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America’s Greatest Music: A love song “twofer” from 75 years ago today. September 15, 2013

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A 1938 Cadillac is shown on the right and a 1935 Packard (similar to a 1938 model) is shown on the right. This image montage is included for visual reference to some of the text below. Photos by the author.

Sometimes certain recording sessions prove to be particularly fecund, if not downright one for the ages.  That was especially the case, for example, when Artie Shaw and his band cut the legendary record “Begin the Beguine,” in addition to other greats such as “Any Old Time,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Yesterdays,” and so on, all on July 24, 1938 for RCA Bluebird.  It happens that way in recording sessions, sometimes:  things just happen to click, and one great record after another is put to acetate for all of posterity to appreciate.

Such turned out not to be the case with the recording session the Billie Holiday undertook 75 years ago today (Sept. 15) for the Vocalion label (a Columbia subsidiary at the time), this being contrary to that which I wrote in this very article earlier.  I apologize for misleading the readers, as I did get my discography information incorrect, which led to the inaccurate info.  Nevertheless, these are two incredible, timeless records that were produced in 1938, and both just so happened to be the [arguably] definitive versions of two songs that definitely belong in the Great American Songbook.

One is “You Go to My Head.”  Written by the relatively obscure duo of J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie — interestingly, the same pair that wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”; seriously! — the song itself has been recorded by numerous artists and has become a venerable pop/jazz standard over the course of three-quarters of a century.  Nan Wynn and Teddy Wilson (on piano, naturally) took a stab at the song the same year Lady Day cut her version.  Marlene Dietrich recorded a version the following year, and in the years since then, luminaries including Frank Sinatra (1946 and 1960), Lena Horne, Doris Day (1949), Charlie Barnett, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington (1954), Dinah Shore, Patti Page (1956), Louis Armstrong (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (of course; 1960), and many others all have a version under their respective, figurative belts.

An outstanding yet relatively obscure version was done live in 1938 by Benny Goodman and his band during a Camel Caravan radio broadcast from Chicago, with Martha Tilton on vocals.  Goodman’s sound and ‘take’ on the tune certainly did it justice, as is the case with most Goodman records.  But the one that stands out above all is Billie Holiday’s version from that same year (she actually cut this track on May 11, 1938, not Sept. 15, as originally posted).

How could it not?  The very first thing the listener hears — and never forgets it when he/she does for the first time — is a fantastic opening tenor sax solo by Babe Russin (a member of Goodman’s band at the time, though the year prior capped off the legendary Tommy Dorsey record “Marie” with another great solo!) that simply oozes Art Deco imagery in the listener’s mind.  For best effect, try hearing the record while beholding the styling craftsmanship of, say, a 1938 Cadillac or Packard!  Claude Thornhill on piano and Cozy Cole on the drums make for a nice touch, too.

But that’s just the beginning.  Holiday’s expressiveness was practically tailor-made for the lyrics, and how they so accurately personify the incredible sensations one experiences of adoring “the one”, the potential significant other, despite how diligently the rational side of our minds tries to remind us of key apprehensions.  Hear for yourself!

On a related note is another love song, one just as timeless, and that being “The Very Thought of You.”  (And this was recorded on Sept. 15, 1938!)  The lyrics focus more so on the pure adoration aspect regarding the feelings one has for a significant other, and how “the one” tends to become the center of one’s focus.

Sid Ascher — later the manager of Tony Bennett — wrote the song in 1934, and sold the rights to the great British bandleader Ray Noble, who cut a fine version of it that year with Al Bowlly providing the vocals.  Bing Crosby himself did his own version that same year.  Vaughn Monroe recorded his rendition a decade later, and the inclined movie connoisseur can hear a band-accompanied piano instrumental of the song during a scene inside Rick’s Cafe Americain in the 1942 hit film “Casablanca.”  Doris Day later sang a version of the song for the 1950 film “Young Man with a Horn.” Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King” Cole all have their respective versions (the latter of which is particularly lovely), and Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett recorded a duet of it together.

But as is the case with the previously-examined song, Billie Holiday’s version stands out above the others.

A rather modern, repeated reference to this record can be heard throughout the 1992 film “Forever Young” with Mel Gibson; the song being used as something of a constant, a source of continuity, a bridge to two very different eras and how certain things were meant to stand the test of time, much like the song itself.

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America’s Greatest Music: You’re a Sweet Little Headache September 12, 2013

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In a slight change of pace, this particular tune does not merit itself into the Great American Songbook.  Nevertheless, it is a lovely little ditty, one that a few bands recorded during the Swing Era.  The main reason we highlight this tune right now is because it was recorded on this day (Sept. 12) 75 years ago.

One thing is for certain, and that is that Benny Goodman’s “sound” certainly did the tune justice.  An uptempo “businessman’s bounce” — something at which Benny’s band excelled — this record is also a good example of the lilting tone effect heard in Goodman’s woodwind section, something he practically perfected that year.

While Benny Goodman did not have a monopoly on this song, his is arguably the definitive version, what with his aforementioned sound, combined with his gutsy style of play.  Martha Tilton’s vocals make for a very nice addition, too.  With all that said, other prominent recording stars took their stab at this song around the same time, including RCA stablemate Artie Shaw (who recorded it with Helen Forrest singing the lyrics that same year [1938])*, and even Bing Crosby lent his vocal talents to the ditty in question the following year.

A more modern pop cultural reference to this recording can be heard in the ever-popular film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” during the apartment scene in Venice, where one can hear the Elsa Schneider character play the tune on an acoustic phonograph (making the recording sound 10-15 years older than it actually was!).

So while the lyrics do not rate the song itself as highly as a good Cole Porter or Irving Berlin standard, it nevertheless merits our attention as a solid record during the golden age of American popular culture — enjoy!

*The Artie Shaw version one can briefly heard in the very underrated 1991 Disney Film “The Rocketeer,” which also takes place in 1938.

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-06-13 August 6, 2013

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Yes, no doubt many readers are thinking that of all the outstanding Benny Goodman records that the King of Swing cut in his prime years, I chose “Thanks for the Memory” as the first to highlight on my blog.  Suffice it to say, I have my [undisclosed] reasons.  Adding further irony to the situation is that Goodman’s take on the tune is not considered its definitive version — Bob Hope is commonly thought to ‘own’ the song, along with Shirley Ross.  The two did render, perhaps, the definitive version of the song, and is no doubt closest to the original intent of the songwriters and of the storyline.

What is interesting is the contrast in tones that the two renditions set.  Whereas Hope and Ross version strike a very poignant chord of a long-time couple now splitting up, and they reminisce together right before going their separate ways, the Goodman version is far more upbeat.  Withholding the later verses about the lamentation of what has come to an end, Martha Tilton’s vocal talent instead concentrates on the fond memory of good times of two apparent travel companions.  All this is to say nothing of the contrast in key and tempo.  The Hope and Ross version has a strong tinge of melancholy and poignancy throughout the song, making you feel it, and feel for the soon-to-be-ex-couple.  All well and good, but that is far from Goodman’s style; thus, the song — recorded on Dec. 2, 1937 — is arranged in typical “businessman’s bounce” fashion, as only the King could deliver.

Moreover, this version does a better job of celebrating those ultra-special moments with very special people.

To all those with whom I’ve had special moments over the years — particularly this past weekend — thanks, for the memory.

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.