Obituary: Earle Warren

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The Independent Online
Earle Ronald Warren, alto and baritone saxophone player, clarinettist, vocalist, bandleader: born Springfield, Ohio 1 July 1914; died Springfield, Ohio 4 June 1994.

WHEN the Count Basie band were playing at the Paramount in New York, Earle Warren planned a flourish of showmanship to introduce his featured vocal 'I Struck a Match in the Dark'. He would stand at the microphone in a completely darkened theatre and would strike a match which illuminated only his face. And then the lights would be turned up. 'Earle was a good-looking guy and Basie figured that this introduction would set off all the little girls who thought of Earle as a matinee idol,' said Buck Clayton. The scheme worked well the first time it was tried, but in the second house the band waited in the dark, the silence broken only by the frantic scratching by Warren as match after match failed to light. As the seconds dragged by the audience was completely bemused. It transpired that the drummer Jo Jones had carefully dampened Warren's matches during the intermission.

Warren worked for the Basie band, on alto sax and as band singer, most of the time from 1937 to 1951. Lester Young ('Prez') handed out the nicknames in the band. The bright-eyed Clayton was 'Cat Eye', the round-faced Buddy Tate 'Moon', the lanky Dickie Wells 'Bones' and Earle Warren, whose embouchure made him look as though he was smiling while he was playing, became 'Smiley'. Because of the fashion at the time the tenor players Lester Young and Herschel Evans took most of the saxophone solos. 'I got all the bridges,' recalled Warren. 'Eight bars in the middle of everything.'

Warren became an outstanding lead alto player for Basie, heading a formidable saxophone section. He was bettered only in this role by Willie Smith, who played with the Jimmy Lunceford band. The two men shared a different problem. Both men were 'black', but each was so fair-skinned as to appear white. This caused them problems because, particularly in the Thirties, it was unheard of for a white man to play in a black band, and indeed there were occasions when such players had to wear black make-up. Their problem occasionally drew insults from their fellow-blacks.

When Basie was absent for any reason Warren, a responsible and intelligent man, took over the band and indeed on one occasion led it for a recording session under his own name on the Savoy label. Because he was more famous the company originally issued the records under Lester Young's name.

Warren was in and out of the Basie band over the years, leading his own band from 1945 to 1947, and when he finally left Basie it was because of the illness of his wife. He joined the vocal group the Platters as its baritone sax player and later became manager of the show band led by Johnny Otis. He turned down offers from Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Gene Krupa.

Over the years a nucleus of ex-Basie musicians stayed together, usually working under Buck Clayton's name. Warren came to Britain with Clayton in 1959 and toured Europe with the trumpeter several times in later years. An extremely likeable man, he made many friends here. When Willie Smith became ill in 1986 Warren took his place in the 'Jazz from a Swinging Era' unit which toured Europe that year and visited Britain again. During this trip he negotiated a tour of his own here, returning to work with the Littlejohn-Milliner Sextet and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Like Buck Clayton and many other mainstream musicians Warren found that there was far more work to be had in Europe than at home and he settled in Geneva for almost 10 years, returning two years ago to his home town of Springfield, Ohio.

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