“One Sweet Letter from You”
Composed by Harry Warren (music), Sidney Clare and Lew Brown (lyric); arranged by Fletcher Henderson.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Columbia on September 13, 1939 in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Ziggy Elman, first and solo trumpet; Jimmy Maxwell and Johnny Martel, trumpet; Vernon Brown, Red Ballard and Ted Vesely, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Buford “Buff” Estes, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome and Clarence “Bus” Bassey, tenor saxophones; Fletcher Henderson, piano; Arnold Covey, guitar; Arthur Bernstein, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Louise Tobin, vocal.
Mary Louise Tobin, born on November 11, 1918, is still, incredibly, with us at age 102. She is one of the very few performers who worked during the zenith of the swing era to still survive. Putting aside her incredible longevity, she has had a remarkable life. Born in Aubrey, Texas, she spent her growing-up years learning to sing and then singing in all kinds of settings. In 1933, at age 15, she began singing with Art Hicks’s territory band in Arlington, Texas. In the summer of 1934, Harry James joined the Hicks band, and soon he and Louise were inseparable. They married on May 4, 1935 in Millerton, New York, shortly after they both quit the Hicks band, which was on tour. (That band then broke up.)
Louise and Harry returned to Texas, where Harry got a job with another territory band, led by Herman Waldman. It was a “sweet” middle-of-the-road dance band, and its music was not to Harry’s liking. But the weekly salary of $55.00 was more than he had been earning with Hicks. Louise meanwhile, picked up various singing jobs in the Denton, Texas area. They continued living and working in Texas until November of 1935, when Harry was hired by bandleader Ben Pollack, who was then working in Chicago. Louise moved to Chicago with Harry at that time.
This was a step closer to the big time for Harry, whose talents for playing the trumpet and indeed as an all-around musician, were extraordinary. Nevertheless, it took some time for him to get from the Pollack’s band to where he wanted to be. His weekly salary with Pollack was $75.00. Although it has been reported that James received a number of offers to join top-rank bands in 1936, including Tommy Dorsey’s (1), he held out waiting for an offer from what he considered the best swing band of the day, the one led by Benny Goodman. That offer finally came, in late 1936. (Above left: Louise Tobin and Harry James on their wedding day – May 4, 1935.)
In the meantime, Louise and Harry, though married, led separate professional lives. For much of the time James was with Pollack, he was travelling. Louise remained in Chicago, picking up whatever work she could there. Work was spotty, but she was able to survive on whatever she earned and whatever money Harry sent her. After James joined Benny Goodman’s band in early January of 1937 in New York, she moved there with him. His initial weekly base salary with Goodman was $150.00, but this was almost always augmented with money from recording, BG’s sponsored radio show, small bonuses for playing in theaters, and during the summer of 1937, from working on a Hollywood feature film.
Despite vastly improved employment opportunities for her in Manhattan, Louise, at Harry’s request, worked very little. She basically joined the ranks of the wives of the members of Benny Goodman’s band, and according to Louise, Benny (and Harry) did not want band wives around the band while they worked because they thought that created distractions for the sidemen.(2) Although it was not a secret, few people knew that Louise Tobin was Mrs. Harry James.
Eventually, Louise did start to work regularly in New York. Among her jobs was one on radio with Nick Kenny. By the autumn of 1938, she was working with cornetist Bobby Hackett’s band at Nick’s in Greenwich Village. John Hammond, the great gadfly in the world of swing in the late 1930s, heard Louise sing at Nick’s one night, and gave her a positive write-up in Down Beat in October of 1938, revealing among other things, that she and Harry James were married.(3)
The early months of 1939 were a somewhat tumultuous time for Benny Goodman and his band. Although the band, even after the departure of Harry James in January to start his own band, was in excellent shape musically, and as popular as ever, and Benny himself was playing very well, he nevertheless seemed to be edgy. Although many commentators have expressed opinions about why Benny may have been irritable at this time, I am not sure that the full story about why that was has yet been told. I will suggest a number of developments then that may have been affecting Benny’s behavior.
First and foremost, the emergence of fellow clarinetist Artie Shaw and his band as major forces in the world of swing as 1939 began definitely had an impact on BG. Benny, who could be non-committal about the playing of almost every musician he ever worked with, always recognized that Shaw was a good musician and a fine clarinetist. Shaw’s excellence as a musician and bandleader did not necessarily bother Benny. But Artie’s rather sudden success as a recording artist at Victor on their Bluebird label, the result of the massive sales of Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine” at first, and then of many other of his recordings through the autumn of 1938 and continuing into 1939, did. Eventually, as winter turned into spring in 1939, Benny developed the attitude that Shaw’s success at Victor Records was a zero-sum situation for him: Shaw’s gains were his losses. This was not necessarily the case, but it was how Benny felt. When it came time to renew his contract with Victor in the spring of 1939, Goodman did not renew it. Curiously, Benny did not have another record label ready to sign him as he left Victor. He made his last recordings for Victor on May 4, 1939. He did not make his first recordings for Columbia until August 10, 1939. In the meantime, he continued to appear on his popular network radio show, the Camel Caravan, and toured relentlessly, often playing at major theaters in large cities. It seemed that during 1939, Benny was intent on making as much money as possible with his band. It may have reassured him that regardless of Artie Shaw’s success, his fans were still with him. (Above left: Artie Shaw visits Benny Goodman at Benny’s Waldorf-Astoria opening – October 4, 1939.)
