Composed by Art Hickman; arranged by Artie Shaw.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Bluebird on January 31, 1939 in New York.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Bernie Privin, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Les Jenkins and Harry Rodgers, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Hank Freeman, alto saxophone; Tony Pastor and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Bob Kitsis, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.
The pace of Art Shaw’s life had accelerated tremendously through 1938. That year began with Shaw leading a swing band that was good and getting better. His playing on clarinet had reached a level where it compared favorably with Benny Goodman’s. Through 1937 and well into 1938, Shaw’s work with his chief arranger Jerry Gray was evolving in a direction that was deliberately different and decidedly more orchestral than Goodman’s. Although, aside from Shaw’s clarinet, his band had not established a recognizable identity, he and Gray were working on that. Yet at the end of 1937, he was cut loose by Brunswick Records, the company he recorded with through that year. The small amount of money he had been paid by Brunswick was now gone from his band’s income at a time when he was rarely able to earn enough each week through the band’s other work to balance his expenses against ongoing costs. Shaw was in debt and desperate for financial assistance from somewhere, indeed, anywhere, to keep his band going.
Artie Shaw and his band at the Roseland State Ballroom in Boston – April 1938: The musicians who are identifiable are L-R: Shaw, the third man to his left in shadows is Harry Rodgers; the guitarist is Al Avola, the bassist is Sid Weiss, the pianist, Les Burness, and the drummer Cliff Leeman.
It is not entirely clear what strategy was developed by the people who were managing Shaw and his band in early 1938. But several historical facts provide us with a basis on which to deduce what was afoot. First, at some point in the first two months of 1938, Shaw entered into an agreement with the New England band booker Si Shribman, which essentially pumped much-needed money into the Shaw band, provided them with work for a substantial period of time, and put the band on radio at regular intervals each week for several months in a row. Second, a decision was made not to sign Shaw with any other record label until he and his management team decided that it was the right time, musically, for that to happen. As it turned out, that did not happen until July of 1938, at which time the Shaw band was definitely ready to make records that were clearly and unambiguously by Art (later Artie) Shaw and His Orchestra. Third, Shaw hired the unique vocalist Billie Holiday. The story of her effect on the Shaw band and of Shaw’s time in Boston in the spring of 1938 is told in another post here at swingandbeyond.com. Endnote (1) below has a link to that post.
During the 1930s, many musicians in swing bands thought of Victor Records as “the Cadillac of record labels.” (2) Victor Records sold for 75 cents apiece. As the Great Depression deepened in the early and mid-1930s, Victor continued to sell its top-line records for 75 cents, even though record sales plummeted throughout the first half of the 1930s. But in an effort to make records more affordable, Victor initiated its 35 cent Bluebird label in 1932. Although some dance bands were signed to Bluebird in the mid-1930s, it seemed that Victor executives thought that the new swing music that was evolving at that time was something that only wealthy, mostly young people would support. Consequently, it placed on its Victor roster artists specializing in swing, including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan. Their record sales, though strong enough to merit renewals of their yearly contracts, were, with a few exceptions, not spectacular.
The advent of Decca Records in 1934 shook up the pop record market. Decca disks sold for 35 cents apiece, and Decca executives signed a roster of artists who were broadly popular, including swing bands led by Jimmy Dorsey, Andy Kirk, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Bob Crosby and Chick Webb. (Bing Crosby was the king of Decca.) Slowly but surely Decca began not only to eat into Victor/Bluebird’s market share, it began to expand the market overall for popular music records in the United States. By late 1937 and into 1938, Victor/Bluebird finally decided to make a major play in the swing record market. At that time, many bands were signed by Bluebird including: Les Brown, Larry Clinton, Van Alexander, Earl Hines, Charlie Barnet, Erskine Hawkins, Glenn Miller, Jan Savitt and Art Shaw. So Shaw was definitely a part of that “supply” development in the American pop music record market then.
