Heroes #13: Vic Moore, 1902-1976

“Moore hunched over his drums, hammering out a steady pulse…” – Ralph Berton

Vic Moore (Wolverines)


In 1920, young Vic Moore was just beginning to take an interest in music, particularly in the jazz which was becoming wildly popular among youngsters of his generation. He would soon go on to cut his teeth, steadily gain in musical acumen, become a respected professional, rise to national prominence and then abandon the music business completely – all within the ten breathless years before 1930. Whilst from the perspective of the early 21st century Moore appears a rather enigmatic (if not entirely forgotten) figure, his would have been a household name to jazz fans in, say, 1928 or 1929, and he attained a greater status and influence during the decade itself than did certain of his drumming contemporaries who would go on to become much more celebrated in later years.

Victor Cuthbert Moore was born on 12th July 1902, the ninth of ten children, in the 25th Ward of Chicago. The Moores were an immigrant Irish Catholic family; patriarch George was a Cork man, and a real-estate agent. The family, whilst large, must have been reasonably affluent as they had a full-time servant. Vic was always interested in music, and began as a very young child by beating time along to Original Dixieland Jazz Band records with pencils. As a teenager, working as an usher at the Adelphi Theatre, he discovered an old, homeless drum kit in the basement, which with the manager’s blessing he adopted.

As a young Chicagoan coming of age around 1920 Moore blended in perfectly with the many thousands of young white middle-class Americans simultaneously powering and devouring the nascent Jazz craze in all its forms. Chicago – the bustling, febrile centre of cutting-edge music at the time – with its cabarets and speakeasies, proved an inescapable lure for Midwestern partygoers. And on South Wabash Street in the Chicago Loop, in 1922, Moore became part of a scene that would change the course of his life – one of a legion of college-age fans and enthusiastic amateur musicians who frequented the Friars’ Inn, a basement nightclub managed by one Mike Fritzel and featuring one of the most famous and popular jazz groups in America as its house band – the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. We have already taken a brief look round the Friars’ Inn (see map) and met the NORK whilst discussing their fantastic drummer Ben Pollack (Hero #7), whose fiery playing was no doubt a strong influence on young Moore. Other NORK fans in regular attendance at the Friars – all of them budding amateur jazz musicians – included individuals by the names of Min Leibrook, Jimmy Hartwell, Don Murray and Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke.

Soon these enterprising young men began attempting to play music together, calling themselves the Ten Foot Orchestra (five people = ten feet) and organising their first few gigs, including a Saturday residency at Delevan Lake in nearby Wisconsin, a couple of hours’ drive from Chicago. As they gradually gained in confidence and attention, the band grew in numbers and was renamed after a popular Jelly Roll Morton composition, becoming the eight-piece Wolverine Orchestra.
“The Wolverines were formed in the spring of 1923 […] Dick Voynow, piano; Bobby Gillette, banjo; Vic Moore, drums; Min Leibrook, bass; George Johnson, tenor sax; Jimmy Hartwell, clarinet; Bix Beiderbecke, cornet; Al Gandee, trombone […] They played the Stockton Club in Hamilton, Ohio…. [which] blew up in a wild [gang-related] melee on New Year’s Eve, 1923.” – Hoagy Carmichael

Pianist and singer Carmichael, an early associate and friend of Beiderbecke’s, also later recalled that he regularly booked the Wolverines for dances he was organising whilst studying at Indiana University around the same period. Despite initially modelling themselves on the NORK, the Wolverines rapidly developed a distinct sound and approach, and quickly became a hot commodity in the dance halls and saloons of the Jazz Age Midwest. By early  1924 they had created enough of a stir to receive an invitation to record for the Gennett company of Richmond, Indiana, which in its short history had already recorded top Chicago jazz bands such as King Oliver’s, Jelly Roll Morton’s and the NORK.

