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WBGO Archive: Pianist and singer Les McCann on 'Compared to What'

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On this episode of AOS, we go to the WBGO Archive for a conversation between Les McCann and host Michael Bourne.

On June 21, 1969, at the Montreux Jazz Festival . . . outdoors in Switzerland . .Les McCann was at the piano; Eddie Harris on tenor sax; Leroy Vinegar, bass; Donald Dean, drums. And the tape was rolling……

Decades later, McCann told the story of how they made the recording Swiss Movement to WBGO’s afternoon host, Michael Bourne.

MB: This record that you made w EH at the Montreux Jazz

Festival became this phenomenon

LM: Well, God works in mysterious ways. There’s no way to

explain that. It’s on that record, and to get it on a recording is

even more unbelievable.

MB: Because you were on a tour. You were playing gigs. You

played gigs at probably other festivals . . .

LM: No that was the first time we got together! MB: That was the first time you played? LM: That was even more amazing. Yes, definitely. [CUT WHERE THEY STEP ON EACH OTHER] And we didn’t have any rehearsals, just Eddie and I rehearsed. We knew what we were going to play, but the band got there a day late!

The band came without a trumpet player so McCann and Eddie Harris had to go looking.

LM: We didn’t have a trumpet player. We had to walk around town, listening to all the jam sessions, hoping we would find the guy to play, and we saw this guy and

“Oh that guy, he is unbelievable. What’s your name, sir?” He
said “Clark Terry.” I said “We’re getting ready to make a record for Atlantic Records.” And he said “No, I don’t want to do it.” I
said “OK. Thank you.” LAUGH He refused. That’s just the lite
version of the story.

MB: Oh the lite version of the story.

They found Benny Bailey, who had left the United States in 1948 and settled in Europe.

"Compared to What" was the opening track on Swiss Movement. The album reached #2 on the R&B chart and has endured as a gospel-driven protest anthem to this day. Michael Bourne talking with Les McCann lives in the WBGO Archive, thanks to the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and WBGO Archive Director Becca Pulliam.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.