“Guess I’ll Go Back Home (This Summer)”
Composed by Willard Robison (music) and Ray Mayer (lyric); arranged by Bill Challis.
Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird on June 2, 1939 in New York.
Glenn Miller, first trombone, directing: R.D. McMickle, first trumpet; Legh Knowles and Clyde Hurley, trumpets; Paul Tanner and Al Mastren, trombones; Hal McIntyre, first alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz alto saxophone and clarinet; Al Klink and Gordon “Tex” Beneke, tenor saxophones; Gabriel “Gabe” Gelinas, alto and baritone saxophones; J. Chalmers “Chummy” MacGregor, piano; Richard Fisher, guitar; Rowland Bundock, bass; Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums. Tex Beneke, tenor saxophone solo and vocal.
The story: One of the more shadowy characters of the swing era is the master arranger Bill Challis (1904-1994). William H. Challis was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, which one would think was a place not even remotely connected with the development of jazz and swing. That is not true. Without getting too deeply into the details, at the time when Challis was good enough on various saxophones and clarinet to play in a local band (the very early 1920s), he encountered Billy Lustig, a violinist, who was the leader of a group called the Scranton Sirens. (Scranton is 20 miles from Wilkes-Barre.) Lustig persuaded Challis to join his band even though Bill told him right out that he could not travel with the band because he was going to go to college. Challis played with the Sirens on local dates, and in time new musicians came into the band. These included trombonist/arranger Russ Morgan, and Fred “Fuzzy” Farrar on trumpet. These musicians were not necessarily jazz musicians, though they were solid professional dance band musicians, and through them, Challis would be introduced to other such musicians, including quite a few who were jazz musicians.(Bill Challis is shown above right as a member of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in 1928.)
Challis, who had graduated from high school at age 16, began his studies at Bucknell University in Lewsiburg, Pennsylvania in 1921. Lewsiburg is about 70 miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre. He enjoyed college life and quickly learned that as a professional musician (he had joined the musicians’ union at age 15), he could work as much as he liked with various bands on the Bucknell campus (he became the leader of a band there in his sophomore year), and make enough money to pay all of his college expenses and still send money home to his parents each month. He continued to improve on his instruments. He slowly came to the understanding that if he was going to get his band to sound the way he wanted it to sound, he was going to have to start writing out music, that is arrangements, for his musicians to play. His initial technique of arranging was purely intuitive: he wrote music that would enable his band to create the various sonorities and harmonies he heard in his head. His inspiration came in part from the very few phonograph records that then existed that had such “interesting” musical blends on them. These included various of Paul Whiteman’s earliest records, which featured arrangements by Ferde Grofe’. Challis remained busy leading his own band at Bucknell, but always welcomed the opportunity to hear other bands that played there. (Below left: a post card showing the ivy covered buildings of Bucknell University in the 1920s.)
One of the very happy activities on the Bucknell campus in the early 1920s, and indeed on many other college campuses then, was the frequent visits of various touring dance bands. College dances, especially when traveling bands played, were a big social event, eagerly anticipated by the students, and this definitely included Bill Challis. He, as a professional musician and campus bandleader, was always welcomed by the touring musicians to meet the sidemen, talk music, and most importantly, to listen. Challis was a very discerning listener. When he heard the Scranton Sirens at Bucknell, he noticed that they had some new musicians, including alto saxophonists/clarinetists Jimmy Dorsey and Alfie Evans, and that they were very good. He also noticed that although the Sirens were still faking a lot of their music, they were also beginning to play a few rudimentary arrangements, probably sketched out by Russ Morgan. Other touring bands were also beginning to use written arrangements. Challis sensed that perhaps a trend was beginning in dance bands, to use more formal written arrangements.
Bill graduated from Bucknell in the spring of 1925. He had majored in economics and philosophy and entertained ideas of becoming a lawyer. Nevertheless, he remained very interested in music, and bounced around in a couple of territory bands after graduation, basically playing saxophones and clarinet, while continuing to experiment with his arranging. After more than a year of this, he arrived in Detroit the autumn of 1926. He quickly learned that Russ Morgan was leading a band at the Graystone Ballroom there. He visited Morgan, renewed old acquaintances with some of the other musicians in the band, met several new musicians. Then, after the gig, he began to discuss his arrangements with Morgan, who was in the process of learning how to arrange himself. Morgan looked at Challis’s work and was impressed. He saw immediately that Bill’s arrangements were different from many of the abecedarian charts many bands then were starting to play. To over-simplify, they were more orchestral, as opposed to sectional, but allowed space for improvised jazz solos as a contrast to the orchestral passages. Morgan introduced Challis to Charlie Horvath, the man who basically organized and operated several bands that toured under the aegis of Jean Goldkette, who was a pianist, but was far more well-known as a music entrepreneur who owned and/or leased various ballrooms, and acted as a booking agent for up to twenty dance bands. For purposes of this post, the most important of those bands was the one billed as Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra, a pioneering early jazz ensemble that Goldkette had nothing to do with musically. After a short time, Challis became a non-playing member of this band, creating written arrangements for it full-time. A bit later, after having worked with Paul Whiteman, Challis worked with the jazz-based Orange Blossoms band (which also operated under the Goldkette banner), which became the Casa Loma band, led initially by Hank Biagini, but later and more memorably by Glen Gray.