Equally important however, was that the band Shaw brought to Bluebird Records in July of 1938 was really ready to record at a high level. And Shaw himself had reached a point as a clarinet virtuoso and bandleader where he really understood how he wanted to make music with his band, and how he wanted that music to be recorded. All of this, and much more, is apparent when one listens to the six recordings Art Shaw and His Orchestra made for Bluebird on July 24, 1938, his first recording session for that label.
What happened after Shaw made his first recordings for Bluebird can be described as a series of positive developments that built on one another and rather quickly moved Art Shaw and His Orchestra from a very good but relatively unknown band, to by early 1939, being the top swing band in the nation.
The first of these developments was the surprising mammoth success of Shaw’s first recording for Bluebird, “Begin the Beguine.” That recording was not simply a hit. In 1938, if a record sold 25,000 copies, it was a hit. “Begin the Beguine” was selling 25,000 copies a week almost from the date of its initial release in early September of 1938. It was a monster hit, and its royalties provided Shaw with his first profits after more than two years of incurring debt as a bandleader. In addition, “Begin the Beguine” created in the pop record market a seemingly insatiable demand for other records by Shaw. By this time (autumn 1938), he and Jerry Gray were working together exceedingly well to create a constant stream of new and stimulating music for the Shaw band to play and record. Gray hit his stride as a brilliant arranger at the very moment that Shaw and his band were becoming a national sensation.
The clarinet playing of Artie Shaw had continued to develop, both in terms if its swing, and in the evolution of his sound through 1938. By the fall of that year, his clarinet tone had reached a point where it was immediately identifiable. It was broad and full-bodied in all registers, including the altissimo, or highest register, where Shaw could and did venture, if the music took him there at any given time. Shaw’s ability to paraphrase any melody, and in so doing, make it his, had begun years earlier, when he was on staff at CBS. Now, after two years of playing daily before audiences, that ability had been refined to an incredibly high degree. This stood Shaw in good stead when he made records. The melodic solos he recorded to “sell the song,” as well as his clarinet sound, immediately identified whatever he was playing as by Art Shaw. In addition, Shaw was emerging as a brilliant jazz artist. Many of his improvisations on many of the records he made starting in 1938, were brilliant free-standing musical statements. Starting in late 1938 and continuing for the next three years, the record buying public couldn’t seem to get enough of his Bluebird and then Victor records. In this period, Shaw recorded what would become eight million-selling records, and many more that sold in the hundreds of thousands.
Artie Shaw solos in front of his band in the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan in January of 1939. The musicians clearly pictured are: L-R back: Chuck Peterson, Bernie Privin, John Best, Buddy Rich, Sid Weiss; middle: Harry Rodgers, Les Jenkins, George Arus, Al Avola, Bob Kitsis; less clearly visible in front are: Georgie Auld, Hank Freeman, Les Robinson and Tony Pastor.
The Shaw band itself responded to these stimuli with consistently swinging and spirited performances. As Shaw became aware of major (and lucrative) performance opportunities that were being secured for his band, he upgraded its personnel at the end of 1938. The new members were trumpeter Bernie Privin, trombonist Les Jenkins, pianist Bob Kitsis, tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, and drummer Buddy Rich. The last two made major contributions to Shaw’s music and success through the year 1939.
The one aspect of the development of Artie Shaw’s band during 1938 that did not reach its full potential was the one involving its female vocalist, Billie Holiday. That in no way was the fault of Billie, of Shaw, or of anyone else involved with the music of the band. Indeed, musically, Billie’s time with the Shaw band was extremely successful. But since she was under contract with Brunswick Records at all times during which she was Shaw’s vocalist, she could not record with him. This was a major handicap for both Ms. Holiday and for Shaw. If Billie had been able to make records with Shaw, I am certain that those records would have accelerated her career development, and added to the quality of the music Shaw recorded then, which was already very high.
The music: The arrangement on “Rose Room” that the Shaw band recorded on January 31, 1939 was written by Artie himself. Shaw’s ability as an arranger was substantial, however by the time this arrangement was made in January of 1939, he was almost always so overwhelmed with other things that he no longer had time to sit down and write an arrangement. From this time on, Artie limited his arranging to editing the work of others, something that all other successful bandleaders did, whether they were arrangers or not.
