“Red Top” (1945) Woody Herman
Head arrangement on the blues worked out by Woody Herman and his band.
Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra live at the Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey on February 18, 1945.
Woody Herman, clarinet, directing: Ray Wetzel, first trumpet; Saul “Sonny” Berman, Walter “Pete” Candoli, Carl “Bama” Warwick, Charles Frankhauser, trumpets; Willar P. “Bill” Harris, Ralph Pfeffner, Ed Kiefer, trombones; Sam Marowitz, first alto saxophone; John La Porta, alto saxophone; Joseph E. Filipelli (“Flip” Phillips) and Pete Mondello, tenor saxophones; Skippy DeSair, baritone saxophone; Margie Hyams, vibraphone; Ralph Burns, piano; Billy Bauer, guitar; Greig Stewart “Chubby” Jackson, bass; Dave Tough, drums.
The story: After languishing within the ranks of second-tier bands for eight years, Woody Herman, in mid-1944, was poised to move his band into the charmed circle of bands that were featured on sponsored network radio shows. But the road that had led him to that propitious moment had been a long and tortuous one.
Woody Herman’s earliest band, which came into existence in 1936, was billed as “The Band that Plays the Blues.” The Herman band was initially organized as a “co-operative” (*) band, meaning that it was owned and operated by several of its members, who (including Woody Herman), were former members of the band composer Isham Jones had led for many years. Although that band had many very good musicians in it, including the fine drummer Frankie Carlson and the trombonist Neil Reid, and it made good music, it never really achieved strong success with the public. Woody had a modest hit record in 1939, “Woodchopper’s Ball,” a blues, which helped the band achieve a small identity with the general public.
By the beginning of World War II, things were looking up for the Herman band.The Decca recordings Woody made from the late 1930s up to the time of the American Federation of Musicians’ Union recording ban on August 1, 1942 were invariably well performed, and often swinging. Herman had another fair-sized hit in late 1941 with his recording of “Blues in the Night.” But overall, the Herman-Decca output was less than musically exciting, and not very commercially successful.The AFM recording ban, which ended for Decca in mid-1943, gave Woody a chance to reevaluate his band’s overall musical direction.The ultimate result of this was that Herman gradually reorganized his band’s personnel and its music. Although he opted to re-sign with Decca in 1943, he did so half-heartedly. Woody sensed no magic in his relationship with Decca at that time. He signed with Columbia Records in early 1945, and it was on that label that many of the greatest performances by the Herman band would be recorded.
The first significant change in the musical policy of the band came when Woody contracted with arranger Dave Matthews, who had been working with Harry James, to write a number of charts for the Herman band that had a definite Duke Ellington feeling.That started the movement of the band’s music in a new direction.Then, in September of 1943, Woody hired the bassist Chubby Jackson, who had been working with Charlie Barnet’s band. Jackson was not just a dynamic bassist, he was also something of a talent scout, and a buoyant, exuberant personality. Young musicians were drawn to him because he was fun to be around, in addition to being an excellent, serious musician. By the end of 1943, Jackson had lured pianist/arranger Ralph Burns, whom he had met and worked with in the Barnet band, into the Herman band. Burns began writing arrangements for the Herman band that were entirely different from those the band had played previously. Slowly, the musical character of the Woody Herman band was changing.
In the first half of 1944, Herman continued strengthening the personnel of his band. Unquestionably, his greatest personnel decision was to hire drummer Dave Tough in April. Tough, who had played with a number of top-flight swing bands before World War II, (and who served in the Navy as a part of Artie Shaw’s band, which toured the Pacific theater of the War), was a veteran musician who was seven years older than Woody (though still only 37 in 1944). Chubby Jackson was dubious about this “old guy” fitting into to the definitely youth-oriented Herman band. (Most of the Herman sidemen were in their twenties.) Jackson soon realized however, that Tough was one of the supreme rhythm masters of jazz, and they fit together in Woody’s rhythm section like a hand in a soft, supple glove. Chubby was also impressed with Tough’s intelligence, cultural awareness, and ironic sense of humor. Good times, musically and otherwise, lay ahead.
