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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.

Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” Turns 80 July 6, 2017

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Eighty years ago today, on this day (July 6) in 1937, Benny Goodman and his orchestra recorded the legendary instrumental version of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”.  The song originally came with lyrics, written by none other than Louis Prima, who also wrote the song’s music in 1936.  Indeed, Prima cut the first version of the tune that same year, along with his New Orleans Gang band.  Fletcher Henderson cut his own version with his band shortly thereafter.

But it was Benny Goodman who elevated the song to legendary status.  In typical Goodman fashion, they started performing the song during live gigs before eventually recording a studio version for record sales.  Of further interest is that Goodman seemed to waste little time to cover Prima’s song, as his band began performing his own version during the band’s second trip to the Palomar Ballroom, which was in 1936.

Goodman’s band finally cut the famous studio version on July 6, 1937 in Hollywood, Calif.  The location for the recording was likely influenced by the band either doing a West Coast tour, or the fact that they were finishing up their roles for the film “Hollywood Hotel” from the same year.  Naturally, the hit record featured in this article is also featured in the film!

Regardless, the band line-up remained largely intact from the core that helped launch the Swing Era two years earlier.  Red Ballard and Murray MacEachern were on trombones.  The two tenor saxes were played by Art Rollini and Vido Musso.  The two alto saxophones were played by George Koenig and Hymie Schertzer (Toots Mondello must have taken an hiatus, as he was largely a mainstay with the band through the end of the decade).  The rhythm section consisted of Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother) at bass, Allen Reuss at rhythm guitar, and Gene Krupa, arguably the “g.o.a.t” of drummers.  Goodman’s trumpet section was the only part of the band that had changed, and arguably for the better, as it boasted an all-star roster of Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, and chaired by Harry James, who enjoyed a lengthy solo during the second half of the record.

Speaking of which, the track was unique for its length.  Most Big Band Era recordings were restricted to three minutes, thirty seconds or less (usually about three minutes and several extra seconds) on account of the spatial and timing constraints of the 10-inch records played at 78 RPM.  “Sing, Sing, Sing”, conversely, lasts eight minutes, 43 seconds, thus taking up both sides of a 12-inch 78 RPM record.

Whereas most of Benny’s swingingest hits were Fletcher Henderson arrangements, Jimmy Mundy arranged this legendary cut.  Not that this was necessarily an anomaly, has he also arranged the great Goodman killer-diller “Bugle Call Rag” from late the previous year.

To be sure, many other artists over the years have covered Louis Prima’s catchy melody, from the Andrews Sisters to Goodman to Bunny Berigan to Teresa Brewer.  Even Paul Anka issued a cover version in 1958.  But clearly, Goodman’s version stands out above all the others.  Appropriately, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982, as the tune reached the age of 45 years.  Now at 80, let us all take the time to celebrate and appreciate its timeless appeal, its perpetually youthful vigor, and its everlastingly positive contribution to American popular culture!

Diamond Anniversary of Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall January 16, 2013

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BG-album-carnegie-hall-jazz-concertToday, Jan. 16, marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most historic concerts in American history.  For it was on this day in 1938 that Big Band, the music that defined American culture for four decades within the 20th Century, officially went Big Time.  Benny Goodman and his band performed at world-famous Carnegie Hall on that date, to a sellout crowd, and into the history books.  True, Paul Whiteman, the purported “king of jazz” in his day did perform at that historic venue the previous decade, but Big Band, or Swing, was far more refined, more focused, and more definitive a subgenre than the broad category of “jazz,” and it was finally given its big break into the mainstream of American popular culture.

Needless to say, this was no typical Benny Goodman gig.  For one, the make-up of the band was different during some of the tunes that were played.  Granted, most of the overall performance was by the usual players in the band, and photographic evidence of the concert backs this up.  Moreover, some of his bigger names in the band were also present; Gene Krupa on drums and Louisville native Lionel Hampton on vibraphone were both there, as were Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacey alternating at piano.  Harry James, then Goodman’s first-chair trumpet, was also on hand to give some memorable solos, and Martha Tilton, arguably the best female vocalist under Goodman’s employ, was present to sing during certain numbers.

