Milestone Recordings in American Music

5/21/09

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)

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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storms … Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated as 32nd U.S. President … “New Deal” recovery measures enacted … Prohibition repealed in the U.S.
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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)

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