By the middle of 1944, Woody’s management had secured a network radio show for the Herman band, sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, which would begin on July 26, 1944 on CBS. In the 1930s and 1940s, network radio was similar to network television later in that it provided entertainers, including swing bands, with an excellent, ongoing showcase for their talent, abundant publicity, and most importantly, a continuing flow of money to offset the never-ending heavy costs of operating a big band.This was a major break for Woody. In the weeks before the debut of the radio show, and with the financial base of the band now secure, he “loaded-up” the band with strong players. From Tommy Dorsey’s band came the flashy and exciting lead trumpeter Pete Candoli. The tornadic tenor sax soloist Joseph Edward Filipelli, whose professional name was Flip Phillips, came from Red Norvo’s group.The young trumpeter and arranger Neal Hefti was recruited by Jackson out of Charlie Barnet’s band, and he brought his wife, singer Frances Wayne along with him.The pieces were falling into place. But despite the great talent of many of the musicians in the band, the whole they created would prove to be much larger and more creative than the sum of the parts.The “X-factor” was Woody’s benign leadership style, and his ongoing encouragement of his musicians to create new music.
The musical evolution of the Herman band that had been going on for the prior year continued in 1944. Ralph Burns continued writing provocative, modern arrangements. Neal Hefti began to create earthy, swinging arrangements. And the musicians in the band, as a group, began to put together numerous “head” arrangements, which were developed organically and informally, over time, as the band refined them in performance. Among these were “Apple Honey,” a reference to various commercials they heard each week on their Old Gold radio show; “Wild Root,” a reference to the product that sponsored them on a later radio show; “Northwest Passage,” which like so many tunes during the swing era was also the name of a Hollywood film, and “Red Top.” Presumably, “Red Top” refers to a red-headed person. Could it have been one of the announcers on the Old Gold show – Red Barber?(#)
The music: After the opening announcements (and a bit of Woody’s first theme song, “Blue Flame”(**) including an interpolation of “Blues in the Night”, with the manic Chubby Jackson yelling “yaah, right now!”…, and Dave Tough playing interesting Bolero tattoos on his tom-toms), “Red Top,” a blues with no melody as such, played a sizzling tempo, comes on with an ensemble blast that hints at the Herman band’s power and unity. Ralph Burns is the first soloist. His piano playing here is swinging, with a nod in the direction of Count Basie. The following soloists in order are: Woody on clarinet, Flip Phillips on his raspy tenor sax, Bill Harris on trombone, Margie Hyams on vibes. The rhythmic support behind these soloists, provided by bassist Jackson and drummer Tough is stupendous, especially Tough’s high-hats and Chinese cymbal. After the vibes solo, the band comes roaring back, catapulted forward by Tough’s bass drum. Intense riffing sets the stage for trumpeter Pete Candoli’s climactic high-register flight through the last two choruses.
Pete Candoli spent the 1940s playing with many of the best bands of that decade, then settled in Hollywood where he had a great career as one of the most successful studio musicians from the 1950s through the 1980s. His high-register trumpet prowess was used on more that one Herman tune in the halcyon days of the first “Herman Herd,” as this band was dubbed.
A bit later in 1945, when the Herman recording of “Apple Honey,” with its high-trumpet ending, was climbing to hit status, playing that tune became a required part of the Herman band’s stage presentation in theaters.Woody recalled a bit of schtick that developed around that: “Everyone in the band was trying to top each other, and Pete Candoli came up with one of our most successful gimmicks, which he initiated on his own one day.While we were playing ‘Apple Honey’ (in a theater stage show), he sneaked off the stage and put on a red and blue Superman outfit, cape and all (including a washcloth padding the crotch for ‘protection’), that his wife had made for him. We were playing the last chorus when he jumped out on stage in time to play his walloping passages. It brought down the house, and it remained as a part of out act.”(***)
(*) Two other well-known bands, Casa Loma, and Bob Crosby, were also co-operative bands. Both were successful in the 1930s and into the 1940s. At some point in the early 1940s, Woody Herman bought out the other shareholders in the band he had been leading since 1936, and became its sole owner.
(#) Walter Lanier “Red” Barber was a famous radio announcer who called baseball games for over thirty years for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Yankees.
(**) Soon after this time, Herman began to use “Woodchopper’s Ball” as his theme song.
(***) The Woodchopper’s Ball…the Autobiography of Woody Herman, with Stuart Troup (1990), E.P. Dutton, pages 54-55.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.