“Sing, Sing, Sing”
Composed by Louis Prima; initial vocal arrangement by Jimmy Mundy.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra on July 6, 1937 for Victor in Hollywood, CA.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Harry James, first trumpet; Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Murray McEachern and Red Ballard, trombones; Hymie Shertzer first alto saxophone; George Koenig, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Vido Musso, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
The story: Benny Goodman’s blockbuster recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” was very popular during the swing era, and has become an iconic reminder of that era in the decades that followed its initial release in 1937 by Victor Records. It has appeared on many feature film soundtracks (Woody Allen is particularly fond of “SSS”), in cartoons, on television in all kinds of programming and advertisements, and it continues to be played by bands that play the music of the swing era. In short, Benny Goodman’s recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” has become a part of the fabric of American culture.
What is far less known than the recording itself, is how and why it evolved into the form we now hear, all eight minutes and forty-six seconds of it. First of all, “Sing, Sing, Sing” came pretty much out of nowhere. It was composed by swing era trumpeter and bandleader (later king of Las Vegas lounge acts), Louis Prima. Prima was never known as a composer. Indeed, were it not for “Sing, Sing, Sing,” it is likely that few people would know of any tunes composed by Louis Prima. Many years after it was composed, Prima recalled how the tune came to be: “I was out at the race track back in 1936 with Bing Crosby and George Raft. On the way home, the phrase ‘Sing, Bing, Sing,’ kept running through my mind. By the time I got home, I decided that wasn’t very commercial, and I changed it to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.'” Prima tried out the new song (Prima also wrote the simplistic lyric) in a club where he was playing with a small group. “It got no reaction, but a few days later my publisher brought Benny Goodman around to hear it. Benny was reluctant, but he bought it.” (*)
Benny Goodman was in Hollywood from late June until the end of August 1936 primarily to make his first feature film, The Big Broadcast of 1937, at Paramount Studios. Filming and sound recording for the film were done in July and August during the day. At night, the Goodman band returned to the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, where they had been a hit the summer before.In the intervening year, the Goodman band went from one success to another. Their crowning achievement, as far as mainstream popularity was concerned, was that they replaced Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra on the CBS network high-profile Camel Caravan radio show on Tuesday June 30, 1936.
That had to be a moment that Benny savored. Although BG had no ill-will toward Glen Gray and his band, he certainly remembered sitting in the posh offices of Music Corporation of America (MCA), the largest and most powerful band booking agency in the country early in 1935 with his bass-playing brother Harry, hearing the various MCA operatives tell him that the only reason why MCA was taking the fledgling Goodman band on as a client then was so that MCA and the Goodman band would eventually knock the Casa Loma band (booked by rival Rockwell-O’Keefe-later General Artists Corp/GAC) off of the Camel Caravan. Benny took this talk very seriously. For the next eighteen months, he worked like a man possessed to make his band better musically, and more popular with audiences. MCA, for its part, did everything it could to help BG and his band with good bookings and lots of promotion, especially around the word “swing,” used as a noun. It all paid off.
Goodman remained on the Camel Caravan for the next three and a half years. It proved to be the cornerstone of his greatest commercial success during the swing era, providing an ongoing showcase for the band, which resulted in enormous promotional value for BG and his music. During the entire time Benny Goodman and his band were featured on the Camel Caravan, they were constantly in great demand in theaters and ballrooms, and worked as hard as it is possible to work.The Goodman band was able to demand top-dollar wherever it performed. BG band members were making more money than most other musicians anywhere, and Benny himself became a wealthy man. These were the years when Benny Goodman became the “King of Swing.”
The Goodman band was back in Hollywood in the summer of 1937 to make another movie, Hollywood Hotel, for Warner Brothers. It appears that the Goodman band started work on the film on approximately July 8. They were occupied with filming and recording the sound track during the day. They continued to broadcast on the Camel Caravan at night when scheduled, and to work for the third straight summer six nights a week at the Palomar Ballroom. Before that onslaught began, BG and his band recorded “Sing, Sing, Sing” on July 6, 1937.
In the spring of 1937, people in the marketing department at Victor Records took note of the many demonstrations throughout the nation that swing music was becoming a major cultural trend, especially among young adults.The so-called “Paramount Riots” that had accompanied the appearance of Benny Goodman and his band at the Paramount Theater in Times Square in New York in March of that year had created headlines and feature stories in newspapers and mainstream magazines from coast-to coast. The subject was swing. (MCA’s public relations department was also very busy generating stories about the BG band and swing at the Paramount and elsewhere.) Large theaters across the nation were bidding for the services of the few top swing bands then on the scene because appearances by those bands on the stages of theaters created big box office receipts.This early burst of publicity around the activities swing bands was also enhanced by periodical publications like Down Beat, Metronome, and Variety, among many others, that reported regularly and in-depth on the activities of bands, their leaders, band members and singers.
In order to capitalize on the swing fever that was sweeping the nation, Victor decided to produce a four-record album dedicated to swing, featuring four of the best swing artists on the Victor roster.This was unusual. But in addition, it was decided to make all four records in the album twelve-inch platters as opposed to the far more common ten-inch disks. This was unprecedented. The album was entitled A Symposium of Swing.
