A while back, after posting tributes to Lyle Mays and Ron Keezer, I promised to post about a living Wisconsin musician. I did that recently, in honoring Steve Sveum on his retirement after an illustrious career as a jazz educator. But prior to posting about Steve, this is the post I had been planning bring to you.
Before I started working on Wisconsin Riffs, I had never heard of Bev Dahlke (Smith). When I was talking with Steve Houghton, the great Wisconsin jazz drummer (Steve and I first met back in the mid-’70s) about the book I was working on, he asked me if I planned to include Bev Dahlke. Of course I said, in my ignorance, “Who?” Steve got me Bev’s contact information, and after we exchanged several emails, it turned out that Bev was coming back from her home in southern California to her hometown, Wausau, for a visit. So we met, and she told me her fascinating career story. Here’s the version of it that was in the book (with a couple of added images at the end).
Beverly Dahlke was born in Wausau in 1954. She grew up in the city and began to play the piano at the age of five, starting lessons at age seven. She claims, “We were all singers in my family,” and describes her parents as the “best dancers in town.” She went to parochial school, where the nuns occasionally rapped her fingers. Like many youngsters, Dahlke didn’t particularly care for practicing, but she says: “[When] the band guy came through, we took that aptitude test and I had a very high score. And he said, ‘You should be playing.’ I picked the saxophone because my dad liked the saxophone. . . . I played saxophone from ten on, and . . . the piano kind of went away after that.”
Dahlke attended Newman Catholic High School, where she worked with the talented director, Richard Schroeder. Schroeder was especially interested in jazz and brought the Newman band to the jazz festival at UW–Eau Claire every year. The band even played a jazz Mass at St. Anne’s church in Wausau. Schroeder wrote arrangements for the school jazz band, including a memorable Beatles medley.
Dahlke, who started on alto saxophone, had switched to the larger baritone saxophone by high school—a rare instrument for a girl to be playing at that time. By her sophomore year, she successfully auditioned for the State Honors Band, and continued to play in it for three years. She also auditioned for Kids from Wisconsin in the early years of that celebrated group and became the first person from Wausau to be chosen for the ensemble. Dahlke soon earned the nickname “The Kid” and became a local celebrity, playing with the Kids for three years.
After graduating from high school in 1972, Dahlke enrolled in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s music program. She found a kindred spirit in drummer Steve Houghton, also in the program, whom Dahlke had already met in the State Honors Band. During her first year at Madison, the jazz program was run by Stan DeRusha; the next, it was taken over by Jimmy Cheatham. That year, Houghton left Madison for the jazz program at North Texas State. Dahlke remembers, “They were calling me up, [saying], ‘Hey, if you’re ever gonna do anything, you’ve gotta come down here.’ ” Since she applied late to NTSU for admission, Dahlke missed out on any scholarships, but somehow—through a mystery that she’s never been able to explain—she qualified for in-state tuition. That tuition arrangement continued for the rest of her career at North Texas.
Her friend Houghton, who had made it into the One O’Clock jazz band, the best of NTSU’s eight or nine jazz bands, was already off to Woody Herman’s band by the time Dahlke entered the school.
After three years at North Texas, Dahlke earned a degree in classical baritone saxophone, the first one ever awarded at that school. More importantly, from the standpoint of her career, she became the first female member of the One O’Clock band. She worked her way up from the Five O’Clock band, to the Three O’Clock, and finally the One O’Clock. (The band names represent the time of day that they practiced, and the earlier a band met, the more advanced it was.)
After her audition for the One, Dahlke was told that she did not make the band. She later discovered that her audition had been the best, but that some people just didn’t want a woman in the band. The decision did not last. Leon Breeden, head of the program, made a visit to Dahlke’s house, where she lived with two other women. Dahlke recalls, “It’s like the maestro has shown up at my door. And he goes, ‘Well, after consideration we have decided that you should be in the One O’Clock.’ ” Upon receiving the news, Dahlke says, “I had to run over to some frat house or someplace where there was a phone, to call my parents.”
The band traveled a lot, and some administrator may have anticipated that having a woman in the band would create logistical problems on the road. But with Breeden as her champion, Dahlke fit right in, and problems did not arise. The band went on a State Department tour of Russia and Portugal in the summer of 1976. Dahlke vividly remembers the band’s receptions in Russia as the Cold War was raging. She played on the band’s Lab ’76 album, which earned a nomination for a Grammy award (as did its predecessor, Lab ’75, an entire program of compositions and arrangements by Wisconsinite Lyle Mays).
