In early 1935, Dave Kapp representing Decca Records in Chicago, went down to Kansas City to meet with Count Basie who was now leading a band of considerable repute, swinging the Reno Club most nights down in KC. Kapp offered Basie a contract to make 24 sides a year for three years, for $750 a year (and no royalties!).
Basie relates openly what a very big mistake he made in taking the contract under those terms. Kapp went on to promise full transportation for the band to go to Chicago to record, and Basie was extremely taken by that too. Deal done.
That night, Basie took Lester to one side when he arrived at the Reno Club to tell him the news.
‘Well’, he said, ‘I got some great news. I think we’ll take a Pullman to Chicago and do some recording for Decca.’
As Basie tells it, all Lester did was just sort of stand there looking into space like he hadn’t heard what Basie had said because he was listening to something else or thinking about something else. Then he looked at Basie again.
‘What did I hear you say? Did I hear you?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We’re going to Chicago to make some records for Decca.’
And he just stood there and looked at me and looked away and then looked at me again. Then he went into his sweet-talk thing.
‘Listen, Lady B, you all right?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘Everything’s okay. I got me this contract with Decca.’
And he just stood there nodding his head, thinking about it, and then the next thing he said was like he was talking to hinmself.
‘Well, okay. So now we’ll see what happens.’
Then he finished his shot and looked at me and mumbled and went back into his sweet-jive thing again.
‘Hey, look. I tell you what, Lady B. Let’s go back in there and get us another little taste, and maybe you’ll tell me that again.’
When John Hammond came out there a short time later, for the second time that year, he couldn’t believe Basie had agreed to such a poor contract. Hammond went to work but while unable to get the band out of the Decca contract, did manage to get the company to raise the musicians’ pay up to minimum scale.
And that was how Count Basie came to sign his first recording contract, in what to him at the time sounded like the biggest deal he’d ever heard of, and how he broke it to his recent recruit from Minnesota, Lester Young.