Pianist Freddie Slack led smart bands between 1942 and 1949. Many of them featured crafty arrangements that delivered a spectacular snap. They also had marvelous sidemen. Players at different points in time included guitarist T. Bone Walker, trumpeters Mannie Klein and Ray Linn, reed players Barney Bigard and Les Baxter, bassist Howard Rumsey and Harry Babison, arranger Paul Weston, guitarists Remo Palmieri and George Van Eps, bassist Clyde Lombardi, and drummers Irv Kluger, Nick Fatool and Ray McKinley. Singers were Johnny Mercer and Ella Mae Morse.
Morse (above) may have been part of the reason why Slack isn’t better known today. A white vocalist, she was a singer ringer for Ella Fitzgerald. Mercer’s corny “black voice” vocals for the band didn’t help either. Slack played boogie-woogie piano and the band sailed along on arrangements that gave them a Count Basie feel. But if we evaluate the band’s instrumentals minus the vocals, Slack was years ahead of his time. There was a hip and loping quality to his boogie rhythm and thunderclap brass section.
Born in Wisconsin, Slack began as a drummer and led a band in high school. Next came xylophone and then piano at 13. When his parents moved to Chicago in 1927, Slack studied piano at the American Conservatory and was exposed to Earl “Fatha” Hines and Bix Beiderbecke. In the 1930s, Slack joined bands with some of the best players in the business, including Harry James, Irving Fazool and Shorty Sherock. Slack eventually wound up in Los Angeles, and in 1937 he was recruited by Jimmy Dorsey. Two years later, he became the chief arranger for the Will Bradley-Ray McKinley band.
In 1941, Slack formed his own band. In April 1942, Johnny Mercer, songwriter Buddy de Sylva and record-store owner Glen Wallichs launched Capitol Records. Slack was one of the label’s first stars and Cow Cow Boogie, with Ella Mae Morse, became the labels first gold record. In the late 1940s, Slack’s career sagged as R&B ascended and African-American bands led by Louis Prima, Lionel Hampton and others delivered a more authentic and raucous boogie sound.
Among Slack’s crack sides were Doll Dance (1942), Mister Five By Five (1942), Riffette (1942) and Old Rob Roy (1942). Slack also recorded a song called Hey, Mr. Postman in 1946, with a story line that bears some similarity to the Marvelettes’ song Please Mr. Postman in 1961.
Freddie Slack died in 1965 at age 55; Johnny Mercer died in 1976 at age 66; and Ella Mae Morse died in 1999 at age 75.
JazzWax tracks: Probably the best package of Freddie Slack’s 1940s material is Mosaic Select’s three-CD Freddie Slack box here; you’ll also find compilations at Spotify.
JazzWax clips: Here’s Ella Mae Morse with the Freddie Slack Orchestra in 1943 singing Cow Cow Boogie…
Here’s Riffette from 1942, arranged by Gaye Jones and T. Bone Walker on guitar…
And here’s Benny Carter’s Bebop Boogie, with Jimmy Knepper on trombone in 1947…
A special thanks to David Langner.