Unsung Hero: Ollie Mitchell works ‘established groove machine’ for history books

Wrecking Crew’s Ollie Mitchell kept big band alive.

In a 2008, critically acclaimed documentary about the Wrecking Crew, trumpeter Herb Alpert of the Tijuana Brass gave all thanks and praise to the 1960s-‘70s “established groove machine” for making him and other pop artists of the time sound good. He wasn’t alone. Everyone in the music and entertainment industry credited this group of talented L.A. session musicians for providing the soundtrack to all our lives, from the Beach Boys’ distinctive California surfer style to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and all points in between.

The work of the Wrecking Crew can be heard on nearly every hit from that era, whether it’s the Bay City Rollers, Donny Osmond, and the Carpenters, or the Beatles, Four Tops, and the Fifth Dimension.

But for Wrecking Crew trumpeter (one of three used) Ollie Mitchell, it was all tedious, mass-manufactured work for good money, and little else. The big band maestro was used to workin’ the dance floor, playing for and groovin’ to big band names like Harry James and Duke Ellington, with some rock ‘n roll thrown in. The competitive L.A. scene didn’t speak to his easygoing, laid-back soul, so as soon as he could, he retired at 55, took his pension and took off for paradise (that would be Hawaii), to go back to his first love. That’s where you can find him today, living the “soft” easy life walking his dog, enjoying palm trees and beaches, loving his wife Nancy, and twice a month, playing in his own big band, the Olliephonic Horns, at the Blue Dragon (formerly Blue Dolphin) restaurant across from the Big Island’s Kawaihae Harbor, where they welcome devoted patrons and the occasional famous guest singer or musician.

Your father Harold “Pappy” Mitchell — a professional musician in 1940s Hollywood, who worked on the original Jazz Singer, the original King Kong, Gone With The Wind, MGM musicals — taught you the rudiments of trumpet-playing at age five. But what kind of music did you find yourself drawn to?

In junior high school, I played with the All-City Orchestra. And at the same time, I played with the high school dance band and the dance band was so much more fun. I never looked back at Symphonic or legitimate work, even though my dad trained me that way. But it’s all the same. It’s all music. It’s just as much fun to play with the big band as it is to play with the symphony — for me.

I’ve heard that big bands back then were like jazz-lite, the equivalent of easy listening jazz today.

Well, jazz is … that’s a tough word to talk about, ’cause that’s a word, my God, it means different things to different people. To me, it means instant composition. Good jazz is within a form, within a structure. It’s still free form. Good jazz to me is a guy making up, playin’ “A Train” and playin’ “A Train” his own way, but to the same changes. I’ve played in jazz bands, but I’m not a very good jazz player. And I started out to be a first trumpet player in a big band.

What about big bands in particular captivated you?

Just the spirit of that many people playin’ and swingin’ together, y’know?

Who were your musical influences growing up and why?

My dad would make me practice every day before I go to grammar school. By the time I’m in junior high school, I’m playing in the All-City Orchestra, and I was just playin’. So in junior high school, I discovered Basie, Jimmy Lunceford was my favorite then, and Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers, and Harry James was one of my idols along with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie and Howard McGhee. And that’s been my whole life, I got to sit next to great jazz players like Pete and Conte Candoli, Don Fagerquist, Harry Edison and it’s hard for me to think of all —

Yeah, I know. Whenever I ask that question, musicians give me pages of names. Any current musicians you dig?

There’s a lot of good trumpet players now. Wayne Bergeron is real good. Rick Baptist is doing a real good job in Hollywood now. And golly, Chuck Findley’s always been one of my favorites. There are a couple other guys… Saunders, and I keep hearing young people just playin’ wonderful. Guy with me, David Clausnitzer, and he was smart, he got a Ph.d in soil ecology. He makes a real good living working for the government as a soil ecologist and gets to play, and he’s a real good jazz player and a good piano player. Because he plays the piano, he’s [good] with the changes and really knows that well on the trumpet. That’s something I don’t know, I just play, I never started trying to play jazz until I was 70. To me, it’s like dropping in the deep end of the pool and trying to get to the other side without drowning.

A lot of session musicians are jazz musicians first. Did the improvisational, collaborative, loose format of jazz help you guys more to do session work? What kind of person makes up a first-class studio musician? What qualities do you have to have to thrive in this kind of stressful environment?

You’re sayin’ jazz like that’s a certain type of musician. There is a jazz musician that doesn’t read. There weren’t any of those in the studio. You had to be able to sight read and play it perfect the first time, and make it feel good, and play it maybe 30 more times and make it feel good with the same sincerity. So that’s a totally different kind of training than to train to be a jazz player. Jazz players got bored. [It’s] 98 percent boring with 2 percent sheer panic, that’s what studio work is.

The Wrecking Crew wasn’t a group of people that called themselves that. It wasn’t a band. We were the ones that were on the most hit records. And the producers don’t know what they were doing, so “we’ll get this guy, this guy,” for the Elvis records, “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’,” and the Tijuana brass, and they got me doing anything that had trumpets on it and rock ‘n roll. Because it was hit music and hit music is what made the business happen, the whole business.

