GIL BERNAL is the tenor sax soloist on The Coasters recording of “Turtle Dovin’”
by Phil Schaap
I wish to tie up a loose end from the discographical pursuits at the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown whose major domo was the late Melissa Jones.
The last meeting before the coronavirus lockdowns was held on Sunday, January 26, 2020. That day, the members planned to pin down the identity of the tenor saxophonist who played an exciting, inventive, and surprisingly long solo – given that it was on a Rock’n’Roll single – heard on the non-plugged side (aka ‘B’ side or flip side ) on a very early Coasters single (they had been the Robins) on ATCO 6064, which came out on both 78RPM and 45RPM. This solo would be on “Turtle Dovin’” that was the back side to the minor-sized hit “Down In Mexico”.
It’s totally my fault that the young Jazz enthusiasts who make up a large majority in the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown even knew of the record’s existence, much less that they would want to study a tenor sax solo on its ‘B’ side.
I came to “Turtle Dovin’” and its fabulous tenor solo nearly 65 years ago. As I was only six years old, I have no explanation to hearing the Coasters’ first ATCO releases out of sequence and on 78RPM. But I did, gaining access to “Searchin’” b/w “Youngblood” first (ATCO 6087), before learning of ATCO 6064.
[The early ATCO releases all came out on an earlier, forgotten label of maroon-red paper with gold-yellow ink and a bit more of the trumpet logo. The ones that sold well and were repressed are more easily spotted with the well-known, long-deployed label of yellow and white paper with black ink. ATCO released on 78RPM into the 1960s. Coasters’ hits: “Along Came Jones” (ATCO 6141), “Poison Ivy” (ATCO 6146) and the lesser known “Run Red Run” (ATCO 6153), though all from 1959, also appeared on the defunct 78RPM format as well as 45RPM, and with the common yellow and white paper with black ink. I doubt that any ATCO release after 1957, including copies in the 78RPM format, would bear the earlier label.]
It’s been many years since I’ve listened to “Searchin’” or “Youngblood”. I gave “Down In Mexico” a spin for the purpose of writing this essay. It was my first hearing of it in a half-century or more. On that plugged side, the tenor saxophonist is barely noticeable. “TURTLE DOVIN’”, however, and countless replays of its TENOR SAXOPHONE SOLO have been a big deal for me since early childhood. On my first copy of ATCO 6064, I only played “Down In Mexico” once, but I’ve worn out more than a few copies of its “Turtle Dovin’” ‘B’ side; in particular, I’ve ground the grooves containing the tenor solo to dust.
By my adolescence, I had developed an ear for recognizing individual Jazz players. At some point in the early 1970s, I turned my attention to knowing the name of the player whose tenor sax solo on “Turtle Dovin’” so thrilled me. The musician was closer to the Coleman Hawkins school than to Lester Young’s, but this insight wasn’t particularly helpful. Whoever it was more neatly matched Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson or Illinois Jacquet, but it still wasn’t much of a clue towards naming the performer. The solo certainly did not reference John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins – the recording was made a bit too early for their influences to be that widespread. I had no idea who it could be.
I played the solo, in fact the whole “Turtle Dovin’” for the Jazz pioneers who had raised me. Earle Warren ‘gave it the old college try’ but had no suggestions. Others liked the energy this tenorist displayed but were not overly interested. In any case, nobody gave me a name.
Eddie Chamblee couldn’t name the musician, either, but he was interested. I brought the recording to Eddie, whom I had befriended by the mid-1970s, as I considered that he might be the soloist. Chamblee stated that he is not the player but put forward that it might be a tenor who played in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Chamblee named a few candidates from the ranks of Gates’ (Hampton’s) tenor stylists but made no finite identification.
I examined the blowing of tenor saxophonists following the ‘Lionel Hampton’ path that Eddie Chamblee had put me on. I decided that the best candidate was Johnny Board and went forward with that possibility for about forty years.
