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Pep Vim 'n' Verve
Bandleader Bill Elliott Bounces to Stardom!!!

by Joya Balfour

It’s a breezy summer night on board the U.S.S. Intrepid, serenely docked in New York Harbor. The deck is awash with the sound of swing, and the energetic bounce of 500 sailors and their sweethearts as they lindy hop into the evening. No, it’s not Artie Shaw welcoming our boys home from the war. The year is 1999, and the music comes courtesy of Bill Elliott, a ’90s bandleader with a knack for creating an authentic swing sound all his own.

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Elliott is the bandleader, pianist, composer and arranger of countless neo-swing favorites, including "Mildred Won’t You Behave?", "Bill’s Bounce" and "The Shim Sham Song." A native of Boston, he started playing piano by ear as a young child, and by age 13 had put together his first band and penned arrangements for a school musical revue. Although he had added the clarinet, sax, guitar and bass to his repertoire, Elliott ultimately decided on the piano as his instrument of choice and was soon playing professionally with a variety of different ensembles whose style evoked the folk-rock popularity of the day.

As a struggling musician in the early 1970s, Elliott was fortunate to meet up and work with several seasoned artists,including David Grisman, the mandolin virtuoso, and actor Martin Mull.

While Grisman introduced him to music from the ’20s and ’30s, Mull gave him the opportunity to write big band arrangements for his comedy albums. In 1973, Elliott joined a band called Seatrain (along with Peter Walsh of San Francisco’s Swing Session) and soon after found himself in Los Angeles playing with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Donna Summer, Johnny Mathis, and Smokey Robinson, among others.

The emergence of electro-acoustic music in the ’80s led Elliott away from rock. "I felt alienated from pop music—not much for a piano player to do—and I drifted toward film and TV work," he explains. "My eclectic background was really helpful as I could turn out almost any style of music, but the competition for composing work was (and remains) fierce with a vast oversupply of capable composers," he says.

His luck hit in 1989 when he was invited to write some ’30s-era songs for the movie Dick Tracy, starring Warren Beatty and Madonna. He penned the timeless "Pep, Vim & Verve" and his love affair with swing music was set in motion. 

"I wanted a band that sounded like the old great ones, and I had to coach the players on using vibrato, playing on top of the beat, playing the drums in an authentic way, etc. I was rebelling against the prevailing ’60s style of jazz and big band playing which was the way that all the good LA musicians played," he says.

Live in NYC at the USS IntrepidBESO’s first gig came that year at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, and within months the band had a following of fellow musicians and young dancers from the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association (PBDA), who were helping to revive swing dancing in the Los Angeles area. By the time the swing revival hit L.A. in the mid-’90s, BESO’s signature sound was well-established. Although it did not have the trendier jump-blues  style of other neo-swing success stories, the band had garnered a loyal following among the Lindy Hop community and played regular stints at the PBDA, Merv Griffin’s revamped Coconut Club and The Hollywood Palladium. The band’s lineup of 19 exceptional musicians played no small part in this feat. Star soloists like Don Clarke (trumpet), Don Shelton (sax/clarinet), Roger Neumann (tenor sax), Bob Reitmeier (clarinet), Gordon Peeke (drums) and Jay Mason (any sax) have all had impressive recording and band careers, and Elliott’s vocal quartet The Lucky Stars features the smooth stylings of Cassie Miller, who has sung for several years with Red & The Red Hots and the Harry James Band.

Since the orchestra was founded, Elliott has scored music for several films and television series (Independence Day, Nixon, Early Edition, Northern Exposure, That Darn Cat and Tower of Terror—the last two for the Disney Channel—are among his credits) and released three BESO albums: Swing Fever, Calling All Jitterbugs! and Swingin’ The Century. The latter disc features the wildly popular "Shim Sham Song" dedicated to and wholeheartedly approved by dance legend Frankie Manning. Elliott also provided the arrangements and original material for the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (soundtrack available on BMG/RCA Victor) and recently finished another film for the Disney Channel, Alley Cats Strike.

"The film and TV work has been essential to my band’s progress subsidizing our recordings, providing incentives for my players to stick with me in the trenches, and giving us a bit of a publicity hook to attract attention," Elliott says. "I have always written my best stuff under pressure of a deadline, so I’ve completely enjoyed the creative challenges."

Swing-minded individuals hope Elliott won’t be giving up his signature bounce any time soon.

Excerpted from ATOMIC Magazine. Read the full article in the Spring 2000 issue.

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Check out past ATOMIC features.

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Dear Dottie
1999 Article List
2000 Article List
2001 Article List
2002 Article List
2003 Article List
2004 Article List
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High Noon At The Hoot:
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Pep, Vim 'n' Verve:
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The Grand Dame Gets Her Due: Louis-Dahl Wolfe
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