Buell Neidlinger: A Man And His Music

“06880” truly is “where Westport meets the world.” Approximately 1/3 of our readers are outside Fairfield County — many of them far, far away. Some have not lived here for decades.

Each has his or her own reasons for still feeling connected to this place. Each has been on an interesting journey. But we’d have to scour the earth to find a more intriguing Westport — and post-Westport — story than Buell Neidlinger’s.

Born in 1936, he was a Westporter through 1955. Buell remembers 3 distinct eras of growing up.

Prior to World War II, many Fairfield County families lived in homes their ancestors built — before the Revolutionary War.

During wartime, most fathers headed overseas. Rationing limited Buell’s mother to half a tank at Walt’s Gas Station — and it had to last a week. Still, she drove to Compo Beach to serve as an air raid warden.

Air raid instructions

Climbing rickety steps to a tiny room atop the old Cedar Point Yacht Club building, she sat in the cold for 3-hour shifts, scanning east through powerful binoculars for submarines and enemy planes coming in over the Sound. None ever did.

Sometimes she brought Buell and his brother Roger to play outside. Compo Beach was always deserted.

At 8 years old, in a summer program at the old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School), Buell was taught the trumpet by Staples’ legendary music director John Ohanian.

Ohanian later gave Buell a cello solo. The song was “O Holy Night”; it was Christmas Eve, at Saugatuck Congregational Church. Buell was 11 years old.

When “the boys” came home and rationing ended, the beach was packed. Buell calls this “the boozy after-the-war time of new cul-de-sacs and rampaging development.” Farms and old homes began to disappear; restaurants like the Clam Box and Manero’s sprang up. It was the beginning of “the new Westport.”

When the Neidlingers lived on Keyser Road, he was often sent to Montgomery’s store on the corner of  South Compo and Green’s Farms Road (where I-95 is now). On that short walk he’d pass the homes of New York Philharmonic concertmaster John Corigliano, practicing for his gig; Metropolitan Opera basso Alexander Kipnis, warming up, and legendary pianist Marjorie Stokes.

Alexander Kipnis in the Metropolitan Opera's production of

Alexander Kipnis in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Parsifal.”

The 20-minute round trip walk took 2 hours — and it wasn’t spent just listening to musicians. Syndicated humorist Parke Cummings lived kitty-corner from Montgomery’s, and taught Buell a lot about timing the punch line.

In the other direction — toward the Post Road — world-class pianist Ruth Steinkraus lived with her family in a beautiful mansion. A few doors away were cellists Lieff and Marie Romaet Rosanoff. Marie’s sound floated out the window — unless Gault started crushing gravel, in which case she’d slam it shut.

Also on Compo: Broadway songwriter Jerry Livingston, who’d just had a huge radio hit with the novelty song “Mairzy Doats.”

John Ohanian gave Buell Neidlinger his start in music.

John Ohanian gave Buell Neidlinger his start in music.

Bobby Livingston and Buell were in Ohanian’s band class together. They hung out in the back yard, while Bobby’s dad searched for another hit on his piano.

“The free pop harmony lessons I received in that yard served me well all my professional life,” Buell says.

He learned from all those South Compo neighbors — and the Westport School of Music — that with hard work and passion, a career in music was possible.

After high school, Buell headed to Yale. By then he’d moved from trumpet and cello to bass. In 1956 — age 20 — he left for New York. In the 1950s and ’60s, he did it all: clubs, Broadway shows, jingles, touring and recording with singers and bands. He played Carnegie Hall with Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra — and worked with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme when they opened for the Beatles at the Paramount Theater. (Paul McCartney gave him a bass.)

Buell joined the Boston Symphony in 1967. Four years later — lured by an offer to become a professor at the brand new California Institute of the Arts — he headed west. In Los Angeles Buell performed on scores for over 600 movies, including “Shawshank Redemption,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Yentl.”

He was principal bass of the Warner Brothers studio orchestra for 27 years. He often played with Chris Hanulik — whose father John taught with Ohanian at Staples for many years.

Buell’s talent is matched only by his versatility. He’s played or performed with — among many others — Billie Holliday, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Frank Zappa, Ringo Starr, the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Buell Neidlinger (center), flanked by Roy Orbison and T Bone Burnett.

Buell Neidlinger (center), flanked by Roy Orbison and T Bone Burnett.

