Remembering Route 66… and all that jazz!

Studio promotional shot Route 66

As a kid growing up in England in the 1960s, I remember watching an American television show called Route 66. Along with shows like Highway Patrol, it was part of my introduction to life in America. From what I could tell, things looked pretty good over there. Apparently it was usually sunny and everyone had a car, although there did seem to be a lot of police.

Route 66, however, was not new to me. There was a hit record of the same name by Nat King Cole, whose voice my mother loved. You know the one:

Well if you ever plan to motor West
Travel my way, take the highway
That’s the best
Get your kicks, on Route 66

(Bobby Troup, Londontown Music, 1946)

Studio promotional shot Route 66

The TV show starred two guys and a Chevrolet Corvette. They were always on the move, stopping in small towns for a while, taking a job here and there, getting into and out of situations, moving on. The Corvette, of course, was merely an example of product placement. General Motors was a sponsor, and the car was replaced each season with that year’s model. The show ran from 1960-64, so if you followed it, you’d see the evolution of the ‘Vette year over year.

Route 66 starred Martin Milner and George Maharis, playing characters named Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock.

Tod and Buz. The names sounded so quintessentially American to me, like Chip and Biff; Hank and Spud. In comparison, my people had names like Nigel, Roger, Clive and Fiona. We needed to loosen up, it seemed to me.

For some reason Buz never drove the Corvette. It was Tod’s, after all, but you’d think they’d share given the vast number of miles they appeared to put on that thing. But no, Tod and Buz actually seemed a bit chippy with each other much of the time (I think Buz resented that Tod came from money and may even have gone to college).

Anyway, given the name of the show, you’d think (well, I thought) its theme song would be the same Route 66 as written by Bobby Troup and popularized by Mr. Cole. But no. Instead, as I later learned, the show’s theme was penned by the prolific and reliable Nelson Riddle (it eventually became a hit in its own right).

It’s easy in retrospect to understand why the producers passed on Troup/Cole. Why pay royalties when you can save dollars by getting someone to write a new piece? I’ll bet Bobby Troup was miffed, although he did have a degree in business from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, so he likely understood.

That said, Mr. Riddle peppered his Route 66 theme with a delicate piano riff that recalls the more familiar song by Bobby Troup. Perhaps it was a respectful tip of the hat to Troup for writing what would become one of jazz music’s most enduring classics.

So what about Bobby Troup, anyway? Relegated to obscurity? Not at all.

Jazz guy, pianist, singer, front man of a small “combo” playing clubs, Troup came up with some good stuff but wasn’t really hitting the big time in post-WW2 New York City. So in 1946, he and his wife, Cynthia, pointed their 1941 Buick towards Los Angeles and the happening West Coast Scene. Zigging and zagging his way across the US, he got the idea for Route 66 and began working on the song which was published that year.

It didn’t take long for Route 66 to find Mr. Cole, becoming a hit on the R&B and pop music charts and subsequently covered by, oh, I don’t know… hundreds? Thousands? Hopefully the song kept Bobby Troup in new shoes for the rest of his life.

By the mid-1950s, Troup had become an established performer/songwriter/arranger in LA, writing for big-name artists like Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn and Joe Williams. Eventually he even got into the movies! The Gene Krupa Story (1959), for example, although he was playing Tommy Dorsey and not himself.

But I’m getting ahead.

Jack Webb; photo courtesy of Raul Moreno Collection; used with permission.

Also labouring in LA at the time was a guy called Jack Webb, whose path would intersect with Troup’s. He got his start in radio playing the character Sergeant Joe Friday in the immensely popular police procedural Dragnet, which he created and also produced through his company Mark VII Limited. The radio show ran from 1949-1957 and was widely syndicated, but Webb had several irons in the fire which we’ll get to.

In Dragnet, Joe Friday had a succession of partners, including Route 66’s Martin Milner (Tod) for a spell (as Detective Bill Lockwood). Webb and Milner, it turns out, had already met and became friends while both acted in the movie The Halls of Montezuma (1951). They kept in touch.

Those who have heard (and later seen) Webb’s portrayal of Friday know him as a gruff, no-nonsense, all-business kind of guy; a bit “wooden” some might opine (okay, a lot wooden). A world-weary character of few words, Friday seemed to live for police work and did everything “by the book.”

