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Best Christmas Records of the Swing Era December 17, 2020

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“Jingle Bells” by Benny Goodman (1935)

Hands-down the best version of “Jingle Bells” ever.  Okay, so this version lacks lyrics.  Fine.  Since when does “best” mean “perfect”?  Benny Goodman and his band cut this track on July 1, 1935, in the same incredible session in which they also recorded “King Porter Stomp” (the tune that launched the Swing Era), “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”.  Interestingly, while these last three songs are all Fletcher Henderson arrangements, “Jingle Bells” was arranged by Spud Murphy.  This track shows that ol’ Spud, too, was quite adept arranging, for it’s fit to be the perfect killer-diller for an opening or closing number on a live [Christmastime] gig.  Yes, also like the other three tracks, this record, too, includes a memorable Bunny Berigan trumpet solo.  Berigan was clearly at the top of his game at this time, and produces a solo that sounds eternally youthful, complete with his key-changing modus operandi that he occasionally allowed to surface. 

Not to be ignored are some classic Gene Krupa staccato drum punctuations at just the right time, and Art Rollini’s tenor sax solo is a fine, nay integral contribution as well.

Granted, this song is not always given to such an upbeat swinging tempo, but BG demonstrates, it works incredibly well, and provides further proof that Bunny Berigan was the G.O.A.T. of jazz trumpeters, and that Goodman was the King of Swing.

Interesting Fact:  RCA Victor paired this track as the flip side to Dorsey’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (Victor 25145B and 25145A, respectively).

“Santa Claus Came In The Spring” by Benny Goodman (1935)

Goodman and his band cut this record on Sept. 27, 1935 in Hollywood, during the last few days of their historic engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles.  Their original one-month engagement almost doubled in light of their sudden and smashing success.  And to think that all it took was the playing of “King Porter Stomp”!

Unlike BG’s version “Jingle Bells” from earlier the same year, this record has lyrics, with vocals provided by Joe Harris.  One appealing feature of many for this record is that the lyrics were written by none other than Johnny Mercer.

Moderately uptempo, Gene Krupa’s classic staccato/syncopated drum beats are there for all to hear and enjoy.  His liberal use of cymbals during Bunny Berigan’s muted trumpet solo (Berigan’s last recording with the band before leaving it) is an awesome touch, too.

This sublime, semi-obscure Christmas record is a sheer delight, and it highlights Goodman’s versatility as the King of Swing.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” by Tommy Dorsey (1935)

Recorded on September 26, 1935, when this ever-popular song was only a year old on paper.  It is also hands-down the best version of this song.  Don’t believe me?  Give it a listen.  Dorsey’s band was always highly versatile, and this record in particular demonstrates how adept they were on the hard-swinging end of the spectrum.  No “Sentimental” ballads here, no sir.  Featuring the vocal talents of both Cliff Weston and Edythe Wright, they take turns in covering all the verses, even the prelude to the main verse that we all know and love.  Great solos from all the sections abound.  Even Dorsey’s rhythm guitarist has his own solo, which was a rarity for the time (though not unheard of).  No matter how much you love this song before hearing this version, you’ll love it all the more after hearing this one.

“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby (1942)

All versions of this beloved Christmas song began with this one.  Bing first sang it in the wonderful 1942 film “Holiday Inn”, featuring songs written by Irving Berlin, who wrote it in the context of WWII and American servicemen longing for home as they were sent abroad to combat existential evils of the day. 

No matter how many talented artists have offered their own “take” on the classic, none have topped Bing Crosby’s rendition(s) of it.  Indeed, there are two versions, with the 1947 re-make the [ironically] more famous of the two.  But make no mistake about it, the original 1942 version – a studio recording version cut in tandem with the film, as was customary of the era – is the stronger version, if not by much.

Combined, both versions amount to the greatest selling record of all time, topping Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and any other multi-platinum recording artist.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the two combined records have sold an estimated 50 Million copies.  How very appropriate for someone who created the template for the legendary recording soloist and who exuded class (and subtle humor) in the process.

“Let It Snow!  Let It Snow!  Let It Snow!” by Vaughn Monroe (1945)

There is a general sentiment among many folks that the original is often the best.  While that is not always the case, it nevertheless often is, as Bing Crosby’s aforementioned version of “White Christmas” clearly attests.  So it is the case with Vaughn Monroe’s version, which frankly defines the song itself.  Noted songwriters Jule Steyn (music) and Sammy Cahn (lyrics) collaborated on this piece in Hollywood during a heat wave in 1945 as they envisioned cooler conditions.  Yes, Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song” that same year in the same area under similar circumstances, except he thought it up by the side of a swimming pool.

