James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Seven

Previously in this Book:Nebraska small-town boy Hal Neely learns the trumpet, tours the Midwest with dance bands and ends up in California playing for the stars. At the outbreak of World War II he joined the Army Air Corps. He led the India-Burma-China theater military band and did a little recon on the side. After the war he returned to LA.

Mary and I got back to Los Angeles from Portland on September 26, 1946.
The morning of September 27 I re-registered at the University of Southern California under the G I Bill. I enrolled in a “special program”– there were 22 of us. We would go straight through– no vacations. To stay in the program I had to remain on the Dean’s List. Plenty of us completed the program. I earned three majors and earned three degrees: industrial engineering, industrial management, and business law.
I was attending USC on a scholarship when I first enlisted in the Army Air Corps November 11, 1942. Mary and I moved into an apartment at 1540 S. Hoover St. to be close to our old friends from Lyons, Nebraska. It was close to the USC campus. While I was in the military she worked as a secretary for Douglas aircraft in Santa Monica for a while, then moved back to our old apartment building on South Hoover Street to be close to our Lyons friends again.
Upon our return to Los Angeles the word immediately got out in the Hollywood music circles that I was back in town. On the eve of the 27th I received a call to play trumpet on a recording session at Radio Recorders in Hollywood the next afternoon the 28th. I had known and jammed with the Jack McVea Group several times in a “black club” on Central Avenue in 1942 prior to my enlisting in the Army Air Corps. His band was scheduled to record later that afternoon in another studio at Radio Recorders. After my session, I went into the studio to say, “Hello, I’m back in town.”
Ralph Bass–who later worked for me at King Records–was scheduled to produce the Jack McVea Band session for Mr. Paul Rheiner, owner of Black and White Records, an independent “race record company.” Mr. Bass did not show up–without a producer this session would be canceled; no one would be paid including the studio engineer. There was some discussion.
“I can produce this session,” I said.
“You can?” asked Mr. Reiner, a huge Jewish gentleman– not a musician or producer, but a money man trying to get into the independent record business.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
The engineer knew I had never produced a session. I gave him a signal, he said nothing and cut off all the studio mikes. I went into the studio and told the guys to act like I knew what I was doing.
“Help me if you all want to get paid for this session.”
I had played trumpet on recording sessions before I went into the air corps service and knew the drill. In those days an “independent label” had to get its four sides in the three hours allowed by the AFM. They would put the best cut number one with the worst cut number four, back-to-back for its first release. If that did not “hit” they would release sides number two and number three back-to-back “hoping” for a “hit.” Mr. Rheiner had picked out for songs for us to record.
We got the first three sides down to their schedule– only had four minutes left.
“Guys, we are not going to get the fourth song you rehearsed, so do that funny song I’ve heard you do late at night in the club, the one that made your customers shout and ‘whoop and holler.’ Don’t stop for anything– I’ll wave the engineer to fade it.”
Ruben Tarrent, the drummer, sang the lead vocal. At 2:27 p.m. I signaled the engineer to “fade it” and told the guys not to wait for a “playback,” pack up, and take off. They would get their checks from the AF M Union.
Back in the control room Mr. Rheiner said, “Hal, that last song isn’t the one I picked.”
“No, sir, I switched it so we could get the fourth side down. Trust me, your customers will like it.”
There was no discussion concerning my fee or credits– nothing. Mr. Rheiner took the four “record masters” with him. Three weeks later– a Saturday morning– I got a call at home from Mr. Rheiner.
“You little son of a bitch, you told me you had produced records.”
“No sir, I said I could produce a record. You never asked me if I had.”
There was a long silence. “You know you are right. Come and see me today in my office in Hollywood.”
One of the cuts, “Open the Door Richard,” was a “pick” in Billboard’s “Soul Records” on Monday. I went to see “the man” and he paid me the regular producer’s fee of double scale– scale was $27– plus a 2% producer royalty. The record went No. 1 in the “Soul Records Category.” My first production.
More luck. “Right place at the right time.”
I got a call to produce “Cement Mixer Putty-Putty” with Slim Gaillard for Capitol Records, and then to produce “Little Esher” for another independent. My first three productions went No. 1 in the soul charts.
Hal Neely was now a producer. I did not really know what I was doing, but no one else knew it either. In years to come I would be credited with producing 29 No. 1, 61 gold albums, three Grammy award-winning artists, and three Academy Award winners. I recorded rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, polka, sacred/gospel, country and blue grass. I conducted sessions in London, Paris and Germany.