Atop a touring bus in New England in September-October 1926 are the members of the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. L-R: Bill Challis, Spiegle Willcox, Irving Riskin, Bix Beiderbecke, Don Murray, Howdy Quicksell, Doc Ryker, Chauncey Morehouse, Fred Farrar, Ray Lodwig, Bill Rank, Frank Trumbauer, and on the hood with a pistol, Steve Brown.
What I call “the Goldkette experiment” lasted about a year. This band produced cutting-edge, jazz-based dance music at times, and of course featured the great jazz soloist Bix Beiderbecke, along with a few other capable jazz soloists, principally saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. The band had some successful gigs, but overall did not turn a profit. By the end of the summer of 1927, Goldkette had decided to pull the plug on it. But the band had lasted long enough to make some memorable recordings, and to battle and according to some (including Rex Stewart, Henderson’s exciting young cornet soloist), defeat Fletcher Henderson’s band in musical combat at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. That event bestowed credibility on what the Goldkette musicians were doing in making music that was authentic jazz. It was also important from the standpoint of the development of jazz. (At left: L-R Chauncey Morehouse, Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Challis – 1927.(*)
But the practical consideration of making a living loomed as the Goldkette band dissolved in mid-September of 1927. In the works for some time was a plan devised by Paul Whiteman to hire several of the Goldkette musicians, so that he could present some jazz as a part of his widely varied musical program. Jazz was then an extreme novelty for most fans of popular music, and Whiteman wanted to spice up his music with a bit of it. In 1927, Whiteman led what was one of the most commercially successful bands in the United States. The money he could and did pay his musicians was an order of magnitude more than they were used to earning. The Goldkette musicians who eventually joined Whiteman were: Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, trombonist Bill Rank, bassist Steve Brown, and Bill Challis. Bix Beiderbecke’s weekly salary with Whiteman started at $200.00, a staggering amount for a musician in 1927. Bill Challis signed on at $175.00 a week. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) But to earn that salary, Bix, Challis and everyone else in the Whiteman orchestra worked very hard.
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra broadcast for Old Gold cigarettes – summer 1929. Bill Challis is in the back row second from the left – he’s the tallest man in that group of three. To his left is William Grant Still. The pianist on the right is Lennie Hayton. Standing in back of him are L-R: Harry Barris, Al Rinker and Bing Crosby. (*)
After the onset of the Great Depression, Paul Whiteman found it necessary to greatly reduce the payroll of his orchestra. Consequently, many musicians in his employ were let go in 1930, including Bill Challis. But Challis had received from Whiteman much more than a generous salary for three years. He had also received a huge amount of experience writing arrangements for ensembles of all sizes, plus that bit of gold dust that rubbed off on anyone who had worked for Whiteman – entree into the higher precincts of show business. Challis, one of the greatest non self-promoters in the world of popular music, was nevertheless known for his work with Whiteman, and among jazz cognoscenti, for his work with the Goldkette band. He therefore received a constant stream of offers and requests for arrangements from many bands, including Fletcher Henderson’s, Casa Loma, the Dorsey Brothers. He also worked for the bandleader Nat Shilkret (whom he had met in his Goldkette days), who by the early 1930s was leading orchestras that broadcast on sponsored (by Mobil, Chesterfield Cigarettes, Smith Brothers cough drops) network radio shows. In his radio work, Challis either met or renewed acquaintance with the composer/singer/pianist Willard Robison.(1)
The community of musicians who were talented enough to find steady work in the radio and recording studios of New York in the early 1930s was not that large. In fact, most of these musicians worked with each other often, and were overworked, while thousands of other members of Musicians’ Union Local 802 were either unemployed or underemployed. Among the group of musicians who worked often were both Willard Robison, who had his own radio show, and Bill Challis, who was kept very busy working with Nat Shilkret, and a bit later, Richard Himber. (It was while he was working with Himber that Challis met Artie Shaw.) Pianist/arranger Lennie Hayton, whom Challis had met and worked with in the Whiteman orchestra, had his own radio show in the mid-1930s (sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes), and he also employed Challis to write arrangements. By 1936, Bill Challis’s career in radio reached its apogee when he had his own radio show on WOR New York, which was broadcast nationwide on the Mutual Broadcasting System.(2) After that, he seemed to work mostly as a free-lance arranger.
I do not have solid evidence of how and when Glenn Miller and Bill Challis met. But I will speculate that it probably happened in a Manhattan radio or recording studio sometime in the 1930s. Both were also to study music with Joseph Schillinger, Miller in 1934 and Challis in 1940. However or whenever they met, I am certain that Miller was aware of Challis’s pioneering work with both the Goldkette band and the Whiteman orchestra, and that he understood and appreciated it.