In their first ever recording session, on 18th February 1924, the Wolverines recorded four tunes, only two of which were then selected by Gennett Records for commercial release, though the band would in fact go on to re-record the rejected tunes in the months to come. All four numbers had originally been composed or popularised by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, revealing how strongly-felt the influence of Tony Sbarbaro and his colleagues still was even seven years after their great breakthrough. On ‘Fidgety Feet’ we can hear very little of Moore, but on ‘Jazz-Me Blues’ (a tune the Wolverines would go on to record several more times in the coming years) we can clearly discern him from the start, clipping the ensemble along and providing some neat flourishes on woodblock and a heavy cymbal. This being 1924, the Wolverines were of course recording onto wax, and Vic was thus restricted to playing ‘recording traps’ instead of his full kit [see Glossary]. On live dates, as opposed to recording sessions, the equipment Moore used was extremely typical for a cutting-edge jazz drummer of the time. In the 1924 photo at the top of the page we see a smiling Vic seated behind the ubiquitous 28” bass drum, sporting an unusual plain dark-coloured drumhead instead of the more common natural calfskin or painted landscape scene. Mounted onto the bass drum Vic has a single (16”?) Turkish-style suspended cymbal on his left, a small Chinese tom-tom on his right, a centrally-mounted woodblock and cowbell, and a steeply-angled snare drum with a mottled calfskin head. Spare sticks and mallets are tucked under tuning bolts of the bass drum to keep them handy (a common trick amongst early drummers, before the development of proper stick-holding devices).

Around this time, the Wolverines also came to the attention of Chicagoan musician Vic Berton (Hero #5), who was impressed enough with the band to offer to become their manager. This was an important development not only because it opened new avenues of well-paid work for the band, but also for Vic Moore personally as it brought him into close contact with Berton, a classically-trained professional percussionist and one of the most complete and virtuosic jazz drummers in the world at the time. A side-benefit of this association (from our point of view ninety-odd years later) was the frequent presence of Vic Berton’s teenaged brother Ralph, who idolised the Wolverines nearly as much as he did his older brother, and much later wrote an extensive and colourful memoir of their adventures during the period. He recounts arriving at a club to hear the group for the first time:
“Several members of the Wolverines were there already. Victor Moore was setting up his drums, a cheerful, energetic youth with a mop of curly black hair and – a rarity in those days except among slick salesmen types and he-done-her-wrong movie ‘villains’ – a mustache.” – Ralph Berton.

With the elder Berton as their manager the Wolverines had a busy year of it in 1924, travelling widely across the Midwest to perform one-nighters on college campuses and at lakeside retreats, whilst frequently making the trip down to Richmond to record more sides for Gennett. These records – fourteen in all – cemented the Wolverines as one of the pre-eminent new bands in America, and gained them a dedicated following among jazz-crazy youngsters, with Beiderbecke’s imaginative cornet-playing attracting particular reverence. The Bertons would often accompany the band on their travels, with Vic Berton sometimes sitting in on the drums. Ralph Berton recalled:
“I don’t know how happy that made Vic Moore or even the rest of the band, who may well have sympathized with Moore […] on several occasions I heard him sigh as he came back to take his place on the stool once more, after a set or two of Vic Berton’s fireworks: “O.K, party’s over, old Stinky is back”, or some such jocular remark. I think Dick Voynow after a week or so began to worry about Moore’s morale.”

The new series of Gennett records released by the band were a distinct improvement on the first set, underlining their continued development and range both individually and as a collective. Gennett’s technology and expertise had also improved as the months passed, and on the Wolverines’ mid-1924 output Vic Moore’s powerful drumming is much more clearly audible. He romps through a rip-roaring rendition of ‘Copenhagen’ and shows off a  Chinese cymbal and a range of interesting trap sounds in the breaks section of ‘Sensation Rag’, amongst other successes. However, a real landmark came in with two takes of ‘Susie’, both of which were eventually released, and both of which feature Vic Moore taking a half-chorus solo (his first on record) played on cymbal.

