“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”
Composed by Harold Arlen (music) and Ted Koehler (lyric); arranged by Fletcher Henderson.
Recorded on July 1, 1935 by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor in New York City.
Benjamin D. “Benny” Goodman, clarinet; directing: Roland B. “Bunny” Berigan, first trumpet; Ralph Muzzillo and Nate Kazebier, trumpets; Nuncio F. “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Herman “Hymie” Shertzer, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Sterling “Red” Ballard, first trombone; Jack Lacey, trombone; Frankie Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Eugene B.”Gene” Krupa, drums. Vocal by Helen Ward.
The story: By the time the Benny Goodman band left Chicago in the spring of 1936, they were well on their way to national success. The time they spent in Chicago, from November 6, 1935, when they opened at the Joseph Urban Room of the Congress Hotel, until they closed there on May 23, 1936, had been eventful. The Goodman band had been well-received at the Congress. Many “events” planned by BG supporters reinforced the band’s basic musical appeal. There were three jazz concerts staged at the Congress during the six and a half months the Goodman band was there. The last of these, which took place on Easter Sunday 1936, included pianist Teddy Wilson. The reception Teddy got was tremendous, and this led to him being integrated into the Goodman presentation. He would be featured as the pianist with the Benny Goodman trio (which had existed on records since the prior summer, but had never appeared in public), and as intermission pianist. (Jess Stacy was and continued to be the pianist with the BG big band.)
The Goodman band itself became a beautifully coordinated musical machine. Benny was playing inspired clarinet, and was heavily featured. The sidemen who played solos were quite talented, but generally received only eight or at most sixteen bars of solo space on the rare occasions when they were given solos. These included George “Pee Wee” Erwin on trumpet; Joe Harris (who also sang), on trombone; Arthur Rollini on tenor saxophone; and Jess Stacy on piano. Drummer Gene Krupa, though good-looking and dynamic, had not yet developed into the drumming matinee idol he would become.(The movies Gene made with the Goodman band did that.)
The most featured performer in the Goodman band, aside from Benny himself, was vocalist Helen Ward. Helen was a very attractive young woman, with a great figure. She sang in a jazz-influenced style that was exceedingly popular with the audiences that came to see and hear the Goodman band. She and Benny were also involved in a torrid though spasmodic romance that had begun the year before. Late in her life, Helen told the story of how she and Benny finally broke-up in the fall of 1936. It is a quintessential Benny Goodman story.
It begins in the summer of 1936, when the Goodman band was in Hollywood making its first feature film The Big Broadcast of 1937 for Paramount. Far more important than that, as it turned out, Benny and the band started their association with the CBS network radio show, The Camel Caravan, on June 30, 1936. Initially, they shared the half-hour show with bandleader Nat Shilkret, but soon, Benny Goodman and his swing band had the show all to themselves. By the time Goodman’s run on The Camel Caravan ended in December of 1939, he was a wealthy man and an international music star.
Helen Ward now picks up the narrative: “One night after we finished up at the Palomar (a large ballroom in Los Angeles), a gang of us went down to the Paradise Club to hear Lionel Hampton. Benny started jamming with Lionel, and then Teddy Wilson got in and then Lionel put his two-finger piano on top, and it was fabulous. I was with a date, a man I was seeing named Bill, and we stayed until the very end, then went over to the Brown Derby for pancakes and coffee. Bill and I were sitting there talking, and in walked Benny by himself, and he sat himself down at our table.
Benny and I had dated off and on. We’d go out for a while, then we’d have a fight, and then we’d get back together again –the usual sort of thing. I was so surprised that Benny joined us because this was one of those off periods, and I was quite angry at him. In addition to our usual problems, Paramount had cast Martha Raye and Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast, and Benny didn’t once say, to my knowledge, ‘Hey, do you want the band? …here’s Helen.’ I mean, I wasn’t that ugly. I wasn’t as gorgeous as some of the gals, but I was passable. That really hurt me.
Well, when Benny sat down, Bill was telling me that he wanted me to stay in California after the band left, and without so much as a how-do-you-do, Benny turned to him and said,’I’m going to marry this girl.’ It was completely out of left field. Yes, I was in love with him. I was in love with him, I think from the first time I ever heard him play. And he knew it. But by now, I had put Benny entirely out of my head as far as marriage or anything serious was concerned, and I couldn’t imagine what brought this on.
It was a very embarrassing moment. I must have said something like ‘Hey, come on, we’re having coffee.’ And then Bill took me home. We kissed and said good-night; then a few minutes later, Bill called me on the phone and said that on his way out he saw Benny downstairs sitting in his car, waiting for him to leave. Sure enough, about five minutes later the doorbell rings, and it’s Benny. I let him in, and I’ll never forget it. I sat down on the sofa. He did not sit down. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He’s standing in front of me and looks down and says, ‘I want to marry you.’ Just like that. I said, ‘Well, this is news to me. You’ve been going out with Jane, Joan, June, whomever, and I had no idea that’s how you felt. When did you…’ He said, ‘Well, I want to marry you.’ I said yes.
After we left the Palomar we went back east, and on Labor Day weekend we played the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. I was standing on the end of the pier, looking out at the ocean, when Benny came over to me. He said, ‘Helen, I’m not ready for marriage. I’m determined to make it, and I don’t feel that I should get married yet.’
I believe that Benny liked me a lot. He was always very good to me, and we always had fun together when we weren’t fighting. But I have to think that the real reason he proposed was to keep me from leaving the band. After all, I did sing every other tune.
