Milestone Recordings in American Music


Big Bands Boom (1935)

Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson had laid out the blueprint for big band swing music in 1925, but it wasn’t until a decade later that mainstream audiences finally, wholeheartedly latched onto the sound. Benny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp” was the record that broke through and started the national craze in earnest, but as the following selections show, it was far from the only important swing record released that year.

Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra
Rhythm Is Our Business (Decca 369, 1935)

Like Milton Brown’s “Down By The O-H-I-O,” the playful lyrics in Jimmie Lunceford’s “Rhythm Is Our Business” call out the individual instruments before their solos, running through drums (“Oh, when he does tricks with sticks / The boys in the band all play hot licks!”), saxophone, bass and trumpet. The playing is superb all around. Joe Thomas’s tenor saxophone solo is particularly enjoyable, displaying an amazingly fluid sense of swing that leaves you wanting more.

~ You may also like: Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, “Margie” (Decca 1617, 1938)

The Dorsey Brothers featuring Bob Crosby
Lullaby of Broadway(Decca 370, 1935)

Brothers Tommy (trombone) and Jimmy (alto sax and clarinet) Dorsey were both talented musicians who would go on to become top bandleaders of the swing era. Early in their careers, before a falling out caused them to split, they lead an orchestra together and turned out some great music such as “Lullaby of Broadway” written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, for the film Gold Diggers of 1935. The Dorsey Brothers’ recording featured Bing Crosby’s younger brother Bob (who would also go on to become a popular bandleader) on vocals. Crosby gives a fine vocal performance reminiscent of his brother’s warm crooning. The real treat here, though, is the incredibly tight playing of the band, which moves fluidly between a variety of styles from slow lullaby to buoyant swing. The use of a car horn as an instrument in the beginning is a great touch and sets a playful tone that carries throughout the record. The highlight comes in the final minute when the singing ends and the band really cuts loose with a wailing burst from Jimmy, some well-placed piano and percussion, and a fast-paced run at the end by the entire ensemble.

~ You may also like: Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra featuring Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell, “Tangerine” (Decca 4123, 1942)

Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday
What A Little Moonlight Can Do (Brunswick 7498, 1935)

Teddy Wilson’s sublime skill at the piano provided him with the opportunity to lead his own band in 1935, and right out of the gate that band produced this incredible record. With Benny Goodman on clarinet (who delivers an awe-inspiring opening solo), Ben Webster on tenor sax, Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Wilson himself on piano, it was already an all-star band, but what pushes this performance over the top is the addition of Billie Holiday on vocals. Holiday sounds like a veteran already, displaying an impeccable sense of swing as she plays her breathy voice like a jazz instrument. Holiday makes the lyrics her own, imbuing them with a sultry passion that speaks volumes beyond the words themselves. The way she sings “Oo-oo-oo, what a little moonlight can do-oo-oo” sends tingles up my spine. Some find the scratchiness of her voice distracting at first, but bear with it. If you are unfamiliar with the great Lady Day, you are in for a treat: the more you listen to her, the more you will begin to understand the subtle control and warm timbre that place her talent out of reach of mere mortals.

~ You may also like: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday, “I Cried for You (Now It's Your Turn to Cry Over Me)” (Brunswick 7729, 1936)

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra
King Porter Stomp(Victor 25090, 1935)

On the one hand, it seems unfair that Benny Goodman, a white bandleader, should get the glory of making the record that jumpstarted the big band swing craze. After all, African Americans had been making swing music since Louis Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1925. On the other hand, if any record had to finally capture the public’s attention, you would be hard pressed to find one more deserving than the Goodman orchestra’s rendition of “King Porter Stomp.”

In fact, Goodman deserves a lot of credit. Not only was he one of the best clarinetists and bandleaders of the era, but he was smart enough and colorblind enough to collaborate with the best musicians he could, even when that meant flying in the face of segregation. It was that kind of thinking that put Goodman into position to become the “King of Swing” in the first place. When Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra began to struggle during the Great Depression, Goodman wisely bought song arrangements from him and hired Henderson and his men to teach Goodman’s own musicians how to play “hot” swing music. And so it was that in 1935 Goodman’s band recorded a Henderson arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s tribute to fellow pianist Porter King.

Henderson’s arrangement completely re-worked Morton’s original, transforming it from a solo piano / small group piece into one of the most amazing big band numbers ever created. And in 1935, Goodman’s group nailed the performance. This music is not derivative in any way. The band is incredibly talented and manages to swing with a graceful style all its own. Two performances stand out in particular: first, Goodman himself solos for nearly three quarters of a minute, laying down one of the most instinctive and inviting clarinet solos ever. Then, just as the listener has been completely entranced, trumpeter Bunny Berigan bursts in to take over with a solo as propulsive as Goodman’s was seductive. Berigan also provides the cool spark that kicks off the record, while Jack Lacey adds a fine, raspy solo on trombone. Great fun and deserving of its place in history!

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Wrappin’ It Up” (Decca 157, 1934)

Duke Ellington
In A Sentimental Mood(Brunswick 7461, 1935)

This was the first recording of “In A Sentimental Mood,” one of Ellington’s loveliest compositions. It is a moody loveliness, spending much of the time in a brooding minor key, but it also has a delicate beauty that is indeed sentimental. Harry Carney does a wonderful job on tenor sax, filling the first half of the record with a rich, warm, comforting tone. Lawrence Brown’s longing performance on trombone is nearly as good in the second half, and Otto “Toby” Hardwick (alto sax) and Rex Stewart (cornet) add all the right touches to bring it all together.

~ You may also like: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, “Solitude” (Victor 24755, 1934)


Western Swing (1935)

While people usually associate big band swing music with jazz, a similar style blossomed in country music around the same time. "Western swing" music developed in Fort Worth, Texas in the early 1930s and by the end of the decade had become one of the most popular styles of country music. (The term “western swing” would not be used to describe the style until the early 1940s, however.) Building upon the traditional, small-group string band, this music featured highly arranged string orchestras reminiscent of jazz big bands, and often featured the same kind of improvised soloing. The best western swing featured amazing musicianship, winning vocals and an incredible sense of energy. It is a style all too often overlooked by modern audiences, but its influence can be seen in honky tonk, bluegrass, and even rock and roll.

Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers
I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart (Conqueror 8575, 1935)

On their own, The Prairie Ramblers were a talented and versatile string band, but it was their work with singer Patsy Montana (real name Ruby Blevins) that is most remembered. “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was Montana’s breakout hit and would become the first record by a female country artist to sell more than a million copies. Both Montana and the Ramblers shine in this incredible performance. Montana’s singing is highly expressive and yet moderated by the melody, which follows a traditional singing cowboy approach. Every time she hits a higher note, the melody reverses and brings her back to the ground with a string of lower ones. However, her singing is only part of the story, as Montana was also an accomplished yodeler. Whenever she yodels there are no such restraints, and she adds a wonderfully addictive new dimension to the melody that explores her full range.

