“Big John Special”
Composed and arranged by Horace Henderson.
Recorded on November 16,1937 by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra from a CBS Camel Caravan broadcast.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Harry James, first trumpet; Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Will Bradley and Red Ballard, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone, and George Koenig, alto saxophone; Art Rollini and Vido Musso, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allen Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
The story: “Big John Special” originated in that crucible of swing, Fletcher Henderson’s band. It was not written or arranged by Fletcher however, but by his talented younger brother, Horace Henderson (shown below left) Horace wrote it to commemorate a beloved Harlem bartender/restaurant owner who catered to musicians. His establishment was located on Seventh Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets. (The Savoy Ballroom was nearby, at 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st Streets.) Trombonist Dicky Wells provided this information about Big John: “Everybody Loved Big John. His nickname was Meatball. If you had a buck, okay; if you didn’t, okay”.(1)
Horace Henderson later recalled how the tune came to be written: “Big John was quite a guy. One day when I was at his cafe’, I said: ‘Big John, I’m going to write a tune and I’m going to name it for you.’ The song was conceived in the air (*)…to somewhere or other and as soon as we arrived, I sat down and finished it. The idea for the ‘special’ came from the signs for food and drink that were plastered all over the cafe.'” (2)
“Big John Special” was recorded by Fletcher Henderson on September 11, 1934, using the basic Horace Henderson arrangement that was later used by Benny Goodman.(3) That recording featured the excellent jazz trumpet playing of Henry “Red” Allen.(2A)
When Fletcher began his association with Benny Goodman in late 1934-early 1935, the first two arrangements he sold to Benny were “King Porter Stomp,” and “Big John Special.” “King Porter Stomp” was recorded by Benny on July 1, 1935, in a great performance by the early BG band, featuring the brilliant trumpet playing of Bunny Berigan.(4) For whatever reason, Benny didn’t get around to recording “Big John Special” until May 28, 1938. In fact, a review of the Goodman discography indicates that Benny seldom performed “Big John Special,” at least seldom on radio. Sometime in 1937, Benny decided to see what his talented young trumpet soloist Harry James could do with “Big John Special.” It soon became apparent that he could do great things with it.
The November 1937 Benny Goodman performance of “Big John Special” was a vehicle for the spectacular trumpet playing of Harry James. James had joined the Goodman band in January of 1937 because Benny was looking for a trumpet soloist who even more brash and technically gifted than Ziggy Elman. (At right: Chris Griffin, Ziggy Elman, Harry James and BG – 1937.) James was that trumpeter. In terms of sheer technique, no trumpeter of the late 1930s exceeded James. But Harry was only 21 years old in 1937, and though quite a good jazz soloist, he had not yet arrived at a place where he stood with the trumpet giants of jazz. (In this rarefied category then were: Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan, Cootie Williams, and Roy Eldridge. Dizzy Gillespie, like James, was knocking on the door.) His work with Benny through 1937 and 1938, which involved playing the trumpet for anywhere from three to six hours a day, seven days a week, and playing lots of jazz solos alongside Benny, whose jazz playing through the late 1930s was superb, gradually lifted the quality of his jazz. On any given tune on any given day through this period, James could play spectacular trumpet, and exciting jazz.(2B)
Harry James and Gene Krupa break it up in the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City – 1937.
It appears that Benny became aware of Harry James as a result of the frequent touts Benny’s younger, trumpet-playing brother Irving, made to BG about Harry in the fall of 1936. Finally, Benny hired him right at the beginning of 1937. Other trumpeters were also impressed by James’s playing. The lead trumpeter Rubin “Zeke” Zarchy, had been in Benny’s band for a spell in 1936, and then left to join Artie Shaw’s new string quartet band. After an unsuccessful gig at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, Texas toward the end of that year, Shaw transported his band back to New York, and announced he was going to break it up because of few future bookings. Shaw’s sidemen began looking for other jobs. Zarchy decided to visit the Goodman band, which was in the middle of a long run at the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. Many years later, Zarchy himself related what happened. “…Chris, Ziggy and Hymie came over right away, and the first thing Chris said was: ‘Wait till you hear this new guy who just joined the band. He’s really something!’ When the band came on, and I heard Harry James for the first time, I couldn’t believe it. What a sound! Fire came out of that trumpet every time he picked it up. It was like a guy throwing a spear. And the approach he had to the music, and the technique, and the flawless playing and the attack, and the virtuosity. It was a tremendous thrill listening to him.”(5)
The music: The Goodman band explodes into this performance of “Big John Special,” which was recorded off the air from a BG Camel Caravan radio show broadcast. This performance is tight, yet it still swings. Gene Krupa’s muscular drumming provided the main rhythmic thrust on top of which everything else happens. The antiphonal interplay between the brass and the reeds at a brisk tempo through the first chorus shows just how together this band was. Harry’s first solo is at the beginning of the second chorus. It is bright, relaxed and technically assured. (Catch the marvelous upward glissando in the first eight bars.) Benny limits himself to an eight-bar bridge: this was Harry’s feature. James returns with eight bars to finish the chorus, including another upward rip.The brass swing along for a few bars, pianist Jess Stacy plays a bit and then the fireworks begin to explode.
