The “Birth” of the Swing Era–Part 1-“I Got Rhythm” (1935) Benny Goodman
“I Got Rhythm”
Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Fletcher Henderson.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra live from the NBC “Let’s Dance” radio show of May 4, 1935.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: George “Pee Wee” Erwin, Ralph Muzzillo, Jerry Neary, trumpets; Jack Lacey and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, Hymie Shertzer, alto saxophones; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Frank Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
The story: The months of August and September each year are a time when I often think of the events that happened in the summer of of 1935 involving Benny Goodman and his band. As legend has it, the swing era was “born” when BG’s band opened at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935. Many sources over the years have nourished the legend that Benny and his boys (and girl singer Helen Ward), struggled across the country playing in one almost empty ballroom after another. At Elitch’s Gardens outside of Denver, they had to perform almost as a generic dance band in a dime-a-dance ballroom. The band, and/or sections of the band, and/or Helen Ward playing the piano as she sang, cut down their normal arrangements to just one chorus so that there would be a lot of turnover among the few dancers on the floor. It was a bad scene. (Kay Kyser’s band, using hokum, funny hats and comedy were packing them in at a nearby ballroom.) Then they moved on to Grand Junction, Colorado, where drunken cowboys threw empty beer bottles at the band. Fortunately, the bandstand was completely enclosed in chicken wire to protect the astonished musicians. A dispirited Benny then called his booking agent, Music Corporation of America, and said he’d had it and was going to return to New York, and… And what?
As is so often the case, these stories revealed very little of what actually happened in the cross-country Benny Goodman band tour in the summer of 1935, or what led to that tour.The real history is to be found between the anecdotes. Benny Goodman’s role in the development of what eventually became the swing era is an important one, but it is only a part of a much larger, complex set of developments.
BG’s part in that story actually began in late 1934 in New York, and involved NBC’s Let’s Dance radio series. On November 6, 1934, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra auditioned as the swing or “hot” band for the Let’s Dance radio program at NBC.[i] They got the job, somehow. Benny Goodman was then 25 years old, but a seasoned professional musician having ten years of experience. He was also a clarinet virtuoso and jazz improviser of great talent. (There were two other bands featured on the Let’s Dance show: a Latin band, led by Xavier Cugat, and a “sweet” (middle-of-the-road) dance band, led by Murray Kellner, whose name was changed to Kel Murray to make it more appealing to middle-of-the-road dance fans.)
Why they actually got the Let’s Dance gig had to do more with Madison Avenue advertising machinations and politics than it did with music.The essence of the story is that Benny got the job as the “swing” band on the Let’s Dance show because racial discrimination ruled out the numerous black bands in New York then that certainly could have filled that role splendidly, and the few other white bands that existed then that played somewhat in a swinging manner were not, for one reason or another, available. Plus, Benny knew the man who essentially put together the Let’s Dance program, Josef Bonime, a radio conductor and music contractor. Goodman had worked with him previously. Bonime knew what Benny was capable of as a musician, and he had heard the fledgling Goodman band for one set on a job a few weeks before the audition. What the Goodman band did, though not on a par with what established black bands were doing then in terms of swing, was passable. Benny’s rigorous rehearsal methods, as well as the talent of his sidemen, would ensure a professional sounding band. But the Benny Goodman band of November of 1934 left a lot to be desired in terms of swing. Almost by default, BG and his far from established band (the band came together only a few months before), were selected to appear for at least thirteen weeks on a high-profile, sponsored network radio program that would feature their music prominently.[i]
If anyone recognized a golden opportunity, it was Benny Goodman. Iron-willed and ambitious, he was going to do whatever it took to keep his band on the Let’s Dance radio show, and he would do whatever he could to get his band to swing.The swing part turned out to be a longer process than anyone connected with the Goodman band, including Benny, expected. That was the bad news. The good news was that the Let’s Dance show provided Goodman with a budget for eight new arrangements a week, at $37.50 per arrangement. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) No one arranger could write eight new arrangements in one week, so Benny spread the work around, buying charts from a number of young, swing-oriented arrangers who were in various stages of their musical development insofar as swing was concerned.These included: Lyle “Spud” Murphy, Joe Lippman, Deane Kincaide, Gordon Jenkins, Fud Livingston, Edgar Sampson, Oscar Levant, and Benny Carter.The Goodman band played many different arrangements from these many different arrangers during its first few shows, and played them well. But the band was just not swinging, at least not consistently, and it lacked an overall recognizable style or musical identity, despite BG’s consistently excellent clarinet solos.
