Maestro Raymond Scott is best remembered today for his eccentric compositions, many of which have embedded themselves deep in popular culture. With whimsical titles such as “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” and “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” Scott’s numbers decorated mid-century Warner Bros. cartoons and continue to provide background set pieces for television and animation to this day. Scott was, by any account, a musical genius, with all the baggage that accompanies that term. There was more to Scott than his popular legacy though. He spent many years as a conductor of studio orchestras for CBS radio, and during the early 1940s he attempted to lead a dance band.
Scott’s real name was Harry Warnow. He studied as an electrical engineer at Brooklyn Technical High School and had enrolled in an engineering college when his older brother, Mark, who led orchestras for CBS, encouraged him to study the piano. Mark later helped him land a job at the network. Scott was intelligent, stubborn and introverted. He was also a dreamer who loved to experiment, especially with what he called “creative acoustics,” which involved producing new musical sounds through amplification with microphones.
Scott developed his own theory of music and put it to the test most famously in 1937 when he formed The Raymond Scott Quintette, a six-piece combo with himself on piano, Dave Harris on saxophone, Pete Pimiglio on clarinet, Dave Wade on trumpet, Louis Shoobe on bass, and Johnny Williams on drums. Featured on CBS radio’s Saturday Night Swing program, the sextet’s music was unlike anything ever heard before. Humorous, playful, serious, and complicated, Scott’s original numbers, which he called “descriptive music set to rhythm,” horrified serious jazz fans and delighted the public. The combo became an overnight success, recording on the Master record label and receiving film offers.
By the end of 1939, Scott was looking for other opportunities. In February 1940, he signed on to conduct the orchestra for the new Concert in Rhythm program on CBS, which featured Nan Wynn and Jack Leonard as vocalists. Then in June he made it known that he wanted to try his hand at leading a straight dance band, forsaking the oddities that had marked his previous group in an attempt to apply his theories to commercial music. CBS agreed, and the thirteen-piece Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra debuted in July.
Scott idolized Glenn Miller, admiring the famous bandleader’s perfectionism. Scott demanded the same from his new band, though to the extreme. He allowed no deviation from the written score and had a very specific idea of how a song was to sound. To help him put his ideas and theories into practice with a larger orchestra, he enlisted arranger Hugo Winterhalter, an admirer who also thought much like him. Scott also kept the Quintette intact as a sub-unit of the orchestra. The band would record for Columbia.
CBS contracted Wynn to be the band’s vocalist, guaranteeing her three songs on each radio program and recording time with the orchestra. Wynn, however, quickly became unhappy. Though she didn’t directly work for Scott, his ideas of music and singing were completely at odds with hers, and she quit the band in September after they had finished an engagement in Chicago.
Seeking a new vocalist, Scott asked Anita O’Day to audition. O’Day at the time was making a name for herself in Chicago but was still relatively unknown outside the city. During the audition, Scott was unhappy when he discovered O’Day couldn’t sing in the key in which most of his arrangements were written, but after finally selecting a song he seemed satisfied and hired her. She quickly ran into the same problems as had Wynn, lasting only three days before Scott angrily fired her after a performance in Madison, Wisconsin, in which she forgot the words to a new song he’d given her only hours before and had improvised.
Scott did not immediately replace O’Day, but by late October Jacqueline Panette had taken her spot. By early 1941, Gloria Hart had become female vocalist, leaving by early May for solo work. Anita Louise filled her place. Thelma Marland sang at some point between then and mid-October. Roberta Lee was vocalist in early 1942, replaced by Dorothy Collins in late January.
Scott had better luck with male vocalists. Clyde Burke was singing with the orchestra by late September 1940. He remained with the group for more than a year before leaving in October 1941. Billy Leach replaced him on October 24. Leach continued with the Scott through the rest of the band’s existence.
The band had a hard time keeping musicians. By February 1941, most of the original line-up had gone. Scott attracted competent musicians by paying a high salary, and by the end of 1941 the band was in trouble. Though it often attracted good reviews and filled theaters, it had failed to make a profit. Scott took three weeks off in January 1942 and announced significant changes upon his return. Those changes amounted to scrapping the band and forming a new orchestra for CBS radio spots. He kept only a few personnel, firing higher-paid musicians and hiring new men at lesser salaries. The new band also changed labels to Decca. Winterhalter had left by that time as well, leaving Scott to handle arranging chores himself. Leach and Collins remained as vocalists.
Scott seemed to have learned lessons from his experience:
Used to the precision of the Quintette, I naturally tried to get the same thing out of the band. By the time we’d get the scores down cold, the band would sound the same way. I’m trying for more of a balance with this new band… When somebody in the band makes a mistake, we don’t get excited the way we used to. Whether we’re doing ballads, swing, or our program numbers, the band and I are far more interested in getting music that collectively sounds fresh and original than we are in perfect tone or execution.
The new band continued to tour, doing remotes for the network, but Scott’s attention had shifted from dance music. In August, he scrapped the new band and returned to CBS, where he unveiled yet another new studio band and revived his Quintette, to which he attempted to recruit Cootie Williams, who had recently left Duke Ellington to form his own band. Scott continued to work with orchestras and small groups throughout much of the 1940s, touring with them often.
In Dorothy Collins, Scott also finally found the perfect singer. Collins was a young Detroit girl who became a devotee of Scott’s theories. Scott and his wife “adopted” her, and she began living at their home in 1940, studying singing. Collins continued to perform with Scott’s various groups over the years. When Scott and his wife later divorced, he and Collins married. As the 1960s rolled around, Scott had begun to experiment with electronic sounds and music. By that time, he and Collins had divorced. Scott lived to the ripe old age of 94.
Master Records was formed and went bankrupt in 1937. Brunswick subsequently reissued its recordings. ↩︎