Who Is Skip?
Born October 4, 1965 in Philadelphia, Skip Heller spent his teenage years playing guitar in bar bands, jazz groups and wedding combos. He spent his twenties knocking around the City of Brotherly Love, playing music and taking it upon himself to become a music historian/musicologist, which lead to a bunch of music journalism jobs. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1995, first working on reissues for Dionysus, Rhino, Asphodel,and Scamp, compiling and annotating.
Upon arriving, his skills as a player and arranger got him hired into bands, mostly lounge revival groups (the Wonderful World of Joey, Tipsy), then producer (the award-winning debut album of Frenchy). Soon after (1997), he was hired by legendary exotica vocalist Yma Sumac to play guitar and assemble her band for live shows. This was followed by him producing rockabilly records, most notably for Ray Campi, Sammy Masters, and Dee Lannon, and putting together his own space age bachelor pad band, the Skip Heller Generation, whose CD Couch, Los Angeles focussed on his skills as a composer. This led to assignments composer and arranging for Dexter’s Laboratory, the Flintstones, and the Disney TV shorts program.
In 1999, he put together the Skip Heller Trio, a jazz organ combo who toured prolifically and made a series of critically acclaimed CD’s. During this period, the jazz press took serious notice of him. Also, his Trio recording of Raymond Scott’s cartoon classic composition “Powerhouse” was used on the Bernie Mac Show.
In 2004, he was hired to write an original exotica score for Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball. Throughout the life of his trios, Skip had worked closely with Robert Drasnin, the brilliant exotica composer whose 1959 classic Voodoo was reissued on Dionysus Records. That reissue was in fact produced by Skip, who also convinced the elder statesman to resume his career as a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist. Drasnin played as a working member of Skip’s Trio and on his film and cartoon scores, and Skip truly became a protege.
The tracks from the Tilt score were issued on Dionysus as Lua-O-Milo, which established him as a formidable composer of exotica. This was followed by his production of a new Drasnin exotica opus, Voodoo 2, which meant the supervision of live sessions of a fifteen-piece ensemble and the subsequent post-production.
In addition to the sizable output of jazz and exotica, he played with Stan Ridgway, NRBQ, Phil Alvin, Lalo Guerrero, Tish Hinojosa, Tipsy, Billy Swan, Jamie Hartford, Big Jay McNeely, Chan Romero, the Klezmatics, Katy Moffatt, and many other players (and types of players).
In 2013, he was called to write Mexican music for Sesame Street, followed by various regular music jobs playing Yiddish music for Holocaust survivors, regular arranging jobs for the East Coast Mandolin Orchestra, and a chamber music score for Peter Fonda’s final film, The Magic Hour. This was followed by a short stint as an orchestrator for first-wave exotic/ancient music composer Elisabeth Waldo.
Around this time, Robert Drasnin called him back in to wrestle [Drasnin’s] latest batch of work to a conclusion. He had been recording about two dozen compositions, but nothing was ready for release. Would Skip come in and make sense of what there was, and whip it into shape. Drasnin sadly passed shortly after hiring Skip onto the project, which became the acclaimed Voodoo 3. The composer never got to hear his last masterpiece, nor see the daunting repair work his protege did to pull it together. One of the compositions even made it into a major motion picture, A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks.
In 2018, the Raymond Scott Archive – Jeff Winner and Scott’s family – asked Skip to assemble a band to play Scott’s notoriously difficult Quintette music, famous mostly from Warner Bros cartoons. He put a band together that included bassist Nick Ornelas and clarinetist Christin Hablewitz and named it the Reckless Night Ensemble. The group headlined in September of that year at the first Scottfest, and were the hit of the event.
Skip and Nick next turned their Reckless Night performance agenda to the music of Lalo Guerrero, the Father of Chicano Music. Unfortunately, just as the group started playing, the pandemic shut down live music. They recorded the CD PanAmericanos, which consisted of compositions of Scott and Guerrero, which was favorably reviewed in JazzTimes. Also, the appeared on Telemundo.
When the pandemic lifted, the RNE played live (the music of both composers), and Skip also launched the Hollywood Film Noirchestra, made up largely but not entirely of RNE players playing his transcriptions and arrangements of classic Hollywood film noir music. Their LP, Dark Passages, quickly sold out its pressing, and the group was featured at length in Noir City and Exotica Moderne.
In addition, Skip’s interest in Latin soul resulted in the legendary Orquesta Rene single (now fetching 100+ dollars) with Joey Quinones, as well as a two 45 set of Orquesta Rene with Joe Bataan. Both projects were produced by Skip and Nick, with arrangements by Skip. Another 45 project Skip was hired to do was a restoration of two songs by exotica godfather Les Baxter, “”Quiet Village” and “Simba”, issued by Dionysus. This was followed by a one time performance at Tiki Oasis ‘23 of these and other Baxter scores.
2023 also saw the formation of Voodoo 5, featuring vocalist Lena Marie Cardinale and named in tribute to Skip’s mentor Robert Drasnin. Blending virtuosic female vocals with flute, Latin soul percussion, pedal steel guitar, upright bass, and exotic arrangements, their sound is immediately striking. Their debut album, Voodoo 5 featuring Lena Marie Cardinale: The Exotic Sounds of Skip Heller, is slated for April release on Rabbi Kris J. Kraus’ Black Fez label.
Several other projects – each very exciting – are on the boards. Stay tuned.