“Manhattan Serenade” (1942) Tommy Dorsey with Jo Stafford

“Manhattan Serenade”

Composed by Louis Alter (music) and Harold Adamson (lyric); arranged by Sy Oliver.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor in New York on July 2, 1942.

Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone, directing: Ziggy Elman, Jimmy Zito, Danny Vanelli, Jimmy Blake, trumpets; George Arus, Jimmy Skiles and Dave Jacobs, trombones; Freddie Stulce, first alto saxophone; Harry Schuchman, alto saxophone; Don Lodice and Henry “Heinie” Beau, tenor saxophones; Bruce Snyder, baritone saxophone; Milt Raskin, piano; Clark Yocum, guitar; Phil Stephens, bass; Buddy Rich, drums; Ruth Hill, harp; Irving Raymond, Bernard Tinterow, Leonard Posner, William Ehrenkrantz, Alex Beller violins; Sam Ross and Leonard Atkins, violas; Harold Benko, cello; Jo Stafford, vocal.

The story: The summer of 1942 was the high-water mark for the band Tommy Dorsey essentially reorganized around the arranging talents of Sy Oliver, starting in May of 1939. That process was more of an evolution than a quick transition. In fact, Tommy began a major change in late 1938-early 1939 when he began trying-out the eight-member Pied Pipers singing group. There were some changes to that group by the time they finally began to work regularly with TD in early 1940: they were by then a vocal quartet, consisting of three guys and a girl, who sang lead. The girl, Jo Stafford, was special. She possessed a rich contralto voice that she used like the musicians in Tommy’s band used their instruments. She was, as fellow singing legend Mel Torme’ often said, “the most in-tune singer lady of all-time.”(1) (1A)

Jo Stafford told Michael Feinstein singer/pianist/historian about how she came to join Tommy Dorsey’s band in a 2003 interview. The nub of it is that she and the seven men who made up (in 1938) the original Pied Pipers vocal group (2) made their first TD connection in the summer of 1938 in Los Angeles.(3) The Dorsey band was playing an engagement there at the Palomar Ballroom. During that gig, which lasted from June 28 to August 8, two of Tommy’s arrangers, Paul Wetstein (later Weston) and Axel Stordahl, rented a house, where they lived and worked. (2A) At one point, they, via their girlfriends, Yvonne and Alyce King (two members of the four girl singing group The King Sisters), sent out the word that they were hosting a jam session for L.A. singing groups at their house. Among the groups that showed up that night were the Pied Pipers. Both Wetstein and Stordahl were favorably impressed by the Pipers. They mentioned the Pied Pipers to Tommy Dorsey, who was always on the lookout for new talent to present on his weekly radio show. But nothing happened while Tommy remained in Los Angeles, and nothing happened after Tommy and the band returned to New York later in the summer.

The original eight-member singing group The Pied Pipers with Tommy Dorsey in early 1939. Jo Stafford sang lead with this group. The three from this group who eventually were hired by Tommy were: third from left front: Jo Stafford, Chuck Lowry and behind TD, John Huddleston, who was married to Ms. Stafford from 1937 to 1943.

Finally, in December of 1938, the Pipers were summoned to New York to appear on Tommy’s radio show. They drove across the country, rehearsed briefly with TD and his band, and made their first appearance on Tommy’s Raleigh-Kool radio show on December 28, 1938. Tommy liked what they did, and gave them three songs to sing on that show.(4) The Pipers returned on January 18 and 25, and on February 8.(5)

Then something happened that almost derailed the Pied Pipers permanently. On the February 8, 1939 Tommy Dorsey/Raleigh-Kool Show, they performed the new novelty tune “Hold Tight, Hold Tight – Want Some Seafood, Mama.” The show’s sponsor, who had been overseas and had not heard the broadcasts for several weeks, had returned home, heard the broadcast, heard the song, and became enraged. He ordered the Pipers to be fired from the show immediately. The song “Hold Tight” was moving up the popularity charts in early 1939, that Is why TD programmed it. There was certainly nothing inappropriate or offensive about the song’s lyric. Nevertheless, its performance by the Pipers rubbed the sponsor the wrong way, and they were fired.(6)