Horace Henderson’s upward modulating fanfare, which is the springboard for James’s second solo, is masterful: first the unison trumpets play an upward figure, then the other instruments join them providing some harmony in a lower register, then James’s trumpet emerges, like a rocket, from this sonic mix, to play a smoking sixteen bars of jazz. The intensity of Harry’s rhythm (and his popping high notes) against the rocking back-beats Krupa lays down behind him generate plenty of excitement, and create the climax of this hurtling performance.
After James’s solo, the band plays the remainder of the arrangement in perfect, exuberant co-ordination with apparent casual ease. I use the word “apparent” because playing with this level of unity and swing is anything but easy. But we must remember that this band was playing together from four to eight hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. That, the great musical talent of its members, inspiration, and firm leadership from BG are why this band was such a superlative performance machine.
A photo of a part of the Benny Goodman band in action, probably in the first half of 1937. L-R: Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, Harry James, Gene Krupa and Harry Goodman.
“Big John Special”
Composed and arranged by Horace Henderson.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on May 28, 1938 in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Harry James, first and solo trumpet; Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Vernon Brown and Red Ballard, trombones; Noni Bernardi, first alto saxophone; Dave Matthews, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Bud Freeman, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Dave Tough, drums.
Spring – 1938, Benny Goodman’s sidemen relax with an afternoon game of baseball. L-R, back: Bud Freeman, Chris Griffin, Harry Goodman, Art Rollini, Harry James. Ziggy Elman, Vernon Brown, Noni Bernardi; front: Ben Heller, Pee Wee Monte (the band’s equipment manager), Dave Tough and Red Ballard. Not pictured: Dave Matthews and Jess Stacy. Benny was probably off somewhere practicing his clarinet.
The story continues: The six month period between the live performance of “Big John Special” above, and this studio performance was one that was filled with musical and career triumphs for Benny Goodman. The largest of these, in terms of prestige and public relations buzz, was the famous Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall, which took place on January 16, 1938.(6) But the source of much of Benny’s revenue, and most of the ongoing publicity he received, by far, was his weekly CBS network Camel Caravan radio show. In the early weeks of 1938, the Benny Goodman band was at an early peak in its popularity.
But in the wake of the Carnegie Hall concert, fissures began to form in the Goodman band. Most notable was the departure of Gene Krupa after more than three years as Benny’s drummer. Krupa, with his good looks and dynamic showmanship (shown at right in 1937), had become a star in his own right. In the process, he began to change the role of the drummer in the world of swing from a relatively anonymous time-keeping member of the rhythm section, like the bass player and rhythm guitarist, to a soloist. And in Gene’s case, he was a loud and flamboyant soloist. Krupa’s role in the success of BG’s nine-plus minute blockbuster recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which had been made and released in the summer of 1937, had been major.(7) Fans knew that Gene was the drummer on that record, and they liked what he did, and wanted to see and hear Gene with Benny’s band. “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the closing number in Benny’s theater performances, and was played at the end of his regular program at Carnegie Hall. Benny, whose main objective in the late 1930s was to lead the best swing band he could, reluctantly went along with Krupa’s ever expanding showmanship role in the BG band: it helped to create and sustain more interest in his band. But Benny also disliked the spotlight being on any of his sidemen too much, and the spotlight was on Krupa a lot.
It was only a matter of time before something would happen that would cause Krupa to leave Goodman and form his own band. (Booking agents were pressuring Gene to do just that.) That incident occurred at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, where the BG band opened a one-week stand on Friday February 25, 1938. Goodman discographer Russ Connor described Gene’s final days in the Goodman band: “It was sad to see Benny and Gene feuding openly onstage those last few days. The audience helped widen the breach at every show. Having waited impatiently through a simpering film titled “Swing It, Professor,” starring Pinky Tomlin, they screamed for Gene to take off as soon as the curtain went up. Not for the band, not for the small groups, not for Benny. Gene was their idol. Gene. perched high on his drummer’s throne downstage, nodded toward Benny, gestured as if to break his sticks, pantomimed ‘He won’t let me.’ Groans and hoots from the crowd. For his part, Benny ignored the audience, appeared totally bored when Gene did solo, and left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to his reaction to the crowd’s clamor for Krupa. A rupture was imminent and inevitable.” (8) Gene Krupa left the Benny Goodman band on March 3, 1938.