In the fall of 1976, someone in the West Coast group Toshiko Akiyoshi- Lew Tabackin Big Band heard the One O’Clock band in concert, and not much later, Toshiko called Dahlke and asked if she could come to the coast and join their band for a tour of Japan. Her reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She was able to graduate early from NTSU to take the gig. When she moved out West, she lived with Toshiko and Tabackin. In addition to playing in Japan, she also appeared with the band at the 1977 Newport Jazz Festival in New York, performing in Carnegie Hall.
When the band’s regular baritone player returned, Dahlke was told she wasn’t needed anymore. She settled in southern California with her husband-to-be, Greg Smith, who had preceded Dahlke in the baritone chair in the One O’Clock band. In the interim, he had been on the road with Stan Kenton’s band, and then Harry James’s band. Shortly after Dahlke moved west, Smith joined the Buddy Rich band. While Smith was on the road, she started working hard on bassoon. She later picked up clarinet and flute as well, trying to make herself more marketable as a doubler. And she did what young players in big cities do: she played with rehearsal bands (bands that rehearse regularly but don’t necessarily play many paying jobs).
One such band was led by Pat Longo. His band was rehearsing one night in a Los Angeles club, and representatives of Harry James’s band came in to audition baritone saxophone players, using Longo’s band as a platform for the auditioners. Drummer Sonny Payne, a member of the James band best known for his starring role in the great Count Basie bands of the fifties and sixties, was present that night. As the candidates played their auditions, Dahlke sat in a corner reading a book. When the auditions were over, Payne declared, “She [Dahlke] should be the one in the band!” He had heard her playing with Longo’s group prior to the auditions, and felt that she was stronger than any of those auditioning.
Although James’s manager expressed reservations about Dahlke touring with the other all-male band members, she was offered the job, and she joined the band in August 1977. It was another trailblazing moment: she was the first full-time female band member (not singer) with the James outfit. After a rocky first night, when Dahlke remembers James being “as drunk as a skunk,” she ended up having a nice year-and-a-half run with the band. She was written up in People magazine for breaking the gender barrier with James. Dahlke left the band after playing New Year’s Eve of 1978, as she and Greg Smith were engaged to be married in early 1979.
Dahlke had a moment of real, if brief, fame due to Greg’s employer, Buddy Rich. Rich was good friends with Johnny Carson, and he appeared on The Tonight Show many, many times. On one show, during this era when issues of women’s rights were big news, Rich was asked if he would hire a woman to join his band. He replied by saying something to the effect of “find me one.” Someone at Tonight remembered seeing the article in People, and the show plucked Dahlke out of Arkansas, where she was touring with the James band, and flew her to Los Angeles. In March 1978, she appeared on the show, playing (and soloing) with the Tonight Show band, and even getting to sit in “the chair” for a short interview with Carson. Rich, regrettably was not present.
Dahlke settled down with Smith in Studio City and entered the southern California music scene in earnest in 1979. With her skills at playing many woodwinds, Dahlke soon became a valued member of the community of musicians who play live shows (Broadway, live TV, and various others) and record music for television and movie scores.
In 1984, Dahlke frequently appeared on MTV and the few other outlets showing music videos at the time. She was presented with an exciting opportunity when Glenn Frey, a member of the popular band the Eagles, was tapped to sing a song for the Eddie Murphy feature film Beverly Hills Cop. “The Heat Is On” featured a repeated saxophone riff played by Dahlke’s friend David Woodford. But because Frey had worked with Greg Smith’s band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, and knew Dahlke, he hired her to appear as the saxophonist in the music video. She appears in the video stylishly made up and dressed, but with what she refers to as her eighties “mullet” hairdo. The song rose to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early 1985.
Dahlke got another break in 1986 with Fox, a brand-new, struggling television network with only a few affiliate stations across the country. One of its first shows was the late-night entertainment show hosted by comedian Joan Rivers, who had become famous for her many appearances, including as a guest host, on The Tonight Show. Following the example set by Johnny Carson, Rivers planned to have a big jazz band on her show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. However, when the band started rehearsing, Rivers realized it was all men. Since she was breaking new ground as a female talk show host, she wanted to have a woman in the band as well. As Dahlke tells it, “The guys in the band of course all knew me because I’d already . . . been doing some shows around town. . . . A couple of the guys said, ‘Well, if you’re going to get somebody, call Bev Dahlke.’ ” She got the call, auditioned, and was hired.
