By Hal Smith
ROBERT ALEXANDER SCOBEY, trumpet
b. Tucumcari, NM 1916 d. Montreal, Canada 1963
Scobey was born in Tucumcari, New Mexico, but was raised in Stockton and Berkeley, California.
He took up the cornet while in elementary school, almost abandoned music for a career in chemistry, but ultimately decided to stick with music.
As a freelance musician in the 1930s, Scobey played with dance bands as well as theater and studio orchestras. Late in the decade, he became acquainted with Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, and other Bay Area musicians who were interested in older forms of jazz. He worked alongside Watters in his orchestra at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland and participated in the small-band sessions at the Big Bear Tavern where Watters, Murphy, Bob Helm, and others played the stomps, rags, marches, and blues that would soon form the basic repertoire of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band (YBJB).
Scobey was not in the original formation of the YBJB, but replaced trumpeter Byron Berry in time to appear on the band’s first broadcasts from the Dawn Club as well as the December 1941 and March 1942 recording sessions for the Jazz Man label.
The Bob Scobey Sound
From the beginning, Bob Scobey’s playing was bursting with energy and a headlong drive—pushing ahead of the beat, syncopating his phrases, and using a pronounced vibrato. The Yerba Buena Jazz Band’s 1942 recording of “Fidgety Feet” provides an example of the contrast between Lu Watters’ and Scobey’s playing. Watters takes the first break, playing on the beat. Scobey takes the second break, sounding as if he is straining to break free of the heavy two-beat rhythm.
The War Years and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band
When World War II broke up the Yerba Buena band, Scobey went into the Army and was stationed in Ft. Lewis, Washington. He recorded with the fledgling Castle Jazz Band, most likely during a furlough to Portland in 1944.
Following the war, Scobey rejoined the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and was present at their return to the Dawn Club in March, 1946. His trumpet playing on the West Coast 78s illustrates that his personal style did not change during the war.
He still pushed the beat, creating a marvelous tension in the ensemble passages with Watters continuing to play on the beat. Scobey’s broad vibrato—particularly when playing lead on slower numbers—was a hallmark of the four-horn Yerba Buena front line.
When the Yerba Buena Jazz Band moved operations to Hambone Kelly’s in June of 1947, Bob Scobey resumed his place alongside Watters on the huge bandstand. He was not interested in becoming part of the planned cooperative, however. He chose not to live at the venue, and like Wally Rose and Bill Dart, wanted to be a salaried performer rather than sharing the income. As the year progressed, Scobey tired of the relentless two-beat rhythm and the lack of dynamics in the YBJB. He was probably already thinking about leaving to form his own group when the Musicians Union announced a ban on recordings, effective January 1, 1948.
Alexander’s Jazz Band & Bay City Stompers
Bob Scobey put together a band and recorded for Trilon as Alexander’s Jazz Band in December, 1947.
Scobey, as R. Alexander Scobey, used pianist Wally Rose, banjoist Harry Mordecai, and drummer Bill Dart from the Yerba Buena Band.
He added clarinetist Jack Crook, trombonist Jack Buck, and bassist Squire Girsback, who had played in the pre-war Yerba Buena group.
These first recordings show Watters’ influence, but the rhythm is lighter and bouncier and the front line is less structured.
Trombonist Turk Murphy was on the same wavelength as Scobey. He also led his first band on a recording session for Jazz Man in December of 1947.
Murphy’s Bay City Stompers included Yerba Buenans Bob Helm and Harry Mordecai, plus Burt Bales on piano, and Scobey on trumpet.
In 1948, Scobey left the Yerba Buena Jazz Band to seek his fortunes as a bandleader. When the recording ban lifted, he recorded again, this time for the Ragtime label.
The second edition of Alexander’s Jazz Band found Pat ‘Hots’ O’Casey on clarinet, Burt Bales on piano, and Bill Newman on banjo and guitar, with Jack Buck, Squire Girsback, and Bill Dart rounding out the band.
Filling in for Lu Watters
Despite his search for a different sound, Scobey returned to Hambone Kelly’s several times during 1948 - 49 when Lu Watters was sidelined by hernia surgery.
Turk Murphy handed in his notice to Watters in 1949 and was soon working frequently with Scobey. Murphy’s Hot Six were featured at the newly-opened Club Hangover in San Francisco with Scobey as the regular trumpet man. When Scobey booked casuals under his own name, Murphy was frequently the trombonist.
