by Hans Eekhoff
(from the liner notes of The Little Ramblers on Timeless Records)
From the second half of the 1930's some of the famous Big Bands in the USA featured small groups from their ranks at concerts and on record. The bands of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman had their "Clambake Seven", "Gramercy Five", and "Swing Wing" respectively, to name a few. The idea however, was not new. In the early 1920's a small contingent from the well-known dance orchestra the "California Ramblers", began recording for several American record companies. Although the main orchestra played engagements, mostly in summer, in Atlantic City and New York, it was actually a recording band, its members being mostly employed in other bands or as free-lance musicians.
The California Ramblers made hundreds of records in the 1920's sometimes under their own name but often, for contractual reasons, under pseudonyms such as "The Golden Gate Orchestra". Their smaller offspring, usually a five to eight piece combination, recorded under a wide variety of names such as The Goofus Five, The Vagabonds, The University Six, The Five Birmingham Babies and, on the Columbia label, as The Little Ramblers, thereby not disguising the relation with the parent orchestra. The nucleus of the group was its strong rhythm-section consisting of Irving Brodsky (piano), Tommy Felline (banjo) and the by then already famous pioneer of the bass-saxophone Adrian Rollini. Born in 1904, Rollini had mastered that rather unlikely instrument in the early 1920's as well as, not without humor, two musical oddities from the other side of the scale: the "Goofus" and the "Hot Fountain Pen", respectively a harmonica-like device with keys, usually shaped like a small saxophone; and a small high-pitched clarinet. From 1922 to 1927 and, after a spell in England and Europe, Rollini was the backbone of both the California Ramblers and the small groups and his presence on records is always evident and unmistakable. In the 1930's and 40's he did mainly radio and studio work, usually as pianist and vibraphonist and remained a successful musician. He died in 1965.
His best work on bass-saxophone was captured in the 1920's by the Okeh label (as The Goofus Five) and by Columbia as the Little Ramblers. The first four titles recorded by this band were without Rollini's bass-saxophone. On Deep Blue Sea, composed by Blues singer Clara Smith and based on an old American folk tune, Rollini can be heard playing his goofus after a kazoo chorus by drummer Stan King. It's presumably also King who does the scat vocal behind Bill Moore's trumpet solo (and at the same time weakening the story that it was Louis Armstrong who was the first to invent and record a scat chorus in 1926). Rollini is again behind Moore's lead towards the end. Rollini is again on the goofus in I'm Satisfied Beside That Sweetie Of Mine and again a scat vocal from King followed by a kazoo/trumpet-mouthpiece duet by King and Moore. A solo from Moore follows with Rollini in the background. Rollini's bass-sax comes into play on the next title: Those Panama Mamas, an out-and-out jazz tune. His bouncing style gives the band that extra drive that marked practically every record he played on. After the opening chorus there is an alto solo by another long-standing member of the California Ramblers, Bobby Davis. He was an excellent reedman with great talent for improvisation and was featured on hundreds of records in the 1920's. Rollini follows with some stunning bass-sax breaks before Bill Moore's trumpet solo. Bobby Davis solos again on clarinet, followed by Stan King on Kazoo. The final chorus is an outstanding bit of jazz with a final break from Rollini which, more than anything, sums up his great talent. On the next recording Prince Of Wails, Bill Moore puts down an excellent lead in the first chorus followed by solos from Davis, Kitchingman, again King's kazoo and Rollini. Irving Brodsky and Davis solo before the end chorus. The title was a pure jazz tune, composed by the Chicago based pianist and band leader Elmer Schoebel and, played in a nice up-tempo, the band manages to improve on the usual stock arrangement.
For the next sessions the band was enlarged with trombonist Tommy Dorsey (long before his glory-days in the 1930's when he had his famous swing band).
Red Nichols (who by this time was one of the most wanted trumpet players and who already made countless records with other groups) replaces Bill Moore and adds a lightness to the ensemble work that is characteristic for him. His excellent lead in the verse of Cross Words Between My Sweetie And Me, immediately following the first chorus, shows tremendous skill. A duet between trombone and bass-sax alternates with solo spots by Tommy's older brother Jimmy Dorsey, who replaces Bobby Davis. It is followed by a vocal chorus by Billy Jones. By this time short vocal choruses had become en vogue and although they usually sound rather corny today, they add a nice period atmosphere to the recordings. The words of these 1920's pop tunes were often well articulated and not without humor.
Don't Bring Lulu, another pop tune of the day has fine solos by Nichols (who already improvises the first chorus), Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey and King's kazoo, but it is Rollini's quiet work in the background that carries the number. Look Who's Here! was the first title by the Little Ramblers to be electrically recorded. The new system was an enormous improvement and from this point the quality of those recordings is quite startling. The timbre of Rollini's bass-sax is particularly well captured by the new recording method.