The song itself feels as though it was “built” for the big band treatment, and “Foghorn” Monroe delivers well in that department.  Moreover, his distinctive baritone vocals do the lyrics justice, too.  Just as the Christmas season feels incomplete without giving Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Bing’s “White Christmas” a few good listens, so too is Christmastime incomplete without hearing Monroe’s “Let It Snow” a few times as well.  He closed out the Swing Era well with this one.

Fun Fact:  Both movies “Die Hard” and sequel “Die Harder” begin closing credits with a later version of Monroe’s “Let It Snow”, a rendition likely recorded in the late 1960s prior to the bandleader’s untimely death in 1971.

“Silent Night” by Bing Crosby (1935)

Many people are familiar with Crosby’s 1947 re-recording.  While this version is all well and poignant, what most people don’t know is that Crosby cut an even stronger, even more poignant version 12 years earlier.  This is arguably the best version of one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time.  Both Bing and the Guardsmen Quartet that accompanies him have you believing the song by its end, even notwithstanding the use of a rarely-utilized alternate third verse.

“What Will Santa Claus Say” by Louis Prima (1936)

This song is vintage Louis Prima in his youthful prime.  It delivers his characteristic exuberance, albeit in a sufficiently refined manner.  The youthful energy is clearly there in any case, and in the process, he has delivered a great, one-of-a-kind, swinging Christmas song for [eight decades and counting of] posterity to enjoy.

Fun fact:  Also in 1936, Prima wrote the legendary swing song “Sing, Sing, Sing”, which Benny Goodman elevated to immortal status the following year.

“Winter Weather” by Benny Goodman (1941)

Make no mistake, this vintage of Goodman is considerably different, for good or ill, from his gutsy, hard-swinging Mid-Thirties vintage years.  Big Band itself evolved to a more polished, less energetic (in most cases) form by this time, and it shows in this record.  Still, it’s a fine track all the same, and Peggy Lee’s and Art London’s vocals are perfect for the piece.

“Happy Holidays” by Bing Crosby (1942)

Another wonderful Irving Berlin song that came out of the sublime film “Holiday Inn” from the same year, this one has also given rise to many cover versions.  Yes, Crosby broke this one as well.

“Jingle Bells” by Glenn Miller (1941) 

To be sure, this rendition is not nearly as strong as Goodman’s from 1935, but Miller had such a mass appeal with his arrangements that this version nevertheless deserves a place in the rankings.  What really makes this version stand out is the alternate lyrics-verse proferred by Ernesto Carceres, a saxophonist in Miller’s band at the time.

“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by Larry Clinton (1939) 

Long before The Crystals recorded their version of this song for Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You” album (1963), and even longer before Harry Connick Jr. recorded his own version of said song (1993), Larry Clinton led the way in offering a version for the Big Band Era.  But he was not the first outright.  Far from it.  The English lyrics to what was originally an instrumental character piece (composed by Leon Jessel in 1897) were written by Ballard MacDonald in 1922.  Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra cut his own (instrumental) version of the song the following year, he being one of three major bands to record it along between 1922 and ’23.  But in the Swing Era, it was Larry Clinton’s rendition that was the period’s representing version of this oddly-placed song in the Christmas music repertoire (perhaps the song’s association with toys and thus gift-giving is what associates it with the holiday season in the mind of the public).

Other Christmas Records by Bing Crosby, 1942-1945:

There is little argument in saying that Bing Crosby’s [singing] voice has become practically synonymous with the Christmas season itself. His aforementioned versions of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” clearly are a large reason for that, but he recorded a number of other fine, timeless Christmas songs as well during the last few years of the Big Band Era. Those include:

Adeste Fideles (1942)

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (with the Andrews Sisters)

Jingle Bells (1945)

This version, while not a strong and swinging arrangement like that of Benny Goodman’s from 1935, is nevertheless delightful. Indeed, it surpasses Glenn Miller’s rendition in its peppiness, and also contributes well as a piece of the bookend of an era as it came to a close.

The “Troubled” Song from 80 Years Ago Still Has Energy Today. December 11, 2014

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Eighty years and three weeks ago, a very seminal recording was produced by a band that legends in music who were up-and-comers at the time.

