“Long Tall Mama”
Composed and arranged by Billy May.
Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra on November 3, 1941 for RCA Victor in New York.
Glenn Miller, first trombone, directing: R.D. “Mickey” McMickle, first trumpet; John Best, Alec Fila and Billy May, trumpets; Paul Tanner, Jimmy Priddy and Frankie D’Annolfo, trombones; Gordon “Tex” Beneke, first alto saxophone; Wilbur “Willie” Schwartz, alto saxophone; Al Klink and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Ernesto “Ernie” Caceres, baritone saxophone; J.Chalmers “Chummy” MacGregor, piano; Robert L.”Bobby” Hackett, guitar; Edward L.”Doc” Goldberg, bass: Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums.
The story: Although Glenn Miller was a very capable trombonist, he understood that the role of arranger in any big band was of great importance. He decided early on as a bandleader that he would elevate the role of arranger in his band while at the same time reducing his role as solo trombonist. What gave Miller even more insight regarding the importance of quality arrangements in the successful musical operation of his band was that he was an arranger himself.
Putting aside the issue of Miller’s talent as an arranger, two things can be said for certain: he was a brilliant editor of arrangements written by others, and he was an unerring judge of arranging talent. (Miller is shown at left editing an arrangement.) For example, he quickly grasped the latent brilliance in 21 year old Bill Finegan as an arranger. This happened in early 1939, just as Miller’s band was starting its meteoric climb to popularity. For the next three and a half years, Miller provided Finegan with an incredible opportunity to grow as an arranger. Not only was the Miller band a virtuoso ensemble that could and often did create superlative performances of the music Finegan wrote, the band’s audience, the people who listened to those performances, was vast as a result of Miller’s ongoing presence on a sponsored network radio show, their long series of strong-selling records, and their sold-out personal appearances. Finegan’s music was often heard by millions. No one could have asked for a better opportunity for professional growth and recognition. But Finegan, young and somewhat rebellious, was a slow worker who did not particularly appreciate Miller’s editing of his arrangements. Nevertheless with or without Miller’s edits, Finegan wrote many fine arrangements for the Miller band.
The second arranger Miller judged as brilliant was a proven quantity when Miller hired him at the end of 1939: the gifted Jerry Gray. Gray had played a major role in the success of Artie Shaw’s band in 1938 and 1939, but was left somewhat adrift when Shaw abruptly left his very successful band in November of 1939. Miller moved quickly to make Gray a part of his musical organization after Shaw’s departure. Miller soon discovered that unlike Bill Finegan, Gray was a fast worker, a person who strove to fit in, and someone who thrived in a collaborative relationship. In fact, Gray’s talent was such that he was often more creative when working with a strong leader than he was when he worked alone. His musical relationship with Miller over the next five years was incredibly productive.
The third marvelously talented arranger who was a part of Miller’s musical operation (arriving in late 1940), came to Glenn principally because of his talent as a jazz trumpeter, not as an arranger. This was Billy May. Anyone familiar with the music of the Charlie Barnet band in the years 1939 and 1940 could not have been unaware of Billy May’s large contribution to it as an arranger. Miller was undoubtedly aware of that, at least to some extent. But May came to Miller principally to solve a personnel problem in the Miller band that had emerged in the spring of 1940 involving a trumpet player, not as an arranger.
At that time, Miller had the talented but irascible trumpeter Clyde Hurley in the “hot” jazz chair of his trumpet section, where Hurley had performed admirably for about a year.(*) (There was a second jazz chair in the Miller trumpet section — the one that called for pretty jazz and ballads.That chair was occupied by the great John Best.) Here is how that personnel problem erupted: “Hurley was never one of Glenn’s favorites, and vice-versa. According to Mickey McMickle (Miller’s principal lead trumpeter), Clyde got into a crap game one night, had a few belts, and made some derogatory remarks about Glenn, not knowing that Glenn, in the next room, could hear everything that was going on. A couple of nights later, after the job, Glenn got in his cups (something he rarely did), and decided to confront Hurley. ‘So you think I’m a jerk, am I!’ he sneered and he gave Hurley his notice.” McMickle added that despite this blow-off, Miller “got Clyde a job with Tommy Dorsey.” (1)
The trumpeter Miller selected to temporarily replace Hurley was a young man who was a capable section player, but not a jazz soloist, Charlie Frankhauser. Realizing that he was suddenly in one of the most popular (and best paid) bands in the country, young Frankhauser did his job, kept a low profile and eventually remained a member of the Miller band for almost five months. But during most if not all of that time, Miller was looking for a jazz trumpeter who would fit into his band.
