By February 13, 2013 3 Comments Read More →

Soupy Sales, jazz legend?

We have no idea why this popped into our consciousness today, but we thought we’d talk a bit about Soupy Sales. For those of you who are baby boomers around 60 years old, you’ll remember him for his daytime kids show on ABC, Lunch with Soupy, or perhaps from his many TV game-show appearances and numerous short-lived variety shows in the 1960’s and ’70’s.

For Detroiters, he was much more than that. Based here from the late 1940’s until the early ’60’s, Soupy also had a late night, local talk show on Detroit’s Channel 7 called Soupy’s On. It ran from 1953 until he left for LA in the early ’60’s, and one reason it might be remembered nationally is Sales’ love of jazz.

Detroit in the early 1950’s was a hotbed of live jazz clubs, and when national acts were in town for gigs, Sales often featured them on his nighttime show. Famously, the only surviving footage of trumpeter Clifford Brown is the bad kinescope recording you see embedded above. While the recording is particularly poor, the music’s great, and there’s an extra treat of a brief interview of Brownie by Sales at the end.

Brown was working with the quintet he co-led with Max Roach at this time, and in the video, you’ll hear him and Sales talking about show times for his Detroit appearance at the Rouge Lounge, which featured national acts in the early ’50’s. The Rouge was located in River Rouge, Michigan, just across the city limits from Detroit’s southwestern border. It’s an empty lot now, but you can go reminisce by looking for the 1900 block of Coolidge Highway (local note: that’s Scahefer in Detroit) in River Rouge. It’s across the street from a gas station. Perhaps Clifford’s ghost is around. Not much else is.

What puzzles us is what might have happened to the rest of these Soupy’s On kinescopes. Kinescopes, by the way, were films–typically 16 mm—of live video, made with a specially-mounted and focused camera positioned in front of a video monitor. This was the only way to preserve live television in those days before magnetic video tape. The quality is typically horrific, as you can see from the above example, but a piece of something great is always better than nothing.

Sales managed to dig this up when Ken Burns was putting together his “Jazz” documentary for PBS back in the 1990’s, but nothing else seems to have surfaced. We would love to know if there are Soupy Sales jazz archives somewhere. We can’t find any, but we do know that Sales was a lifelong lover of jazz. Any help out there?

Miles Davis, interestingly, appeared on Soupy’s show six times in the mid-1950’s, when Davis was living in Detroit. Davis remained here, on and off, for most of 1954 and part of 1955, sometimes playing extended gigs at The Blue Bird Inn on Tireman, but often simply laying low, and making one his first concerted efforts to kick the heroin habit that had dogged him since his earliest encounters with Charlie Parker in 1945. Wouldn’t these videos be amazing to see? Imagine the chats between Miles and a by-now-familiar-with-him Soupy.

As for dating this video, it would typically have been difficult, without contacting Burns’ production people, or Sales’ estate. In our case, however., some interesting detective work lets us pin it down to an actual week in time.

A few weeks ago, we discovered a fascinating little website called The Concert Database. Yes, click on the name for a link to it. It’s a Detroit-centric labor of love, and features venues and dates of shows going back to the 1920’s for damn-near every venue that ever hosted live music in Detroit and the rest of Michigan. It also has the same info on national venues for acts that are from Michigan. Truly amazing, and it allowed us to pinpoint the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet’s show dates at The Rouge Lounge to the last week of January, 1956. In other words, less than six months before Brown’s tragic death in a car crash.

For some trivia, we found out that Clifford’s band came into The Rouge right after singer Carmen McRae left. How cool is that? As for who is on the video, it’s definitely not the rest of the Brown-Roach quintet, which featured Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and Richie Powell on piano. It’s most likely Soupy’s very hip studio band, “Two Joes and a Hank” which was led by long-time Detroit bandleader Hal Gordon. Personnel included Joe Otto and Hank Trevision, but the notable members were Joe Messina and Jack Brokensha.

Guitarist Messina was one of the “Funk Brothers”, the house band at Motown’s Hitsville, USA studio, and who appeared on every Motown hit from the late 1950’s until the label moved to LA in the early ’70’s. Locals here know that Messina is a great jazz player, the author of his own guitar pedagogy—The Interval Study Method—and still very much with us.

Percussionist Brokensha, who just died a couple of years ago, was also a member of The Funk Brothers, and is author of the vibes parts on at least some of the most famous Motown records. More importantly to Detroit jazz fans was Jack’s longtime prominence on the local jazz scene. Originally a drummer, and originally from Australia, he gravitated here in the late ’40’s, concentrated on vibraphone, and never left. A local treasure who’s missed.

So, not exactly the Brown-Roach quintet, but pretty tasty players with some serious cred. Now you know. And now we wish we could get our hands on some Soupy jazz. By the way, thanks to the website Detroit Kids Show for helping us fill in the blanks on Soupy’s band.

Posted in: Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Videos

3 Comments on "Soupy Sales, jazz legend?"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Mark Stryker says:

    Entertaining post, but I thought I would offer a few corrections since in 1996 I wrote a long piece for the Detroit Free Press about the Clifford Brown video and Soupy Sales’ love of jazz (and interviewed Soupy, among others). A slightly longer revision of my piece will be included in my upcoming book “Made in Detroit: Jazz from the Motor City (Univ. of Michigan Press).

    1. Ken Burns had no role in the discovery of the film. Soupy found the tape in his garage in 1994 when searching for kinescope material at the request of a documentary producer at A&E.

    2. Soupy only had a few shows kinescoped to document his comedy characters. It was just lucky that he happened to capture Brownie. The only other musicians on film that survives from the show were Eddie Heywood Jr., and Erroll Garner.

    3. Soupy’s On’s ran from 1953-59.

    4. The correct date of the appearance is cloudy. Per Brown’s biographer Nick Catalano, the band opened at the Rouge Lounge on Feb. 20, 1956. However, the 20th was a Monday and you can hear Brown in the interview say that they open “Tuesday.” If Catalano is right about the general timing, my guess is that Brown was on Soupy’s program on that Monday, before opening at the club the following night. I don’t know Catalano’s source, but he was in close contact with Roach while writing his book and I know that Roach kept meticulous diaries about when and where he played. But having said that, a few pages earlier Catalano says the group was in Detroit for an engagement at what he suggests was a new venue for them, the Loop Lounge, starting Jan. 30. Odd: I’ve never heard of a place called the Loop Lounge and it doesn’t show up in Bjorn and Gallert’s exhaustive history “Before Motown.” Might he meant the Rouge Lounge rather than Loop Lounge? And it seems unlikely, though possible, that the band would have place twice in Detroit in the space of a month.

    Meanwhile, the Concert Database website is not always reliable — I don’t know what their sources are. But the dates the site gives for Brown/Roach at the club 1/26-2/1 make no sense: That’s a Wednesday through Thursday, a midweek-to-midweek 8-day block that runs completely contrary to the way any club would ever book. I’m looking into this as I write …

    5. Per John Szwed’s biography of Miles Davis, Miles spent a total of about 5 months living in Detroit in two chunks, from Dec. 1953-March 1954, and then again from Aug. 14-Oct. 2, 1954.

    5. Jack Brokensha told me he didn’t leave the road and settle in Detroit and join the studio band on the show until its final year in 58-59. I’d be distrustful of the other names given for who might be playing behind Brownie until speaking with a first-hand source. I need to call Joe …


    Mark Stryker

  2. jridetroit says:

    Thanks for the truly arcane clarifications! You, me, and about twelve other guys probably care about any of this, but I do appreciate the input and corrections. Damn, we’re geeks. 😉 Anyway, as an avid reader of your writing on both jazz and classical music in the Detroit Free Press, I’m tickled that you stopped by. Sorry it took so long to “approve” your worthy comment. Come back anytime!

  3. Francis Shor says:

    To follow up on Mark Stryker’s comments, my new book on “Soupy Sales and the Detroit Experience” highlights the jazz scene in Detroit in the 1950s and myriad jazz artists who appeared on Soupy’s evening television program:

Post a Comment