“RCA Victor has given the wax cult something to really shout about. Spreading their stuff on 12 inches of wax and packeted in an album dressed up with concert notes by swing critic Warren Scholl, candid camera shots of the wand-wavers and personnel of the tooters, Victor Hall of Fame’s A Symposium of Swing (C-28) features Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman & Bunny Berigan.” (Billboard: September 18, 1937)
“Victor’s first swing album, Symposium of Swing, is a big hit. The public acceptance (and sales) was almost double the estimate by the company. The set was backed by a special advertising and display campaign.” (Billboard: October 23, 1937)
“Biggest record news of the month is Victor’s release of a Symposium in Swing (sic) album of four 12-inch records, which follows their recent Bix Beiderbecke memorial album. The four discs provide an opportunity to hear Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Waller and Berigan at their best. Only serious question that might be raised is the inclusion of Berigan, whose band is just rounding into shape. Other leaders naturally should occupy Berigan’s place in the Symposium, but these leaders are not recording for Victor. Since this is strictly Victor’s Symposium and judged on its merits the album deserves a top notch spot in any record library. Here is a compilation of what swing really is, as played by the present Victor swing masters. For a swing banquet, don’t miss this sumptuous swing meal.” (Orchestra World: October 1937) [i]
Benny Goodman’s contribution to this collection was the two-sided “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Bunny Berigan’s was “I Can’t Get Started,” backed by “The Prisoner’s Song.”Tommy Dorsey’s was “Stop, Look and Listen,” backed by “Beale Street Blues.” Fats Waller’s disc in this set had “Honeysuckle Rose” on side A, and “Blue Turning Gray over You” on side B. Both of these performances were by Fats Waller and His Rhythm.[ii]
Victor’s A Symposium of Swing project yielded much wonderful music, including two landmarks of the swing era: Benny Goodman’s “Sing,Sing,Sing,” and Bunny Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started.”
The music: In the identification of the arranger above I stated that Jimmy Mundy made the initial vocal arrangement of “Sing,Sing,Sing,” which he did some time early in 1936. Helen Ward, Benny’s fine vocalist in 1935 and 1936, sings the inane lyric (that has the word “swing” in it) somewhat manically. I am presenting as a bonus the first known recording by the Benny Goodman band of “Sing,Sing, Sing” below which comes from a March 18, 1936 recording of a live performance at Chicago’s Congress Hotel.(**) [See below.]
The classic Victor recording was made some fifteen months later.It shows how much an arrangement could develop, if it was one that audiences were interested in. Audiences were obviously interested in the original Jimmy Mundy blueprint, as were the musicians in the Goodman band, who over those fifteen months made the changes that transformed what was essentially a rhythmic pop tune with a weak lyric into an epic instrumental workout for drummer Gene Krupa, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, trumpeter Harry James, Benny himself, and the entire Goodman band. This is a great performance. It had a great deal to do with propelling Gene Krupa and Harry James to stardom.
I am struck by the large tracts of Krupa’s tom-tom playing that were inserted into the arrangement to extend the basic chart to fill up both sides of a twelve-inch Victor record. (Each side of a twelve-inch 78 rpm record could hold approximately five minutes of music.) Other things were also inserted. The original Victor record label states: “introducing ‘Christopher Columbus,’ which I’m sure was completely baffling to people who were not swing devotees, and confusing to people who were.The tune “Christopher Columbus,” was a jazz original that appeared in 1936 in the Fletcher Henderson band, being composed by two of its stellar members, tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Many bands recorded that tune in 1936, including Benny Goodman’s (for Victor on March 20, 1936). So it was hardly being “introduced” in the Victor/BG recording of “Sing,Sing,Sing,” which was made fifteen months later. Eventually,the word used to describe how “Christopher Columbus” was used in “Sing,Sing,Sing” was “interpolated,” which is more accurate and less confusing. Also, somewhere along the process of the evolution of “Sing,Sing,Sing,” bits of music from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” were interpolated.
(*) The Swing Era 1937-1938, Time-Life Books (1971), page 56. I doubt the accuracy of Prima’s memory on the date 1936 for the happening of these events. I think “Sing,Sing,Sing” was actually composed in 1935. It was being played by the Goodman band by early 1936. Goodman was in Los Angeles in 1935 from late August until early October. That may have been the time when he first encountered “Sing,Sing,Sing.”
(**) The live recording of “Sing,Sing,Sing” presented below is definitely in low fidelity, and for that I apologize. The copy of it I have is from an LP that contains many early Goodman broadcast recordings. It was released in the early 1970s, at a time when unscrupulous record producers would issue historic recordings when little or no care had been taken to transfer the music from its original source (probably an acetate disk), and no effort was exerted to clean up the transfers. I have done some sonic restoration, but the recording I had to work with could be restored only so much, and that is far below my standard for acceptable. I include this recording here only because it offers a wonderful picture of the small musical acorn from which a giant musical oak grew.
“Sing, Sing, Sing”
Live vocal version. Performed at the Joseph Urban Room of the Congress Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, March 18, 1936, recorded from the sustaining (unsponsored) CBS broadcast.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: George “Pee Wee” Erwin, first trumpet; Nate Kazebier and Harry Geller, trumpets; Red Ballard and Joe Harris, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Bill DePew, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums; Helen Ward, vocal.
[i] All cited in the White materials: August 7, 1937.
[ii] The information concerning the Waller disc in the album A Symopsium of Swing came from big band historian Christopher Popa, who operates the Big Band Library website.
These recordings were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.