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Friday, October 11, 2013

"To Crews of Fireboats Everywhere"

To Crews of Fireboats Everywhere-The Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes to Sea

In late 1957, the Firehouse Five Plus Two, comprised of Disney artists, were at the top of their success, releasing one of their more unique albums, “The Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes To Sea.” As trombonist Ward Kimball declares, “From the beginning of time, men have celebrated the sea, the mother of all life. We, too, wanted to pay our tribute to the majesty of the oceans, the mighty force of the tides, and besides that, our tuba player was eager to see how low he could blow on Asleep in the Deep!” The album is hence dedicated to “crews of fireboats everywhere.”
         “Goes to Sea” proved special in its thematically consistent concept. All songs featured were nautically oriented, and were each tied together with ambient sound effects of the sea such as waves crashing, wind howling, or a ship’s horn blowing. Other albums, such as “The Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes South,” applied themselves to central themes, but not perhaps as wonderfully as “Goes to Sea.”
         “Never men to do things by halves,” declares the liner notes written by Producer Lester Koenig, “the FH5 put to sea literally for the cover shot.” The album cover is probably the most iconic aspect of “Goes To Sea.” It is commonly used in short blurbs and features on the band, as it does a fine job of displaying their wacky and utterly original style. The photo was taken “due south” from Malibu Beach. Legend says it took many hours to get the required shot just right. The musicians were instructed to bring their second-rate instruments in order that their more precious ones wouldn’t be damaged from salt spray. Dick Roberts, however, brought along his $1500 tenor banjo. And so he stood to the rear of the group, only ankle deep in the water. That wouldn’t be the end of Roberts’ troubles though. He would continuously look at the camera as the photo was taken, explicitly against their instructions. Eventually they acquired a sufficient take that was used on the cover, though it looks as if tuba player George Bruns may be sneaking a glance from behind Frank Thomas’ bass drum. Ward Kimball recalled that there was also a group of Japanese tourists scuba diving nearby who emerged from the water to find a jazz band playing. Peter James Samerjan is credited as the “intrepid photographer” who took on the task.
           Some "b-roll" shots from the cover shoot:
From the cliff above.

George Probert rolls his pants up.

Frank Thomas and Eddie Forrest

Danny Alguire and George Bruns

Peter James Samerjan at "work"

Above Image Sources: Frank and Ollie (1995) http://www.amazon.com
         Lester Koenig declares that “Setting their nets for a fine catch of sea-type numbers offered the FH5 a chance to break away from the warhorses of the Dixieland repertoire, and the resulting program of sea-horses makes for a fresh and varied entertainment.” To this day that entertainment remains as fresh as can be (despite its high quantity of fish).
         The album features twelve tracks. The first recordings were made in February of 1957. Two more sessions followed in late July and September. The last session saw the recording of the album’s final song, the classic march “Anchors Aweigh” on November 18. Sessions were done at the Good Time Jazz studio in Los Angeles, being produced by the label’s founder Lester Koenig. The Firehouse Five were the first to record on the Good Time Jazz label upon its founding in 1949.
Lester Koenig

The album’s liner notes declare “an estimated million dollars worth of bookings have been turned down by the FH5 during the past few years because the band is a spare-time activity.” Indeed the musicians were quite busy at the Walt Disney Studio from the mid to late fifties. Ward Kimball stepped into the Producer/Director/Writer position on the famed Tomorrowland series of films for the Disneyland television program. A full paragraph of review is given to these films in the album liner notes, including Man in Space (1955) and Mars and Beyond (1957). Mars would be released in December of ’57, with George Bruns doing the score, so the production would have paralleled the recording and release of “Goes to Sea.” 
Your Host, Ward Kimball

         By 1957 George Bruns had risen to be an important composer at the Studio. He was originally hired in 1953 to specifically adapt the Tchaikovsky ballet for the upcoming film Sleeping Beauty (1959), “I can rewrite it,” Bruns replied. “I’ve been rewriting him for my songs for years.” He would go on to pen the Davy Crockett melody, a record that would outsell even the Firehouse Five, along with piles of films and attractions at Disneyland receiving his handiwork. Before his Disney days, Bruns played in many Dixieland Jazz bands along the west coast, including the Turk Murphy Jazz Band.
George Bruns

         By the time of “Goes to Sea’s” release in late ’57, the production of Sleeping Beauty had moved forward greatly from when Bruns first began in ’53. The film received lots of attention well before its release. When Disneyland opened in 1955 (a full four years before the film’s release), the park’s centerpiece was named “Sleeping Beauty Castle.” In ’57, as “Goes to Sea” was in production, the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough attraction opened inside the castle at Disneyland, and a full color promotional brochure was handed out at the exit, featuring early images of the film.
Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough debuted during the album's production.

