“The Blues I Like to Hear”
Music composed by Henry “Buster” Smith, lyric by Jimmy Rushing; arranged by Buster Smith.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Decca on November 16, 1938 in New York.
William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Ed Lewis, first trumpet; Wilbur “Buck” Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison, trumpets;(*) Dan Minor, Henry “Benny” Morton and William “Dicky” Wells, trombones; Earle Warren, first alto saxophone; Herschel Evans and Lester Young, tenor saxophones; Ronald “Jack” Washington, alto and baritone saxophones; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums. Jimmy Rushing, vocal.
By the time Count Basie made this recording, he had just completed the most important engagement of his early career, which was a stand at the Famous Door, a jazz club that then was located (in its second iteration), at 66 West 52nd Street in Manhattan.(1) That engagement ran from mid-July to early November of 1938. What made the engagement so important was that the Basie band was frequently broadcast over the CBS radio network while they were there. Radio exposure like that was critical to establishing a band’s identity and music with the general public.
The fragments of the story of how the Basie band came to be presented in the Famous Door in 1938 have been told and retold over the years. Inevitably, some parts of the story have been omitted. Indeed, the full story may never be told. I will try to provide the information I have been able to gather about this. Perhaps readers of this post will add more historical information.
The story that was told in the book 52nd Street …The Street of Jazz, by Arnold Shaw (1971), originally published as The Street that Never Slept, is detailed and colorful, like the people who ran the club and others involved in bringing talent into it. Here is a bit of that story: “The singular contribution of The Famous Door II was …bringing the sound of the big bands onto The Street. It was an audacious undertaking, considering its shoe-box size and dollar bill bandstand. (Usually, clubs on 52nd presented only small groups.) It was the great band of Count Basie that launched the big band era on 52nd Street.” Willard Alexander, who in 1938 was the liaison between Count Basie and Music Corporation of America (MCA), Basie’s booking agent at that time, later recalled: “For two years, we couldn’t stir up the excitement that transforms a working band into a name band. In fact, we couldn’t book Basie into any of the big Eastern clubs. I don’t think it was the color line because Cab Calloway, Armstrong, Ellington and the Mills Brothers all played the big rooms. Admittedly, (in 1938, Basie) was not too well known, except among aficionados who dug Kansas City swing. His music was wham but not loud. He had drive, but he didn’t blast. He had a bouncing beat, but he didn’t pound. Yet next to Benny Goodman, whom I also handled, he was nowhere. By the summer of 1938, there seemed no place for Basie to go.”
Count Basie and His Orchestra at the Famous Door – summer 1938. back row L-R; Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Dan Minor, Dicky Wells; middle: Walter Page, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis, Harry “Sweets” Edison; front: Basie, Herschel Evans, Earle Warren, Ronald “Jack” Washington, Lester Young.
“Then I got the idea of putting him on 52nd Street. It was crazy. The clubs couldn’t accommodate a big band on their stands, and they were so small, fourteen men would blow out the walls. But being desperate, I went to the two guys who ran the Door – Al Felshin, big and tough, and Jerry Brooks, little and tough. It was the beginning of summer and they had no air conditioning and no business. They were desperate (too), so I managed to get them over to Steinway Hall on 57th Street to hear the Basie band. Once they heard the band, they were talking like it couldn’t be done, but they sure wanted to do it. The hang-up was the club’s lack of air-conditioning. With difficulty, they could seat sixty people. can you imagine what it would have been like without air-conditioning in New York’s summer heat and humidity? When I was convinced that Felshin and Brooks wanted Basie, I stuck my neck out and offered to get (air conditioning installed.)”
It is at this point that I will interject the maxim: “success has a thousand fathers (and mothers); but failure is an orphan.” All too often, when people tell the story of historically important events that happened decades before, their role in that story becomes larger and more important. Willard Alexander continued his recollection about Basie and the Famous Door, and at least in this instance, he did not inflate his role in it.
“John Hammond, who found the Basie band in Kansas City and helped build it, believes that he put up the $2,500.00 needed to air-condition the joint. Some time ago I met him and Mrs. Hammond at a party, and she asked: ‘Willard, who did advance the money for that loan? Was it John or was it you?’ At that point I simply said: ‘Whatever John says is all right with me.’ But the fact is that neither John Hammond nor Willard Alexander put up that dough. It was Music Corporation of America, of which I was then a vice-president. There are several ways in which this can be established. Perhaps the most interesting has to do with the collection of the loan after Basie’s (success at The Door.)
Although The Door did tremendous business all through Basie’s stay, collecting the loan from Felshin and Brooks was another matter. Here’s where you’ll find the proof that MCA put up the loot for the air-conditioning. At that time, Sonny Werblin (another MCA agent) and I gave a start to a new agent. Today he’s one of Hollywood’s top literary agents. He’s short and bald, but they don’t call him Swifty for nothing. I mean Irving P. Lazar. One of his first assignments at MCA was to get our money back from Felshin and Brooks. This was one tough assignment. Even Brooks was bigger than Lazar. As for Felshin, you could put Irving into one of his pockets. And they were tough! You had to be to run a club in those days. But Swifty was tough too. He used to show up on Saturday nights, after they had Friday and Saturday receipts in the till, and he use to grab as much money as he could (right out of the cash register)! Finally, MCA had all of its money back.” (2) (Above left: John Hammond behind Count Basie – late 1930s.)
Basie’s birthday party in 1943. L-R rear: Maceo Birch (then an advance man for the Basie band), Earle Warren, Jimmy Rushing; front: Buck Clayton, Basie and Jo Jones.
