Issue 13.3: June/July 2010

Can You Dig It?

Story by David Thompson
Photos by Dana Edmunds

 

What do the Beatles, The Brady Bunch, Bob Hope, Bob Dylan, Bugs Bunny, Michael Jackson, M*A*S*H*, the Monkees, Don Ho, Elvis, The Dating Game, the Rolling Stones and The Flintstones all have in common?

 

Ollie Mitchell on trumpet.

 

Maybe you’ve never heard of Ollie Mitchell, but you’ve certainly heard him play. Ollie was a core member of a tightly knit group of Los Angeles studio musicians in the 1960s and 1970s who played on thousands of Top 40 hits, television shows, cartoons, commercial jingles and film scores. Known to industry insiders as the Wrecking Crew, the musicians were well paid but largely uncredited.

 

That was fine by Ollie. He’s been on the periphery of fame his whole life, and he’s never had much use for it.

 

“I was just doing it for the bread,” he says. “I was like a carpenter going to work, dig? I was a studio sausage grinding out the hits.”

 

Ollie may have been a studio sausage, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t bringing a high level of artistry to his recording sessions. Think of the theme song for Hawaii 5-0, the power and precision of its trumpet line. That’s Ollie. He didn’t just hit the right notes on cue, he played with style, intelligence and verve. That’s the reason he was in such high demand. He helped make the hits hits.

 

Now 83 years old and living on the Big Island in a breezy remodeled tract home on a parched North Kohala hillside, Ollie has a mind as sharp and clear as the high G above high C that he can still squeeze out of his trumpet. Yet when it comes to illuminating detail or even simple specifics—What do you remember about playing with Led Zeppelin? Which Beach Boys albums are you on?—Ollie can be confoundingly fuzzy.

 

When I ask about recording with English rock band Led Zeppelin, Ollie laughs and says: “We started at midnight and went till 8 in the morning. I have no idea what we did in between.”

 

Then he adds, “Those were the guys from San Francisco, right?”

 

Ollie’s wife, Nancy Mitchell, a tech-savvy grandma who has been heating a tray of sliced poppy seed cake as Ollie talks, corrects the record.

 

“That was the Grateful Dead,” she calls from the kitchen.

 

Uh, you played with the Dead, Ollie?

 

“Oh, were those the guys from San Francisco?” he says. “Yeah, I played with them.”

 

The neural-synaptic hazards of the era account for some of Ollie’s autobiographical blind spots. As the saying goes, if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there—and Ollie was definitely there. But that only partially explains the haze. More to blame was the sheer volume of recording sessions Ollie did. He averaged three hundred to four hundred sessions a year over two decades. Much of that time he spent in a sound booth, playing along to the previously recorded tracks of whoever the featured pop star happened to be. The pop stars didn’t necessarily stick around while the studio musicians did their thing, and sometimes they weren’t even on the same continent—which is how Ollie ended up on the Beatles’ Revolver album without actually meeting the Beatles. At least not as a group, anyway. He did play with George Harrison and Ringo Starr at the 1971 Madison Square Garden benefit, Concert for Bangladesh.

 


 

 

These days when Ollie’s in the car he likes tuning the radio to LAVA 105.3 FM, Big Island Oldies. He gets a kick out of hearing his work, and it never takes long before one of his long-forgotten or never-actually-remembered songs turns up. So when I visit him at his home, I ask him to turn on the radio, which he does, tuning it to 105.3 (“Music that was popular … when you were,” the announcer says).

 

The first song we hear is “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. After Ollie listens for a few minutes, I ask if that’s him on the trumpet, and he says, “I’m pretty sure it is.” Even if he can’t name the specific Beach Boys songs he did, he certainly remembers the recording sessions. They took place at singer Brian Wilson’s funky Bel Air mansion, the neighborhood’s gaudily painted psychedelic eyesore. “It looked really out of place, and the neighbors were extremely upset with them,” Ollie says. “For them it was kind of a party. For me it was a gig.”

