“Ring Dem Bells”
Composed by Duke Ellington; arranged by Johnny Watson.
Recorded by Jan Savitt and HisTop Hatters live from a broadcast from the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in New York City on August 15, 1939 over the NBC Blue Radio Network.
Jan Savitt, directing: Jack Hansen, first trumpet; Jimmy Campbell and Johnnie “Zulu” (Augustino) Austin; Al Leopold, first trombone; Robert “Cutty” Cutshall and Donald “Miff’ Sines, trombones; George “Gigi” Bohn, first alto saxophone and solo clarinet; Jack Ferrier, alto saxophone; Eddie Clausen, tenor saxophone; Gabe Galinas, tenor and alto saxophones and clarinet; Gene DePaul, piano; Guy Smith, guitar; Morris Rayman, bass; Russ Isaacs, drums.
The story: How Jan Savitt made the leap from being a very successful territory bandleader headquartered in Philadelphia in the mid and late 1930s to achieving a national reputation is told elsewhere on this blog. (See the link below.) The essence of that story is that Savitt and his band followed Artie Shaw into the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in New York, opening there on February 9, 1939. The value in the Blue Room gig was not in how much it paid, but the promotional value of its national NBC network radio wire. In fact, Savitt was undoubtedly losing money each week he remained in the Blue Room, unless he was able to generate at least some additional revenue. But the fact that the Savitt band was being featured at the Blue Room six nights a week limited the possibilities they could make some money working elsewhere during the time period they were working at the Lincoln.
It is unclear who Savitt’s booking agency was in 1939. One would think that General Amusement Corporation (GAC), was somehow involved (possibly as a subcontractor for either Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corp. or Consolidated Radio Artists), because GAC certainly represented Shaw then, and in the 1938-1939 period had a “lock” on the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln. (By “lock” I mean that GAC had an exclusive contract with Hotel Lincoln’s Maria Kramer so that only GAC represented bands could appear there.) I am reasonably certain whoever dealt with Savitt first placing his band at the Lincoln, and then keeping it there, constantly reminded him that Artie Shaw’s band had started its stand at the Blue Room in October of 1938 as a very good but certainly not nationally known band, and then left there in February of 1939 as the hottest band in the country.
What they probably did not say is that Shaw entered the Blue Room engagement with a strong hit record, “Begin the Beguine,” which was just starting to really break big in the fall of 1938. Also, at the same time as Shaw began his Blue Room gig, he started appearing on a weekly, sponsored network radio show, CBS’s Melody and Madness, with comedian Robert Benchley as the headliner. This show was successful, and provided Shaw with a much-needed financial base, plus enormous promotional exposure, during the entire time the Shaw band remained at the Lincoln. In addition, Shaw and his band performed in one short-subject musical film, and made many records for RCA/Bluebird while they were at the Lincoln, providing Artie with more revenue to try to balance his band’s ongoing costs. So when Shaw left the Blue Room in early February, his band was nationally known and being presented weekly on an ongoing sponsored network radio show, and had several very strong records going for him. All of this promotional build-up set the stage for the Shaw band to be presented for a succession of one-week stands at theaters, where he could (and did) net substantial sums of money in a short time. (The publicity photo of Jan Savitt above left is from Consolidated Radio Artists.)
What is known is that the Jan Savitt band played at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln for nine straight months, and almost certainly was not earning enough money doing that to offset their weekly expense “nut.” We also know that Savitt was contracted to Decca to make recordings during that time span (1939), and did make a good many recordings then (34 sides in eight sessions). These recordings were made at Decca’s 57th Street studio in Manhattan. His contract with RCA/Bluebird had ended in the fall of 1938, and he did not renew it. Instead, he opted to let his band’s reputation build before he finally signed with Decca, probably for more money, at around the same time as his band opened at the Lincoln. (The photo above left is from Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corp.)
We also know that the Savitt band made a rather large number of radio transcription recordings for Thesaurus in 1939, mostly while they were ensconced at Hotel Lincoln’s Blue Room. Sessions in January, April, July and August 1939 yielded 46 separate recorded titles. These recordings were made in Victor’s 24th Street studio in Manhattan. There is a lot of very good music on these recordings.
Unless the Savitt band also played some lucrative theater dates (usually either a full week or a split week) while they were at the Lincoln (they remained there until November of 1939 and apparently played no theater dates while they were there), they were, at best, simply running in place. By the fall of 1939, Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters were known across the nation as an excellent swing band. (Also a prominent feature of the band were its two excellent vocalists, Carlotta Dale and George “Bob Bon” Tunnell.) Yet they were not capitalizing on that fame. The promotional build-up of the band was successful. The band had arrived, but…
Finally, the Savitt band left the Hotel Lincoln in early November 1939 and began a series of engagements that were intended to balance Savitt’s finances, and put him solidly into the black. Over the next six months, Savitt played a successful and lucrative engagement at the Paramount Theater in New York. That helped to stabilize his finances for a while. What followed were successful but far less lucrative stands at The Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, The Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Hotel Sherman in Chicago. Unfortunately, despite most of these venues having regional or national radio hook-ups, they did not pay Savitt enough money to offset his band’s expenses. Gaps in the band’s engagement schedule were filled with one-night stands, but they were hit-and-miss in terms of generating enough revenue to keep Savitt in the black. Once again, Jan Savitt was leading an excellent band which was not being managed in a way that would have allowed it to be profitable for Savitt.
All bands that played gigs booked by their booking agency paid commissions to their booking agency. But the bandleaders, not the agency, paid all costs involved in running a band. Consequently, agencies had minimal costs involved in booking bands, while bandleaders had crushing ongoing expenses, the largest of which was the band’s payroll. With this business model in place, it is no wonder that agencies made a lot of money booking big bands, while many bandleaders went bankrupt.
