William Alonzo Anderson was born in 1916 in Greenville, South Carolina. The tragic death of his parents saw him moved to a Charleston orphanage at the age of four. While growing up there, he learned to play the trumpet and picked up his nickname of “Cat,” which was given to him by friends because of his fighting style. He played with a number of smaller groups throughout the Thirties and early Forties, eventually landing a spot in Lionel Hampton’s band. But his career really began in 1944, when he joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Ellington—who was unusually willing to share the spotlight with his sidemen—saw a lot of potential in this young man with a five octave range and delighted in writing songs that showed off Anderson’s ability to play higher than anyone else could. In 1944, Benny Goodman’s or Glenn Miller’s Orchestras might have sold more tickets, but Ellington’s band was the place to be if you wanted to musically shine.
So it might seem surprising that Cat left the band in 1947 to pursue his own interests. We’re lucky he did, because “Gotta Go Baby,” the one song I was able to find from this EP, swings hard and well. Check it out.
That was fellow trumpeter Joe Straud on vocals. Anderson employed a full orchestra, but the spare arrangement brings to mind the work of Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, to these ears, anyway.
This was released by Apollo Records, a label that named itself after—but was otherwise unrelated to—Harlem’s Apollo Theater. This was from their Jazz Masterworks line of releases, but they also put out the work of R&B, Gospel, Calypso, and comedy artists. A year after this release they’d strike it big with Mahalia Jackson’s “Move On Up a Little Higher” and, as a result, focused much more on R&B and Gospel. When Mahalia left Apollo for Columbia, they switched to Doo Wop, which was their primary focus until the label collapsed in 1962.
One of the great things about being a New Yorker is the knowledge that musical history is all over the place, just waiting to be discovered. It’s a kick to know that I used to live just a few blocks away from the former site of a record company that released work by not only Cat and Mahalia, but Solomon Burke and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as well.
Cat Anderson returned to Duke’s Orchestra in 1950 and stayed on until 1959. Here he is performing his song “El Gato”; that’s Cat playing around the :35 mark, followed by a less commanding but no less impressive part by Clark Terry.
“Jungle Trap’ shows that Cat made the most of his time with Ellington by learning how to create dramatic, dynamic arrangements of his own.
Cat was back with Duke by 1961, and could still play with a ferocity that few could match. Here he is on “The Opener,” with Buster Cooper on the euphonium.
Cat stayed with the Ellington Orchestra until 1971, when he decided to relocate to Los Angeles. He continued to record his own work and perform with local legends Bill Berry and Louie Bellson, and he’d occasionally go on tour with his own group in Europe. Cat Anderson died of brain tumor in 1981.
Let’s close with his haunting rendition of “Summertime.” Beautiful, elegant stuff.