J27: Juggernaut man Frankie Capp in Worcester

In May of 2001, I had the good fortune to interview the great drummer Frankie Capp. I was working on a profile for Worcester Magazine. Invariably – especially writing to fill a 700-word feature well — not all of the conversation will be directly used. I recently found a transcription of the interview. Given the format of this column and its mission to document as much local jazz history as possible, and the level of detail that the drummer gets into, I felt compelled to run our little chat in its entirety.

First, here’s a little bio sketch of the man lifted from the Jazz Worcester Real Book: He was born Francis Cappuccio in Worcester on August 20, 1931. Drummer Frank Capp’s name may never have ascended to that of celebrity status, but in his 50-plus years in show business, he has amassed a career worthy of having a street named after him. He started at the top: His first professional job outside of Worcester was with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. He went on to work with Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and many others. These days he divides his time between playing and contracting musicians for the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Keely Smith. Since the late 1970s, he has co-led the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut, a big band with pianist Nat Pierce. He is still an active working drummer and a music contractor in the Los Angeles area. He makes his home in Studio City, CA.

Interview

I understand that you were born in Worcester. Where did you grow up?

I was born up on Hale Street, Gafton Hill. I went to Dartmouth Grade school, Grafton Jr. High and then Commerce High. My uncle used to work in Walberg and Auge [local music store]. I had two uncles that worked there but my uncle George Cappuccio, he’s in his 90s, he brought home a pair of drumsticks for me. And I proceeded to destroy all the furniture, the window sills and everything in the house – everything I could hit.

Do you recall any of your first public playing?

I have a little block as to what actual age I was, but my first playing was in the American Legion Drum Corps. I was so little that the drum was almost bigger than I was but I remember marching down Main St. Sometimes even in the rain. You know, whenever they had parades. I learned rudimentary drumming as I was growing up in my early years. Then I heard… There were a couple of drummers in Worcester. One was Joe Nozallilo. Another was Al Mercury. We are talking eons ago, I would say the late ’30s. I heard him play the high-hat beat. I had never heard that before.

Soon after that, I was about 10, the war [WWII] started. I remember listening to a radio show called “Coca Spotlight Band” and that’s the first jazz I had ever really heard. It was like the Duke Ellington Band, the Count Basie Band, Gene Krupa … all of the bands of that era used to be on every Wednesday night… at 9 O’clock they would broadcast the spotlight bands. Whatever I was doing I would stop and stick my ear to the radio and listen to the jazz. That’s what influenced me more than anything else.

Then, also during the war, the very first band I ever saw was the Duke Ellington Band. They had come in to do a one-nighter at Mechanics Hall. This was before it was remodeled, it was still used for boxing and roller skating. I remember sitting up in the balcony and looking down at these guys and … I had scene pictures of these guys. This was the Sonny Greer period. As a matter of fact, Sweet Pea [Billy Strayhorn] was even there. I remember seeing his pictures in Downbeat Magazine. Before the band had come here I had started buying the magazine for 15 cents.

This was my first experience of seeing a live jazz orchestra. Duke Ellington was always resplendent with his attire. And the band had tuxedos and boy they looked so sharp in the photos. Then here they are on the stage of Mechanics Hall. They had just kind of poured themselves off the bus. And got up on the stage. I remember Johnny Hodges kept his hat on. And Cat Anderson kept his hat on. They were wearing just regular street clothes. Nobody was dressed the way I was expecting them to look — like the pictures. Relaxed as all hell. I mean, it was like, gosh how can I draw an example.

After I saw Duke’s band, then almost weekly a band would come through the Plymouth Theatre. The very next band that I heard was the Count Basie Band with Papa Joe [Jones], Sweets Edison, Lester Young. Then a stream of bands started coming into the Auditorium. Then I heard a lot of dance bands like Tony Pastor. He came through. Les Brown. I remember hearing the Harry James at the Balalaika. I heard bands out there — Mechanics Hall (on occasion), the Plymouth Theater and the Auditorium. I remember going up to Fitchburg to hear the Dizzy Gillespie band and boy, was that an eye-opener, did that turn my head around. The wild thing is I’m standing out watching these guys and little did I know that later in life, they would be my friends and I would be working with them.

