“The Lonesome Road”
Composed by Gene Austin (words) and Nat Shilkret (music); arranged by Sy Oliver.
Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra for Vocalion(*) on January 31, 1939 in New York.
Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Eddie Tompkins, first trumpet; Paul Webster and Sy Oliver, trumpets; Elmer Crumbley, Russell Bowles and James “Trummy” Young, trombones; Willie Smith, first alto saxophone; Ted Buckner, Dan Grissom, alto saxophones; Joe Thomas, tenor saxophone; Earl “Jock” Carruthers, baritone saxophone; Edwin Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Moses Allen, bass; Jimmy “Craw” Crawford, drums. Vocal by Trummy Young. (*) By 1939, Vocalion was one of the labels that had recently become a part of Columbia Records.
The story: The Jimmie Lunceford band that made this recording of “The Lonesome Road” was at the final stage of its initial development, which had essentially been a process that had been ongoing since the beginning of the 1930s. Most of the men who were in this band had been a part of the Lunceford organization for all of that time. Among those who were not there at the beginning of the decade were trumpeters Sy Oliver and Paul Webster, and trombonist/vocalist Trummy Young. Oliver had joined in 1933; Webster in 1935, and Young in 1937. The relative stability of the personnels in black bands in the 1930s was one of many results of Jim Crow segregation, and virulent racism that often placed African Americans quite literally in harm’s way. Black big bands served many needs for young Afro-American men. They were, like white bands were for young white musicians, marvelous places to learn about music, performing before audiences, and life. But in addition, they were bulwarks against the vicissitudes of one’s existence in an often hostile racist society. Rigid segregation made it almost impossible for a black musician to join a white band, despite a very few high-profile exceptions, like Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and Cootie Williams being featured with Benny Goodman.(1)
Also, despite there being a definite lack of equal pay for equal work as between black and white bands, men who worked in popular black bands were well-paid, but only in respect to black people in general, most of whom were greatly underpaid. And in addition to making less base pay than white musicians, black bands were essentially closed-out of all work on any sponsored network radio shows. These shows enabled the white bandleaders who appeared on them to augment the base salaries of their sidemen in a substantial way. Nevertheless, if a black band was popular enough, members of that band could reap the benefits of extra money from recording sessions, and on rare occasions, appearances in either short subject films, or on even rarer occasions, in feature films. This was the case for sidemen in the Jimmie Lunceford band.
The Jimmie Lunceford band at the Cotton Club in Harlem: March 11- September 4, 1934. L-R front: Eddie Wilcox, Lunceford, Al Norris, Willie Smith, Joe Thomas, Earl Carruthers; trumpets: Tommy Stevenson, Sy Oliver, Eddie Tompkins; back: Moses Allen, Jimmy Crawford, Henry Wells, Russell Bowles.
Lunceford had built his band over a period of years into an awesome performance machine by rigorously disciplining and rehearsing his musicians. When most of them started working for him, they were in their late teens or early twenties, and were, despite their musical talent, inexperienced. He took the time and effort required to make them not only top-level, professional musicians, but engaging entertainers as well. During this development process, he paid them at what was the prevailing rate for entry-level musicians. The young men who were a part of the Lunceford band were thrilled to be where they were because the entertainment package they presented was wildly popular with both black and white audiences. From the mid-1930s, the Lunceford band worked 350 or more days a year, or more accurately, 350 nights a year, almost always before large and enthusiastic audiences. The vast majority of those play dates were one-night dance jobs in ballrooms across the country.
Slowly through the late 1930s, Lunceford, with the guidance of his personal manager/booking agent Harold Oxley (at left, with Lunceford), increased the band’s asking price. But he did not increase the salaries he was paying his sidemen in commensurate fashion. As 1939 began, the Lunceford band was being presented more often in large theaters in major cities, where they excelled in their stage presentations and thrilled audiences. Theaters were where serious money was to be made by swing bands. Lunceford and Oxley were making more money, a lot more, but the musicians in the Lunceford band were not.
Pianist/arranger Eddie Wilcox (shown at right), who was one of the longest tenured Lunceford sidemen, reflected on this many years later: “When we started out, we were a bunch of ambitious youngsters. Money wasn’t important. It was (about) being able to play good. …It was Jimmie’s fault that the (original) band began to break up (starting in 1939). When you’re young, you can go a long way on ambition, but when you get older you want some of the things older people have. Jimmie didn’t want to give us enough money. After several men quit, he treated those who did stay a little batter. But it was too late then. I know that when Willie Smith left, he cried. He didn’t want to leave. (2) The money was wrong and Jimmie was used to treating us like the little boys who left Memphis with him, but we had become grown men and we needed more. He wanted to keep us on the same scale financially, and it ruined the whole thing.” (3)
Arranger/composer/trumpeter/singer Sy Oliver (pictured at left), always had a somewhat strained relationship with Lunceford. It appears that Sy had an overall problem with the way Lunceford ran the band, despite its obvious popularity with audiences, and musical excellence. in addition to the increasing irritation he and all of the other sidemen were experiencing as a result of the money situation described by Eddie Wilcox. But these irritants were counterbalanced to some extent by the fact that Lunceford encouraged Oliver to write original tunes and a lot of arrangements, which were played by the band before large audiences, recorded, broadcast on radio, and in many cases made into enduring parts of the musical heritage of the swing era. But inevitably, by early 1939, Oliver was losing his enthusiasm for the Lunceford band, and began trying to leave, which he finally did in May. In retrospect, it seems that Oliver felt he had risen as high as he could with Lunceford, and was looking for new and more lucrative opportunities. He was well aware that he was talented, and wanted to prove that on a larger stage than what Lunceford could provide. That is where Tommy Dorsey enters the story.
(The story of how Oliver went to work for Tommy Dorsey is told in this post here at swingandbeyond.com.) https://swingandbeyond.com/?s=Swanee+River
This performance of “The Lonesome Road,” taken at a brisk tempo, is a great example of the ensemble unity and verve of the Lunceford band. The band’s playing is precise and disciplined, yet also swinging. Drummer Jimmy Crawford plays the band on with a crisp four bar introduction that hints at the romp that is to follow. Trombonist James “Trummy” Young is heard over the opening segment, and then for a brief melodic solo. He is followed alto saxophonist Willie Smith (pictured at left) playing intensely rhythmic jazz for sixteen bars. The brass and reeds then come in on the bridge in antiphonal fashion, followed by eight more bars of taut improvisation by Smith.
Sy Oliver’s downward modulation, which features the brass leading into Trummy Young’s vocal chorus, is a gem, and is played beautifully by the three trumpets and three trombones. The density of sound of this transition is then suddenly replaced by Young’s light-toned voice, backed by Willie Smith, now on clarinet, and probably lead trumpeter Eddie Tompkins and trombonist Russell Bowles, playing as a trio. (Lunceford and Young are shown at right.) This background changes on the eight bar bridge, which spots the reeds and trombones. Oliver deftly manipulates the sonic kaleidoscope yet again in the last eight bars of this chorus, with the trombones and saxophones still playing rhythmically, but in a slightly different way.
The saxophones then form a gliding unison tone which springs alto saxophonist Teddy Buckner (shown below left) into his solo, played at half of the tempo of the brass, who are preaching behind him atop Jimmy Crawford’s back-beats. Buckner was not the technician Smith was on alto saxophone, but he had a bright sound, and could swing in a relaxed way. Hear the brass on the bridge, along with Crawford’s drum explosion: Their playing is done with mind-blowing precision, yet at the same time, with intense swing. Buckner returns to finish the chorus, again with the jaunty, exuberant brass behind him, egging him on.
The final chorus features the brass, with the trumpets and trombones playing both discretely and together, in a round robin with the surging reeds. High-note trumpeter Paul Webster (at right) adds some excitement to this already hot swing mix as the band takes this rocking performance to its close.
This recording is an example of the incredible virtuosity of the Lunceford band. During the swing era, few bands could equal this level of ensemble and solo excellence. No band ever exceeded it.
The story continues:
Like many musicians who came of age in big bands during the swing era as rebellious youths, Sy Oliver’s attitude toward Jimmie Lunceford changed as he grew older, especially when he began leading his own band in the 1960s and 1970s. That band reflected to a large degree, the Lunceford style, despite the fact that Oliver (shown below left in the 1950s) had written many blockbuster hits for Tommy Dorsey’s band in the 1940s. Here is what he told writer Bill Coss in an interview that appeared in Metronome magazine in November of 1960: “Oddly enough, I resented him all the time I was associated with him. I loved Jimmie, and hated him too. I never understood that (then). I think he’s the only guy I ever knew–I think the phrase is intellectual modesty. (But there was) something about that guy I couldn’t help looking up to. I think I resented him (in part) because he was the world’s greatest square. But (at the same time), he just had something, (special that was apparent) the minute he walked on the scene. He was a great man. Actually, he made that organization what it was without contributing a darn thing musically. He was the leader.The whole thing was focused around him, though not in a musical sense.” Oliver then closed this interview by recalling the discussion he had with Lunceford when Jimmie hired him: Lunceford told him: “You know, I always investigate everyone carefully before I have them join the band, and you’re the only man I ever investigated that no one had a good word to say for. If you can alienate the world, you must have something.”
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Despite Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton coming to stardom as members of Benny Goodman’s trio/quartet in 1935-1936, after both men left Goodman, they led bands that were made up of Afro-American musicians. Indeed, when trumpeter Cootie Williams left Duke Ellington’s band to joined Goodman for a year in 1940-1941, he was featured with Benny’s mostly white band. But when he left Goodman to start his own band, the musicians in that band were black. In other words, in the 1930s and 1940s world of swing, as in American society generally then, segregation was the rule. Integration was the exception.
(2) Willie Smith was a splendid lead alto saxophonist and a very capable soloist. He also had the appearance of a Caucasian. In 1942 he was hired by Harry James whose band was rocketing to national popularity via a sponsored network radio show, and several hit records. As a result, Smith was able to double his weekly pay overnight.
(3) The World of Swing, by Stanley Dance (1974), 116-117.
More of Lunceford’s music can be found by clicking on these links:
Here is some of Sy Oliver’s work with Tommy Dorsey: