . . which he regularly quoted in his frequent harangues. A couple anecdotes might illustrate.
Once he saw me writing on my part and demanded "What're you doing?!" I told him I was fixing a mistake in the part. He shouted at me "NEVER do that! Let the next sonuvabitch fall in a hole!" This seemed to run contrary to his preoccupation with how much things cost per second, so I waited until he wasn't looking an fixed the part! (Sorry, Leonard!)
We were at the Masonic Temple recording a couple of albums. One item was the cornet solo, "The Bugler", written for him by Edwin Franco Goldman (really ghosted by Erik Leidzen). He took after the assistant conductor that day in a most merciless way. The tempi were always wrong. He finally literally threw his cornet in the case and called a break. When we returned he had at it again and it went much better. So well, in fact, that he played an E above high C at the end that we thought might take out the back wall of the hall! With this out of his system, he was in a much better mood.
On another occasion, while playing a Sunday afternoon concert in Livonia, Michigan, I had a solo passage on euphonium, just before intermission. The tune was "Edelweiss". I played it as I thought it should be played, with a little appropriate schmaltz and tenderness (not too much, just a little). He glared at me throughout. Backstage I saw him storming straight for me and I was prepared, as he often put it, to have a new sphincter (expletive deleted) torn into me! Just as he was about upon me about five or six people from the audience ascended the stairs asking for me. They then began to gush about how beautiful my solo was. Waving an instructional index finger skyward, Leonard proclaimed "That's what happens when you put it in the hands of an artist!" . . . and he stalked away. (PHEW!!)
As salty as he could be in rehearsals and such, he could transform out of it in minutes as well. He could ream you to a fair-thee-well and half an hour later have a convivial lunch with you as though nothing had happened at all. He was an enigma.
Only one person in my experience never received criticism from Leonard and that was Karen Nixon Lane, his principal hornist. I once heard him remark that she was remarkable and that he never heard her make a mistake. I know I never did either. Leonard's praise was often generous to those currently in his favor, but never as much or as consistently as with Karen.
Leonard loved to reminisce. He talked of the old days in New York and the kick-backs to the union-hall guys . . . "smelly-crotched old men in shiny suits" he called them. If they held one finger out of their vest pocket, it meant you had to kick back a buck, etc. A nod got you the job. When playing trumpet for the old Lone Ranger radio series and others in the early days of network radio in Detroit, his stories were wonderful. It seems the actors were on one floor and the musicians on another! There was a traffic light affair that they had to keep an eye on. Yellow meant get ready. Green meant play. And red meant stop. The rest of the time they played cards. The World's Fair in California brought the most affection into his voice. As soloist with the Goldman Band he apparently played more consecutive days of solos than anyone in history and especially more successful high F's than anyone before or since. He told me that when his back was to the wall, and he faced uncertainty for a high note, he'd dry his lips and mouthpiece and twist the horn as he went for the high one, thus reducing the size of the aperture and nailing the note! At this time, he played so much that his front teeth started to become loose! He was panicked! He went to dentist who told him to rinse his mouth several times a day with a glass of water containing a few drops of Lysol! It worked, and the teeth tightened right up! He had a million of them like this! One of his proudest was that he played Taps at FDR's funeral while in the U.S. Navy Band.
Leonard could be generous. He adopted one young man and put him through college, to eventually become a trumpeter with the Cleveland Orchestra. Due to his great admiration for our mutual friend Phil Catelinet (for whom the Vaughan Williams tuba concerto was written) Leonard funded an annual scholarship in Phil's name at Carnegie Tech. When Del Staigers' alcohol problem found him missing engagements as principal trumpet with the Radio City Orchestra, Leonard subbed for him at no cost.
My attachment to Leonard was basically hero worship. I wanted to assist his banding mission in any way possible. I never dreamed of nor even wanted to play in the band. He pressed me and I told him that I'd hung the horn up years before. Finally, at one of our many breakfasts he told me he wanted me to audition for the band. I wrestled with him and finally told him to give me an idea of what to expect, as I'd never auditioned for anything before in my life. He asked me "How do you do with Arban?" I said I didn't know, as I never owned one. He was totally flumicated. He said that I'd just shot down one of his most famous lines. He said most people say "Pretty good" or something similar. His answer was always the same, "Perhaps I should study with you, because I have a helluva time with it!" He then presented me with his own copy of Arban's method book and instructions on how he expected me to use it. He had three workouts that covered exactly the same material using different parts of Arban. When complete, one would have done a little of everything possible on a brass instrument. It could be accomplished in about 30 minutes. He also gave me a copy of his personal warm-up exercises. I found that I would be spared some slings and arrows in rehearsal and performance if I made sure he heard me using them prior! Part of every workout included all possible scales, major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, whole-tone and chromatic . . . in every key, an octave up, and an octave down. He expected this in less than a minute and a half! He said, "It's easy! 144 beats to the minute in sixteenth notes. Listen." He picked up his horn and did it in closer to a minute than a minute and a half. In the end, I managed a minute and twenty three seconds, and I was more than satisfied!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I agreed to audition in three weeks time upon getting back from vacation. Our plan was to drive from Detroit to Camp Lake, Wisconsin to visit with Eric and Olive Ball who were guests at The Salvation Army Central Music Institute. Then we would drive to Rhinelander to see Carl and Ula Lindstrom (my dear friend and former bandmaster of The Chicago Staff Band.) From there we would drive west and north around Lake Superior and on up to Cochran and take the train up to Moosinee and Moose Factory Island (just below Hudson's Bay!) Then we would drive across Canada to Maine and eventually back across the U.S. to Detroit . . . which we did. Rather I should say Barbara did! Most of the way I had my Arban book on the dash of our Audi and the bell of my euphonium pointed out of the window . . . gaining facility with all those scales and other items sure to be on the audition. And . . . I think I may have inadvertently propositioned a moose or two along the way!?
