By Leigh Morris
At the time Red Norvo played on conductor Victor Young’s radio program, he also was appearing with Ben Bernie’s orchestra at the College Inn located in Chicago’s Sherman House hotel.
During one of his College Inn appearances in 1932, famed bandleader Paul Whiteman strolled in, or perhaps he staggered as he was said to be drunk that night. Nonetheless, Whiteman was impressed by Norvo – so impressed that he hired him for NBC. Norvo’s career was in flight.
Also during this period, Norvo made his first phonograph recordings under his own name. The creative recording sessions featured Benny Goodman on the clarinet and Norvo on the marimba.
While a member of Whiteman’s orchestra in 1932, Norvo met the great jazz singer Mildred Bailey, popularly known as the “Queen of Swing.” Despite her fiery and unpredictable temper (or maybe because of it), the pair would marry. Norvo formed a band and soon Bailey was the featured singer. Soon, Norvo and Bailey became known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” In time, the couple’s marriage began to crumble, but Bailey continued to record with Norvo until illness sidelined her in 1945. Norvo and Bailey did divorce, reportedly in 1945.
Many sources cite Bailey as a disruptive influence within Norvo’s orchestra and inner circle. Nonetheless, Norvo defended Bailey, who died on Dec. 12, 1951, until the end of his life.
Norvo gave up the acoustic xylophone following World War II in favor of the electric vibraphone. He also was pioneering be-bop music. Norvo put together the “Congo Blues” recording session that featured be-pop leaders Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker along with leading swing artists. You can hear it on the Web (www.youtube.com/atch?v=zA0KohMZ8io), where you will find other Norvo recordings.
In 1946, Norvo married Eve Rogers, the sister of West Coast jazz artist Milton “Shorty” Rogers. After moving from New York to California in the late 1940s, Norvo and his wife formed a small group.
In the early 1950s, Norvo formed a trio that quickly gained fame for its innovative arrangements. Norvo would follow this by forming a quintet. In the late 1950s, Norvo appeared on a TV special with Benny Goodman and then went on a European tour with the acclaimed clarinetist.
In 1957, Frank Sinatra was a regular at Norvo’s appearances at the Desert Inn, Palm Springs, Calif. The next year, Sinatra hired Norvo to appear with him at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Norvo then joined Sinatra for a 1959 Australian tour. Sinatra’s association with Norvo lasted another 20 years.
In his book, “Jukebox Saturday Night,” author Richard Grudens quoted Sinatra:
“The higher up you get in this business the more opportunity you have to work with the people you want. Red is a man I have tremendous respect for, musically and personally. I’ve always wanted to work with his band.”
One of Norvo’s trademarks was feigning anger during his performances. He would then rip the bars off of his vibraphone, throw them to the floor and walk off the stage. Audiences loved it. One of these scenes is captured on film, which can be viewed on the Web (http://theworldsamess.blogspot.com/2010/05/red-norvo-loses-it.html). Unfortunately, the person who posted the film didn’t realize the tantrum was part of Norvo’s act.
Norvo suffered a partial loss of hearing in 1961 as a result of an infection and the discharge of a gun near his ear while at a firing range. He wore a hearing aid until his death.
Perhaps the greatest tragedies of his life occurred when his son Kevin died in the early 1970s. This caused him to drop out of sight for two years. He did resume performing and touring. However, after suffering a severe stroke in 1986, Norvo retired.
Norvo died on April 6, 1999, in Santa Monica, Calif. His wife passed away in 1992.