“Blue Skies” and “Dear Old Southland”(1935) with Benny Goodman

“Blue Skies”

Composed by Irving Berlin; arranged by Fletcher Henderson.

Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on June 25, 1935 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Nate Kazebier and Jerry Neary, trumpets; Jack Lacey and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Hymie Shertzer, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Frank Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.

The story:

On April 23, 1935, Benny Goodman’s band opened at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Aside from the weekly NBC Let’s Dance radio show, the Goodman band had worked very little in the spring of 1935. But one very big thing had happened in early 1935 that augured well for BG: his struggling band had been taken on by Music Corporation of America (MCA), the largest and most powerful band-booking agency in the nation. This was a significant development because MCA’s roster of bands, up to the signing of Goodman, was comprised exclusively of either “sweet” dance bands like Guy Lombardo’s or Wayne King’s, or “entertaining” music-cum-burlesque bands, typified by Kay Kyser. The complete story of why MCA took on the Goodman band has never been told, and never may be, not that there is any mystery to it. The bottom line is that as 1934 came to an end, MCA’s people were well aware of the success of the Casa Loma band, and knew of the potential for success that the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra had. (When the Dorseys went their separate ways in mid-1935, Jimmy stayed with Rockwell-O’Keefe and Tommy went with MCA.) Both Casa Loma and the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra were booked by Rockwell-O’Keefe, precursor to General Artists Corporation, which would later be a significant part of the success of the Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Woody Herman (1) bands. Someone at MCA sensed that now there might be a niche market for jazz-oriented dance music, and MCA didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get into the action against Rockwell-O’Keefe.

MCA’s Sonny Werblin making a pitch. He couldn’t help Willard Alexander point the Goodman band toward success.

Even though MCA had managed to secure for Goodman a recording contract with Victor Records in March of 1935, it had not been able to stimulate much interest in the Goodman band among ballroom operators. The Let’s Dance radio show was soon to end. (The last Let’s Dance show was broadcast on May 25, 1935. A few days earlier, the Goodman band auditioned for a radio show to be sponsored by “Life Savers,” but did not get the job.)(2) Goodman’s MCA liaison/manager was a young man named Willard Alexander. He shared what John Hammond in his autobiography described as a “swinging apartment in the Alrae Hotel” with Guy Lombardo’s MCA liaison/manager Sonny Werblin. Alexander “implored (Werblin) to put Benny into the (Roosevelt) Hotel to replace the Lombardo-like Bernie Cummins orchestra,” which was going out on tour. Werblin made it happen. Everyone was aware that this was hardly the ideal room for Benny’s type of music, but there was really no other choice. ‘We wanted to get work for the band,’ Alexander explained. ‘Hell, we would have booked the Holland Tunnel.’”(3)

Benny Goodman at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan in April of 1935. He was smiling, but his band was bombing.

The Roosevelt Hotel gig immediately became a disaster when the room’s staid patrons, accustomed to the dulcet tones of the Guy Lombardo and Bernie Cummins bands, were jolted by the volume and syncopations of the Goodman band. BG was given notice on opening night. After the Goodman band left the Roosevelt Hotel, they played a few widely scattered one-nighters around the eastern United States. Clearly, the future for the Benny Goodman band looked very dim in the spring of 1935.

But Benny, iron willed and ambitious, with substantial help from his bass-playing brother Harry, who was now also a member of the band and a large stabilizing influence on his younger brother(4), forged ahead. He agreed to let MCA put together a cross-country summer tour, culminating with a stay at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. MCA had long before learned the power of radio in developing an audience for dance bands. The expectation was that the Goodman band’s six months on NBC’s Let’s Dance program would make folks in the hinterlands hungry for the music of Benny Goodman. Eventually, that would be the case, but it did not really happen for Goodman until the following year, after he had spent another six months broadcasting from the Congress Hotel in Chicago.

Benny Goodman in 1935: despite his benign smile, he had a fierce determination to succeed.

