Don Hassler's Musical Background
Recorded February 13, 2011, Tempe, Arizona
Nori: Let's talk about your background in music.
Don: My background in music, well, I started playing in the fifth grade. I was about eleven years old, ten or eleven. I tried out for French horn, which is a horn nobody blows good. So they say: a wind that nobody blows well. I quickly graduated to the clarinet because I could put my fingers down on all the holes and make all the notes. A French horn is not that easy—you only have three things to work. I started playing in the band in grade school. I have a picture of that, in fact, 1941 I think it was, or 1940. Before Pearl Harbor, so 1940. I played clarinet in the band all through junior high school, first in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then in Oklahoma City.
Along about the ninth grade, in junior high, I realized that a lot of clarinet players could also play the saxophone. Worse, I realized I could even make money playing the saxophone. So when I got into high school in the tenth grade, I bought a used alto saxophone for about fifty bucks, and I started playing. I played in a concert band at my high school and started playing in what you might call pick-up bands. Guys would get together at somebody's house and we would play for a while. I played saxophone and clarinet at the time. And suddenly people started to say, hey we need a band for this party, and I might make five bucks. I liked that pretty well, but there was one thing I liked even better, a lot of girls were attracted to musicians, so I thought this is a real way to go. Make money, attract girls, get through school this way, and have fun. I met a lot of guys who felt the same way I did.
I did a lot of practicing. My mother really supported me in playing the instruments. After the eleventh grade I was playing in the official high school dance band in Oklahoma City. We called it the Sooners. That happened to be in 1944, when most of the adult professional musicians were off to war somewhere, playing in the service. They needed dance band players in town, so it was a great time to break in, playing professionally in various venues. Some of them good, some of them not so good, like the honkey tonks we had in Oklahoma. In fact, that was one of my first experiences playing on a bandstand where there was chicken wire.
Nori: Like the Blues Brothers.
Don: Well, that wasn't a gimmick that they tried. The Blues Brothers knew what they were doing. Down in Oklahoma, the honkey tonks had to have chicken wire, because when the beer drinkers got a little crazy, the first place they would throw the beer bottles would be at the band. That was just for pure protection.
Nori: Was that about the time you met Les Paul?
Don: Yes [see full interview on this subject]. Les Paul was a legend as far as a guitar player's concerned. He was not only agreat jazz player and a country player, but he had some million-selling pop records, mainly with his wife Mary Ford. I found that out later when I went to work at Capitol Records, but my experience as a high school musician and into college, I thought I wanted to do that as a career. So I enrolled in a music school, went through two years in Oklahoma, playing in bands all that time. Playing in marching bands. When I was in the University in Norman, Oklahoma, we went to the Cotton Bowl for the OU Texas game.
Two different years I went to Chicago, spent time and worked for my grandfather at his law office. He was an office manager in a big office in downtown Chicago. I was there in the summer of forty-six when I saw an announcement for the band to play for the annual NFL college all star football game in Soldier Field. I signed up for that band, we played in Soldier Field in 1946, and I met a guy who was a resident up northwest of Chicago, that I kept up correspondence with. He was studying music there and was going to go to music school at Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois.
I decided I could finish my college degree and college experience in Chicago, so I enrolled at Northwestern for my last two years. And the first year I was there, NW won the big ten, believe it or not, it's only happened twice in the last forty or fifty years. They did, and we took the train all the way to the Rose Bowl to play in California and back. But that also made me decide it was time for me to start thinking about moving out of Chicago, and maybe California was a good place to be.
Nori: Before we go to California, I want to hear about your days at the radio station in Chicago.
Don: When I graduated from college, I had a lead to talk to the program director at the NBC station there, WMAQ. They needed a program builder in the record library. Disk jockeys were doing programs, and they were all done by the record librarian and the program builders there. I got that job out of college and I worked there for almost three years. At NBC, and then ABC, which was like a sister station. I met a lot of people in those days. Wayne King had a network television show out of Chicago. Dave Garroway had a nighttime disk jockey show, Garroway At Large. His disk jockey show went all over the country because the station was a fifty-thousand watt station, Clear Channel. You could hear Garroway in almost every state. He played jazz and I loved jazz.