Candidly, during those decades, the identity of the tenor saxophonist who solos so well on the Coasters’ “Turtle Dovin’” was not a front burner concern of mine. I enjoyed relistening to it, played it for many, and occasionally asked a wise-wig musician or scholar who it might be. But it could be said – not that anybody was talking about it – that I had let the matter drop.
When the late and great Ed Berger worked on a discography of Jazz solos on Pop/Rock records – “Between the Cracks: An Exploratory Discography of Jazz Artists on Nonjazz Recordings,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 4, 1987, pp. 75-151 – I did put the “Turtle Dovin’” tenor sax solo on Berger’s radar screen. I think that Ed didn’t include it in “Between the Cracks” because the player could not be named and, plausibly, was not truly a Jazz musician.
Enter Parker Fishel.
Mr. Fishel is a member of the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown. Along with David Beal, Charles Iselin, and Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, a quartet of 78RPM specialists and research allies to the late Melissa Jones was forged that Melissa affectionately labeled “the boys.” Parker, working regularly with David Beal, helped bring forward the first totally open-to -the-public meetings in the Neo Hot Club Movement with the emergence of the Freehold Hot Club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC.
One meeting of the Freehold Hot Club featured 78RPM discs where Jazz solos pop up in unexpected places. Ben Young, leader of the Flushing Town Hall Hot Club, a prominent open-to -the-public outpost in the Neo Hot Club Movement located in Queens, NYC, the host of the current Zooms for the Worchester Hot Club in Massachusetts, and a presenter in some of the early meetings of the Freehold Hot Club, featured 78RPM discs of Harold “Cornbread” Singer for Singer’s Centennial (Tuesday, October 8, 2019 / Harold “Cornbread” Singer b. 10/8/1919 – d. 8/18/2020, age 100). Parker Fishel’s efforts were noteworthy in much if not all of that just cited. Jazz nuggets in Blues, R&B, etc. music are important to Fishel’s aesthetic.
Late in 2019, at an informal luncheon reunion of my students, the discographical concern that Ed Berger labeled “Between the Cracks” was raised, and I spoke of the Coasters’ “Turtle Dovin’” and its piping hot tenor sax solo. With some embarrassment, I’ll note that I failed to properly remember Johnny Board’s surname, and I even think I said Jimmy instead of Johnny. Regardless to my muff, Parkel Fishel sprang into action. Soon, the entire Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown would be on the case.
Parker Fishel quickly came up with fairly precise discographical information. That Fishel could do so came as quite a shock. I had long ago looked up the Coasters session that contained “Turtle Dovin’” in Michel Ruppli’s most learned four volume “Atlantic Records”. The listing, there, for “Turtle Dovin’”, “Down In Mexico”, ATCO (Atlantic Company) 6064, and January 11, 1956 is threadbare. Yet Parker Fishel supplied the following:
Carl Gardner, lead/tenor; Billy Guy, baritone/lead-1; Bobby Nunn, bass; Leon Hughes, tenor
Mike Stoller, arr/pno; Gil Bernal,ts; Barney Kessell and prob. Adolph Jacobs,gtrs; Ralph Hamilton,bs; Jessie Sailes,dms/perc; Chico Guerrero,congas. Abe Robyn,eng; Leiber-Stoller,prod. Omit ts on 56C-67.
“Hollywood” / Master Recorders, 533 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles January 11, 1956
56C-67 Brazil (Gardner, Nunn, Guy joint leads) S-1857 2:22
56C-68 Down In Mexico S-1858 3:16
56C-69 One Kiss Led To Another S-1859
56C-70 Turtle Dovin´ S-1860 3:08
Although Gil Bernal had played tenor saxophone with Lionel Hampton and, therefore, made the short list derived from Eddie Chamblee’s insight, this comprehensive excerpt from some sort of discography instantaneously made Gil Bernal the guy responsible for the solo.
