The Artie Shaw Business

Note: This post first appeared as an article in the literary magazine Black Lamb.

I got a phone call at the office in the late eighties, and the voice on the other end said, “Mr. Daniel? Please hold for Artie Shaw.” I got to know that voice well over the years, the voice of poor Larry Rose, who had the dubious honor of being personal assistant to the world’s greatest windbag, because Artie Shaw made a point of never doing his own dialing. But the voice I got to know much better was that of the great man himself, because Artie Shaw made a point of never stopping once he started talking. “Please hold for Artie Shaw” meant: look at your watch and write off the rest of the morning or afternoon. Like many an autodidact, Artie knew everything and wanted to say it all.

The first call concerned my letter asking him to write a blurb for a book we were publishing, E. S. Goldman’s Big Chocolate Cookies, a brilliant novel, one of whose themes was jazz. Artie agreed to read the galleys and a week later he gave us a gracious blurb, for which we were grateful. He clearly had read the novel and liked it. (Over the years we learned that he read constantly, although as far as we knew he never paid for a book. He asked for free copies of many of our publications, and for free copies of each of my books as it was published, and he paid for each of them in the currency of a long critique delivered over the phone.)

It wasn’t long before we discovered the real reason Artie agreed to do that blurb. Turns out Artie, who quit playing the clarinet in 1954 after being arguably the best in the business, in history, had been spending the rest of his life writing fiction. He told me on the phone that he was in the midst of writing a huge (circa 300,000 words) autobiographical novel called Side Man. I congratulated him but reminded him we were a tiny press with little money and small-scale distribution. Then he said, “Well, I’ve also written some short stories.” At that my ears perked up, and I agreed to look at a manuscript. So within a week Artie Shaw showed up at our office in downtown Santa Barbara with a cardboard box full—a big box, and totally full—of short stories. Susan and I took him to lunch (in all the time we knew him, Artie never picked up a tab), and talked about what the book might be.

As a fan of the big band era, I was eager to like the stories, and I liked enough of them to make a fairly slim but good book called The Best of Intentions. They were semi-autobiographical stories about Artie’s various exploits: as a musician, as a U.S. Navy bandleader, as a marksman, as a dairy farmer, as a marrier of movie stars, and of course as a writer. I figured Artie Shaw still had enough fans to make the book sell like hotcakes.

Wrong. The book received reasonable reviews, and it was fun to brag about having a household name on our list, but it took us at least ten years to sell two thousand copies. On one occasion, the reconstructed Artie Shaw Band (which he licensed but did not play in or direct) performed at a theater in Santa Barbara. We set up a table outside the theater, and after the sold-out show Artie Shaw stood behind the table to autograph books for his fans. Artie begrudgingly signed autographs on pieces of paper and record albums, but we sold only four books. Luckily Artie didn’t take it personally; it just showed what a bunch of idiots the American public had become and probably always were.

Then he came back to us and offered to let us reprint his giant autobiography called The Trouble With Cinderella, which had been published by Harper, then by DaCapo, and was now out of print. I told him again we were too small a publisher for—

“How much would it cost?” he asked.

So we worked out a deal. Susan and I republished the book under our Fithian Press imprint, which we used for author-subsidized books, and he picked up the tab. Most of the books were delivered to his house in Newbury Park, a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, and he, with the help of Larry Rose, sold copies by mail order and eventually through his website. We (Fithian Press) sold a few hundred copies over the years, through our distributor. The book went through two printings.

The more Susan and I got to know Artie, and we got to know him well, the more we liked him: entertaining, witty, bombastic, opinionated, and genuinely fond of us. But the more we got to know him the more he drove us nuts: he was a terrible listener, an egomaniac, and (as I said) bombastic and opinionated, which can get tiresome in a hurry, and he talked on and on. We spent evenings at his house in which he had to be the star of every conversation. He was the best name-dropper I’ve ever known. He had played poker with Samuel Goldwyn, hunted with Hemingway (Artie was a champion marksman), fished with Faulkner, argued about literature and feminism with his good friend Helen Gurley Brown (“she likes my stories, but won’t print them in Cosmopolitan, for some odd reason”), and of course he knew everybody in show business, everybody, and didn’t mind spreading the dirt. Lana Turner, he told us, murdered Johnny Stompanato, because Johnny had threatened to carve up her face, and the only thing Lana had going for her was her good looks. Mel Tormé was a great guy, but he was a violent husband. “Benny Goodman used to go on and on about reeds,” Artie told us. “’Benny, why are you always talking about reeds?’ I asked him. ‘Well, Artie,’ he says, ‘I don’t know about you, but I happen to play the clarinet.’ So I told him, ‘Benny, you play the clarinet. I play music.’” Sinatra? “He was a real prick.” And so on.