One facet of the historic stay by Count Basie and his band at the Famous Door that has received little comment over the years is that as great as they were on their own, at the Door they were a part of a rather elaborate floor show. Here is a part of a review of that show that appeared in one of the summer 1938 issues of Billboard: :”Half-hour floor show is headed by Jerry Kruger, fresh from singing with Gene Krupa’s new combo. The gal handles the emceeing in addition, and does all right, but her singing is the main thing. …Jimmy Rushing, sepia and rotund, opens the show with a Louis Armstrong rendition of “St’ Louis Blues” and a current pop tune… Jerry Wither follows with a well-executed tap which is all the more remarkable she has to work in. Shavo Sherman has some good stuff in his mimicry of Durante, Ted Lewis and Hugh Herbert, managing somehow not only to sound like them, but to look like them as well. Basie, of course, is the main attraction, but the surrounding entertainment is also good, a lot better than in a few more pretentious spots.” (3)
The music: “The Blues I Like to Hear” is one of a number of composition/arrangements Henry “Buster” Smith contributed to the book of arrangements of the early Count Basie band. Buster Smith was an alto saxophonist/clarinetist who worked with Basie in a number of territory bands in the early 1930s.(4) When Basie organized his first band in 1936, The Barons of Rhythm, to work at the Reno Club in Kansas City, Missouri, Buster Smith was a member. However, as Basie was offered opportunities to take the band North, Smith elected to remain in Kansas City. He and Basie remained friendly however.
As you will notice when you listen to this recording, Buster Smith’s arrangement spotlights Basie’s 1938 saxophone quartet of Earle Warren, Jack Washington on altos and Herschel Evans and Lester Young on tenors. Warren leads the saxophones vigorously – he really leans into his first alto parts. (Earle Warren is shown at right.) The flowing saxophones are pointed-up here and there by bursts of bright open brass.
Jo Jones plays a heavy 2/4 on his high-hat cymbals something of a rarity in this band, and augments this at strategic moments by cracking back-beats. The heavy rhythm, combined with the unique blues singing of Jimmy Rushing points the way to what would eventually become rhythm and blues, and then early rock and roll.
Rushing, with his strong tenor voice and personal diction, commands his two blues choruses, capping them with the line: “I been chasing pretty women every since I was twelve years old.”
The final choruses have the open brass and reeds playing antiphonally atop the rocking rhythm to bring this stirring performance to a satisfying close.
A story exists about other aspects of this tune. It is included in the excellent book Count Basie …A Bio-Discography, by Chris Sheridan, and it involves the French jazz critic Hughes Panassie’, who was in New York listening to as many bands and musicians as he could in the autumn of 1938. He had been in the audience at the Famous Door many nights through the last month of the Basie band’s residency there, and had become an early convert to the Basie style of swing. He was present in Decca’s recording studio in Manhattan, then located at 50 West 57th, when Basie recorded five tunes on November 16. “He noted that the third tune recorded had been featured prominently at the Famous Door for at least a month – but as an untitled instrumental. ‘But for the recording, they decided to add a couple of vocal choruses, and while the band was going through the arrangement for the sound engineer to (set) the balance, I saw Rushing writing on his shirt cuff the lyric he was going to sing.’ Once recorded, it still lacked a title. (Basie had rejected the idea of Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow to call it ‘Really the Blues.”) Basie then asked Hughes Panassie’ to name it. ‘I was rather embarrassed,’ he recalled. ‘Then the title of an old record Adelaide Hall had made with Duke Ellington came to mind, but I thought I would change the last words. I gave the title to the Decca people as ‘The Blues I Love to Hear,’ as I liked that blues so much. When the record came out, they had slightly changed the title to ‘The Blues I Like to Hear.” (5)
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) Some sources have Lester “Shad” Collins as being present on this recording session as a fourth trumpeter. I have elected to follow the information of Basie’s most authoritative discographer, Chris Sheridan (see below), who has Collins joining the Basie band in December of 1938 after or during a theater tour, when Basie would have had earned enough money to pay another musician. It is also unlikely that a fourth trumpet book existed immediately after the lengthy Famous Door engagement, during which Basie used only three trumpets.
(1) The Famous Door, like many venues that presented jazz, went through several iterations at several locations, under several different managers /owners in the period of its existence. The addresses of the various Famous Door locations, all on West 52nd Street, chronologically, were 35, 66, 201, 56, and 64.
(2) 52nd Street …The Street of Jazz, by Arnold Shaw (1971), 127-130.
(3) This blurb from Billboard is contained in Good Morning Blues ..The Autobiography of Count Basie, as told to Albert Murray, (1985) 217-218.
(4) The early Basie band was like many other black bands of the 1930s in that it contained many musicians who had worked together previously in various bands over a period of years. The original antecedent for what eventually became the Count Basie band was the Blue Devil Orchestra of the late 1920s, which was led by bassist Walter Page. In addition to Count Basie and Walter Page, other future Basieites in that band included: Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Durham, Dan Minor, Buster Smith and Joe Keyes. Jack Washington and Ed Lewis also worked with Basie in Bennie Moten’s band after Moten had hired many of the Blue Devils, including Basie and Walter Page himself.
(5) Count Basie …A Bio-Discography, by Chris Sheridan (1986), 59-60. The final tune recorded by the Basie band on November 16, 1938 was entitled “Panassie’ Stomp,” as a tribute to Hughes Panassie’, who was present in the Decca studio for the entire recording session.
Here are some links to other posts hereat swingandbeyond.com that present the music and stories of Count Basie’s pre-World War II band: