There is an interesting article about the film Sepia Cinderella on Mark Cantor's website Celluloid Improvisations.
Below is an extract from the article about Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra.The full text of part 1 of this fascinating feature may be accessed here.
Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra
For many years nobody questioned the presence of Walter Fuller’s orchestra in the film. Some mistakenly pointed to the Hines' trumpet star, but nobody questioned the main credit given to Fuller. The only recognizable musician was Budd Johnson, and it was assumed that he was a member of the Fuller band. As it turned out, by research twists obscure and not obvious, it is indeed Mercer Ellington’s big band!
Mercer Ellington formed his first band in 1939; an article in the Baltimore Afro-American (August 1939) refers to “Mercer Ellington’s newly formed orchestra.” The band seen in the film, however, was assembled sometime in the spring of 1946, then booked at the Apollo Theater for the week of June 15, 1946 in a program that also included the Deep River Boys (vocal harmony group), The Clark Brothers (tap dancers) and Spider Bruce (comedian). A year later, on July 7, 1947, the band had a gig at Sparrow Beach in Annapolis.
The band’s recordings are somewhat obscure: two issued sides for Musicraft recorded on May 17, 1947, and two more for the Sunrise label in May 1947.
Mercer Ellington’s orchestra returned to the Apollo Theater for a program the week of June 15, 1946, and Mercer was still performing with the big band in late 1951. Ellington researcher David Palmquist cited a newspaper article that Mercer was disbanding, and going to work for his father as an advance man in 1952. Furthermore, Palmquist notes, it is possible that Mercer disbanded and reformed new units during this six year period.
The key to solving the problem was string bassist Al McKibbon, a good friend who watched the film with me and recognized drummer Percy Brice. I contacted Percy Brice, who first stated that this was Mercer Ellington’s band.
In a telephone interview (7/24/01), Percy Brice recalled,
“I was the drummer on Benny Carter's band, and we broke up in Boston, in October 1946. I recall going with Mercer Ellington's band right away, but you say the film was made in December '46, and others have told me it was early in '47. But I really don't know, that was over fifty years ago. Anyway, the band was Mercer Ellington's, but Gil Fuller, he was the musical director. Now I've heard people say some things about him that were, well, not really very complimentary. But I have to say that he was always real, real nice to me.”
“As I remember, Candy [Ross] and Charlie [Johnson] were on Benny’s band with me, and we moved over to Mercer. I wasn't with the band for that long, maybe just one or two gigs. I recall one at the Hampton Institute out in New Jersey. We had Ray Copeland and Sonny Stitt and Chippy Outcalt on the band ..... hey, and never any strings. They must have been added for the movie.”
“After leaving Mercer I joined Johnny Otis for a traveling show, a great show, featuring June Richmond, the Ink Spots, Coles and Atkins .... and Cholly Atkins's wife, Dottie Saulter. Lewis and [Slappy] White were on the tour, too. Let’s see, after that I worked with “Cleanhead” Vinson, and the band was a good one. Then I worked with Hal Singer --- do you remember “Cornbread?” --- and the featured trumpet player was Blue Mitchell, years before he joined Horace [Silver].” It was Percy Brice who suggested that, “along with Budd, I think that is Bo McCain on tenor sax.”
In a telephone interview (10/03) tenor saxophonist Alva “Bo” McCain recalled the genesis of the Mercer band:
“I was with Christopher Columbus’s band, it was around 1946-47, and we were playing at Small’s Paradise. Columbus left to go with Louis Jordan, and his son [sic] Sonny Payne took his place, at least for a while. So we changed our name and called ourselves “The Madmen.” We had Ray Copeland (he came in a bit later), Harold Mitchell, Don Cole, Elwyn Frazier and Fletcher Allen. And me on tenor sax. The rhythm section changed a lot during this time. Anyway, this was the band that Mercer took over, although the only one, other than me, who may be in your the film is Don Cole, because there was a lot of turnover at first.”
“This was an early big band job for me in New York, and I didn’t know many of the men when I showed up. Of course, I was familiar with Budd Johnson, and I might have met Percy Brice. But I recall meeting Bill Pemberton when we made the film. I didn’t know anyone else and can’t recall them after so many years. To the best of my memory, we got together and rehearsed for the film and did the recording and filming, but I don’t recall that we ever played in public.”
Bo McCain also recalled that Luther Henderson was with the band, and suggested that I give him a call. I had known Luther for many years, and had never associated him with the Mercer Ellington band. In a telephone interview in the fall of 1996, Henderson noted, “I was with Mercer for quite some time, but it was an on-and-off sort of thing because the band was not working all that much. I did some recordings with Mercer, but that is not me in the movie, that’s Hank Jones.”
In a telephone interview on November 22, 2003, Hank Jones spoke of his time with Mercer Ellington:
“I was on that band and I certainly do remember the film, but not much about it. I don't recall ever having seen it. I wasn't with this band a long time .... soon after the film I played with the John Kirby Sextet, and you tell me they are in the film, too. Who knows? Maybe that's why Kirby thought of me when he needed a replacement for Billy Kyle.
Actually, the band was just Mercer's in name .... he was just the leader in name. Gil Fuller .... it was his band, and he was the musical director. He also did the arrangements and put together the band for the film. The strings certainly were just added for the film, to make the band sound a little fuller for Billy and the girl singer. What was her name again? [Sheila Guyse]
I don't recall the band playing in public, at least during the time I was with it. We did rehearse for the film, and I remember meeting Bill Pemberton for the first time at the gig.”
The careful reader will obviously note that there is a conflict between what Hank Jones has to say about the nature of the band, and the recollections of those who have been previously quoted. The best that I can say is that this is a conflict that cannot be resolved at the present time.
The instrumentation of the band on screen is unusual, to say the least, and it is probable that there were additional men added to the soundtrack sessions. The reeds and rhythm section are standard for the period, with three violins added for the film appearance. The brass, on the other hand, is composed of three trombones and one trumpet, and it is possible that the trumpet may occasionally sideline on trombone. The following is the band’s personnel as currently known:
- unidentified trumpet
- three trombones, from among the following, possibly in left-to-right order: probably Charlie Johnson; Candy Ross; possibly Alfred “Chippy” Outcalt or Don Cole
- reeds: Budd Johnson, tenor sax, top left; Jackie Fields, alto sax top right; Alva “Bo” McCain, tenor sax, bottom left; Frank Powell, alto sax, bottom right
- Hank Jones, piano
- Joe Benjamin or Bill Pemberton, string bass
- Percy Brice, drums
- three unidentified violins
Here is the film itself...