Webb himself was surely a workaholic (his enterprises certainly provided employment for a large percentage of the Hollywood entertainment industry, at one time or another), but he was also a huge jazz fan. Reported to own a collection of 6,000 jazz recordings, music was apparently a lifelong passion.

Webb was a player, too. The cornet was his instrument and he deftly inserted himself onstage with Peggy Lee in Pete Kelly’s Blues, a 1955 movie he produced and directed about musicians and mobsters (Webb was Pete Kelly, too).

With Webb’s connections in radio, movies and music, he’d encounter all kinds of celebrities, one of whom, Julie London, was an up-and-coming screen actor and vocalist. She and Webb married in 1947 which saw London “settling down” for family life with Webb. Eventually she would become not only successful in movies (she was leading lady to Rock Hudson and Gary Cooper, sometimes headlining three or four movies a year), but also having numerous hit records to her credit and a long career as a singer. London would go on to release 26 albums, selling millions of records.

It was Julie London who in 1955 first recorded what would become another jazz classic called Cry Me a River. It was written by Arthur Hamilton in 1953 for Ella Fitzgerald to perform in Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, although as it turned out, she wasn’t in the movie after all. Maybe Webb decided to send the song London’s way instead, and maybe not.

Why “maybe not?” Because the Webb-London marriage was, as they say, “short-lived,” ending in November 1953, and finalized in 1954. London meeting Bobby Troup at around the same was not unrelated, as she “resumed her career” post-Webb with Troup’s encouragement and guidance. Troup’s marriage to Cynthia would likewise be “short-lived.”

Subsequently it was Troup who managed and developed London’s hugely successful singing career, presumably putting his business education to good use. And it was Troup who produced London’s Cry Me a River. They were a power couple!

London and Troup would marry in 1959 after “a long engagement.” They were married for 40 years.

Meanwhile, Dragnet had moved into television (as of 1951, actually). Webb continued to not only produce, but to play Sgt. Joe Friday in both radio and TV, and he produced, directed and starred in a Dragnet movie in 1954. His Mark VII Limited was becoming something of an empire, although Webb was also still appearing in other people’s movies until the mid-1950s, including Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and film noir favourite Dark City, the latter alongside actor Harry Morgan.

The Dragnet radio show continued until 1957, and the TV version’s last season wrapped up in 1959. Route 66’s Martin Milner featured in a half-dozen shows over the years as Webb continued a pattern of sticking with (helping out?) people he knew. By this time Troup and London were mostly slogging it on the international touring circuit.

Studio promotional shot Dragnet’s Friday and Gannon

In the 1960s Webb took over executive production of the successful TV show 77 Sunset Strip and by all accounts ruined it. His formulaic, no-frills, almost documentary approach seemed dated and unappealing to younger viewers and by 1967 Webb was back on familiar territory with a revived Dragnet, again starring as Sgt. Joe Friday but with a new partner, Detective Bill Gannon played by buddy Harry Morgan.

It worked! It was the version of Dragnet that introduced me to Jack Webb and his trademarked clipped dialog, fast pace (Webb was master of the half-hour show) and melodramatic presentation. Irresistible, really.

“The story you’re about the see is true. The names were changed to protect the innocent,” went the introduction.

Right.

Except they really were! Webb was nothing if not a stickler for detail and he really did get plots from LAPD files. In Webb’s world, the cops were always righteous, the bad guys clearly bad, the public — well, the public mostly caused the police a lot of grief — and Friday had seen it all. The real LAPD Police Chief loved him!

Dragnet “2” ran until 1970. The bad guys were a little badder; marijuana reared its ugly head, young people seemed less innocent and their hair was… growing. Lots of material there, so not content with one show, for a while Webb simultaneously produced another called Adam-12. The subject? Well, more police; more LAPD, only this time from the front seat of a squad car assigned to the LAPD’s Rampart Division (Rampart was an area where Webb lived as a child).

Studio promotional shot Adam-12

And who’s behind the wheel? Route 66’s Martin Milner playing Officer Pete Malloy, trading his Corvette for a Plymouth Belvedere and eventually an AMC Matador. Gotta love that Matador 401.