I was furious. It would have been easy to say ‘Aw, come on, Helen, I’ve got so much money invested in you, don’t leave yet. And maybe I would have listened. But his music meant more to him than anything, and how he hurt me didn’t even enter into it.
Benny could be terribly insensitive at times, but we always said, ‘Well, that’s Benny,’ and let it go. At least I did. But this was too much. I called Willard Alexander (BG’s liaison with MCA, his booking agent) in New York and told him, ‘I’m going back to the Coast.’ Willard drove down and somehow talked me out of it. But it just about broke my heart. After that, my feelings for Benny just petered out.
We went into the Hotel Pennsylvania in the beginning of October. I started seeing a man who had been my very first date when I was a kid. He really courted me. He was there every night. And he asked me to marry him. One evening before we went to work, I told Benny I was leaving. We were sitting at a little table for two there in the Madhattan Room. Benny was holding one of those oversize dinner menus, and he just flung it across the table in my face. That was his reaction.” (1)
The last date on which Helen Ward was a regular member of the Benny Goodman band was October 21, 1936. On that date, she sang (apropos of her turmoil with Benny), the song “You Turned the Tables on Me” on a CBS sustaining radio broadcast from the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania. Her appearances with the Goodman band after that were rare, and usually happened only because Benny himself implored her to help him out of a few jams.
Starting in November, BG began experimenting with singers. Among those he used for various purposes: Ella Fitzgerald (who was contracted to Chick Webb); Jimmy Rushing (contracted to Count Basie); the sexy songstress Margaret McRae (who was often featured on CBS Radio); Frances Hunt, Peggy La Centra, and Betty Van. All were talented, all sang well. But none were Helen Ward, and that is who Benny really wanted to be his singer.
Benny Goodman made no Victor records with a girl singer from the end of December 1936 until July 7, 1937, when Betty Van recorded the pop tune “Afraid to Dream.” This was astonishing, and probably vexing for the people at Victor Records. During this same time span the previous year, he had made more than a dozen records with vocals by Helen Ward. Finally, when the Goodman band was in Los Angeles for the third consecutive summer (1937), he signed singer Martha Tilton to a contract. She started singing with the Goodman band in late August. Her almost two year tenure with BG would be rocky, but she performed well with the Goodman band, and was a definite asset.
The music: “(You’ve Got Me) Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” was written in 1931 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler as a part of the music for the Cotton Club revue Rhythmania. It is indeed a great rhythm song that was introduced in the Cotton Club show by Aida Ward (no relation to Helen Ward), and then recorded in the early 1930s by Cab Calloway, the Boswell Sisters, and the ubiquitous Louis Armstrong. Composer Alec Wilder, in his monumental survey of American Popular Song declared: “If you’re lucky enough to find an old Goodman record of it, you’ll hear Helen Ward singing the vocal. It’s the definitive performance.” I heartily agree.
The Fletcher Henderson arrangement of this song came into the Goodman band book in January of 1935, as Benny was being featured on the weekly NBC Let’s Dance Saturday night radio program. Although a few other recordings of this arrangement as played by the Goodman band exist, none come close to the exuberant joy that radiates from this performance. Much of that is attributable to the electric presence of trumpeter Bunny Berigan on this recording.
It is significant that Benny had Berigan play lead trumpet on this (and on other selections recorded on this date), in addition to taking the jazz trumpet solos.
By 1935, Bunny was well-known in New York broadcast and recording circles as a jazz soloist. Although he could and on occasion did also play lead, usually he left that to the cadre of exceptional lead trumpeters then in New York, including Charlie Margulis (the legendary “Mighty Marg” of the late 1920s Paul Whiteman orchestra), Sammy Shapiro (later known at CBS as Sammy Spear), Charlie Spivak, Andy Ferretti, Ralph Muzzillo, and a few others. All of these men could carry a trumpet section (and often the whole band) with their strong lead playing. But none of them were jazz soloists. Consequently, their lead playing, great as it was, often didn’t swing quite so strongly as the playing of a jazz soloist would. But few jazz soloist in 1935 were capable of also playing lead. Bunny Berigan was one of the few who could. Berigan was the first trumpeter to really give Benny what he was looking for as a lead trumpeter. His playing on the Victor records he made with BG in 1935 set the swinging standard later carried on brilliantly by Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Cootie Williams.
In this performance, Berigan’s huge, warm, ringing trumpet sound, and irresistible swing carry this performance from the downbeat to the tag ending, including the bristling eight bar solo he plays on the tune’s first bridge. Goodman himself and Helen Ward are obviously inspired by the surging swing of the entire BG ensemble. Listen to how Berigan leads the ensemble through the syncopated and dynamically varying passages after Helen Ward’s vocal.
Benny was notoriously reticent when it came to offering praise for the playing of musicians who worked with him. But he made this observation about Berigan’s effect on his band: “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…whatever you want. It’s all of that–and none of it. It’s a God-given thing.” (3)
This band, with a few changes in its personnel, would create a sensation at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles a few weeks after this recording was made. Here is a link to another classic recording they made on July 1, 1935:
The recording used in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Swing, Swing, Swing …The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone (1993), 184-186.
(2) American Popular Song …The Great Innovators – 1900-1950, by Alec Wilder (1972), 257-258.
(3) Liner notes for Bunny Berigan …The Pied Piper 1934-1940, by Richard M. Sudhalter, (1995).