Sunday, September 11, 2011

Uncle Justin

Justin Gordon 1917 - 1998
an appreciation

Thanks to my new Facebook friend Carol Kaye, who encouraged me to write a piece about my late uncle, saxophonist Justin Gordon:

I didn't know my relatives on my father's side very well.  They lived in either Cleveland or California, while we were in New York.  My father at some point had abandoned his idea of becoming a rabbi, went to social work school, and horror of horrors, married a Protestant girl who would not convert!  That put a distinct chill on his relationship with his family for many years.

I recall meeting my Grandma Sylvia exactly once.  Grandpa Jack had died before I was born, although my 8 year old self struggled mightily with his full-sized violin for several years before abandoning it for the guitar.  Then there was Uncle Justin, to whom my father was always being compared unfavorably.

When I was growing up and wanted to become a musician, Uncle Justin was probably the main reason my parents didn't instantly try to get me to abandon music and turn to something actually lucrative.  Uncle Justin was the family success story.  He lived in LA and collected antique cars.  He dutifully sent money to Grandma Sylvia.  And he was a musician!

When I was younger, Uncle Justin didn't have much use for me.  I later learned that, as a child of the big band era, he had little use for most music made after about 1960, even though he played a lot of it.  He knew that my reading was poor, and that I liked the Beatles. That did it.  The gulf was too wide.

But as I started to tour and get around to his part of the country, I would visit him, which he seemed to like.  He came to see me perform once backing up Suzanne Vega, and thought I was good - or at least said so.  So a visit to Uncle Justin became a regular feature of my trips to LA.  And bit by bit, I learned some of the details of his career:

Justin played many of the reeds, but his specialties were alto sax, clarinet and flute.  He got his start as a teenager playing in movie theaters and restaurants around Cleveland in the early 1930's, but with the decline of movie theater orchestras, he moved to New York in 1939, where he played in big bands and radio orchestras.  A thrill for me was talking to society bandleader Lester Lanin who enthusiastically told me "I remember Justin Gordon!  He played his buns off!"

He served in the military in WWII, and in 1946 moved to California.  In 1949 he signed a contract with Paramount and started to work onscreen in the movies and in the studio.  One of his earliest gigs was in the onscreen orchestra of Bing Crosby's less well known brother Bob.

In approx. 1956 he began recording with bandleader Billy Vaughn, known for his "Twin Saxes" sound.  The twin saxes in question were usually Justin playing lead alto and overdubbing a second part in thirds. According to posts on, Justin boasted that he could "overdub an album in an hour".  Record dates from this period include Gale Storm, Laurindo Almeida, Pat Boone, Benny Carter, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, Barney Kessel, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Ella Mae Morse, and Louis Prima.

In 1959, he released an LP of standards called "Justin Gordon Swings" on the Dot label, but although it enjoyed some popularity in Germany, there was not enough of a buzz to take him away from his studio career.

On each visit to Uncle Justin, I would learn new tidbits about gigs he had done, often accompanied by tart comments about the artists.  I found out he had played on orchestra dates for Frank Sinatra, whom he liked, and Barbra Streisand, whom he did not.

I learned that he was in the on-camera orchestra in most of the Elvis Presley movies.  His comment about the King?  "I never liked Elvis's music.  But he always made sure there was good catering for the band."

Perhaps his most heard work was in a 1974 Francis Ford Coppola/Gene Hackman movie called "The Conversation" in which the Gene Hackman character was an amateur saxophonist.  There were several scenes of Gene Hackman moodily playing the alto sax in his room.  According to Justin, Gene Hackman thought he could "just pick up the sax and do his own playing".  When playing the sax proved to be a lot more daunting than expected, Justin was called in.  All the sax heard in the final movie was dubbed in by my uncle.

As time went by, Justin found the music he was called upon to play less and less to his taste, but as a consummate professional, he continued to do it on a first call level.  He made a lot of money playing the flute.  There was one period in the 60's where all the contractors were calling for electric flute.  So Justin got himself an electric flute, an amplifier and an effects box that made all sorts of crazy sounds.  He enjoyed a rep as one of the premier electric flutists in LA all the while thinking that the electric flute was the height of silliness.

In the 1970's he recorded a number of well known TV themes, including Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore.  He continued to be somewhat active until his retirement in 1985.

He died of lung cancer in 1998, and is survived by his wife Fern, his son David and stepson Paul.

I am always moved when I consider how much of my uncle's story plays out against the backdrop of technological changes that drastically altered the prospects of professional musicians. His career began in the waning of the silent film era with the great die-out of movie theater orchestras and extended into the early days of synths, drum machines and digital recording.  He went where the work was and was quick to adapt and prosper.  I will always be grateful that uncle Justin was the man who made it okay for me to pursue a career in music.

Jon Gordon
September 2011


  1. I guess I am one of the few people who knew who Justin Gordon was. In high school I was a Billy Vaughn fan and often wondered who was playing the saxes. I never dreamed it was one man. I found out shortly after he retired when another studio musician told me the story. The guy made millions for Vaughn, and yet no one knew who he was. He was probably the best alto saxophonist I have ever heard. No one could imitate his style, though many have tried through re-recording Billy Vaughn's hits. You can tell the difference immediately.

    1. Hi Ronnie:
      Thanks for the kind words! There seem to be a few people who remember my uncle. Carol Kaye speaks highly of him. Years ago I met Sammy Davis Jr's orchestra when they were staying at the hotel I was playing at. They all knew him.
      My younger daughter, who is named after Justin, is showing an aptitude for clarinet. Maybe there will be another reed-playing Gordon of note!
      Jon Gordon

  2. If my memory serves, he made a recording with a studio band nominally led by Glen Gray. I recall an unbelievably gorgeous alto solo on a 60s tune called "More." See if you can find it

  3. Maybe tenor?? Long time ago.

  4. Hi Jon Gordon. Very interesting ditails about Justin. I thought in many years it was Bill V. but I was not convinced. I have the most of Billy V. records and the saxsound is perfect. His playing is like an invention. Myself I play wind and brass. Do you know what mouthpiece he used? The tone quality he produce depend on himself and when he find the right mouthpiece it work perfect.
    Best regards Yngve Persson Sweden

  5. He is very much a part of our history. Thanks for posting. John Laughter;