Production of the show, which would debut on December 1, 1934, had been in planning stages for several weeks, and the public relations executives of the ad agency handling the account had been filling the trade press with many handouts.Here is what the trade papers reported:
“Let’s Dance is the first sponsored, three hour show, coast to coast, in radio history.’ (Variety: October 23, 1934) ‘The National Biscuit Company is throwing a shindig November 21.” (Billboard: October 24, 1934); “Let’s Dance is to be on 57 NBC stations and supplement others. The first show is to be December 1, 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., going three hours into each time zone in the U.S.A.” (Broadcasting: November 1, 1934) “The National Biscuit Company radio show, Let’s Dance, is being extensively ballyhooed with a party last week, reams of releases and a ‘Hollywood’ opening with searchlights and ‘names’ at the first broadcast.” (Billboard: December 1, 1934).[ii]
(Note: The National Biscuit Company, aka Uneeda Bakers, later known as Nabisco, was launching a new product with the Let’s Dance radio series: the Ritz Cracker.)
The Let’s Dance shows emanated from the new NBC studios (Studio 8H) [iii] in the RCA Building (now called 30 Rock), in Rockefeller Center in New York City. Here is some of the reaction that appeared in the trade press after its premier:
“Dance band musicians expected the Let’s Dance show to have trouble building. They figure that established name orchestras on other networks will not be turned off for newcomers Kel Murray and the not-so-well-known Benny Goodman and Xavier Cugat even though these outfits all have good musicians. A few of the opposition names are Hal Kemp, Wayne King, Freddy Martin, Enrique Madriguera, Joe Haymes, Glen Gray, Will Osborne, Eddie Duchin and Claude Hopkins. Another expected difficulty will be orchestrations for approximately fifty tunes, that being the number played during each three hour show.”[v]
Here is a detailed review of Let’s Dance from the January 1935 issue of Metronome:
“Dancing Party (fair). Let’s Dance sponsored by National Biscuit with Kel Murray’s, Xavier Cugat and Bennie (sic) Goodman’s bands, vocalists: Phil Duey, Frank Luther, Carmen Castillia, Connie Gates, Helen Ward, Jack Parker and Luis Alvarez, three hours, Saturday night, WEAF.
Musicianship: Fifty-six stations on the red web carry these three hours of terpsichore to the four corners of the country. It means a five hour work out for the bands since they will be on the air from 10:30 p.m. in the East to 1:30 a.m.; 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 on the Pacific Coast. The three hours set up is for straight dancing, each dance running approximately three minutes in quarter hour period, for each band. Titles of numbers are announced. Cugat dishes out tangos, rumbas, waltzes and others of South American influence; Benny Goodman hands out the hot stuff, and Murray comes on smooth and sweet. Each band holds forth for four or five numbers, when another one is switched on (sic). Still greater variety would be secured if the bands alternated each number although that would not give them much of a rest. For a dance routine the bands mesh nicely. Kel Murray who is a first class musician, comes through with a sonorous and well balanced ensemble. Benny Goodman and his clarinet capers are outstanding. The vocalists singly and in combination are adequate.
