Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Uncle Earl

His name was Earl Frederick Samer, my mom’s oldest brother, an uncle I barely knew who had a fascinating life as a big-time musician back in the ’30’s, ‘40’s, ‘50’s, and even the early '60's, performing with some of the biggest headlining entertainers of the era. Earl was born in Oshkosh, WI in 1910 and died in 1969. He played piano, sax and clarinet, and could even double on brass instruments and violin.  His principal instrument was the tenor sax.

The photo above was taken on June 5th, 1948, my mom and dad’s wedding day. Earl is the handsome guy on the far right. My mom’s other dapper brother, Uncle Carl Samer, is on the left; dad and mom are in the middle. Carl and Earl were ushers at mom and dad’s wedding in Oshkosh.

Here's an early photo of brothers Carl Samer (left) and Earl Samer (right) at a very young age.

Earl shared the stage with such big-name entertainers as Eddy Howard, Freddy Martin, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and many others. Earl played on many of their hit recordings, did countless radio broadcasts with big-name big bands, and even toured with the most famous circus in history.

Before I tell what I know of Earl’s story, I’d like to go back one generation farther, and talk a bit about his dad, my grandpa, Albert F. Samer – because that’s where the music really starts in our family. Grandpa Samer was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1881 and died in Oshkosh in 1940, nine years before I was born. His parents moved to America in 1884 and settled in Oshkosh. Albert was an accomplished trombone player, who doubled on baritone horn. For a decade in the 20’s and 30’s he was president of the Oshkosh Musicians’ Association, Local 46 of the American Federation of Musicians (AF of M).

When I joined Local 46 in 1965 and began my playing career, a lot of the older members of the union would introduce themselves to me by saying “I hear you’re Al Samer’s grandson – man, he was one hell of a player!” The man who signed my union card, Ray Pfeiffer, was a trombone player himself, who knew Earl. Pfeiffer would go on to join me on John Check's band for many years.

Here’s a photo of the Arion Orchestra, which Grandpa Al played with; later, he was selected by Arthur Pryor to join his world-famous band. Pryor was considered the world’s greatest trombonist at the turn of the century, and his band toured the U.S. and Europe several times. It was quite an honor to be selected to play trombone in the band led by the man considered the finest trombonist alive!

When his travelling days were over, Al worked for the U.S. Postal Service and continued to play trombone in and around Oshkosh. My mom recalls that her dad would conduct the local band at the South Park bandstand on Saturday nights in the summertime, and she and her sisters would sit on the porch of their Ohio Street home in Oshkosh, which was directly across from the park, and listen to their dad conduct the band.

Earl was a musical prodigy whose first instrument was the piano, which he could play proficiently by the time he was 6 years old. At that time, he began violin lessons with Charles Bauer (the leader of the Arion Band); then learned clarinet and saxophone; and studying with other local teachers, also learned trumpet and trombone.

He started his professional career playing with the Arions and a number of other local groups, working jobs at the Eagles Club in Oshkosh, the Moose Lodge, the Elks Club, and a number of other local venues which hired bands several nights a week for entertainment.

When he turned 27 in 1937, his career began to take off. Earl married Charlotte Schoenig and they moved to Madison. Charlotte was a very attractive woman – above is a photo taken at Carl Samer's wedding on February 8th, 1941.  Earl Samer is farthest left; Carl and his bride Marie are next; the next three people I don't recognize, but the lady with the fancy fur coat on the right side of the photo is my Great Aunt Helen Johnson. Next to her, Earl's wife Charlotte is half visible on the far right of the frame. My mom and her sisters loved Charlotte, who they said had a wonderful, happy personality and they called her “Sparky”.  Her death of cancer at an early age was a real blow to the entire family.

Here's a better photo of Earl and Charlotte Samer, taken in June of 1945. Left to right are Marie Samer, Carl's wife; my grandmother, Lydia Samer; Carl Samer is in the center, holding their son Bob Samer, my first cousin, who provided the three family photos above; Earl and Charlotte Samer are on the right of the photo. Apparently her photos don't do her justice; several of my cousins told me there was a very nice portrait of Charlotte which Earl had made, and she was a very beautiful woman.

