Remembering past bandleaders, musicians, arrangers and ballroom operators.
Late Eli Rice, Prominent Midwest Bandleader, Once was Oshkoshian
From minstrel show performer to shoeshine parlor operator to prominent Midwestern bandleader was the path followed by the late Eli Rice, a one-time Oshkosh man who will be recalled by many an older resident of this city.
From the ranks of musicians who worked with Rice’s bands from 1925 to the early 1940’s came men who went directly to such famed orchestras as those of Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Andy Kirk, County Basie and Duke Ellington.
“Eli’s band was known as a school for young musicians,” recalls Sylvester Rice of Los Angeles, one of the bandleader’s two sons. “The result was if you had worked for Eli, you were ready.”
Born in Lawrence, Kan., on April 12, 1879, Eli Rice traveled with shows as a singer and dancer while in his late teens and continued his show business career after his marriage.
Beside performing, he “doubled in brass” by helping Mrs. Rice who was cook on the private show car. It was about 1903 or 1904 that they left the show – Gideon’s Minstrels, Sylvester things – in Appleton.
Opened Peanut Stand
Informed that Oshkosh was a “life wire” city, they came here, and Rice opened a peanut stand at the corner of Main and Algoma. Later on, he operated a shoeshine stand at the corner of Main and Waugoo, and also tended furnaces and did odd jobs.
“He was an avid baseball and boxing fan,” Sylvester Rice says, “and could quote any baseball player’s or boxer’s record a person could name. As a youngster, I heard many a spirited argument around the stand.”
The senior Rice was also sort of an unofficial “town crier” and used to walk up and down Main Street announcing scores and upcoming Oshkosh games.
Sang at Wedding
For several years, no one here was aware that Eli Rice was a retired performer until one day a customer whose basement he was cleaning heard him sing while working and persuaded him to sing at her daughter’s wedding reception.
He dug into his old trunk and on the night of his “debut” appeared in full dress, top hat and opera cape. “Needless to say,” Sylvester Rice comments, “he created quite a sensation. He immediately caught on and was in demand for many affairs.”
Later on, Eli Rice sang throughout the state at county fairs, dances and band concerts, and went out on many bond and Red Cross drives during World War I.
The Rice family moved in late fall of 1923 to Milwaukee where Eli sang in several night clubs. Early in 1925, he organized his own band – a six-piecer known as the Dixie Cotton Pickers – and played his first engagement as a bandleader at Pine Gardens, Iron Mountain, Mich., on Easter Sunday of 1925.
As his reputation and popularity grew, so did the size and territory of the Eli Rice orchestra. His band toured throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and other Midwestern states, interspersed with long engagements in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. By the mid and late 1930’s, the band’s travels had extended into the South and to the West Coast.
Sylvester Rice, the band’s original drummer and a member off and on for a number of years, recalls that “road life” in the 1920s was a snap compared to what it is today.
“Jumps were short, from 20 to 75 miles, and a number of places we played furnished a big midnight supper for the band. In many cases, dancers would follow the band for almost a week – I often wondered when some of those youngsters ever slept.
“By playing repeated engagements, the band made many friends, and life in general was pretty pleasant,” Sylvester recalls fondly.
Eli Rice’s best bands, in his son’s opinion, included the original 1925 outfit – “a group of ambitious young musicians, eager to make a name for themselves” – and the 1930-31 group, a precision band which featured a remarkable brass section comprised of Eddie Tompkins and Joe Thomas, trumpets, and “Keg” Johnson, trombone. All three later made names for themselves with nationally known orchestras.
“We figured we were ready for big-time in the East,” Sylvester Rice says, “and were willing to sacrifice to do it, but Eli vetoed the idea and, as a result, the group disbanded.”
The 1933 band, organized in Houston, Texas, by drummer Al Dunn and brought North by Eli for the summer and fall, was also a great band that should have gone places.
“Eli,” according to his son, “had the knack of drawing the best out of a musician. Though he wasn’t a musician, he had a good ear and knew what it took to make it. In later years, we ‘graduates’ realized how right he was in his preaching and lectures.”
Early in World War II, Eli Rice tried to maintain his band but lost so many men to the Armed Forces that he finally gave up, and he and Mrs. Rice went into defense work in Minneapolis.
Died in 1951
“At the age of 70,” says Sylvester, “my dad still had a yen to start another band. I did my best to dissuade him and finally talked him out of it.”
The veteran bandleader died in Minneapolis on Aug. 28, 1951. His voice was still good even at the time of his death.
“The sister at the hospital told of how he used to lead the group in his ward in singing and how she enjoyed his singing of the Irish songs,” Sylvester comments.
Born in Oshkosh in 1905, Sylvester Rice would have become a violinist if he had complied with his father’s wish. But the youngster’s sole ambition was to become a drummer and that he did, earning money for a snare drum and lessons by shining shoes and doing odd jobs. Later he was to study with the late Clifford “Snags” Jones, a famous jazz drummer of the 1920’s and ‘30’s.