It has been reported that Jan’s brother Bill acted as his personal manager through this time period. While it is understandable that a bandleader would turn to a trusted family member to assist him in the myriad business and management matters that were involved in running a touring big band, many more qualifications were also required for a good personal manager. Principal of these was that a bandleader’s personal manager had to understand how the band business worked.
Probably the most successful big band operation that utilized family members was Benny Goodman’s. Nevertheless, while Benny often turned to his older brother Harry in the mid and late 1930s to help him with business and management issues, he also had during that time a personal manager who was well-versed in the band business. In addition to playing bass in the Goodman band, Harry Goodman was a veteran dance band musician whose professional career had begun in the early 1920s. Much of his early career was spent in the Ben Pollack band, where he learned a lot about the band business over many years from that band’s playing manager, Gil Rodin. Rodin was a mediocre musician, but a smart, shrewd businessman who understood the band business completely. The same could be said for Harry Goodman. Consequently, Benny Goodman’s career as a bandleader from 1934 to 1939, at least, was almost always superbly managed.(1) In most other cases when a family member was involved in the management of a big band, the results ranged from indifferent to disastrous. Perhaps Bill Savitt did not have the acumen to guide his brother’s career through the turbulent and treacherous waters of the band business.
In desperation, Savitt began to look for new management starting in early 1940. He eventually succumbed to the rosy promises made by the sales force at MCA (Music Corporation of America), and in June of 1940 signed with that agency to book his band. Savitt’s own recollections tell the story of how that turned out: “Instead of a theater tour which MCA was supposed to have procured for me, I began an endless string of one-night engagements at weekly grosses far behind the beautiful picture which had been painted for me. (From June of 1940) until October 2, 1941, we played no location spots with air time. A band that had been acknowledged as one of the first ten in the country was allowed to depreciate in box-office value.” Savitt remembered further that: “By April of 1942, I could get no financial assistance from MCA. I had to borrow money on my life insurance to live, and by that time was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” (2)
But most of this lay in the future in the summer of 1939. There were definite advantages for Jan Savitt spending nine straight months in New York City. Paramount among these was that he met a lovely young woman while his was working at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln, Barbara Stillwell. They married on April 7, 1940 and had two daughters.They were very much in love and their marriage was successful. (They are pictured above right on their wedding day.)
Jan Savitt and his band in 1939. L-R: Front – possibly Miff Sines; Al Leopold, Cutty Cutshall; the tenor saxophonist behind Savitt is probably Eddie Clausen; next row back, L-R: possibly Jimmy Campbell; Jack Hansen, Johnnie Austin, Russ Isaacs. the smiling face over Savitt’s left shoulder may be Guy Smith. The bassist in back is Morrie Rayman.
The music: I don’t want to get too deeply into the weeds about the provenance of Duke Ellington’s tune “Ring Dem Bells,’ because at the time it was composed, which was in the summer of 1930, Duke and his band were in Hollywood, to appear in the Amos and Andy film Check and Double Check. It appears that Duke composed this song for the film, and first recorded it in July of 1930, though it never made it into the finished cut. Throughout the second half of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Duke recorded both prolifically and promiscuously, often making the same tune for a number of different record labels using different pseudonyms. Duke recorded this tune a number of times on different labels. Another excellent recording of it was done by Charlie Barnet in 1940 for RCA/Bluebird.
The Savitt version swings along nicely at a brisk tempo. The eight bar introduction consists of a rhythmic exchange between the brass and reeds. In the first chorus, the open brass state the melody with Al Leopold providing bell tone punctuations on his plunger-muted trombone. Lead alto player Gigi Bohn was also a capable clarinetist, as he proves here with a fine jazz solo on that instrument. Bohn plays mostly in the lower chalumeau register of his clarinet. He is followed by Gabe Galinas on alto saxophone. His improvisation is both flowing and cogent. Johnny Watson’s arrangement provides the soloists with simple, swinging backgrounds to play against.
Trombonist Leopold (shown above left), one of the most featured soloists in the early Savitt band, returns with sixteen bars of burry-toned jazz on his now open horn. Notice how Leopold, who was also a formidable lead player, moves smoothly from his solo into playing the lead trombone part in the interlude before the next solo. Al had joined Savitt in Philadelphia and remained with the band for several years. After he returned to Philadelphia, he taught music for many years, and became something of a local legend, continuing his musical activities until he was in his nineties.
Trumpeter Johnnie Austin (above right) then plays a characteristically tart solo, using a buzz mute in the bell of his horn. Austin was a rhythmically intense player who fashioned a personal, identifiable style by fusing together elements of the playing of Harry James and Ziggy Elman. His nickname in the Savitt band, “Zulu,” referred to the often jungley (in the Ellingtonian sense) sounds he produced on his trumpet.
Al Leopold returns to play more bell-tones, this time against the surging reeds, on his open trombone for sixteen bars. The whole band then plays into the finale, with Gigi Bohn’s clarinet flying overhead.
The high level of performance evident in this recording reaffirms the idea that there was very often not that much difference in terms of musical excellence between the most famous top tier bands of the swing era, and lesser known bands. How bands achieved notoriety and success during the swing era frequently had relatively little to do with the quality of their music.Circumstances that had little to do with music, frequently involving the business and the management of a band, were often decisive in establishing its place in history.
The NBC remote announcer who is enjoying Savitt’s music is Lyle Van.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Another of Gil Rodin’s star pupils in the art of running the business side of a big band was Glenn Miller.
(2) This quote is taken from the liner notes for Jazz Band CD 2188-2, Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters Orchestra-1938 and 1939 Broadcasts, (2002) by Gary Letts.
Here is a link to one of the Savitt band’s best early recordings, “You Go to My Head,” which includes a fine vocal by Carlotta Dale: