Milestone Recordings in American Music


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storms … Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated as 32nd U.S. President … “New Deal” recovery measures enacted … Prohibition repealed in the U.S.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

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