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LA La Land: The Life of Bobby Bruce

A farewell for one of America’s greatest fiddlers: Bobby Bruce.

Although you may not know the name Bobby Bruce, you have likely heard his music.  If you are of a certain age you saw him weekly on the Lawrence Welk show, or you swung to his fiddling with bands like Spade Cooley or Asleep at the Wheel. Or you might have seen him perform live with Johnny Cash, Ry Cooder, Charlie Daniels, or Willie Nelson.

If you saw the movies The Sting or Jerimiah Johnson, that was his fiddle you heard. Or perhaps you saw Roots, for which Bobby won an Oscar for his work with Henry Mancini. Or maybe you heard him play on the Barbara Mandrell Show, Green Acres, Columbo, or Little House on the Prairie.

This list goes on, but it ended Feb. 28 when Bobby passed from this world, or moved on to the next band as the case may be.  My wife and I knew Bobby’s family well and hosted him for dinner at our house. We attended the memorial service for Bobby at LA’s Descanso Gardens, a 150-acre wonderland of landscaping, streams and twinkling lights in the dry San Gabriel Mountain foothills.  The family opted for a small service, mostly relatives, and musicians who had played with Bobby over the years.

And there were many years. Born in Chicago in 1925, Bobby started violin lessons at the age of 6 and by the age of 9 he and his his mother and older sister Eileen would do acrobatics, tap dance, sing and play music on stage in a Vaudeville act called the Personality Kids.  He went on to develop his remarkable music skills at the Chicago Musical College, studying classical violin with one of the finest teachers in the world, Leon Sammantini. But it was the jazz clubs he snuck into on his way home from school that changed his life. Listening and sometimes playing and improvising in the clubs seeded  the versatility that marked his career for the rest of his life.

When World War II started Bobby joined the Marines and took his fiddle with him, even as he saw some of the Pacific theater’s worst fighting in Guam, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. But the Marines saw his talent and soon he was arranging music and directing 125 men in music ensembles in the islands, keeping morale up in a very tough war.

His education and experience honed him into a extraordinarily versatile violinist and fiddle player.  Jazz, country, classical, popular music, studio, live, television, film; he could do it all. And he started doing it all when he moved to Los Angeles in the 1950’s. He played on CBS radio with top country bands like Tex Williams and Jimmy Wakely. He did solos and live television with Lawrence Welk. He found himself onstage with Dolly Parton and Ike and Tina Turner, among many, many others. And he became the go-to fiddler/violinist for LA’s many recording studios.

As the years rolled by, Bobby became one of the most prolific studio recording violinists in the industry, as well as an equally prolific musician and arranger for film and television and a mentor to upcoming artists.  In 2014, he was inducted into the National Fiddlers Hall of Fame in recognition of his countless contributions to music and the music world. But he was never too busy to bring his violin to dinner at a friend’s or family’s home and play a few tunes.

Memorial services for musicians are sweet and sour. Many of Bobby’s musician friends were there telling stories about his penchant for practical jokes and how he put many of them over on them.  And of course, they brought their instruments and remembered Bobby with notes as well as words. But between the laughter and tunes of course there were the tears. There won’t be any more practical jokes, all night recording sessions or family dinners followed by a few licks on the fiddle.

After the service, when the last cookies were eaten, the tea and coffee gone, and the instruments packed back into their cases, many took a walk around the grounds, inspired by the lushness of the oasis in the dry SoCal hills, the burble of its streams and brooks, and the musical notes – not Bobby’s – floating from hidden speakers.  Life goes on and so does music, but it won’t be quiet the same without Bobby.

Patrick O’Heffernan

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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