This arrangement is beautifully constructed, balanced and paced. There are basically three chapters in this musical story: Shaw’s solo; the saxophone quartet soli; and the ensemble climax. Each of these leads organically into the next. There is building in intensity, then a release of intensity for contrast. Nothing is overdone or underdone.
The uncongested eight-bar introduction is a perfect foretaste of what is to come: the open brass bursts are used as a foil for the four reeds, with Hank Freeman playing baritone saxophone. This all happens against a simple rhythm played by drummer Buddy Rich on his partially opened high-hat cymbals.
Shaw steps forward to start start his solo on the main strain of “Rose Room” in the first chorus after playing gently through a one-bar break. At first he plays a melodic paraphrase of the melody against the most simple rhythmic background, provided by piano, bass, guitar and drums, with Rich again playing simple time on his high-hats. (Rich basically plays his high-hats and snare drum throughout this performance, adding a few crisp rim shots on the snare at strategic places.) Then the open brass play delicately into their derby mutes, warming the background ever so slightly. This solo sequence lasts for sixteen bars. But there is more!
There is another break, this time two bars, which Shaw glides through in double-time, suggesting that he is no ordinary clarinet player. From that break he vaults into the next sixteen bar sequence, which contains some of the most arresting playing Shaw ever put on record. Here he improvises a floating, looping clarinet passage that moves with fluid ease from his instrument’s lower register into its high register that had swing era clarinetists (and serious clarinetists ever since) shaking their heads. Shaw pulled off the magic trick that only the greatest jazz soloists have been able to: he plays an intensely difficult series of phrases with immense discipline and authority, yet he does it, and he creates a beautifully constructed solo in the process, with total relaxation. And it is all delivered with his lovely, full, singing clarinet tone. This solo was state-of-the-art jazz in 1939, and it would turn heads today if it were played as beautifully as Shaw played it on this recording. Many clarinetists had great technique during the swing era. Few had the aesthetic sensibility to create something this musically cogent, while demonstrating such brilliant instrumental technique.
What follows as the second chorus begins is a marvelous contrast to Shaw;s clarinet solo. It is a sixteen-bar soli played by the Shaw saxophone section with Les Robinson on lead alto, Hank Freeman now on alto, and Georgie Auld and Tony Pastor on tenors. What they play, with terrific unity and swing, is a passage that sounds like a jazz solo being played by four harmonized saxophones. These saxophone soli, usually written by Shaw himself, were among many of the glories of Artie Shaw’s 1938-1939 band.
It is important to remember that before Shaw became a celebrated clarinet virtuoso, he was a superb lead alto saxophonist. In all of his bands, he lavished much tender loving care on his saxophone sections in rehearsal to ensure that when they played soli like this, it was done with the perfect balance between relaxed precision and flowing swing. (Above right: the saxophone section of Artie Shaw’s band in 1939. L-R: Georgie Auld, Hank Freeman, Les Robinson and Tony Pastor.)
Bernie Privin plays a warm eight-bar solo on his open trumpet on the tune’s bridge, and then the saxophones, now intensifying rhythmically, return to complete the chorus.
The brass section of Artie Shaw’s band in mid-1939, shown with drummer Buddy Rich behind them. L-R: Harry Rodgers, Les Jenkins, George Arus, John Best, Bernie Privin and Chuck Peterson.
The third chorus brings forth the open brass, led with authority and feeling, by John Best. In this sequence, Shaw the arranger has the brass and reeds in a provocative dialog as the dynamic level of the music intensifies and moves the performance to a climax and conclusion.