Oh, yeah. There’s one more “Westport meets the world” piece to Buell Neidlinger’s story. When he was with the Boston Symphony, he was on the selection committee to choose a new French horn player. He proudly voted for the winner: David Ohanian.

Yes, the son of the man who’d given him his 1st trumpet lessons many years before — the start of his lifelong profession.

(Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

Buell Neidlinger today.

Buell Neidlinger today.

16 responses to “Buell Neidlinger: A Man And His Music

  1. Wendy Crowther

    Great job of weaving together all of these separate and interesting elements into one terrific story.

  2. Wow! What an incredible history. Thanks for all that priceless info.

  3. Dorrie Thomas

    Wow, what a giant name-dropping fest that was!
    It seems to me any Westporter starting as far back as that is bound to be full of tales & connections like that…i know my father is!

  4. Great story, Dan!

  5. Wow, this story is a Westport story. Thank you for posting John Ohanion’s photo and some info on him in this post – I have tried to remember his face over the years. One of my largest regrets in leaving Westport for Philly in early 70’s was leaving Mr. Ohanion and the jr. orchestra. I learned so much from him. He was very encouraging to my mother too to continue on with her violin. This was the Westport I knew and loved — thanks for the post — all a great story.

  6. A. David Wunsch

    Thanks Dan. This was excellent.
    ADW Staples 1956

  7. Superb !

  8. That was a stroll down memory lane! Thanks for evoking the Westport I grew up in. I certainly remember Buell Neidlinger’s name and it is wonderful to see our beloved John Ohanion’s photo. With him, the Staples Acappella choir, the forerunner to all the current programs, put on musical shows with no drama department or stage facilities, except the borrowed stage a BJHS on the Post Road for the performance, rehearsing on the 3rd floor of the old long gone original Staples building. Wonder if Mr. Neidlinger ever ran across my sister Susie Campbell Harris, Staples ’58, when she was teaching at Cal Art’s in the 70’s. Thanks for the story Dan!

  9. Pam Barkentin

    What a fantastic story, and so nostalgic for me since I was in the same neighborhood of Compo at the same time. We moved next door to Parke Cummings when I was five and my sister was six. Parke was like a second father to us, and we became lifelong friends with his daughter, Patsy. We rented the DeStefano house on the corner of Keyser and Compo…our first forays into the big world were also to Kenny Montgomery’s store down where I-95 now crosses South Compo. our landlord, Mr. DeStefano was a violinist whom I believe played with one of the important NY orchestras, but I had no idea that the neighborhood was such an enclave of musicians. I can’t help but think that Buell must have been one of the kids in the gang we walked with to Saugatuck Elementary on Bridge Street every day.

  10. we lived a few house down from Parke Cummings- what an amazing man. He became part of our extended family, especially after his wife Virginia died and Patsy moved away. He built the first tennis court in Westport- by hand!!! And I played on it every day for years. He wrote me sonnets as a girl. Such a special man. Thanks for the memories!!

    • Pam Barkentin

      Hi Tracy, how cool that you remember the Cummings’ too. I never knew we had this connection in addition to us being neighbors now and your having known my sister, Perii, through professional connections. Less than six degrees, eh?

  11. Nancy W Hunter

    Goodness, Mr. Ohanian’s name and photo just struck a note!
    Summer orchestra and music theory class held at Staples, I suppose.

  12. Lived for 7 years across the street from John Corigliano on Valley Rd (rt next to the Ogilvys)… often
    heard his extraordinary violin playing but never truly appreciated the genius of his prodigious musical talent…

  13. Nancy Powers Conklin

    What a great story, Dan. Thank you for telling it and thank you to Fred Cantor for sharing it with you.

  14. Bonnie Bradley

    I think it’s safe to say that Buell and I were a pretty steady boyfriend and girlfriend in the summer of 1956. I was a rising senior at the Bolton School, (now G.F.A.) and Buell, having graduated from St. Luke’s, would go off to Yale in the fall. Buell had a little green British convertible (a Morgan?) and I remember driving everywhere with the two of us in the front and his big bass in its case standing tall in the back. Buell’s band would rehearse in the basement of the Wilton Congregational Church while I sat there feeling fine, like the girl with the band. Later Buell was at Yale (Eli’s Chosen Six – his band) and I left Wspt for Smith. We just drifted apart.
    I remember Buell as a lovely, intelligent, gifted person. But I was careless and immature. It is wonderful to know of his success in the musical world and, I hope, a happy life.