"Ridiculous," said Leroy Lovett with a laugh, when the idea of retiring was mentioned to him.
Lovett, soon to be 74, has had a lengthy and rewarding behind- the-scenes career in the music business, and he has no plans to stop.
"It's fun. It's exciting," Lovett said at his home in Chatsworth. "It's like that line about baseball: 'You keep playing as long as it's fun.' The same way with music. You don't see me sliding back."
Lovett, who has worked as a pianist, arranger, composer, publisher and consultant, has been active since the early 1940s. He sold his first arrangement to R & B and swing bandleader Tiny Bradshaw in 1945, played piano in a band led by Duke Ellington's son, Mercer, in the late '40s and, with such jazz greats as Johnny Hodges, produced records by singers Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Al Hibbler, wrote one of Hibbler's biggest hits, "After the Lights Go Down Low," and was an executive at Motown records from 1968 to 1973.
These days, Lovett, a native of Germantown, Pa., has two projects: his Executive Publishers Administration, a music consulting firm that advises artists and songwriters, and the Melodymakers Orchestra. Lovett arranges and plays piano for the Melodymakers, a dance band with jazz flavorings that appears the first Sunday of every month at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City and the third Sunday of the month at Charley Brown's in Thousand Oaks.
Lovett joined the Melodymakers as its pianist in 1987, when it was a rehearsal-only band, and quickly took on a larger role.
"After a couple of months of rehearsal, the band landed its first job, and we needed a girl singer," he said in a characteristically upbeat fashion. "So I said I knew someone who used to sing in New York, someone with a great voice." The singer was his wife, Janey.
Lovett brought in some arrangements he had written for his wife, but they were too difficult for the band, which was used to simpler material. "But the guys liked Janey and said they'd practice 10 of these charts and get them down," Lovett said. "And when they did that, I started to write some new numbers, keeping them simple, and the band began to sound good. The guys were willing to learn, and that made the band so much more enjoyable."
The Melodymakers' book is mostly by Lovett and Bob Ayer, another band member, and there are a few charts by such esteemed writers as Bill Holman, Bob Florence and Stan Kenton.
Many of Lovett's arrangements are reworkings of others' charts, he said. "We have Ernie Wilkins' version of Basie's 'One O'Clock Jump' that I have added an extra section to," he said. "And I took Stan Kenton's version of 'Lullaby of Birdland' and changed the middle, added something to it, made the arrangement different."
Ed Nani of Westlake, who founded the Melodymakers, is thrilled to have Lovett on board. "First, Leroy's a terrific arranger," he said. "Secondly, he has the spirit of togetherness, which you could call the ability to get the most out of the players. And he plays wonderful jazz piano."
Does Lovett get to play enough with the band? "No," he said, "but the fun I have with the orchestration makes up for that. I also play private parties with a small band made up of guys from the big band."
Lovett, who studied piano from age 4 to 14 with Sophie Stokowski, wife of legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, began to write music as a youth. After earning a bachelor's degree in music from Temple University, he studied the Schillinger system, a compositional method devised by Joseph Schillinger that has been employed by such notables as George Gershwin and Toshiko Akiyoshi.
Lovett's initial sale to Bradshaw set him on a lifelong journey in music. "I went to hear him play at the Apollo Theatre in New York, then went backstage and asked him if he ever bought arrangements," Lovett said. "He said, 'Sometimes. Come to rehearsal tomorrow, and let's see what you've got.' Well, he liked one of my originals and asked me how much I wanted.
"I had no idea about prices, so I said, '50 bucks.'
" 'Tell you what,' he said. 'I'll give you 30, but if you write me a chart on "Blues in the Night," I'll give you 50.' I remember thinking, 'Oh, you can make money writing music. That's the way I'm going.' And it's been that way ever since."
Where and When What: Leroy Lovett with the Melodymakers Orchestra in the ballroom, Sportsmen's Lodge, 12833 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Hours: 7 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Free dance lessons at 6 p.m. Price: $12.50 cover, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 984-0202. What: The Melodymakers at Charley Brown's, 299 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. Hours: 6 to 9:30 p.m. March 21. Free dance lessons at 5 p.m. Price: $10, two-drink minimum. Call: (805) 495-0431, (818) 889-0722.