The highly competitive nature of jazz trumpeters reaches a symbolic apex of some sort in the surname of this performer, a North Carolinian who began playing professionally at the age of 15. Sometimes credited as the chummy Johnny Best, the excellent trumpet man is associated with some classic recordings by vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. He also enjoyed stints in the most popular big bands of the swing era, picking up paychecks from the likes of Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman, the latter leader also sabotaging the trumpeter's charts on-stage so that he would sound worst, not Best. In the '50s, the trumpeter pointed the bell of his horn toward the studio scene, showing up in musical styles with a much softer edge and sometimes much less swinging.
In the beginning, Best was himself a bandleader. Through the late '20s, he led his own group in high school and continued honing his ensemble abilities at Davidson College and the University of North Carolina in outfits such as the Duke Blue Devils and the University of North Carolina Dance Band. Combo leader Hank Biagnini utilized Best regularly for several years, beginning in 1933. At that point, the trumpeter returned to college in North Carolina, then hooked up with bandleader Les Brown, a harbinger of future gigs with the slick orchestra of Ray Conniff. Best took off for Chicago around 1936, barnstormed with Charlie Barnet, and then showed up with Shaw. Through the late '30s and early '40s, he was back and forth between the Shaw shop and the Miller mill, even following the former bandleader into the Navy and playing in his band there. The war experience also got Best over to Europe, where in 1944 he gigged with Sam Donohue's Navy Band as well.
The trumpeter joined up with Goodman at the end of the war; realistically enough, he was part of the cast of musicians in The Benny Goodman Story biopic a decade later, and probably found star Steve Allen much easier to get along with. By the time this film was shot, Best was well into his tenure as a Hollywood studio player, work he had been increasingly offered since the late '40s. In the '50s, he played on many records by Bing Crosby, Jerry Gray, Rosemary Clooney, and Billy May, among others; he also hit the road with May in 1953. Best was a busy bee over the next 15 years, keeping up with an often bursting session itinerary and in the '60s also gigging five nights a week at the notorious Honeybucket Club in San Diego. A new version of the Bob Crosby Bobcats hired Best for a road tour in 1964, and in the '70s and '80s the trumpeter remained busy with studio projects as well as regular European tours.