Walter Latzko

About the Arranger (in his own words)

I was born in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia on February 9, 1924. I have one older brother and one younger sister (who unfortunately passed away in 1995). I came to this country with my family in 1938, although my father, who, for most of his working life, was with Hayden-Stone, a stock brokerage firm on Wall Street, and kept going back and forth between Europe and the United States. He also represented the Austrian Finance Ministry in the U.S.. We settled in Scarsdale, New York, a suburb of New York City. After completing High School, I served in the U.S. Army during the war, being discharged after nine months on a physical disability. I served in the cadre at Camp Croft, South Carolina. I put in several years in a defense plant, and then, in the fall of 1944, started my college life at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. I took a liberal arts curriculum, with a major in organ-playing. In my senior year, I became President of the Glee Club, (much to my surprise), which allowed me to conduct all the Amherst songs at every concert (my very first directing experience), including one on WNBC-TV, New York. Then, they made me a member of “Sphinx,” the college honorary society! On completion of my four years of organ-training, I gave a recital for faculty and public for my degree. I graduated in 1948, cum laude.

I also received a two-year fellowship for post-graduate work, which I used at Columbia University in New York for study in Musical Composition. I got all the credits for a Master's Degree, but did not receive the actual degree because I never got around to writing my treatise, which was going to be an orchestral composition. But there was a good reason for that.


The Chordettes

While still at Columbia University, I visited the Arthur Godfrey Show at Columbia Broadcasting studio in New York. A girls' barbershop quartet was among the performers, having recently won Godfrey's Talent Scout show, and as a result, having been hired as "permanent" performers for the radio program. After the show, I told the orchestra conductor, Archie Bleyer (whom I had met previously), that I had arranged a little barbershop-type a capella music at Amherst, and that I would like to try a arrangement for the Chordettes (which was the quartet's name), from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Archie told me to go ahead. I didn't get right to it, being busy with school work, but a week later, I came home from school to receive a message from Archie to the effect: "Where's the arrangement?" and "Come down to see me the very next day!" I finished the arrangement ("Lindy Lou, Meet Me by the Melon Vine"), took it down the next day and just like that - the course of my life changed! Instead of going back to Amherst and becoming a professor in Music, directing the Glee Club, etc. (which I had been invited to come back to), I struck out for "show biz."

I wrote about two hundred arrangements for the Chordettes, and became a writer for Godfrey (of material, jokes, and the like.) After the Chordettes were summarily dismissed by Godfrey about two years later, I stayed on as a writer, and occasional arranger for Julius La Rosa, Frank Parker and Marion Marlowe, some of the other "regulars" on the show, which by then had become a five-times a week radio-TV simulcast, with a Wednesday night TV variety show added. That lasted until the spring of 1954, when I (and 3 other writers) got "axed." Godfrey told me that I couldn't write worth a darn, that he had only kept me on that long because he liked me, and that I would never get another writing job (but that I was a fine musician)!


Marjorie and Walter 1955

About a month later I landed a job as a writer for Jack Sterling, who had a six-day weekly radio show on WCBS - New York, the anchor station for the CBS radio network. I held that position for eleven years. Meanwhile, going back to 1948, I started my career as an organist and choir director in the Methodist Church, a job I would still be doing if I hadn't had a stroke in 1991. As it was, I served four Methodist Churches for forty-two years, starting in Dobbs Ferry, NY, in the church in which I married my Marjorie (Needham), the tenor of the Chordettes, in 1953, and ending in Goshen, NY, eight miles from my home in Blooming Grove, where I have lived ever since - and, by the way, where we raised three great children, Jeffrey, Curtis and Melanie.

