By Garrin Hertel
Above, The Musicaladers, with Al Rinker seated at the piano, and Bing Crosby on the drums, early 1920s in Spokane. Miles Rinker, Al’s Brother, is on saxophone on Bing’s right, and the Pritchard Brothers, on sax and banjo, are on Bing’s left. Jimmy Heaton, seated far left, is on trumpet. Photo courtesy of the Rinker Family Archives.
“Everybody Wants to Be A Cat” is a familiar tune to most of us, but you might not know that it was written by a graduate of North Central High School in Spokane, Washington. Back in the early 1920s, a talented young man from Spokane piled into an old jalopy with his best friend. They bought the car for about $25 and made the trip west to Seattle, and then south to Hollywood. Before they left Spokane, they performed together in a local band called The Musicaladers, and as a show-stopping duo at the Clemmer Theater, which today is known as the Bing Crosby Theater.
But no, this story isn’t about Bing Crosby. It’s about Al Rinker, one of Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, and the composer of “Everybody Wants to Be A Cat,” the famous song from the twentieth animated Disney feature “The Aristocats,” which was released in 1970.
For generations, going back to the family farm twelve miles outside of Tekoa, Washington, members of the Rinker family have bonded together at the piano, often side by side on a piano bench. Charles Rinker, Al’s father, played fiddle and called country dances, and his mother Josephine, of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, played piano. With Josephine as teacher, Al Rinker’s musical education commenced every evening after supper when she would sit at the piano and play everything from classics to ragtime. He later recalled, “She was a very gifted woman, my mother. She could play by ear, and she could read. She could hear anything when she’d go to a show in Spokane, and she could play it by ear.”
Charles Rinker moved the family to Spokane when Al was about five, in 1912, and only a few years later, his wife Josephine died of tuberculosis. The family was crushed by the loss. Al’s older sister, Mildred, took on the mentoring of her younger brother Al following the terrible loss of their mother.
However, when Charles married a woman still referred to by the Rinker Family as “the wicked step-mother from Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Mildred didn’t waste much time launching herself out of Spokane and away from the painful realities of home. She would later go on to become Mildred Bailey, “The Rockin’ Chair Lady,” the first woman to earn a spot fronting a national dance band, paving the way for other women like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She sang with the Paul Whiteman orchestra from 1929 to 1933.
Meanwhile, Al and his brother Miles were shipped off to boarding school, first in Tekoa, and then to Gonzaga. The bright spot in the ongoing tragedy came when Al discovered that he, too, could pick out tunes by ear on the piano, although his step-mother refused to allow Al to take piano lessons.
Later in life, Al started his own piano bench tradition with his daughter Julia (pictured together below, circa 1950). She recalled recently that her earliest recollection with her father was at about age four. She would sit at the piano bench next to him, and they would sing the songs that he had composed for movies and musicals, such as “Duchess of Idaho” with Van Johnson and Esther Williams, or “Young at Heart” with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. “I’d start, ‘Hello, Sam!’” she remembered, “and he’d sing ‘Hello, Sue!’ My Dad was the life-force in my life. We were always doing this kind of thing together, my Dad and I.”
Julia had a similar connection with her Aunt Mildred, working up song and dance routines in the living room where Mildred became a captive audience for her four-year-old niece. “She had an aura about her, with her humor, and she was just bigger than life. It was bliss for me, because she had a way of making me feel like it was just the two of us in the room.”
From her father, Julia learned to be musically flexible and adaptive, a trait he learned as a result of growing up on the Coeur d’Alene reservation and then later in Spokane, straddling two cultures. Al’s connection to his mother cannot be understated, and neither can her connection to her native heritage. Her grandmother was Eleanor Peone, and the singer, Basil Peone, was also among her ancestors. Julia observed that, “High-frequency energy came right through the top of [my Dad’s] head and right into his soul from his native family. My Dad had the soul of the indiginous and lived it in the homogeneous white man’s world.”
But this also came with a cost, and a deep wound. Al and his siblings were branded “breeds” by the community, a racist epithet common at the time. When he moved to Spokane, by necessity, he had to make the best of things. He had to adjust, and so he leaned on his father’s Swiss heritage. Nevertheless, he felt disgraced, and after his mother died, he lost the parental nurturing so critical for handling the insults. Al spoke of it on rare occasions, but Julia remembered, “I saw it in his eyes.”
Al coped with all of these tensions by pouring himself into music. In 1922, he started a band with his brother Miles, who played saxophone, and another pair of brothers, Bob and Clare Pritchard, and later on, Jimmy Heaton on trumpet. The Rinker brothers and the Pritchard brothers spent a great deal of time at the Mission Pool, where they ran into a “happy-go-lucky” character named Bing who was nearly six years older, whom they recruited to play drums. Gary Giddins wrote in A Pocketful of Dreams that while the age gap generally meant nothing, after an early rehearsal, Bing told Al that if he spoke to him the way he spoke to the others in the band, he’d punch Al in the nose.
