Walt Levinsky (April 18, 1929 - December 14, 1999) was an American big band and orchestral player, composer, arranger and band leader. While many of his big band assignments were as lead alto sax player, his favorite instrument was the clarinet. Walt was known for his fine instrumental technique and his rich, round tone both on clarinet and sax.
Born in Paterson, New Jersey he began playing the clarinet at age 9, tutored by his brother Kermit. His first formal study on clarinet and sax was with Joe Allard, a prominent New York teacher. Later Walt attended the Music Conservatory at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, Pennsylvania where he majored in clarinet. Walt was an 'A' student and the college woodwind instructor, Frank Stachow, once said to him: "You're the most talented musician that ever came to this school." His secondary instruments were alto saxophone and flute, and of course he was required to learn keyboard while at music school. ."
Walt's first assignment with a 'name' band was with the Les Elgart orchestra. Then, as a full-time professional, he replaced Buddy DeFranco in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra which toured in the US and Cuba. During the Korean war years Walt enlisted in the US Air Force and served as a musician and member of the Airmen of Note of the U. S. Air Force band.
After his Air Force discharge in 1954 Walt wanted to avoid the disruptive life of a band member on the road and settled in the New York area. Back with the Tommy Dorsey band for a brief stint, he then landed a job as reed player on a Broadway show. That was the beginning of a period when Walt worked as an instrumentalist in various show orchestras and also backed recording artists as a studio session musician. In 1956 when Benny Goodman was assembling a new band for an engagement at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, he selected Walt as his lead sax player. While with the Goodman band, Walt was nominated by Benny as his backup player for the clarinet solos. When that engagement closed, Walt signed on for a summer contract with the Goodman band playing concerts in other cities.
Walt then joined the NBC Staff Orchestra. During this period Walt recorded an RCA album with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra playing Benny Goodman's clarinet solos. While at NBC, Walt took various freelance assignments and also contracted to the CBS Staff band. In 1962, Walt graduated to The Tonight Show Band, led by Skitch Henderson (later headed by Doc Severinson) backing The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
After leaving NBC in the late 60's, Walt joined MBA Music, a small New York company that produced music for commercials. This gave Walt the chance to move into composing, arranging and conducting. Over several years Walt composed, scored and conducted music for many NBC films. In the summer of 1968 Walt was offered the job of clarinet soloist for the re-created Artie Shaw band. Artie himself conducted the sessions, and requested Walt to play his original solos note-for-note (see discography below). During these New York years Walt worked and recorded with many 'name' artists such as: Tony Bennett, Stan Getz, Lena Horne, Gerry Mulligan, Doc Severinsen, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. As a freelance music director Walt also worked and toured with other well known artists like Nina van Pallandt (of Nina & Frederik), and actor and entertainer Richard Harris. ."
He also composed for Score Productions, a well-known production company specializing in TV music. Walt is credited on a 1976 album of "The Price is Right" cues which include much of the show's music still heard today such as the showcase showdown and various car cues.
The 1990s brought further success with a busy concert and touring schedule as bandleader and clarinet soloist with his Great American Swing Band.
He died in River Edge, NJ, aged 70, from a brain tumour. He is survived by his daughters Judy and Sue, and son Ken who is a pianist and professional musician.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license