Trumpeter Clyde Hurley solos with the Glenn Miller band at the Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania in New York – early 1940. L-R – rear: Legh Knowles, John Best, Mickey McMickle, Hurley; front: Paul Tanner, Jimmy Priddy, Frankie D’Annolfo, Miller.
Bill Finegan later recalled an episode concerning that search that is very reflective of the kind of leader Miller was.“He functioned like the head of a well-organized corporation. Once he sent me to Cincinnati to listen to a jazz trumpeter in Red Norvo’s band. He wasn’t any good. But I heard (Conrad) Gozzo playing lead, and I thought he was great. (Gozzo soon became one of the most brilliant lead trumpeters to emerge from the swing era.) So I told Glenn about him. But he wasn’t one bit interested. He had sent me to hear a jazz trumpeter, and that’s all he wanted to hear about.” (2)
Meanwhile, Miller had other operatives looking for a jazz trumpeter who would fit into his band. Much later, Billy May himself (shown at right) clearly recalled what was happening: “In October of 1940, Miles Rinker, one of Mildred Bailey’s brothers, came to hire a (jazz) trumpet player for Glenn out of Charlie’s band. He took Bernie Privin (who was Barnet’s principal jazz trumpet soloist), but Glenn didn’t want him.(3) He was so shrewd. He wanted me instead, because he knew that I could also arrange. When I went to see Glenn about money, I tried to use the old squeeze play — you know — Barnet vs. Miller. But Glenn was too smart for that. He made me an offer and said ‘Say yes or no right here.’ He wouldn’t give me the chance to run back to Charlie and try to play one guy against the other.” So May accepted the offer, which was a base of $150 a week or union scale, whichever was higher, plus $25 (later raised to $50) per score.”(4) NOTE: The base weekly salary remembered by Billy May was just that – a base. Miller’s sidemen were paid extra (according to the applicable union scale) for the Chesterfield radio shows, for the Bluebird recording sessions, and for the two feature films they appeared in. John Best told me that he rarely made less than $350 a week when he worked for Miller in the years 1940 to 1942, and often made much more.
The music: “Long Tall Mama” follows the standard 32 bar to a chorus format, with three eight bar statements of the main melody (A), and one eight bar bridge (B), or secondary melody, which follows the first two (A) melody segments. The main “melody” of this tune is a minimalist framework erected on the chords of the tune, which, along with the tune’s bridge, are fertile ground for jazz improvisation. After a rhythmic four bar introduction spotting the cup-muted brass, the unison saxophones state the main theme for 16 bars, backed by the cup-muted brass, and the rhythm section led by drummer Moe Purtill, playing only his snare drum with brushes and his bass drum using the standard foot pedal. Tex Beneke, well-known as a tenor saxophone soloist in the Miller band, is presented here playing both lead alto saxophone in the ensembles, and for an eight bar solo on the tune’s first bridge. (Beneke’s temporary move to lead alto was occasioned by Miller’s long-time lead alto saxophonist, Hal McIntyre, returning to leading his own band after having spent several years with Miller. Miller had sought a replacement from outside the band, but that had not worked out yet. Beneke’s tenor chair was covered temporarily by New York (and later Hollywood) studio ace Babe Russin. After Beneke’s solo, the saxophones finish the chorus as before.
The Miller band’s two Texans, Ernie Caceres and Tex Beneke, ham it up for the amusement of their fellow sidemen – 1941. Front – L-R: Frankie D’Annolfo, Willie Schwartz, Paul Tanner; middle: Trigger Alpert and John Best; back: Ray Anthony.
