Date Posted: 2007-10-26
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DUKES OF DIXIELAND
By Paige VanVorst
(Ed note: This release includes a DVD featuring Barry Martyn’s Legends of Jazz with a special guest, Papa Jac Assunto and his wife- Papa Jack plays some trombone and the Assuntos discuss the history of the Dukes of Dixieland, the successful band led by their late sons.We’ll take a long-overdue look at the Dukes.)
Everyone has to start somewhere in their record collecting pastime. I’m sure I’m not unusual in stating that my record collection began with the Dukes of Dixieland; six of the first seven records I owned were by the Dukes, and they survive in my collection, well-worn, as would be expected from a jazz-hungry twelve-year-old with a relatively unsophisticated record player.
There probably wasn’t a jazz phenomenon like the Dukes of Dixieland before or since. They were the right band at the right time- just as Bonanza was inordinately popular in its time so people could show off the beautiful scenery on their new color televisions, the Dukes took advantage of one of the big trends of the late 1950s- stereo.
Once everyone had their first TV set, the electronics giants sought something else to cash in on, and voila! stereo was introduced about 1957. Of course, like with anything new, there were the sophisticated audiophiles who’d been dabbling with high-end equipment for some time, but when popular-priced equipment became available, everyone threw away their beloved combination radio-phonographs with 78 rpm players, their funny little RCA 45 rpm adapters, and various tinny portable players, and bought a wonderful coffin-sized console stereo for the living room or rec room.
Everyone probably bought one of those stereo demonstration records, where the guy walks from one speaker to the other and ping-pong balls slam back and forth across the room.The then, what next?
A brilliant record promoter by the name of Sid Frey started Audio Fidelity Records, devoted to high quality stereo recordings. He was intent on beating the major labels to the market with records in the newly-standardized stereo format developed by Western Electric, but he didn’t have anything he thought would sell. While visiting Las Vegas in 1956 he the bartender if there were any groups that would sound good in stereo and the bartender suggested a group with three pianos. When Frey went to hear them, they were gone, but he heard a young dixieland band playing a Vegas engagement, the Dukes of Dixieland.
Frey signed the group to a contract and began recording them, initially in stereo even though stereo records were not yet commercially feasible. The records were immediate hits- they were colorfully packaged and introduced the notion of describing in graphic detail the steps taken to get the utmost sound on record- the brand names of the microphones, lathe, and any other gear intervening between the musicians and the record.
Frey beat the majors to the market with a stereo LP and for many years his firm was very profitable- he put out a dozen LPs by the Dukes of Dixieland and they remained in print for many years. If you go to any good-sized flea market selling LPs you could probably find multiple copies of all twelve albums- it seems like almost everyone in the US bought at least one of them.
Though the Dukes of Dixieland were overnight sensations, they certainly weren’t newcomers to the music business. When they were “discovered” in 1956, they’d been professional musicians for at least seven years and had recorded before, for no less than RCA Victor among others.
The band traces its beginnings to a series of jam sessions at the home of Frank and Fred Assunto, two youths then active in the Redemptorist High School marching band. The boys enjoyed jamming with their friends so much that they wound up with a job playing Saturday nights at Mama Lou’s Seafood Restaurant- they got $3 each but most of it went for cab fare as none of the boys was old enough to drive- Frank was thirteen and Fred was seventeen.
During the late 1940s the boys became fairly well-known around New Orleans. They played for the New Orleans Jazz Club, which was newly-formed at that time, and the boys would visit Manny’s Tavern and sit in with the George Lewis Band, which was just becoming re-established after their time in New York with Bunk Johnson. Fred Assunto got married about this time and his wife, Betty Owens, who died within the last few months, began singing with the boys’ band.
Horace Heidt visited the Crescent City i 1949 with his Pot O’ Gold radio show, which included live performances and a talent show. The boys decided to try out and spent a furious several weeks rehearsing. The band at this time included Frank Assunto, trumpet, Fred Assunto, trombone, Pete Fountain, clarinet, Tommy Balderas, guitar, Willie Perkins, drums, Artie Seelig, piano and Hank Bartels, bass. The band, which was called the Junior Dixie Band, placed first in the local competition and receive d an invitation to join the traveling caravan. They toured for six weeks and placed second, behind a girls’ singing duo, in the national competition.
The boys decided it was time to turn pro- the left Heidt, returned to New Orleans, and joined the musicians’ union. They were not an instant success- they got a few local gigs and made some more appearances for the New Orleans Jazz Club, including an appearance in a NOJC-sponsored carnival at the Auditorium.
The band acquired their name about this time. One of the bands they really admired, Sharkey Bonano and His Kings of Dixieland, was finishing up at New Orleans’ Famous Door and preparing for a road trip. The boys were poised to take over the job but needed a name. Their mother, Jo Assunto, suggested that they were like the Kings of Dixieland, but younger, so why not be the Dukes of Dixieland, to continue the royal tradition.