During those days, Earl worked various gigs, picking up jobs as he could, and then caught on with his first “name” territory band: Johnny “Scat” Davis, and moved to Milwaukee.  When he wasn’t working with that group, he played at the Alhambra Theater in Milwaukee and the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. My cousin Jeanne Stroh who now lives in Kansas City and was one of our "gang of first cousins" in our younger years - a group that included me, my brothers and sisters, Bob Samer, Jeanne Stroh and her sister Kathy Matonich - told me she recalls clearly her mom, Earl's sister Genevieve, telling her how Uncle Earl spent a fair amount of time in his Milwaukee years hanging out with a piano player who went by the name Liberace, frequently a guest in Liberace's West Allis home. Their paths would cross again when both were working in Las Vegas in the 50's.

The 1940 census shows Earl and Charlotte living in the Jackson Hotel on 13th Street in Milwaukee. The census-taker noted that Earl had worked 52 weeks in the prior year and had earned $1200. A hundred bucks a month doesn’t sound like much right now, but back in 1940, two could easily live on 23 bucks a week. The average annual wage in America in 1940 was $1248.

The early 40’s were Earl’s “circus years”.  He took a job as lead tenor player and assistant conductor with the Barnes-Carruthers Shows #1 unit. Back then, some circuses had more than one “unit” on the road at any given time. After one tour with Barnes-Carruthers, Earl took over as lead tenor sax player for The Greatest Show on Earth, as they called the Ringling Brothers – Barnum and Bailey Circus. Earl did six national tours with the #1 circus in the world.

1944 was a big year in Earl’s career. He took over as lead tenor sax player for Eddy Howard’s band. Howard was a hugely popular vocalist who toured constantly, doing a live radio broadcast essentially every night of the week. This was a big-time job with big-time pay. In 1946, Howard had the #1 national hit with his recording of “To Each His Own”.  You can hear that recording at this link, and you can hear Earl’s brief but prominent tenor sax solo about two minutes into the recording.

As I was reminiscing with my mom a few days ago about Uncle Earl’s career, she told me a story about “To Each His Own”. My mom, Pauline, and her sisters Genevieve and Virginia - "The Samer Sisters" -were a very popular vocal trio in Oshkosh, singing for church fairs, picnics, and public and civic gatherings of all sorts, and when “To Each His Own” became a hit, they sang it, and always mentioned that their brother Earl was a member of Eddy Howard’s Orchestra.

On a brief visit with his family in Oshkosh, mom and her sisters sang “To Each His Own” for Earl, who was so taken with their performance that when the brief break from touring was over and Earl went back with the Howard Orchestra, he asked Howard’s staff arranger to do a really nice, unique arrangement of “To Each His Own” for his sisters’ vocal trio. He did; Earl sent the music back to his sisters in Oshkosh, and they proudly sang that arrangement in all their appearances!

Constant touring, which was necessary back in the pre-television days, can be a tough life – always on the move, living out of a suitcase for long stretches of time, 4-hour gigs and radio broadcasts just about every night of the week. In1946, after a couple years of touring with Eddy Howard, Earl decided to take a break from constant travel and settled down in Chicago.

Earl joined the Chicago Musicians’ Association, Local 10, which was run by James C. Petrillo, a Chicago-born trumpet player who was also head of the American Federation of Musicians – the national musicians’ union. Petrillo was often called “the most powerful man in America” at that time, because he had just successfully concluded a two-year-long ban on commercial recordings for all union-member sidemen, with a new deal that paid the sidemen a great deal more for their performances on recordings.

Earl’s first job in Chicago in ’46 was a full-time gig with the WGN Radio Staff Orchestra. He also did fill-in work with many of Chicago’s famous bands and hotel orchestras, like Dick LaSalle, Sherman Hayes, Orrin Tucker, and others. Union records also show that Earl also did a stint during that time with the famous Freddy Martin Orchestra.