Got No Time was the first title issued by Columbia in Great Britain at the time as by the 'Denza Dance Band' and even though its true identity was kept from the British public, it sold very well. Solos are by Jimmy Dorsey, Nichols, Tommy Dorsey.
The next session again brought a few changes in personnel. Roy Johnston, an experienced trumpet player and long mainstay of the California Ramblers replaces Nichols while Bobby Davis returns to replace Jimmy Dorsey. Melancholy Lou starts off with a Rollini break followed by a short solo, again by him. After a piano solo by Irving Brodsky both Davis and Tommy Dorsey take a full solo chorus. Roy Johnston solos much in the Nichols style. Deep Elm was one of the jazzier compositions by the famous pianist, composer and bandleader Willard Robinson. Played in a very relaxed tempo, solos are by Davis on alto, Dorsey and again Davis on clarinet. For the next session Tommy Dorsey was replaced by the New York studio musician Herb Winfield about whom little is known but appears to be an excellent trombone player. Fallin' Down is again an outstanding jazz tune with brief solos and breaks by Davis, Johnston, and Rollini while the ensembles are played in a wonderfully loose, almost dixieland, style. I Love My Baby was a run-of-the-mill pop tune of the day but the Little Ramblers manage to make a first class record of it. A wonderful ensemble chorus with Rollini woven into the melody is followed by a break from Davis (in the last bar of the chorus, without the rhythm section and about 20 years ahead of its time) and a solo on alto. Another ensemble chorus is followed by a solo from Winfield who proves to be very competent. Tomorrow Mornin', a little known tune, features a few bars of straight tenor sax playing, according to Jazz Records by Sam Ruby or Fred Cusick, and followed by a solo from Bobby Davis and Johnston with Winfield in the background and some masterly breaks and a solo from Rollini. The first take from In Your Green Hat is issued here for the first time. Compared with the originally issued take - 3 it is interesting to note the differences in solos by Bobby Davis, the breaks from Rollini and the solo from Johnston. The somewhat silly lyrics are partly sung by two vocalists, one of whom is Arthur Hall.
Could I? I Certainly Could features Bobby Davis, a vocal by Arthur Hall and a superb solo by Rollini. At this time Herb Winfield was apparently replaced by Abe Lincoln but their style and tone sound very similar. Here Comes Malinda, another very jazzy tune, has a first chorus by Davis on alto followed by a lengthy solo from Johnston, breaks by Rollini, a solo from Brodsky and another solo from Rollini. The text of I Wonder What's Become Of Joe if one listens to it with a bit of double-entendre, becomes rather hilarious especially when sung by a male vocalist, in this case Arthur Fields. There are excellent solos by Davis and Johnston. From the same session is Hot Henry! with a plain double-entendre vocal this time, again by Athur Fields and solos from Davis, Johnston, Rollini and Lincoln.
On the next title, And Then I Forget, Ed Kirkeby (born 1891) manager of the California Ramblers and responsible for these recordings by the Little Ramblers as well, does the vocal. He sounds perhaps somewhat amateurish but certainly doesn't lack humor.
Kirkeby had a long career in music, forming his own publishing firm and booking agency with which he, in later years, managed such artists as Fats Waller and the Deep River Boys.
He wrote an excellent biography of Waller and was still active in the 1970's.
Among solos by Davis, Lincoln, and Chelsea Quealey (who replaces Johnston) is some of Rollini's best solowork ever recorded.
My Cutey's Due At Two-To-Two Today again with a vocal from Kirkeby, starts with a chorus by Lincoln, again proving to be an amazing trombonist, followed by Quealey. After the vocal there is some inspired alto from Davis and a few breaks from Rollini. It is uncertain if Play It Red composed by Harry Barris (who knew him) was written for Red Nichols but the fact that the latter recorded it with his 'Five Pennies' (albeit under the name of 'The Original Memphis Five' and the melodic line strongly suggests Nichols'
playing style, might support the thought. Chelsea Quealey was one of the few trumpet players who could satisfactorily play in Nichols style and that is what he does here. After almost three years Rollini has taken out his goofus again and is followed by more solos from Quealey, Rollini (on bass-sax), Brodsky and Davis.
The last title the Little Ramblers recorded for Columbia was Swamp Blues.
As if to say goodbye it is played in an almost solemn atmosphere, with a lot of beautiful solowork from Quealey, a clarinet solo we believe is Jimmy Dorsey.
Rollini on bass-sax, Quealey again, Davis on alto and a very lyrical Rollini towards the end. The number starts the same way their first record started; with Rollini playing goofus.
It looks as though the band had come full circle. Soon after this session Rollini, Davis and Quealey left the California Ramblers and went to Europe, only to return some two years later. By that time dance music and jazz had changed significantly and the era of the California Ramblers and its smaller units was past.
If you would like to order the Timeless Records' CD of The Little Ramblers you can do so through Worlds Records or direct from Timeless Records.