Friday, December 09, 2016
Van Williams AL HIRT and WADE DENNING do "The Green Hornet" Theme
Media obits for Van Williams ((February 27, 1934 – November 28, 2016) were fairly brief. Millennials have no idea who he was, after all. And neither to the blacks who matter. Frankly, if it wasn't for Bruce Lee, it's possible poor Mr. W. would be even more of a footnote, mourned by that small circle of Baby Boomers and hapless Huelbigs.
Bruce Lee co-starred as Kato in Van's best-remembered series, "The Green Hornet." Fans of the died-young karate star dolize Bruce, and don't give much of a damn about Van, the somewhat woodenly handsome guy who wore the fedora and the big wide green mask.
They are much more prone to discuss conspiracy theories on Bruce Lee's death, than ponder that Britt Reid (the Green Hornet's real name) was the nephew of John Reid (real name of the Lone Ranger). It seems the creator of the Long Ranger simply updated the concept with a different ethnic sidekick (Kato replacing Tonto) and a different stolen classical theme ("William Tell Overture" swapped for "Flight of the Bumble Bee.")
Frankly, or Vanly (yes, he was born Van Zandt Williams), our hero was just another handsome mannequin over at Warner Bros. TV studios. They had tons of 'em, and hoping they could act as well as they looked, turned them into "Cheyenne" or a Maverick brother. Warners had tons of westerns and a bunch of look-alike detective shows ("Surfside 6," "77 Sunset Strip," "Bourbon Street Beat") that required "hunks" to go after the far more magnetic villain types (Ross Martin, Nehemiah Persoff, Lon Chaney Jr.)
Like James Garner, who also had very limited acting experience, Williams was "discovered" by some Hollywood mogul who simply liked his looks. Williams was a diving instructor at the time. Within a few years, Van was co-starring in "Bourbon Street Beat," and was then moved to "Surfside 6." In movies, he started with dopey "wow, what a good looking hunk" roles, like playing an athlete in the basketball drama "Tall Story." His big scene was appearing naked (this was 1960, no full frontal) in a naughty locker room scene with Jane Fonda.
In 1966, amid the "Batman" craze, ABC offered up another hero, "The Green Hornet," with stoic Williams playing it straight. The show lasted one year. Williams was apparently typed as a retro-hero with his hair combed back, and didn't get another good guy role (as say, a Robert Conrad always did). Williams waited, and aged. Not everybody is John Forsythe, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. or Robert Young, and so in his 40's or 50's Williams didn't become a friendly doctor or the head of the FBI. He was wise enough to have a "day job," skilled in business, and was able to pretty much retire from acting, and live a good life with the wife and kids. Keeping his hand in the "hero" business, he did volunteer as a deputy sheriff and a firefighter. Instead of shooting bad guys, his hobby was shooting ducks and geese out of the sky.
In talking about Williams to my better half, who barely remembered him OR the show, I got to discussing the show's famous theme. "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" was jazzed up and speeded up as a tour-de-force for Al Hirt. As a trumpet player (at the time), I was amazed at how fast Al could play. I said, "He was one of the last of the famous trumpet players. There was the Big Band era, which had a lot of band leaders playing trumpet, but by the 60's, it was out of fashion." "Al Hirt?" she asked. "I don't think he was the best known trumpet player in the 60's. What about that guy who played the Mexican music?"
I countered, "OK, Herb Alpert had more hits. But most of his trumpet work was doubled or tripled. He had the entire "Tijuana Brass" behind him, and rarely solo'd. He also rarely showed off with hitting impossible high notes. Another trumpet player who did that was Doc Severinsen, He may not have had hit songs, but he made many, many record albums of jazz. When he got a chance now and then to do a number with The Tonight Show band, he was impressive. He hit notes easily an octave higher than I could ever hit."
Solo trumpet? Al Hirt had a hit with "Java" among others, and his album containing "The Green Hornet Theme" (in stereo) sold thousands upon thousands of copies. I'll give Al Hirt the edge as the most famous, if not the best trumpet player of his day. Doc may have been the best.
Below, you get Al Hirt's version and one by Wade Denning and the Port Washingtons, which was on a budget TV theme album I absolutely had to have at the time. Yes, even though it looks phony, that was his real name. Wade Denning (July 21, 1922-September 17, 2007) did live in Port Washington. It's a rather tony Long Island suburb maybe only an hour or so away from Manhattan. Not the 2 1/2 hour drive it would be to Montauk or Southampton, Port Washington was where pianist/conductor/songwriter Bobby Cole once had his super-affluent home. I wished I'd known him back then, and got a chance to check out his famous swimming pool, which was built half-indoors and half-outdoors, for all-weather relaxation. But I digress...
Denning and his guyyyysss were very busy with commercial jingles and yes, budget record assignments. His version of "The Green Hornet Theme" actually has lyrics, which certainly helped give the trumpet a break. There isn't nearly the frantic amount of blowing you get in Al Hirt's version. And if you'd like to actually see a frantic amount of blowing, well, no, you can insert your own Kardashian joke here.
AL HIRT - Green Hornet Theme in STEREO
Wade Denning & The Port Washingtons - Green Hornet with LYRICS