Jeffrey Latzko


Curtis Latzko


Melanie Latzko Bradley


Touching on my other main occupations during my eighty-six years; after the Jack Sterling job, I wrote commercials for Family Circle Magazine for seven years, with Jack Sterling providing the voice. In the meantime, I had permanently moved to Blooming Grove in Orange County, NY, and found work here. The first was doing public relations for our local phone company and producing a monthly "bill stuffer", which contained the latest news of the company, with a monthly feature about an employee, and one-line jokes which rounded out a column of the four- or six-page news letter. I did that for about ten years, and then held a similar position with our local BOCES, a vocational and special education adjunct to our local high school system. Again, I held that position for ten-plus years. Then came my last "job", and that was definitely a full time position: being the Registrar at the Hall of Fame of the Trotter, which entailed just about everything at the Harness Racing Museum, as it is now known. Besides that, I wrote commercials for local sponsors, conducted an 80 voice oratorio chorus for thirty-two years, was President of the Orange County Board of Health for twenty years and did assorted other jobs too numerous to mention

Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills

But enough of my talents, let's get to barbershop! Yes, let's pick up where we left off, with the Chordettes in the early fifties. Came the evening when the girls took Archie and me to our very first barbershop "parade" as they were called then. Archie and I squirmed through a few local quartets which were not too great in those days. And then the MC proclaimed: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, here they are, our International Champions, the Buffalo Bills!" and out marched four very imposing young men dressed in Cowboy outfits, buckskins and all, and lit into "Hi, Neighbor" in four-part harmony. I'll never forget looking at Archie, and he looking at me, as if to say to each other: "How long has THIS been going on?" We were completely captivated. The story is getting long, but suffice to say that there began a long and satisfying relationship between the Bills and me, during which time I arranged eight albums for them. They, of course, came to New York not too long afterwards, to appear in the magic musical "Meredith Willson's The Music Man" - seventeen hundred-plus performances. Some years later, I drove with tenor Vern Reed from coast to coast to watch the cast, including the Bills, make the movie of "The Music Man;" well, at least I watched for four fascinating days.


The Suntones

Some of my Buffalo Bills arrangements found favor in the Barbershop Harmony Society; "As Time Goes By", "With Plenty Of Money and You", "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long" and "Without a Song". Then, came "my" next quartet...The Suntones. I don't remember where we met, but next thing I know, I'm arranging one of my "biggies", The "West Side Story Medley (It is still my Margie's favorite of favorites)." Well, I must admit, everything sort of "fell into place." By the way, I became a member of the Society in 1963 (Frank Thorne Chapter), became a judge in the new (old) Arrangement Category in 1970 and was a judge for twenty-one years, until stroke-do-us-part. I was inducted as a lifetime member of the Montclair (NJ) Chapter in '74, and of the Alexandria (VA) Chapter circa 1990. Just recently I was honored by induction in the Poughkeepsie (NY) Chapter. But back to the Suntones; I followed the "West Side Story Medley" with "The Sound of Music," and later, "Fiddler on the Roof".

Now came the Eighties and a new challenge. I became involved with the Montclair Chorus (New Jersey); first as an arranger. I did a lot of arranging for them. For instance, they took my "Broken Hearted" and "Running Wild" to Portland, Oregon, and took something like sixth place in the International Chorus Contest. Then Artie Dolt, Montclair's dynamic director, handed me a most challenging assignment for the following year's spring show: "Do us a big medley of some outstanding Academy Award Songs." Being a most meticulous man, he delivered me a bundle of thirty-eight pieces of sheet music, plus a list, in his beautiful hand print, of about fifteen of the most likely "barbershoppable" Academy Award-winning songs.

It was summer (1972), and I took my two boys camping with my dear friend Hank Miles and his two young daughters on an island in gorgeous Lake George. Hank took the four children on a day's climb of a nearby mountain, while I stayed behind, holding down the stack of sheet music on a picnic table hoping that none would get blown in the water. From that windy beginning developed, what is lovingly called, "The Monster." Before I got through, I had included at least a portion of every Academy Award-winning song from 1934 through 1973. And it wasn't in chronological order, either. That day I found the song that would frame the whole medley, "Lullaby of Broadway", which begins with "Come on along and listen to" and ends with "Goodnight, ladies, milkman's on his way." What followed was an audience participation medley (they had to guess what year each song had won), plus all sorts of falderal, such as a duet between a tenor (man) and a bald bass (dressed as a woman), to the tune "Baby, it's cold outside", a duel involving a tall and a very short cowboy, (tune: "Do not forsake me, oh my darlin'") and a hilarious dance by short, swarthy Fred Astaire and a huge, three hundred-pound "Ginger Rogers" (the Chapter president at the time.)