The London Times once probably best summed up my production career in two words: “James Brown” for 41 years.
Among the other artists whose careers I was instrumental in were the following: Arthur Pysock, Little Willie John, Earl Bostic, Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Five Royals, Trini Lopez, Billie Daniels, Roger Miller, Glenn Campbell, Nina Simone, Charles Brown, Patti LaBelle, the Manhattans, Albert King, Freddie King, Cozy Cole, Guy Mitchell, Snooky Lanson, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline, George Morgan, Faron Young, Dottie West, the Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Little Jimmie Dickens, Red Sovine, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Bob Kames, the Polka All Stars, and Milt Buckner.
In cooperation with Westrex in early 1946 I produced the first “stereo phono record master recording” with the famed Wannamaker Store pipe organ in Philadelphia played by Byron Smith. It was released in June 1946 at a press conference at the American Society of Engineers convention in New York City. I was the first to produce “for other than classical” recordings in New York’s fabled Carnegie Hall: Igor Gorin with Donald Voorhees conducting the Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra. Years later I produced Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in a special tribute to him.
While going to college from 1946 to 1948 I re-organized my “Band of the Stars” playing hotels, clubs, resorts, country clubs, officer’s clubs, colleges and one-nighters. I also fronted the Harry Owens Hawaiian Band and “Hilo Hattie” on several “gigs.” My band played the 1947/48 Rose Bowl Queen’s Balls in Pasadena and San Marino. In 1948 I marched with the Elks Parade Band in the longest ever Rose Bowl Parade: six miles.
I was in the class of 1948 at University of Southern California. I would graduate midterm in December. I was 26 years old. My business law professor called me into his office. I was top of my class.
“Hal, you would make a good lawyer, but you would be miserable out there in today’s world. You are a small-town kid from Nebraska with a good sense of right and wrong. You would have a hard time representing someone you felt was wrong. Stay in the music business where you belong.”
My law professor had arbitrated the case against Allied Record Manufacturing Company in Hollywood– the best independent record manufacturing company in the world and the general contractor for all United States government veterans’ programs –V discs – radio – TV broadcast – AFRS shows and programs – recordings etc. He recommended to Allied’s Daken Broadhead, CEO, and James O’Hagan, COO, they hire one of his students who had a reputation as musician/producer etc., a former captain in the Army Air Corps, scheduled to graduate in the USC class of 1948. Allied arranged with their appointment consulting firm for me to take a series of aptitude tests. Their recommendation was to “hire this man.”
Mr. Broadhead and Mr. O’Hagan met with me. They offered me a 10-year personal employment contract. Allied was owned by a group of Mormons. Mr. Broadhead had been an executive with the Mormons and their Safeway stores. Mr. O’Hagan–not a Mormon–had been an executive with Robershaw-Fulton Company in the East before moving to California and joining Allied. I would be a trainee to learn Allied’s business. To formalize the agreement, Allied placed me on a full salary during my last semester at USC. I would report to Mr. O’Hagan upon graduating.
Saturday morning January 4, 1949, after the graduation ceremony, I reported to Mr. O’Hagan at his home in Pasadena. He was in his front yard pruning his rose bushes.
“I saw where you graduated this morning. Ready to go to work?”
“Yes sir.”
“Good to have you on board. Monday, go to our recorders lab on Santa Monica close to Radio Recorders. You know where that is?”
“Yes sir.”
“Tell Dick Burgess, the lab’s manager, I sent you.”
Monday morning at 8 a.m., dressed in a nice blue suit, I walked into the lab’s office. I shook hands with Mr. Burgess. He did not know who I was or what I was doing there. Mr. O’Hagan had not called him. Dick went over to Allied two blocks away on Brewster Avenue and was back in a short time.
“Mr. O’Hagan said for you to learn our business and he will be in touch with you. Take this desk here and get comfortable. I suggest you go home, put on some work clothes and come back.”
I did. He took me around and introduced me to the workers and the rest of the staff. Recorders Lab was Allied’s small rush order and research plant. I was pretty much on my own. Allied’s compound mill was up on a side street. I worked from 8 a.m. until?? learning how to do every job in the plant, from processing the metal mothers and stampers to pressing the 16-inch transcriptions,10-inch and 7-inch records.

(Author’s note: Text in italics is taken from Mr. Neely’s memoirs and reflect his version of events.)

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