Immediately, the wheels were set in motion to secure the services of another drummer, one who could swing the band, yet not dominate it as Gene on occasion, had. That drummer turned out to be Dave Tough. The story of how he came to join Benny’s band is told elsewhere on this blog.(9)
The music: The most obvious difference between the live version of “Big John Special” presented above, and this one recorded in a studio is that the tempo of this performance is slower. Much of the intensity of the live performance is caused (from the downbeat) by the brisk tempo, and Krupa’s brawny approach at his drums. This performance is also intense, but that intensity comes at a point in Horace Henderson’s arrangement where intensity is called for. It contains contrasts not present in the earlier one. (The photo below shows L-R: Dave Tough, Ben Heller, Harry James (background) and Benny Goodman, 1938.)
The first contrast one hears here is the one throughout the first chorus between the flowing saxophones, gliding along smoothly atop Tough’s high-hat rhythm, juxtaposed with the piercing brass bursts. (There is also an upward change of key for eight bars that adds to the contrasts.) The second chorus is occupied by solos. Harry James’s first sixteen bar solo continues the relaxed mood. Behind his trumpet are syncopated saxophones, and once again Tough’s high-hats, emphasizing beats two and four. BG plays an incisive eight bar solo, supported by Tough’s slightly heavier snare drum rhythms. James returns, sauntering through eight more bars, but moving into his higher register as his trumpet sound merges with the other four brass for a happy sounding sequence that leads into a marvelously swinging and colorful piano solo by Jess Stacy. Listen to how Tough supports and inspires Stacy by playing on his closed high-hats, then by strategically exploding several rim shots and cymbal crashes.
It is at the point of Horace Henderson’s upward modulation (right after Stacy’s solo) that the intensity level of this performance leaps upward. As James’s trumpet rises out of the brilliant ensemble, we hear him swaggering through the next sixteen bars. This is an entirely different improvisation from the earlier performance, it is more relaxed, but is equally virtuosic, and it swings. Dave Tough’s backing of James, once again on his high-hats emphasizing beats two and four, levitates him. After Harry’s climactic solo, the Goodman ensemble winds down this performance with complete ease. (Above right: a swinging Harry James – late 1930s.)
This recording is a great example of excellent swing music played with inspiration and verve.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
End notes and links:
(1) The Night People …The Jazz Life of Dicky Wells as told to Stanley Dance, (1991) 25-26.
(*) “In the air” …indeed! That must have been quite a flight in the early 1930s when air travel was in its infancy!
(2) The Swing Era 1938-1939, (1970) 58.
(2A) Harry James was clearly aware of Red Allen’s trumpet solo on the Fletcher Henderson recording of “Big John Special.” Indeed, he may have used it as a primer as to how to approach the jazz solos he played on that arrangement. That does not mean that he copied it in any way. He simply distilled what Allen had done, and took off from there.
(2B) Click on this link to hear Harry James play some really fine blues with Benny Goodman’s band on Mary Lou Williams’s “Roll Em.” https://swingandbeyond.com/?s=Roll+Em
(3) Other bands also used Horace Henderson’s arrangement. Recordings by Tommy Dorsey’s and Bunny Berigan’s bands playing that same arrangement exist.
(4) You can hear the classic performance of “King Porter Stomp” by clicking on this link: https://swingandbeyond.com/?s=King+Porter+Stomp
(5) Swing, Swing, Swing …The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone (1993), 189-190.
(6) A selection from that concert, “Don’t Be That Way,” and the story behind that momentous event, can be accessed by clicking on this link: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/01/01/reads-and-re-reads-benny-goodmans-1938-carnegie-hall-concert/
(7) Here is a link to the classic Benny Goodman recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” https://swingandbeyond.com/?s=Sing%2C+Sing%2C+Sing
(8) The Record of a Legend …Benny Goodman, by D. Russell Connor (1984), 96.
(9) Here is a link to the story of how Dave Tough came to join Benny Goodman’s band: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/03/23/flat-foot-floogie-1938-benny-goodman-with-harry-james-and-dave-tough/
Mike, this is one of your most comprehensive posts, and most awesome. GREAT !!!
What a great piece – loved the pictures, the text – everything! Thank you!
Is it possible to obtain a poster sized image of the picture of the Benny Goodman orchestra with guitarist Ben Heller front and center??? He was a relative of mine.
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