Bandleader at bay

Arranger-conductor Onzy Matthews proves that only the strong survive

Onzy Matthews is in high dudgeon. His mellifluous voice can't hide the fact that he's wire-taut. His triumphs, he'll barely discuss. His woes, he'll chronicle so minutely that it interrupts the flow of whatever tale he's telling, a narrative tack that's quite at odds with Matthews' measured, linear style as an arranger and conductor.

In May, in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas, the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs funded a show set up by Ken Cooper, First Presbyterian's director of worship and music, that staged selections from Duke Ellington's uncompleted songwriting project Sacred Concerts. Matthews conducted, and under his baton the music had all the flow and elegance we associate with Ellington. Which makes sense--Matthews and Ellington were collaborators in the last years of Ellington's life. Matthews has also conducted and arranged for Della Reese, Lou Rawls, and Ray Charles; cut LPs for Capitol; and done a slew of good things for a man so presently embittered.

Born in Fort Worth, he was raised for a while in East Dallas, where his main contact with music was in church. He was about to take up mandolin when his mother moved him to Los Angeles. On a piano in a recreation facility there, he practiced with such single-mindedness that the supervisor gave him a key to the place.

Word got out about the young Texan woodshedding at the rec center and haunting rehearsal halls where L.A. guns such as Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray honed their acts. Al Jarvis, a DJ who also had a local TV show, arranged for Matthews to come on the show and sing "Makin' Whoopee" with--of all people--Betty White.

"She was married to this guy who had a lot of influence at CBS, Allen Ludden," says Matthews, explaining that it was the mid-'50s, and the new medium of TV was not ready for a biracial "Makin' Whoopee." "They were real strait-laced people, and she had concerns about singing it with me. They just couldn't do that on TV, so I sang it myself."

Matthews took music courses and eventually made the acquaintance of Dexter Gordon. Even then, the reedman was a tower of cool (somewhat literally, at six feet six inches), with a subglottal voice, jazz patois, and hooded eyes.

"Then came an interval I didn't see Dex for a few years. Maybe he was on one of his 'vacations,'" says Matthews--referring to Gordon's intermittent prison terms for dope. "When I did see him again, I'd written some arrangements, and he decided to teach me a lesson by inviting the best musicians he knew to a rehearsal. We had the hall for three hours, and after two, the band took a break. Dex didn't move. He looks up and says, 'OK, y'can tell me, who really wrote these?' I said I did, and he said, 'Hmmm, y'got a gift from God.'"

Through 1959 and 1960, Matthews fronted a hard-swinging band in which Dex played sax. In '62 Dex expatriated, but Matthews stayed in L.A., where he was scouted by Nick Venet, then a young turk among producers with Capitol. When a songwriter submitted a demo of laughably bad quality, the old guard invariably passed it on to Venet.

"They said, 'Send it to Nick--he likes this kind of shit,'" Matthews recalls with a grin. "Nick brought it to me and said it was rough, but he heard something there; he heard a big band there. The song was written by John D. Loudermilk; it was 'Tobacco Road.'"

Venet had produced a Lou Rawls LP, Stormy Monday, that sold zip back when Rawls was copying Johnny "Guitar" Watson's delivery, monologues and all. Then came Matthews' killer version of "Tobacco Road." Two versions of Rawls singing the song circulate: One is with a combo, purportedly cut live in a nightclub, though it is in fact a studio recording. Matthews' original is the cut with the big band, and the one that put Rawls on the map.

Now in good graces with Capitol, Matthews cut two albums of his own, Blues With A Touch of Elegance and Sounds of the Sixties. On a promotional jaunt to New York, he met Duke Ellington's son Mercer, who'd led bands of his own but was a disc jockey at that time. Through Mercer, Onzy met Ellington's nephew Michael. The two were out on the town, grooving to Roy Eldridge on 54th Street, when Michael split to visit Duke backstage at the Rainbow Grille in Rockefeller Center. He was soon back, claiming Duke wanted to see Onzy pronto.

A singer--one Frank Link--had found favor with Duke, who put him up in a hotel with the intention of using him on a recording. Link had thought Duke (at that time preoccupied with his Sacred Concerts) would be doing all the writing and arranging, and voiced disappointment that the task had fallen to Duke's ally, Wild Bill Davis. Duke drily asked Link who he'd prefer to have doing his book, and Link replied, "Onzy Matthews."

"Man, I just left Onzy!" said Michael, who at a gesture from the maestro dashed back to 54th to retrieve him.

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