Composed by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyric); arranged by Jerry Gray.
Recorded from an NBC network radio broadcast by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra emanating from the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in New York City on December 29, 1938.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Bernie Privin, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Les Jenkins and Harry Rodgers, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Hank Freeman, alto saxophone; Tony Pastor, tenor saxophone and vocal; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Bob Kitsis, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss; bass; George Wettling, drums.
If Not Buddy, Then Who?
Who was the drummer on the Shaw NBC network radio broadcast (of December 29, 1938, from the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in New York City) recording of “Jeepers Creepers”? I was troubled by the assertion that Buddy Rich was the drummer on that performance for a very long time.
The beginning of this inquiry must start in the middle 1950s, when RCA Victor released the two LP set of live broadcast performances entitled Artie Shaw in the Blue Room and Café Rouge, LPT-6000. In the liner notes, which are quite good and were written by George T. Simon (though not credited to him on reissues of this set), we find this statement describing the drumming on “Jeepers Creepers”: “Drummer Buddy Rich was making his debut with the band, providing a light, swinging drum style the Shavians had never had before. If you listen closely, you can hear Buddy shouting encouragement in the background; he was then, as he is today, the kind of drummer who really makes musicians want to play.” (1) The drumming on “Jeepers Creepers” is zestful, and there indeed is someone’s voice present amidst the crowd noise on this recording, especially behind John Best’s trumpet solo. But were the drumming and voice Buddy Rich’s, as Mr. Simon said?
In 1991, singer Mel Torme’ published a biography of Buddy Rich: Traps The Drum Wonder. Torme’ was a capable drummer himself, and a longtime friend of Buddy Rich’s. He was also a rabid Artie Shaw fan, and a fairly good writer, though a somewhat less than rigorous scholar. But the whole point of his largely anecdotal book was to present Torme’ a forum to showcase his unique recollections of Buddy Rich. Torme’ reviewed in some detail the circumstances surrounding Rich’s joining the Shaw band in Traps at pages 40-41, yet he did not reach a conclusion as to when Rich joined. Instead he left things this way: “Does it matter, other than for the sake of historical accuracy, when or how Buddy joined Artie Shaw’s orchestra? Not really.” I respectfully disagree. The writing of history is like assembling a puzzle: one fact leads to another fact, and gradually a picture can be seen, and we get nearer to what actually happened.
I think it is also important to correct historical errors that may have been made years ago because of carelessness, or laziness. These errors continue to be perpetuated simply because people continue to uncritically accept them as facts, and repeat them. Few take the time to review the available objective evidence to determine if maybe things happened some other way. In most instances, there is ample objective evidence available to allow a careful review, and a judicious conclusion. Here is my review and conclusion of the available facts on this issue.
(The top of Hotel Lincoln 700 Eighth Avenue between 44th and 45th, now called the Row Hotel.)
I cannot nor will I ever deny Buddy Rich’s greatness as a drummer. Nor will I ever minimize his large contribution to the success of Artie Shaw’s classic 1939 band. (See my post about Rich’s time with Shaw by clicking on the link below.) What bothered me for so long is that the drumming on Shaw’s “Jeepers Creepers” never sounded to me like Buddy’s. I have listened carefully to Buddy’s work from the 1938-1939 period, with both the Shaw band, and immediately before, with Bunny Berigan’s band. Although Buddy’s drumming was evolving throughout the period when “Jeepers Creepers” was recorded (December of 1938), his basic style of playing was quite recognizable by then. No one familiar with Buddy’s work at that time would say that he was the drummer on the Shaw broadcast performances of “Sobbin’ Blues,” “My Reverie,” or “Non-Stop Flight” (all also on LPT-6000). Those were the work of Cliff Leeman. Likewise, no one would say that Buddy propelled the Shaw band through the RCA Bluebird recordings of “A Room with a View,” “Jungle Drums,” or “It Had to Be You.” Those were the work of George Wettling.
If the drummer on “Jeepers Creepers” was not Buddy Rich, then who was it?