Southern California Tour
They were still working together when the Yerba Buena Jazz Band was engaged to perform at a concert on June 1 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. This would have been the first performance outside the Bay Area for the YBJB, but Watters either was too ill to play, or, more likely, decided not to travel. Instead, he sent a sextet from Hambone Kelly’s: Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy, Bob Helm, Burt Bales, Harry Mordecai, and tubist Dick Lammi. Murphy was the leader and made the most of the trip to Southern California by setting up a record date with the brand-new Good Time Jazz label the day preceding the concert.
Turk Murphy’s San Francisco Jazz Band cut eight sides, then went on to give Southern California jazz fans their first exposure to live San Francisco-style jazz. One musician who was present at the concert recalled that some fans did not realize that the band makeup was different from the full Yerba Buena outfit. He mentioned that one member of the audience kept yelling, “Play ‘The Easy Winners,’ Lu!”
The records sold well and gained many new fans for Turk Murphy and his musicians. A follow-up session was recorded in 1950. This time, the personnel was slightly different. Watters was back on trumpet at Hambone Kelly’s, with Helm on clarinet and Lammi on tuba and bass. To replace Helm, Murphy hired young Bill Napier, a creative musician with a totally different concept from Helm’s. Bill Newman, who recorded previously with Alexander’s Jazz Band, was on guitar and banjo. Squire Girsback played bass and sousaphone and Stan Ward, who had substituted for Bill Dart with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, was on drums. Burt Bales was once again on piano and Scobey remained on trumpet.
Though the Yerba Buena influence can still be heard on some of the recordings, the overall sound of the band is much looser and even swingier. With Newman switching to guitar, Bales striding à la Fats Waller, Girsback playing 4/4 on bass, and Ward romping on the drums, “Curse Of An Aching Heart” sounds closer to Eddie Condon or Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats than anything recorded by Watters. Scobey’s reaction to the swinging rhythm is a delight to hear. His playing displays a heat, drive, and creativity that were often kept under wraps in the four-horn front line of the Watters Band.
Despite the good music they made together, the Scobey-Murphy musical partnership ended in the summer of 1950. Murphy went to Southern California, and performed a series of engagements with a band consisting of Napier, Ward, Yerba Buena banjoist Pat Patton, Los Angeles pianist Skippy Anderson, and two former Castle Jazz Band musicians from Portland, trumpeter Don Kinch and tubist George Bruns.
Alexander’s Jazz Band Returns
Undaunted, Bob Scobey began organizing a new version of Alexander’s Jazz Band. Jack Buck was back on trombone, together with Bales on piano, and Girsback on bass and tuba. Gordon ‘Gramps’ Edwards, the first Yerba Buena drummer, was in the rhythm section alongside banjoist/guitarist/vocalist Clancy Hayes, another member of the prewar band.
The band picked up the great clarinetist Darnell Howard, who stayed on in the Bay Area after playing an engagement at Club Hangover with Muggsy Spanier. The Jazz Man label recorded Scobey’s group, though the labels read Darnell Howard’s Frisco Footwarmers.
Next, Scobey reorganized the band again for a Good Time Jazz recording session. He retained Buck, Bales, Girsback, and Hayes. New Orleans clarinetist Albert Nicholas, who was working with the Club Hangover All-Stars, was brought in on clarinet. Fred Higuera on drums brought a whole new rhythm concept to the Scobey band. The four sides the band recorded are spirited, with driving rhythm, largely due to Higuera’s dynamic drumming.
Image: Bob Scobey, trumpet, with Clancy Hayes, banjo, on stage. Photo credit: Copyright© Ray Avery Photo Archives/CTSIMAGES. Used with permission. All rights are reserved to CTSIMAGES
Clancy Hayes’ vocals are featured for the first time. Before the end of the year, young reedman George Probert joined the band. When Hambone Kelly’s closed and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band disbanded on January 1, 1951, pianist Wally Rose joined Scobey’s group. They played concerts at venues such as Jenny Lind Hall, Victor and Roxie’s, the Greenwich Village, and the Melody Club.
Taking Over Hambone Kelly’s
Bob Scobey also tried his hand at running a club.
He leased the building that had been Hambone Kelly’s and opened it under the name Alexander’s. Unfortunately, he was not able to secure a liquor license, so could sell only soft drinks, coffee, and tea.
Unsurprisingly, Alexander’s barely lasted three months, and Scobey’s band immediately returned to playing at other nightclubs.
Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band
In 1951 and early 1952, Scobey made some of his greatest records, for Good Time Jazz. Higuera’s dynamic drumming, Scobey’s unfettered trumpet playing, and Clancy Hayes’ sunny vocals combined to give the band a distinctive and appealing sound which was totally different from the Watters and Murphy bands. Under the new name, Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band, the group recorded several tracks featuring Hayes’ vocals. “Ace In The Hole,” “Peoria,” “Silver Dollar,” “South,” “Melancholy,” “Chicago,” and Hayes’ own composition “Huggin’ And A Chalkin’ ” would become favorites with traditional jazz fans. The records were issued on 78 rpm, and later on 45 rpm, 10” LP and 12” LP. They remain in print to this day on compact disc.
If there is an equivalent in traditional jazz to Bunny Berigan’s record of “I Can’t Get Started,” it would surely be Bob Scobey’s 1952 Good Time Jazz recording of “All The Wrongs You’ve Done To Me.” Scobey opens with a brilliant cadenza, with an augmented front line playing whole notes. The trumpet playing that follows is simply majestic. If he had never recorded again, Scobey would have been able to point to “All The Wrongs” as a genuine jazz classic.
That same year, the Frisco Band played a Gene Norman Just Jazz concert in Southern California, opposite Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars. Here rare photos by the great jazz photographer Ray Avery, found in the SFTJF Collection, show both bands onstage at the same time, making one wish that someone had been able to sneak a live recording of Louis and Scobey together.
Just Jazz concert with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars and Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band. Clancy Hayes, banjo; George Probert, reeds; (probably) Marty Napoleon, piano; Jack Buck, trombone; Trummy Young, trombone; Bob Scobey, trumpet; Squire Girsback, bass; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Fred Higuera, drums; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Cozy Cole, drums; Arvell Shaw, bass.
Photo credit: Copyright© Ray Avery Photo Archives/CTSIMAGES. Used with permission. All rights are reserved to CTSIMAGES
Miles Davis and Scobey’s Frisco Band
Despite interest generated by the Good Time Jazz records, Scobey’s Frisco Band was not able to find steady work in the Bay Area. That made it difficult to keep a regular band lineup. During 1952 - 53, Burt Bales alternated with Rose, and sometimes Jack Buck switched to piano, his second instrument. Bassists/tubists Dick Lammi, Bob Short, and Gene Mayl filled in for Girsback. Clancy Hayes occasionally moved to drums, if Higuera or Bill Dart was not available. When Probert left to join Kid Ory, Scobey was able to recruit Ellis Horne. He stayed just long enough to play at the 1953 Dixieland Jubilee in Los Angeles, where the Frisco Band accompanied Sidney Bechet.
At one point, when no suitable reedman could be found, Scobey’s front line consisted of himself on trumpet, three trombones and no clarinet. Jim Beebe was one of the trombonists who played with the Frisco Band during this time. He recalled an unusual concert at the Black Hawk in San Francisco where modern jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was invited to appear as a guest with Scobey’s band. Jazz writers such as Leonard Feather were attempting to engender ill-will between traditional jazz musicians and fans or ‘Moldy Figs’ and modern jazz icons like Miles Davis.
Beebe remembered that Davis was in a cheerful, outgoing mood when he arrived at the club, greeting the musicians and making it obvious that he was looking forward to the concert. Scobey asked, “Miles, what would you like to start with?” Davis replied, “How about ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbeque’?” Scobey: “What Key?” Davis: “Is ‘F’ all right?” And so the concert went, with everyone on and off the bandstand enjoying the music and having a good time.
Photo credit: Copyright© Ray Avery Photo Archives/CTSIMAGES. Used with permission. All rights are reserved to CTSIMAGES
When the concert ended and the musicians were packing up their instruments, Beebe approached Davis with a puzzled expression. Before he could say a word, Davis looked at him and said, “You’ve been reading too much Leonard Feather!”
By 1954 Scobey’s situation was much better. He was a father of two boys and one girl. There were more musical engagements, more recordings for Good Time Jazz, and the inestimable Bill Napier joined the band on clarinet. The group had a new look, too. In the mid-‘50s, most bands of the era still wore suits, but the Frisco Band wore colorful vests and string ties on their appearances at the Italian Village, El Rancho Grande, Pioneer Village, The Tin Angel, and on the short-lived Clancy’s Corner television program.