Like much recorded jazz in the 20s, the Wolverines’ sides were intended for dancing as much as they were for listening, and it seems Vic sensibly decided to keep the beat and play it safe and strong during his brief moment in the spotlight, rather than attempting anything too ambitious. However, there is one interesting point to be observed – namely, that even at this relatively early date he is using a multi-cymbal setup in the studio. Compare the washy sweep of sound produced by the Chinese cymbal at [1:18] just before his solo begins to the dull ring of the Turkish-style cymbal he uses for the solo itself. The solo is perhaps functional rather than spectacular compared with what Kaiser Marshall and Stan King were doing on the East Coast around the same time, but the steady, swinging time Moore plays discredits one of Ralph Berton’s criticisms that “Moore and Bobby Gillette […] had a habit of rushing the beat, especially on their breaks” .

The next session by the band, on 20th June, featured Vic Berton on drums in place of Moore and yielded three successful numbers. Moore was back, however, on their next recording session on 18th September, by which point the Wolverines had made their way to New York City (a journey described in vibrant colour by Ralph Berton) to begin a residency at the Cinderella Ballroom on Broadway. The Cinderella was popular at the time as it maintained a reputation for hot dance music (jazz, in other words) at a time when many other big New York dancehalls were leaning towards more polite, ‘sweeter’ bands. A photo of the Wolverines at the Cinderella in the autumn of 1924 shows Moore behind a different drum kit, now featuring two cymbals and a lakeside landscape on his bass drum head, possibly painted for the residency they had held all that summer at Miller Beach on Lake Michigan. Whilst in New York the Wolverines were at last able to hear, meet and play alongside the best musicians on the East Coast. They were particularly impressed with some of the jazz soloists they heard in Ray Miller’s dance band, and in October Bix Beiderbecke organised a session at Gennett’s New York studio comprising himself, Vic Moore and bassist Min Leibrook from the Wolverines, and Miller band men Frank Trumbauer (saxophone) Rube Bloom (piano) and Miff Mole (trombone) as ‘The Sioux City Six’.

Recording with Trumbauer, Mole and Bloom, whom the Wolverines all hugely admired, must have been an exciting day for Vic Moore – and with so many ideas flying around between the three frontline players, the rhythm section wisely keeps out of the way, providing solid and swinging support. But we can still hear and enjoy Moore’s crashes on a dark-toned, heavy cymbal at key points in the arrangement and some subtle ‘hot-socking’ behind the soloists. The Wolverines’ final recording sessions came in New York in late 1924, in the wake of the departure of Beiderbecke, the band’s star, for an abortive job in Jean Goldkette’s Detroit-based dance orchestra. He was replaced by seventeen-year-old Chicagoan Jimmy McPartland.

Early in 1925, the Cinderella Ballroom residency ended and the Wolverines left town. In the mid-20s the band’s name was bought by impresario Husk O’Hare; various bands subsequently appeared on record billed as ‘The Wolverines’ although none featured Vic Moore. We next hear of him for certain in 1927 Chicago, playing on a series of records made by a band calling itself ‘The Original Wolverine Orchestra’. Despite the name, it was actually a completely new lineup formed by pianist Dick Voynow, who after the breakup of the band had taken a job at Brunswick Records as a session booker. Whilst only he, Moore and McPartland had been in the ‘real’ Wolverines, that’s not to say these Original Wolverines sides are in any way inferior. They may miss Beiderbecke’s transcendental genius, but McPartland does a fine job in his place and the up-to-the-minute electric recording captures a whole other side to Moore’s playing, neatly evincing the developments in jazz (and percussion instruments) since we heard from him last.

