Episode 17: George Young, Legendary Sax Player and Composer

This podcast will continue my interview with George as we move into his mid and later career. We'll talk about his time in the Saturday Night Live Band, playing for Sinatra and Bennet, practice habits, teaching and composition methods and how he is staying busy.

You can learn more and contact George on his web site.


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Sharman Nittoli: Welcome to the Live Your Bloom Podcast. Continuing my interview with George Young, part 2. Well known sax and woodwind player who's had a long, successful career in the music business. Let's get right to it. So, George, you lived in New York for a while, but chose to move away from the city.

George Young: I was doing the Poconos and I was doing New York to get out of that environment.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah.

George Young: Because it was too fast all the time. Well, I remember when I used to go up from South Jersey, outside of Philly, where I'm originally from, when I would go up that turnpike, I get to New York. Joe Farrell, I'd sit with him a lot in the sixties. And my beginning transition from being a band leader to a side man, to, as I call myself, an undercover agent. And in doing so I get up there and he'd say, 'Hey, Giorgio'. He used to call me Giorgio. Like he sort of embraced me as an Italian or something. Jews would embrace me as a Jew, you know, and the blacks embraced me as a black because of my musical connection to whatever we we're going to play. I go that route. And it all stems from the beginning, but anyway, he used to say, 'push in', meaning place sharper and play faster. So when I go back to Philly and maybe play in the pit, Harold Caravel, the contractor would say, 'Giorgi, Will you pull out for Christ's sake and slow down. You're playing like those damn New York guys.'

Sharman Nittoli: Isn't that something?

George Young: So I figured my time and my pitch was somewhere around Exit 12 around Carteret. Funny story, but that's where my main.....

Sharman Nittoli: So, when did you work for Saturday night live? You were in that band for quite a while.

George Young: Well, there was a Michael Brecker went on his own and lift steps ahead. And Alex Foster, who I love very, very much, he's been there now for quite a while. He started, they were having trouble with ethnicity at the station at NBC in New York. So Lou came to me, who was the contractor, Lou Delgado, and he said, 'George I'm really stuck. I'm having problems. I got to get an Alto player for the show. A black guy who plays alto saxophone and plays clarinet. I said, 'Alex he had just come up from Philly. Anyway, he came up to New York and he was sobbing for me.

George Young: I brought him around and showed him what the drill was. So I called Alex, Alex got the gig. Now, when Mike Brecker went with , left Steps Ahead to go do Michael Brecker as a solo artist with his own music in his own group, they needed a player. This was an opportunity because Alex, very quickly being as aware as he is as a musician, became kind of, you know... that show's hard to do. First of all, under the direction of the Leader at the time, it was unbearable.

Sharman Nittoli: Hmmm.

George Young: I had left four times and Louie talked me back into coming because some obnoxious behavior and unbelievable volume. I pitched so many complaints that we round up getting these ear monitors, because we could turn down what we didn't want. Cause this guy used to come in, and everybody would send them free amplifiers, cause he was in vogue, right. He'd have them all hooked up at the wall, like a wall of sound. The electrician would come, I don't know why he did it. And when he'd come in for rehearsal 11 o'clock in the morning at NBC - we're they're putting our instruments together, ready to go and talk, 'How was your week' or, 'Geez, that was some date we did'. Maybe we're on a date together. We're commiserating, you know, we're hanging out a little bit, having some chit-chat. And then he comes in to disrupt. Holy...

Sharman Nittoli: It's like the movie Spinal Tap. Did you ever see it?

George Young: Nope. Never heard about it.

Sharman Nittoli: You know, when he says, he had an extra notch put on his amp to be 11, not 10.

George Young: Well there it goes.

Sharman Nittoli: And he said, 'Why do you, why do you have to play at 11? 'And he said, 'Because I can'.