As the saying goes, "you had to be there." "The Monster" took fifty pages of my messy, but somehow legible, handwriting and a half hour to perform! But eighty possessed men somehow learned (memorized) it in the space of four months, and it turned out to be a huge success. Artie instilled the will to win in all of us. And I drove one hundred-thirty miles round-trip twice a week for more than two months, to help bring it off; one of the highlights of my barbershop life!

Then, in 1976, I was invited to become a singing member of the chorus. I had to learn two Renee Craig arrangements for the contest, and in return I got a cheap flight to San Francisco, the site of the convention. I learned all the notes, all the moves, and was installed in the fourth row (center) of the eighty-five man chorus. I remember looking down in the pit and spotting lots of familiar judges' eyes, peering incredulously up at me as if to say: "Latzko, what the hell are YOU doing up there?" Nevertheless, we came in fourth.

Another stage of my barbershop life was starting. I was asked to direct the Montclair Chorus, which I did, for three and a half years. I didn't take the chorus to any International contest, and the chorus became medium sized, about fifty to sixty men. But we had a lot of fun. I arranged a lot of songs for them, put on some very successful spring shows, and wrote some pretty good scripts too. I especially remember the show based on unsuccessful songs, like "Hortense, the Flirt," "Four Walls" ... why, I even arranged some of the "bombs" printed on the back of published sheet music; all four bars of them. We called the show "Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, and for Good Reason!" They were terrible songs. As I said, we had lots of fun, and one of the people who made it so much fun was the very talented Dick Floersheimer, my "Unterkappellmeister," which is German for "Assistant Director." He was also an excellent MC for the shows - lots of laughs. We established a warm relationship that continues to this day.

Bluegrass Student Union

The Bluegrass Student Union

Now came one of the most rewarding periods of my very full barbershop life. I became associated with still another great, great quartet, the Bluegrass Student Union. I arranged all the songs from "The Music Man" for that quartet's third album, with the exception of "My White Knight," which after all, was strictly a girl's song. Then, I charted "Juke Box Saturday Night Medley," " Stardust" and several others for their album of tunes from the 1940s, and finally half of the arrangements for their last album, "Here to Stay," their Gershwin project, to which I contributed "Porgy and Bess Overture" and more. And there's an interesting story behind that work: My good friend, Ed Waesche, one of the Society's greatest arrangers, came to me one day and asked me to arrange "Porgy and Bess" for his quartet, The New Yorkers." I guess he was too busy at the time. I gladly did it, but unfortunately for Ed, his tenor got laryngitis of major proportions, and that quartet broke up before they could learn "Porgy and Bess"

Now it was a year or so later that Bluegrass was planning a Gershwin album, so I asked Kenny Hatton, the lead of Bluegrass, to ask Ed Waesche if he could - for financial consideration - turn the piece over to the Bluegrass, which he promptly did. And so the Bluegrass included that medley, as well as "They All Laughed," "Slap that Bass" and several others of mine. Friend Ed arranged the rest of the songs for that project.

BHS Hall of Fame

BHS Hall of Fame

Now a few words about Kenny Hatton - the years drew us closer and closer together. He has done more for me than I can say. In 1987, he gave me one of the greatest surprises in my very full life; he worked on it for a year - wrote countless letters. And yet, I knew nothing about it untill it happened. At Montclair State College, before a packed house of about a thousand barbershoppers, he and pal Dick Bonsal arranged Walter Latzko Day, with the Bluegrass Student Union, the Suntones, The Dapper Dans of Livingston, a chorus I had done a number of arrangements for, and the Montclair Chorus, which I'd done a whole lot of arrangements for. There were video messages from the Chordettes, the Buffalo Bills, the Four Renegades, the Regents, the Dealers Choice, the Classic Collection, the Boston Common, the Vocal Majority, the Louisville Thoroughbred Chorus and several other groups I had arranged for. For years, Kenny and I kept the lines between Louisville and Blooming Grove hot, for hours at a time, while we discussed new arrangements and worked out chords that I had written that needed re-voicing, leading to a father-son, brother to brother kind of relationship.