Began As Drummer
Sylvester began his professional career as a drummer when he played a Longfellow School social center dance for $2. With the late Clarence Draeger, an Oshkosh banjoist, he next played with a group known as the Royal Garden Jazz – named after a famous Chicago cabaret of the early 1920’s – and then organized his own small band here, known as the Paramount Serenaders.
After the family left Oshkosh, Sylvester played drums with his father’s band and with such other Midwestern orchestras as those of Cecil Hurst and Bernie Young in Milwaukee, Grant Moore on a Midwestern tour, and Billy Minor in Detroit.
From 1937 until 1953, when he moved to Los Angeles, he headed his own bands in Milwaukee. Sylvester is still active as a drummer, playing drums with Millard Lacey’s concert band and taking miscellaneous engagements in Los Angeles night clubs.
Born in Oshkosh in 1914 was Sylvester’s younger brother, Richard “Dickie” Rice. Also a drummer, he sang or played in Milwaukee with the orchestras of Eli Rice, George “Shuffle” Abernathy and Bernie Young. He settled in Los Angeles after his discharge from the Navy at the end of World War II, and has worked regularly with night club bands since then. Dickie has also done quite a bit of motion picture work.
By John W. Miner, Northwestern Staff Writer
[Source: Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin), dated June 28, 1962]
Richards, Shirley M.
Shirley M. Richards, Big Band Singer, TV Performer
Shirley M. Richards was a 4-year-old in pigtails when she began singing with the orchestra at the old Cinderella Theater in St. Louis.
As an adult, that girl from St. Louis was the blue-eyed brunette whose voice earned her a place at the mike with orchestras and big bands lead by the likes of Russ David and the late Ted Weems.
"She was cute and funny - she did comic songs and ballad songs too," David said. "She was the kind of singer that could pick an audience up. She wanted to please the people, and they all knew it."
Miss Richards died Aug. 25, 2001, of complications from lung disease at her home in Affton. She was 77.
At age 8, Miss Richards was performing in stage shows as a "singing teacher" at the old Ambassador Theater with the late organist Milton Slosser.
After she graduated from Cleveland High School, Miss Richards was featured at the old Coronado Hotel. She left St. Louis for New York, where she performed and toured with the Chuck Foster Orchestra.
Miss Richards later went to Chicago to perform at the Ambassador West Hotel. During that time, she appeared in a television show for the Treasury Department's victory bond drive.
After eight months in the Windy City, Miss Richards returned to St. Louis, where she appeared with the Novel-Aires at the old Chase Hotel's Steeplechase lounge.
While performing at the Steeplechase, she met Ted Weems, who asked her to join his big band. During her three years with Weems' orchestra, Miss Richards performed on several records and appeared in a movie short.
When she left Weems, Miss Richards sang with Orrin Tucker's orchestra for several years. She then returned to Chicago to co-star on a WENR television show.
Miss Richards eventually came home to St. Louis, where she sang with the Joe Schirmer Trio and Billy Blair & Co. She also performed occasionally with Russ David and appeared on his "Tri-City Fan Fare" television show from the Missouri Athletic Club.
In 1965, Miss Richards retired from music and became a systems analyst at National Cash Register Co., now NCR Corp., in St. Louis. She later worked in the accounting department at McCormack, Baron & Associates Inc., from which she retired in the 1980s.
Miss Richards was a member of the Musicians Association of St. Louis, part of the American Federation of Musicians. She was also a member of St. Dominic Savio Catholic Church in Affton.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. today at St. Dominic Savio Catholic Church, 7748 Mackenzie Road, Affton. Interment will be at Mount Olive Cemetery.
Miss Richards had no immediate survivors. Memorial contributions may be made to a charity of the donor's choice.
[Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), dated September 1, 2001]
Nelson Riddle, Oscar-Winning Composer, Dies
Los Angeles - Oscar-winning composer-arranger Nelson Riddle, famed for his work with Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt and for his Theme From Route 66, died Sunday at age 64.
Riddle, who made a comeback with Miss Ronstadt in her What's New? and Lush Life albums of richly orchestrated old standards, died at 6:54 p.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of cardiac and kidney failure, hospital spokesman Ron Wise said.
Riddle won an Oscar in 1975 for music adaptation for the score of The Great Gatsby, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and a Grammy in 1958 for Cross-Country Suite.
His 1962 composition, Theme from Route 66, made it to No. 30 on Billboard magazine's pop charts that year, and was one of the first television show themes to be recorded and commercially released.
Riddle was taken to the hospital Monday, and his six children and second wife, Naomi, spent most of Sunday with him, said his son, Christopher. "He slipped into a coma at 7:30 this morning,' he said.