Before we get too far into the process of identifying the playing of various drummers, I should point out that Shaw’s drummer throughout almost all of 1938 was Cliff Leeman. (Pictured at right with Shaw in 1938.) Leeman had been hired by Shaw in early 1937, when Artie made the transition from his string quartet band (whose drummer had been George Wettling), to his thirteen-piece conventional swing band. Leeman’s skill in driving the Shaw band increased steadily until late in 1938, when a problem developed. Leeman himself later told a historian that he was forced to leave the Shaw band in December of 1938 because of “the world’s worse case of piles.”
This development took place at a critical time for Artie Shaw. At the end of 1938, his career was beginning to take a large leap upward. His recording of “Begin the Beguine,” made in July of 1938, was in the early stages of becoming a massive hit. He and his band had landed a sponsored network radio show. They were contracted to make a couple of musical short films, and would soon be signed by M-G-M to make a feature film in Hollywood. They were in the middle of a lengthy stay at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan, from where they were being broadcast over NBC radio very frequently. Theaters and ballrooms all over the USA were clamoring for the Shaw band. In order to meet the new demands being put on him and his band, Artie needed the best band he could present. A strong, swinging drummer was essential.
Shaw began searching for the right drummer for his band immediately after Leeman left in early December. It soon became obvious to him that this search might take a bit of time. In order to buy a little time to complete the search, he approached George Wetting, who was then working quite successfully with Paul Whiteman. Shaw, Whiteman and Wettling discussed the situation. Would it be possible for Shaw to borrow Wettling for a couple of weeks until he could find the right drummer to join his band? Whiteman was a benevolent man, but also a very good businessman. My informed speculation is that an agreement was worked out as follows: Wettling would be available for Shaw’s use for most of December. In exchange, Shaw would appear as a featured soloist with the Whiteman orchestra at its Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall. (Shaw is shown above left appearing with Whiteman at that concert.)
While all of this was going on, Shaw hired a new jazz tenor saxophone soloist – Georgie Auld, who had made quite a name for himself in the almost two years he had worked with Bunny Berigan. Auld reported for work with Shaw on December 16. He immediately became aware of Shaw’s drummer situation. (Auld knew Wettling well: they had worked together in the Berigan band for almost a year.) Auld also knew Berigan’s current drummer, Buddy Rich, very well. They had grown up together in Brooklyn, and Auld was responsible for getting him an audition with Berigan, which resulted in him being hired by Bunny. Auld mentioned Rich to Shaw. The issue of Rich not being able to read drum music came up. Shaw was dubious. Soon however, Rich did audition for Shaw and Artie was impressed. Shaw asked Rich about his inability to read music. What Buddy told Artie is detailed below. Rich was hired by Shaw, and immediately gave Berigan his two-week notice.He would join the Shaw band during the first week of January 1939.
My opinion is that the drummer on Artie Shaw’s “Jeepers Creepers” is George Wettling. (Shown at right.) Here are the reasons: To my ears, Wettling was definitely the drummer on the recordings of Shaw’s CBS Melody and Madness radio shows of 12/25/38 and 1/1/39. Likewise, he was clearly present (there is no confusion about this) on “I Cover the Waterfront,” from the same 12/29/38 Blue Room broadcast as “Jeepers Creepers.” Indeed, it doesn’t appear (aurally) that Rich’s drumming is a part of the Shaw band sound until the Melody and Madness broadcast on 1/8/39.
Immediately after the 1/1/39 Melody and Madness program, Shaw took a few days off, and flew to Cuba for a holiday. He returned in time for the 1/8/39 Melody and Madness show. The Shaw band evidently did not broadcast from the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln during this interval. It is likely however, that for at least a part of this time, the band rehearsed, probably under the direction of Jerry Gray, Shaw’s chief arranger. At any such rehearsals, Rich would have been present and had time to listen to the band, and acclimate himself. Shaw often stated that he asked Rich if he could read drum music when they first met, and Rich told him that he couldn’t, and didn’t need to. He said he needed only to listen to the band play its current repertoire once or twice, and he’d then know what to play. That is exactly what he did, and there was never any problem with him not knowing what to play with the Shaw band.
Below is a photo of Artie Shaw in the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in December of 1938.