Fortunately, the same obtuse stubbornness that so often was such an exasperating part of Benny Goodman’s dealings with humanity in general in this situation worked to the benefit of jazz fans. Goodman’s analysis of the situation was likely as follows: (1) I’ve put together the best band I’ve ever played in; (2) I’ve gotten a great many wonderful arrangements for this band as a result of the budget for new music on the Let’s Dance show; (3) I am now represented by the strongest booking agency in the band business; and (4) I’ve got a contract to make records. Therefore, I’m going to use all of this to make the best records possible, and I’m going to work with this band for as long as I can, and continue to make it a better band. If I succeed in the commercial marketplace, fine. If not, then I’ll return to the radio and recording studios and earn a good living.

The Goodman band produced a total of eight sides at Victor recording sessions on April 4 and April 19, 1935. The records they made at those sessions were good. But in spite of all the talent present on those recordings, and a number of fine arrangements, the whole of the performances was somehow less than the sum of the parts. I am quite certain that Benny Goodman himself had these same opinions when he listened to these records. The spark that elevates solid, professional dance music into the realm of the inspired and exhilarating was missing. Maybe that is why Benny invited the great jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden(5) to play on the April 19 session. For whatever reason, the band with Teagarden did not sound appreciably more stimulated than it had sounded without him.

I suspect that Benny knew all along what, or rather who, might solve this problem. But he was not about to call the man whose last stint with his band had ended so disgustingly, when he fell of the bandstand at a Let’s Dance broadcast drunk—at least not without some persuasion. Maybe that persuasion came when Benny listened to the records Bunny Berigan had recently made with Red Norvo. Maybe it came when Bunny subbed into the Goodman band from time to time at the Roosevelt Hotel. Whenever or however it came, the conclusion Goodman drew was clear: drinking or not, Bunny Berigan would energize the Goodman band like no one else.

As fate would have it, just at the time Benny Goodman needed the unique services Bunny Berigan could provide to his band, Berigan was going a little batty after working at CBS radio and doing free-lance recording work in New York for about eighteen months. This work was lucrative: Berigan was among the highest paid musicians in the nation in 1934-1935. However, Bunny, though well-qualified in terms of technical and reading ability to be a studio musician, was essentially a jazz musician. He could tolerate only so much of the rigid, stop-watch confinement of studio work with minimal opportunities for self-expression. By the end of June in 1935, he had reach his limit, for a while.(5A)

Benny and Harry Goodman undoubtedly persuaded him to join the Goodman band to make the cross-country tour with them, which would start in mid-July. The tour would end with an engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. No one knew what was in store after that. It is very likely that everyone connected with the Goodman band in the late spring of 1935 was at least thinking about a Plan B after the Goodman tour ended in Los Angeles. Berigan himself was undoubtedly planning to return to CBS and the New York recording studios then.

But all of that was in the future. In the meantime, Berigan was in the process of finishing his work commitments in Manhattan, and agreed to make two recording sessions with the Goodman band, one on June 25, the other on July 1. He would join the Goodman band on the road in mid-July.

Benny Goodman had a thing about lead trumpeters: he liked for them to not only read music fluently and play the notes flawlessly, he wanted more. He wanted jazz feeling. Very few lead trumpeters in 1935 were capable of giving him what he was after. Bunny Berigan was most certainly one of them. A vivid example of the effect Berigan’s lead trumpet had on the Goodman band in the spring of 1935 is to be found by simply playing, in chronological order, the Victor recordings Benny made then. When you go from the gentle, lilting Irving Berlin tune “Always,”which was arranged by Horace Henderson, and was recorded on April 19, with a rather stiff rhythmic feel, to the scintillating “Get Rhythm in Your Feet,”arranged by Fletcher Henderson, and recorded on June 25, you feel as though the band had now somehow been supercharged. It swings hard from the first trumpet chair all the way down through all of the other instruments, and sitting in that first trumpet chair was Bunny Berigan. Mannie Klein, a trumpet virtuoso himself and an ardent Berigan admirer, summarized the unique effect Bunny’s playing had on a band: “You didn’t know sometimes whether he was gonna show up for a session. But when he did show up—well, nobody played with the balls and the beat he did.”(6) Another example of the difference Berigan’s huge, warm first trumpet sound, and perfect rhythmic conception, made in the overall sound of the 1935 Goodman band is to be found in the lovely “Ballad in Blue,” arranged by Spud Murphy.