The Pipers remained in New York for a time, and recorded there for Victor or Bluebird on June 6, 1939. This session, which was possibly facilitated by Tommy Dorsey, produced four masters: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “In a Little Spanish Town,” “Sugar Foot Stomp,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love.”  (See the comment of Joe Knox at the bottom of this post for the full information about this Pied Pipers recording date.) Aside from that, they did not work in New York. Eventually they returned to California, but did not get very much work there either. Due to the continuing lack of work, the group shed five of its members and picked up a new one, Billy Wilson, hoping that as a quartet they would be more employable. They were not. They collected unemployment compensation to survive, when that was possible. Among themselves, The Pipers, now scuffling badly, referred to the group as “Poverty, Inc.” (7)

Near the end of 1939, Ms. Stafford received a mysterious telegram instructing her to call a phone number in Chicago, collect. She knew no one in Chicago, but called the number, collect. The person who answered the phone was Tommy Dorsey. (This was vintage TD.) He told her he was reorganizing the vocal part of his band and wanted to hire the Pipers full-time, but only as a quartet, with her singing lead. She then relayed this message to the other three Pipers. They were ecstatic to join Dorsey.(8) (Above right: the Pied Pipers who joined Tommy Dorsey’s band in early 1940 – L-R: Chuck Lowry, Jo Stafford, Billy Wilson and John Huddleston. Wilson was replaced by Clark Yocum in August of 1940.) 

The quartet traveled to Chicago to join the Dorsey band. They immediately began preparing, with strong guidance from Tommy, the songs they were going to sing. Their first recording with TD was made in Chicago on February 1, 1940. The song was the vintage (1926) “What Can  I Say After I Say I’m Sorry,” which was being reprised by many musicians in the wake of Ella Fitzgerald’s recent hit recording of it.

For a long while Jo Stafford contented herself with singing the lead parts for the Pipers, and staying out of the way of everybody else in the band. When she first sang with the Dorsey band with the eight-member Pied Pipers at the end of 1938 and into early 1939, Edythe Wright, a dynamic singer and a beautiful spitfire of a woman, who had a complicated relationship with Tommy, was the band’s featured girl singer. After Ms. Wright departed in the late summer of 1939, Anita Boyer, a very competent band singer, was her replacement for awhile. She and Tommy did not hear ear-to-ear, and she was soon replaced by the teen-aged dynamo, Connie Haines. (Above left: a snapshot of Jo Stafford in 1940 – somewhere on the road with Tommy Dorsey’s band.)

The arrival in the TD band of drummer Buddy Rich toward the end of 1939, and then of Frank Sinatra in early 1940 meant that from early 1940, the band included three of the most enormous egos of the swing era. (TD himself had the largest ego of all then. But Rich and Sinatra were just starting their big-time musical careers. They were learning.) Jo Stafford, though possessing talent equal to those three, did not have a giant-sized ego. She was very happy singing lead with the Pipers, whom Tommy featured quite a bit, especially after they recorded what became a blockbuster hit record for TD, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” with Sinatra, in the spring of 1940. She was also enjoying being a part of one of the most successful bands of the swing era, performing constantly, and making far more money than ever before.

Soon however, the musicians in the TD band came to understand what a superb singer she was, and that she was a musician: she could play the piano, read music like a fox and arrange. They also noticed that she had a magical relationship with proper pitch. She related to them as a musician would. She and they would discuss chord changes, arrangements and other musical niceties. They began a subtle campaign with their boss to get her some solos, which was a delicate matter because the band already had a capable girl singer – Connie Haines. But Ms. Haines and Ms. Stafford could not have been more different: Haines was tiny, sprightly, cute and very well-versed in the ways of show business and stagecraft. Stafford stood about five feet ten inches tall, was cool in both her personality and her approach to a song, attractive in a subtly sensuous way, and not particularly interested in basking in the limelight, at least not without The Pied Pipers beside her.

Tommy could not help but to notice what an excellent singer Jo Stafford was. Nevertheless, he took no steps to move her into a solo role until after she had not only established her singing bona fides, but also proved her good judgment to him in another way. In 1940, TD began operating his own music publishing firm, Sun Music. Its first major hit was “I’ll Never Smile Again,” composed by Ruth Lowe, a pianist with Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl band, but not an established songwriter by any means. (Above right: the sheet music for “I’ll Never Smile Again,”  published by TD’s music publishing company, Sun Music. Frank Sinatra is shown in the center, surrounded by Pied Pipers from lower left: Chuck Lowry, Billy Wilson, John Huddleston and Jo Stafford.) Tommy employed a variety of stratagems to sign-up young and/or unknown composers with Sun to begin to create a catalog of songs there. When Jo Stafford first returned to California in the autumn of 1940 as a successful member of Tommy Dorsey’s band, many of her musical friends from her pre-TD days flocked to see her perform with Dorsey at the newly built Palladium Ballroom, which Tommy and company opened in grand fashion on October 30. One of those friends was pianist, singer and composer Matt Dennis.