The story continues: The springboard from which Artie Shaw rose to national success was the engagement he and his band played at Manhattan’s Hotel Lincoln, which started on October 26, 1938 and continued until February 2, 1939. That engagement was not lucrative. In fact, whatever money Shaw made from it did not come close to covering his ongoing weekly costs. But it had one very large positive aspect to it: a hookup with the NBC radio network, which broadcast Shaw’s music nationwide from that venue many times during their three and a half month stay there. Those broadcasts were in a very real sense an ongoing national advertising campaign for Artie Shaw and His Orchestra. They, and the new recordings he was making for RCA/Bluebird, especially “Begin the Beguine,” which by the end of 1938 was a runaway hit, were creating enormous demand in the ever-growing audiences that wanted to see and hear the Shaw band in action.
As soon as Shaw and company left the Lincoln, they began a brutal six-week tour of large theaters, playing as many as six shows a day. Theaters were a place where a lot of money could be made in a hurry. It was not unusual for a bandleader to gross between $5,000.00 and $10,000.00 a week for playing a major theater. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) It was during this time that Artie Shaw finally, after two and a half years as a bandleader, earned enough money to pay off all of his debts, and secure financial control of his band. In addition, he was earning enough to begin saving money in order to eventually leave the band business. At least that had been his stated objective.
Here is an article that appeared in the March 8 issue of Variety. Although it does not present all of the major developments in Shaw’s career that were happening in rapid succession in February and March of 1939, it does touch on many of the important advancements for him that were happening then.
ARTIE SHAW IS THE MR. CINDERELLA OF BOUNCE BANDS; IN THE RED 3 MOS. AGO
By Ben Bodec
“Artie Shaw, the newest thing in bounce bands, who last week signatured a contract with RCA Victor which guarantees him an income from phonograph records of $100,000 for the next two years, can lay claim to skyrocketing from behind the eight-ball into the realm of big money within
a period of three months.
When Shaw took his band into the Lincoln Hotel, N. Y., last December, he was in the red for $11,000. Today, besides the disc coin, he’s good for a minimum of $6,500 a week in theatres, $2,250 in radio (Old Gold), and a $1,100 guarantee on one-nighters. It was only last fall (really, it was at the end of 1937 – MZ ) that the Music Corp. of America let Shaw go because it became convinced that the bandman’s future was dubious. He asked for his release and it was given him with dispatch. Now Shaw Is considered by booking offices as one of the four top gold mines in the business. For revenue possibilities he rates in a class with Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Larry Clinton.
Shaw got his original opportunity as a batonlst from Rockwell- O’Keefe in 1937, when that office placed him in the Lexington Hotel, N. Y. Things after that didn’t pan out so well for him. His outfit then included strings. He couldn’t make a go of it, and changed his style to conform with demand for hot outfits. It was Charlie Shribman (really Si Shribman – MZ), of the Boston ballroom operating firm that next took a chance on Shaw. Shribman built a band around him and spotted him into his State Ballroom in Boston last spring, from where Shaw started to be heard from as a coming name. Shaw’s stipend from Shribman was $65 a week, and that was only eight months ago. Soon afterwards Shaw’s Bluebird records started to click. It was his cutting of ‘Begin the Beguine’ that helped build him to his present position. Then came the contract from Old Gold and the date at the Lincoln. It’s been easy (not so easy – see below – MZ) and rich sailing from then on. Rockwell General Amusement Corp., successor to Rockwell-O’Keefe, meanwhile became Shaw’s booking agent. Artie Shaw orchestra is currently being mentioned for a major New York hotel spot next fall, either the Hotel New Yorker or the Pennsylvania, both of which are now under consideration.” (3)
I will make a few observations about this article. First, its use of the term “Cinderella” to describe Shaw’s ascent to stardom as the leader of a swing band must have had special charm for Artie. Thirteen years after this article appeared, Shaw published an autobiography of sorts entitled The Trouble with Cinderella. Second, Si Shribman did not build a band around Art. The band Shaw took into various Shribman owned or controlled ballrooms starting in March of 1938 had been in existence for a year. Third, the terms of Shaw’s agreement with Si Shribman have not been discovered by historians (to my knowledge). What is known however is that whatever the terms of that agreement were, Shaw was persuaded to pay Shribman $22,500.00 in exchange for a full and final release from it. This happened in early March of 1939, and it was how Shaw was able to obtain full ownership of his band. (4)
Paradoxically, very soon after Artie had reached this very good place financially, he began to understand that what was happening to him was not something he could control. He became a part of an ongoing business plan involving his booking agent, General Amusement Corporation (GAC), and many other promoters and impresarios, to present him and his band in various entertainment venues for the maximum amount of money obtainable. The pace of his activity then accelerated further from fast to breakneck. Shaw was now riding a bucking bronco that he couldn’t restrain.