The music:

The song “Blue Skies” was composed by Irving Berlin, but was first presented in 1926 as a last-minute addition to the Rodgers and Hart musical Betsy. Although the show ran for only 39 performances, “Blue Skies” was an instant success, with audiences on opening night demanding 24 encores of the piece from star Belle Baker. During the final repetition, Ms. Baker forgot her lyrics, prompting Berlin to stand, face the audience and sing them from where he had been sitting in the front row. The song was widely recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and was a standard by the time this recording was made in 1935.(8)

The classic Goodman recording of “Blue Skies,” in a Fletcher Henderson (7) arrangement, is indelibly stamped with the mark of Berigan, both as a dynamic first trumpeter and as a perceptive, dramatic soloist whose playing so perfectly captures and enhances the mood of Henderson’s arrangement. Henderson’s arrangement, which is in the key of B-minor, came into the Goodman band book in early 1935 while BG made the most of a weekly allowance for arrangements which was a part of the consideration for him appearing on the NBC Let’s Dance series of radio shows. It is a wonderful example of Henderson’s way of memorably refashioning a familiar melody, using the basic musical tools of swing, some of which he invented and/or perfected in his own band in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Henderson’s ascending introduction, which has always struck me as rather eerie, has the reed players, including BG, playing a counterline on their clarinets to a small brass fanfare. As Fletcher later explained, this was the storm before the arrival of the blue skies.

The first and second expositions of the eight-bar main melody in the first chorus has Henderson using the clipped syncopated open brass, led brilliantly by Berigan, against an uncluttered 2/4 rhythm. It is as though a lapidary has has spread colorful precious stones on white velvet to be inspected and appreciated. The song’s secondary eight-bar melody or bridge is begun by the saxophones, led by Toots Mondello, But Henderson uses this instrumental color, which is a contrast to the first sixteen bars, for only four bars. He then allocates the last four bars of the bridge to a melodic trombone solo played by Jack Lacey against a mellow, humming saxophone background.

Arthur Rollini in the Goodman band – 1937. Rollini was a stalwart Goodman sideman from 1934 to 1939.

Then Henderson brings the saxophones back to play a transitional passage into the second chorus, which begins with the brass, now in straight mutes, for eight bars. Henderson’s use of antiphony – the reeds and brass in a musical conversation, is also one of his quintessential arranging touches. Tenor saxophonist Arthur Rollini, a master technician, then plays a lovely, fluid 16-bar improvisation.

A four note ensemble transition opens the way for Berigan’s 16 bar trumpet solo. His improvisation here is one of his most inspired. It is a complete abstraction of the musical materials that make up “Blue Skies,” and it immediately evokes disquiet: there are dark clouds in Berigan’s blue sky. What Bunny plays is so fraught with emotion that one is barely aware of the churning saxophones and repeated cymbal splashes going on behind his solo. And it is all delivered with Berigan’s heroic tone and relaxed swing.

Bunny immediately reverts to leading the brass after his solo, as they play chains of syncopation against the melodic saxophones. The brass then play a rhythmic sequence which leads into Benny Goodman’s two clarinet solos, which are separated by riffs played by the ensemble with Berigan’s ringing trumpet on top.

The saxophones carry the melody in the next phase, once again juxtaposed with the syncopated brass. The bright finale has the two trombones outlining the melody against the bouncing trumpets.

Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement on “Blue Skies” is a perfectly paced and contrast filled piece of music that is immaculately performed by the Goodman band. In 1935, the magic mixture of Benny Goodman’s band playing Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements was new and terrifically exciting and attractive to the young people who were slowly becoming aware of what jazz and swing were. Berigan’s role in making this performance of “Blue Skies” explode with vitality as both first trumpeter and jazz soloist is huge.

As a bonus, here is Benny Goodman’s recording of “Dear Old Southland,” recorded at the same session that produced “Blue Skies.”

