Of the three Berton (Cohen) brothers, Victor was unquestionably the most supremely talented and, more importantly, the most dedicated to his craft. Although he lived a shorter life than either Eugene or Ralph, he left a strong imprint in the form of recordings, which he made between 1924 (his first, I believe, with the Wolverines) and 1935. He was generally well-liked and highly respected by all his peers in the jazz world. And yet he, like Eugene, left little in the way of personality markers or remembrances. In the early 1970s, listening to some of his recordings, Eddie Condon recalled him as “a very good drummer—fast and flashy,” but not one further word on him. At a reunion of all the “Five Pennies” they could assemble for the TV program This is Your Life, the show honoring Red Nichols had Jimmy Dorsey talking about the Pennies who had already passed on, and Vic was prominently named—but again, not a word about his personality.
After numerous conversations with Ralph, who was quite obviously in awe of Vic (as were many drummers), the impression I got was that his older brother had a hot temper, a short fuse, and a view of other people strictly in terms of black or white. There were no shades of gray with Vic. If he liked you, he would fight to his dying breath to promote you; if he didn’t, he’d bad-mouth you to everyone and anyone he met. Yet he was so extremely talented that he constantly found work.
He was born in May 6, 1899 (not 1896 as claimed on Wikipedia) in Chicago, Illinois, where his father was a violinist. Vic started on string instruments but quickly switched to the drums, at which he was very adept. In 1903, when he was only four years old, he was hired as a percussionist at the Alhambra Theater in Milwaukee. By age 13 he was playing with the Milwaukee Symphony and Chicago Symphony Orchestras. While serving in World War I, he played the drums for John Philip Sousa’s Navy band. Ralph told me that Vic was the reason why John Philip Sousa, then in his sixties and having spent his entire life writing and playing marches, became interested in jazz. Vic explained to him that it was not only music, but that the musicians were very sincere in what they were doing, so Sousa listened. In 1924, Sousa wrote an article for Etude magazine in which he kept an open mind about this “radical” music that most other musicians his age were demeaning as trash.
In the early 1920s, Vic played with various Chicago-area bands, including those of Art Kahn, Paul Beise and Arnold Johnson, and led his own group as well at the Merry Gardens club. In 1924 he became the manager and part-time drummer for The Wolverines when they had Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. He was the regular recording drummer for Red Nichols’ various recording groups—The Red Heads, The Six Hottentots, Red & Miff’s Stompers and Red Nichols and his Five Pennies—from 1925 to 1927. In the latter year he was briefly the percussionist for Paul Whiteman’s famous orchestra, following which he worked for Don Voorhees and Roger Wolfe Kahn through 1928.
Vic was a virtuoso drummer with extraordinary skills. Louis Armstrong once said he was the greatest jazz drummer in the world. Vic invented the hi-hat cymbal but didn’t bother to patent it—someone else did, and made a fortune from it. He was also the greatest virtuoso of the “hot tympani” in all of jazz. Vic could play a conventional drum set in front of him with one hand and tuned tympani behind him with the other hand! The reason it is so difficult to play jazz tympani is that the drums lose pitch throughout the evening and have to be constantly re-tuned. Vic could actually tune the tymps while playing them at the same time. You can hear his “hot tympani” on several of the records below, particularly Boneyard Shuffle, That’s No Bargain, She’s a Great, Great Girl and Honolulu Blues. Another one of his tricks, which he would display in public but not on records (it didn’t have much “flash” effect), was to tear strips off a large piece of newspaper in rhythm to accompany a singer or instrumentalist. You can see him do this in an excerpt from a Movietone sound short here.
To the best of my knowledge, this is Berton’s only sound film. In it you also see three full-time or part-time members of Nichols’ Five Pennies: pianist Rube Bloom, who sings Dinah while Berton (wearing a horrible false mustache!) rips the paper, trombonist Miff Mole (also wearing a false mustache), and alto saxist Jimmy Dorsey (un-mustached). But the band isn’t a famous one, but a group called “Walter Roesner and his Capitoleans”—a band so obscure that you can’t even find any information about them online. Some viewers claim that it isn’t Vic Berton, but it is. Watch the section of the film where he’s playing a snare drum and cymbals in front of him and “hot tympani” behind his back. No one else in the world could do that except Vic Berton.