In addition to Harry James, there were other departures from the Goodman band during this time period, some more important than others. Few comments have been directed at the departure from the Goodman band of Benny’s older, bass-playing brother Harry(4), which occurred around the end of April. To an extent, this is understandable. Harry played an instrument that in the late 1930s was used basically to supply a harmonic foundation and a strong beat to the music. So he blended in with the band musically. In addition, he seemed to blend in on a personal level. The vast majority of people who listened to Benny Goodman’s music never knew that the musician who had played bass in the Goodman band from late 1934 until late April 1939 was Benny Goodman’s brother. Fewer still were aware of his business relationship with Benny during that time. But there is circumstantial evidence that Harry Goodman’s role in the Benny Goodman band had been more than simply as a journeyman bass player. (Above right: Harry Goodman in 1937.)
I have read that the checks used to pay the musicians in the Benny Goodman band from the early days of its existence and for some time thereafter bore the legend Goodman Brothers Orchestra.(5) In addition, after Harry Goodman left the Goodman band, he apparently never played the bass again. He initially got into the restaurant business in New York, and then started a music publishing business. Harry Goodman was not yet 33 years old when he ended his career as a working musician. All of this suggests that Harry was at least a part owner in Benny Goodman’s band, and that at or immediately after the date he left the band, Benny bought out his ownership interest. That may explain at least in part why Benny worked so hard with his band, especially in theaters, where big money could be made in a hurry, through much of 1939, and why Harry could dabble. (Above left: Pick-A-Rib restaurant – 119 West 52nd St. in Manhattan. This was Harry Goodman’s restaurant, a gathering place for musicians, named for a recording Benny made on December 29, 1938.)
Harry Goodman undoubtedly gave his younger and sometimes hot-headed brother good advice and guidance through the late 1930s, as the name Benny Goodman was built into something that meant box office gold to the owners of the venues where the Goodman band was booked to perform, at increasingly higher prices. I think that Harry also acted as a buffer between Benny and whomever might be for whatever reason irritating him at any given moment. I think that Harry’s stabilizing influence was a key factor in maintaining the relative cohesiveness of the personnel of the Goodman band through the late 1930s.
But that influence was no longer a factor after Harry left the band. Consequently, Benny started making lots of moves with the band’s personnel. Various trumpeters came and left to fill the chair vacated by Harry James. Arthur Bernstein replaced Harry Goodman on bass. Nuncio “Toots” Mondello came in on first alto saxophone. Clarence “Bus” Bassey replaced Art Rollini on tenor saxophone. A third trombone was added. Nick Fatool replaced Buddy Schutz on drums. Teddy Wilson left. Jess Stacy left, not on good terms with Benny. Most noticeable to the public was the departure of girl singer Martha Tilton. Was Benny Goodman “cleaning house”? The public reaction as many long-time BG band performers left was that he was “purging” his band. (At right: August 11, 1938 – Manhattan Beach: BG plays while Martha Tilton, Jess Stacy and Benny Heller soldier on in the background. By the summer of 1939, they had all departed the Goodman band.)
This of course was not accurate. It seems to me that Benny was in most cases making the personnel moves he thought he needed to make when he made them to strengthen his band musically. Nevertheless, rumors swirled around all of these personnel moves, and especially around the departure of Martha Tilton who was one of the most popular performers in the band. One of BG’s biographers reported: “To the shocked dismay of fans and sidemen alike, Benny told Martha Tilton that as long as the others were leaving, she might as well go too.”(6) Decades later, tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome, who was a member of Benny’s band when all this was going on, recalled: “I was there when she burst into tears. She was beside herself. I never saw the reason why, but Benny wanted to get rid of her.”(7) So she departed after the May 9 Camel Caravan broadcast emanating from the Fox Theater in St. Louis. It does not appear from the available evidence that Benny had a replacement for Martha ready to take her place.
On the road with his band in the middle of a multi-week tour of major theaters, Benny, suddenly without a girl singer, called John Hammond in New York. “(Hammond) …spoke to Benny about me. He told Benny ‘if you want to hear her, she’s going to have to come to where you are.'” Goodman agreed, and Louise caught the next plane to Cleveland, Ohio. When she arrived at the (Palace Theater on Playhouse Square), she saw a man holding drumsticks, lounging just inside the stage door. She asked him if this was the place where Benny Goodman would be rehearsing. He said, “I hope so. I’m the new drummer. But It’s not a rehearsal. We are performing.” (8) The drummer, Nick Fatool, then introduced himself to Louise.
Benny soon arrived, and an increasingly nervous Ms. Tobin asked him how he was going to audition her. “Can you sing the blues”? Benny asked. Louise said she could. “Well, that’s what you’re going to do on the show as an audition.”(9) So Louise Tobin sang an impromptu blues before an audience of 3,100 people with a band she had never even rehearsed with. Benny liked what he heard, and he also liked what he saw. Louise was a very beautiful young woman who was at-ease in front of audiences, even when under stress. She got the job.
