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Hitting The Right Note

The life and times of music industry vet

Bugs Bower captured in autobiography

When you first meet Maurice “Bugs” Bower, it’s easy to be struck by the fact that this 90-something gentleman easily looks 20 years younger than his actual age. But it’s when he goes into high gear (which is seemingly most of the time), that the veteran producer/arranger starts to pull you in. But then again, who wouldn’t be drawn in once names like Dizzy Gillespie, The Beatles, Joe Pesci, Liza Minnelli and Richard Burton come up. The beauty of it all is that these anecdotes and more can be found in Bower’s self-published autobiography, Nice Stories About Nice People.

Among the nice people mentioned in Bower’s memoirs are Merv Griffin (“He had perfect pitch and total recall”), Steve Allen (“He couldn’t read music, but he could sit at the piano and play any piece of music he heard”) and Perry Como (“the most wholesome family man God ever made”). Very much written in a manner reflecting the legendary arranger/producer’s rat-a-tat delivery, Nice Stories is the kind of quasi-autobiography sure to not only resonate with an older generation of pop fan, but aficionados enamored by the music industry and its lengthy history. And while parties interested in purchasing it can reach out to Bower directly, the capricious nonagenarian is actively seeking a means of distribution that’ll get it on Amazon and in brick-and-mortar outlets.

Growing up in southern New Jersey, Bower was the son of a music arranger who had a steady gig working on themes for Miss America from the '30s up through the '60s. It wasn’t long before the younger Bower followed in his father’s footsteps, finally making the leap to amateur arranger after seeing Glenn Miller play at Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier. A stint in the military led the aspiring trumpet player to attend Juilliard courtesy of the GI Bill. Before long, he was beating the bushes for work at Roseland Ballroom, a space where you could find big bands rehearsing.

“When the band would break, I’d introduce myself,” Bower explained, “I’d tell them I was an arranger and to let me know the next time they’d rehearse.”

Over time, the diminutive dynamo would go from a job arranging for Doc Severinsen and Maynard Ferguson, to becoming a bigwig at budget record label and distributor Pickwick International.

These stories and more are in Nice Stories. It’s amusing to read about the Garden City resident’s success recording and arranging a hit soap opera theme inspired by a world-class gymnast (“Nadia’s Theme”). Or Bower being intrigued by Cab Calloway’s penchant for recording barefoot as a means of getting comfortable during one recording session. But it’s the evolution and eventual success of the early '60s pop hit “Caterina” that is most intriguing.

The arranger’s biggest coup was getting Como to record “Caterina,” a song inspired by a guest who’d appeared on the crooner’s show—the beautiful international singing star Caterina Valente. Co-written by lyricist Earl Shuman of “Seven Lonely Days” and “Hey There Lonely Girl” fame, “Caterina” wound up topping out at 23 on the pop charts domestically. But it was in foreign markets where the song enjoyed an even greater shelf life.

“It came out in January 1962 and you couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing it,” explained the New Jersey native. “The song was re-recorded overseas and I wound up having the song sung in 22 different languages.”

Bugs Bower will be giving a free lecture, “Life in the Music Business,” at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 30 at the Garden City Public Library.