But the band makeup was different for some of the numbers in the program in that there were players used to [temporarily] fill in various side-man roles; a talented makeup of musicians from Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s bands.  The rationale for this unusual move was twofold:  for one, this was an historic occasion, and the folks that spearheaded this whole idea in the first place put on the concert under the theme of “celebrating twenty years of jazz.”  As such, they wanted to pay some homage to the Duke and do updated versions of jazz tunes from the 1920s and early ‘30s.  That explained bringing in the Duke’s boys.  Ellington himself was invited, but he politely demurred, which paid off as he would be given his own moment in the sun at Carnegie a couple of years later.  Some of Count Basie’s players were brought in at the behest of John Hammond, the A&R man for Columbia Records and a friend of Goodman.  Hammond recognized that Basie’s ensemble was up-and-coming throughout 1937, and by including some of his players (including the legendary saxophonist Lester Young), it would give the ensemble for the concert an All-Star band feel.

Goodman_1938b

Benny Goodman in the foreground, with Gene Krupa on drums at left, Allan Reuss on rhythm guitar behind the sax section. Babe Russin is to the immediate left and Art Rollini is to the immediate right of Benny. At the far right corner, one can see some of the last-minute concert patrons in the “jury box” on stage!

Another break from precedence was how the show began.  Goodman usually opened up his gigs with “Let’s Dance,” which he had used for that purpose since at least 1935 (though he never cut a studio record of it until October of 1939, and by that time he left RCA for Columbia).  But instead, for this special show, he opted to kick things off with “Don’t Be That Way” instead.  Edgar Sampson wrote the tune.  An earlier song of his was “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” with which Goodman had a big hit in early 1936.  Moreover, Chick Webb had hits with both tunes as well, in 1936 and 1934, respectively.  Goodman, ironically, did not record a studio version for RCA until a week after this historic gig.  But irony or no, it did get things started off on the right foot.

Commercially, from the start, the concert was already a success.  Tickets sold out very quickly upon announcement of the show, but demand for tickets remained so high right up to Jan. 16 that they had to add some “jury box” seating literally on the stage.  For almost two hours, history was made, with the band performing 23 different numbers, including a few by the quartet consisting of Goodman, Wilson, Hampton, and Krupa.

The musical performance line-up for the concert was as follows (note ALL TRACKS have been linked to Youtube clips for your listening pleasure!):

Don’t Be That Way

One O’Clock Jump (likewise recorded in studio a month after the concert)

Sensation Rag

I’m Coming Virginia

When My Baby Smiles At Me

Shine

Blue Reverie

Life Goes to A Party

Honeysuckle Rose

Body And Soul

Avalon

The Man I Love

I Got Rhythm

Blue Skies

Loch Lomond

Blue Room

Swingtime In The Rockies

Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen

China Boy

Stompin’ At The Savoy

Dizzy Spells

Sing, Sing, Sing, (With A Swing)  — see clip below!

Big John’s Special

Of course, Goodman and his band saved the best for almost-last with a live, 12-minute rendition of Louie Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.”  He had a hit with it in the summer of ’37, which took up both sides of a 78 RPM record at about seven and a half minutes.  This one was longer thanks to a tongue-twisting trumpet solo by Harry James, extra Goodman clarinet solos, and even a piano solo by Jess Stacey with minimal musical accompaniment.  Let us not forget Gene Krupa carrying the whole number with his drumming, either!  In fact, he used this as a springboard to start up his own band later that year.

Better yet, though, after such an incredible performance, instead of taking all night to bask in the glow of applause in adulation, he signaled for the band to “cool down” like a horse after a race and break into “Big John’s Special.”  Always the professional, Goodman was!

The next day after the concert, while everyone was reading the diversity of reviews in the papers, someone observed to Goodman, “it’s too damned bad somebody didn’t make a record of this whole thing.”  Benny smiled back and replied “[S]omebody did.”  Indeed, a single microphone hung aloft over the band during the concert, hard-wiring the electric signals (and the music they were carrying) straight to CBS’s recording studios.  Two record copies were made.  One headed straight to the Library of Congress, while the other was lost into obscurity, until one of Goodman’s daughter’s unearthed it at the family’s house twelve years later.  When she showed it to her father, he quickly and wisely transferred the records to tape before listening to — and thus re-living — the concert a dozen years after the fact.  The concert was quickly published as an album on Columbia, thus allowing generations of big band/jazz fans to relive it as well over the past 63 years.  But 75 years ago, one night showed that a music that helped define American culture had truly come in to its own, which is incidentally another reason we have to thank Benny Goodman and the players in his band for his/their cultural contribution.

Addendum 01-24-13

Here is a clip of a cinematically-recreated scene from Goodman’s concert at Carnegie Hall, from “The Benny Goodman Story” (1955).

The part of Goodman was played by Steve Allen, but Krupa and James actually played themselves and did their own solos in this re-enactment of their historic “Sing, Sing, Sing” rendition during the concert.