Meanwhile, behind her The Prairie Ramblers ignore the standard singing cowboy convention of simple guitar accompaniment and instead create a lively, full string band sound. The entertaining result falls somewhere between cowboy and old-time country music – and transcends them both. In fact, while the ensemble may be smaller than what is typically found in western swing music, it certainly captures the same energy and hints at that new style’s potential.

~ You may also like: Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, “Wah Hoo” (Bluebird B-6308, 1936)

Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers
Under The Double Eagle(Victor 5945, 1935)

“Under The Double Eagle” is a great early example of western swing. Unlike a lot of the more adventurous records in that style, the solos here are very scripted, but the melody is wonderful and the tightly choreographed band plays it to perfection. After a couple of bars of solo piano, the rhythm section jumps in and bounds through the song with relentless energy. Guitar and fiddle take turns carrying the main melody. The highlight of the song comes when the fiddle solo becomes a duet and the melody changes briefly to resemble what would later become the melody of “You Are My Sunshine.”

~ You may also like: Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, “Goofus” (Bluebird B-6328, 1936)

Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies
Brownie’s Stomp(Bluebird B-5775, 1935)

Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies
Down By The O-H-I-O (Decca 5111, 1935)

Milton Brown was one of the forefathers and undisputed masters of western swing. He tragically died from pneumonia following a car accident in 1936 just as his career was taking off, but in his short time as bandleader he created numerous masterpieces. “Brownie’s Stomp” and “Down By The O-H-I-O” are two great examples that feature arrangements with plenty of space for soloing. In “Brownie’s Stomp,” the energy level is at a maximum and the solos come in rapid succession, occasionally punctuated by an interjection (“Yeah!”) from Brown. When the song reaches Fred Calhoun’s piano solo, you realize that the lines between jazz and country have officially been erased.

~ You may also like a somewhat slower recording by the band with more great solos as well as vocals by Brown: Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” (Decca 5201, 1936)

“Down By The O-H-I-O” is nearly as energetic, but features a tighter song structure and Brown on vocals. The lyrics wonderfully set up the solos: “Now I’m gonna take my guitar / Oh, I’m gonna play on my guitar / Oh, I’m gonna really play that thing / Oh, I’m gonna knock off a dozen strings!” Between each line, the band members sing out “Down by the Ohio!” in the background and play their hearts out. Fiddle, guitar, piano and banjo each take fine solos before Bob Dunn appears with the most unusual and best solo of all on an electrically amplified steel guitar. Dunn’s inventive playing on this and several other Brownies recordings was very influential and would help cement the steel guitar’s role in country music.

~ You may also like some more great soloing by Bob Dunn and others: Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, “Taking Off” (Decca 5149, 1935)


Please Don't Go (1934-1935)

The following recordings show the amazing variety and individuality to be found in rural music, even at the height of the Great Depression. Every one of these records is an unparalleled classic.

Bessie Smith
Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)(Okeh 8949, 1934)

“Gimme a Pigfoot” shows Bessie Smith at her rawest and best. Vocally, she pulls out all the stops, hitting the typical highs with her powerful voice, but also unapologetically hitting all the lows with a snarling growl. By the time she sings, “He’s got rhythm – yeah!” there’s no doubt where the song is headed. The rest of the devil-may-care lyrics only add fuel to the fire as Smith calls for not just a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, but also for refer and gin as she demands a good time.

The accompaniment reflects the bluesy rowdiness as well, with the lead piano (by Buck Washington) and trumpet (by Frankie Newton) parts played playfully and loose. Newton’s trumpet solo, in particular, is wonderful as it slurs through the meandering notes and slides drunkenly into the final verse. Also providing colorful touches are swing legends Jack Teagarden on trombone, Chu Berry on tenor sax and Benny Goodman on clarinet.

Unfortunately, the November 24, 1933 recording session that yielded “Gimme a Pigfoot” would be Smith’s last. The hard-hit economy and the public’s appetite for newer sounds left her behind, and she was killed in a car crash only a few years later (in September 1937 at age 43).

~ You may also like: Bessie Smith, “Do Your Duty” (Okeh 8945, 1933)

Joe Pullum
Black Gal, What Makes Your Head So Hard?(Bluebird B-5459, 1934)

“Black Gal, What Makes Your Head So Hard?” was a big hit in 1934 for its composer Joe Pullum. It was covered by many other artists, but none could match the Houston native’s original. With Rob Cooper on piano, Pullum slowly unfolds a dramatic story of lost love and jealous obsession: “When I got my bonus, she followed me all over town / Now that she spent all my money, she don’t even want me around.”

Besides the song’s clever lyrics, Pullum’s version was appealing because of his unique vocal style. He sang entirely in falsetto, but exhibited remarkable vocal control while doing so: his voice was clear and breathy but never shrill. He even sings the lower octaves in falsetto, adding a nasal resonance to give his voice more depth and texture. The result not only sounded great, but distinguished him from his contemporaries. In addition to the spellbinding falsetto, Pullum adds other captivating little touches, like rolling his r’s throughout. He ends the song on a threatening note, making a wonderful nasal growl as the narrator promises revenge on the woman who did him wrong.

~ You may also like: Skip James, “Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” (Paramount 13085, 1931)

Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell
Blues Before Sunrise(Vocalion 02657, 1934)

“Blues Before Sunrise” is another classic from urban blues pioneers Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. This is one of the darkest songs the duo ever recorded, with subject matter that skips right over melancholy to despair and ultimately murder. Fittingly, except for the occasional high, falsetto flourish, Carr keeps his voice at the bottom of his range throughout the song. His piano playing, too, is slow and deliberate. Meanwhile, Blackwell’s exquisite slide guitar perfectly captures the song’s depressing tone. Blackwell knows just what to play – and what not to play – to control the emotional impact without distracting from the vocals. Although he’s playing an acoustic guitar, his technique so influenced later electric blues guitarists that the record sounds years ahead of its time.