“Dear Old Southland”

Composed by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton; arranged by Horace Henderson.

“Dear Old Southland” was composed 1921, and has basically the same melody as the Afro-American spiritual “Deep River.” Paul Whiteman recorded it in 1922, Louis Armstrong in 1930, and Duke Ellington in 1933. By the time Benny Goodman recorded this tune in 1935, it was well-known to pop music audiences whose tastes were attuned to jazz.

The Goodman version of “Dear Old Southland,” arranged by Horace Henderson, is jump-started by Berigan’s careening high-register intro, and then carried along by the irresistible swing of his lead trumpet playing which illuminates this performance from its first note to its last. The surging vitality he brought to the Goodman ensemble here is remarkable. BG himself, who was chary with praise for even the most gifted musicians who performed with him, summarized the effect Berigan’s playing had on the Goodman ensemble: “It was like a bolt of electricity running through the whole band. He just lifted the whole thing. You can explain it in terms of his tone, his range, musicianship, great ideas. It’s all of that — and none of it. It’s a God-given thing.” (9)

Frank Froeba1930s.

The soloists we hear are Goodman, with a particularly piquant couple of clarinet bursts; trombonist Jack Lacey; tenor saxophonist Dick Clark; and pianist Frank Froeba. Froeba was a free-lance in Manhattan when he joined the early and struggling Goodman band in the fall of 1934. He read well and had excellent technique, but his jazz playing, though lively, never really pleased Benny. Froeba was replaced by Jess Stacy, an excellent jazz player, while the Goodman band was on tour in the summer of 1935.

Dick Clark – 1935.

The tenor saxophone solo played by Dick Clark is also quite good, but again Clark’s jazz playing never rose to a level where Benny was satisfied by it. Almost all of the tenor saxophone solos in the early Goodman band were played by Arthur Rollini. Clark had a less edgy tenor sound than Rollini, though both men were superior readers and fine technicians.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


Notes:

(1) Clarinetist/singer/alto saxophonist Woodrow Charles Herman was born on May 16, 1913, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a child, Woody Herman worked as a singer in vaudeville. By the time he was fifteen he was a professional dance band musician. He served his apprenticeship in the bands of Tom Gerun, Harry Sosnick, Gus Arnheim, and most notably Isham Jones. After Jones retired from bandleading in 1936, Herman and five other former Jones sidemen formed a cooperative band in the mode of the Casa Loma and Bob Crosby bands, and began touring. This group was billed as “The Band That Plays the Blues.” The Herman ensemble languished in the ranks of secondary bands until approximately 1944. By then, Herman had gathered a group of exciting musicians and arrangers, and they gained considerable success with a series of excellent recordings, and a sponsored network radio show. This band was dubbed “The First Herd.” Thereafter, Herman formed and broke up numerous ensembles, remaining very active as a bandleader into the 1980s. His later bands attempted to blend elements of rock and jazz, sometimes with considerable success. Due to a defalcation of funds by his longtime manager Abe Turchen, Herman spent his last years deeply in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. He died on November 2, 1987, in West Hollywood, California.

(2) White materials: May 21, 1935.

(3) Swing, Swing, Swing …The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone (1993), 130.

(4) There is evidence that Harry Goodman was a part owner of the Goodman band with Benny until probably mid-1939. The checks used to pay the sidemen in the late 1930s contained the legend, “The Goodman Brothers Orchestra.” The public was unaware of this because Benny was undoubtedly the music director of the band, and often its most impressive soloist. Harry Goodman was simply a workmanlike bassist who blended in, and helped Benny with the business side of the band behind the scenes.

