Amelia Island resident and jazz drummer Les DeMerle toured and recorded with the Harry James Big Band from 1970 to 1982. One of those recordings, King James Version, won a Grammy Award. DeMerle toured for three years and recorded with Wayne Newton, and then toured and recorded with Manhattan Transfer. He has appeared with many other musical greats, including Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Joe Williams.
A native of New York, DeMerle studied drums with one of New York’s finest teachers, Bob Livingston. By the age of 16, he was playing in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. In 1967, DeMerle formed his band Sound 67 with trumpet player Randy Brecker. DeMerle and Sound 67 recorded a demo that year titled Once in a Lifetime, which was lost in the shuffle at Atlantic Records, never to see the light of day. Recently released by Origin Records, Once in a Lifetime reveals a 20 year-old dynamo who knew talent, showmanship, and the sounds of his times.
With crack arrangements by Frank Foster and Bob Hammer channeling the latest grooves of Ramsey Lewis and Cannonball Adderley, DeMerle’s 5-piece band featured Brecker on trumpet, in what would have been his first featured recording, and the voice of rock diva Genya Ravan. Once in a Lifetime is an amazing time capsule find, containing hints of the career DeMerle would unfurl over the coming decades.
“Once in a Lifetime was a demo recording we sent to Atlantic Records,” states DeMerle. “They seemed very interested at the time, but my band was so busy with live shows and trying to put a bigger band together that the recording got lost in the shuffle and Atlantic Records never moved on it. In 1967 and 1968, we played all the major clubs, we played the Mike Douglas Show three times each year, and we were very successful. I was only 20 years old at the time.”
When Spectrum, DeMerle’s dynamic United Artists debut album, was released in 1969, Les was a known young drumming talent who had been wowing audiences through club and TV performances since he was a teen. DeMerle later moved to Los Angeles, where he started the jazz fusion band Transfusion, which produced five poll-winning albums.
Recently, Les got hold of the 56-year-old recording of Once in a Lifetime from Atlantic Records, had it cleaned up and digitized, then sent it to John Bishop at Origin Records. An impressive lost work, the album was released this year, hitting the jazz charts and becoming a top seller in Japan, where American jazz is very popular.
The producer of the annual Amelia Island Jazz Festival, DeMerle and his wife, vocalist Bonnie Eisele, entertained in the Lobby Lounge, as well as private and corporate events, at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, where he appeared with the Dynamic Les DeMerle Orchestra featuring Bonnie Eisele since its opening in 1991 until 2001.
At the 2023 Amelia Island Jazz Festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary from October 1 to October 8, DeMerle will play an array of music from Once in a Lifetime, and his quintet will open for The Manhattan Transfer on October 5.
“I treasure this record because it shows my roots as a band leader on a mission at 20-years old with sidemen that went on to be jazz superstars,” says DeMerle. “Randy Brecker formed the groundbreaking Brecker Brothers with his brother, Michael, nine years after this recording. Genya Ravan was signed to Columbia Records. The music on this record features jazz/rock concepts that I worked on with some of the great arrangers. Every track brings a big smile to my face and then I think, did I really do all that?”
To learn more about Once in a Lifetime and to purchase the CD, visit www.originarts.com. For more information on the Amelia Island Jazz Festival or to purchase tickets, visit their website at ameliaislandjazzfestival.com.