~ You may also like: Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, “Hurry Down Sunshine” (Vocalion 2741, 1934)

1935 Headlines … Great Depression continues … Adolf Hitler announces German rearmament in violation of the Versailles Treaty … Board game Monopoly released … Construction completed on Hoover Dam

Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell
When the Sun Goes Down(Bluebird B-5877, 1935)

This record is Leroy Carr’s finest moment. As gloomy as his delivery was in “Blue Before Sunrise” the year prior, here his vocals and piano playing soar. Scrapper Blackwell provides his usual excellent, jazzy accompaniment on guitar, but this song is Carr’s showcase. His fingers bounce joyously across the piano and his voice proves a willing dance partner, belying the bittersweet subject matter: “In the evening, in the evening, mama, when the sun goes down / In the evening, baby, when the sun goes down / Well, ain’t it lonesome, ain’t it lonesome, babe, when your lover’s not around / When the sun goes down.”

Carr’s animated delivery works well with the song’s structure, especially when he repeats the line “When the sun goes down” at the end of every verse. The next-to-last verse has no lyrics, just Carr humming and playing, and it elevates the song to a new level. That happiness cannot be denied in the final verse, which ends on a hopeful note: “Goodbye old sweethearts and pals, yes, I’m going away / But I may be back to see you again some old rainy day / Well, in the evening, in the evening, babe, when the sun goes down / When the sun goes down.”

Unfortunately, Carr’s finest moment would prove to be his last. He died suddenly at age 30 in April 1935, the same month this record was released.

~ You may also like: Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, “Midnight Hour Blues” (Vocalion 02741, 1934)

Sleepy John Estes
Drop Down Mama (Champion 50048, 1935)

“Drop Down Mama” is another amazing example of Sleepy John Estes’ “crying” blues style. Estes plays solid rhythm guitar while Hammie Nixon takes lead on harmonica, but the real focus of the song is on the weary, tortured vocals: “Now drop down, baby, let your daddy be / I know just what you’re trying to put on me.” Estes’ voice creaks and moans throughout, and he stretches out the last word of every line, teasing out every last ounce of feeling.

~ You may also like: Sleepy John Estes, “Someday Baby Blues” (Decca 7279, 1937)

Joe Williams’ Washboard Blues Singers
Baby Please Don’t Go (Bluebird B-6200, 1935)

Big Joe Williams (not to be confused with the Joe Williams who would sing with Count Basie’s band) was a Delta blues musician who developed a unique style all his own. “Baby Please Don’t Go” is his best-known composition and has become a blues standard. The original 1935 recording of it is as distinct as it is riveting. In addition to Williams’ own heavily modified nine-string guitar, this record features washboard and a single-string fiddle (played by Chasey Collins) that combine to create a spare, uncanny sound. Williams alternates freely between rhythm and lead with his hybrid guitar, which sometimes sounds like a six-string and sometimes like a twelve. Meanwhile, the eerie fiddle floats above carrying the main melody, and the washboard obliviously tap-tap-taps the song along. The extra instruments add a poignant depth to Williams’ straight-from-the-soul Delta blues singing: “Now baby please don’t go down to New Orleans / You know I love you so.”

~ You may also like: Big Joe Williams, “Peach Orchard Mama” (Bluebird B-8774, 1941)

Amédé Ardoin & Dennis McGee
Les Blues de Voyage(Bluebird B-2189, 1935)

Accordionist and singer Amédé Ardoin was the first Louisiana Creole musician to be recorded, and was a big influence on all of the Creole and Cajun music that would follow. The Creoles were related to the Cajuns, but had mixed French, African American and Native American ancestry, rather than descending strictly from the white French Acadians. Like their ancestry, Creole music (known at the time as “la-la”) was a blend, taking Cajun instruments and song structure as its base and adding new rhythms and bluesy vocals. This music would eventually evolve into what is now known as zydeco.

Beginning in 1929, Ardoin frequently collaborated with white Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, making them one of the first openly interracial acts. The combination proved a powerful one, as demonstrated by “Les Blues de Voyage” (“Travel Blues”). Accordion and fiddle play so well off of each other that at times it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Ardoin half-sings, half-cries out the French lyrics, his high, resonating voice expressing a passion that needs no translation.

~ You may also like: Amédé Ardoin and Denus McGee, “The Midland Two Step” (Decca 17003, 1935)

The Carter Family
Can the Circle Be Unbroken? (Bye and Bye)(Melotone 13432, 1935)

“Can The Circle Be Unbroken?” had been performed earlier by the Carter Family, but never released as a record. Their 1935 recording, however, finally gave the song its due. Re-worked by A.P. Carter from a popular hymn titled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” it would go on to become a country standard. (Many subsequent recordings have used the hymn’s original title.) Told from the point of view of someone whose mother has just died, the song captures the grief of the situation: “Undertaker, please drive slow / For this body you are hauling / Lord, I hate to see her go.” However, it also expresses hope for a heavenly afterlife in the chorus: “Can the circle be unbroken / Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye / There’s a better home awaiting / In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

As always, Sara’s weary-yet-strong vocals are top-notch, and A.P. and Maybelle do a fine job on harmony during the catchy chorus. It is Maybelle’s guitar work, though, that stands out the most in this performance. After a hesitating, slow start, her playing begins to gain speed and confidence. By the end of the first chorus, the guitar has taken control of the melody and assertively drives the song forward.

~ You may also like: The Carter Family, “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” (Victor 21638, 1928)


Showing Off (1934)

There is quite a bit of stylistic variety in the tracks that follow – yodeling cowboys, rowdy fiddle-and-banjo, otherworldly Hawaiian steel guitar, well-coordinated orchestra, sentimental singing – but they all have one thing in common. These artists were at the top of their game and used these recordings to prove it.

Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra
Blue Moon (Decca 312, 1934)

“Blue Moon” has been covered many times throughout the years, most famously by the Marcels in 1961. The original 1934 recording by the Casa Loma Orchestra may beat them all, though. For a song so familiar, it is amazing how much this recording continues to delightfully surprise. The combination of Kenny Sargent’s measured, melancholy vocals and the orchestra’s spot-on accompaniment is out of this world. From Glen Gray’s airy baritone sax to the bouncing rhythm section to Pee Wee Hunt’s dreamy trombone, every detail is perfect.

~ You may also like: Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, “Smoke Rings” (Brunswick 6289, 1932)

The Sons of the Pioneers
Way Out There(Decca 5013, 1934)

By the mid-1930s, nostalgia for United States’ frontier days had reached a boiling point, resulting in a slew of Western-themed Hollywood movies. These movies romanticized the Old West and the lives of early settlers and cowboys, many of them featuring humor and music. In short order, a whole new style of “singing cowboy” music emerged, giving a the simple singing style of the original settlers a highly polished pop makeover. The Sons of the Pioneers were one of the style’s first and most successful artists, and “Way Out There” was one of their earliest hits. The song tells the story of a man who sneaks a free ride on a train, only to find himself kicked off the train “way out there.” In layered harmony, the singers conjure endearingly lonesome images of the unpopulated desert plain. The record is paced by a fast, bouncing guitar that conjures the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks. Some wonderfully harmonic yodeling in the chorus invokes a harsh train whistle at first, then softens and quickly turns lullaby-sweet.

