Brooklyn Boro

The rippling rhythms began in Brooklyn

October 7, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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The radio comedienne Jane Ace had a signature line. When surprised by something she’d announce, “You could have knocked me over with a fender.” Such was my reaction to finding out that my second cousin, band leader Shep Fields, was a Brooklyn boy. Surprising too, was that Fields was born a Feldman.

I won’t run you up and down the genealogy tree, but we have Jewish Maginess’ hanging from a branch. I knew we had some celebrities attached to my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather’s cousin was the vaudevillian known as the “Mad Russian.” His signature line was challenging someone to a duel and saying in an afterthought tone of voice, “If I’m not there on time—start without me.”

There was a cousin who was the OB-GYN to the stars, having delivered Buddy Hackett and many other well-known name brands. There was Eddie Fields, the carpet king. Remember the old commercial, “A name on the door, rates a Bigelow on the floor?” If you lived in the greater NY area and were rich, you went to Eddie Fields for your carpet needs. Freddie Field was the theatrical agent to the stars. Amongst his clients was none other than Judy Garland. But as my mom used to say, “That and fifteen cents will get you on the subway.”

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Fields wanted to be a lawyer, but his father’s death at age 39 sent him back to bandleading, which he had given up to study the law. That wasn’t unusual. My father wanted to study the violin, but as the oldest boy of five children, he saw it wouldn’t provide an immediate living. Interested in science, he chose medicine. The Depression hit. He became a dentist because it was a shorter course. 

Very hard-working, Fields wanted to find a sound that would distinguish him from the other smooth jazz bands of the day. When you were trying to find a niche amongst such names as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and many others, some distinctive was needed. Fields met with his arrangers. They studied the sounds that made these bands popular and adapted the sounds to different instruments. For instance, one orchestra used glissandos on the trombone. His viola section would do those. Peter Duchan’s right-hand embellishments caught Field’s fancy. That technique went to the accordion. Triplets on the trumpet went to his clarinets and flutes, and the rolling sounds produced in Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite became another mark of his band. His band was already hot and heard coast-to-coast on the radio playing in the finest hotels in the country. The name that made him famous came from a contest held in Chicago. Listeners were asked to pick a name for his band after listening to selections that used the new sound. The word rippling came up several times. Fields then decided on Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythms. A star was reborn.

There was only one thing missing. He wanted a light, fun sound to be the calling card for his introduction. His mind wouldn’t stop but is also wouldn’t come up with something. One night, having a bite to eat in a soda shop with his wife and still grumbling about his inability to come with something. His wife, Evelyn, my mom’s Aunt Evie, whom I adored, quietly slipped a straw into her drink and started blowing bubbles. Bingo! The sound of bubbles became the indelible intro to the Rippling Rhythms.

If a woman wants a traditional home life—husband home at six, dinner at seven, family sitting around the radio afterward—there are certain professions she shouldn’t marry into. One was a bandleader. Bandleaders are on the road a lot. They get home late at night and their body clock has different times than the family’s. Even when playing gigs in New York, Shep would often not get home until two or three in the morning. When he came through the door, he was usually ravenous. On the kitchen counter would be that night’s dinner waiting for him. One night it wasn’t in its usual place, but something else that looked enticing and smelled delicious was. He scarfed it down, and as he often did, he left a note of thanks for his wife to see when she got up to start the day. He said the corned beef hash was a nice change and very tasty. They never told him that it was the dog’s food that they had forgotten to put away. Ba da boom!

Shep Fields’ sounds were popular from the ’30s to the early ’60s when the Big Band era ended. He died of a heart attack on February 23, 1981 with his place secure in the annals of that era’s music. He rests at the Mt. Hebron cemetery, and I am on a campaign to get “The 40’s Junction” on Sirrius XM to play his music.


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