There were further positive developments on the business side of the Shaw band. They were signed to appear in a feature film to be made by M-G-M in the summer of 1939. They secured a lengthy engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, to coincide with the film making. More lucrative theater dates were lined up. A bonanza now lay before Shaw.
Unfortunately, he would not be able to cash in fully. His health collapsed in early April. Engagements that had been booked had to be cancelled, including a week at the Palace Theater on Playhouse Square in Cleveland that probably would have netted Shaw $10,000.00. Artie and his band were absent from the April 9 and April 16 Old Gold radio shows. He arrived by rail in Los Angeles on April 14. He was in a wheel chair, and told reporters that he would continue convalescing from his recent illness (a throat infection) in Palm Springs, and then open with his band at the Palomar Ballroom on April 19. He did appear with his band at the gala opening night at the Palomar, but keeled over at some point during the evening, and had to be hospitalized. The initial diagnosis was “streptococci of the throat,” but what was eventually discovered was that he also had another far more serious condition, agranulocytosis.
“Agranulocytosis, also known as agranulosis or granulopenia, is an acute condition involving a severe and dangerous leukopenia (lowered white blood cell count) most commonly of neutrophils and thus causing neutropenia in the circulating blood. It is a severe lack of one major class of infection-fighting white blood cells. People with this condition are at very high risk of serious infections due to their suppressed immune system.” (5)
Shaw’s condition was serious. The medical treatment he received eventually resulted in him overcoming agranulocytosis. But it took a while. He was away from his band from April 19 to May 23, at a very critical moment in its meteoric rise to national popularity. At first, there was confusion surrounding how or indeed if Shaw’s band would be able to carry on and fulfil its immediate commitments (the Old Gold radio show and the Palomar engagement). Soon however, Shaw’s management placed Tony Pastor in front of the band at the Palomar, and Jerry Gray as its conductor on the Old Gold show. Despite the major loss of Shaw’s virtuoso clarinet, the Shaw band acquitted itself very well on these jobs. So well in fact that business at the Palomar continued to be excellent, and the management there kept the band on full compensation. (This was not altruistic. Shaw’s management was dangling an extension of the Palomar engagement after Shaw returned as additional leverage on the Palomar’s operator.) Recordings of the band taken off the Old Gold broadcasts while Shaw was away reveal a band that was swinging intensely. (Above left: Jerry Gray visits a hospitalized Artie Shaw in Los Angeles, late April – early may 1939.)
When Artie returned, the pace of his activities increased. The engagement at the Palomar was in fact extended, and ran until June 27. He and his band continued appearing weekly on the Old Gold radio show, which was now on NBC on Tuesday evenings. Comedian Robert Benchley started a summer vacation from the show after the June 27 broadcast. Through the summer, Shaw would have the show basically to himself, something he wanted very badly.(6) He made two Bluebird recording sessions in June, as well as a short (ten minutes) film, produced by Paramount, entitled Artie Shaw’s Class in Swing. (Above right: Artie Shaw leaves the hospital in May of 1939. See note (7) below.)
In mid-June, to reduce the risk of Shaw getting further throat infections, he underwent a tonsillectomy. He soon returned to be with his band on the Old Gold radio show, but for a time did not play his clarinet. By the end of June, he was able to resume playing.
The band traveled to San Francisco for several appearances there, including a stand at the Golden Gate Theater, which ran from July 5 – 9. They broadcast two Old Gold shows from San Francisco and environs, played a couple of dance dates in the Bay Area, and then reported to M-G-M in Los Angeles on July 12 to begin filming Dancing Co-Ed. From July 12 to August 1, Artie and the band worked at M-G-M, but also appeared on their weekly radio show.