~ You may also like: Jimmie Rodgers, “Any Old Time” (Victor 22488, 1930)

The Prairie Ramblers
Shady Grove My Darling(Bluebird B-5322, 1934)

They may have changed their name from the Kentucky Ramblers to the Prairie Ramblers to capitalize on the country’s Western craze, but with “Shady Grove” this incredibly versatile group proudly and ably displayed their Appalachian string band roots. Their fast ensemble playing may not have quite been bluegrass, but the seeds of that later style are certainly present in this raucous, entertaining romp. Multi-part harmony alternates with rapid banjo picking, fiddling and whoops of genuine joy: “Wooo-ha-ha! Come on boys!” That energy is infectious, and listening to this record you’ll be hard pressed not to whoop along.

~ You may also like some more energetic Kentucky fiddling: Ted Gossett’s String Band, “Eighth of January” (Champion 16160, 1930)

Sol Hoopii and His Novelty Quartet
Hula Girl (Brunswick 6768, 1934)

No one did more to popularize the Hawaiian steel guitar than virtuoso Sol Hoopii (pronounced “Ho-oh-pee-ee”). After honing his skills in his native Hawaii, Hoopii relocated to California in the 1920s. He soon found a very receptive public and by the mid-1930s he was making what are now considered his greatest recordings. “Hula Girl” is perhaps the best example of his genius. Although the steel guitar, ukulele and subject matter clearly mark the record as Hawaiian, those elements are actually little more than novelty layered over a jazzy little pop song. Indeed, Hoopii takes the steel guitar far beyond what most people would think of as Hawaiian music, soloing with all the creativity and dexterity of a master jazz musician. As rapidly as he picks the guitar, he still manages to use the slide continuously and expertly, adding an unpredictable and exotic dimension to his playing. For those used to hearing slide guitar in the more reserved setting of blues or country music, it is eye-opening to hear it played this way. With the ukulele providing a steady beat, Hoopii creates a dazzling array of sounds, rapidly careening from zany to dreamy and back again. His sense of timing is impeccable, and the entire performance is highly entertaining.

~ You may also like: Sol Hoopii and His Novelty Quartet, “I Like You” (Brunswick 6787, 1934)

Chick Webb’s Savoy Orchestra
Stompin’ at the Savoy (Columbia 2926-D, 1934)

From looking at William Henry “Chick” Webb, one would hardly believe he’d have the stamina to be a drummer, let alone one of the best of his generation. Despite short stature (he was under five feet tall), a hunchback and chronic health problems caused by tuberculosis of the spine, he and his orchestra managed to make the biggest, most robust swing music of their time. Listen to “Stomping at the Savoy” and you’ll have no doubt why this band consistently won the Savoy Ballroom’s “Battle of the Bands” contest to claim the title of best band in New York. Right from the beginning, the group sounds incredibly tight. The bouncing bass keeps rhythm while the horn section and tenor sax engage in a playful exchange. The music is incredibly well choreographed, but never predictable: it retains a sense of whimsy and a swinging beat throughout. The middle section of the song is simply tremendous: an irresistible dialogue between the Sandy Williams on trombone and Elmer Williams on tenor sax is followed by one between Taft Jordan on trumpet and Edgar Sampson on alto sax.

In the background, Webb’s well-timed drums are ever present. They begin tame enough, but increase in volume throughout the song. At the end of that magnificent middle solo section, Webb keeps the record moving along through sheer force of will, summoning the full band back into action as he pounds the drums with incredible ferocity. From there until the end of the song, the band does all it can to keep up with Webb. He briefly cedes the floor to the tenor sax, then returns with even more energy, propelling the song to its conclusion.

~ You may also like: Chick Webb and His Orchestra, “Blue Lou” (Decca 1065, 1936)

Fats Waller and His Rhythm
Honeysuckle Rose(Victor 24826, 1934)

As incredible as his piano playing was, Waller’s true legacy lies in his remarkable songwriting. “Honeysuckle Rose” is his most beloved composition and has become a giant among jazz standards. Waller’s original recording remains hard to beat, though. It starts with some of Waller’s dazzling yet seemingly effortless piano playing, of course, but the vocals soon become the focal point. Waller often took a comical approach to singing, but only a touch of that comes through here as he keeps things mostly on the sweet side: “When I’m taking sips / from your tasty lips / the honey fairly drips.” Waller is backed up by a small group that adds just the right touches, and the end result is just delightful. After the first verse, the band plays a lovely interlude where Waller’s sweet piano is accompanied by a repeated trumpet theme. When Waller returns to singing after the bridge, the energy level of the record has risen to joyous levels and the charming main melody returns with a full, exuberant sound that is hard to resist.

~ You may also like a great group recording of this same song, featuring Waller on piano, Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Dick McDonough on guitar and George “Georgia” Wettling on drums: A Jam Session at Victor, “Honeysuckle Rose” (Victor 25559, 1937)


Baby, Don’t You Wanna Go (1934)

While a smoother, urban sensibility was emerging, rural blues was far from dead. In fact, some of the best and most successful country blues was still to be made, starting with an absolute classic in Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues.”

Kokomo Arnold
Milk Cow Blues(Decca 7026, 1934)

Kokomo Arnold
Old Original Kokomo Blues(Decca 7026, 1934)

From 1934 to 1938, James “Kokomo” Arnold recorded 88 sides for Decca, and his distinct voice and commanding slide guitar made him one of the most successful and influential blues artists of the decade. His first Decca single – pairing “Milk Cow Blues” and “Old Original Kokomo Blues” – provides the finest example of his work.

His guitar sounds fresh and lively on “Milk Cow Blues,” expertly walking the line between unpredictable and inviting. The finger work creates a riveting backdrop for the vocals and serves as a second, equally powerful voice. But as good as the guitar is, it is Arnold’s true voice that makes this song essential. It is one of the smoothest, most confident, most dynamic voices in blues, and it is not hard to see why he was one of the few blues artists to record regularly during the height of the Great Depression.

The high point of the record may be during the following passage: “Now you can read out your hymn book, preach out your Bible / Fall down on your knees and pray Dear good Lord will help you / ‘Cause you gonna need, you gonna need my help some day / Mama if you can’t quit your sinnin’, please quit your lowdown ways.” In the beginning of this stretch, Arnold’s voice is rich and mellow and drips character at every turn. The first time he sings, “You gonna need,” his voice jumps up to tease us for a moment with a low falsetto. The second time he sings it, he really lets loose and his voice soars even higher for brilliant emphasis. It is a remarkable moment in a song full of remarkable moments.

