Bandleader and pianist Freddie Slack is best remembered for his boogie woogie rhythms of the early 1940s and most specifically for the song “Cow Cow Boogie,” which became a runaway hit in 1942. “Cow Cow Boogie” defined Slack’s career, and he spent the rest of the decade trying to recapture the fame it brought him, ultimately proving unsuccessful. Slack was a very capable pianist and quite able to perform other kinds of music, and in fact he preferred to do so. His major fault, though, was not trying hard enough to break from the boogie woogie genre. Each attempt to reinvent himself seemed to lead right back to an eight-beat bar.
Originally trained on the drums, Slack attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He played in Johnny Tobin’s orchestra from 1927 until 1931, when he moved to Los Angeles. There he spent time in the orchestras of Henry Halstead, Earl Burtnett, Archie Rosate, and Lennie Hayton. In the mid-1930s he joined Ben Pollack, leaving in 1936 to work with Jimmy Dorsey. While with Dorsey’s band, Slack became friends with drummer Ray McKinley. When McKinley left Dorsey to form an orchestra with trombonist Will Bradley in 1939, Slack went with him and emerged as a key component in the new group’s boogie woogie stylings.
Slack left Bradley and McKinley in spring 1941 and formed his own nine-piece boogie woogie combo, which he called Freddie Slack and the Eight Beats. Reports at the time had Lou Levy, manager of the Andrews Sisters, financially backing Slack, with Levy cohort Vic Schoen arranging. The group recorded on Decca in June, but the recordings failed to make a splash, with Levy and Schoen apparently pulling out, as later that year Slack was reportedly writing all his own arrangements.
In early 1942, Slack scrapped his combo and built a full-sized band, signing with the newly-formed Capitol Records. Vocalists in the new group were David Street and Ella Mae Morse. The orchestra went into the studio starting in April, recording multiple sides over the next few months until the American Federation of Musicians recording ban took effect in August. Aside from his own recordings, Slack also provided orchestration for Capitol-owner Johnny Mercer and singer Margaret Whiting.
Released in August, “Cow Cow Boogie” proved a major hit, and indeed even a phenomenon. The reason for the tune’s great success came down to the timing of its release. Hit songs of that era were typically recorded by multiple artists. Due to the recording ban, however, no other label could follow-up with their own version, leaving Slack’s recording the only one available.
The success of the song helped turn Capitol into a major label and both Slack and Morse into overnight stars. They suddenly found themselves in high demand, with Morse quickly equaling and even surpassing Slack in popularity. Capitol seized on this development and began to co-bill her with the band. Slack reorganized his orchestra in September, with three booking offices fighting for the right to handle him. Capitol followed up with other Slack and Morse numbers, though none reached the same level of sales as did “Cow Cow Boogie.”
Street left the band suddenly and without explanation in November, and Morse exited in February 1943 after becoming pregnant. Sources don’t give who Slack used for vocalists when the band hit the road for one-nighters that May. Even without Morse, booking agencies continued to battle over who would book Slack’s orchestra. MCA and the William Morris agency finally asked the musicians union to settle the dispute, with the AFM awarding Slack to William Morris in July. Slack became angry at the decision and disbanded rather than work with the agency. He quickly made peace with them, however, and reorganized that same month. The new band debuted in August, with Margaret Whiting as temporary vocalist during their opening run in San Francisco. Jimmy Cook reportedly was to become the orchestra’s permanent singer afterwards, though its unknown if that happened or if Slack performed live again after the debut.
In late 1943, Capitol settled with the AFM and was allowed to begin recording again, and Slack went into the studio with Whiting and fellow Capitol acts the Brian Sisters and the Mellowaires. Shortly afterwards, he fell victim to the draft and entered the navy. His military career was brief however. Medically discharged in January 1944, he began to put together a new orchestra. Imogene Lynn became vocalist in April, and the band went on tour in August. Lynn was gone in October, with David Allen reportedly singing in late 1944. Also that year, Slack appeared in the Universal film Babes on Swing Street in which singer Marion Hutton played the role of vocalist with Slack’s band.
Slack recorded in January 1945 using singer Liza Morrow, who was brought in at the last minute. Soon after, he disbanded due to a dispute with his manager, Joe Glaser. Slack decried the lack of bookings offered to his band and wanted out of his contract. He remained inactive for most of 1945, putting together a small combo near the end of the year. In early 1946, he reunited with Morse in the studio.
In mid-1946, Slack assembled a new orchestra which debuted in San Diego during June with Garry Stevens and Dottie Ann Dare as vocalists. The new band toured the country. Stevens was gone by October, with Al Hendrickson singing that month. Morse toured with the band near the end of the year. Slack disbanded at some point before May 1947, when he organized a new seven-piece combo. In April 1948, he had an eight-piece combo with a girl singer. The following month, he organized a new fifteen-piece band. Charlotte Blackburn was vocalist later that year when the orchestra went into the studio.
Slack fades into the mists beyond 1949. He continued to perform on the West Coast, often as part of a piano duo or with his own trio. Slack wrote several songs during his career, the most popular being “The House of Blue Lights,” co-authored with Don Raye. Freddie Slack passed away in 1965.