The second chorus begins with the entire band playing a bright two-bar fanfare (the mutes are now out of the brass instruments, with upwardly surging saxophones behind them) that brings on the first of two main soloists to be featured on this piece, Ernie Caceres, playing clarinet. Caceres’s main job in the Miller band was to play baritone saxophone in the section, and he was terrific at doing that, but he also played occasional jazz solos on alto saxophone and clarinet. Here he proves himself to be a capable jazz soloist on clarinet with a bright sound and good swing. The open brass (notice McMickle’s agressive lead trumpet) with upward surging saxophones reappear to create a soloist/ensemble dialog with Caceres. The brass carry the eight bar bridge, and then Caceres returns to finish the chorus against smooth saxophones.
Another bright interlude of brass and reeds springs the second main soloist, Billy May into his improvised trumpet solo. May was a very capable trumpeter and a creative and identifiable jazz soloist somewhat in the mode of Duke Ellington’s long-time cornet soloist, Rex Stewart. (Above: Glenn Miller looks on with approval as Billy May takes a trumpet solo.) He had a nice fat trumpet sound which he manipulates here by flexing and extending his cupped left hand over the open bell of his trumpet, and also by using half-depressed valves on his instrument. Notice once again the colorful, ever-shifting instrumental backgrounds fashioned by May against which Billy plays. Tenor saxophonist Babe Russin plays a bustling, aggressive and swinging eight bar solo which brings the unison saxophones back again to play against the cup-muted brass. They take the dynamic level lower until the mutes are removed once more for the powerful finale, where the brass and reeds play antiphonally.
This is a brilliant arrangement which is performed superbly by the entire Miller ensemble and soloists.
Note: There has been confusion around the composer credit for “Long Tall Mama” since the original Victor 78 rpm recording of it was issued in 1942. That record carried the composer credit as “Arletta May.” Arletta May was Billy May’s first wife, whom he met in Los Angeles when he was there in 1939 with Charlie Barnet’s band. They married in New York in December of 1939. Her premarital name was Arletta Kottmer. She was a teller at a Los Angeles loan company, not a musician. Based on the most recent information I have about this issue, I can say without any doubt that Billy May composed and arranged “Long Tall Mama,” and that Arletta May had nothing to do with that process.(a)
How the copyright composer credit for “Long Tall Mama” came to be registered in Arletta May’s name is perhaps a bit more complicated. Billy May composed many original tunes while he was a member of Charlie Barnet’s band in 1939 and 1940. Those original compositions were published by the music publishing firm Barnet owned, and with whom May had signed an exclusive publishing contract. This fact was not revealed in the money discussions May had with Glenn Miller before he joined the Miller band. Here is the rest of that story: “…Miller wanted May to sign on with Mutual Music, Glenn’s publishing company, as an exclusive composer. An offer was made and pressure applied, but May was adamant in his refusal, to Miller’s apparent displeasure. (Since) May had (previously) signed a writer’s contract while with Barnet (he couldn’t sign with Miller). So his very few originals with Miller came out under his wife’s name — Arletta.” (b) Presumably the few May compositions referred to above were also published by Mutual Music.
(a) The Music of Billy May …A Discography, by Jack Mirtle (1998), 5.
(b) Ibid. 8.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(*) The tart trumpet solo on Glenn Miller’s iconic recording of “In the Mood” was played by Clyde Hurley.
(1) Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, by George T. Simon (1974), 217.
(2) Ibid. 152.
(3) Later, Glenn did want Bernie Privin as a jazz trumpet soloist, for his Army Air Force band. Privin served in that role with distinction, and then went on to a successful career as a studio musician in New York.
(4) Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, by George T. Simon (1974), 232-233.
(5) Victor issued “Long Tall Mama” in August of 1942.
Links: For more information about Glenn Miller, and more of his music, check out these links:
Thanks for this, Mike! Wow…….it’s been a long time since I’ve listened to the original studio version of this. So used to listening to the AAF Band play it…….much more relaxed, btw! Good ol’ Tex playing lead! I’d also forgotten that Tex played that chair for a short stint with Russin taking his usual spot! Am I correct that Skip Martin was then hired to play lead, or was there another interim? Thanks for jarring the old memory bank. 😉
John, you are right – Skip Martin arrived on November 14 to take over the lead alto chair. His robust sound changed the Miller reeds into a more virile sounding quintet. Martin, also an excellent arranger, stayed with Miller until Glenn broke up the band in September of 1942 to enter the Army Air Force.
Thanks Mike. This number is top stuff. I feel like I’m in swing heaven every time I come to this site.