The young man in this 1939 cover by artist Douglass Crockwell doesn’t look happy. And with good reason. It’s hard to impress a girl when she’s taking a call from another guy.
Seventeen-year-old Fred Randall had run into a classmate he hadn’t seen in over a year. He and Naomi were having a great time catching up, when an artist entered the store and offered to buy them a sundae if they would pose for a photograph. Randall wasn’t sure what would become of the photo, but he knew the guy with a camera was interrupting a pleasant reunion. All he could remember was that the man’s name was Douglass. Lo and behold, Fred found himself on the cover ofThe Saturday Evening Post, much to the teenager’s delight. The painting on the cover was simply signed “Douglass.” There’s a reason for that. Artist Douglass Crockwell took to signing his work with just his first name in order to avoid confusion with another artist of the period. You can probably guess which one.
Fred started taking drum lessons as a boy of 9 and plays to this day. Music lessons were a luxury in those days. His father passed away when he was 7. “His mother took in laundry, washing everything by hand because the family had no electricity,” wrote reporter Kathy Ricketts at the The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, New York. Fellow Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin noted in an earlier article that Fred “worked as a paper boy, delivering the Glens Falls Post-Star for three cents a copy. Randall and other news boys earned a penny per paper; if he sold 100 papers, he had the $1 tuition for another lesson.”
Music remains his passion, and he has played for some of the greats: Rudy Vallee, Sophie Tucker, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Kate Smith. And what about Kate Smith’s signature song? “Probably around ’37, ‘38 in the Hotel St. Moritz at Lake Placid,” Randall told reporter Ricketts, “Kate Smith came in, and came over to the band, and she said, ‘I’ve got a new song I’d like to try; would you play it?’ It was ‘God Bless America.’ What a thrill.” Actually, Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1918 and revised it in 1938. It was this version made famous by the great Kate Smith. Randall told us she had the band run through the song the first time and asked if they’d do it again so she could sing it. “Everybody in the band was on their feet, cheering,” recalls the lucky drummer.
Randall was an “older” draftee, being inducted in 1944 at the age of 27. “He was a sergeant with the Army’s First Division and saw many major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge,” Ricketts noted in her 2008 article. When we asked about his war experiences, he said he didn’t like to discuss them, then shared a disconcerting story about calming down a soldier who had just seen the body of his twin. “He didn’t even know his brother was over there,” Randall said.
His drumming didn’t get by the Army. Once “after I came back from a 20-mile hike, the captain said he wanted to see me. I always had drum sticks in the bottom of my foot locker, and he was standing there holding them,” Randall explained to the Gazette. The captain asked what they were.
“Well, they’re not knitting needles, sir,” Randall replied. The captain took him down to the Officer’s club where a band was rehearsing. They had no drummer. “He told me to get up in back of those drums, and I played swing music two nights a week with the band.”
Between the Army and National Guard, Fred Randall did over thirty years of proud service. The photo at left shows Fred Randall addressing a group of dignitaries and attendees at the 16th annual Flag Day Ceremony—an event started and maintained by Fred himself. (“I am an ardent volunteer.”) The event is held by Annie Schaeffer Senior Center. (Fred “also did extensive video taping and documenting of the construction of the facility when it was constructed approximately 20 years ago,” his friend Peter J. Guidarelli told us.)
The Senior Center is where Fred still plays with a 15-piece dance band, which plays Glenn Miller and other big band music. “The clientele is mostly, shall I say, elderly.” He is still a proud member of “Musician’s Union Local 85. I joined in 1932 when I was 16.” He can’t help noting that dues were once $3 per year.
He just turned 96 on New Year’s Day and says his doctor told him, “Fred, I don’t know how you do it. I sure can’t find anything wrong.” Maybe it’s those visits to the gym. “I work out like everyone else there,” Fred says.
So it probably makes sense that Fred has big plans. “I want to have a big gig when I turn 100. I’ll invite all the local TV stations. There’ll be saxophones, clarinets, a piano, and four or five guys lined up to take my seat at the drums!” We can’t wait.
“Call me back any time,” says our friendly cover boy. “I’ll be happy to tell you more. If you can catch me.”