Matt Dennis was working only intermittently in Los Angeles. He had known and worked with the Stafford Sisters in L.A. in the late 1930s. He had even led his own band for a while, with little commercial success. But he had continued to write songs, and had developed a small catalog of them, which he showed to Jo Stafford. She was impressed enough to show them to Tommy, who as she recalled much later, more or less brushed them aside, but immediately signed Dennis to a contract with Sun Music. From late 1940 until Dennis entered the U.S. Air Force during World War II, he composed a number of hits for Tommy Dorsey, most of which were sung and recorded by Tommy’s wildly popular boy vocalist Frank Sinatra.(9)

Meanwhile, The Pied Pipers were having their own success as a part of the Dorsey organization. By 1942, they had been a part of several successful TD records in addition to “I’ll Never Smile Again,” including: “Star Dust,” “Do I Worry?,” “Just as Though You Were Here,” “You’ve Got Me This Way,” and “Let’s Get Away From It All.” (10)

After Matt Dennis became a part of the Dorsey organization, he became a part of the cabal who were touting Ms. Stafford to TD as a soloist, and wrote (with lyric by Frank Killduff)  a special song for her to sing with Tommy’s band. It was the charming but sentimental “Little Man With a Candy Cigar.” Jo summoned the courage to go to Tommy herself and ask him if she could sing this song as a soloist. He consented, and noticed that audiences liked Jo Stafford’s solo singing. The tune was was then recorded on February 7, 1941. The record was not a hit, but it served quite successfully to introduce Jo Stafford to Tommy Dorsey’s nation-wide audience. For the next 20 months, she received more and more solo assignments in the Dorsey Band, and became a singing star in her own right.

The music: “Manhattan Serenade” was the theme song (starting in 1942) for the Easy Aces network radio show.(11) The song had been composed in 1928, had a brief period of popularity, and then receded from public attention. When “Manhattan Serenade” began to be used as the theme song for Easy Aces, it started a period of renewed popularity. This recording of it by Tommy Dorsey and Jo Stafford is one of the best. The marvelous arrangement, by Sy Oliver, spotlights Tommy, playing cup-muted trombone in the first half of the recording, and Ms. Stafford singing in the second half. (Above right: Sy Oliver and Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s.)

The floating four bar introduction reveals Oliver’s delight, and skill, in creating music that employed both tried and true Dorsey instrumental colors (the bass clarinet, a TD signature), as well as new ones (the string section and a harp). In the first chorus, Tommy’s cup-muted trombone, blended mysteriously with a few other instruments (are they trombones?), states the main melody, gently. Trumpeter Ziggy Elman plays the first half of the bridge, using a cup mute. His delicate sound is swathed in strings. Tommy finishes the bridge, still using a cup mute, then finishes the chorus against a cushion of strings. It is remarkable that Sy Oliver, who never wrote for strings before 1942, began writing for them with uncommon mastery almost immediately. (At left: Ziggy Elman. The guitarist is Clark Yocum, who also sang with the Pied Pipers. The bassist is Phil Stephens.)

The transitional passage between the first chorus and Jo Stafford’s vocal is also beautifully written, employing the standard instruments of a swing band, along with well-integrated strings. The modulation that follows is something that harkens back to Oliver’s time with Jimmie Lunceford’s band: listen how he has the brass players using plunger or derby mutes to create the oo-ah sounds. But then he rolls out a lush carpet of strings for Ms. Stafford to enter on.

Jo Stafford’s vocal on this recording demonstrates how much assurance she had gained since her first solo recording with TD, made a year and a half before. (12) This was the result of non-stop performing during that time before all kinds of audiences not only with the Pied Pipers, but also as a soloist. Soon, like her fellow TD singing associate Frank Sinatra, she would be on her way to a major career as a solo singer

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links: 

(1) Traps the Drum Wonder …The Life of Buddy Rich, by Mel Torme’ (1991) 53.

(1A) Jo Stafford worked professionally with her two sisters in Hollywood in 1938. The group, known as The Stafford Sisters, was quite active. Jo Stafford as a soloist also recorded a couple of tunes with Frank Trumbauer’s short-lived big band in Los Angeles in early 1938.

(2) The interview was recorded and included as the final track on the Concord CD Jo Stafford …The Ballad of the Blues (2003). Hereafter Feinstein interview.