As was his way, Al adjusted, and “The Musicaladers,” became Al’s musical laboratory. He was the creative force behind their repertoire and arrangements. Al wanted to grow and evolve, and he found himself attracted to Modernists, especially Claude Debussey and Maurice Ravel. As his friendship with Bing grew, the two of them would go downtown to Bailey’s Music Store at 722 W. Riverside and listen to scores of popular music. At Bailey’s, Al would memorize tunes, and then head home to arrange them for the Musicaladers, sometimes drawing the eire of the owners who wanted Al and Bing to make some purchases.
Al and Bing grew closer together over the next few years playing in the Musicaladers, and also getting work at the Clemmer Theater as a duo. William Stimson shared in the November/December 2013 issue of Nostalgia Magazine that the developing duo added humor and a sense of showmanship to their resumes when they “pushed their 1916 Ford onto the stage to serve as a backdrop” for a ten minute musical. “Another time, Bing crooned a cowboy song to a wide-eyed calf they had rustled up somewhere.”
In 1925, they had to make some decisions. Al’s brother Miles had left Spokane to attend Northwestern University in Illinois. The Pritchard brothers also left the Musicaladers to go on to college. Bing had lost interest in studying law, and Al’s sister Mildred had been corresponding with him about Hollywood. On October 15, 1925, Al and Bing left Spokane to avoid further academic entanglements, with dreams of making it big in show business. By late 1926, they were performing as The Rhythm Boys in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the same band that would later hire Al’s sister Mildred.
With a new life out in the world of entertainment, came new friendships. Johnny Mercer, who co-founded Capitol Records and wrote lyrics for standards such as “Jeepers, Creepers” and “Satin Doll,” saved his money as a young man to ride the train from Savannah, Georgia to New York to hear the Rhythm Boys. He and Al Rinker would later become close friends.
Al’s daughter Julia remembers that when the Mercers would come for dinner, Johnny would bring all his cookware. He wasn’t fond of Elizabeth Rinker’s cooking, but Julia remembers her mom had no ego about it. In typical Rinker style, she adapted, and it became a family joke.
Al and Elizabeth met while working on radio for Kay Thompson, who co-founded the Lucky Strike Hit Parade on CBS in 1935. Al went on to produce The Saturday Night Swing Club for CBS as a result of his connection with Kay Thompson.
After Hollywood blossomed, and the Rhythm Boys went their separate ways, Al continued in show business as a composer, usually working on films and musicals. His daughter Julia followed her parents into show business as a studio singer. Once when working on a set with Steve Allen, he shared with her that he thought her Dad was one of the best composers in the country.
In 1955, Jo Stafford collaborated on an album of Robert Burns’ poetry set to music composed by Al Rinker called “Songs of Scotland.” In these compositions, Julia hears “the haunting energy from [her Dad’s] Native American roots, haunting strains that pull you in and take you to a different place. Where did he get this? It was embedded in his DNA. He had that kind of depth.”
In the 1940s, Al began collaborating with Floyd Huddleston on a variety of projects, including the song “You Started Something” in 1947, which became a standard, recorded by Mildred Bailey, and possibly more famously by Rosemary Clooney. Al and Floyd would later collaborate on “Everybody Wants to Be A Cat” for Walt Disney’s 1970 film “The Aristocats.”
Through all of this, as a parent, Julia remembers her Dad to be steady and assuring, skills she credits to his time growing up in Spokane. He was a foil to his friend Bing, who lived life on the edges. As a kid, and as an adult, Al stayed away from alcohol and other vices. When Bing would inevitably get in trouble for fighting or drinking, Al told his daughter that he’d just say, “Bye, bye Bing!” when the police would drag him off for another weekend stay in jail.
Al taught his daughter to embrace adventure, and to be constructive with her life, lessons she admires and lives by today.
In his early 70s, Al Rinker experienced a spell of heart trouble while golfing, and later had to have a pacemaker installed. He decided that he and his wife Elizabeth should make a trip back to his childhood home, and to the chapel in DeSmet, Idaho where he and his mother went to mass in the early 1900s. Elizabeth drove, and Al found the marker where his mother was buried. He left flowers on her grave, and then he and Elizabeth sat in the back row of the nearby chapel. Almost 70 years before, Al recalled in a conversation with Don Eagle (published in the November 2002 issue of Nostalgia Magazine), that as a young boy, at his mother’s grave, he grieved her loss, saying, “Mother, you didn’t live long enough for me to tell you I love you.” At the chapel, he had brought his life full circle: “Mom, I’m home. I just want you to know that I love you very much.” Elizabeth later said she was never more touched in their 44 years of marriage.
“He wanted to be there to re-connect at the core of his being with his mother. It was a way for him to finalize his journey, returning to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation” where he spent his formative years with his mother, Julia remembered.
Al Rinker never achieved the recognition that his friend Bing did, nor even that of his sister Mildred. But at home on the piano bench, first with his mother, and then later with his daughter, he earned the most satisfying rewards life has to offer. Al Rinker was undoubtedly one of the most admired people in his field, not just for the way he sang, performed, or composed, but because of the way he lived.