What were some of your first gigs in Worcester?

In my early teens, I was working “casuals.” In Worcester they used to call it “general business.” Out here they are called casuals. That’s private parties, weddings, dances, whatever. I used to work with a guy by the name of Paul Rhode, a saxophone player. I worked with a pianist by the name of Gretchen Morrow. She was married to a trumpet player and worked with Bob Pooley. I worked with her at the Moors. This was like a regular gig, three or four nights a week. It was a steady gig. It was probably towards the end of the war.

At the time I was going to Boston University and I was working my way through college, commuting everyday. I went to the B.U. college of music. Then I met Boots Mussulli, through a piano player Tony Gareri. He lived in Worcester. He was a close friend of Boots. We did a couple of gigs together. Boots had a rehearsal band in Milford at the Italian American club. It was like a lab band. We didn’t call it that back then because there were no such things available in that period. Today, jazz is taught in the schools and it is encouraged but back then jazz was a dirty word. I remember I was in a music appreciation class in Commerce High School — never did they play any jazz. It was the three Bs – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Talk to me a little bit about your training.

I studied piano privately and took just a couple of drum lessons. I didn’t want to practice so my mother discontinued it. I was more or less self-taught. It was the street beats. It helped my sense of time and coordination.

Did you have a band in high school?

When I was in high school there was a saxophone player who became one of my closest friends, his name is David Bournazian. He was in Classical High School. He started a band. Everyone back then changed their name. It was Dave Bernie and his orchestra. I remember we would rehearse at the American Legion Hall. I didn’t have a set of drums. So, I was playing on the marching bass drum and a deep snare drum. I’d take the tenor drums and use them for tom-toms. Anyway, my father then bought me my first set of drums. I was about 14. It was all stock charts. You know, ’9:20 Special’ and those kinds of thing.

There was another couple of black musicians back there very influential to me. They used to work at the Valhalla, down on Summer St. Howie Jefferson and Barney Price. As a kid, I used to sneak in the back and listen. I think I sat in with them a couple of times but they were kind mentors to me. Both of those were great. Back then, I didn’t know that they were black and they didn’t know I was white. There was never any racial tension in the early days
of the jazz world. Ever.

Getting back to Gretchen [Morrow]. That was my first professional thing, that I got paid for. We never got paid for things before that. It was almost jazz with Gretchen. The thing about Gretchen was that she could play any song and knew all the right changes. She taught me a lot.

Then going with Boots is the first time I ever played in a big band, 16 pieces. That’s about the time, in the early ’50s, that the Stan Kenton Band, the famous “Innovations Orchestra” with Maynard Ferguson, Shelly Manne and Art Pepper and Bob Cooper and all the famous jazz people that were in the Kenton band, they all decided they were going to stay in Hollywood and do studio work. They were tired of the road.

It was Boots who hooked you up with Kenton right?

Boots and Stan Kenton were very good friends. Boots had worked in Stan’s band. Apparently, Boots was talking to Stan and Stan said, “I’m putting a new band together right after Christmas and I’m looking for new players.” So, Boots says, “I got a drummer back here that I think you might like.”

Did you have to audition?

No, I remember I was living on Hale Street and the phone rang and my father picked up the phone and says, “Some guy in California wants to talk with you. Who do you know in California?” I don’t know anybody. “He says his name is Stan Kenton.” That didn’t mean anything to my father, he didn’t know. So, I picked up the phone and he said, “Boots Mussulli said you’re an up-and-coming drummer and I’d like to give you a shot. Would you like to join the orchestra?” I said, “I’m packed and ready to go.” I was still living at home, 19 years-old, going to school.

Stan’s first question. This was sort of my audition over the telephone. He said to me: “How big are you’re cymbals?” That’s what he was interested in. So when I told him he was happy with that so he said, “George Morte and Leo Curran” — they are still alive, George was his road manager and Leo was the band boy, they call them roadies today, but back then he was the band boy — Stan said, “Hook up with those guys and come out with them.”

I guess it was the end of January, February and I joined the orchestra. We had about a week or two of rehearsal at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood and that’s when he put this new orchestra together. So I was off.

Who was in the band at the time?