Of the many interesting parallels between the start of the Swing Era and the start of the Rock n’ Roll Era, one that readily stands out is the 20-year gaps between the two.  Rock’s era started in 1955, and most historians agree that Swing began in earnest in 1935.  But just because those are when the genres’ eras began does not mean that those forms of music did not exist prior to then.  Far from it.  Indeed, anybody remotely schooled in popular music from the 1950s would readily recognize a plethora of recordings from 1954 that would rightly have their place in the era that started the following year.  From “Sh-Boom” by the Chords to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner and “Sincerely” by the Moonglows, records like these contributed greatly to the energy that led to Rock’s explosion in 1955, even though they all date from the year before.

Similarly, key records from 1934 contributed to the build-up that led to the unleashing of Swing’s energy onto the scene in 1935.  One of the most important records, therefore, to come out of this year was “Troubled” by Frankie Trumbauer.  “Tram,” as he was known, was a key contributor to the early era.  His primary instrument was the C melody saxophone, a rarity unto itself, especially in the modern era of B-flat and E-flat saxes (tenor and alto, respectively).  But he also cut records with legends, both current and soon-t0-be, from Bix Beiderbecke to Bunny Berigan.

The first few, haunting notes at the instrumental’s beginning establish the record’s key signature tone.  After those notes, one experiences the establishment of a more upbeat tempo.  One thing that makes the record unique is that it is both upbeat with a minor key — no doubt reflecting the song’s intriguing title — something more of the exception than the norm.

The real strength of the record is its powerful solos, the largest plurality of which comes from the trumpet of the great Bunny Berigan himself.  His first brief solo teases the listener early in the tune, but Tram’s C-sax solos tide said listener over until he returns.  His (Berigan’s) return solo more than satisfies, for it immediately grabs both the audience’s attention and imagination with its sizzle and flare.  What one also comes to notice on the track are excellent clarinet solos, the keen talent thereof clearly shines.  Upon learning that the clarinetist in question is none other than the King of the Clarinet himself, Artie Shaw, all is explained!

The song’s title may have been “Troubled”, but its melody certainly was not.  Indeed, this important, seminal record foreshadowed the incredible, einmalig musical energy and genus that was soon to arrive, and soon to define an entire era of culture in America.

America’s Greatest Music: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby August 15, 2013

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Whenever you meet a girl whom you instantly recognize as a cut above the rest, this tune instantly enters your mind.  You know that even further when this tune pops up on the radio (assuming you’re tuned in to the SiriusXM 40s on 4 channel) and without hesitation you start singing along to the record.  But the question becomes, along with which version do you sing?

Such is a valid question.  After all, like many legendary tunes in the Great American Songbook, it has been recorded by many a legendary artist throughout the ages.  At different times, Artie Shaw, Lee Wiley, Perry Como (1946), Rosemary Clooney, The Crew Cuts — who made their mark on the business by doing cover versions of early ’50s R&B and doo-wop hits — Vic Damone, Joni James, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra have all taken their individual cracks at this song.  Let us also not forget Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin (1961), The Dave Clark Five (1967), or Michael Bublé (2001, which, compared to the years of the previous records, might as well be literally yesterday).

But this does not even acknowledge the spate or recordings made of this song when it was written (1938) by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics — figures!).  That year, Tommy Dorsey recorded his version with Edythe Wright on the vocals.  Chick Bullock — who provided the vocals for some of Bunny Berigan’s small group recordings on the Vocalion label in 1936 — also rendered his version that same year, as did Russ Morgan.

Yet the version that clearly stands out above all others was also recorded the same year the song in question was written (1938, in case you skipped the previous paragraph), and it was sung by none other than Bing Crosby (recorded on the Decca label, of course!).  It is this version that sticks out in one’s mind when a guy meets a girl that stands out from all the rest; it is this version that you joyous sing along with in your car when it comes on the radio….and it swings!

For anybody who doubts that Crosby owns the definitive version of this song, take a moment to notice its reference elsewhere in popular culture.  In the Looney Tunes cartoon “What’s Up Doc?” (1950) featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, an obvious reference to this record surfaces in the middle of the show.

A scene depicts Elmer Fudd coming across, by happenstance, a down-and-out Bugs.  Of the four characters that Fudd passes up before reaching Bugs, the first is a caricature of Al Jolson (“mammy” being a lyric often found in some of his songs), the third is a caricature of Eddie Cantor, and the fourth is obviously a satirical depiction of Der Bingle himself, singing a line of from the featured recording of this very article.  Watch for yourself!

Such humorous references to contemporary pop culture were a hallmark, and indeed, a distinctive competency (to borrow a business term) of the Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies cartoons!  But as hinted previously, this very reference also demonstrates that Crosby’s version stands apart from all others, much like that special lady.