The immortal Russ Garcia

by Janet McAllister / 28 January, 2006
What are the odds, in a small town in New Zealand?

Russ Garcia was waiting for a haircut at his local barbershop in Kerikeri a while back when he got talking to the fella next to him. The man mentioned he'd played a record of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong for his kids and they'd just loved it. Without thinking, Garcia replied, "Oh they're friends of mine, I worked with them." Well, that brought the conversation to a swift close - the other guy raised his eyebrows and went back to his newspaper, wondering just who this nutter was.

Garcia grins when he tells that story. "What are the odds, you know, in a small town in New Zealand?" he asks. What are the odds anywhere these days, of bumping into someone who has composed and arranged jazz and film music in Hollywood since the 1930s? Especially one as energetic as 89-year-old Garcia, who has a remarkably robust frame and a vast store of corny jokes. "I was born in Oakland because I wanted to be near my mother," he deadpans in his Californian drawl. Then another grin. "I'm sorry, I have one foot caught in the valley of silliness, and I can't get it out!"

He says the reason he married his wife, Gina, was because she laughed at his jokes. That was in 1952, and she's still making his coffee the way he likes it and reminding him of any minor story details he forgets. He calls her "honey" and says she always accompanies him on trips because "she's too pretty to leave at home". They are the type of people Frank Sinatra had in mind when singing "Look at all you'll derive out of being alive, if you are among the very young at heart".

Garcia is young at heart, but old enough to have had first-hand experience working with - and being revered by - the stars of Hollywood's golden age. His first break was working as composer/conductor for a radio show directed by Ronald Reagan in 1939. Fred Astaire "worked hard, he was a perfectionist". Zsa Zsa Gabor "knew every trick. When she would get out of an automobile, her dress would come up to here" - Garcia points above his hip - "and show those gorgeous legs". Neither she nor Bette Davis could hold a tune without strong backing from the orchestra, whereas Sammy Davis Jr wouldn't want to see Garcia's arrangement before he walked into the studio. "Surprise me Russ!" he would say, and then he'd nail it straight away.

Charlie Chaplin blocked scenes in his lounge, timing them by counting the ferries passing by the window. Garcia says the little tramp was a genius. "His pianist was in awe, scared to death of him, I don't know why." Oscar Peterson ("a monster of a man - he's not skinny - and so gentle and kind") still emails the Garcias regularly; they went to see him a few years ago in Toronto after Peterson had had a stroke.

Garcia's versatility meant that he was working up to 17 hours a day in the late 50s and early 60s, doing everything from ghostwriting film scores to "sweetening" pop music with strings. "Maybe I was not the most talented person, but I had so much technique and skill and I could write so fast. [People who commissioned me] knew they were going to get a good job," he says. Occasionally, he'd come home and say, "Pack your bags, Gina, we're going to Europe for an orchestral recording tomorrow."

All a far cry from where we're sitting today, in an unremarkable white house perched on a suburban rise pushing into Kerikeri inlet, with idyllic water views from both the front lounge and Russ's modest studio at the back. (On the studio wall is a chalk drawing of yet another friend - Dizzy Gillespie.)

The Garcias left Hollywood in the mid-1960s to sail the Carib-bean and the Pacific, landing in places like Haiti, Jamaica, Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti. Followers of the Baha'i faith since 1955, they travelled as Baha'i teachers and lived off Russ's royalties; occasionally, he would fly to Los Angeles or Europe when the work looked interesting.

Aotearoa wasn't on the Garcias' itinerary, but a group of Auckland jazz musicians working on a cruise ship met them in Fiji in 1969. They invited Russ down to New Zealand to do a six-week concert tour, because, says trumpeter Murray Tanner, "how could we let someone like Russ Garcia slip through our fingers?"

Garcia said yes. "I'm used to Hollywood, 'the cheque is in the mail, we must do lunch next week' and you never hear from them again," he explains. So he was surprised to find himself actually in New Zealand, billed as "the immortal Russ Garcia". ("I said, You don't know how to spell immoral!")

The Garcias have been based in Northland's peace and quiet since the end of that tour over 30 years ago. They originally grew "gorse and macadamia nuts" on 12 hectares half an hour out of Kerikeri, but when a certain "Dr Doom-and-Gloom" gave Russ just two years to live, they very reluctantly moved closer to town. "I cried," says Gina.

