Milestone Recordings in American Music

4/19/09

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)

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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
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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)

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