Bob Haggart had no idea he was writing an '80s pop hit when, in 1939, he penned "I'm Free," a song about being newly married and free from chronic loneliness.
Haggart's song was recorded by Bob Crosby's big band, with Haggart on bass. A few months later, California songwriter Johnny Burke put lyrics to Haggart's tune, changed the name to "What's New," and handed it to Bing Crosby.
After Crosby recorded it, Haggart's piece, with its complex melodic and harmonic shifts, provided a challenge to musicians such as Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker. On tape, Haggart has compiled about 3 1/2 hours worth of versions of the song.
But he didn't strike gold until Linda Ronstadt recorded an album of American popular music in the mid-'80s with conductor/arranger Nelson Riddle. They included "What's New" and named the album after it. The project sold more than 2 million copies, and Haggart still receives quarterly royalty checks.
"I finally met her at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City when she went to accept a plaque from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers and Publishers) honoring the album. I went up and said, 'I've got to kiss you, ever since the record came out.' Well, she's very shy. . . ."
Nonetheless, kiss her he did, and Haggart, 75, hinted that the experience was memorable.
Ronstadt's version of his song may not be his favorite, but he says "I'm very happy about the whole thing. I'm smiling all the way to the bank."
Ronstadt's "What's New" has been Haggart's single largest financial success in a musical career about to enter its seventh decade.
He says it afforded him the large condominium he bought in La Costa three years ago, where the walls are lined with his still life and Mexican landscape paintings and where, on a recent afternoon, he talked about his life and music.
The bassist is recognized by musicians and jazz fans as a top player. He's performed at the White House for several presidents.
Music seemed to come naturally to the young Haggart. During his school years, he played guitar, tuba and trumpet before picking up a lonely bass in the band room during his junior year.
"We were wedded once I felt that bass, the way it vibrates on the low notes. It's the power in an orchestra. It controls the beat and harmony."
Artie Bernstein, a prominent '30s big band bassist, and Pop Foster, who played bass behind trumpeter Louis Armstrong, were the first bass players who made an impression on Haggart.
"I started getting jobs right away. My dad wanted me to go into the hosiery business like him. But I didn't want to be a salesman."
What he did want was to be a painter as well as a jazz musician. Immediately after high school, he studied painting for two years at the Art Students League in New York, a respected art school. Over the years, he has continued to paint, spending winters through the late '70s and early '80s at San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, where there is an artists' colony.
After art school, Haggart joined a jazz band that played Nassau in the winter, East Coast resorts in summer and a New Jersey roadhouse in between.
In 1935, drummer Ben Pollack's band had abandoned him in search of a more prominent leader. Bob Crosby was chosen, and Haggart, who had been highly spoken of by Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey, auditioned successfully for the bass spot. Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and drummer Ray Bauduc were among his new associates.
"We broke the band in June 4, 1935, at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City," Haggart said. "Then we went on a one-nighter tour of the Deep South, by bus."
It wasn't long before Bauduc and Haggart spontaneously created a hit.
One Sunday afternoon at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, the Crosby band had a few minutes to kill before going live on the radio. The dance floor was packed with enthusiastic kids from Winnetka, an affluent Chicago suburb. Crosby stepped up to the mike and told the audience that Bobby Haggart and Ray Bauduc would play "Big Noise From Winnetka" in honor of their fans.
No such song existed.
"We made it up as we went along," Haggart said, recalling how he whistled the tune before the song climaxed with Bauduc playing up and down the neck of Haggart's bass as he fingered the notes. Two weeks later, they went into a studio to record it, and Haggart was able to recall the melody.
World War II broke up the Crosby band in 1942, and Haggart moved to New York City, where he worked as a studio player until 1968, recording with several jazz musicians and playing in television bands for Perry Como and Johnny Carson.
During his career, Haggart was well aware of such jazz revolutionaries as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He has mixed feelings about their work.
"I was fascinated by Parker and Gillespie. As an arranger, I understood what Charlie Parker was trying to do harmonically. I was amazed by his dexterity and technique.
"I believe in simplicity. They start kids off today with Coltrane, his waves of notes. I think it's a shame for kids to start using him as their idol, trying to do what he did on tenor. I prefer Zoot Sims to Coltrane any day."
Haggart keeps an active touring schedule, including frequent jazz festival work. On a recent weekend he was in Las Vegas as part of a "Jazz at the Riviera" festival with trumpeter Yank Lawson, a fellow veteran of Crosby's band, San Diego clarinetist Bobby Gordon and several others.
Haggart still wields a mean bass. At home, he practices almost every day on an antique French instrument that has a hand-carved woman's head above the tuning pegs.
"For every day you don't play, you slip two days," Haggart explained.
Frequently, he plays Diego's Loft in Pacific Beach behind trumpeter John Best, also a big band musician in the '30s, and Gordon.
And he often steps up to the mike to whistle "Big Noise From Winnetka," while drummer Jay Hearn taps out Bauduc's old part on the neck of the old bass.