George Young: Ohhh. Nasty! Well, let's take it into to another. That's taking it in the opposite direction to what I was talking about earlier. I realized we have to keep the audience hot and fired up, and there's gotta be a little bit of rip bam boom, but there's a limit to how, I mean that's still Tuscanini's old laboratory where he used to play with the orchestra. I mean, got him rolling around up there . The volume factor used to be so beyond, as in so many venues, when you go, I gotta leave sometimes. In fact, I take my earplugs with me and sometimes they're not even any good.

Sharman Nittoli: If I want to hear music, I'll go hear music. But if I'm going out to have dinner or something like that, I need to be able to converse.

George Young: Yeah.

Sharman Nittoli: And I do not want to hear, "She Works Hard for the Money" pumping at me.

George Young: Yeah,

Sharman Nittoli: One day, I was listening to Jimi Hendrix playing Star-Spangled Banner from Woodstock at 7:00 AM. And I was like, "What is going on?" People's ears have changed.

George Young: Music is such a versatile factor that can be used so many ways. It can be used for happiness, could be used for sadness, can be used for craziness. It could do a lot of things.

Sharman Nittoli: For meditative purposes. Yeah. The theory is we'll buy more, we'll get more hungry. We'll buy more product, and I'm always listening to it.

George Young: Some of it's good. Some of it's okay. I mean...

Sharman Nittoli: I even like muzak, some of it.

George Young: But a lot of the computer stuff it's just, they try to get close to the real instruments, but they really haven't been able to do. You can tell them there's a live band on there and there's a real drummer kicking it out. I love it. One of the shows I like to band on, Pat Sajack, that music they play between, I'm talking about when they're going out to commercial or they're leaving the show, there's a trumpet player and a drum. I'm going to find out who these guys are cause the whole band is just magnificent. Perfect for that show. It just carries it, it was done excellently. And a lot of stuff, a lot of commercials. I'll tell you, Amazon has some interesting stuff, as does iPhone. And they use the machines creatively, I like when they use it.

Sharman Nittoli: My grandson is a rapper. And when I was out there last, he took me to the Henson Studio where he does a lot of work and taught me how to use this program called Splice. Splice is like a glorified high quality Garage Band. Four bars, eight bars of real music that's taped or recorded and you choose what you like, it tells you what key it's in and you put this thing together. In the beginning, I totally objected to it, but a wise person once said, 'If you cannot find the best out of what's happening now, you're going to become obsolete very quickly. And I always remembered that. When you started working with Charlie Calello and the Four Seasons, you were on a lot of their tunes, right?

George Young: That was the launching of my New York career. Cause Charlie used to put me in, like... I will never forget the time I went in to do a date - two tenors. Zoot Sims and me, and we got in there and I saw Zoot there. I said, 'Oh my God, this is exciting. I'm going to get to play with Zoot.' So I went over and I introduced myself and he was very, like, sweet. He was a gentleman and I, the parts were handed out, and I took my part, I put it on his stand. And it was almost like a chicken tenor duet type of thing. I forget who we were playing some artists, but it was in the background stuff, and he looked at it and he said, this is Zoot Sims, he says, 'I think it'd be better if you tackle this one.' He said, 'Because I'm not familiar with this kind of music.' Here he got hired for the gig being a stone jazz player.

George Young: So I says, 'Whatever you want.' I said, 'Whatever you want, if you would like me to do at all, I'll be happy to do it.' And then he told Charlie, he said, 'Can we take a minute to turn over this? I want to make sure he's got it.' Cause I mean, he was a reader, but he wasn't a real quick sight reader. And it wasn't that hard, and plus he had amazing ears. So we played it, and I was styling it gently, which you gotta be sensitive with a guy like that, cause he's a true artist from another place.

Sharman Nittoli: Uhm-hmm.

George Young: He's now coming into our domain, which I'm familiar with all that stuff, cause we did it with the band. I know how to do the chameleon of the instruments that I play. Satisfy the music's, what the music needs for that. And it worked out great. He jumped right over, ran it down once or twice, just the two of us. And then we tell him we were ready to go. It was fabulous. And then Charlie told me the story after he said, 'Yeah, I liked the way that went down, that was good.' I said, 'Yeah. I mean, it was a thrill, to meet him and to play with him. He's an icon.' So Charlie said, 'You're never going to believe how my father', who was the contractor, Patsy, says, 'My father called Radio registry for Zott Simes'. Zott Simes! That was his father, he was so cute. And Charlie used to put him on second or third trumpet, next to Bernie and Ernie Royal. And he would sit there like a little alter boy with the trumpet playing. So adorable.

Sharman Nittoli: Well, you know, back then when charts were written, they were written with pen and ink.

George Young: Yeah.

Sharman Nittoli: I did a a few of them and thank God Finale came out because I learned that rather quickly. And then if there were mistakes, you had to just correct it by hand and you know.

George Young: Yes. And have your red pencil.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah.

George Young: It was a time that there was a lot of innocence and a lot of just growing awareness. I know, I always liked the mystique of going and playing something new with the best players, perhaps in the world. At least some of them, many of them, just learning. It's the same thing, but it's different. I mean, to love it and to do it well, it just seemed to fit all together. And when it got rough for me, it got rough for everyone. I wasn't alone. Cause, you know, you go in and do something, like Charlie wrote some odd meters stuff and you know, we had to figure it out.

Fortunately, Bill Levoigne was on the date playin'. He was masterful at playing the odd meters. Billy was one of my tempo mentors. We used to hang out and we used to do the sevens. We used to do to forward seven, backward seven. We used to do nines and elevens. And they would swing and the music was there, you just had to believe it and listen for it. And it would always pop up.

Sharman Nittoli: Alfred and I have always been grateful and privileged to have you play on several songs on our CDs. And we've always been overwhelmed by the way you, not only popped up, but you made the songs so much better

But for our listeners, I'm wondering if you could share some of the songs that maybe they know that you played on.

George Young: Let's see. There's the Cameo Parkway, a lot of their music. The Dovell's, we did Four Seasons, all those. And then Frankie Valli's solo album later, we did a Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. I did Red Tornado album for Red Rodney. I did a jazz album and I did a...

Sharman Nittoli: Kenny Rankin.

George Young: The 'Because of you' album.

Sharman Nittoli: Wonderful. Yeah.

George Young: Duo on that one.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah That was beautiful.

Sharman Nittoli: Transfer, I think you played for.

George Young: Oh yeah, I played on most of their New York recordings, I did Janice, a jazz singer; Billy Strayhorn loved her; Lena Horne. It's been good. And then of course, Tony Bennet's albums. I played first flute on his the 'The Art of Romance', where he does the Johnny Mandel - oh my God, Johnny Mandel. Talk about a thrill to play in an orchestra of his music and his writing, his arranging, and the way he uses the DX7 with the woodwinds, like with the clarinets and the reeds.

Sharman Nittoli: I didn't know that.

George Young: Yeah It's just wonderful and Claus Ogerman who's another great, and Michel Legrand. I have had so many blessings with playing for these great musicians, Mantovani, I played on Frank Sinatra's last New York album 'Portrait of an Album', I was on that, played all the lead alto on that one.

George Young: Deferred the solo to Frank West who played second. And he said, 'Come on, Georgie play.' 'No , man. I'm from the old school you're going to play the solo.' I said, 'This is yours.' To play for him (Sinatra) in Atlantic City Live, that was a whole other thrill. Every show's a thrill with this guy. And he is so charismatic, it's scary that someone has that much charisma and has that much perfection surrounding him constantly, that guy's that unbelievable.

George Young: And then when he came in to 'Do that date', we just came off a gig in Atlantic city playing for him at the golden nugget, and then the next day in New York. Oh my God. It's 'Here we are again'. And the red carpets out front of ALR, we go in, and the camera's on is just outrageous. We went up and we grabbed the music.

