Russell Garcia in Kerikeri, New Zealand

Russell Garcia is a living legend in the world of music. In this recent Voices from the North interview, Russ  gives further insight into his early life. At a very early age (maybe 5) he would sit by the radio on a Sunday morning (these were pre-television days) enthralled by the symphonic offerings of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His brother initially bought him a beat up trumpet which Russ taught himself to play. Pushed quickly through school, he set up a band in junior high, taught himself to read music and made arrangements for the band. As Russ mentioned in an earlier interview, his arrangement of Stardust at age eleven was performed by the Oakland Philharmonic.

He was fortunate to receive excellent training in counterpoint, harmony and arrangement from two high school music teachers. By age 15, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Russ was playing trumpet in a ballroom and earning a higher weekly salary than his father. A year at San Francisco State University was enough to demonstrate to Russ that he already had more than enough theory and skill to move on and fully enter a life as a professional musician. He went on the road with big bands led by the likes of Harry James, Bob Crosby and Stan Kenton. Russ admitted his skill as a musician wasn’t what got him a place with the bands—he usually only played third or forth trumpet. It was his deft talent at composition and arrangement that landed him the work. He was writing an arrangement a week and receiving the pleasure of hearing it being performed by the band.

Life on the road was a significant challenge; so he soon found himself determined to make it in Hollywood, and he did! Through a connection with Ronald Reagan (then married to Jane Wyman,) he got his first big break as staff composer/arranger at NBC studio.

Russ’s life has been one involving a combination of fortuitous circumstances and hard work. But because he’s always done what he loves, the work is almost effortless. He feels his skills as an arranger have been enhanced by personally taking lessons in each of the instruments he writes arrangements for. He took lessons on violin and cello for roughly three months each and longer on French horn, to name just a few of the instruments he works with. He had a personal office at Universal Studios for over two decades, getting an opportunity there initially with the aid of Henry Mancini. 

Russ Garcia with Charlie Chaplain on ‘Limelight’

 Having worked with virtually all the big names of his era (Oscar Peterson and Louis Armstrong spring to mind), soon-to-turn-95-years-young Russ Garcia is to headline a concert starting in Kerikeri on April 9th. New York singers Shaynee Rainbolt and Terese Geneco and New Zealand stalwart Tim Beverige will belt out a mix of Russ Garcia originals and great standards arranged by Russ for them and the ten piece backing band of top New Zealand musicians. The show will also run in Tauranga, Auckland and Wellington. Here’s an opportunity to hear Russ share stories from his life with the legends of music and film.

My complete interview with Russell Garcia can be heard below. Included is a Garcia original, The Human Race is One that Russ put together for his Chinese friends using their pentatonic scale. It was later translated into Chinese. You’ll hear his lovely wife Gina singing on the track. This is just one of the songs from a two CD collection the Garcia’s have created as part of the Virtues programme they’ve freely offered in New Zealand schools for close to forty years. They still share their raps, songs, humour and inspiration regularly at schools in Russell and Te Ti, drawing inspiration from the teaching of their Bahá’í faith.  

Russ and Gina Garcia have been married close to sixty years. They continue to renew their wedding vows each year and share with each other the words they chose for their wedding in a Hollywood chapel all those years ago, including two poems from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet on Love and Marriage. I trust you enjoy the great rendition Richard Harris gives to these poems included in the interview.

Russ’s books, The Professional Arranger and Composer, Books 1 and 2, originally published in 1954, continue to be used in high schools and universities to this day.

For a related article on a misplaced Oscar click here.


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Radio host, inspirational speaker and health educator John Haines is the author of In Search of Simplicity: A True Story that Changes Lives and the recently released Beyond the Search, books to inspire the spirit and touch the heart.

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