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

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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.

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!

America’s Greatest Music: Where or When? February 5, 2014

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It seems we stood and talked like this before; we looked at each other the same way then;  but I can’t remember where or when.”

So go some very famous lyrics found in the Great American Songbook, the last three of which make title of the song to which they belong, “Where Or When.”

Written in 1937 by the highly adept duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their musical Babes in Arms, the song became an instant hit with the buying public when prominent recording artists such as Benny Goodman (specifically his Trio) recorded the song the same year.  Within a 77-year span of time, singers and musicians across several genres have taken their stab at rendering the tune, from contemporaries of when the song was new to respected artists who primarily traffic in the Standards today.

One of the most appealing aspects to the song is that it speaks to a strong sense of déjà vu with a significant other, potential or otherwise.  Different “takes” on the song also hint at various aspects of intimacy that the song suggests as well.  Moreover, it’s a good choice to play in any number of forms when trying to recall key moments in life with one’s own significant other!

What is also very appealing about the tune is that, like many other elite tunes in the Great American Songbook (e.g., “Night And Day,” “Stardust,” “Begin The Beguine,” and so forth), it works great in standard, sung form, as well as in instrumental form.  The Benny Goodman Trio, for example, took the latter approach, and the band’s leader along with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson do a good job of bringing out the tune’s intimacy.

A decent, semi-contemporary rendition where the lyrics were not ignored was done by Dick Haymes in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most-recognized version in this day and age, and arguably over the past five decades, is the one by Dion & the Belmonts from 1960.

But this does not even scratch the surface of the prominent artists who have recorded this fine song over the course of more than seven decades.  The laundry list of big names includes, in no particular order:  Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Shirley Bassey (yes, of “Goldfinger” fame), The Beach Boys (!), Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr. (naturally!), Dennis Day (the voice of Johnny Appleseed from Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time”), Percy Faith (who wants to bet that was rendered instrumentally?), The Flamingos, Ralph Flanagan, The Four Lads, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin (he performed this song at least five times on his show), The Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Steve Lawrence, Vaughn Monroe, Red Norvo, Patti Page, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra (but of course!), Kay Starr, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Mel Tormé, and Andy Williams.

Once you take a moment to catch your breath, it is also worth pointing out that more recent names such as Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Rod Stewart have also added their names to this lengthy list.

Indeed, such length of said list, to say nothing of the diversity of musical genres within it, along with the span of time that these artists cover, all add up to the strongest of testaments to the sheer timelessness of this song.

Let us not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it, for she never fails to do a great song like this its proper justice.

But my personal favorite has to be Nat King Cole’s live — albeit instrumental — rendition of his during his 1960 concert at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where many a recording legend had many a great concert.

America’s Greatest Music: Cheek to Cheek August 29, 2013

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The great Irving Berlin has been estimated to have written 1,500 songs throughout his 60-year career (he lived to be 100 years old).  A good many of this estimated 1,500 have become legendary in their own right within the Great American Songbook.  Quite possibly his most-recognized musical contribution is “God Bless America,” which, when he wrote and published the song in 1939, it became so popular so quickly that it threatened to supplant the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem.  One of the positive developments in the wake of 9-11 is that the tune has enjoyed an extra boost of popularity over the past almost-dozen years.

But that important song aside, Berlin’s contribution-in-song to American popular culture is vast, and one of his most famous — aside from the aforementioned patriotic tribute — is “Cheek to Cheek”.  Enter Fred Astaire, who himself is legendary not just for his amazing dancing ability, but also for the fact that he himself broke some of the most famous tunes ever to grace the Great American Songbook, this ballad being one of them.

First sung in the film “Top Hat” (1935), which is considered by many to be the quintessential Fred-and-Ginger movie, its original version from that picture remains famous to this day.  Indeed, it can be argued that not only did Fred Astaire break many famous American popular songs, but that he often performed the definitive version of them for all time.

Note that I said “often.”  In this case, that is debatable, not because the version is mediocre — far from it; in fact, what Astaire clearly lacked in vocal ability, he made up for this intangible quality of making the listener/viewer “believe” the tune — but because the competition is very fierce when it comes to great singers trying to out-do each other on the ultimate version of this song.

The term “fierce competition” is not an exaggeration when one considers that Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Desi Arnaz, Chet Atkins, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Ziggy Elman, Eddie Fisher, (take a deep breath) Billie Holiday, Harry James, Joni James, Al Jolson, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Louis Prima, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra (from this 1958 album “Come Dance With Me”), Rod Stewart, Mel Tormé
, and Teddy Wilson — among many others.

But one version does stand out above most others, and that is the one cut by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on the Verve label in 1956.  Indeed, Louie and Ella as a duet recorded many tunes from the Great American Songbook; many a fine version at that (one could argue a few of which are some of humanity’s [many] greatest recordings).  This particular rendition is one of the finer examples of the duo’s body of work from the latter half of the 1950s, and could rightfully be classified as one of humanity’s great records.

If the reader has never heard this version before, then the reader is in for a treat!  Regardless, though, the song itself wonderfully describes the bliss one experiences when dancing with that special partner.  Guys, when you’ve danced with that special girl before, you know what this song means!

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.