Here’s a photo of the Freddy Martin Orchestra with Earl in the center of the sax section.

Apparently the touring bug bit Earl again after a few years of being headquartered in Chicago, and he spent a few more years on the road and recording with some fairly famous bands.

Here’s a picture of a 1948 album, with Earl playing lead tenor sax with the famous Jimmy Dorsey band. You may have heard of Maynard Ferguson, the featured soloist on the album, who was all of 19 years old at the time.

Above is the famous Tommy Dorsey band, which Earl played, recorded, and toured with.

Here’s the great trumpeter Harry James and his world-famous band. Earl did a couple tours and some records with this band.

In 1949, the year I was born, Earl got tired of doing all the touring and recording work, but he’d played with many of the really big-name bands of that era. He took a job as lead tenor sax player for the Cee Davidson Orchestra, which meant six nights a week in Chicago at the Chez Paree Club.

But, as fate would have it, Cee Davidson wanted to be a part of the Las Vegas scene in 1950, feeling that was the future of live entertainment. So Earl packed up again and moved to Vegas. Above is a 1953 poster advertising the Davidson orchestra’s regular gig at the Conga Room in the Sahara Hotel.

Among musicians back then, Paul Whiteman’s band was considered the best of the best. Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and music columnists in major newspapers in the early ‘50’s referred to Whiteman simply as “PW”. His reputation for attracting the best musicians and running the most popular band was such that he was known in music circles simply by his initials.

Earl got his chance to perform with Paul Whiteman’s band, which, like Cee Davidson’s band, had a permanent gig in Las Vegas. Davidson’s band played six nights a week at the Conga Room of the Sahara Hotel, and Whiteman’s Band did the same at the Thunderbird Hotel, which was one of the newer hotel/resorts in Las Vegas at the time. Whiteman’s lead tenor sax player had to take an 8-day leave, and “The Great PW” called Davidson to ask if he could “borrow” his lead tenor player to fill in during that time. Even though the Whiteman band was past its prime, it was still one of the biggest names in show business, and Earl considered that short stint with Whiteman to be the highlight of his career.
Above is a photo of Benny Goodman's band - at least, part of the band - and you can see Benny's clarinet on the far left side of the frame. In the 1950's, as recording technology improved, Columbia and several of the other major record companies brought some of the top big bands back into the studio to re-record their hits from the 30's and 40's which were originally released on 78 RPM records, with much lower fidelity. Earl played tenor sax on this 1950's Benny Goodman session, re-recording Goodman's hit song "Perfidia". You can hear that recording on this YouTube video. The video shows the old 78 RPM record label, but the audio is from the 50's re-recording session when the song was released on an LP album.
Years ago, in the early '70's, during my broadcast career, I did an hour-long Saturday morning big-band radio show on an Oshkosh FM station. The show had a loyal following and one of the most enthusiastic fans was a fellow named David Kingsbaker, a record collector and musicologist, who knew Uncle Earl from his Oshkosh days and had carefully followed Earl's career and visited with him many times when Earl would come to Oshkosh to visit family and friends. Earl had been dead several years by the time I was doing that big-band radio show, but Kingsbaker had a copy of that 50's Goodman LP re-recording of "Perfidia", and he joined me on the air one Saturday morning; I played the record, and Kingsbaker told the audience that Earl got a call to fill in on that particular session.

Earl spent the rest of the 50’s and early 60’s working various gigs in Las Vegas, and then returned to Chicago. By the mid-60’s television had completely changed American entertainment, and the great ballrooms of Chicago – the Aragon on the north side, the Trianon on the south side – were long gone as venues for dancing to the great bands. The Aragon had been converted to a roller-skating rink, and the Trianon was demolished to make way for a housing development. 

In 1962 Earl was working a patchwork of gigs to keep the money coming in, including a brief stint with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He decided to abandon his career in music and tried his hand working for some large advertising agencies in Chicago. He passed away in 1969.

The only tangible thing left of Earl's life, besides the photos, recordings, and transcriptions, is the shipping trunk above. It's in my cousin Kathy Matonich's home in Wisconsin Rapids.  She was kind enough to send me this photo and the one below. The large photo above the trunk is our grandma Lydia Samer's wedding photo.