George Young: First. We had a rehearsal, a paid rehearsal to run over all the charts, which were all perfect and they were fun. And then we went back and did the performance, which was one take each, for Frank. Was quite an experience, it really was. We had Michael and Randy and Faddis and Montis, Solof.

George Young: We had such a great trumpet section, saxophones section. The whole band, we had Gad playing drums and Ray Brown playing bass. As they say, it was like 'sick!' It was beyond belief.

Sharman Nittoli: We know, we met him several times in New York because of his affinity for Lionel Trains. And Alfred's uncle worked for Lionel, he was able to get us these trains. And Dorothy, his personal assistant, when I would call her and say, 'I have a train', she would stop, 'Which one? What number? What is it?' I said, 'It's a caboose.', 'A caboose! He's going to love that, you have to come in tonight. We got front row seats at radio city.' And we would meet him backstage. And he would be reminiscing and talking. And we would leave and pass all these people, celebrities waiting to get in, to see him. And they're looking at us like, 'Who are these people?' Yeah, we belong.

George Young: Oh God. That's great!

Sharman Nittoli: Heard the best music by him.

George Young: His phrasing, his taking the lyric and sharing it with you.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah.

George Young: With that accompaniment, unbelievable moments in my career.

Sharman Nittoli: 'Cause even when Sinatra lost a little bit of the voice, the interpretation, the emotion was always there.

George Young: Yeah. He figured out how to get through it. He really did. He knew how to position himself for the limitations that were starting to present. He worked well within that parameter that was afforded in.

Sharman Nittoli: Good way of putting it. You know, I introduced this consummate musician, but I didn't go into all the instruments you play, but I also know you do play piano. You arrange, you compose, you do it all. You play all the woodwinds.

George Young: Well, not all of the, I didn't continue with my oboe. When I was a child at 12 years old, I had a bad experience with the teacher. The father was like, grandpa. He was great. I was starting to learn how to make the reads and all that, all of the sounds. And he retired, he was ill. And his son inherited his students at girls' high school where they would have Saturday morning lessons for kids like me at the time. And yelled, 'You'll never play the Oboe. What are you doing in there?' I told my dad, I went home with tears in my eyes. I says, 'I can't continue with this guy in this instrument.' it's hard enough, you know.

Sharman Nittoli: It's hard enough. Yeah.

George Young: But I stayed with the clarinet and the saxophone and then later, added the sax, added the flute family. So I play the saxophones, clarinets, and the flutes.

Sharman Nittoli: And the Bamboo....

George Young: oh yeah. Well, I play all of the ethnic flutes. Cambodian, the Indian flutes.

Sharman Nittoli: I got an expression from you. It was, 'I shut the phones off and I put my time in' and it meant to practice. You would just shut time in.

George Young: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Sharman Nittoli: And just do it.

George Young: Yeah. You turn the phone off, totally.

Sharman Nittoli: I don't think I clearly didn't ever put the time in, you did. But there were times when I would be just totally into it, running the scales and the keys and just put my time in and it never felt burdensome. I never got bored. It never felt like something I had to do. It was something I wanted to do. Do you still do that?

George Young: I still do that. I find it difficult sometimes to explain it. Cause I do give pointers and I'm happy to be helpful. I have students calling me from all over the planet, and in doing so we talk about the need to slow down and listen and make the connections.

George Young: Be it on a piano, whatever instrument it is, doesn't matter, but make sure that everything is clean. There's no 'smuch' between the notes, and you're listening. You got to listen to it, and then gradually, you know, your, your tuner, metronome are two great tools to incorporate. Although the tuner I have, my reservations for my intonation sometimes I get really bummed out at myself, but I just keep trying to open up to sound and look for that beautiful spot that I sometimes find.

Sharman Nittoli: Quite often you find.

