Correspondence: Clifford And Soupy

Mark Stryker, the jazz columnist of the Detroit Free Press, read the Clifford Brown posting and wrote:

Given Soupy’s Detroit connections, I once wrote a story about Soupy and the Clifford tape not long after it first surfaced in 1996. There’s no link but I’ve copied some details below, as well as some of Soupy’s other memories.

Comedian Soupy Sales, a television pioneer, began rooting around his Beverly Hills garage in 1994 at the request of a documentary producer at the A&E network. Eventually, he exhumed a film canister containing a handful of episodes of “Soupy’s On,” his five-day-a-week, late-night variety show, which aired live from 1953 through ’59 on WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) in Detroit.There, nestled among the pie-in-the-face comedian’s collection of goofy characters like Wyatt Burp and Ernest Hemingbone and Charles Vichysoisse, was five minutes of priceless jazz history — the only surviving film of Clifford Brown, one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz.

The film features Brown — or “Brownie” as he was known to friends and fans — roaring through the Eubie Blake ballad “Memories of You” and George Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good” in early 1956, just months before he was killed in an auto accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the age of 25. Brown segues between the two tunes without a break, and the segment concludes with a brief interview with Sales. “When we’d come into Detroit, we’d play the Rouge Lounge at that time, but we’d always do maybe five minutes or so to promote the gig on Soupy’s show,” says drummer Max Roach, who, with Brown, led an influential quintet from 1954-56 and also played on Charlie Parker’s seminal bebop records in the ’40s.”In this particular instance, Clifford just ran down and did it with the rhythm section that was on Soupy’s show. But it’s an unusual tape in that all you see is Clifford from different angles. You can see the way Clifford’s chops and embouchure are and the way he used his right hand; it’s a fabulous study in the way Clifford dealt with the the trumpet. It’s just unbelievable.”

As word of Sales’ Indiana Jones-like discovery spreads through the jazz community — and videotape copies of the Brown film are traded like talismans — speculation has become rampant among musicians and fans: What other treasures lie buried in Soupy’s archives? The answer, tragically, is almost nothing, even though Soupy’s On featured the most remarkable collection of jazz talent in television before or since.A short list of the jazz giants who performed on the program includes: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Chet Baker, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Illinois Jacquet, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis, who lived in Detroit for five months in 1953-54, was a regular, as were Detroit-bred stars such as Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan and Yusef Lateef. But these were the days before videotape, and unless a program was shot on film or saved via a kinescope — a film of the TV screen — it simply vanished. That was the fate of “Soupy’s On,” except for a few episodes that Sales had a friend film in order to document his comedy characters. It’s serendipity that Brown happened to be on a program that survived. “Don’t forget, you’re talking about 1955, and nobody ever thought about taping stuff like that in those days,” says Sales, 70, speaking from a hotel in Huntington, W.Va., where he was performing.

Other than Brown, the only jazz musicians captured on Sales’ private films are pianists Eddie Heywood Jr. and Erroll Garner; Heywood is a minor figure, and film of Garner is plentiful. Even the shows near the end that were actually videotaped were all erased in the ’60s by the station in order to recycle tape.


Sales was the biggest TV star in Detroit in the ’50s, making a reported $100,000 a year by 1958. His noontime show for kids, “12 O’Clock Comics,” was so highly rated that he replaced “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” on the ABC network for eight weeks during the summer of 1955.”Soupy’s On” ran from 11 to 11:15 p.m. in the early days, growing eventually to a full 30 minutes. Each show featured sketch comedy, talk and a healthy dose of jazz. The show’s theme song was Charlie Parker’s bebop anthem “Yardbird Suite.”Detroit’s thriving club scene ensured a steady stream of top jazz performers, who Sales says were paid scale — $25 — to appear on the show. There was never any rehearsal. A soloist would choose a standard and a key that everyone was comfortable with and just play, says Jack Brokensha, who played drums and vibes with the Australian Jazz Quintet in the mid-‘ 50s and left the road to become a staff musician at WXYZ during the final year of “Soupy’s On.””It was live TV, and you only got two or three minutes per tune. And I remember one night Thelonious Monk played ‘Round Midnight’ and you couldn’t stop him, and we had to roll the credits over him,” says Brokensha of Bloomfield Hills.

Though not a musician, Sales was an aficionado who hung out in clubs and knew jazz like an insider. The show’s original producer and director, Peter Strand, remembers that Sales’ knowledge of the music led to the kind of incisive interviews you never see today.”It was not idle chat. Soupy knew why they wrote what they wrote, so they opened up and could be themselves,” says Strand, now of Glenview, Ill.Sales says he knew at the time that the nightly parade of jazz stars was special. “That always occurs to people who star in their own shows . . . and it’s only afterwards that everybody else says, ‘We should’ve saved that.’

Soupy Sales remembers a few of the jazz greats who appeared on “Soupy’s On.

“Ella Fitzgerald, vocalist: “Ella was wonderful. She was just the sweetest lady who ever lived. She was like sugarcoated; you just wanted to hug and kiss her. Anything you wanted she did.
“Duke Ellington, bandleader: “With Duke, you were in the presence of greatness, you know. He sat down and played “Satin Doll” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

Chet Baker, trumpet: “There you’re looking at a potential big movie star. He was like another James Dean had he kept himself straight. He had such a beautiful face, and he was really a nice guy, a great personality, and he could sing. It was a shame to watch a man destroy himself in front of your very eyes.”

Billie Holiday, vocalist: “Some people had a concern when we had her on. They said, ‘You gonna let that junkie on?’ And I said: ‘Listen, I have her on ’cause she’s a great singer. I don’t care what she does in her private life.’ She came on and sung her ass off. . . . She sang ‘Fine and Mellow’ and ‘Lover Man.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Stan Getz, tenor sax: “He was so whacked out. He said, ‘Just let me know when you want me to go up there.’ And he’d play, and we could not get his attention ’cause he played with his eyes closed. He got through and said, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘We went off the air five minutes ago.’ “

Milt Jackson, vibes: “He once was doing the show, and he pulled out a glasses case, and a joint fell on the floor, and I stepped on it. Afterwards, I said, ‘You look underneath my shoe, you’ll see something you dropped.’ He said, ‘Oh, thank you so very much.’

Thanks for keeping the blog — it’s become part of my everyday routine.

Mark Stryker

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  1. mugsey mcdonald says

    That was a truly interesting, well-written and humane blog – regretful without sentiment yet amusing and inspirational. I’ve just plonked you in my favourites.