If you’re worn out from politics and the dark choice coming in November, brighten your day with the memory and sound of Al Hirt…and the greatest trumpet solo hit, EVER!
When I was a kid growing up in Piqua, Ohio, I played trumpet in the high school band and had the great fortune of taking private lessons from then city manager, Bob Hance.
Hance, besides being a gifted civic administrator for the community, was also an extremely talented musician, a former cornet soloist in the army band, and for years with the Dayton civic band and the Piqua Elks band that performed on summer evenings at the Fountain Park band shell.
He was a colorful guy, and a great story-teller. And by far the favorite story he shared with me was his association with the great trumpeter of that day, Al Hirt, born November 7, in 1922.
This was during the late 60s when Hirt was in his prime as a television performer, a headliner in Las Vegas, and in nearly every private club along Bourbon Street in his hometown of New Orleans.
Hance and Hirt had both studied privately with the great soloist of the 30s, Dr. Frank Simon, who for years played in front of John Phillip Sousa’s Marine band, the president’s own, before retiring and forming his own touring group. Hirt enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and graduated from the Conservatory of Music in 1943.
It was a much fun to watch Al Hirt as it was to listen. He was a huge man (nicknamed “Jumbo”), with a huge personality…and he had a huge sound. His range on his LeBlanc custom-made trumpet was seemingly endless; and he made it all look easy. He’s also credited for actually saving the LeBlanc company, a French firm with business relationships in New Orleans, and hence, an eventual relationship with Hirt, for whom they designed a horn with a more specific, brassy sound. Struggling for traction in the US market, Hirt played and promoted the LeBlanc brand for the rest of his life.
He personally brought instrumental music to the forefront of popular music during the height of his career with a string of hits: Java, Sugar Lips, Cotton Candy, and Fancy Pants. But none was as popular as Java!
Written in 1958 by a musician named Allen Toussaint, the tune was originally recorded as a piano piece by various artists, including Floyd Cramer. Hirt, who was making solo strides in popular music as a trumpeter, heard it in the spring of 1963, liked it, and recorded it for RCA. The sound and personality of the tune made it an immediate radio favorite, rising to #4 on the charts. It also made Hirt the #1 preferred trumpeter, and gave the trumpet recognition in the pop music genre. Within the ten-year span of Java, Sugar Lips, Cotton Candy, Fancy Pants, and others, his famed skyrocketed and Hirt became the most-recognized instrumentalist in the world.
He recorded 22 albums for RCA Victor and played the theme for the TV show, Green Hornet (an adaptation of Flight of The Bumblebee). In addition, although he contested the claim, he was undoubtedly the best-known Dixeyland musician in the world, frequently appearing with his friend and clarinetist Pete Fountain. Wherever there was the need for a trumpet, Al Hirt was there…at Super Bowls, the World Series, and presidential inaugurations.
So popular was Al Hirt in New Orleans, he became a minority owner of the NFL expansion New Orleans Saints, and frequently performed at their games.
He aged gracefully, never lost his popularity and reputation, and died of liver failure on April 27, 1999. The man is gone…his big sound lives on!