George Young: Well, we had the group I was teaching on Saturdays. And I used to tell the players, I used to critique their technique and everything. The best that I did then, of course I did it better later when I went to New York and I was getting feedback and more advanced training from these people who have been doing it for decades longer than I. But up at that point, my intentions were good and I utilized what I had learned from my teachers, who were great in sharing that. But I used to say, 'When you play an instrument, that's like the tip of the iceberg.' The music is inside and you have to figure out a way how to, hopefully, write something. If it's like a measure or four bars, if something's rattling around in your head, write it down. If you can, if you want to get stimulated to do it, use your phone number. The zero can be a wild card or it could be a rest.

George Young: So whatever you want to do, something to initiate you digging in. Listen to what it is. Take it to a keyboard or on your instrument and try to tune it. And then play it up a half step, play it. I used to really push them in total directions of the instrument. And that was one of my tips to learning how to write a song. And then if some other things pop in, you don't need to go back to your phone. If you want to go up an octave or just want to elaborate on it, you have something to start with.

Sharman Nittoli: I used to drive to Queens to study the Schillinger method with the guy out there who was very knowledgeable. Learning four-part - the close harmony.

George Young: Yes.

Sharman Nittoli: And I have a friend in the Manhattan Transfer, Alan Paul. We graduated college together and he told me that that's where Janice had studied with Bob and she learned to arrange, so that was my thing. Cause we were doing the Jersey Bounce that was doing all of the Modernaire style harmony. So I used to drive to this guy's apartment and he used to give me a five-hour lesson, cause he wouldn't stop.

Sharman Nittoli: And one of the things that I took out of that is when I was writing off a numbers - because I would create something away from the piano off of a phone number. And then see how did that sound, and did I like it, did I want to tweak it a little, and a lot of my stuff starts with a phone number. I'll take a word and I'll just make number representations or I'll make a chord patterns, number representations, just arbitrarily. Major, minor, diminished, whatever, just see what comes up. And really, I credit a lot of my songs with coming off of that method, Schillinger method.

George Young: Wow, and you use the phone as well?

Sharman Nittoli: I do. Yeah.

George Young: That's fantastic. That's interesting.

Sharman Nittoli: I never knew you did too. Not many people I know do that.

George Young: You're absolutely right. Louie Bellson told me one time, I'll never forget, that Duke Ellington told him one time they were on an airplane flying somewhere to a gig and he asked Louie for a piece of manuscript paper. And Louie says, 'Jeez, I'm I'm out.' Cause Louie did a lot of writing as well. So he took his shirt and he wrote a clef on there to put the idea down there. He says, 'Yeah, once they go away, you never get them back.'

Sharman Nittoli: That's so true.

George Young: So once you get that brain out, my goodness. That's great. Let me write that down. You better write.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah

George Young: I always keep the manuscript paper around, you know, in spite the computer.

Sharman Nittoli: And whoever knew there was going to be this thing on an iPhone that you can just, 'Oh, I got an idea' and you can sing it in.

George Young: Right.

Sharman Nittoli: And there it is. Because I wouldn't remember it when I come home. But sometimes those quiet times, there's this quiet times and all of a sudden, there's the idea. And you do have to record it because it will *blows air* go right through ya.

George Young: I would like for people as musicians or want to be musicians, listen for the music when they're performing and not themselves. Get out of the way, because the music's there and just kind of let it in. And then if you're entitled, you can play those notes, then they'll make more sense. But like you said earlier, if you're going to start out with all this kind of stuff, it's just going to be displaying one's narcissism. The music wants to give you the blessing of itself and you're not giving it to the opportunity. I rest my case.

Sharman Nittoli: Right now. I understand you're still busy. You teach, you do a variety of things.