The Dukes of Dixieland opened at the Famous Door, a Bourbon Street landmark, on December 11, 1950 and stayed 176 weeks. During that time they became the toast of New Orleans and made their first recordings. Roger Wolfe was a popular local DJ and emceed various concerts and occasional radio broadcasts under the New Orleans Bandwagon name. He began a series of 78s in 1951 featuring local bands and put out 78s by the Dukes. They also recorded about this time for Imperial, the legendary New Orleans label best known for introducing Fats Domino to the world.
After finishing up at the Famous Door, the band acquired a manager and started taking engagements out of town. They were a success at the Preview Lounge on Chicago’s then-flourishing Randolph Street jazz strip, and they were soon in demand all over the US. There were additional recordings, for Okeh in 1953 and for RCA Victor’s Vik subsidiary, which recorded a series of albums in New Orleans, in 1955.
Fred’s wife, Betty Owens, who had been singing with the band since its inception, took a maternity leave in 1955; her place was taken by the boys’ father, Papa Jac Assunto, who doubled on trombone and banjo. Papa Jac had been a jazz musician as early as the 1920s, though he settled down to a more normal life as a school teacher while raising his family. He had a degree in Business Administration from Tulane and put it to good use taking over some of the managerial functions while touring with the Dukes.
They played Las Vegas for the first time in 1955 and in 1956, when they were discovered there by Sid Frey, they had a sixty-four week booking at the Thunderbird.
Once their Audio Fidelity records started coming out, they became a very hot property and toured nonstop. Frey was honored as Man of he Year by the Friars’ Club in 1959 for his introduction of stereo recordings and the Dukes played for the event. They were equally honored when he presented them with a check for $100,000 as an advance against future royalties.
The Dukes continued to work at the top of the music business- they were featured at Carnegie Hall in 1959, appeared on most of the major TV variety shows (Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, etc) and were tapped by Audio Fidelity to record sessions with Louis Armstrong in 1959 and 1960. The boys moved to Las Vegas and played there when they weren’t on the road.
The band left Audio Fidelity in 1961 and made a series of increasingly-commercial LPs for Columbia, adding more show tunes to their repertoire, engaging in concept albums- folk songs, spirituals, etc. After three years with Columbia they moved to Decca for a series of albums which veered between relatively traditional repertoire and covering the hits of the day- A Taste of Honey, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sunrise Sunset and the like.
Fred Assunto died in 1966 and the band replaced him with a number of players including Dave Remington, Charlie Borneman and Ed Hubble, among others. The traveling life seemed less attractive at this time and Frank and the rest of the family ultimately sold their homes in Las Vegas and returned to New Orleans. The band last recorded for Decca in January 1968.
The Dukes continued to thrive in New Orleans- they had a long booking at the Royal Sonesta Hotel and later worked at Al Hirt’s club when he was touring. They had some excellent players in the band, including the legendary Don Ewell, who spent a long time as an Orleanian during his stay with the Dukes.
Frank Assunto was on the verge of signing the lease for his own club in New Orleans when he died of a heart attack on the eve of Mardi Gras, 1974 at the age of 42. Papa Jac retired from music about the same time and lived until 1985.
The Dukes of Dixieland were reorganized following the death of Frank Assunto under new management and continue to tour and record to this day; a large number of New Orleans players have moved through the band over the years.
The band featured a large number of sidemen over the years- their constant roadwork was tiring, though there were probably few bands in the business that worked more than they did. Many of their sidemen were stars in their own right before and after they were with the Dukes. The clarinetists alone seem like an all-star parade: Pete Fountain, Harry Shields, Tony Parenti, Jack Maheu, Kenny Davern, Jerry Fuller. Pianists included Stanley Mendelson, Gene Schroeder and Don Ewell. The rhythm section included names like Barrett Deems. Charlie Lodice and Nick Fatool.
This time out we’ve got a DVD featuring Papa Jack Assunto playing the trombone as a guest artists with Barry Martyn’s Legends of Jazz. He and his wife were gracious guests on the show and give a nice summary of the band’s history. It must have been hard for them to lost such talented sons at a relatively young age- Fred at 36 and Frank at 42, presumably worn out from the rigors of constant touring.
The Dukes are relatively forgotten today unless you are of a certain age - if you bought a stereo when they were introduced in the late ‘50’s, you certainly had a few of their “Studies in High Fidelity Sound,” as their Audio Fidelity albums were always billed. The Assuntos chose the successful world of the traveling band rather than staying in New Orleans (they reportedly first left for the North when they had to share billing with a stripper in the Bourbon Street club where they were working) but the family were always close to New Orleans and returned to great success there when they tired of the road. The tradition is being maintained both by the current band- billed as “New Orleans’ Own Dukes of Dixieland” and via a websits maintained by descendants of the Assuntos: www.thedukesofdixieland.com. The current band also has a website: www.dukes ofdixieland.com.
(Ed note: This author wants to acknowledge the excellent article A Short History of the Dukes of Dixieland by Harry R Porter with the assistance of Bob Byler and Antonio Deano Assunto, which is available at the Assunto family’s website. It is an invaluable source of information on the Dukes.)