~ You may also like: Kokomo Arnold, “Back Door Blues” (Decca 7156, 1934)

On the flip side, “Old Original Kokomo Blues” is nearly as good. This is the song that introduced the phrase “Baby, don’t you wanna go,” and Robert Johnson later reworked it into “Sweet Home Chicago.” It also gave Arnold the name he would perform under for the rest of his career. (Kokomo was at the time a brand of coffee.) Arnold’s guitar work is faster and more aggressive here, and his vocals are biting each time he hits the refrain. With clever lyrics and Arnold’s outstanding delivery, it is easy to see why it proved so influential to Robert Johnson and others. I challenge anyone to listen to it without singing along: “Baby, don’t you wanna go!”

~ You may also like: Kokomo Arnold, “Policy Wheel Blues” (Decca 7147, 1935)

Charley Patton
Poor Me (Vocalion 02651, 1934)

“Poor Me” is one of a handful of records that Patton recorded for the Vocalion label toward the end of his life. The sound quality is thankfully much improved from his earlier work on Paramount, giving us our best glimpse of the full power of his unique voice. Here that voice sounds even more weathered and scratchy than normal, infused with a weariness that goes beyond the song’s bleak subject matter. Patton’s health was failing when he recorded this song at the beginning of 1934. He would pass away in April of that year, and the full weight of his impending mortality resonates in every syllable. He manipulates the slow tempo skillfully, dragging key notes and syllables out for maximum impact. His guitar work is subdued but brilliant as ever, and his tortured vocals are absolutely haunting. It is a fitting eulogy for the man who both defined and transcended the Delta blues style.

~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “High Sheriff Blues” (Vocalion 02680, 1934)

Memphis Minnie
Moaning the Blues(Decca 7037, 1934)

This record is a great example of why Memphis Minnie is remembered as “Queen of the Blues.” She had moved from Memphis to Chicago at this point, and her style is much more direct and confident than her earlier duets with Kansas Joe. Her powerful voice is cutting in its urgency, yet still soft and vulnerable around the edges. Each line starts off from the gut at full volume, but mellows in the middle and quickly fades to a tremble on the last syllable. At the end of the record, she “sings” an entire verse with no words: just a low, sustained moan punctuated by some excellent guitar work. It is an impressive vocal feat, its restraint making it that much more intimate.

~ You may also like: Furry Lewis, “Falling Down Blues” (Vocalion 1133, 1927)


New Blues (1933-1934)

The following songs show the blues evolving, becoming smoother and tighter – more like the blues modern listeners are used to. This is still strictly acoustic material, but the roots of modern electric blues are firmly in place.

Joshua White
Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed(Perfect 0258, 1933)

Josh White was a versatile performer who was equally at home playing blues, folk and gospel music. Because of this versatility and because he spent the latter part of his career as a folk revival singer, he sometimes gets overlooked as a blues musician. That is a shame, as his blues musicianship was the equal of any of his contemporaries.

“Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed” is a gospel blues classic (and, incidentally, the original inspiration behind Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”). The record is almost too easy to listen to: White’s pleasant voice and smooth, effortless slide guitar are almost soothing, and the lyrics are simple and straightforward. But listen to it again! Yes, that slide guitar is polished, but it is also as passionate as any Delta bluesman. White’s playing may be wine instead of whiskey, but it is no less intoxicating. His technique during the bridge is particularly impressive, as he snaps out a series of compelling, deep notes.

The same can be said of his singing voice: easygoing, yes, but also expressive. Listen as he sings: “In the time of dying, I don’t want nobody to moan / All I want my friends to do: come and fold my dying arms.” The subject matter is bittersweet, and his tone mirrors it: simultaneously buoyant and reflective. It is an amazing performance, and it’s no wonder that it was able to inspire artists like Led Zeppelin so many years later.

~ You may also like a more traditional blues song with White’s unmistakable touch: Joshua White, “Blood Red River” (Perfect 0257, 1933)

1934 Headlines … Great Depression continues … More “Dust Bowl” storms in Great Plains … Apollo Theater opens in Harlem, New York City … Adolph Hitler becomes Führer, completes rise to power in Germany

Big Bill Broonzy
Mississippi River Blues(Bluebird B-5535, 1934)

While growing up in the Mississippi Delta region, Big Bill Broonzy’s first instrument was the fiddle, but he switched to guitar when he moved to Chicago in 1920. He struggled to find success as a recording artist until 1934 when he signed with Bluebird Records and his many years of effort finally paid off. The records he made with Bluebird would help define a new style of urban blues that would set the tone for all blues to come, and Broonzy himself would go on to have a long, well-respected career.

In “Mississippi River Blues,” we can see all of the elements coming together. Pianist “Black Bob” Call provides a steady, walking beat and the occasional flourish, but it is Broonzy’s voice and guitar that make the record sound so fresh. Although the song progresses at an easy pace, Broonzy’s guitar is quick, crisp and loud. His percussive, staccato playing style fills the song with energy, neatly predicting the rise of rhythm and blues in the 1940s and rock and roll in the 1950s. Broonzy marries his kinetic playing to confident yet intimate vocals. His down-home Delta voice is magnificent: equal parts character, power and restraint. Notice the way each line starts small, swells in the middle and then steps down measurably again at the end. The song tells the story of a man trying in vain to find a way to cross the imposing river: “Mississippi River is so long, deep and wide / I can see my good girl standin’ on that other side.” As Broonzy sings the final word of that first verse, his big voice softens and cracks. By the time the song ends, he convincingly sings, “Lord, I’m gonna get me a good girl or jump over board and drown.”

~ You may also like: Big Bill Broonzy, “Long Tall Mama” (Banner 33085, 1934)


Something Different (1933)

Despite an overall slowdown in the recording industry, musicians continued to innovate and some of that creative output managed to find its way onto record. Whether a bluesy new kind of big band jazz from Kansas City or exotic steel guitar from Hawaii, recorded music continued to grow in leaps and bounds.

Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra
Moten Swing(Victor 23384, 1933)

Bennie Moten was the top bandleader in Kansas City and “Moten Swing” was his signature tune. This recording from December 1932 displays a big band swing sound as fully realized as if it had been recorded a decade later. Moten himself does not play on this recording, leaving the piano to a rising star in his band, William “Count” Basie. Basie starts the song with a simple but swinging introduction, and he demonstrates an uncanny sense of musicianship throughout as he provides prominent, though spare, accompaniment that perfectly accents the orchestra and soloists. The rhythm section, led by former Blue Devils bandleader Walter Page on bass, is simply phenomenal, creating a propulsive rhythm that is impossible not to dance to. The soloists are also quite good, including Eddie Barefield on alto sax, Ben Webster on tenor and Oran “Hot Lips” Page on trumpet. Sadly, Moten would die in 1935, just as the big band era was beginning, but the Kansas City jazz sound he helped pioneer would live on through the alumni of this incredible orchestra.

