Come the month of March, all New England is yearning for the warmer southern winds. For several years, however, our balmy breeze was a musical one. Metronome magazine, in March 1950, referred to the Soft Winds as the group with the “zephyrous cognomen,” which probably prompted more than one reader to consult the dictionary. But “zephyrous” was an apt word, because the group’s quiet swing was mild and breezy. From June 1949 to December 1951, that zephyr soothed Boston. Later, as a duo, the Soft Winds refreshed Boston again, in 1953 and 1955.
Guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist John Frigo, and pianist Lou Carter formed the postwar rhythm section in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. When Dorsey furloughed the band in 1947, they set out on their own as the John Carlis Trio. They modeled themselves after Nat Cole’s group. As the Soft Winds, they arrived in Boston in June 1949. By then Frigo had written his most famous song, “Detour Ahead.”
The Soft Winds were the perfect group for the Darbury Room, an upscale club downstairs at 271 Dartmouth Street, just off Newbury Street. They had that quiet, just-right swing: “We had that Shearing sound before Shearing did!” said Frigo.
For six months in 1949-50, the Soft Winds shared the stage with a series of revues honoring the great composers of the American songbook. The vocalists were led by longtime Boston pop singer Guy Guarino and included Alice O’Leary and Bill Conlan, but the standout was a Broadway-bound singer at the beginning of her career, Barbara Cook.
Many singers dropped by the Darbury Room and many musicians sat in, and the one I am most curious about is zither player (zitherist?) Anton Karas, famous in 1950 for his playing in filmdom’s The Third Man. That might have made for a few fascinating November nights.
In January 1952, the Soft Winds went to New York, but Frigo soon departed for his native Chicago and was replaced by Bonnie Wetzel. She had been Tommy Dorsey’s bassist when her husband, trumpeter Ray Wetzel, was also on that band. (Ray Wetzel died in an auto accident in August 1951.) In late 1952, Herb Ellis left the group to join the Oscar Peterson Trio. Wetzel and Lou Carter carried on as a duo, and in January 1953 they were back at the Darbury Room until late spring. Wetzel and Carter had one more go at it, starting in March 1955, when they again worked as the Soft Winds at the Darbury Room. As best I can tell, the name “Soft Winds” was retired after that.
Lou Carter was back in Boston in 1958-59, as intermission pianist and member of the house trio at Storyville. He reunited with Herb Ellis there when Ellis came to town with Ella Fitzgerald in January 1959. His time at Storyville was sandwiched around his role as Louie the cabdriver on Perry Como’s NBC television program.
Ellis joined the front ranks of jazz guitarists and remained there throughout his long career. Both Carter and Frigo went heavily into studio work, although Frigo kept a high profile in jazz as well, switching from bass to violin, and becoming a revered father figure in Chicago. All three passed between 2005 and 2010. Wetzel worked with Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge before her death from cancer in 1965 at age 39.
The Darbury Room presented other duos and trios who played quiet swing before it closed in the 1960s. Among them was the duo of pianist Maggie Scott and bassist Eddie Stone, who played there for three years. Scott remembers it as one of her favorite gigs.
The Soft Winds were only modestly successful commercially, and their 78s have never been reissued. Nor can I find any of them on YouTube. However, in 1995, Frigo organized a reunion, and the CD The Soft Winds: Then and Now resulted from it, combining music from their 1995 concerts with radio transcriptions from 1949.
Here is Herb Ellis, years after his Soft Winds adventures, with “Detour Ahead.”