His partner was rookie Jim Reed (Kent McCord). If I remember correctly, in one episode we learn that the Reed character was 21 years old, he was married, had a child and there he was learning the ropes from veteran Malloy. People sure grew up sooner in those days; unlike Buz Murdock, he even got to drive on occasion!

But watch carefully and you’ll see Bobby Troup in a few episodes (taking a break from touring, I guess, although not for much longer). Troup’s daughter Ronne appeared, too.

Webb was on a roll. Why stop now? Time for another Mark VII production.

Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth; photo courtesy of www.emergencyfans.com; used with permission.

Enter Emergency!, the premise of which was straightforward enough. Firefighters Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto (played by Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe), become paramedics assigned to Station 51 of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The time is 1972, and paramedics really are a new thing. The whole idea was hugely controversial at the time, and the notion that what we now call Emergency Medical Technicians, Emergency Medical Responders or Paramedics would have a role to play in the delivery of emergency medical services was often neither welcomed nor supported.

In fact, many doubted the ability of firefighters to do medical work at all, and even proponents of the idea worried about their effectiveness in the field. Consequently, “Gage” and “DeSoto” are attached by telephone to “Rampart” General Hospital, from whose emergency-room staff they get real-time directions and advice.

So Webb had a truly topical subject, but he was on familiar turf in LA with “first responders” (although Emergency! ran for an hour, a departure for Webb).

In Emergency! the key hospital staff comprises the hip, tough, Dr. Kelly Brackett (Robert Fuller), the kinder, gentler Dr. Joe Early and the nurse with the heart of gold, Dixie McCall.

Robert Fuller, Randolph Mantooth, Julie London, Kevin Tighe and Bobby Troup. photo courtesy of www.robertfuller.info; used with permission.

And who do you think played the latter pair? Bobby Troup and Julie London. Really! I don’t know how that particular casting decision came about. I presume that over the years Webb, London and Troup just continued to get along and eventually, as is mentioned on the JulieLondon.org website, Webb’s offer gave London and Troup the opportunity to retire from touring and spend time at home with their family. As I say, Webb had a history of sticking with people he knew.

Emergency! ran until 1979 and would be credited with accelerating the acceptance of EMT-paramedic programs as a standard component of modern emergency services around the world. “Rampart General” in the show was a real hospital and still exists, although it’s called Harbor UCLA Medical Center, and is located in Torrance.

In the early 1980s, Jack Webb was preparing for a third Dragnet series, apparently planning to reprise the role of Sgt. Joe Friday yet again. Unfortunately, he died from a heart attack in 1982, likely related to his notorious “cigarette habit” (as it was then called) — up to three packs a day, some said.

The Los Angeles Police Department thought so much of Webb that when he died they gave him a funeral with full police honours, named a police academy auditorium after him and actually retired Sgt. Joe Friday’s LAPD TV badge, “714.”

“Sgt. Joe Friday’s Dragnet badge. Image courtesy www.badge714.com; used with permission

In fact, the LAPD Historical Society still holds an annual “Jack Webb Awards Gala.” Adam-12’s Kent McCord is 2018’s guest of honour. You can go! Sept 29, 2018 if you’re in the area.

Bobby Troup died in February 1999, aged 80, and Julie London died one year later on Bobby Troup’s birthday, October 18th. She was 74.

Martin Milner? He had a few roles in Emergency! but spent his later life in California happily fishing. From 1994-2004 he co-hosted XTRA 690’s fishing show “Let’s Talk Hook-up.” In 1998 he took the wheel of a 1960 Corvette for a cross-country documentary called Route 66: Return to the Road. It’s fun to see. He passed away in 2015.

His Adam-12 partner Kent McCord ended up in Farscape, of all things. He still dabbles in acting and voice-overs and is into motorsports.

Streaming versions of Route 66 and Cry Me a River can be heard anytime, anywhere. From the radio of a vintage Corvette would be a good place, though.

Speaking of vintage Corvettes, what happened to George Maharis (Buz Murdock) is a whole other story.

Route 66. Take that road and you don’t know where you’ll end up.

Los Angeles Police Historical Society

Julie London Family blog – great pictures!

Pete Kelly’s Blues – check out the great cast

Legendary Corvettes: Route 66

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.