 

Ollie has no trouble recognizing himself in a song if it has an actual trumpet line. His musical phrasing and expression are as distinctive as his voice—to his ear, anyway. But if a song gives the trumpet just a few notes, or if the trumpet’s buried in the heavily layered production technique popular at the time, the “Wall of Sound,” Ollie is left guessing about his involvement. He’s forever discovering artists and Top 40 hits he didn’t know he was associated with. Occasionally an unexpected royalty check tips him off. He didn’t know who Gloria Gaynor was until royalties started arriving whenever “I Will Survive” was reused commercially. “I know who she is now,” he says. “I’ve gotten two or three checks a year for the last fifteen years just for that one song.”

 

After playing a few Ollie-free songs, LAVA 105.3 plays another one that catches Ollie’s ear.

 

“What the heck is this?” he asks.

 

Nancy steps in with her iPhone, which has an app called Shazam that identifies music. She holds it up to the radio, then studies the screen and announces, “Dusty Springfield, ‘Son of a Preacher Man.’”

 

Yep, that’s Ollie all right. “I didn’t even put that on my list,” he says. “But I recognize the line.”

 


 

 

Ollie’s list of known credits is thirteen pages long and obviously not comprehensive. It’s included in his self-published memoir, Ollywood, Lostbut Making Good Time. Ollie’s story begins in 1927, which is both the year he was born and the year Hollywood released The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length motion picture with sound. Ollie’s father, Harold Mitchell, played on that movie and on many that followed, including Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The elder Mitchell was a leading trumpet player of the day, and his authoritative how-to series on trumpet playing, Mitchell on Trumpet, is still in use. Pappy Mitchell had strong trumpistic theories, and he didn’t wait long before starting his son on a rigorous practice routine. While Ollie wasn’t exactly born with a brass wind instrument in his mouth, he’s had one there since he was 5.

 

Ollie turned pro in high school, playing on national radio shows and in dance clubs. He did his homework in the orchestra pits. Most of the draft-age musicians in Los Angeles had been scooped up by World War II, so there was plenty of work. Ollie joined the Navy himself at age 18 and caught the tail end of the war. He wound up aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, playing in the ship’s band for the other sailors while they ate. When he returned to civilian life, he went back to playing professionally around Los Angeles, toured the country for a while with legendary band leader Harry James, did a lot of live television and finally settled in behind the microphone for a twenty-year run—from1962 to 1982—as a studio sausage grinding out the hits.

 

Or the Greatest Hits of All Time! as LAVA 105.3 calls them. After we listen to some commercials and some ’80s songs (all synthesizer, no horns), yet another tune catches Ollie’s ear. All of us know it, but none of us can name it, so Nancy steps in with her iPhone again. “Neil Diamond, ‘Crackling Rosie,’” she says.

 

Is it Ollie? Yep, and he actually remembers Neil Diamond.

 

“He was a nice guy,” says Ollie. “A lot of them would do their thing and split, but he’d hang around the studio for the whole thing. He was really into the product and being a part of it.”

 

The funny thing about Ollie is that he was really into the product, too. He just wasn’t that into the music. The sound of the ’60s and the ’70s, the sound he was such a key part of, wasn’t the sound that moved him. He is and always has been a big-band man, an unreconstructed hepcat from the swing era. If rock ’n’ roll’s playing in the Mitchell household, Nancy put it on. If Ollie’s picking the music, expect horns. As he says, “I listen mainly to brass, dig?”

 

He’s still playing it, too. On the first and third Sundays of the month, Ollie and his twelve-piece band, the Olliephonic Horns, take the stage at the Blue Dragon, an upscale open-air restaurant in Kawaihae. They do swing, bop, Latin and every other style of music that emphasizes horns. Although they perform on Sundays, they fill the house, and if you want a table you’d better have reservations.

 

Brass bands usually line up several rows deep, with the loudest instruments—the trumpets—in the back row. Ollie lines up the Olliephonics side by side, no more than two rows deep. He’s no longer in the back row, and he’s no longer sealed in the recording booth playing along to the bass and drum tracks of the Bay City Rollers or the Byrds or the Carpenters. He’s standing at the edge of the dance floor, holding his trumpet in one hand, conducting his band with the other, launching into “Take the ‘A’ Train” and playing music he loves.