In 1955, Bob Scobey traveled to Los Angeles to record an album of popular standards with vocalist Claire Austin. The band included modern jazzmen Barney Kessel on guitar and Shelly Manne on drums, as well as studio/Dixieland musicians Stan Wrightsman on piano and Morty Corb on bass. The musicians, particularly Scobey, did an outstanding job accompanying the vocals. Though it is obvious that Austin was much better suited to singing “Mecca Flat Blues” than “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” the overall effect is much like the 1950s recordings by Lee Wiley with Bobby Hackett or Barbara Lea with Johnny Windhurst. The record certainly proves that Scobey was a consummate musician, capable of playing great music in a non-traditional setting.
Meanwhile, the Frisco Band personnel was still fluid in 1954 - 55. Ernie Lewis, then Tiny Crump played piano while Dick Lammi was on string bass, followed by Hal McCormack. Bob Short was added on tuba for recordings, and Earl Watkins played drums for almost two years before Fred Higuera returned.
Recording for Verve
The band moved from Good Time Jazz to Verve, and quickly recorded two LPs for their “Down Home” series. The albums included traditional jazz classics as well as several originals by Hayes. In 1956, Ralph Sutton took over the piano chair and Scobey added the legendary New Orleans vocalist Lizzie Miles to the lineup.
A tour of the Midwest was booked, and the musicians and vocalists worked up a fast-moving show. A private tape from a concert in Beloit, Wisconsin illustrates the effectiveness of this concept. Scobey’s announcements are brief, and there is barely any gap between songs. Hayes’ vocals on “South” and “Ace In The Hole” were guaranteed to generate applause, as was the lightning-fast version of “Mama Don’ Low” with Lizzie Miles introducing each musician’s solo, culminating with a blazing, technically awesome drum solo by Higuera.
The opening track on Scobey’s Bourbon Street LP, "On Revival Day," will give the listener an idea of the kind of high-energy performance the band was capable of.
Chicago and RCA Victor
The 1956 tour was a great success for Scobey, and he decided to make Chicago his base of operations. However, the move had far-reaching consequences that would affect the sound of the band. Buck, Napier, Sutton, McCormack, and Higuera elected to remain in San Francisco. Scobey also changed labels, moving to RCA Victor. The company recorded Scobey a several times, although the results were seldom on a level with the Good Time Jazz and Verve sides. Part of the reason was the drastic change in personnel.
Several of the newer band members were studio musicians, not necessarily adept at improvising in the traditional jazz style. Others were inclined toward more modern approaches to jazz. Scobey’s trumpet was still the primary voice, and Hayes’ singing was consistently excellent, but sometimes the rest of the band was not up to their high standards.
One bright spot during this period was Bob Scobey’s appearance with Bing Crosby on a Victor album entitled Bing With A Beat. The musicians were the powerhouse studio/Dixieland players who recorded with such groups as the Rampart Street Paraders, Paducah Patrol, and Pete Kelly’s Big Seven. It turned out to be one of the best recordings of Scobey’s career. He was obviously inspired by Matty Matlock’s imaginative arrangements and Crosby’s high-spirited vocals.
Scobey was in a position usually filled by trumpeters like Dick Cathcart, John Best or Clyde Hurley, and his playing is in a class with their best work in similar surroundings. Clancy Hayes played guitar, but there were no vocal duets with Bing. Ralph Sutton was also on the session, playing a beautiful mix of Fats Waller and Jess Stacy-style piano. Nick Fatool’s drumming is another highlight of the session with well-timed percussive punctuation, flawless timekeeping, and glorious swing behind Scobey’s solos. Based on his asides to the musicians, Crosby was extremely pleased with this superb ensemble.
Bob Scobey’s subsequent records are a letdown in comparison to Bing With A Beat. Band personnel continued to change frequently, and finally the Scobey-Clancy partnership dissolved in seething ill will, according to most accounts, over who should receive top billing when they recorded a jingle for Marlboro cigarettes.
Scobey tried desperately to find a commercial 'hook' that would compensate for Hayes’ absence. He added Spike Jones’ former banjoist Freddy Morgan and his band The Idiots for one tour, and the Harlem Globetrotters on another. As his former bass/tuba man Gene Mayl recalled, “Scobey was always looking for the right gimmick.” In 1959, Scobey decided to try operating a nightclub again. His Bourbon Street club in Chicago provided a base of operations for the band when they were not on the road.
By the early 1960s, the Frisco Band was virtually indistinguishable from groups such as the Dukes of Dixieland. The only distinctive voice in the band was the leader’s trumpet. Scobey’s marriage ended, and he began to suffer severe stomach pains. Finally, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given only days to live. He managed to survive awhile longer, and went to Canada to seek treatment not available in the United States.
