Big band memories march on
This week I decided to write about something that had nothing to do with the presidential election, the Supreme Court, riots in our streets or the coronavirus pandemic. So, I decided about something that has been part of my life for the last sixty-five years, the bands of the 1930s and ’40s known as the “big bands.”
When I was young my taste in music went off in a different direction from most people my age. I think it probably goes back to the summer of 1955 when my parents took me with them to the local theater to see “The Glenn Miller Story”starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allison which was a somewhat fictionalized version of Miller’s life and his rise to fame in the band business in the 1930s and 1940s. The movie was OK, however the music struck a chord in me and still does today.
The bands played a variety of music. There was “swing” that type of big band jazz that was first played by African American bands, like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford starting in the 1920s. It was this style of music that was brought to the attention of white Americans by Benny Goodman and his orchestra playing on the radio in 1935, incidentally playing many arrangements purchased from black bandleader Fletcher Henderson.
Some of the bands played “sweet” a mixture of romantic ballads, novelty tunes like “Three Little Fishes in an Itty-Bitty Pool,” and slightly up-tempo tunes like “Elmer’s Tune” written by west coast leader Dick Jurgens who in my opinion led the best of the strictly sweet bands. Another “sweet band was Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythms with the rippling sound that opened his radio shows produced by blowing bubbles through a soda straw.
Then there were the “mickey mouse” bands with their “… whining saxes, slurping trombones or spastic trumpets” according to Down Beat Magazine editor George T. Simon. The best was Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians who were a fixture at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel on New Year’s Eves for many years.
Some bands, like the Will Bradley Ray McKinley Band played “boogie woogie” a piano style coming out of the “blues. Their hit tune was “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar.” Another band led by Bob Crosby, Bing’s younger brother, played “big band Dixieland” producing big band versions of tunes like “Sugar Foot Strut,” “Royal Garden Blues” and “Gin Mill Blues.”
The most successful bands played a mixture of swing interspersed with ballads and novelty tunes so you would find Glenn Miller beginning a radio broadcast with his theme “Moonlight Serenade” followed by the swinging “In the Mood,” and then Ray Eberle singing the ballad “Careless” (”or do you just care less for me“), followed by Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke and the Modernaires stepping up to the microphone to sing the novelty tune “Jack and Jill,” and closing with the hard driving jazz tune “Flag Waver.”
Other bands that played in this style included the great bands of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, trumpet playing leaders like Charlie Spivak and Harry James and a host of great bands far too numerous to mention.
Bands appeared on the radio on sponsored broadcasts and on unsponsored “sustaining” broadcasts that the networks provided to their affiliates usually late at night. Many of the sponsors were cigarette companies like Glenn Miller’s Chesterfield Moonlight Serenade or Benny Goodman’s Camel Caravan. Coca Cola sponsored the Coca Cola Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands from 1941 to 1946 and Fitch Shampoo sponsored the Fitch Bandwagon from 1938 to 1948.
The bands also appeared in the movies with Glenn Miller appearing in “Sun Valley Serenade” and “Orchestra Wives.” Band Leader Kay Kyser also made several movies including “You’ll Find Out” in which Kay and his band costarred with horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Then there was Tommy Dorsey’s band appearing in 18th Century costumes in “Du Berry Was a Lady.” Drummer Buddy Rich is a sight to behold in a powered wig.
The big band era lasted from 1935 until 1945 reaching its peak in 1940. During World War II, the bands lost players to the armed forces including Maj. Glenn Miller who led the great Army Air Forces band and disappeared on a flight from England to France in December 1944.
Back home travel by the bands became difficult and an ill-advised recording ban lasting from June 1942 until late 1944 allowed singers like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald to eclipse the bands in popularity.
However, the bands are still around. The Glenn Miller Orchestra has been on the road since 1956 and shows no signs of slowing down. Today there are three Miller bands touring regularly; the American band, the British band and the European Band. Then there are podcasts, internet and over the air radio stations playing the bands and the music is also available for download from a variety of sources.
Finally, there is my own collection of Big Band commercial recordings and radio shows that I have been collecting for 60 years and numbers close to five hundred records and CDs. For me the music has been a pleasant obsession.
Now, wasn’t that more interesting than the presidential race?
Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org