Riddle, a native of Hackensack, N.J., had suffered liver problems for years, and "he had been getting weaker in the last six months,' Christopher Riddle said.
In 1983, the What's New? album became the No. 3-selling LP in the U.S., selling more than 3.5 million copies.
The Lush Life album in 1984 sold more than 1.5 million copies, and a recently completed third album with Miss Ronstadt has yet to be named, the younger Riddle said. It is slated for release later this year, he said.
But it was for his work with Sinatra that brought Riddle his greatest fame, both on records and on TV, where he provided the music for The Frank Sinatra Show from 1950-52 on CBS and from 1957-58 on ABC.
Later, Riddle and his orchestra provided the music for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in, The Leslie Uggams Show, The Tim Conway Show, The Julie Andrews Hour and The Helen Reddy Show.
Besides wife Naomi and son Christopher, survivors included the eldest son, Nelson Riddle III, and daughters Rosemary Ann Acerra, Bettina Marie Bellini, Cecily Jean Finnegan and Maureen Alicia Riddle. All the children were by Doreen Moran Riddle, who died in 1980 from cancer.
[Source: Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), dated October 7, 1985]
Sinatra: Riddle Was A Genius
Los Angeles (UPI) - Frank Sinatra called his longtime composer-arranger, Nelson Riddle, a genius who was responsible for much of his enormous success as a singer.
Riddle, whose lush arrangements provided background for singers as diverse as Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt, died Sunday night of heart and kidney failure.
"I am completely shocked and saddened over the loss of my friend, Nelson Riddle," Sinatra said in a statement released Monday. "He was responsible for at least half of my career as a vocalist. To say that I will miss him sounds like such an empty phrase. May God rest his soul."
A memorial for Riddle will be held Thursday at Westwood Village Mortuary.
Riddle died at Cedars Sinai Medical Center with his family at his bedside, a hospital spokesman said. He was taken to the hospital from his Bel Air home Sept. 30.
Riddle was best known for his long association with Sinatra, which included such albums as "Songs for Swinging Lovers," but he worked with many of pop music's biggest stars before his career declined in recent years.
Three years ago he made a comeback, collaborating with Ronstadt on "What's New," an album of torch songs that evoked the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. The album was a hit, rising to No. 10 on Billboard magazine's charts.
He scored such television series as "The Untouchables," "Naked City" and "Route 66" whose them song hit the pop charts. He also scored such movies as "Merry Andrew," "Oceans 11," "Robin and the Seven Hoods," "Lolita" and "Come Blow Your Horn."
His five Academy Award nominations included the score of "The Great Gatsby," for which he won the Oscar in 1974. His "Cross Country Suite" won a Grammy in 1958 and his haunting 1956 composition "Lisbon Antiqua" won a Gold Record.
Riddle is survived by his second wife, Naomi, and six children by his former wife, Doreen.
[Source: Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), dated October 8, 1985]
Rogers, Charles E.
Charles E. Rogers, Goshen’s well known bandmaster, died at 12:30 this morning of apoplexy, with which he was seized early last Tuesday morning. Mrs. Rogers died similarly on Dec. 31, last. Mr. Rogers was one of the best known residents of northern Indiana, his profession bringing him in contact with many persons and his genial nature impressing his personality favorably on all acquaintances. After residing at Middlebury some time he removed to Constantine, Mich., thirty years ago, and ten years later came to Goshen, where he had since resided, gaining prominence as the organizer and leader of Rogers’ Band and Orchestra, which filled engagements for seventeen consecutive summers at the New York Chautauqua and many winters at Defuniak Springs, Fla. His health had been failing since last summer, but the death of his wife caused a rapid breaking down, and the end has thus soon followed. Mr. Rogers was about 62 years of age. He is survived by his brother, Charles E. Rogers of McBain, Mich., and an adopted daughter, Mrs. Warren Burns of Chicago. Mr. Rogers was bandleader and bugler in the Twenty-ninth Indiana infantry and later in the Eleventh Michigan cavalry. For the past sixteen years he and E.C. Wilson have conducted a music store in Goshen. The funeral will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Revs. Cissell and Vannuys officiating. The Knights of Pythias and Elks will assist the Grand Army of the Republic and the column will be headed by a band made up of Rogers’ Band, Trumpet Notes Band, Elbel’s Band of South Bend and other musicians if the invitations forwarded are accepted. Mesdames Florence Herbert and E.L. Cummings of Elkhart are nieces of the deceased.
[Source: Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), dated January 24, 1903]
Tony Rose, Band Leader, Is Dead
By Associated Press
Nashville, May 9 – Death had removed today a familiar figure in Nashville musical circles who turned late in life to politics.
Tony Rose, about 60, cornetist, bandleader and city councilman, died here of injuries suffered in a fall last week. He was elected to the council last spring.
For many years he conducted bands at the state fair. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American war and the Philippines insurrection.
[Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee), dated May 9, 1940]
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