Rivers wanted to develop a “personality” for the band, and eventually she began referring to the guys in the band as “the Party Boys.” Then she decided she wanted Dahlke to stand out from the “Boys,” so started referring to her as “the Tramp.” The band was introduced in the show’s opening as “Mark Hudson with the Party Boys and the Tramp.” Dahlke became part of the act, in the way that saxophonist Tommy Newsom was part of the act on Carson’s show (though in a completely different style). There was even one episode on the Late Show called “Who Killed the Tramp?” in which Dahlke was the victim of a fictitious murder involving the cast of the Leave It to Beaver TV show.
Beverly Dahlke-Smith (seated) from her days on the Joan Rivers TV show, with (left to right) orchestra director Mark Hudson, Rivers (and dog Spike), and announcer Clint Holmes. courtesy of beverly dahlke-smith
Dahlke staunchly defends Rivers—she says tramp was a term of endearment for Rivers, who referred to everyone that way—and she especially appreciates the way her exposure on Rivers’s show furthered her career. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers lasted less than a year, but Dahlke continued to play in the band of its successor, known simply as The Late Show, hosted by Arsenio Hall. Dahlke’s parents could not watch The Late Show in Wausau, as the nearest Fox channel at that time was probably in Milwaukee or Madison. However, they eventually traveled to the West Coast to see the show live.
Another aspect of Dahlke’s connection with Fox bears mention. One of the network’s early successes, and now the longest-running sitcom in TV history, was The Simpsons (which grew out of a series of animated shorts for Fox’s Tracey Ullman Show). Lisa Simpson, the daughter on the show, plays baritone saxophone. While Dahlke was never told that she was the inspiration for this aspect of Lisa’s character, it seems likely, since she was the only prominent woman baritone saxophonist of the time and played in the band for the The Late Show. Dahlke did not play Lisa’s saxophone solos when the show debuted. However, just a few years later, she joined the band that recorded The Simpsons’ soundtrack, and she played all of the baritone saxophone, bassoon, and contrabassoon parts on the soundtrack for years.
Out of the hundreds of live shows she’s played over the course of her career in California, Dahlke has a number of favorites: the Mills Brothers, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and Johnny Mathis. She worked and recorded with such diverse musicians as Prince, the rock band Kansas (she played a bassoon solo on one of their records), Bette Midler, jazz singer Dianne Reeves, and jazz pianist Clare Fischer. Playing at ice-skating specials, she and Smith became friends with Olympic gold medalist and TV personality Scott Hamilton. Dahlke was often called to play with orchestras, including the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She’s played on more than fifty movie soundtracks, appeared on camera in at least five films, and played for about twenty-five different TV series. She was in the band for many specials, including the Tribute to Muhammad Ali; birthday specials for Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Steve Allen; and Comic Relief with Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal. She was also a “first call” for awards shows, including the Emmys.
Dahlke’s playing career in Los Angeles came to a sudden and unexpected end in the early 2000s. She began to have difficulty playing. Her embouchure, the way a player uses facial muscles to play a wind instrument, was not functioning correctly. As she lost control, she practiced more than ever, and the more she practiced, the worse things got. The last couple of years of her full-time professional career in LA Dahlke describes as “a nightmare.” She says, “I just thought, ‘Why can’t I play? What’s wrong with me?’ I thought I was nuts. . . . I did Alexander technique, I went to a psychiatrist, psychologist, I went everywhere.” She was very busy at the time, playing in a production of The Producers (starring Jason Alexander and Martin Short), recording for The Simpsons, and playing with the big band institution Les Brown and His Band of Renown.
She was finally referred to a specialist, one of the few dystonia experts in the country, who determined that Dahlke had that serious neurological condition. She was told that if she got injections of Botox, she might be able to get 50 percent better. But she knew that the only thing that would do for her career was to get 100 percent better. She decided she had to call it quits and spent her last day as a southern California pro playing with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
Dahlke and Smith had already moved to California’s Central Coast area, and after a period of playing a lot of golf, she started teaching in the area. She now teaches many students, from kids under ten to adults over eighty, and enjoys leading others to music.
Dahlke broke down many barriers in her career as the first woman to play in the North Texas One O’Clock band, in Harry James’s band, in a late-night talk show band, and in the Les Brown band. She claims that there were some jobs she got because she was a woman (like the spot in the Rivers show band) and a lot of jobs that she did not get because she was a woman. But she was not on a pilgrimage or a mission. “I’m a stubborn German,” she says. “When all these people said that [I couldn’t do certain things because I was a girl, and later a woman], guess what I’m saying in my head? ‘[Expletive] you; I’m going to show you.’ ” Ever since she was in high school, she says, “I was a musician, and that’s what I wanted to do for a living.”
Below: Bev Dahlke with the Les Brown Band No Comment necessary