Sadly, the treatments were not effective, and Bob Scobey passed away on June 12, 1963. If he had survived, there is a possibility that he might have latched onto a song like “Midnight In Moscow,” “Washington Square,” “Java,” “Hello, Dolly,” or something else that could have given his career a solid boost and put him and the Frisco Band at the forefront of the traditional jazz scene. He did leave a treasure trove of recordings with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Turk Murphy, and his own groups that still appeal to jazz fans in all corners of the globe.
Contemporary/Original Jazz Classics
Claire Austin Sings: When Your Lover Has Gone OJCCD 1711 - 2
Bob Scobey: Alexander’s Jazz Band DC 12004 (Scobey’s first recordings as leader for the Trilon and Ragtime labels). (Vinyl LP; out of print).
The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957 BCD 285
Good Time Jazz
The Scobey Story Vol. 1 CD L 12032 – 2
The Scobey Story Vol. 2 CD L 12033 – 2
Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band with Clancy Hayes CD 12006 – 2
Scobey and Clancy CD 12009 – 2
Direct From San Francisco CD 12023 – 2
Scobey and Clancy Raid The Juke Box CD 12056 – 2
Turk Murphy Favorites CD 60611 (Scobey is heard on four tracks from the 5/31/49 session and 8 tracks from 1/19/50).
Turk Murphy Favorites Vol. 2 FCD 60 – 026 (Contains the complete 12/31/47 recording session by Scobey with Turk Murphy’s Bay City Stompers plus two unissued tracks and four sides plus one unissued track from the 5/31/49 session).
Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band: The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings (4 CDs) 4GTJCD 4409-2
Frisco Jazz ’56 (2 CDs) CD 496 (includes all tracks from “Direct From San Francisco,” “Bob Scobey’s Band,” “The San Francisco Jazz Of Bob Scobey” and “Beauty And The Beat”).
Bing With A Beat Bluebird Legacy CD (no catalog number; manufactured-on-demand)
College Classics LPM 1700 (vinyl LP; out of print)
Swingin’ On The Golden Gate LPM 1448 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Something’s Always Happening On The River LSP 1889 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Between 18th And 19th On Any Street LSP 1567 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Rompin’ And Stompin’ LSP 2086 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Beauty And The Beat LPM 1344 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band Vol. 1, 1947 – 43 CD 105
Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band Vol. 2, 1946 – 1947 CD 106
Sounds Of Yesteryear
Feelin’ The Spirit DSOY 817 (1958 SESAC Transcriptions)
Bob Scobey’s Band MGV 1001 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
The San Francisco Jazz of Bob Scobey MGV 1011 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Bourbon Street MGV 1009 (Vinyl LP; out of print).
Clute, Peter; Goggin, Jim: The Great Jazz Revival. San Rafael, CA., 1994. Donna Ewald Publishing.
Ertegun, Neshui: Original 1952 and 1953 liner notes reprinted in booklet accompanying The Scobey Story, Vol. 1 Good Time Jazz CD 12032 – 2. Fantasy Records, 1991.
Goggin, Jim: Some Jazz Friends, Vol. 2. Victoria, B.C., Canada. 2006, Trafford Publishing Co.
Goggin, Jim: Turk Murphy: Just For The Record. San Leandro, CA., 1982. San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1954 liner notes reprinted in booklet accompanying Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band – The Complete Good Time Jazz Recordings. Fantasy Records, 1993.
Koenig, Lester: Original 1954 and 1959 liner notes reprinted in booklet accompanying The Scobey Story, Vol. 2 Good Time Jazz CD 12033 – 2. Fantasy Records, 1991.
Leigh, James: Liner notes for The Unheard Bob Scobey 1950 – 1957. New Orleans, 2007. GHB CD 285.
Conversations with the author
Burt Bales (musician)*, Jim Beebe (musician)*, Bill Dart (musician)*, Doug Finke (musician)*, Squire Girsback (musician)*, Jim Goggin (fan), Bobby Gordon (musician)*, Fred Higuera (musician)*, Ellis Horne (musician)*, Jim Leigh (musician), Gene Mayl (musician)*, Bob Mielke (musician)*, Turk Murphy (musician)*, Bill Napier (musician)*, Bob Olsen (fan), George Probert (musician)*, Wally Rose (musician)*, Bob Schulz (musician), Ken Smith (musician), Earl Watkins (musician)*
*Played and/or recorded with Bob Scobey