~ You may also like: Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, “Prince of Wails” (Victor 23393, 1933)

Art Tatum
Tiger Rag (Brunswick 6543, 1933)

Art Tatum is widely considered to be the greatest jazz pianist and one of the most technically gifted soloists of all time. Listening to “Tiger Rag,” it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the dazzling speed and complexity. Tatum’s improvisational flourishes seem to know no bounds as he makes use of the entire keyboard to unleash a succession of notes more intense than anyone had previously dreamed of. And yet, even more amazingly, the piece never seems out of control. The song’s original melody is still recognizable beneath the impressive ornamentation, and despite the impossible pace, Tatum executes with an exacting precision.

A case in point: with just under a minute to go in the song, Tatum is playing a complex back-and-forth melody and his right hand starts racing up the keyboard. He surprises the listener by not stopping where one would expect, but continuing to the highest keys. He then reverses and heads back down at the same breakneck tempo. This is impressive so far if only for its speed, but then something magical happens: he stops hitting every key and makes it sound as if his fingers have tripped, their momentum carrying them, bouncing, the rest of the way until they “regain their feet” and run headfirst into the next complex passage. The whole breathtaking exchange takes less than 10 seconds, and can be quickly overlooked in the rush, but if your brain can keep up, these little details are marvelous to witness.

~ You may also like: Art Tatum, “Begin the Beguine” (Decca 8502, 1940)

Ted Weems and His Orchestra
Heartaches(Bluebird 5131, 1933)

Ted Weems was a popular bandleader who scored a number of novelty hits beginning in the 1920s. “Heartaches” was originally issued in 1933, but it did not become a hit until it was reissued 14 years later (RCA Victor 20-2175). Its recognition in 1947 was long overdue, as it is an incredibly enjoyable listen. The record is built on a hyperactive, almost polyrhythmic drum beat, over which a rapid succession of novel instruments repeat the main melody (including some fine whistling at one point by Elmo Tanner). Finally, the rhythm drops away and the orchestra holds the last few notes together to bring the melody to a sweet, almost nostalgic end – punctuated by a final cymbal crash at the end.

Note that Weems and his band recorded this song in 1938 as well (first released as Decca 25017 in 1947). That version is a bit slower, but still quite enjoyable, with some more great whistling by Tanner. However, the Bluebird/Victor version remains the definitive one.

~ You may also like: Luis Russell and His Orchestra, “Saratoga Shout” (Okeh 8780, 1930)

Kanui and Lula
My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii (Parlophone R-1957, 1933)

The development of Hawaiian music is a microcosm of American music in general: a multicultural blend that yielded something unique and unexpectedly wonderful. Traditional island chants were first augmented by stringed instruments (guitar and ukulele) and new singing styles introduced by Mexican, Portuguese and other immigrants in the early 19th Century. As the island nation came under the influence of the U.S., elements of American popular music and jazz were also incorporated. On top of this rich mix, Hawaiians added their own innovations. The most significant of these was the invention of “steel guitar,” where the guitar is played horizontally in the lap while a metal bar (“steel”) or other object is slid along the strings to change the pitch – a technique that soon became a staple of American country music and strongly influenced the “bottleneck” slide guitar style frequently used by blues musicians (the primary difference being that bottleneck guitar is played in the standard position rather than horizontally).

Hawaiian steel guitar is on strong display in “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” by husband and wife duo Kanui and Lula. The native Hawaiians recorded this and a handful of other tracks for the European Parlophone label while living abroad in Paris in 1933. Bill Kanui’s lead vocals – sung in both English and Hawaiian – are powerful and pleasantly entertaining, and Lula’s island chant backing vocals give the song a delightful hint of the exotic. What really makes this rare recording essential, though, is Bill’s magnificent guitar work. He uses the steel liberally, creating an ethereal, shimmering sound that is in constant motion, never quite in tune, and yet remains as lullaby soft as an island breeze.

~ You may also like a song that topped the pop charts in Australia in 2001 after being used in a cell phone commercial there: Kanui and Lula, “Oua, Oua” (Parlophone R-1614, 1933)


Shades of Sentimental (1932-1933)

The more the Great Depression weighed on everyone’s minds, the more people’s tastes turned to light-hearted, sentimental music that could lift their spirits. In this, the greatest artists of the era did not disappoint.

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
All of Me(Columbia 2606-D, 1932)

Armstrong’s rendition of “All of Me” was one of the top hits of 1932 and remains one of the best interpretations of this standard. It is a lovely song with bittersweet lyrics of unrequited love: “You took the part that once was my heart / Oh, why not take all of me?” The words occasionally get muddled as Armstrong twists them into a mumble, but musically the effect of this is sublime and the emotional weight of the lyrics is undiminished. Likewise, Armstrong’s trumpet playing is mostly subdued but still striking. Subtly informed by Armstrong’s genius jazz instincts, this pop gem becomes utterly irresistible.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (Victor 24233, 1933)

1933 Headlines … Worst year of Great Depression … “Dust Bowl” storms … Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated as 32nd U.S. President … “New Deal” recovery measures enacted … Prohibition repealed in the U.S.

Ethel Waters
Stormy Weather(Brunswick 6564, 1933)

Compare “Stormy Weather” to Waters’ 1929 hit “Am I Blue?” and the difference is striking. Both display a talented vocalist with an instinct for showmanship, but the newer recording shows a maturity that the earlier one couldn’t begin to hint at. Where “Am I Blue?” showed Waters’ breadth, “Stormy Weather” shows her depth.

Waters’ singing is subtle throughout, yet amazingly rich and enticing. Like Louis Armstrong, she was in the process of transforming herself from jazz star to mainstream pop star, and she succeeds wonderfully here, using her musical instincts and talent to create something transcendent. She is helped by an understated but nimble orchestra that included future stars Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet, and his brother Tommy Dorsey on trombone.

To be sure, Waters still understands how to put on a show, as witnessed by the dramatic bridge section that begins, “I walk around heavy hearted and sad,” and ends, “This misery is just too much for me!” However, she never sinks into melodramatic novelty or vaudeville, managing to entertain and even dazzle while still conveying emotional depth. The overall effect is mesmerizing: this is a song you can listen to over and over and never grow tired of.