Showmanship: There is nothing new about dance music on the air. Anyone can tune in on a Sat Night especially and get all they want from the best name bands. The only difference with this program is that you can set the dial at one spot and let it ride which makes it a little easier for lazy fans and the majority are. Neither is it the longest sponsored program as announced. The Metropolitan Opera rambles on for four and sometimes five hours. But there are enough angles to this as a three hours strictly dance routine to make a spread about it, and Sat Night is a likely spot in the week.[vi]
Each band played for fifteen minute alternating sets. Some trade press reports indicated that commercial skits were repeated late in the shows, but it is not certain if that also applied to band numbers. Reviews were generally unfavorable at first, asserting that the commercials were twenty years behind the times, and that there was plenty of good dance music being broadcast during those hours, without commercials. Don Carey, who hosted a long-running children’s show as “Uncle Don,” appeared on the first two shows, but then was dropped because, according to Metronome, “he was ribbed by every radio scribe in town.”[vii]
This program was an expensive undertaking in the middle of the Depression. In addition to all of the costs involved in paying the bands, and arrangers, copyists, and so on for new music, and paying the large technical staff needed to stage the show, there was the cost of “renting” the lines over which the NBC radio network’s programs flowed to its affiliates.“The Let’s Dance show, a Saturday night dancing party, will run for three hours, beginning December 1. The sponsor is the National Biscuit Company and the program begins at 10.30 p.m. and continues until 1.30 a.m. Sunday in the East, with earlier times for Central, West and Pacific coast. The line cost for the three hours will be $30,000, approximately, which ordinarily would run the ante up to $45,000, since after 11:00 p.m. is quoted at half rate.”[viii]
The story of Benny Goodman’s relationship with jazz critic, record producer, talent scout, crusader for racial justice and impressario John Hammond is a long and interesting one, complicated greatly by the fact that Goodman married Hammond’s sister Alice in 1942. For now, we will just say that Hammond was an early, influential, and wealthy (he was a part of the Vanderbilt family), supporter of Benny Goodman’s music and career, and that he helped Benny in a number of important ways. The most important way Hammond helped Goodman at the end of 1934, when Benny was trying various ways to try to make his band swing more convincingly, was that Hammond approached Fletcher Henderson, who had led one of the pioneering swing bands (long before that term was used), and had written many arrangements for his band that actually did swing, and asked him to sell Goodman arrangements that were already written, and also to begin writing new arrangements, including those on pop tunes, that Benny could use on the Let’s Dance radio show. Henderson agreed to this, and by early 1935 his arrangements began to be gradually incorporated into the Goodman band’s offerings on the Let’s Dance radio show each week. On the January 5, 1935 show, BG played Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” as an instrumental, and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a song written by Harold Arlen and Ted Kohler, as a vocal excursion for Helen Ward.
The music: This performance of “I Got Rhythm” was recorded toward the end of Benny Goodman’s twenty-six weeks on the NBC “Let’s Dance” radio show. The Goodman band had by this time achieved a modicum of swing. But it must be noted that BG himself had played with great swinging abandon throughout the entire “Let’s Dance” run. Also, as we hear, both tenor saxophonist Arthur Rollini, who has the three eight-bar main melody segments of “I Got Rhythm” to improvise on, and trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin, who plays on the tune’s bridge, also swing along quite nicely.
The “Let’s Dance” show was an important turning point in the evolution of what eventually became the swing era. It set the stage for further important developments.
[i] How Benny Goodman got to perform that audition is explained in Swing, Swing, Swing, The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone Norton (1993),106–108. One can hear what the Goodman band sounded like in November of 1934 because they produced four sides for Columbia then, recorded on November 26, 1934.
[ii] White materials that chronicle the career of jazz trumpeter Bunny Berigan, who played on a number of “Let’s Dance” shows: December 1, 1934.
[iii] The “NBC studios” referred to by Helen Ward and contemporary press reports was the huge studio 8H, located in the then newly completed RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Studio 8H could comfortably seat an audience of 1,250 people. It was from studio 8H that Arturo Toscanini would broadcast with the NBC Symphony, starting on Christmas night 1937. Later, after the advent of network television, this studio became the home of NBC’s Tonight Show, first hosted by Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, and finally Johnny Carson. With Carson, the show moved to Burbank, California, in 1972. Studio 8H has for many years been home to NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
[iv] White materials: December 1, 1934.
[v] Variety, December 4, 1934 ; cited in the White materials, December 1, 1934.
[vii] Metronome: December 1935; cited in the White materials: December 1, 1934.
The recordings posted here have been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.