The above analysis leaves open the possibility that Rich could have sat-in with the Shaw band when it broadcast “Jeepers Creepers” on 12/29/38, using Wettling’s equipment, for “Jeepers Creepers” only. I think that this is unlikely. In my 50-plus years of learning about Artie Shaw, I came to know one thing about him early on: he was an absolutely driven perfectionist. He knew how to effectively rehearse a band, and did so carefully, even painstakingly. He would present a piece of music publicly only after he was completely confident that his band was prepared to perform it at an optimum level. It is extremely unlikely that Shaw would have let any drummer, even Buddy Rich, who then was relatively unknown even in jazz circles, sit-in with his band for one tune on a nationwide radio broadcast at this critical juncture of his career. In addition, to do this would have been rather awkward, because it would have necessitated Wettling vacating the drums he had just played on “I Cover the Waterfront” to allow Rich to sit down, and get set to play, all within the span of a few seconds between tunes on a radio broadcast where dead air and extraneous noises were big no-nos.
Below: Tony Pastor, Artie Shaw and Geroge Wettling – at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln NYC, December 1938. The face behind Pastor is that of trombonist George Arus. The trumpeter behind Shaw’s right forearm is Bernie Privin. Trombonist Les Jenkins’s bald pate and trumpeter Chuck Peterson are in the background on the left edge of the photo.
Shaw was only at the beginning his rise to stardom on December 29, 1938 after two and a half years of backbreaking work. This would have made him reluctant to conduct an awkward audition of a drummer before a national radio audience, and jeopardize his hard-earned success.
The music: This is a joyous performance of the novelty tune “Jeepers Creepers” composed by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer for the 1938 Warner Brothers film Going Places. It was introduced in that film by Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan.
Artie Shaw had the perfect performer to handle tunes like this, his long-time musical associate Tony Pastor (real name Antonio Prestritto). (Shaw and Pastor are pictured at left in 1939.) They had met years before in a band called Irving Aaronson and His Commanders. That was an “entertaining” band where the musicians sang, danced and did comedy, in addition to playing their instruments. Pastor sang in an impish fashion that had much in common with humorous turns taken by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller when they sang. He was also an excellent tenor saxophonist who could play jazz. Audiences loved Pastor’s singing. After he and Shaw parted company in late 1939, Pastor led his own band with considerable success for many years. After his bandleading days, Tony Pastor worked in Las Vegas as the head man in a singing group called The Pastors, with his sons Tony, Jr. and Guy.
This performance of “Jeepers Creepers” captures the electricity that moved back-and-forth between Artie Shaw and his band, and the overflow crowds that packed the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in New York for the entirety of their run there (October 26, 1938 to February 2, 1939). The introduction consists of a fanfare played by the band which leads to a sequence with Shaw’s clarinet and George Wettling’s tom-tom. The first sixteen bars of the first chorus is a simple and swinging antiphonal melody exposition with the muted brass that carry the melody being answered by the saxophones. The reeds then take over on the bridge, and they and the now open brass complete the reprise of the melody to complete the first chorus. A cymbal crash and rhythmic interlude bring vocalist Tony Pastor to the microphone. Pastor kids his way through Mercer’s humorous lyric while Shaw provides a jet-propelled clarinet obbligato behind Tony’s singing.
It is during this vocal chorus that we hear how differently Wettling played from Rich. His work on his high-hats especially, and snare drum are completely his own. The way he uses his bass drum at the bottom of his drumming differs from Rich’s frequent use (then) of bass drum offbeats. Wettling’s use of his other cymbals in the final chorus, and his high-hat playing behind John Best’s trumpet solo are also evidence of drumming quite unlike Rich’s. (John Best is shown above right – 1938.)
Lastly, the voice we hear when Best is playing his trumpet solo is not that of Buddy Rich. Rich had a most distinctive, resonant voice which can be heard on many recordings. The voice on this recording does not have any Richian characteristics.
(1)The original boxed-set issue of LPT-6000 did credit George T. Simon for these liner notes.
The recording presented with this post was digitally transferred and remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Here is a link that examines the musical relationship between Artie Shaw and Buddy Rich. It contains several great examples of Buddy’s drumming, which is quite different from George Wettling’s drumming.