By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Ollie Mitchell, trumpeter, bandleader and a legendary studio musician, died May 11 at his Puako home. He was 86.
Founder and leader of the Olliephonic Horns, the Big Island’s “little big band,” Mitchell had suffered from cancer the past few years. As of late, he had stopped playing the trumpet due to macular degeneration and hand problems from an auto accident, said Mitchell’s wife, Nancy.
“He couldn’t really see the notes on the page that well and he had a difficult time pushing the valves on the trumpet, but he still led the band,” Nancy Mitchell said Saturday. She described her husband as “charismatic and handsome” and “just a really nice man with the most positive outlook on life.”
Oliver Edward Mitchell was born April 8, 1927, in Los Angeles. His father was Harold “Pappy” Mitchell, lead trumpeter for MGM Studios, who taught his son the trumpet. The younger Mitchell played in the big bands of Harry James, Buddy Rich and Perez Prado, among others, as well as the NBC Orchestra. He became “first call” trumpeter for many L.A. recording studios, and was part of The Wrecking Crew, a fabled group of 1960s Los Angeles studio musicians whose work can still be heard on golden oldies by The Beach Boys, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters, The 5th Dimenson, Simon & Garfunkel, Nat King Cole, Nancy Sinatra and others.
“You look at their history and who they played with, there was a predictability when you hired them,” said Gary Washburn, Olliephonics keyboardist and teacher-director of the renowned Honokaa High School Jazz Band. “You knew it was going to be done right and done very quickly, in a short amount of time. That was back when they charged by the hour in studios, so you’d might as well get the best.”
Mitchell was also an original member of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.
“When Herb Alpert took the band on the road he didn’t want to be hooked to that, because he was doing other stuff, too,” Nancy Mitchell said.
Although he made his living in the studio, Mitchell’s passion was live music. He had his own L.A.-based big band, Ollie Mitchell’s Sunday Band. After retiring, Mitchell moved to Honolulu in the 1970s and played with Harvey Ragsdale, who introduced Ollie and Nancy. On their first date, Mitchell took her to see jazz singer Jimmy Borges, who Nancy knew from working on the original “Hawaii 5-0” series.
“Jimmy came over and said, ‘Nancy, what are you doing here?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Just came here to see you, and this is my date, Ollie Richards.’ Ollie said, ‘No, Ollie Mitchell.’ And Jimmy said, ‘Ollie Mitchell! Oh, man!’ I looked at him with wonder.”
The Mitchells later moved to the Big Island, and he founded the Olliephonics in 1995. Band members include fellow Wrecking Crew veteran, trombonist Richard “Slyde” Hyde. The band is a nonprofit organization dedicated to perpetuating big band music and to music education for youth, especially wind instruments.
“He was all about the music,” Washburn said. “He gave us instruments. He gave us music. He gave us lights. He was just the best. He was a great musician and a really, really nice guy, a lot of fun to play with. He was real loose when it came to the formality of playing music, but he was a taskmaster in terms of playing music correctly. He’ll be missed.”
The Olliephonics play tonight at 7 p.m. at the Blue Dragon in Kawaihae. There’s a $10 cover charge. Washburn has a solo set at 6 p.m.
Private services are planned. In addition to wife Nancy, Mitchell is survived by son, Steve (Tere) Mitchell of Santa Ynez, Calif.; daughter, Marla (Chase) Leavitt of Santa Ynez, Calif.; stepson John Hackleman of Arroyo Grande, Calif.; stepdaughter Susan Hackleman of Grover Beach, Calif.; 12 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren. Memorial donations can be made to Olliephonic Horns and mailed to P.O. Box 44493, Kamuela, HI 96743.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.