When veteran guitarist Bob Bain drives into Toluca Lake Tuesday to participate in John Pisano’s long-running Guitar Night at Lucy’s 51, it’s likely that more than a few memories will accompany him. Bain was the guitarist in the famed Tonight Show Orchestra at NBC until Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992.
The band was stocked with some of the greatest musicians in Southern California, as a 1974 video from the show confirms. In it, Beverly Sills sings Manuel Ponce’s beautiful ballad “Estrellita,” with just Bain playing a nylon-string guitar as accompaniment. He was the only band member who knew the tune, but Sills — just off a plane — wasn’t interested in a rehearsal. It’s a stunning performance, with Bain sensitively leading and echoing the great coloratura soprano. Free-jazz musicians don’t have a patent on spontaneous arrangement.
“That was a great job,” says Bain, speaking from his home in Oxnard. His quick, incisive speech indicates that he doesn’t dwell in nostalgia, despite the years at NBC. “It was a dream job, and we all loved it.”
He had been a busy studio player before Carson moved “The Tonight Show” from New York to Burbank in ’72. It was during the ’60s, as a staff musician at Capitol Records, that Bain first encountered Pisano. “I wrote a song called ‘So What’s New’ that the Tijuana Brass recorded. I was new at the game and he gave me a lot of suggestions of what I should do with the tune. Lloyd Thaxton wound up using it as the theme to his TV show.”
Bain, a veteran of the Tommy Dorsey and Freddy Slack Orchestras, is far from inactive these days. He can often be heard in the company of 57-year-old guitarist Jim Fox at Galletto’s in Woodland Hills. Like many native Angelenos of his generation, Bain’s nine-note break on Nelson Riddle’s “Route 66 Theme” looms large in Fox’s imagination. “That little solo that Bob took just sums him up perfectly: It’s simple, melodic and brilliant,” Fox says. “He’s one of my inspirations — a great chord player, a succinct soloist and a great rhythm player who can make a rhythm section sound good the way Freddie Green did for the Count Basie Orchestra.”
Bain and Fox will play with Pisano — the Guitar Night host, as always — and bassist Chuck Berghofer.
“I was on the first session that Chuck ever did,” Bain notes. “That was at Capitol.” He’s known for his authoritative contrabass work in straight-ahead jazz ensembles and for backing Frank Sinatra. Berghofer contributed the memorable, supple-yet-strong bass line to daughter Nancy Sinatra’s ’60s hit, “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
For Bain, Fox is a kindred spirit, though a generation or so removed. “Jim gets the greatest rhythm guitar sound of anybody in town,” Bain declares. Instruments probably have something to do with that. Fox slyly referred to his own when he titled his 2009 album “Natural Blonde” (which Bain, Pisano and Berghofer played on).
The Bain-Fox empathy goes deeper than a choice of weapons, of course. “We’re very sensitive to each other — when he plays softer, I play softer.”
Pisano considers his Guitar Night very carefully. “First of all,” he explains, “I play with people whose work I enjoy. Bob’s playing has shades of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel and a lot of great players. And Jim is so meticulous about his chord construction and choice of notes that it’s … a pleasure to play with both of them.”
Guitarist Barry Zweig, no stranger to Guitar Night, refers to Pisano as the C.B. Demille of the guitar world. “All these different guys make it exciting for me to play with,” Pisano claims. “It keeps me on my toes.”
What: John Pisano’s Guitar Night with Bob Bain and Jim Fox
Where: Lucy’s 51, 10149 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake.
When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
More info: (818) 763-5200
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.