Wednesday, February 09, 2011


In another time (1964, to be exact), instrumentals were often million-sellers. Al Hirt scored a Top Ten with "Java," and won a Grammy Award. Two years later, he gave the performance of his career with the gut-busting lip-blistering "Flight of the Bumblebee," jazzed up as the theme for the TV series "The Green Hornet."

That show failed, perhaps because "Batman" (also on ABC) was so campy and the Hornet was dull by comparison. Besides, we'd already seen a guy in a mask with an ethnic sidekick: "The Lone Ranger." The Ranger's creators (George Trendle and Fran Striker) simply figured a modern-day urban version could diversify their portfolio. They even made Hornet Britt Reid a distant relative to the old Ranger John Reid, when the show premiered on radio in the 30's.

The theme song outlasted the TV series, and was used on the soundtrack for "Kill Bill." Today, with a new attempt at "The Green Hornet" in theaters, the character as originally played on TV by Van Williams is a hazy memory…but the theme song by Al Hirt still has some sting.

Hirt was a big star throughout the 60's (literally, too) but had a setback in 1970 when some fan, just having fun, used him for target practice during a Mardi Gras parade. Hirt was on a float, playing his trumpet, when he was hit by a flying object that nearly tore his lip off. Fortunately Al was able to recover, but by that time, tastes had changed and instrumentals, as well as "middle of the road" performers, were not part of the Top 20 AM radio scene.

Hirt retained his title of "King," mostly because he was the last of the line, with no other trumpet player about to come along and have hit records. For most any kid learning trumpet, the role model was Al Hirt…as opposed to big band guys such as Harry James or Louis Armstrong. The only other guy out there was Doc Severinsen, who led "The Tonight Show Band" and made comic, near cross-eyed expressions after hitting a high note. As I struggled to hit an E above high C, I did marvel at those notes Doc hit…but more the dexterity of Al Hirt…whom I also couldn't match with my sticky-valved trumpet and underdeveloped embouchure. Finding myself sounding more like bugler Gunga Din just after being shot, I decided to take up instruments that didn't require oral contact. And yes, I can play "Flight of the Bumblebee" damn well on any of 'em. As for the trumpet, I no longer try and will not be Hirt.




whiteray said...

Al Hirt was my first musical hero and model. I started playing cornet in 1964 about when "Java" was a hit. The tune that, to me, elevates Hirt above all others (including Severinesen, whom I met twice when I was a kid) was Hirt's performance on "I Can't Get Started," the opening track on "Honey In The Horn."

Ill Folks said...

Hiya Whitey,

I think the first brass instrument I played may have been a cornet. It was a flea market find, with no brand name. When I took serious lessons I rented a trumpet and it was a whole lot louder, so I'm guessing I'd been working with a cornet before. Not that I could even play nice 'n mellow as Al did on "I Can't Get Started." I just couldn't get started...