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)

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