         Sleeping Beauty is mentioned multiple times in the album’s liner notes. Pianist Frank Thomas is said to be “completing two and a half years of intensive work on the new cartoon feature,” though Thomas would still find himself working a bit longer on the film towards its ’59 release. Danny Alguire the “trumpet-playing ex-fingerprint expert” and “fish-hornist” George Probert are credited as being Assistant Directors working on Sleeping Beauty. The slang for Probert’s soprano saxophone, “fish horn,” seems particularly apt for the album’s theme.
         “Goes to Sea” did bring one somber note however. Ed Penner, the band’s original bass man, who first played bass sax, but then learned tuba for future sessions, had died on November 10 of 1956. It “was a heavy loss for the band, for he was not only a fellow musician, but a colleague at the studio, and a good friend.” Penner directed the short Mickey’s Amateurs in 1937. He then was a writer and story man at Disney’s, working on nearly every feature from Pinocchio (1940) to Lady and the Tramp (1955). He also wrote many episodes of the Disneyland television show and was probably still working on story development for Sleeping Beauty when he died in ’56. Penner wrote the lyrics to the famed “Skumps Song” between King Stefan and King Hubert in that film. Ralph Ball, another Turk Murphy veteran, played tuba on the first session for “Goes to Sea.” George Bruns took over after the first session, as “probably the most dexterous tubaist in jazz.”
Though all the musicians have their moments on this album, particular points of interest are the tuba breaks of George Bruns and Ralph Ball on tracks such as “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Asleep in the Deep,” and Dick Roberts’s banjo solos throughout. Roberts had played with the band as a sub in its beginning, but had taken on the banjo spot full time from Harper Goff on the previous album “For Lovers.” Also the band’s group vocals shine on tracks like “By the Beautiful Sea,” “Minnie the Mermaid,” and “Peoria.” One familiar with Ward Kimball’s voice will particularly recognize his piercing pipes on these tracks.

         Also of note, keen-eared listeners will recognize a similar measure in the opening of “She Was Just A Sailor’s Sweetheart” to that of Carl Stalling’s score for The Skeleton Dance (1929). Stalling himself adapted the score from a foxtrot and Greig’s “March of the Trolls.” One such foxtrot, written and released by Tin Pan Alley composer Joe Burke in 1925, was “She Was Just a Sailor’s Sweetheart.” Though Stalling claimed to forget in later years what music he used (see Walt’s People Vol. 6), it seems this song was one source. The Firehouse Five would “Dixiefy” the song, featuring a wonderful vocal performance of Burke’s lyrics.

Image Source: http://www.tias.com

         “The Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes to Sea” makes for fine listening. The group would continue performing and making records for another decade, though “Goes to Sea” would remain one of their strongpoints. As Lester Koenig’s label purports, it is truly Good Time Jazz. 

Check out the whole album on iTunes! https://itunes.apple.com

-Butler, Robert. "A Brief History of the Firehouse Five Plus Two." Firehouse Five Plus Two. N.p., Sept. 2011. Web. <http://rbistudio.com/firehouse5plus2.html>.
- "Ed Penner (1905-1956)." IMDB. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0672093/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1>.
-Firehouse Five Plus Two. Firehouse Five Plus Two Goes to Sea. Lester Koenig, 1958. Vinyl recording.
-Ghez, Didier. Walts People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Vol. 5. [S.l.]: Xlibris, 2007. Print.
-Ghez, Didier. Walts People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Vol. 6. [S.l.]: Xlibris, 2008. Print
-"Joe Burke (composer)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 July 2013. Web. 9 Oct. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Burke_%28composer%29>.

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