It wasn’t a damn thing to do with jazz really. I love jazz, I’m not putting it down, but jazz had nothing [to do with session work then].

What did you like about doing the Wrecking Crew?

I liked the money. And also, playing with good guys, and we made dumb music feel good.

We all tried to make whatever stupid arrangement we had in front of us written by — to us — unknown kids performing for unknown groups at that time. We didn’t know who anybody was or was gonna become legends and all that stuff. But just for us, after being with big bands, we were just like playing with kids. But I did my best, gave it 110 percent and tried to make whatever they wanted to happen happen.

In the beginning, we would all be in the studio together. But then through the late ’60s and ’70s, most of the time, the rhythm section would lay down the rhythm track, and we would come in with five or six horns, and put the horn track on top of it. So we didn’t even know half the time who we were doing it for or anything, just whoever was the arranger and the contractor. That’s all I knew of at the time.

In David Thompson’s excellent Hana Hou! (Hawaiian Airlines magazine) feature on you, you indicated that you really don’t remember many of the stars you did studio work for. But a couple did stand out, like Neil Diamond, who stayed behind after the session to hang with the musicians. What other stars were cool like that?

George Harrison was a groovy guy. And everybody. There were no jerks, really.

Do you still keep in touch with Wrecking Crew members?

Oh, Hal Blaine and my wife share the same birthday, so we hear from him every year. And once in a while, we get e-mails from Carol Kaye, who’s doing whatever she’s doing with … selling the era [laughs].

What do you think your strengths are as a musician?

My strength is being an excellent sight reader, having very good time, and being able to play any style. In fact, Lew McCreary, a trombone player who passed away a few years ago, was on the “These Boots Were Made For Walking” [one of Mitchell’s first Wrecking Crew sessions] date with me. That’s when we literally took the record business, the horn record business, away from New York, because we played the same type of time the rhythm section was playing. The New York guys only wanted to play Count Basie and swing. And rock ‘n roll was more like Latin and even eighth notes.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

To still be alive at 83 and play and havin’ a good time.

How did you end up in Hawaii?

I came here in 1945 first in the Navy, and loved it. But I couldn’t make a living here as a trumpet player. That’s all I do, all I ever did know really. I met my wife [Nancy] here in the early ’70s when I’d come over for a music contractor in Honolulu, Harvey Ragsdale. And he would just bring me over for a show, paid me first class airfare, three hundred bucks cash under the table, set me up in a hotel, and play an hour show. That’s how I would get away from Hollywood once in a while. His next-door neighbor, she became my wife.

What did you like about living in Hawaii?

Well, I wear short pants all year ‘round. It’s a very soft, easy place to live.

You’ve said that you’re the most happy now, playing big band jazz with the Olliephonic Horns on the Big Island. It’s a far cry from the superstardom of the 60s and 70s as a Wrecking Crew member in L.A. What about your current gig at Kawaihae’s Blue Dragon makes you so happy?

Play is fun. It’s a highly qualified degree of fun. When you’re playing with guys that you’ve been playing with — the band’s been together 15 years — …so we listen to each other, it’s almost like we’re brothers or something. Everybody’s feelin’ what everybody else is doing, and that feeling is almost a spiritual thing. Music is absolutely spiritual when you get right down to it. ’Cause a quarter note is a quarter note on every continent on the planet, so it’s way before there were ships or any way to get from one place to another. So it’s pretty far out music, really, and it’s necessary to mankind really and I enjoy being a part of that.

What do you think of the current music now? It’s quite different from the ‘60s-‘70s.

I think music has been going downhill since the ’60s, the quality of popular music. There are still really good big bands in almost every place people gather in the world, because it’s so much fun. There’s no money in it [though], therefore nobody knows about it. We’re driven by the dollar… The population intellectually, musically, has diminished to the point they wouldn’t appreciate it anywhere anyway.

The rap, for instance, it’s the top of the pop charts, and that’s not even music.

So, you’re 83, and still gigging, going strong. What’s the secret to your vitality?

I exercise —

You used to snorkel every day. Do you still?

Actually I had part of my lung removed a few years ago. I haven’t been since then. I’m thinkin’ about going back to it. I started scuba diving when my daughter was 11. She’s 56 now, I think. That was a long time ago.

Describe the perfect day for you, retired and living in Kohala.

It’s getting up [laughs]. First off, I get up and walk the dog for 15, 20 minutes, then come back, check my e-mail, have breakfast, practice two or three short little sessions, and I work out at a gym in our house for about 45 minutes, then come out and read the paper, make sure Nancy’s got her orange juice…

You don’t miss active gigging, being out there?

I have a really, soft easy life. In L.A., the music is highly competitive. I never felt competitive like that. You feel the vibe, y’know. And here, the vibe is more love.

Interview originally appeared in Examiner June 26, 2010. Ollie Mitchell passed away on May 11, 2013 in Puako, HI.