Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole. The names roll off his tongue with ease. Local musician Bruce Davis has worked with them all. And at 90, he’s still performing every week with his band, Variety Pak.
From his home in Spokane Valley, Davis reflected on a lifetime of making music. His trombone sits on a stand near his chair, and a mandolin and guitar hang over the fireplace. At 5 he discovered an E-flat alto horn in the hall closet. “It belonged to my dad,” Davis recalled. “But I never heard him play it. By the time Dad came home that night, I was able to play a tune.”
He was also hopelessly hooked on horns.
In 1926, Davis joined the Grade School Symphony, an all-city orchestra. He’d hoped to play the French horn, but the director assigned him to the sousaphone. “It was bigger than I was,” Davis said, chuckling. “They put it on a stand and I’d poke my head through it.”
He also picked up the trumpet and trombone with ease. “I discovered once I heard a tune, I could play it.”
While attending Lewis and Clark High School, he played in band and orchestra, and began earning money, playing at Friday night dances. “I was the school nerd,” said Davis. “Whenever kids saw me in the halls, I’d be carrying my horn – that’s how I’m remembered.”
After graduating in 1939, Davis studied pre-law at Washington State University. He’d only attended one semester when his dad intervened. He visited his son at the university and said, “You don’t want to do this. I’ve been in the legal profession for years and have hated it all. I think you should do something else.”
And Davis thought of that horn, tucked away in the hall closet. The one he’d never heard his father play. He listened to his dad, left WSU, and applied to the Navy School of Music. Davis said, “Later, Dad told me many times, he wished he’d done what I had.”
When World War II broke out, Davis was performing with the U.S. Naval Band. “I decided I should be off fighting for my country, instead of playing in a band.”
He was accepted into the V-12 Navy College Training Program – a program designed to supplement the force of commissioned officers during WWII. “They sent me to the University of Washington,” Davis said. “I graduated as an officer and got out as soon as I could, because the war was over by then.”
He returned to Spokane and to music. The big-band era was in full-swing. Davis found no shortage of venues and worked steadily at his craft. He enjoyed performing at the Greek-American Club – an especially hip spot. One night in 1948, Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden (a jazz trombonist and bandleader) stopped in to grab some steaks and watch the show.
“Halfway through the first set, Jack came up and said, ‘If I go get my horn at the Davenport, can I sit in with you?’ ” Davis smiled. “He never did finish his steak.”
Crosby invited Davis to his Hayden Lake home and asked him if he had any interest in coming out to Hollywood. “I asked if he thought I could make it there,” Davis recalled. “He said, ‘From what I’ve heard, I think you can. You don’t just play, but you sing a good song, kid.’ ”
Crosby was right. For decades, Davis and his band, The Bruce Davis Quintet, wowed crowds at clubs like The Coconut Grove, The Palladium, and the Stardust Supper Club.
He met his wife, Patti, at the Stardust in Long Beach, and they married in 1951. Patti had a son and a daughter whom Davis raised with her.
But his career wasn’t just about performing. Davis served as musical director for George Burns, Johnny Carson, Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day, among many others.
He also appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen, “The Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle, and a host of television music specials.
In addition to his gigs with his band, Davis worked as the entertainment director for the Hacienda Hotel chain, and formed Star-Ads, where he wrote, produced and recorded musical commercials.
In fact, Davis worked night and day for so many years that his doctor finally told him if he didn’t retire, he’d be dead within a year. “I became diabetic and ended up in the hospital three times,” Davis said. “I went from 215 down to 155.”
He knew he’d never be able to retire if he stayed in California, so in 1981, he returned to the Spokane area with his wife, daughter and granddaughter. “I worked awfully hard to get my health back,” he said.
His wife died 11 years ago, and it wasn’t long until Davis picked up his trombone and began to play and sing with Variety Pak. “We’ve become a pretty good commodity,” he said.
Though legally blind, Davis still maintains a busy performance schedule. A band member picks him up and they play at retirement communities, Spokane Indians baseball games, or Harvest House at Green Bluff.
Variety Pak has a standing gig on the first and third Fridays at the Sons of Norway in north Spokane. Mel Molsted, social director at the Sons of Norway, said, “When Bruce is onstage you’d swear somebody in their 50s is singing – he doesn’t miss a note. He’s such a gentleman – so gracious to folks who come up to meet him.”
Though his balance isn’t what it used to be and diabetes has weakened him, Davis has no intention of hanging up his horn. “I played my first professional gig on New Year’s Eve, 1936, and I haven’t missed a New Year’s Eve gig, since,” he said. “When I don’t have a New Year’s gig – then I’ll hang it up.”