Then, when I had my stroke (paralyzing my right arm), he again went to work. He got twenty-something quartets and choruses to chip in, about three thousand dollars, to buy me a computer, printer, music software and fax machine, so I could continue my arranging. As soon as I got home from the hospital I learned to arrange on the computer (left handed) and in the nineteen years since then, I've been able to enter all my handwritten arrangements into the computer plus writing hundreds of new ones. As of now, I have done over twelve hundred musical arrangements. The first arrangement I "computerized" back in November of 1991 was the Gershwin tune "Nice Work If You Can Get It." I sent that chart to every quartet and chorus that had contributed to my beloved computer. Some of them even learned it!

Which brings me to this: I don't arrange easy stuff. As a matter of fact, I arrange difficult stuff. But I try to stay close to the music, in mood, embellishments and chording. At times, that brought me into friendly conflict with my fellow judges, so my arrangements weren't used too often in Society contests. Eventually, the categories were rewritten, and my charts began to show up in more contests. But in any event, I don't attribute the influence of my work to any other person in particular. I do have the greatest admiration for arrangements by Ed Waesche, Lou Perry, David Wright, Don Gray, Val Hicks and many, many others. But I believe they all have their own styles and I have mine. I have been at it for a long, long time. I started over fifty years ago in college for the Amherst Double Quartet. I believe that my first number, ever, was "Mississippi Mud". And my second or third was "Don't Tell me What You Dreamed Last Night, 'Cause I've Been Reading Freud!" A funny, if esoteric song that you don't sing twice to the same audience - the punch line loses something in repetition!

My arrangements have been published in several collections, and, as I have mentioned a few times, recorded extensively. My favorites? I would have to say "West Side Story" is one, "Stardust" is another, "They all Laughed" is a third. Which one am I most proud of? Maybe the "Academy Award Medley," the Monster, which took half an hour to perform and spanned fifty pages. It took a lot of thought and a lot of hand cramps.

What else have I done? Where to begin? Marquis (quartet) recorded three of my computerized arrangements and performed a king-sized medley framed by "Whatever Happened To Melody" on the 1997 AIC Show in Indianapolis. The Ritz (quartet) recorded four other arrangements of mine. The Alexandria Harmonizers (chorus) won the International Chorus Contest in Atlanta in 1998 with their performance of my arrangement of "In The Wee Small Hours/Always Medley." I was named the Mid-Atlantic District Man of the Year, named Unsung Hero by the AIC (Association of International Champions) organization, and inducted into the Barbershop Harmony Hall of Fame. But that's more than enough of me!

Dr. Steve Peterson

Dr. Steve Peterson

Except for one more very important barbershopper in my life: Dr. Steve Peterson! Steve came into my life as the lead of a good quartet that I did a few arrangements for, who came to my house several times for rehearsals. That was around 1990. The next time I saw Steve was in my room at Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw, NY, where I was on a ten-week stay for rehabilitation from the stroke in the fall of 1991. He had heard about my illness, and wanted to visit me. I had to think twice about exactly who he was, because I know A LOT of barbershoppers. But of course, I remembered Steve. Thus ensued a relationship that goes on to this day. Dr. Steve has come to see me just about every week since then, a one hundred-mile roundtrip from Westchester to exercise me and generally "check me out." Then, we talk barbershop. Steve has become more than a close friend. He is a member of my family, who has seen me through a lot. He is now one of the leading doctors of Westchester Hospital, and I thank my lucky stars for his friendship and devotion. I'm one lucky guy!

Marjorie and Walter 2009
Marjorie and Walter 2009