Initially, Parker told me that the information came from a Scandinavian discographer and he had no idea what this person’s source was. I wondered if it were the work of Finland’s Tapio Väisänen, but the researcher turns out to be Sweden’s Claus Röhnisch. Röhnisch’s efforts seem most thorough, and it strikes me that he might have obtained the data directly from the Leiber-Stoller office or from Mike Stoller, himself (Jerry Leiber died 8/22/2011).
The song writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller played a large role in composing hits in the early years of Rock’n’Roll, including some blockbusters for Elvis Presley. They had provided repertoire before Rock’s infancy. In the early 1950s, they were heavily involved in Rhythm’n’Blues. Leiber & Stoller took a turn as record company entrepreneurs, helping run a label, Spark Records. Lester Sill was their partner and owned the larger piece. The LS prefix to Spark master numbers represents Lester Sill and not Leiber & Stoller. Spark released 23 singles that came out on 78RPM and probably all on 45RPM, too. Spark’s greatest successes were singles by the Robins. Using Leiber & Stoller ditties, the Robins offered a comic approach to Doo-Wop. The core of The Robins would become The Coasters as Spark Records was sold to Atlantic and Leiber & Stoller focused on songwriting.
All of this early to middle 1950s Leiber & Stoller activity connected them to Jazz musicians, particularly those on the West Coast who could put a ‘Jump Jazz’ touch into R&B and Rock’n’Roll. Just looking at the session personnel for Robins/Coasters dates produced by Leiber & Stoller, some huge Jazz names are seen: George Barnes, Bill Berry, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Cleveland, Panama Francis, Milt Hinton, Taft Jordan, Joe Newman, Chino Pozo, Bobby Rosengarden, Art Ryerson, and Lammar Wright (probably Junior, not the father who also played trumpet). But Jazz was tangential at Spark Records, indeed in the entire oeuvre of Leiber & Stoller. Superior Jazz musicians were used to accompany their singers; occasionally an instrumentalist was given a solo spot. In their early days, especially the sessions done on Spark Records, the obscure Gil Bernal seems a most, perhaps the most, important musician from the Jazz world for Leiber & Stoller. They even recorded Bernal as a leader. The all-instrumental wailing tenor saxophone session is unique to the Spark Records catalog.
The largely untold ‘Gil Bernal Story’ holds fascination.
He was born on February 4, 1931. His mother was Mexican and his father was Sicilian. Gil Bernal grew up in the Watts community of Los Angeles. He is quoted in “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California” stating “I think my real roots were with the black style of playing, the black musicians. I felt there was more soul, more energy in that music. I like the sound, the attack, that’s the way I played.” In 1950, in a far cry from Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll, Gil Bernal took a first step towards making his mark when Lionel Hampton hired him to sing and play tenor saxophone. Bernal is the vocalist on Gates’ (Hampton’s insider nickname) July 25, 1950 recording of “September In The Rain”.
Gil Bernal befriended Mike Stoller when they were students at Los Angeles City College (late 1940s?). Stoller, soon teamed with Jerry Leiber, writing material for Rhythm’n’Blues artists, expanded their operation, creating Spark Records. While Spark Records was still in operation and Leiber & Stoller were still based in California, Gil Bernal – obscure within the many BIG name Jazz community – was for Leiber & Stoller, a first call player. Mike Stoller is quoted in Gil Bernal’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times saying Bernal “could take eight bars and make it very exciting in a middle of a vocal performance. He lifted it at that moment.”
Around 1954, Spark Records gave Gil Bernal his first, and from a tenor sax-Jazz perspective, only, record date as a leader. As a vocalist, Bernal recorded obscurely (no hits, few sales) but on prominent labels. Nearing 70 years later, Gil Bernal’s tenor sax releases, Spark 102 (with “Easyville” & “The Whip”) and Spark 106 (with “King Solomon’s Blue” & “Strawberry Stomp”) are great rarities. I’ve never held one in my hands nor have I even heard “Strawberry Stomp”.
