Milt Bernhart, 77; Trombonist’s Solo With Sinatra Drew Praise

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Times Staff Writer

Milt Bernhart, the big band trombonist familiar for his memorable solo on Frank Sinatra’s 1956 recording of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” has died. He was 77.

Bernhart died Thursday at Glendale Adventist Medical Center of complications of congestive heart failure, said his son David.

Over a three-decade career, Bernhart played in bands led by Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Nelson Riddle, Andre Previn, John Williams, Henry Mancini and Ray Brown.


After traveling with bands through the 1940s, Bernhart settled in Los Angeles and became a fixture in Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars along with Shelly Manne and other Kenton alumni.

Marlon Brando heard the All-Stars and arranged for them to play in his 1954 motion picture “The Wild One.” The job launched Bernhart as an oft-in-demand studio musician -- first at Columbia, and then freelancing at other motion picture, television and recording studios.

Two years later, Bernhart found himself in the recording studio with the Riddle orchestra and Sinatra, creating the classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

In his 1995 biography “Sinatra! The Song Is You,” author Will Friedwald called Bernhart’s contribution to that recording “what might be the world’s most exciting and best-known trombone solo.”

Around the 10th take, Bernhart told Friedwald, a technician decided that his trombone should be closer to the microphone. But Bernhart was too short to reach it.

“Sinatra himself went and got a box and brought it over for me to stand on,” Bernhart said. “It was funny.” When the recording session ended, Sinatra invited Bernhart to go into the sound booth and listen to the playback with him.


“It was the greatest compliment the Chairman could have paid,” the author wrote.

Born in Valparaiso, Ind., Bernhart was orphaned by age 10 and went to live with relatives in Chicago. He first studied the tuba, but by age 12 had switched to trombone. At 16, he was playing with the Boyd Raeburn band at the Bandbox in Chicago.

Drafted into the Army in 1944, Bernhart was awaiting shipment with other infantry to Okinawa when he was ordered to fall out and transferred to the Army band. His son said the trombonist felt the selection saved his life, because few of the group headed to Okinawa returned.

Bernhart wound down his performing career in 1973, as the popularity of big bands waned, and bought Kelly Travel Service in Hollywood.

In 1986, he created the Big Band Academy of America to preserve and promote the history and music of big bands. He planned to retire as founding president March 7 at the organization’s annual luncheon and concert at the Sportsmen’s Lodge.

The event will now serve as a celebration of Bernhart’s life and career, his son David said.

Divorced once and widowed once, Bernhart is survived by his son Bruce of Owatonna, Minn., from his first marriage; two children from his second marriage, David of Burbank, and Elisabeth Chatfelter of Lake Hughes; and five grandchildren.