Tom “Bones” Malone Remembers Bill Watrous

The trombonist shares memories of his former Ten Wheel Drive bandmate (6/8/39 – 7/2/18)

Bill Watrous
Bill Watrous at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, CA July 23, 1989 (photo: © Brian McMillen [www.brianmcmillenphotography.com])

I met Bill Watrous shortly after moving to New York in January 1970. He was the hot young studio trombone player. We played together in a band called Eclipse. Watrous and I hit it off right away. I was amazed at his sound and smooth style. We were both disciples of Urbie Green. I used to go over to his apartment at 260 West 72nd Street and hang out. We would practice together and even play along with Urbie Green recordings. His wife Colleen and his daughters, Melody and Cheryl, seemed to be entertained by us.

One day Bill gave some sage advice about New York studio gigs. “Tommy,” he told me, “if you want to be successful in the studio scene, play third trombone and keep your mouth shut.” I can’t say Bill did either one, but he was amazingly successful.

Several of us moved on to play with Ten Wheel Drive, a NYC R&B band with three trumpets, trombone, and baritone saxophone. I was playing trombone in the band. Bill really wanted to play with us, so I switched to trumpet and let him play trombone. After Ten Wheel Drive, Bill formed his own big band, Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, including Dick Hyman and Steve Gadd, among others. We played club gigs up in Westchester County. When the band did its recording session, I was out of town and missed playing on the record. Wayne Andre played lead trombone.

Bill would book recording sessions back to back and send me in to cover for him at the beginning of sessions until he showed up. His nickname for me was “supersub.” He also sent me in to sub with the Lew Anderson Big Band. Lew, best known as “Clarabell the Clown” on the Howdy Doody show, had written some pretty difficult parts for Bill. Big shoes to fill.

He played the Bach 16MLT with a 7.5-inch New York bell. I play exactly the same horn down to the smallest detail. He showed me how to play solos close up on the mic so as not to overblow. That was one of the reasons he played with such a smooth sound.

In 1972 I moved to Los Angeles to play with Frank Zappa, then I moved back to NYC to play trumpet with Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1973. We were on the road most of the time. In 1974 I was a full-time freelance musician in New York. Bill used to send me to sub for him at the Roosevelt Hotel for his Sunday gig with Bobby Rosengarden, the bandleader on The Dick Cavett Show. Sadly, Bill moved to Los Angeles in 1975. We stayed in touch by telephone, but I only saw him a few times after that. He was the reason I started getting studio work in NYC, and that’s something I will never forget.