An overview of Gil Bernal’s career should state that he is consistently involved in high profile music situations, but anonymously. During and after Bernal’s work for Leiber & Stoller in their early West Coast years, the tenor saxophonist plays on a large number of Rock’n’Roll records into the 21st Century. Rarely does he leave behind a solo, and it would require a tremendous advance in discography to know which singles he’s actually on. Even on albums, there is very rarely a credit to Gil Bernal’s participation. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bernal did record somewhat prominently with Ry Cooder.
Gil Bernal worked for the goofy bandleader aka “The King of Corn” Spike Jones. Specifics are hard to come by. It is not likely that his service was continuous or that he even performed in Jones’ more famed ensemble, the City Slickers. Gil Bernal is in Spike Jones’ “The Band That Plays For Fun” that was the house ensemble for the NBC telecast, “Club Oasis”, in 1958. Bernal can be seen in kinescopes, but not even the show’s star, Spike Jones, is still well known – that’s a more contemporary Spike Jonze.
Gil Bernal was never famous. That he worked in Las Vegas is barely attributed. Gil Bernal died on July 17, 2011 at age 80.
The Unilateral Hot Cub of Morristown was to meet on Sunday, January 26, 2020 to listen to “Turtle Dovin’”, express opinions about the tenor saxophone soloist’s identity, and to form a consensus on who it was, hopefully unanimous. Most unusual to a planned examination of specific music at a meeting of Melissa Jones’ UHCofM was the amount of pre-meeting preparation. This atypical aspect may well have been inspired by Parker Fishel’s quick and determined input.
Ben Young’s observation and suggestion, however, led to the most work in the runup to the 1/26/2020 meeting. Ben suggested that Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians (the Los Angeles chapter) be contacted and visited. Young’s years of learned discographical research and productions for record companies had often been rewarded by inspecting the union’s copy of a specific recording sheet. While many locals in the AFofM had long since tossed such paperwork, including 802 here in New York, LA’s 47 had retained much of these documents, including the records of the Black local, 767, when segregation ruled, which would merge with Local 47 in the early 1950s due to the efforts of Benny Carter.
Gaining access to the Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians’ copy of the recording sheet in time for the January 26, 2020 meeting of the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown would be daunting. It would not be filed under the name “The Coasters” and, while the membership of the UHCofM trusted the recording date – January 11, 1956 – that Parker Fishel first brought to our attention, if it wasn’t done on that day, then a bit of ‘a needle in a haystack’ situation would arise.
We didn’t even get that far, and the whole process proved much more challenging than initially perceived. The following people tried to help obtain the recording sheet from the union for the members of the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown: Raynel Frazier, Vince Giordano, Colin Hancock, Michael Kieffer, Brian Linde, Alison Magistrali, Sammy Miller, Yunie Mojica, Daniel Weinstein, Joel Wenhardt, and Ben Young. They didn’t get it. The coronavirus pandemic soon halted the process. Pandemic aside, getting into the files still held at LA47 of the AFofM is more difficult and problematic to what it was in the earlier times to Ben Young’s research. There remains the possibility that the file doesn’t exist.
Other preparations were easier. Although it went against the creed of the Neo Hot Club Movement, the Internet was used to hear the three available sides (of the four) from Gil Bernal’s 1954ish leader date for Spark Records. The great Charles Iselin provided a fresh – read: in fine condition – copy of ATCO 6064 on 78RPM with “Turtle Dovin’” and its tenor saxophone solo and promised to bring it to the 1/26/2020 meeting, where it would be heard on Melissa Jones’ excellent playback equipment.
Three people involved were old enough to recall this Coasters single from its own time: myself; Melissa Jones, who as a child liked the plugged side “Down In Mexico” but was now, with the youngins’, totally focused on the solo from “Turtle Dovin’”; and, in what might surprise readers, Charles Lloyd.