Work on Dancing Co-Ed was completed on August 1. The band did one more Old Gold show from Los Angeles, and then began working its way east playing one night stands, plus six nights at Eastwood Gardens outside Detroit (August 11-16). On Tuesday nights, they broadcast the Old Gold show from wherever they happened to be.(8) They opened at the Summer Terrace of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Boston on August 18, 1939.
Live recording from the NBC radio network broadcast from the Summer Terrace (Roof Garden) of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Boston on August 19,1939.
Same personnel as above.
The music: This live performance of “Rose Room” gives us a hint of what the Shaw band sounded like in front of audiences. Overall, it was a bit looser, with the caution that was a necessary evil in recording studios then being thrown to the winds. Shaw’s clarinet solo is particularly exuberant here, and shows even more technique than the one he recorded for Bluebird some six and a half months earlier. When Artie heard this recording some forty years after it was made, he expressed amazement and said: “I had formidable technique in those days. I had the horn in my mouth twelve hours a day.” (9) This statement may have been hyperbolic, but not by much. Shaw and his band worked very hard through 1939 until he decided that he’d had enough in mid-November. But that is another story.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Here is a link to the post that tells the story of Billie Holiday’s involvement with and effect upon Art Shaw and His Orchestra, and presents their only commercial recording together: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/09/19/any-old-time-1938-artie-shaw-and-billie-holiday/
(2) Duke Ellington’s great drummer Sonny Greer used that exact phrase in a conversation with me in the late 1970s to explain how he felt when the Ellington band returned to Victor in 1940.
(3) Variety, March 8, 1939, 49.
(4) Variety, March 22, 1939, 49.
(5) From Wikipedia “agranulocytosis.”
(6) Shaw was well aware that both Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey had their own radio shows, and he believed, not unreasonably, that he should by mid-1939 have his own show. The producers of the show were not convinced of this. Shortly after Benchley went on vacation, they added the singing King Sisters to the show.
(7) I have read that the nurse who wheeled Shaw off the train in Los Angeles on April 14, 1939 was named Mary Clabby. I have also read that the name of the hospital in Los Angeles where Shaw was treated for his illnesses in April-May 1939 was called Mary Clabby Hospital. I want to resolve this confusion, and ask the well-informed visitors to swingandbeyond.com for any information they may have about this.
(8) Many of the details cited above about Artie Shaw’s career and activities in late 1938 and the first eight months of 1939 come from the excellent Artie Shaw catalog materials located at the Glenn Miller Archive at the University of Colorado for 1938-1939, prepared by Reinhard F. Scheer-Hennings and Dennis M. Spragg, in cooperation with the University of Arizona. Here is a link:
(9) From the liner notes for the Hindsight LP The Uncollected Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, Volume 3 by Irving Townsend (1980).
Here are other links to the stories and music of Artie Shaw’s band in 1938-1939 at swingandbeyond.com:
And here is a wonderful performance of a tune that was in the Shaw book in 1938, but not recorded by Artie:
Finally, as a special treat, here is a link to four of Artie Shaw’s Old Gold Melody and Madness radio shows from June of 1939:
These shows reveal a lot about network radio in the late 1930s. My opinion is that Robert Benchley, the star of the show, was not very funny, though he had good comedy timing and could and did improvise very well. I cannot blame Benchley for not being funny – the writing of the comedy sketches for these shows left a lot to be desired. Artie himself, despite heroic effort, was not funny, though he handled his lines well. The surprise from a comedy standpoint in these shows is Jerry Gray. He had quite a few lines, and he was genuinely funny. In addition, he had an ironic understated delivery, and every word he spoke was swathed in his marvelous Boston accent.
Musically, these shows will provide many enjoyable moments for Shaw fans. They are true historical documents. They appeared on Rick Crandall’s Star Spangled Radio Hour, and include illuminating comments by Dennis Spragg. The original recordings come from Reinhard Scheer-Hennings’ collection.