That was 13 years ago. Even now Russ still flies around the world for about half the year, composing in Munich, conducting in Prague, lecturing in China. In 2004, he went back to Hollywood for the recording of New Zealand singer Tim Beveridge's Come Rain, Come Shine swing/lounge album, which Garcia arranged. "From a creative point of view, I won the musical lottery," says Beveridge, who thinks Garcia's unusual combination of methodical organisation and creativity is one of his main strengths. "I have a great deal of affection for Russ ... There are plenty of grumpy old geniuses out there - luckily, Russ isn't one of them." So Beveridge is working with someone who did indeed arrange for and conduct Fitzgerald and Armstrong - "whipped cream and sandpaper!". Their collaborations include a recording of Porgy and Bess.

"[Armstrong] was beautiful, he was wonderful," Garcia says. "He didn't know anything about prejudice and he didn't care anything about money, either. He loved everybody, he loved making music. We'd record during the day and then he'd go out on Central Avenue and jam all night on the trumpet." To teach Armstrong a couple of the Porgy and Bess songs, Garcia had sung them on tape. "Louis phoned me and said" - Garcia's voice lowers even further to get that trademark Armstrong gravel - "'Russ, I'm listening to you every night before I go to sleep.'"

As for Fitzgerald, she was "the world's champion singer. She's the greatest. No matter what I'd write, she'd sing something beautiful, better than I could figure out for her to do. Before she'd go onstage, complete panic. And the minute she'd get out in front of that mike and sing the first note, she'd forget about herself and she was into the music."

Gina chips in: "After one concert she did in Munich, we went backstage to say hi and she said, 'Oh Russ, if I'd known you were out there, I wouldn't have been able to sing!' She was just so self-conscious, she just didn't think she had anything."

The Garcias have hardly a bad word to say about any of the stars Russ has worked with over the years, with one exception. Ira Gershwin didn't like anyone tampering with his and brother George's songs, so an arranger was anathema to him. Garcia says Ira "ruined" the MGM film of Porgy and Bess by insisting that the original stage sets and song keys be used. "George would have been much better and easier," he reckons.

But Ira's conservatism was indirectly responsible for one of Garcia's more unusual commissions. One of the hotels in Las Vegas had used George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for a chorus-girl production. Ira was in the audience on the opening night and rushed backstage to the manager saying, "We don't want nudies parading around on stage to this music of my brother's! If you don't have it out of the show in two weeks, I'm going to sue you." Garcia was called in to write replacement music with the same tempo, the same metre and length of phrases so the dance wouldn't be affected. He dubbed it the "Rhapsody in Green".

Of all his work, Garcia is the most proud of the score for the 1960 film The Time Machine. Full of weird sound effects that he had to obtain by "trickery" in a pre-digital age, the film's music is considered to be one of the best science-fiction scores of all time. Garcia believes you can't be an excellent arranger without being a good composer first. Having grown up listening to jazz, he learnt briefly how to play most orchestral instruments to become familiar with all their possible notes and fingerings. Young arrangers still ask him for advice on their pieces - recently, he had to point out to one hopeful that trombones are not capable of sounding a low E flat.

Murray Tanner sums it up: "Russ is not a limelighter, but those who know him really respect him."

Long before the adulation, Garcia landed at Omaha Beach, Normandy, a week after D-Day and subsequently served in the American Infantry during the Battle of the Bulge. "I said, if I'm ever going to get out of this half sane and alive, I'm going to find answers. It's wrong for people to be shooting at each other," he says of the experiences that eventually led him to become Baha'i. By what he calls a miracle, he was transferred to the 78th division band as a trumpet player. Not that there was much music to be had for a while; "we had to load bodies onto trucks and we followed the first wave of tanks moving fast across Germany [to set up communications posts]". But still, "it's a little healthier than being an infantryman".

He and Gina met a couple of years after the war when he was 32, a divorced father of two, and she was just 17, pretending to be nearly 20, and out on a date with a friend of Russ. Russ says if he'd known Gina's age, "I would have run like a scared rabbit". They married four years later, after convincing Gina's protective parents that it wasn't just infatuation, and the intervening years haven't dampened their ardour. "When I hear Tim [Beveridge] singing 'Come Rain, Come Shine', I want to take my husband into the bedroom!" declares Gina, now 74.

Although they don't have any children together, the Garcias raised Russ's two children from his previous marriage. Musical talent continues in a different form in the younger generation - their youngest grandson plays in a heavy metal band and wanted his grandfather to come and hear him in one of the clubs on Sunset Strip. But "I'm not going to go in those clubs with the flashing lights and waving belly buttons," says Russ, laughing.

So he attended one of the band's outdoor concerts, instead. At 89? Maybe the "immortal Russ Garcia" posters were right, after all. Garcia has never considered retiring. "I'll retire when my tyres wear out. My mind still works fine, my creativity seems as good as ever." That foot in the valley of silliness stirs. "I had to give up my trapeze act, though," he says.

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