The Benny Goodman band, probably in early September of 1939: Front row L-R: Jimmy Maxwell, Buff Estes, Fletcher Henderson, BG, Toots Mondello, Vernon Brown, Arnold Covey, Ted Vesely; middle: Arthur Bernstein, Nick Fatool, Red Ballard, Louise Tobin; top: Ziggy Elman, Bus Bassey, Lionel Hampton, Jerry Jerome, Chris Griffin.
Louise Tobin’s tenure with Benny Goodman was successful all the way around. She loved what she was doing. Audiences both in-person and on radio liked her. Benny and all of the guys in the band liked her as a singer and as a person. Of the first 18 sides Benny recorded for Columbia in August and September of 1939, 10 contained vocals by Ms. Tobin. Clearly, Louise Tobin was on her way to substantial success as a singer with Benny Goodman’s band.
Meanwhile, Harry James was grinding out one-night stands on the road with his new band. Although the James band was making good music, and Harry was playing well, they seemed to be running in place. Drummer Mickey Scrima who was working with Harry then summarized the situation: “We had no direction from MCA, and we weren’t making any bread.”(10) Scrima’s impression of Harry James: “After I figured out that this was the most self-centered guy I was ever going to meet, I never had a problem with him.” (11)
In the month of September, Louise would fly to be with Harry as much as that was possible. Benny, sensing that Harry might be pressuring Louise to leave to Goodman band, uncharacteristically began to talk with Louise about how satisfied he was with her singing, and encouraged her. This situation took on a far more complicated dimension when Louise discovered that she was pregnant. It is unclear whether Louise told Benny about this, but he was to soon find out. At some point during the very early nights of Goodman band’s stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, which started on October 4, 1939, possibly on opening night or the following night, Louise tripped on her long gown and fell heavily, spraining her ankle. But her injuries were far more serious than a sprained ankle. “It was really bad. They rushed the hotel doctor up there, and it was a big rukus. A short time after that is when I had to tell Benny that I was leaving. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Benny was absolutely crushed.”(12) Louise lost the baby. Harry insisted that she stop working immediately.(13)
Benny was also suddenly without the services of a very good vocalist. After the crisis settled a bit, he and Louise talked. He knew that she didn’t really want to stop doing what she so obviously enjoyed doing and did so well, performing. Yet he suspected that Harry James had played no small part in Louise’s decision to leave his band. She later recalled that last conversation with BG: “You know,” Benny said, “you’re going to just sit around in an apartment somewhere…” “Which is exactly what happened.”(14) (Above left: the cover of Swing magazine – November 1939. By the time this magazine was on the newsstands, Louise Tobin had left Benny Goodman’s band.)
“One Sweet Letter from You” was written in 1926. The first recording of it was by Anette Hanshaw on November 26, 1926. However, it was popularized by Sophie Tucker. Other successful recordings of it were by Gene Austin and Kate Smith (with the Charleston Chasers). A number of other artists also recorded it, mostly in 1927. Then it lay dormant for 12 years. Jimmy Dorsey made a recording of it on August 14, 1939, featuring a vocal by Helen O’Connell. Lionel Hampton gave it a jazz ride on record on September 11, 1939, two days before this recording was made.
This recording by Benny Goodman includes a false start and some comments by Benny before he asks Louise if the tempo he set was comfortable for her. Then Benny starts over, and a wonderful performance ensues. What has always struck me is that for such a small person (five feet two inches tall), Louise Tobin had a very large voice, which she used with great confidence. The swaggering trumpet solo is by Ziggy Elman, who stepped up his already excellent playing after the departure of Harry James, when he became Benny’s featured trumpet soloist. (Above left: Louise Tobin watches Lionel Hampton, while Benny plays and Ziggy lounges – summer 1939.)
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Trumpet Blues ..The Life of Harry James (1999), by Peter J. Levinson, 28. Hereafter Trumpet Blues.
(2) Texas Jazz Singer …Louise Tobin and the Golden Age of Swing and Beyond (2021), by Kevin Edward Mooney, 38; 43. Hereafter: Texas Jazz Singer.
(3) Ibid. 42. This fact had also been revealed in a blurb that appeared in the October 1, 1939 issue of Billboard.
(4) Harry Goodman was born on August 15, 1906 in Chicago. He died on October 22, 1997 in Gstaad, Switzerland. He spent many of his later years in retirement living comfortably in the south of France.
(5) I cannot recall exactly where I read this. I ask BG scholars that have any information about this to please post a comment at the bottom of this post to either verify or rebut my opinion on this issue.
(6) Swing, Swing, Swing …The Life and Times of Benny Goodman 1993), by Ross Firestone, 260.
(8) Texas Jazz Singer, 42-43.
(9) Ibid. 43.
(10) Trumpet Blues, 77.
(11) Ibid. 76.
(12) Texas Jazz Singer, 64.
(13) Trumpet Blues, 75.
(14) Texas Jazz Singer, 64.