I had gone over the tenor saxophone solo as well as the full track “Turtle Dovin’” with Charles once I had focused on the player being Gil Bernal. Yes, Charles Lloyd recalled Bernal from jam sessions in the late 1950s when Lloyd was at the University of Southern California – but dimly. So, Charles also used the Internet to listen to Gil Bernal from Spark #102, with “Easyville” and “The Whip” and the half of #106 that played “King Solomon’s Blue”. Charles Lloyd had me and, in turn, others in the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown compare Bernal on his “Easyville” to the solo on “Turtle Dovin’”. On 1/18/2020, eight days before the meeting, Charles Lloyd wrote:
“ck out "Easyville” Gil Bernal 1954…i think he’s the man".
For all of the determined pre-meeting efforts, the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown, admirably, took a from scratch approach in hearing the music and approaching an identification of the tenor saxophonist on The Coasters’ “Turtle Dovin’”. Charles Iselin played his clean copy of ATCO 6064 several times. Johnny Board, my earlier suggestion, received a fair shake; however, I couldn’t come up with “Sonny Stitt At The D. J. Lounge” on Argo 683 on which Board teams with Stitt as the two saxes in an organ combo groove.
Argo Lp/Lps 683, of course, would be vinyl, a microgroove Lp, and a no-no to the Neo Hot Club Movement exclusive 78RPM – in high fidelity – playback procedure. But the far greater transgression to that persuasion was our repeated use of the Internet to listen to Gil Bernal on Spark Records, particularly “Easyville”.
The attending members of the late Melissa Jones’ Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown leaned towards accepting Gil Bernal as the tenor soloist on “Turtle Dovin’” but did not chose to post a finding. On January 26, 2020, there was still a firm belief that the recording sheet – as the proverbial “smoking gun” – would be obtained. With that expectation, consensus was deferred.
Candidly, on that Sunday, I struggled to hear a match between the Gil Bernal on his leader session for Spark and the tenor solo on “Turtle Dovin”. If it was all by Gil Bernal, then, in what appears to be less than two years, he had learned to restrain his extroversion but retain his potency. I felt that if it’s all him and he, indeed, refined but did not spoil his essence, then Bravo! Gil Bernal … but I couldn’t be sure.
I now accept, and, in fact, totally endorse Gil Bernal as the player of that marvelous tenor sax solo on “Turtle Dovin’”. I do so in the absence of the recording sheet. Mike Stoller’s acknowledgment and compliment to Gil Bernal’s solos on Leiber & Stoller productions, Claus Röhnisch’s discography, and the learned wig-wise assessment of Charles Lloyd are overwhelming proof.
In retrospect, I acknowledge that my zealousness to know more about a short stretch of music that enthralled me when I was very young, has led to a good deal of activity by others. In begging pardon over causing such efforts, I could even be ashamed of begetting them were it not for the fact that the short stretch of music, itself, intrigued the new listeners, too; enough that they, too, needed to know for sure who played the solo.
When I played “Turtle Dovin’” for Wynton Marsalis, he appreciated the music and likened The Coasters’ approach to the Golden Gate Quartet of Gospel Music fame. My preview, emphasizing the tenor saxophone solo, undoubtedly caused too much anticipation as Wynton seemed unimpressed by the tenor player’s two bar pick-up and the next sixteen. But as the groove switched into a higher gear for the last sixteen bars, Wynton came to an appreciation of the entire tenor sax solo, adding his own observation that the tenor fills at the end were good as well.
It took me over six decades to learn that GIL BERNAL was that tenor saxophone soloist. I had a lot of help in learning that identity. The entire process in gaining that knowledge should not be dismissed as too much for too little. The listeners I’ve brought to that solo unanimously dug it. It was all worthwhile and would be so even if attaching Gil Bernal’s name to the blowing was not achieved.
The continuing coronavirus pandemic coupled to Melissa Jones’ terminal illness has precluded this bottom-line finding being proclaimed at, or by, the Unilateral Hot of Morristown. But I spoke with Melissa, gave her my opinion, and she OK’d that identification going forward in her absence.