George Young: But I'm in a process now of organizing stuff. I have so much - my whole life. The garage is like a warehouse, pre-computer. From when I was a child, my first song, I mean, it's sick. What I've been doing mostly is trying to go through a lot of my library and I'm trying to line it up with Ascap and get all my ducks in a row and get some of our stuff out. We have some couple tunes there that I have to address at some point. And I have a tune I wrote with Lee Durley called 'Happy Tears'. Where, when something makes you happy, like the the birth of a child, or when you see someone after a long time and, or you're getting ready to just whatever reasons make you happy and the tears flow.

George Young: They also happen when you're happy, not just when you're sad. And I wrote that for an Italian songstress and who was very famous in the Reno/Vegas /Tahoe circuit before we were out there doing stuff. Ree Brunell was, she commanded the room when she came in and to sing, Boom! It was like she's star, big star. And she presented herself, always like that with her look and delivery of her song. And she got very ill in Las Vegas one time and she had to be flown home on a private plane. I knew of her. And I had even played for her in the background. And I called her to welcome her back and to congratulate her, that she beat the illness that she had.

George Young: Well, she was so taken by the fact that I called her and she started to cry. I said, 'Oh, happy tears. I hope they're happy tears.' She says, 'Darlin', , they're so happy. I'm so glad I lived here in such a wonderful neighborhood of musicians.' I had manuscript paper in my car where I was calling her from, I was doing a Dixieland Jazz Festival. They were having this big bash over the weekend up there, which they used to have annually in March. Right away I said, 'Happy tears.'. So I wrote the melody that he put some changes and then I took it back and I worked it out. And then I said, I told Lee who was born on the same day, but a different decade.

George Young: I said, 'Lee, I gotta give this to you and Pammy. See what you can do with it.' Because he knew her really well. And sure enough, he came up with 'Happy Tears'. It's just like a Jimmy Durante tune over the banjo in it and all that.

Sharman Nittoli: Oh. Yeah.

George Young: I'm trying to turn it into a country Western to now. So for this lady, who's a blues country crossover, try to redesign it in a way where it gets some twang in there.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah.

George Young: Because if you want to get the thing on, you want to try to dress it up with sound effects that encourage the listener to listen to the lyric and the melody. And that's a very popular genre, your Country Western is huge. I mean you had a tune that you did a video on everything on.

Sharman Nittoli: Oh yeah.

George Young: One of those or something.....Alfred (Nittoli)...

Sharman Nittoli: 'Long as I Got One 'a These, I Can Get Me One 'a Those'

George Young: Yeah. Talk about creative. Like, goodness. Does he ever sleep?

Sharman Nittoli: We come up with some songs, you know.

George Young: I love it.

Sharman Nittoli: Alfred says it's always the concept, the song concept for 'Here's to the Band' - that was Alfred's you know. We wrote a song called 'Pug Nose Dream', because we both were looking at each other and we said, we both have big noses cause we're Mediterranean. So he wrote this song, which basically is, 'I wish I was a Pug Nose Dream, but I'm not.' The end says 'cause the nose by any other name will smell a sweet.' So I don't know if you saw that video, but there was a guy out here, Bobby D'Andrea, who does a Jimmy Durante impersonation.

George Young: Oh, that's great.

Sharman Nittoli: These novelty songs. Where did they go? We shot the whole thing around here and just had fun. I'll send it to you.

George Young: Please do.

Sharman Nittoli: Yeah. And now I've remodeled it and included it in my 'Live Your Bloom' because the message is the same. Just get busy making things. Don't worry about all this other stuff you don't have to get new, this and new that. It's just like just trying to become somebody else from the exterior, it's not really going to change things inside.

George Young: Put the phone away and go inside. Think, 'What can I do? Let me think of something. I'll write it down.' Any way to make something is always good. Being a gardener, you know. Doing something good. There's nothing wrong with that? You know what I mean? Don't break stuff, make stuff, fix stuff.

Sharman Nittoli: Okay. I'm going to go and let you enjoy the rest of your day.

George Young: Thank you so much.

Sharman Nittoli: Thank you so much. This has been a joy.

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