When the time came I was as nervous as a June-bug sitting on a duck's bill! There was the great Leonard B. Smith . . . and poor old me! He made me offer up my scales and some of the Arban and then to read a couple marches that no one ever heard of, and I was in! I must say that while I was very proud to be a part of his musical life, I never really enjoyed playing in the band as there was so much tension that it killed the music for me. I was used to more gentle and genteel maestros like Eric Ball, Irwin Fischer and others.
The only time I felt relaxed when playing with Leonard was when I played trombone as part of his personal brass ensemble, playing Easter Services at churches. Here, he bowed to the church music director and was simply the principal trumpet.
Leonard, always the cautious man, gave me a picture of him and autographed it as follows: "To my friend and colleague - with warmest personal regards and continued admiration. Sincerely Leonard B. Smith 1981" I only realized years later that he didn't put my name on it!? He told me frequently that I was the son he never had. He dedicated a little solo to me entitled "Helios" - the sun. When I asked why it was so simple and not a variation solo, he said that if he wrote a more complex piece and dedicated it to me only a few would see the dedication. This piece would sell hundreds of copies, perhaps thousands to youngsters across the country and, consequently, more people would know of his affection for me.
Eventually, Leonard asked me to become Chairman of his Board of Directors, which I did. I used this as an excuse to cease playing in the band. I recruited a number of good people, including the head of the General Motors Corporation Foundation, a senior partner with Arthur Anderson and others. Activity increased and revenues were dramatically up. Leonard was a happy camper. As I announced the numbers, I developed a rapport with the audiences and a healthy banter between Leonard and myself. I dressed "spiffy" for most concerts and for on season-closer I wore my tux. When we came to the last number Leonard went to the mike and said "We're going to play this number very fast, because Bob has to get the suit back to the undertaker!" It brought the house down! These were good times!
As chairman, I worked behind the scenes to repair relationships that both Leonard and Helen had jeopardized via their inflexibility and frequent brashness. They had a dream of building a concert hall in the shape of a bass drum just off the freeway west of Detroit. The building they envisioned could be a regular auditorium or slide the walls around to have an open-air atmosphere in summer. It was ingenious! I started a quiet fundraising campaign to try to realize their dream. I had persuaded my good friend and former Board Chair, Chet Mally, to "start the bidding" at a very exclusive party to be held at The Detroit Athletic Club. He was prepared to nudge the rest with a pledge of $1,000,000!
In addition, I was quietly working with other philanthropists in the area. One was Gil Hudson of the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Gil had expressed that their only reservation was continuity. He said that Leonard was old (Hardly! he was about 62 and still prime and energetic!) and might die at any time. ‘Who would keep the band going?' I asked who would keep the Detroit Symphony going if its conductor kicked the bucket. This didn't convince him. Finally, I said that any number of the members of the band, including myself, could carry on until a permanent conductor could be found. This seemed to do the job and he said they'd make a grant. So far so good . . .
. . . until Helen got on the phone with Gil! She immediately interpreted this to mean that I wanted to bump Leonard out and take over!? I wouldn't have taken the job for a million dollars a year. Regardless, she got Leonard fired up and he called a meeting of the Executive Committee in his office. There had been no prior discussion with me or anyone else. There were four of us there, plus Leonard. He opened the meeting with almost a shout of "Gentlemen, you have been duped!" He went on to explain that I was no businessman (which I never claimed to be!) and that he'd had me investigated by a private detective and found this and that. All of it was accurate but had nothing to do with anything. The fact that he'd stooped to such nefarious activities had us all in shock. One of the Board members, a long-time and affectionate Smith supporter, went almost ballistic! I really thought he would physically assault Leonard. I was speechless. The rest of the group tried to get Leonard to become coherent, but he became even more bellicose, turning on long-time friends and generous supporters. They all finally got up in disgust, resigning on the way out. The entire board resigned upon hearing of this, and Leonard appointed himself chair and moved on.
He announced my alleged takeover intentions to the band and well beyond. This eventually ended up as a cover story in the Detroit Free Press where he and Helen unleashed an incoherent diatribe against me and I countered with dispassionate facts and passionate respect and love for them and sadness over the misunderstanding. Leonard told his musicians that anyone who played with me would never play with him again . . . this including a sextet which I formed and which had nothing whatever to do with his band other than that some of the members played in his band!? He was vicious. I had to move on.
He retired soon thereafter and moved to Arizona. I missed him. I wrote to him and tried to patch things up (short of groveling), but never received a reply. Then Helen died. I saw it in the paper and noted there was to be a service at a local cemetery. I went, intending to pay my respects to a woman that both Barb and I genuinely loved, respected and pitied more than a little. I did not want to cause Leonard any stress, so I hung back at the fringe of the group assembled. Leonard saw me, and I was prepared for the worst. To my great relief, he shook my hand warmly and said, "Bob, how nice of you to come!" I never saw him again.
No rehearsal of Leonard's life would be complete absent mention of Marylou Hornberger. For decades, she tirelessly worked nights and weekends for Leonard and was loyal beyond imagining. She was a former pupil of Leonard's that apparently did not pursue music further. Marylou understood Leonard as no other person ever will. Professional loyalty merged with deep personal affection (really love) between them and she was his vigilant champion until he died. She, alone, could disagree with Leonard and survive (but she seldom did!) She retired near Phoenix. It was apparent, but never stated, that there was likely more than simple friendship there.
With all of his foibles and as prickly as he could be, I love Leonard to this day . . . unconditionally. I count it one of God's great gifts to have been "the son he never had".
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