Composed by Cole Porter; arranged by Jimmy Mundy.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra live in performance from a CBS radio broadcast on March 4, 1937 from the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. (*)
(*)This recording was provided to swingandbeyond.com by Reinhard Scheer-Hennings. Thanks Reinhard!
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Ziggy Elman, first trumpet; Chris Griffin and Harry James, trumpets; Sterling “Red” Ballard and Murray McEachern, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; George Koenig, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Vido Musso, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
Cole Porter’s marvelous rhythm song “Ridin’ High” was composed in 1936 for the Broadway show Red, Hot and Blue. It was introduced in that show by Ethel Merman. That production opened on October 29, 1936 at the Alvin Theater (now called the Neil Simon Theater). Joining Ms. Merman in the cast were Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante. Another memorable Porter song in that show was “It’s De-Lovely.”
Here is a snippet of the lyric of “Ridin’ High”:
Life’s great, life’s grand;
Future all planned.
No more clouds in the sky;
How’m I ridin’? I’m ridin’ high.
In what can be described only as a cruel irony, very soon after Cole Porter wrote those buoyant and optimistic words, catastrophe struck him.
Porter composed an astonishing number of great songs through the 1930s, and rode the crest of a series of very successful Broadway musicals with those songs. Then on October 24, 1937, at age 46, while riding a horse at Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, Long Island, New York, he was thrown, and crushed beneath the animal. Both of his legs were broken. Doctors told Porter that his right leg would have to be amputated, and possibly the left one as well. He refused those draconian procedures, but during and after multiple surgeries, he remained in the hospital for seven months. He returned to his palatial apartment at the Waldorf Towers in Manhattan in mid-1938, but the accident and subsequent surgeries left him substantially crippled and in constant pain for the rest of his life. He resumed work as soon as he could, finding that it took his mind off his pain.(1) (Above right: Cole Porter in the mid-1930s – before his riding accident.)
Somehow, “Ridin’ High” came to Benny Goodman’s attention soon after Red, Hot and Blue opened. I would love to have been privy to Benny’s conversations with arranger Jimmy Mundy about how he wanted this song to be arranged for his band. It we reverse-engineer that based on what we hear in the finished product, it seems that BG immediately sensed the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of this song as an up-tempo swinger, with the emphasis in the first chorus on brief bursts of sound first from the brass and then the reeds, in almost see-saw fashion. This use of antiphonal playing was nothing new for the Goodman band. Fletcher Henderson had written many arrangements for them that used that musical device, with telling effect. The difference here is that the call-and-response we hear in the first half of the arrangement is but an exciting prelude to what happens in the second half. (Above left – the Goodman trumpets 1937. L-R: Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin.)
The performance starts at a gallop with a four-bar fanfare/introduction. It seems that the tempo here is too brisk for dancing, except by the most athletic and exhibitionistic of jitterbugs.
The main melody in the first chorus is played by the brass players (Ziggy Elman on first trumpet) flexing and extending their cupped left hands in front of the bells of their instruments to create the oo-ah sound we hear, being answered by the rhythmic reeds. The dazzlingly precise interplay between these sections of instruments is driven by the percolating swing of the rhythm instruments underneath them. Then the saxophone quartet, under Hymie Shertzer’s glowing lead, takes the melody, with the open brass punctuating brightly. This first sequence covers sixteen bars. This pattern is then repeated for another sixteen bars. (Above right – the Goodman saxophones 1937. L-R: Vido Musso, Hymie Shertzer, Arthur Rollini, George Koenig.)
The next sixteen bar segment of the arrangement has the open brass carrying the melody in brief bursts, answered by the equally terse saxophones. After this, the ensemble reprises the sixteen bar sequence played at the beginning of the first chorus.
The next chorus begins with Benny playing a bubbling improvisation on his clarinet (eight bars), being answered by Harry James on his glancing open trumpet (eight bars). This chase continues with another eight bar exchange. The next sequence has BG playing hide-and-seek with the band, getting good support from drummer Gene Krupa. The climax of the arrangement is reached when Goodman returns in his high register with another eight bars of swinging clarinet, laying down the gauntlet for James, who picks it up in his eight bars with some very potent jazz, being supported by rocking rim shots, courtesy of Mr. Krupa.
The band returns for the final sixteen-bar tract and the finale.
As one can readily imagine, this arrangement, tailor-made for the tightly swinging Goodman ensemble and its two virtuoso jazz soloists, was a major audience pleaser through 1937. The performance below is a certification of that fact, as Benny presented it to the audience of his sponsored network radio show. (Above left: Benny Goodman in the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania – 1937.)
Composed by Cole Porter; arranged by Jimmy Mundy.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra live in performance from a CBS Camel Caravan broadcast on November 2, 1937 in New York.
Personnel as above except Vernon Brown, trombone replaces Murray McEachern.
