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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.

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 “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.

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.

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.

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