~ You may also like: Ethel Waters, “I Got Rhythm” (Columbia 2346-D, 1933)

Bing Crosby
You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me (Brunswick 6472, 1933)

This delightful record was a big hit for Crosby in 1933, but is often overlooked in light of the even bigger hits he would soon have. It deserves to be noticed, though. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians provide a wonderfully sweet accompaniment that would almost justify this song’s place in history even without Crosby’s smooth vocals. Crosby’s voice is the main attraction, of course, pulling the listener in with every expressive note. And the lyrics he sings are simply brilliant: “I just can’t break away, I must have you every day / As regularly as coffee or tea / You’ve got me in your clutches and I can’t get free / You’re getting to be a habit with me.”

~ You may also like: Bing Crosby, “June in January” (Decca 310, 1934)

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Sophisticated Lady(Brunswick 6600, 1933)

This instrumental is probably the sweetest composition Ellington ever penned and borders on being overly sentimental. After a brief, discordant introduction by Duke on piano, it mellows into a dreamy melody over a steady, banjo-driven beat. The music is so sweet it at times borders saccharine as the soloists engage in a fair amount of over-the-top affectations, including an over-abundance of vibrato. (Near the end, Otto Hardwick’s alto sax warbles so much it almost sounds like he’s imitating bird calls.) However, the level of musicianship is high, and Ellington and company manage to walk up to the edge of that cliff without falling off. “Sophisticated” may or may not be the right word for this recording, but it certainly is easy on the ear and perfect for a nice, slow dance.

~ You may also like: Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, “Prelude to a Kiss” (Brunswick m8204, 1938)


Shag & Swing (1932)

The swing era would officially begin in 1935, but that didn’t stop Duke Ellington from recording killer swing music in 1932. Meanwhile, just as small-group New Orleans jazz had been left for dead, Sidney Bechet and company made what may be the greatest New Orleans jazz record in history.

The New Orleans Feetwarmers
Shag(Victor 24150, 1932)

New Orleans-born Sidney Bechet is widely regarded as the best clarinetist and soprano saxophone player of the early jazz period. He found some success working with groups like Clarence Williams’ Blue Five in the 1920s, and was well received in Europe in the later part of that decade. After getting into trouble in France, he was deported back to the United States where he formed the New Orleans Feetwarmers with veteran trumpeter Tommy Ladnier. The group only made a handful of recordings, which failed to catch on at the time as the traditional New Orleans style of jazz was falling out of favor. That’s a shame, since the recordings – “Shag” in particular – captured Bechet and Ladnier at their peaks and are some of the finest jazz ever recorded.

“Shag” is a joyously upbeat, kinetic record that wastes no time getting to the action. Whereas most jazz songs included a brief introduction of a main theme, “Shag” opens in full polyphony with Bechet, Ladnier and trombonist Teddy Nixon each pursuing separate but complementary melodies. Bechet in particular stands out with some amazing soprano sax playing that sets the tone for what is to come. The song settles down only slightly for some soloing by Ladnier on muted trumpet and Henry Duncan on piano, followed by some lively and wonderful scat singing by bass player Ernest Meyers.

It soon launches right back into a polyphonic frenzy, though, as Bechet leads the charge with some inspired playing. Actually, “inspired” doesn’t begin to capture it. His tone is so pure, his style so natural and relaxed, and his improvisation so thrilling that it defies imagination. You simply have to hear it (preferably over and over again!) to believe how good it is. With about a minute to go, the band falls in line with Bechet to play together on some held notes, punctuated by a sharp strike on the drums by Morris Morland. The effect is exhilarating, and after a few instances, the band starts shouting “Woo! Whee!” whenever it happens. You’ll want to do the same!

~ You may also like: The New Orleans Feetwarmers, “I Found a New Baby” (Victor 24150, 1932)

Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)(Brunswick 6265, 1932)

There is no consensus on exactly what the term “swing” means, and yet jazz musicians know it when they play it and fans know it when they hear it. At its core, “swing” is about having an innate sense of rhythm that allows a musician to play in a very relaxed, individual way that flows very naturally with the beat without necessarily sticking rigidly to it. Regardless of exactly how you define it, though, there are three milestones for the term. The first is Louis Armstrong’s work with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1924-25, which inspired a change in how jazz was viewed and placed the concept of “swing” firmly at the center of that experience. The last was 1935 when the music of Benny Goodman (the so-called “King of Swing”) and others rose in popularity to kick off the big band swing craze that would define American music for the next decade. In between is 1932, the year that an immortal classic with “swing” in its title cemented the term in the lexicon.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was composed by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Irving Mills. The orchestra does indeed swing, especially Johnny Hodges on alto sax, whose flying solo fills the middle of the song, grounded by some down-to-earth punctuation by Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton on trombone. However, it is vocalist Ivie Anderson that really steals the show. She kicks off the song with some cool, enticing scat singing (“wah-tah-too”), but soon opens the throttle wide. It is clear that she means what she sings: “It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot / Just keep that rhythm, give it everything you got!”

~ You may also like: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra featuring Adelaide Hall, “The Blues I Love to Sing” (Victor 21490, 1928)


Scatting (1931-1932)

With the Great Depression in full swing, the early 1930s was not a good time in general, but it turned out to be a great time for scatting – the practice of singing nonsense syllables (“skit-scat-scoo”) to the melody – as the following four selections demonstrate.

The Mills Brothers
Tiger Rag(Brunswick 6197, 1931)

The Mills Brothers – Donald, Harry, Herbert and John – were a singing group known for the novelty of creating realistic imitations of instruments with their voices. Try to remember as you listen to “Tiger Rag” that other than a single guitar, there are no instruments on this record. The trumpet you think you hear is Harry vocalizing through cupped hands. The tuba is John. And as if that weren’t impressive enough on its own, the brothers throw in some great harmonizing and rapid scat singing. Yes, it’s a novelty, but it is also great fun and genuinely good music. This record deservedly made the brothers stars.

~ You may also like the similar, over-the-top energy of the first-ever recorded version of this song: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Tiger Rag” (Vocalion 1206, 1917)

1932 Headlines … Great Depression continues; U.S. banking system collapses … Infant son of Charles Lindbergh is kidnapped, killed … Mahatma Gandhi: 21-day hunger strike protests British oppression in India

Bing Crosby with the Mills Brothers
Dinah(Brunswick 6240, 1932)

Harry “Bing” Crosby began his recording career in the late 1920s singing with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and with a small vocal group called the Rhythm Boys, but as the 1930s began, Crosby became a star in his own right and went on to become the biggest selling artist of the pre-rock and roll era. His 1942 classic “White Christmas” (Decca 18429) is the best-selling song of all time, with over 100 million in sales, and remains a popular holiday classic to this day. Crosby’s smooth, baritone voice and intuitive, easy-going sense of timing proved irresistible and virtually defined the “crooner” style of singing that would dominate the era. These early singles capture Crosby at the start of his rise to fame and wonderfully display his talent.