(2A) Also living in that house, which was located on Colgate Avenue in Beverly Hills, not far from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, was Tommy’s boy vocalist, Jack Leonard, and Herb Sanford, who was the producer of Tommy’s Raleigh-Kool radio show. Sanford in 1972 published a memoir about Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, from which this information was taken, 117.

(3) The original Pied Pipers octet were: Jo Stafford, John Huddleston, Hal Hopper, Chuck Lowry, Bud Hervey, George Tait, Woody Newbury and Dick Whittinghill. The male members of the octet had previously belonged to two other groups, The Four Esquires and The Three Rhythm Kings, both of whom were in the 1938 Fox movie Alexander’s Ragtime Band, with The Stafford Sisters.

(4) This information comes from the excellent Tommy Dorsey catalog materials (1938) page 157, contained at the University of Colorado Glenn Miller Archive compiled by Dennis M. Spragg. Hereafter GMA Archive. Here is a link: https://www.colorado.edu/amrc/sites/default/files/attached-files/tommy_dorsey_1938.pdf

(5) GMA Archive (1939) pages 3-21.

(6) Feinstein interview.

(7) American Singing Groups: a History from 1940 to Today, Jay Warner, editor;  (2006) 51–53. Hereafter Warner.

(8) Feinstein interview.

(9) Matt Dennis composed these songs while contracted to Sun Music/Tommy Dorsey in the period 1940-1942: “Everything Happens to Me,” “Let’s Get Away From It All,” “The Night We Called It a Day,” “Violets for Your Furs,” and “Will You Still Be Mine?,” in addition to “Little Man With a Candy Cigar.”

(10) Warner 51-53.

(11) From Wikipedia: Easy Aces was a serial radio comedy which ran from 1930 to1945. It was trademarked by the low-keyed drollery of creator and writer Goodman Ace and his wife, Jane, as an urbane, put-upon realtor and his malaprop-prone wife. A 15-minute program having an unobtrusive, conversational, and clever style, and the cheerful absurdism of its storylines, it built a loyal enough audience of listeners and critics alike to keep it on the air for 15 years. Goodman Ace’s real name was Goodman Aiskowitz.

(12) Per record collector and historian Perry Huntoon: While “Little Man With A Candy Cigar,” recorded 2/7/41, was the first solo outing by Jo with TD to be released by Victor, “For You,” recorded on 1/20/41, was actually her first solo recording. 

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  1. Greetings from RojoLand!

    The Pied Pipers’ 6 Jun 1939 session was in fact four titles, isued on Victor:

    with orchestra [Charlie Marguis, Ricky Traettino (tp); Wes Hein, George Plumstead (tb); Benny Lagasse (as); Ned Yeagley (ts); Gil Bowers (p); Bill Barford (g); Felix Giobbe (sb); Maurice Purtill (d)]. Studio #2, 155 E. 24th St., New York, 6 Jun 1939.

    BS 037190-1 IN A LITTLE SPANISH TOWN–Vocadance — Victor 26364-B
    BS 037191-1 POLLY WOLLY DOODLE ALL THE DAY–Vocadance — Victor 26320-A, HMV (Australia) E.A.2826
    BS 037192-1 SUGAR FOOT STOMP–Vocadance — Victor 26320-B, HMV (Australia) E.A.2826
    BS 037193-1 WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?–Vocadance — Victor 26364-A

    The session is listed in Rust-JR4 (p. 1228) but I didn’t see it in JR6 (at least the online version from Mainspring Press).

    Also, you may know this already but there is an alternate take of “Manhattan Serenade” extant, on Reader’s Digest CD RD7-025-2 “The Great Band Era”; BS 075405-2 differs from the issued -1A in that TD plays the opening chorus solo rather than with the ‘bone section.

    Take care,

    J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

    • Greetings from RojoLand!

      “The version presented here is the alternate take” — I am listening right now (second time); it is in fact the originally-issued take (Victor 27962-A; BS 075405-1/1A [both were issued per Bolig; my copies are -1A]), complete with that little bit of surface noise right at the end which can be heard on the several LP reissues of that track. Link to an MP3 file of take 2: https://app.box.com/s/1xi45z4yrgcr17b80qhiiuvfodrk6p6a

      Take care,

      J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

      • I am now confused Joe. The link you posted above is to a recording that is different from the one I presented with this post. Is the one I presented the issued take, or the alternate?

        • Greetings from RojoLand!

