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“In the Mood” and the 1939 Context August 1, 2019

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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August 1 of this year marks the 80th Anniversary of the recording of one of the most legendary records of all time.  Of course, I mean “In the Mood”, which Glenn Miller and his Orchestra cut on this day in 1939.  It would become the most famous record that this notable musician and his band would produce, and would also become part of American culture itself.

The song did not emerge out of a vacuum.  The iconic melody itself was based on a pre-Swing Era hit jazz instrumental by Wingy Joe Manone called “Tar Paper Stomp” from 1930 (re-released in 1935).  Arranger Joe Garland adapted that melody to the iconic one now famous for eight decades.  That said, Miller did not even produce the first version of “In the Mood”, which earned the new title from lyrics by Andy Razaf.  Rather, Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra released the first version of the song the year prior (1938).

But Miller’s version is the most famous by far of any versions, before or after.  Is it the most swinging record of all time?  Certainly not, but its pep and rhythm are enough to appeal to all ages throughout the decades.  Many jazz players and scholars have had problems with Miller’s overly cautious approach to swing, and one can feel a touch of this constraint even in this rather jumpy tune.

Nevertheless, there is an energy that is enough to give the record a timeless feel, constrained or not.  Moreover, dueling saxophone solos between Tex Beneke and Al Klink are one of the most famous duets of that era, followed not long afterwards by a memorable 16-bar trumpet solo by Clyde Hurley.  Then, Miller’s use of undulating volume, from a pianissimo chorus to a fortissimo at the end with a crescendo on the coda all lead to very satisfying, even triumphant finish.

The buying public certainly took well to the song.  Released in early 1940, it topped the charts for 13 straight weeks.  Not even Elvis Presley’s legendary single of “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel” could match that in 1956 (11 weeks).

One irony of note was that RCA Bluebird stablemate Artie Shaw took an earlier crack at that tune, with Jerry Gray arranging.  But his version was over six minutes long, too long to fit on one side of a 78 RPM record, and the audience response was lackluster.  Nevertheless, Shaw did a produce fine, live version of the song which has been captured and thoroughly circulated among swing aficionados.

Though the song was recorded in 1939 and certainly belongs in that vintage, as noted earlier, it peaked in record sales the following year (1940).  That same year, Miller and his band starred in the movie Sun Valley Serenade, (released in 1941) where they perform a live rendition that’s even more energetic than the famous studio version.

To zoom the proverbial lens out further, though, 1939 itself was a banner year for big band and for American popular music as a whole.  For starters, little-known singer named Frank Sinatra made a strong debut with Harry James’ band, most notably with “All or Nothing at All”.  When James was not utilizing the young crooner for ballads, he was tearing up some hot swing music in his own right, with “Ciribirbin”, and, even better, “Two O’Clock Jump.”

Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, would cut one of his most famous records early that year with “And the Angels Sing”, a collaboration between his then-first chair trumpet player Ziggy Elman and exalted, legendary American lyricist Johnny Mercer.  It would also be one of the last records on which Martha Tilton would contribute her vocal talents.  Later that year, Goodman left RCA Victor to sign with Columbia, as his good friend, John Hammond, was the A&R man there (and, three years later, Hammond would also become Goodman’s brother-in-law), making 1939 nothing if not a very transitional year for His Majesty of Swing.

Meanwhile at RCA Victor, Goodman’s chief rival, Tommy Dorsey, made some fine contributions to that vintage, in very different ways.  One was with a two-side semi-upbeat instrumental ballad in “Lonesome Road”, which offers some very precise, refined reed section performances, among other things.  The other is the swinger “Stomp it Off”, a guaranteed toe-tapper.

Miller’s RCA Bluebird stablemates also made their contributions, such as Charlie Barnet, who cut his most famous record in “Cherokee” that year.  Bob Crosby — brother of Bing — and his Bobcats produced one of that band’s finest records that year, “Over the Rainbow” (tastefully cashing in on the Wizard of Oz hoopla).

Back to Artie Shaw;  although his best vintage was the previous year (1938), he made indelible contributions to the 1939 vintage that range from the powerful businessman’s bounces such as “Deep Purple” (with Helen Forrest, in her young prime, contributing the vocals) to the strong swingers like “Prosschai“, to the unfathomably energetic “Carioca” and “Traffic Jam”, the latter of which to this day, evokes imagery of cartoon characters Tom and Jerry tearing around the house with reckless abandon!

If “In the Mood” were not enough for Miller himself in 1939, earlier that year he recorded his own breakout hit with “Moonlight Serenade”, the record in which he allegedly discovered his own distinctive sound, that of the double-tenor sax lead on the clarinet.  That same year he also cut perennial favorites for his repertoire, such as Moonlight Serenade’s hit follow-up, “Sunrise Serenade” and also “Little Brown Jug”.  “Ain’tcha Comin’ Out” showcases both the vocals of Marion Hutton as well as his lead tenor sax player, Tex Benecke, and “Stairway to the Stars” proved to a breakout record for vocalist Ray Eberle, as well as one of the finest versions of this Tin Pan Alley standard.  Other fine records by the band in question that year include “Blue Evening”, “Pagan Love Song”, the appropriately upbeat “Runnin’ Wild”, and Miller’s take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Blue Orchids”.  All these and more add up to the conclusion that 1939, in addition to being a banner year for the Swing Era, was also, arguably, Glenn Miller’s finest vintage, too.

All this said, while Glenn Miller may have ‘owned’ “In the Mood” with his legendary version, he did not produce the swingingest.  That distinction belongs to Goodman, who performed his own rendition in November of ’39 on a Camel Caravan broadcast for NBC, and is yet further proof as to why he was the King of Swing.  If that is not enough, he also outdid Miller earlier that year on other Camel Caravan radio shows with peppier versions of “Moonlight Serenade”, and “Blue Orchids”, proving that whatever Miller could do, the King could do better.

All in all, 1939 proved to be a very fecund, banner year for Swing and thus for American culture.  It would also be the last of the high-energy years of the big band era, as recordings would transition into smoother, more polished-sounding tunes starting in 1940, but that is for another article at another time.  Suffice it to say in the meantime, though, that Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was arguably the most iconic record of a key year/vintage in the high watermark of American culture.

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