“Dinah” begins with Crosby’s rich voice slowly flowing like honey over a relaxed jazz accompaniment, as he delivers the top-notch lyrics: “Every night, why do I shake with fright? / Because my Dinah might change her mind about me.” After the first verse, The Mille Brothers take over, and from that point on the instrumentation is a mix of real instruments and their unique vocalizations. The Mills Brothers repeat the first verse at a much faster tempo, then briefly begin scatting. It is at this point that Crosby rejoins them, and shows that he can play at that speed as well. He quickly takes over the scatting and does an amazing job, casting out the nonsensical syllables with a verbal dexterity that his previous laid-back delivery could not begin to hint at. The energy and sense of fun never let up as Crosby and the Mills Brothers continue to play off each other for the rest of the song.

~ You may also like: Bing Crosby with the Mills Brothers, “Shine” (Brunswick 6276, 1932)

Bing Crosby
Sweet Georgia Brown (Brunswick 6320, 1932)

“Sweet Georgia Brown” is one of the most popular songs in history and has been recorded by many artists, including the chart-topping original version by Ben Bernie and His Orchestra in 1925 (Vocalion 15002), and Ethel Waters’ famous interpretation (Columbia 379-D) that same year. Bing Crosby had a solid #2 hit with it in 1932, but it was not his biggest hit that year (that would be the melodramatic, depression-era ballad “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”), so it often gets overlooked in his cannon. However, Crosby’s collaboration with Isham Jones and His Orchestra is to my ears the best of the early pop versions of the song, and the perfect encapsulation of the song’s freewheeling energy. Crosby gives an incredible vocal performance that is simultaneously smooth and daring. Known for his pure, rich baritone voice, he nevertheless refuses to play it safe here, instead taking chances with his tone, timing and phrasing to really make the song swing. Listen to his voice on the section where he scats after the bridge, and you’ll notice that his voice cracks just a little as he sings a barrage of notes that are all over the chart. But this only serves to heighten the excitement and make the verse even more compelling. Jones’ orchestra, known as one of the top big bands of the day, is in top form here, executing flawlessly with a warm, enthusiastic sound that perfectly complements Crosby.

~ You may also like one of Crosby’s earliest hits: Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra featuring the Rhythm Boys, “I’m Coming Virginia” (Victor 20751, 1927)

The Boswell Sisters
Everybody Loves My Baby(Brunswick 6271, 1932)

Raised in New Orleans, Connie (later “Connee”) Boswell had tremendous jazz sensibilities and a knack for rearranging popular songs. By tinkering with the melodies, harmonies and rhythms, she was able to create works both familiar and unexpected. Together with her sisters Martha and Helvetica (“Vet”), she made a number of ingenious, groundbreaking recordings that redefined what vocal groups were capable of. The sisters quickly became known for their versatility, tight harmonies and amazing vocal gymnastics.

“Everybody Loves My Baby” is a great example of their talents. The song begins in a minor key with the sisters singing some new lyrics that don’t appear in the original version of the song. Next, the familiar song begins with Connie’s lovely voice singing the first verse in a relaxed, swinging style that eases smoothly into some sweet scatting. As soon as she finishes, the music speeds up suddenly and all three sisters begin singing the lyrics incredibly fast – and with a bunch of extra nonsense sounds squeezed into the words! Next follows a section of uvular nonsense sounds (“nguh-wuh-nguh”), and then some more fast singing. The record slows down briefly for the jazzy instrumental bridge, then it speeds up as the sisters return to sing the verse again, employing a wide variety of sounds and singing styles as they race for the finish line. It is a dizzying but thrilling experience.

~ You may also like: The Boswell Sisters, “The Object of My Affection” (Brunswick 7348, 1935)


String Band Sophistication (1931)

Part of the charm of early string band recordings is their amateur nature. Many of the acts were not full-time musicians and paused their normal lives as farmers, miners and housewives just long enough to earn a few dollars recording a few songs they knew. Music was a pastime for them, not a lifestyle – but that is not meant as a criticism, for many were quite good and the passion and individuality they displayed more than compensated for the occasional missed or off-key note. Somewhere along the line, though, rural audiences developed a taste for more polished music, like that performed by Jimmie Rodgers and his imitators, and that old-time style of string band music started to lose popularity. It would not fade away completely, but it would definitely evolve to meet the public’s changing taste. The next two recordings happened at that juncture, signaling a last gasp for the traditional while offering a glimpse at what lie ahead.

Crockett’s Kentucky Mountaineers
Little Rabbit / Rabbit Where's Your Mammy? (Crown 3172, 1931)

Although their origin was similar to other Kentucky family string bands, John “Dad” Crockett and his children were able to find success as professional musicians after moving to California. Their experience working in both radio and vaudeville helped them refine their sound and expand their repertoire beyond traditional Kentucky mountain music. Nowhere is that more apparent than their classic record “Little Rabbit,” recorded in New York City for Crown Records. This tune may be straight from the mountains, but the execution shows a level of sophistication not often heard in such music. The playing is flawless, with the kind of tight interaction between fiddle and banjo that comes from being intuitively in sync. Although it is not bluegrass, it certainly provides some foreshadowing and shows that fast-paced Kentucky string band music was ready to evolve to that next stage. The inclusion of Jew’s harp in some sections of the song is a fun and entertaining touch and a welcome addition to the usual string band instruments.

~ You may also like the Kentucky fiddling of Andy Palmer: Jimmie Johnson’s String Band, “Shipping Port” (Champion 16559, 1932)

East Texas Serenaders
Mineola Rag (Brunswick 562, 1931)

On its surface, “Mineola Rag” is an uptempo ragtime played expertly by a four-piece string band, but a closer listen reveals a surprising amount more depth. In music-rich Texas, the quartet was surrounded by a variety of styles, and they clearly adopted some of those influences. Left-handed fiddler D.H. Williams plays with speed and precision, but with a mellow, bluesy tone rather than a sharp attack. Henry Bogan played staccato notes on a three-string cello, in a style that at times perfectly imitated the jug in a jug band. And the rhythm section of Cloet Hammond on guitar and John Munnerlyn on banjo moved together like clockwork, reminiscent of swinging jazz. In fact, that prominent rhythm section and the overall interplay of these instruments would be influential in the development of a new style that would soon dominate country music in the southwest: western swing.

~ You may also like: East Texas Serenaders, “East Texas Drag” (Decca 5347, 1937)

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