As you can see in the larger picture of the trunk above, Kathy kept the original shipping tag with the trunk. It's sent from Earl's Chicago address to his mother, Lydia Samer, at her Oshkosh address. Our best guess is that it was shipped sometime in the late 50's or early 60's; you can read "Dec 3" near the "date of shipment" section on the bottom right of the tag, but the year is obscured. The tag says this is one of a shipment of four trunks, and Earl has placed a value on the shipment of $5000 - certainly a pretty good chunk of change back then. In 1960, the average annual household income in America was $5600, so that trunk represented a value of nearly a year's wages.

No one remembers what was in the trunks, whether it was Earl's musical instruments, once he gave up playing and started work in the advertising world; certainly a great deal of memorabilia from his performing days; who knows what else.

When I was chatting on the phone with my cousin Jeanne Stroh the other night, she reminded me of the huge scrapbook that Grandma Samer kept in her home, filled with photos of Earl and the bands and musicians he played with - a scrapbook that has long since disappeared. Jeanne recalled clearly that there were dozens of photographs of  Earl with world-famous singers and musicians, many of them autographed with inscriptions like "Best Wishes to Earl Samer from Frank Sinatra" - and dozens of others like Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, and so many other big-name entertainers who had worked with Earl either on the road or backing them up in a band in Earl's Las Vegas years.

Some time in the early 70's, my grandmother, Earl's mother Lydia Samer, moved from Oshkosh to an assisted living facility in Wisconsin Rapids to be closer to her daughter Genevieve (and her daughters Virginia Steen and Kathy Matonich, who also live in Wisconsin Rapids), and whatever became of Earl's possessions and the wonderful memorabilia is anyone's guess.

Earl’s last few years were, by account of many of my relatives who knew him, not the best. My cousin Virginia Steen, my Aunt Genevieve's daughter who is a few years older than me, told me she was in Chicago with friends and met Earl for lunch at a restaurant near Wrigley Field in the early 60’s and he stuck her with the bill. And, like many musicians of my acquaintance, Earl was known to “take a second drink” more than once. I choose not to dwell on those things, but rather to focus on the fantastic musical career Earl had. He was guilty, as my friend Tom said when I shared some memories of Earl with him, of being a musician who didn’t save much money. But, as Tom said, Earl had a lot of company in that department among musicians of that era. Sidemen could make a good living playing music, but it was the bandleaders and featured singers (like Frank Sinatra, Helen Forrest, Vaughan Monroe, and so on) who “made the big bucks”.

Rest in peace, Uncle Earl.  I wish I’d known you better. Your reputation as a first-rate talented musician lives on, as does some of the great music you made.

(Author’s note: I did the best job I could to piece together my Uncle Earl’s career, relying on newspaper articles, census notes, union newsletters and records, archivists, and recollections from relatives and friends. If there are errors here, they’re mine alone, and I apologize. My attempt was not to mislead, but to fairly chronicle Earl’s music career as best I could.)


  1. Nice job Tim. Lots of research here.


  2. Very interesting, Tim. I've learned more about Uncle Earl from reading your research than I ever learned from Mom. Thank you for uncovering and sharing this insight into Earl's life.
    - - Lynn Lee

  3. This is tremendous--great research and a story well told. And especially cool considering how much I have dug "To Each His Own" over the years.

  4. Tim - Thanks for researching and writing this great piece! It's fascinating-especially the part about Grandpa Albert being a top trombonist. My mom Lorraine told me quite a bit about Earl's career, but this really fills in the interesting details. I also played with the Dorsey Brothers band-as recently as last year-and with the Harry James Orchestra, although Harry had long since left, of course, in my 45-year trombone playing career-which is rapidly dwindling down, as the Big Band Era folks are getting too old to throw big band parties. I hope to make it back to Madison some day, and then maybe we can jam on "To Each His Own", and drink some beer. If you get out to Seattle, give me a call! Gary Shutes