          The track you presented (YouTube video at top of this page) is the originally-issued take. The link I posted in my previous missive is the alternate -2 issued on the aforementioned Reader’s Digest CD. Sorry for the confusion! Take 2 (possibly the first one actually cut) has Dorsey playing the opening chorus alone (solo); the issued Take 1 (and 1A) has him playing it together with his trombone section. That’s the big difference. (That Digest CD set is a re-release of the original LP boxed set “The Great Band Era” (RD3/4-25) but with changes. I’d have to double-check but I’m pretty sure RD3/4-25 has the originally-issued “Manhattan Serenade” take. I have the electronic-stereo edition, RD4-25; “M. S.” is on Record 5, Side 2, band 2. The track was used in at least one other Digest LP set.)

          Take care,

          J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

          • Thanks Joe for the clarification. The recording I have presented in this post is the issued take. The link you provided is to the alternate take. I agree with you that the alternate was probably recorded first, and I agree with Elizabeth (see below) that the slight revision to the arrangement that has Tommy playing with other instruments in the first chorus is an improvement. TD knew what he was doing! Many thanks to Joe and Elizabeth for their high-level and insightful comments. The historical record is now clear.

  2. I have to regard the vast majority of interviews with Jo — easily my favorite vocalist — to be, at least to some degree, a missed opportunity for those who were lucky enough to speak with this prodigiously talented, but somewhat enigmatic, artist. It seems that whenever the subject of her nearly three-year stint with the TD orch., which launched her nationally, came up, a disproportionate amount of time was invested in inquiring about “what is was like” for little ol’ Jo to work with the great Sinatra, in comparison with that given to delving into the specifics about the young Ms Stafford’s collaboration with the male Pipers, TD and the rest of the band. I mean no disrespect toward Sinatra, for whose artistry I have huge admiration, but it’s my belief that Jo was then the more accomplished and mature of the two vocalists. When Frank was still cautiously over-enunciating in some instances (“light a can-dell in the cha-pell”), Jo was effortlessly applying her flawless diction — as well as dropping it, as the song (“Whatcha Know Joe” “You’ve Got Me This Way”) dictated. Further, I think it should be noted that Jo employed just as extraordinary breath control as Frank, who acquired his much-lauded technique through close attention to TD’s seamless phrasing on trombone. Too, even at this early point in her career, Jo displayed the subtlety and trademark underplaying of the lyrics that, conversely, gives her interpretive manner its great impact. She was truly a charter member of the cool school (which may explain Pres’ affinity for her approach)!

    Though I’ve always felt that the Dorsey orch. — certainly at its commercial, and arguably artistic, zenith from ’40-’42 — lost, rather than gained, something when it took on strings (or, “the mice,” as TD referred to the section), I consider “Manhattan Serenade” to be one of the band’s knockout arrangements of the period. According to Nelson Riddle, who joined the staff in ’44, Tommy regarded the strings (which I believe the aggregation acquired from Shaw, when Artie disbanded to join the Navy) as merely a “tax deduction,” and instructed the arranger not to make them too prominent in his charts. For me, even some of Axel Stordahl’s writing for strings in the Sinatra period is just too dainty and delicate. On the other hand, despite his inexperience with strings, Sy Oliver (my favorite arranger, irrespective of band), made very interesting use of the section, so that it actually was an addition. There is no better example of my point than “Manhattan Serenade.” Sy, who always seems to have been very modest about his numerous musical talents, had a tremendous gift for economy, distillation and the “less is more” manner of arranging, as we encounter here; every instrumental texture adds to the whole. Tommy, the whole ‘bone section and Ziggy make beautiful muted statements — and the reeds’ four bars in the opening chorus is so representative of Sy’s style. Finally, Jo’s pacing throughout the narrative is flawless, climaxing with the soaring “our Manhattan serenade!” Nobody — but nobody — had a tone like hers! I only wish that this most musicianly singer — always a musician’s singer — had been encouraged more often during interviews to open up about what made her tick musically, rather than merely coaxed to offer a cursory historical account of her career. As it is, I think the Feinstein interview, conducted so late in Jo’s life, is perhaps the most revelatory.

  3. The version in the link with just TD in the A section has to be the alternate. I’d never heard it elsewhere. I think the harmonized ‘bone section in the A and then just TD following Ziggy in the B is far more effective in arrangement terms.

  4. spring 2018 to march 2020 ~ from 38th & 9th, to Cafe Wha, she & i’ve been drinking. me, Basil Hayden; her, something less serious… & Manhattan Seranade’s been on repeat in my head… cheers ~

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