Talking to Howard Lucraft in 1999

Possibly you think of Russ Garcia solely as a superb jazz arranger. In Hollywood, he is equally acclaimed as a film composer and a symphony man.

Russ, and his young wife, have spent the last few years just travelling the world in their sailboat. They are now domiciled on a New Zealand isle. Notwithstanding, Russ is still extremely musically active and in great demand world- wide.

Russ was born in Oakland, California, on 12th April 1916. He attended San Francisco State College and then studied with the famed Tedesco (and others). In high school he was a trumpet/arranger leading to local bands and then to Horace Heidt and Al Donahue.

Garcia jazz arrangements have been prominent for Buddy de Franco, Anita O’Day, Oscar Peterson, and Sam Most (among so many others). His dramatic film scores are features at Universal, Disney, Warner’s and NBC.

Humorously and modestly, Russ laughs at his first films, which he did with Dick Hazard. Titles were ‘Radio Secret Service’ and ‘Operation Haylift’ (dropping food from the air to cattle). “You can imagine what kind of films they were,” Russ admitted.

He went on: “I’ve had some weird jobs in this business. Once they flew me to Las Vegas to film with Jayne Mansfield. She did a striptease to Night Train. Purposely she bumped off the beat because she wanted to do it again and again. Zaza Cabor, Bette Davis; I have hundreds of such stories!”

Russ’ first really major job was in radio. He scored a drama every seven days. The network also had a show every week with a name act—like Dinah Shore, The Mills Brothers, Frances Langford. The conductor got sick and Russ was called in. “I must have done a good job,” he said, “because they called me for next season. Then they had me write two arrangements, which they liked, and I became staff arranger at NBC.” Later the NBC music chief (“a mad Italian”) told the network heads “not to send him any more stupid directives.” The whole orchestra was fired, including Russ, of course.

Russ took a job at the then famous (long defunct) Westlake School of Music, in Hollywood. There he taught a daily, three hour arranging course. His students included “most of Les Brown’s band, Stan Kenton’s brass section, Bill Holman, Bob Graettinger and Gene Puerling.” He recalled: “A very good thing came out of this. I wrote an outline (on arranging) with musical examples. This became my book ‘The Professional Arranger.’ And that silly thing has been selling about 40 years. It’s all over the world in five languages.” Following Westlake, Russ became the busiest ever with arrangements for all the top bands and singers. Then came a long stint as staff arranger at Universal Pictures (“Benny Carter and Pete Rugolo were also there”).

After I5 years working “flat out” at Universal, Russ and his wife took off in their little boat. Starting in Florida they sailed across the Pacific via the Caribbean. “It was a wonderful trip, via the Florida Keys, Bahamas, Jamaica,” Russ informed.

Russ talked enthusiastically of his very early beginnings in music. Every Sunday morning he would be fascinated to listen to the Oakland Philharmonic, on radio. His brother bought him a comet. He learned to play it and formed a band at his high school. He remembered: “I said I must do an arrangement. So I bought a piano copy and had to put everything in the chart. Then I looked analytically at stock arrangements. When I was 10 or so years old I wrote an arrangement for the Oakland Symphony. I still have it. There are some good ideas in it. But, like every first arrangement, I put everything in it.”

How did Russ get into pictures—his start at Universal? Well, you will remember when Henry Mancini was doing ‘The Glenn Miller Story,’ at Universal. They asked Hank: “Who can take down the Miller records, note for note.” Hank replied: “Send for Russ Garcia.” So that’s how Russ commenced in movies.

Russ pointed out that many good composers find that film writing is a very different art. “I took Quincy Jones through his first two films. Quincy gave me ASCAP (performance fees) for any cues that I wrote that he didn’t give me a sketch for.” Universal gave singer Bobby Darin the composing for one film. Darin gave Garcia just eight bars of melody and Russ scored the whole film. Darin told Russ: “I didn’t recognise my theme.” Russ told him: “Sometimes we turn the theme around for film.” Later, in a TV talk show, about the movie, Darin said to the interviewer: “Sometimes I turn the theme around for a film.” Russ mused: “Those were the bad old days. Now I’ve got a lovely wife, much younger than I. I’ve got my beautiful Bahia faith which keeps me on which is logical, keeps me on track. At my age I’m still working, all over the world. I do work for television in Prague. I try to wear two hats—my big band hat and my symphonic hat.

“I do a few concerts in New Zealand (now my home). They don’t pay much but I love it there. I used to write music for money. Now (with Bahai faith) I want to do good in the world. We use our talents for the good of others. We teach life skills. We teach 100 kids trustworthiness, honesty, self–esteem. We teach them sneakily, with music.”

This article was first published in Crescendo & Jazz music, December, 1999

Copyright © 1999, Howard Lucraft. All Rights Reserved