The music: At the time Glenn Miller’s band recorded Bill Challis’s arrangement of “Guess I’ll Go Back Home (This Summer),” they were in the early stages of achieving success after a long period of scuffling. They had just begun what would be a pivotal engagement at Glen Island Casio in New Rochelle, New York, which provided them with many radio broadcasts. During the time they were in residence at Glen Island Casino (May 17 – August 22. 1939), they went from being a little-known but musically good band to being one of the hottest (in terms of commercial appeal) swing bands in the country. Nevertheless, the Miller band was still evolving musically at this time. If one checks arranger credits for the time just before this recording was made, it is apparent that Miller was casting about for arrangers whose work he thought might be effective for his band. A partial list would include these names: Glenn Miller himself, Joe Lippman, William Schulz, A. Guenther, Hal McIntyre, Bill Finegan, Eddie Durham, and Bill Challis. Irrespective of the talent of the arrangers listed here, Miller was understandably concerned most with positive audience reaction to a given arrangement. If audiences at Glen Island Casino responded positively to an arrangement, it would secure a place in the Miller book, at least temporarily. And if that positive response continued over a period of time, he would record it. (Above left: Glenn Miller. The photo from which this image was generated was provided courtesy of Miller scholar Rob Ronzello.)
Despite a search by me, I have not found when Willard Robison composed “Guess I’ll Go Back Home (This Summer).” It appears however that it began to be played by some bands in early 1939, and was recorded by a few by mid-1939. Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo made a great recording of it on June 14, 1939. The Glenn Miller recording, featuring Tex Beneke playing a melodic tenor saxophone solo and singing, was the most popular however.
Miller probably contacted Bill Challis before he opened at Glen Island, and asked him to submit an arrangement on this song that would feature Beneke on both tenor saxophone and singing. Miller sensed rightly that Beneke’s talents as a folksy singer would fit the wistful and borderline sentimental lyric perfectly. (How many pop tunes do you know that include the words “mom” and “dad”?)
The arresting introduction composed by Challis is a highlight of the arrangement. Notice how skillfully he uses the saxophones with the trumpets answering, underlined by the open trombones. Beneke steps forward playing the melody on his tenor saxophone for a few bars, followed by the band (brass open) completing the melodic exposition. This round-robin continues effectively through the first chorus. Notice how Challis uses Miller’s reeds: the by then patented clarinet/tenor saxophone lead is employed most ingeniously.
After a well-written modulation, Beneke sings. Challis uses the saxophones (no clarinet) and the straight-muted brass to provide the background, but only in the three “A” sections of the song. On the bridge, Willie Schwartz plays his clarinet. The lyric, penned by Ray Mayer, is particularly Robisonesque:
Should have gone there long ago.
I wonder who I’ll meet
When I walk up Main Street,
Who’ll yell the first “Hello!”?
Mom will cry when I walk in.
She’ll brush away a tear
As Dad says, “Look who’s here!
We’re glad you’re home again!”
Then I’ll get a restless spell.
I’ll walk by the house
Where she used to live,
I hope she married well.
Leave this daily grind behind.
That going home won’t cure,
I’ll find my peace of mind!
Notes and links:
(*) I was assisted greatly by bandleader and historian Vince Giordano in identifying all of the musicians in the large photo of the Goldkette band that the cameo of Chauncey Morehouse, Bix Beiderbecke and Bill Challis came from. Vince also provided identifications of some of the musicians in the photo of the 1929 Whiteman orchestra.
(1) Willard Robison (1894–1968) was a vocalist, pianist, and composer of popular songs, who was born in Shelbina, Missouri. His songs often reflect rural, melancholy themes. Robison was for two years in the late 1920s the musical director of Pathe’ Perfect Records. He recorded extensively for Pathe’, making many vocal recordings accompanying himself on piano, as well as using what he called his “Deep River Orchestra.” This activity provided a springboard for Robison into network radio, which was experiencing a period of exponential growth through the 1930s. There is a direct line of influence from Willard Robison’s work through Hoagy Carmichael’s work to Johnny Mercer’s work.
(2) Among the regular performers on Challis’s radio show was a singing quartet known as Bea and the Bachelors. The “Bea” in this group was Beatrice Wain, later known and very successful as a singer with Larry Clinton’s band, and on various radio shows as simply Bea Wain. The “Bachelors” were Al Rinker, Ken Lane and Johnny Smedberg. Rinker was Bing Crosby’s early performing partner, and a brother of Mildred Bailey. Rinker, Crosby, Mildred Bailey and Challis had worked together in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Ken Lane was a singer and pianist who much later (in the 1960s), was the pianist on Dean Martin’s television show. All of the members of Bea and the Bachelors were also members of a popular radio choir directed by Kay Thompson.
The biographical information about Bill Challis in this post comes from these sources:
Paul Whiteman …A Pioneer in American Music, Vol. 1 (2003), by Don Rayno, 348-349.
Jazz Gentry …Aristocrats of the Music World, (1999), by Warren W. Vache’, 40-50.
Liner notes for The Bill Challis Goldkette Project, as Played by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, (1988), written by Evan Challis.
Bix …The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend, (2005), by Jean Pierre Lion.
Here are links to more stories about and music of Glenn Miller: