Bobby Shew was born to play trumpet in the most exciting ways and the most creative times of music.
He rode out the amazing era of American big bands; he played in orchestras behind the biggest of big name stars on the Las Vegas strip; and he was a studio musician playing on the soundtracks in Los Angeles for some of Hollywood’s blockbuster movies.
“I shared some remarkable times,” Shew said in a telephone interview from his home in New Mexico. “It was amazing to get caught in the ambience and enjoy the unique experiences. In the setting of any orchestral performance, it was all about finding your kinds of birds of feather, concentrating on brotherhood and team work, all about avoiding any hostilities. Some days, I sit down and remember the days and tears come to my eyes.”
Shew is coming to Saskatoon. He will be the star of a performance at The Bassment, home of the Saskatoon Jazz Society, on March 14. Then on March 16, he will be sharing his talent with Dean McNeill and the University of Saskatchewan.
There will be a free afternoon lecture at Quance Theatre at 2 p.m. and he will be guest artist with the University Wind Ensemble, also at Quance, at 7:30 p.m.
With big name stars, the greatest he worked with was Elvis Presley.
“There was no one greater and I played with many of them in Las Vegas. He’s the guy. I still get cheques every 90 days for the royalties I earned while playing on his recordings,” he said with a laugh.
“Aside from playing in the house orchestra at the Hilton International, I was also a professional copyist, working out all the arrangements. I’d have to take them up to Colonel Tom Parker in a penthouse. Elvis would greet me and he knew my name. Hey, I was just a little country boy and I had to learn to get past the nervousness. I wasn’t really one to hang out with the stars; I just wanted to do my job.”
But there was one mid-December morning at about 4 o’clock where Shew was among those who went Christmas shopping with Elvis.
“You have to understand that Elvis was guarded so well that the Hilton blocked off the rooms on the immediate three floors below the penthouse. There was security on the floors, security at the elevators. Elvis seldom got the chance to go outside or he’d be mobbed.
“On this one night, I was lucky to be part of a bunch who went shopping with Elvis. He came out of the room in disguise. They even had a band member dress up as Elvis so he could be a distraction for all of the admiring girls. One store opened its doors. We walked through. Elvis would buy 20 of these, 20 of those, 20 or 30 of anything he wanted. That’s a night of shopping I’ll never forget.”
For seven years on The Strip, he was in bands behind Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, Steve Allen and Paul Anka — some more demanding than others. He said Tom Jones “was so cool and could charm you with that smile.”
But to get to Vegas, Shew had to learn the musical ropes with some of the last of America’s great big bands.
He joined the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, two years after Dorsey died in 1956, and the band was being led by Sam Donahue. He was invited to a room with Charlie Shavers, one of the best trumpet players in the business, but one who was diagnosed with narcolepsy.
“That meant he could fall asleep any time, even on stage. Sam would go over, touch him and tell him we’re in the middle of Dark Eyes. Charlie was the featured soloist; I was in the section. He was a gracious, friendly person, a joy to be around,” said Shew.
“Sam was gentle, friendly, quite different from what Dorsey was supposed to have been. One night, we’re playing I Only Have Eyes for You, backing Frank Sinatra Jr. and The Pied Pipers. He asked me to hit a high note; I didn’t, but Sam was encouraging. A few nights later, I pinched, pressed and prayed and hit the high note. Sam told the audience about the feat and they all applauded.”
Shew joined the Woody Herman band because “I wanted to be in a band that played more jazz and I was moving to another group of great players. Changing bands is like a school of hard knocks; it is never an easy life. The difference between the two was that Dorsey played three-week stands; Herman was night-to-night. Herman’s bus was like a rat trap, without toilets.”
One of his best friends was Della Reese, who sang jazz and gospel and was an ordained minister. From 1994 to 2003, Reese played God’s Angel on Earth in a television series, Touched by An Angel.
“When my wife, Lisa, and I moved from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, we moved into an apartment. We went to see Della one day, but said we couldn’t stay long because we were going to look for furniture. Della was living in Bel Air and she told us go to the garage and take whatever we wanted. That was the kind of person she was. She’d known my wife in her dancing days and I can say the three of us acted like we were the Three Musketeers.”
While making music for movies, Shew seldom got to meet the stars.
“But one day, we were at Paramount Studios during the filming of Grease, and I met Olivia Newton-John in a way I’ll never forget. There were revolving doors leading to the washrooms. We both stepped into the same door, collided and we fell to the floor. What an unlikely way to meet the star of the movie!”
Shew has been in the business for 60 years and in those times, he’s had Canadian connections. He remembers playing with NORAD’s band (the U.S.-Canadian air defence command) in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw in the early ’60s. He worked with Goulet when the Canadian truck driver became a Las Vegas idol. He played with Canadian legends like Bobby Herriott, Maynard Ferguson and Tommy Banks. He spent two years at the University of Alberta, introducing the university’s jazz program.
With NORAD, the band played 250 to 260 days a year, sometimes in areas the rest of the world has never seen.
“One concert was about two and a half miles from the North Pole, in a little community on an ice floe which had six or seven buildings and maybe 30 to 40 people. They had us play in a Quonset hut. Where there were military people stationed, we went to entertain them.”
He’s also designed trumpets for Yamaha.
“You can change the platings, the thickness of the metal, enhance the vibrations, but a trumpet is still basically a trumpet. We produced one for Yamaha that sold an astronomical number — 500,000 — and we’re working now on a new custom-made, high-grade horn.”