Dick Sudhalter in his masterful book ‘Lost Chords’ beautifully highlights “the little signatures […] including the exclamatory ‘flare’ […] and the ‘explosion’ […] shortly to be identified with the white Chicago style” that are present in the Original Wolverines sides. Moore and bassist Basil DuPre are able to establish a distinctively Chicagoan ‘shuffle’ rhythm and drive the band along with an incredible sense of drive and purpose which in its slow-burn intensity and four-beat feel almost prefigures the advent of Swing. For the most part, Vic plays time on his ‘squash cymbal’ – this, after all, was the peak of the hand-cymbal craze and every drummer from Kaiser Marshall to Zutty Singleton was getting himself a set. Vic’s set are deeper-toned and less piercing in sound than some others, and to my ears he uses them more musically than some of his contemporaries. Moore’s last session with the Original Wolverines came on May 24th, 1928.

Soon afterwards he was back in New York again, hired by the enterprising bandleader George Carhart. It’s unclear whether he ever performed with Carhart’s New Yorkers in America, but research by Horst Bergmeier has indicated that he was part of an outfit which sailed from New York for Europe in July 1928 to begin a residency somewhere in France. However, upon arrival the New Yorkers discovered that something had evidently gone awry with the booking, and the promised job that they had travelled so far to fulfil had fallen through. Unemployed, they ended up at a loose end in Paris. The story goes that on their first night in the French capital Moore mistakenly under-tipped a taxi driver, leading to an escalating confrontation which ended in a brawl. Vic, perhaps pushed down a flight of steps, had his shoulder broken. Carhart’s New Yorkers – a hot commodity in 1920s France – managed to rescue the disastrous trip by securing a residency for themselves at the casino in Aix-les-Bains, but poor Moore, incapacitated, was replaced by Don Blaney and sent back to America with immediate effect. At just 26, his promising musical career was over, in a manner slightly similar (though admittedly less tragic) to that of Beiderbecke, his old pal from the Wolverines, who was soon to die at the age of 28. Having travelled back to his parents’ home in Florida to recover from his injury, Moore seems to have drifted into helping with his father’s real-estate business. He married, served in World War Two from 1942 to 1945, and eventually died, presumably in comfortable obscurity, in 1976.

A considerable supporting character in Ralph Berton’s memoir ‘Remembering Bix’, he is usually referred to as ‘Moore-Moore’ by the author due to his seemingly-inexhaustible appetites. Rather than a tortured genius obsessed by his art (a role inevitably reserved for Beiderbecke), the Vic Moore portrayed by Berton was a happy-go-lucky youth enjoying the benefits his talent and fame brought him: “Moore-Moore was an easygoing, good-natured guy like most of the others, taking life as it came”.
The breaks in playing occasioned by Ralph’s brother sitting in on drums also allowed Vic ample opportunities to socialise with his public:
“Moore-Moore, released from duty, would take off after some pretty admirer – he was nearly as ‘bad’ as my brother that way, though in an engaging, boyish style […] Bobby Gillette and Moore-Moore liked, and seemed to attract, the same type of wild, ‘fast’, extreme flapper, and often double-dated at night after the job, gallivanting around the Indiana countryside in one of the band’s noisy automobiles till dawn.” – Ralph Berton.

Moore’s career may have ended prematurely, but for a brief period he was certainly amongst the most well-known jazz drummers in the world. His supportive playing created the rhythmic environment for one of jazz’s greatest early geniuses, Bix, to build his first solos, and we can only guess at what Moore might have gone on to achieve had fate not intervened. One more interesting postscript regarding his legacy to jazz drumming: recent research has turned up a citation by the great Gene Krupa, dedicating his hit tune ‘Drum Boogie’ (1941) to Vic Moore, “who was my idol when I first started my career in Chicago”. Perhaps we can place Vic securely in a corner of the jazz pantheon, not only as the larger-than-life ‘Moore-Moore’, but also as the man whose playing inspired both Bix Beiderbecke and Gene Krupa.

Revised 15/10/18 after some invaluable research assistance by Brian Goggin, to whom my profoundest thanks. NDB