We got to know friends of Artie. One by one, such friends (including Aram Saroyan, Gene Lees, and other notables, plus a couple of girlfriends) dropped out, because, as Artie said, “Gene Lees? He went nuts.” “Aram went nuts.” “Midge, she went nuts.” Translation: they couldn’t put up with him any more. I’m sure that, over the course of Artie’s life, Ava went nuts, Lana went nuts, Evelyn went nuts, Kathleen went nuts, Betty went nuts…and these were only some of his wives. His own son, Stephen, went nuts. We never quite went nuts, and when Artie finally died, we still were on good terms with him.

But even if you were one of the ones who went nuts, even if you tired of never getting a word in edgewise, you had to admit he was a fine raconteur. He told me a story about how he was once having trouble with his lead trumpet. (“He wasn’t the best in the business, because I couldn’t afford Harry James, but he was damn good.”) This trumpet player was smoking a lot of reefer and his timing was getting erratic. Artie told him he had to stop. The doper insisted that he played brilliantly when he was high. “So I made a deal with him,” Artie said. “I said, ‘Tonight you stay off that stuff and I’ll smoke some of it myself. If I think it makes me a better musician, then fine, you can keep smoking it. If not, you have to give it up.’ So he agreed, and that night I got high as a kite and he stayed sober. And after we quit that night I told him, ‘Well, I’ve got to admit, that stuff is great! Man, I never played better in my life.’ He shook his head and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Your timing was off, your intonation was terrible, you played too loud…Artie, you stunk up the joint. I’m never smoking that stuff again.’”

Why did Artie give up the clarinet? For one thing, he claimed he could always hear the difference between how well he played and how well he wanted to play, which was perfectly, and not being perfect drove him nuts. Also, he was tired of grinding out the same arrangements of the same songs night after night. “They always had to hear ‘Begin the Beguine’ exactly the same way. That was excruciating.” He didn’t respect or like his fans, and, as he put it, he got tired of being in the “Artie Shaw business.” Tired of the fame, tired of the attention. So tired, in fact, that whenever he had a meal at a restaurant (with somebody else picking up the tab), he would always lead the subject back to the question of why he gave up the big band business, and his voice could be heard louder and louder, until at least twenty people around at neighboring tables would be able to clearly hear him say, “I simply got tired of being in the Artie Shaw business!”

We received our last call from Larry Rose on New Year’s Eve, 2004. His boss, he told us, had died the day before, at the age of ninety-four. Artie was finally out of the Artie Shaw business, as was Larry, and so were we. We tried to get Artie’s lawyer, the executor of his estate, to let us reprint The Trouble with Cinderella, or at least let us sell whatever copies were left in Artie’s possession when he died, but we never heard back from the lawyer. My guess is the lawyer was glad to be out of the Artie Shaw business, too. Maybe the lawyer went nuts.

In any case, we have missed Artie Shaw ever since. I even miss the two-hour phone calls. All that remains are a couple of books—the last copies of The Best of Intentions and The Trouble With Cinderella—on our shelves and some records, cassettes, and CDs of the music he had quit playing fifty years before his death. It still sounds as close to perfect as a clarinet can get.


15 Responses

  1. I think you should do a book on ‘our life with Artie.’ Brilliant story. I have a few people who occasionally subject me to hours long phone calls. They aren’t famous or half as interesting as Artie must have been.

  2. Great article. I was such a movie fan when I was a kid. While I read this couldn’t help smiling. Ego maniacs can suck the life out of a conversation.

  3. Wonderful!!! Madeline

  4. I love this piece and love to read about Artie and listen to his long ago music, but not sure I’d want to spend an evening with him. Unless I could hide in a corner with a good book.

  5. John, this was the funniest piece I’ve read in all year. Are those two books of Artie’s still in print somewhere? I know — I can look it up. (-:

    Of course I had to look up “Begin the Beguine” on You Tube. That led to “Stardust” and then Hoagy Carmichael’s version of same, and somehow that led to Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth dancing to Elvis Presley singing Bongo-something — and that led to half a dozen musical excerpts featuring Donald O’Connor — there’s no end to the entertainment those old-timers provided!

    Thanks for making my day.

    Pat Browning

  6. Great, entertaining blog, as always, John. I’ve known a couple of people like that and they’re always fun to talk to–if you have a couple of days to spare.

  7. This is a fascinating post! How fun.

  8. Wonderful. I could hear Artie Shaw playing as I read your story, John. My three uncles were musicians and all played, at one time or another, with the big bands. Peggy Lee rehearsed in my grandmother’s living room in Queens, NY. A magazine article — Harper’s, The Atlantic, etc. — or a book, as John Lindemuth suggests, would be great reading, I think.

  9. Thank you everybody, for your kind comments. All said, Artie Shaw was an entertaining guy and a brilliant musician.

  10. the music business can be cruel; I learned how to enjoy the artistry by understanding and feeling it. It has nothing to do with money except one needs necessities (primarily) before the luxury of artistic beauty can be heard and or felt……….Ben Tolly

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