Composed and arranged by Bobby Smith.
Recorded by Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra for Victor on January 10, 1945 in Chicago.
Erskine Hawkins, trumpet, directing: Sammy Lowe, first trumpet; Bobby Johnson, Chuck Jones, Bill Moore, trumpets; Edward “Captain” Sims, Norman Greene, Don Coles and David “Jelly” James, trombones; Bobby Smith, first alto saxophone; Jimmy Mitchelle, alto saxophone; Julian Dash and Aaron Maxwell, tenor saxophones; Haywood Henry, baritone saxophone; Ace Harris, piano; Leroy Kirkland, guitar; Leemie Stanfield, bass; Kelly Martin, drums.
It is interesting to try to assess why some swing era artists have maintained substantial mainstream name recognition in the decades since the swing era, while others have not. There are many reasons why names like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller are, generally speaking, still recognized today, albeit often in the vaguest way. Others, like Chick Webb, Bunny Berigan, Jan Savitt, Charlie Barnet, Jimmie Lunceford and Erskine Hawkins, while known to swing cognoscenti, are largely unknown to the general public. In the first group of names are musicians who, with two exceptions, had high-profile careers that covered as many as five decades. The other two (Holiday and Miller) died in the middle of their careers, but under circumstances that gave rise to legendary status that provided an additional curiosity about them and their music that has continued long after their deaths. In the second list are musicians who also died young, one who had a fairly long career (Barnet) but who couldn’t have cared less about keeping his name before the public after he retired, and Erskine Hawkins.
Erskine Hawkins and his band at the Savoy Ballroom – 1940s.
Erskine Hawkins (1914-1993) had a major career as the leader of a big swing band, stretching from the mid-1930s into the mid-1950s. After that, he performed where and when he chose to, usually with small groups, but in comfortable settings that were not high-profile. It seems that by the mid-1950s, Hawkins was essentially finished with the business apparatus any successful bandleader must support, including booking agents, publicity hacks, and public relations liaisons, recording contracts, producers and flaks. The inevitable result is that his name gradually receded from public view.
An added factor is that Hawkins was an Afro-American, and he spent much of his career as the leader of a big band playing to black audiences, including many years as a virtual house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where he had great success. But local success, no matter how great, does not necessarily translate to national success. In fact, it rarely does, without other boosts. Although the Hawkins band was frequently broadcast via national radio networks from the Savoy, and they made a number of very successful records for RCA/Bluebird and later Victor, sponsored radio shows were essentially out of their reach because of racial discrimination. And a sponsored radio show was often the difference between an excellent regional band and an equally excellent nationally recognized band.
Another factor in Erskine Hawkins’s popularity topping out in the mid-1940s was the management his career was receiving. Like all other top-line Afro-American artists in the 1930s, Erskine Hawkins had a white manager, the aggressive Moe Gale. We should not regard Gale as either a “white savior,” as that term has developed in literature and cinema, or as a “Simon Legree,” as that character was used in the nineteenth century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was first and foremost a businessman, and his business interests were centered in Harlem, particularly in the Savoy Ballroom, which he owned and operated with a partner, Charlie Buchanan, who was Afro-American. That, perforce, led him to involvement with Afro-Americans. His primary interest as a businessman was to make money. He was not necessarily a crusader in the area of seeking equality in race relations. Nevertheless, his exploitation of black talent, something his clients knowingly participated in, led him and them to monetary success, if not racial parity. (Above left: Moe Gale, seated at desk, with Helen Oakley over his shoulder – late 1930s. Ms. Oakley did public relations work for Gale’s stable of clients, and the Savoy Ballroom. She was particularly successful in promoting well-attended battles of music at the Savoy between the Chick Webb band, and those led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Bunny Berigan.)
The combination of the Savoy Ballroom, which was an enormously successful business enterprise from the mid-1930s well into the 1940s, Moe Gale’s development and management of black talent like drummer Chick Webb and his band, which included from 1935, the stellar young vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Erskine Hawkins band, drew tens of thousand dancers to the Savoy, primarily black, but also a few whites (the Savoy was not segregated), each week. Also, the employment of often top level white bands to play alternately at the Savoy was an added draw. Glenn Miller, for example, was presented there on one occasion, alternating with Erskine Hawkins. The Savoy, which was located at 596 Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, was in the heart of the bustling black neighborhood of Harlem. For these reasons and a few more, the Savoy was a magical place during the swing era, and Erskine Hawkins was carried along by that magic from the late 1930s into the mid to late 1940s. (At right: Moe Gale and Charlie Buchanan at the Savoy – 1940s.)
Despite Erskine Hawkins’s success as a trumpeter and bandleader, his career through the 1940s and into the early 1950s was directed by people whose view of how that talent should be showcased was based on 1930s ideas. That meant lots of one-nighter tours, as many radio broadcasts and recordings as possible, and stands at theaters, usually as a part a vaudeville-style series of acts. This method of managing Hawkins’s career, which by the end of the 1940s was essentially on autopilot, was never seriously questioned by Erskine. He, like many musicians who were successful during the swing era, assumed audiences would always be there. And for a long time, far longer than they were for many bands, they were there for Hawkins. But as the 1950s progressed, and people stayed at home to watch television more, those audiences became increasingly smaller. Even the fabled Savoy Ballroom suffered declining attendance through the 1950s until it was closed and then razed in October of 1958. By then, the swing era had ended.
Hawkins’s success through the 1940s was aided immeasurably by the fact that he did not serve in the military during World War II. In addition, several key players in his band also did not serve. I do not know why these men were not in the military then, and do not in any way wish to suggest that they evaded service. But the fact that they were on the home front allowed them to have access to opportunities to work that during peace time may not have existed for them. Consequently, Erskine Hawkins was able work profitably during World War II and maintain a very strong band.
“Tippin’ In” was composed and arranged by Bobby Smith (1). Smith replaced Bill Johnson as Hawkins’s lead alto saxophonist in 1942. Like Johnson, Smith also arranged and wrote original tunes for the Hawkins band. It appears that Smith composed “Tippin’ In” in 1944 while the American Federation of Musicians’ recording strike was on. It was recorded several weeks after Victor and the Union settled their dispute. Hawkins recalled : “I liked the melody the first time I heard Bobby Smith play it out in California. We tried it out on the train going (east) to Chicago (from California), and then when we got to Chicago, we made a record of it.” (2)
The Hawkins Victor single went to number one on what in the 1940s was called the “race records” chart for six non-consecutive weeks, and became Hawkins’s most successful pop hit, reaching number nine. “Race records” was a term employed by the record industry during the swing era as a category of recorded music that was marketed primarily to the black community. The popularity of “Tippin’ In” went far beyond the black community however. It became and remained a “cross-over” (mainstream) hit. After its initial popularity as an instrumental, it received a lyric by Marty Symes, and achieved yet more popularity.
The performance of “Tippin’ In” by Erskine Hawkins demonstrates what a solid and enthusiastic band he had and was able to maintain through the years of World War II. The muscular introduction by the band leads to the bright toned alto saxophone solos on the “A” part of the first AABA 32 bar chorus, which are played by Bobby Smith. Note the backing he created for himself in the solos: syncopated open trombones and drummer Kelly Martin’s Chinese cymbal. Hawkins plays the eight bar bridge (the “B” part) on open trumpet, backed by the saxophones, for a contrast.
The second chorus starts with another trumpet solo, this time by one of the young men in the trumpet section, Bobby Johnson, who plays for sixteen bars with a Harmon mute (sans stem) in the bell of his horn. This solo is again backed by the saxophones, with the baritone of Haywood Henry thickening their harmony in a most tasty way. Note also Johnson’s brief quote of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Anymore.” “Tippin’ in” as a composition is an abstraction of that famous Ducal melody. Tenor saxophonist Julian Dash is heard on the bridge, playing a robust eight bars. Bobby Johnson returns to play the last eight bar plunger-muted trumpet solo, which provides yet another instrumental color and contrasting sound.
Bobby Johnson replaced Hawkins’s long-serving jazz trumpeter Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb in 1944, and he proves on this recording that he was both a capable and versatile jazz soloist.(3) As we have noted in other posts here at swinaganbeyond.com, the Erskine Hawkins band was built in such a way that Erskine took care of the non-jazz trumpet solos and of course the high-note work. But he always had another capable trumpet soloist in the band who played jazz. From the standpoint of Hawk’s chops, that was a very smart modus operandi.
The third chorus begins with the ensemble playing together setting up Hawkins’s next open trumpet solo, this one going into the high register. After that, he is in and out, playing against shifting instrumental blends, building to a climactic high note at the end of the chorus.
Bobby Smith returns on alto saxophone to recap that A melody, and then Hawk plays over the ensemble in the finale. This is a very good performance by a very good band. Bobby Smith’s arrangement is well-paced and balanced with numerous instrumental contrasts.
As a special treat, here is the alternate take of Erskine Hawkins’s “Tippin’In,” courtesy of jazz historian Gary Herzenstiel. My informed speculation is that this take was a test or a warm-up, done just before the master was attempted, to set the balance on the band and soloists etc. The master is performed a bit more cleanly, especially in the solos. Also, drummer Kelly Martin plays mostly in 2/4 on this test, but changed to 4/4 for the master.
This is a very rare recording and I really appreciate Gary Herzenstiel’s interest and generosity. The historical record is a bit more complete. Thanks Gary!
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
This image was also provided to swingandbeyond.com by Gary Herzenstiel. One more tile in the mosaic of the history of the swing era. Thanks Gary!!