Ralph used to talk about “Berton luck,” which wasn’t good luck. It consisted of two things: either being in the wrong place at the wrong time or not having the business sense to immediately patent something you came up with. In Ralph’s case, it was, in particular, his Bridge story about Sonny Rollins. In Vic’s case, there were three such moments. His first bit of “Berton luck” was to sign on as manager of The Wolverines because he so admired Bix Beiderbecke, but he forgot to become Bix’s personal manager. When Beiderbecke left the Wolverines in the fall of 1924 to join Charlie Straight’s Orchestra, the band replaced him with the young and unknown Jimmy MacPartland, who was pretty good for a young guy but no Beiderbecke. Both the Wolverines and Vic lost money on the venture. The second came around 1925 when he decided to hang a cymbal freely on a leather thong from his drum kit, thus inventing the “sock cymbal” which he called the “lo-hat” or “lo-sock.” Other drummers admired it, several stole the idea, and one in particular had the good sense to do what Vic didn’t, which was to patent it. He made a fortune from it, particularly in the mid-1940s when Kenny Clarke began using it as the principal method of time-keeping.
The third bit of “Berton luck” was his own doing. In the spring of 1927 he and two other members of the Five Pennies, cornetist Red Nichols and clarinetist/alto saxist Jimmy Dorsey, joined Paul Whiteman’s prestigious orchestra, but unfortunately this was a period in which Whiteman, then at the height of his fame, spent more time hobnobbing with notables in the audiences than leading his orchestra on the bandstand. He trusted Nichols enough to put him in charge when he was doing so, but Red also resented being taken advantage of. At one point both Berton and Whiteman were in the men’s room at some venue at the same time, Whiteman accidentally bumped Berton, and Vic responded by calling him a “fat tub of shit.” Shortly thereafter Vic gave his notice and went on to join the good-paying band of millionaire Roger Wolfe Kahn, where he stayed through 1928.
In the fall of 1928 Vic moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with various West Coast bands (including that of popular Abe Lyman) and also found work in the fledgling Hollywood sound film industry. He worked as director of Paramount Picture’s music division for a time, returned to the East Coast to briefly lead a swing band that didn’t catch on, and then worked in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In the 1940s he also worked as a percussionist for 20th Century Fox. In the late 1940s, Whiteman reassembled a working band to play his old hits from the 1920s, which were suddenly becoming “nostalgia,” and asked Vic to return as drummer. For once, Vic was charitable towards his old boss, reminding him that he was older and settled in at a good gig with the LA Philharmonic. Vic Berton died in Hollywood on December 26, 1951. The official cause of death was listed as lung cancer, and that may have been so, but according to Ralph, he died from having too much sex. No, those weren’t his exact words, but this is a family-friendly blog and so I am softening them down for you.
You can hear what I consider Berton’s very finest recordings among the many that he made. The early (1926) Brown Sugar shows him playing only the cymbal, snare drum and woodblocks, but listen to the way he “dances” on woodblocks in the final chorus…it’s a testimony to his superb sense of rhythm. The “hot tympani” can be heard throughout these records, including nearly all the 1935 tracks. Incidentally, the trumpet player “Benny Bell” on the last three tracks is not the same Benny Bell who later made slightly racy records, but a shortened form of his original name, Benny Belluardo. They can be accessed for listening here.
- Brown Sugar (Harry Barris)/The Red Heads: Red Nichols, Leo McConville, tp; Miff Mole, tb; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Alfie Evans, cl/t-sax; Arthur Schutt, p; Dick McDonough, bj/gt; Vic Berton, dm. (9/14/1926)
2. Stampede (Fletcher Henderson)/Red & Miff’s Stompers: As (1), but omit McDonough; add Joe Tarto, tuba (11/10/1926)
- That’s No Bargain (Red Nichols)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: Nichols, ct; Mole, tb; Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Schutt, p; Eddie Lang, gt; Berton, dm. (12/8/1926)
- Boneyard Shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael)/same as above, but add Miff Mole, tb.
- Hurricane (Paul Mertz-Red Nichols)/same personnel as above (1/12/1927)
6. Delirium (Arthur Schutt)/Red & Miff’s Stompers: Nichols, Mole, J. Dorsey, Schutt, Berton; Tony Colucci, bj. (2/11/1927)
7. Bugle Call Rag (Pettis-Meyers-Schoebel)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: same as Boneyard Shuffle, but add Joe Venuti, vln. (3/3/1927)
- Memphis Blues (Norton)/The Six Hottentots: Nichols, Mole, J. Dorsey, Schutt, Berton; Fred Morrow, a-sax (5/10/1927)
- Melancholy Charlie (Crum)/The Six Hottentots: as above, but Morrow out; add Tarto, tuba (5/16/1927)
- Eccentric (J. Russel Robinson)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: Nichols, Leo McConville, Manny Klein, tp; Mole, tb; Pee Wee Russell, cl/a-sax; Fud Livingston, arr/t-sax; Adrian Rollini, bs-sax; Lennie Hayton, p/cel; McDonough, gt; Berton, dm. (8/15/1927)
11. Feelin’ No Pain (Fud Livingston)/Miff Mole’s Little Molers: Nichols, Mole, Russell, Livingston, Rollini, Schutt, McDonough, Lang, Berton (8/30/1927)
- Imagination (Fud Livingston)/The Charleston Chasers: Nichols, McConville, Mole, Russell, Livingston, Hayton, McDonough, Berton; Carl Kress, gt. (9/8/1927)
- Everybody Loves My Girl (Lewis-Young)/Meyer’s Dance Orchestra: Nichols, Schutt, McDonough, Berton; Jimmy Lytell, cl; Fred Morrow, a-sax. (10/10/1927)
- Feelin’ No Pain (Livingston)/Red & Miff’s Stompers: Nichols, Mole, Russell, Livingston, Hayton, Kress (10/12/1927)
- She’s a Great, Great Girl (Harry Woods)/Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra: Tommy Gott, Manny Klein, tp; Jack Teagarden, tb; Alfie Evans, cl/a-sax/bar-sax; Arnold Brilhart, cl/a-sax/fl/oboe; Joe Venuti, Joe Raymond, vln; Arthur Schutt, p; Tony Colucci, bj; Eddie Lang, gt; Arthur Campbell, tuba/bs; Berton, dm. (3/14/1928)
- Honolulu Blues (Goldstein-Gunsky)/Red Nichols & his Five Pennies: Nichols, J. Dorsey, Venuti, Lang, Berton; Fulton McGrath, p. (9/16/1931)
17. Dardanella (Fred Fisher)/Vic Berton and his Orchestra: Sterling Bose, tp; Art Foster, tb; Matty Matlock, cl; Spencer Clark, bs-sax; Irving Brodsky, p; Darrell Calker, gt; Merrill Kline, bs; Berton, dm. (2/1/1935)
- A Smile Will Go a Long, Long Way (Harry Akst-Benny Davis)/same as above.
- Mary Lou (Abe Lyman-George Wagener-J. Russel Robinson)/Vic Berton and his Orchestra: Bose, Henry Levine, Louis Garcia, tp; Foster, tb; Matlock, cl; Jimmy Granada, cl/t-sax; Pee Wee Russell, cl/a-sax; Clark, bs-sax; Brodsky, p; Calker, gt; Kline, bs; Berton, dm; Chick Bullock, voc. (3/25/1935)
- In Winky Blinky Chinky Chinatown (William Jerome-John Schwartz)/same as above.
- Blue (And Brokenhearted) (Clark-Leslie-Handman)/same as above, but no vocal.
- Lonesome and Sorry (Con Conrad-Benny Davis)/same as track 19.
- I’ve Been Waiting All Winter (Oakland-Drake-Mills)/Vic Berton and his Orchestra: Vic d’Ippolito, Archie Jarry, Benny Bell, tp; Blue Barron, tb; Sid Trucker, cl; Rube Lerner, Joe Colon, Walt Dorfus, a-sax/t-sax; Mary Dale, p; Calker, gt; Cal Stump, bs; Berton, dm; Bullock, voc. (6/14/1935)
- Two Rivers Flow Through Harlem (Bert & George Clarke)/as above.
- Devil’s Kitchen (Will Hudson)/same as above, but Bullock out.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley