Mar 27, 200610:23 AMThe Life
Whitey Mitchell: words and music
Mar 27, 2006 - 10:23 AMPalm Springs resident Gordon "Whitey" Mitchell [click thumbnail photo to enlarge] has had two amazing careers: one as a jazz musician, and another as a writer for TV/film/stage/etc. I recently caught up with this creative whirlwind and badgered him until he broke down and answered a few questions:
You grew up in a talented family - what were some of the significant events of your childhood?
Being fully potty trained: FREEDOM AT LAST! After that, I have fond memories of the extended family get-togethers, which were full of low comedy and questionable music. All Mitchells can sing. But, then again, we all have terrible voices. My brother and I both have CDs to prove it.
Who were your favorite teachers?
Mrs. Harrison, my fourth grade teacher, thought I was wonderful, and without having to suck up whatsoever I became Teacher's Pet. I also became much more familiar with the English language. (It's too bad Mrs. Harrison wasn't around when our current President went to school... if he ever went to school.) Another teacher, Mr. Darby, thought I was pretty funny during my high school days (whenever I wasn't playing hooky) and forced me to write humor columns for the school paper. He also brought my spelling and grammar to a new level, which is probably why I don't never use no double negatives.
What was your first paying job in music?
A New Year's Eve gig when I was fourteen. I'd been playing bass for about two weeks and subbed for my older brother, who wanted to take a higher paying job. It paid eighteen dollars, was with The Irving Cohen Trio at a roadside joint in Paterson, NJ, and was from 10pm till 1am. As young and stupid and inexperienced as I was, I can honestly say I was the best musician in the band. After one set, the owner came to the bandstand and offered us six bucks apiece if we'd leave NOW. No one was happier than me... except, perhaps, Irving.
When did your music career take off?
I became a regular in Birdland, starting two weeks after I arrived in New York after being discharged from the Army and the 392nd Army Band. I worked there so often I became blasé about rubbing shoulders with guys like Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Pete Rugolo, and on and on. It was a virtual Who's Who of jazz, and felt like the center of the universe. Richard Nixon used to come in! He was Vice-President then, wore a suit and a tie, and presumably was doing some early work on the Enemies List.
How would you describe the difference between playing with a small jazz group and being part of a big band or orchestra?
I always loved the excitement of playing with a large orchestra and still do. The biggest was the Bell Telephone Orchestra (sixty-five pieces) that I got to play with as part of the Andre Previn trio. I played with them twice before their show went off the air, and I can still hear it in my mind. These days the big band gigs are few and far between, and it's mostly duos, trios, and small combos, but on the plus side, I get to play lots of solos, something that never happens (for a bass player) with a big band. Sorry. This was a serious answer. It won't happen again.
How did the music lead to your writing career?
My first paid writing was an article in Down Beat Magazine, lampooning a nasty bandleader I had unfortunately worked for. That piece created a lot of buzz and letters-to-the-editor, one of which came from Lenny Bruce, who praised my humor and my writing. This got my attention. The first germ of an idea to someday go into the writing biz was planted, because I couldn't recall reviews of my bass playing that were even close.
Which television shows were easier to write?
The well-constructed ones with a good premise and sharply-defined characters. The worse the show, the harder to write. I feel sorry for whoever is writing the crap that's on TV these days. Then again, people should have felt sorry for me co-writing The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island.
What was your first impression of Norman Lear?
Genius. Same as my last impression.
How did you get involved with the Walk of Stars?
Gerhard Frenzel, who co-founded Palm Springs Walk of Stars, invited me to be on the Board of Directors a few years back, and when Bob Alexander took over three years ago, he asked me to stay. I go to all the meetings, contribute what expertise I can muster, help them with whatever creative writing is needed, and my wife Marilyn and I provide the sound system for the dedication ceremonies.
Are there any honorees that stand out in your mind?
Star dedications can be simple or elaborate and might include a post-ceremony reception, depending on the depth of the recipient's pockets. But they're all fun and interesting, and the more of them I attend, the more I realize there's a good reason for every single one of them.
You still continue performing, right?
I perform all the time with different groups all over the Coachella Valley and occasionally in L.A. at The Jazz Bakery. I now have the luxury of accepting only those gigs I want to do... and it usually has more to do with 'Who's playing in the band?' than 'How much does it pay?' And lately it has a lot to do with 'What are the hours?' and 'Do I get dinner?'
What are you working on now?
I've been writing a book called Star Walk, a collection of brief bios of everyone who's gotten a star so far on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. We're still negotiating a publishing deal and so, until that's concluded and there's a definite cutoff date, I'm writing The Book That Never Ends. Besides that and occasionally teaching screenwriting at UC Riverside, I have two plays that I'm trying to get off the ground (it'd be nice if we had enough theatres around here), a weekly golf column in The Desert Entertainer, and, as soon as I finish answering these questions, I'll go back to writing some roast material for an old friend in L.A.
You've worked in so many different formats - what kind of writing do you prefer to do?
[Click to hear Whitey talk about his nickname.]