Conte Condoli was still in the band, Buddy Childers. Don Bagley, the bass player, stayed. There were a few guys that wanted to continue. I took Shelly’s place. This was around ’51. This was sort of Stan’s first dance band. He was planning on playing all the old pearls that he had in his book. The Pete Rugolos and those kinds of things. For the first time we now had new arrangements by Gerry Mulligan.

Did your experience in Worcester prepare you for the road?

Nothing really prepares you for the road until you are on the road. That’s how you learn — doing one nighters and getting on a bus after a gig and going to the next town. Nothing prepares you for that. You just have to do it.

When I joined Stan Kenton’s Band I was 19 year’s old with no experience. The only experience I had was playing in Boots’ rehearsal band. As a matter of fact, I never even worked with a bass player before that because there weren’t any bass players back then. When I used to work with Gretchen it would be piano, drums tenor and trumpet. When I was with Kenton I was really green but I could read music. I had enough experience to carry me through about 7 or 8 months on the Kenton Band.

It was fairly new as I said. It was a reorganized band and he had a lot of deadwood in the band, like me so to speak, that didn’t have much experience. Although the band lasted quite awhile with the deadwood, there were a lot of old pros still in the band that carried us through.

Why did you leave the band?

I remember we were up in Canada and Stan took about six guys and he said, “I’m going to have to let you guys go.” Then he took me into a room in private and said, “Frank you are going to be a great drummer one day, but you are not experienced enough to handle some of the heavy music that I’m playing. And it was, it was a heavy band – 10 brass and five saxes. “Although I have great confidence in you,” Kenton said. “You will be back someday. I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I found you another job with the Neal Hefti Orchestra. It’s a smaller orchestra, it only had like three trumpets, two trombones and two saxes, lighter music, easier music.” It’s really where I should have started then I would have been more prepared for Kenton. But he had enough confidence in me.

I left the band two weeks later in a club in Cincinnati and I never had to take my drums off the stage. Because the next night the Hefti band came in. Then I stayed in the Hefti band quite a long while. This was towards the end of the Big Band Era. He had to break the band up. He never fired anybody. The band just had to break up. We’d be out on the road doing two nights and then having three nights off. With a band like that you have to work almost every night to make the nut.

So, then I took my own group into the Moors. I kept working for about six months or so then I went down to New York. This was at the end of ’53, and I ran into Pete Candoli, who was working with Peggy Lee and he said, “Would you like to come to work with Peggy.” I said, “Sure I’d love it.” I work up in Montreal. Then to the Latin Casino in Philly then we came out to Cyro’s in California. Then when we came out to California is when I became a local #47 member and a resident of Los Angeles. I never moved back to Worcester. I’d go back and see my family, spend a week or two but I never … from 1953 until now, California has been my residence.

Since getting off the road, from the ’60s through the early ’80s, you did a great deal of session work, including the Beach Boys. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds of albums. I don’t really even know how many. I’ve done sessions with all different kinds of musicians throughout my career and played on countless movies and television shows. I had five or six different television shows going at the same time. I had “The Red Skelton” show, “The Joey Bishop Show,” “Steve Allen,” “Green Acres. That was all a week’s work for me. I was working around the clock. In addition to that doing jingles. Then I started doing some contracting. I was a contractor for studios. I did that for the Steve Allen.

You kept the Juggernaut band going for years as well. Are you still busy?

Not as busy as I used to be because I don’t want to … I’m no longer 30 years old, but I still play. I worked last night with my band. I’m recording. The Juggernaut. I’m working with the band at the Topeka Jazz Festival and we are playing the Playboy Jazz with Keely Smith.

So music is your life?

That was my life and it has been. I haven’t done anything else. I’ve never had another job, except in the music business. I guess I have perseverance. [Laughs, heartily] Anyway that’s it. I’ve worked with everybody and anybody that’s been in the music business. I’ve had a very successful and fun career. I must say this, and you can quote me: I have had as full a musical life as a musician could ever want. No regrets.

Any recommendations for young players?

If their passion is music. Music is a different world now. There’s very little opportunity today for pure jazz players. It’s not like it was when I was coming up. People like Joshua Redman are the exception. For everyone like him who has made it there are probably hundreds who can play real good but don’t make it. But I would not discourage them – to give up jazz. Somewhere down the road someone will find them.

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