(5) One of the foremost trombonists and singers in the history of jazz, Jack Teagarden was born on August 29, 1905, as Weldon Lee Teagarden in Vernon, Texas, into a musical family. He was playing the trombone by age ten. He worked his way through myriad bands in the Texas/Southwest territory throughout the 1920s, before joining Ben Pollack in June 1928. He remained with Pollack until 1933, but during this time made many recordings with other groups. He worked with a number of bands throughout 1933, prior to joining Paul Whiteman at the end of that year. Teagarden remained with Whiteman until the end of 1938, but again took some time to make records with others, and to appear with his brother trumpeter Charlie Teagarden and Frank Trumbauer in a short-lived group called the Three Ts, in early 1937. From early 1939 until 1946, he led a succession of big bands that were either not successful, or only moderately successful. After the final demise of his big band, he led a small group for several months before joining Louis Armstrong’s All Stars from 1947 to 1951. Thereafter, he led his own small bands with considerable success until his death from bronchial pneumonia on January 15, 1964, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

(5A) It should be noted that Bunny Berigan’s drinking, which had been more or less controlled by him before 1934, advanced into a problem in 1934 and into 1935. Sadly, from 1935 on, he found it increasingly difficult to function without alcohol.

(6)  Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz – 1915-1945, by Richard M. Sudhalter (1999), 496. Mannie Klein (1908-1994) was possibly the most successful studio musician of all time. He began his career in Manhattan in the late 1920s and almost immediately became one of the most in-demand studio musicians on the scene. In 1937, he moved to Hollywood, and achieved even greater success there as a free-lance trumpeter for radio, and recordings, and later for TV, and as a music contractor who gathered suitable musicians for studio gigs.

(7) Pianist/arranger/bandleader James Fletcher Henderson was born on December 18, 1897, in Cuthbert, Georgia. He was one of the pioneering jazz/dance band leaders in the 1920s, who helped to launch the careers of many of the greatest jazz soloists of the 1920s and 1930s, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, and Ben Webster, among many others, who played in his bands. He also employed some of the most innovative arrangers, most notably Don Redman, from whom he and his younger brother, the vastly underappreciated arranger/pianist Horace Henderson (1904–1988), learned a great deal about how to make a dance band swing. Although Fletcher Henderson’s band was a formidable performing unit from the late 1920s into the 1930s, it was a victim of Henderson’s sometimes lax leadership, the Great Depression, and racial discrimination which barred it from many lucrative engagements. From late 1934 until 1936, he and his brother supplied Benny Goodman’s band with dozens of arrangements on jazz originals and current pop tunes that codified swing band arranging to a large degree to that time. Henderson attempted again in the late 1930s to lead a successful band, but it was not to be. From 1939 on, he worked intermittently with groups of various sizes, achieving neither wide public recognition nor notable musical achievement. He died on December 29, 1952, in New York City after having been previously disabled by a stroke.

(8) From the Wikipedia post on “Blue Skies.”

(9) Liner notes for the Bluebird CD Bunny Berigan – The Pied Piper, (….) by Richard M. Sudhalter. Mr. Sudhalter obtained the recollections of Benny Goodman about Bunny Berigan in 1981.

One thought on ““Blue Skies” and “Dear Old Southland”(1935) with Benny Goodman

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  1. Though best known for his endlessly inventive solo work, which earned him the praise,”the best white jazz trumpeter of the Swing Era,” Bunny was, too, an extraordinarily great lead player. These qualities, singly and in combination, plus something indefinable as an extra, made him a galvanic presence in every band he joined, if only for a session. Goodman always had excellent lead men, who, as you note, could often play first rate jazz — Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Cootie Williams, Billy Butterfield — but, for my money, Bunny was the finest of them all; “Blue Skies” and “Dear Old Southland,” I believe, serve as testament. His phrasing had swing in every note — in a period when not every band musician had yet fully grasped the concept and nuance of swing. Unlike the situation a couple of years later with the famous “Biting Brass” section of James, Elman and Griffin, in which all were playing at a very high level, Bunny pulled everybody along. He always made terrific entrances in his solos, which seemingly allowed what followed to flow effortlessly, and his opening, quietly dramatic two bars on “Blue Skies” leave us wondering what will come next. We’re lucky that Benny, stingy with praise, jealous of those who stole the limelight and prone to disdain for those who were not as studiously committed to sober practice as he, was fair and honest enough to admit that Bunny had exactly what was needed to lift the fledgling Goodman orchestra up to the level its leader had envisioned.

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