It is not an exaggeration to say that by the time Benny Goodman and his band performed “Ridin’ High” on this Camel Caravan broadcast, some eight months after the Madhattan Room performance presented above, they had played it many dozens of times before audiences. Benny himself had proved again and again that he had a great ability to play the same material over and over again with inspiration. His band members often were not as inspired as he was on the fiftieth of hundredth performance of a given tune, still, they often found his inspiration (and virtuosity) to be contagious. As for Harry James, he understood that in a head-to-head matchup with Goodman, as occurs on “Ridin’ High,” if he didn’t dig in deeply and play for keeps, Benny would blow him off the stage. Here, he digs in deeply. The result is another brilliant, exuberant performance of “Ridin’ High.” (Above right: Benny Goodman at a rehearsal for the CBS Camel Caravan in 1937. Visible in the photo: L-R front: George Koenig and Hymie Shertzer; middle: Red Ballard; back Harry James and Ziggy Elman. Chris Griffin is obscured by BG’s clarinet.)
It may seem strange that Benny Goodman never made a commercial recording for Victor of “Ridin’ High,” popular though it was with BG audiences. But consider this: At the very time when Benny could have recorded “Ridin’ High,” he and/or his management team opted for him to record three tunes from the Warner Brothers (First National) feature film he and his band had recently completed in Hollywood. Those tunes were “Let That Be a Lesson to You,” “Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks,” and “I’ve Hitched My Wagon to a Star.”(2) Clearly this was an instance of pull marketing, that is, pulling customers of these recordings into the movie theaters that were or soon would be showing the film, and vice-versa. These are business considerations, not musical ones. By late 1937, the success Benny Goodman had achieved as a businessman was large, and growing larger by the week. Benny, who never forgot the poverty and privation of his childhood, was not going to jeopardize his success as a businessman.
Nevertheless, he eventually was able to have it both ways. “Ridin High” was recorded off the air, and was forgotten about. Benny Goodman’s career continued throughout the swing era. In 1950, a fortuitous series of events led to the production of the blockbuster Columbia LP set of recordings made at the now legendary January 16, 1938 BG Carnegie Hall jazz concert. That in turn led to Goodman rounding up many off-the-air recordings made by him and his band in the late 1930s, and working out a production of them by Columbia Records as a follow-up LP set to the Carnegie Hall records. This second set of recordings, which was entitled somewhat misleadingly, Complete 1937-38 Jazz Concert no. 2, was also very successful. The Camel Caravan version of “Ridin’ High” presented above was the leadoff track on that package of recordings. The success of those two sets of recordings helped set in motion the events that led to the production of the 1956 Universal feature film The Benny Goodman Story.
As noted above, the March 1937 recording of “Ridin’ High” was provided by Richard Claar. Although that recording was in excellent fidelity, I nevertheless digitally remastered it to achieve better sound. I also remastered the November 1937 recording to achieve more optimal sound.
Notes and links:
(1) The information on Cole Porter’s riding accident was extracted from the Wikipedia post on him.
(2) Those recordings were made for Victor on October 22, 1937.
Here is a link to the story of the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert recordings:
Here is a link to a lovely sleeper from that concert: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/12/31/blue-reverie-1937-38-duke-ellington-and-benny-goodmans-1938-carnegie-hall-concert/
Here are some links to other great recordings by Benny Goodman’s 1937 band, which feature Harry James and Gene Krupa:
This really is a high water mark of the era. It says so much of the Goodman bands prowess, that it could perform this number with as much, if not more, punch and drive, 8 months, and as you say, many playings, down the line.
The rhythm section is sublime here, aurally fronted by Reuss and Krupa, propelling and kicking like bejeezus. I gather that the November take was captured by Columbia engineer Bill Savory, who just happened to be tinkering that night. How serendipitous for us, some 85-ish years on, to still be able to enjoy the fruits of his out of hours enthusiasm.
Yet overarching all, Goodman’s steely discipline, Harry’s fiery followups, the glorious rhythm section, it’s that brass section, really flashing its canines to the glory of swing, which takes the prizes. To continue a canine theme, they really were “The dog’s bollocks” as we crudely, but appreciatively put it in England.
In the absence of a commercial release, thank heavens that Jimmy Mundy’s fabulous chart was captured on two separate occasions for posterity, and my God, does it still get the blood pumping, or WHAT?!
Wow … To listen to a “new” Goodman recording is always thrilling, but it’s particularly so in this instance of the earlier “Ridin’ High,” owing to the excitement of the familiar Jimmy Mundy arrangement and because it allows us a comparison of the band in two periods on the same tune — and, importantly, with stable personnel, save for Vernon Brown’s replacing Murray McEachern. The later recording, which appears on the Columbia ON THE AIR set is so well known to me that I can sing Benny and Harry’s traded eights. Well before those passages appear, however, the differences in the two performances are apparent, beginning with Krupa’s snare, rather than cymbal (as on the November Camel Caravan take), support for the trumpets in the brief intro. One of the greatest delights of the CC version for me, as a guitar player, has always been the prominence of Allan Reuss’ rhythm — and yet I find it’s still more present on the MR rendition (a random case of good positioning in relation to the overhead microphone).
I believe the call-and-response device, a frequent feature in Goodman band charts, was especially effective in this edition of the aggregation because of the huge contrast in sound between the Biting Brass — James, Elman, Griffin — and the reeds, led by Hymie Shertzer. Chris Griffin revealed that the trumpets tuned a little sharp, “to make it more brilliant” — though they’d never admit it to their puzzled leader. Their precision as a section matches that of the band’s reeds, but whereas the Shertzer-led saxes bubble like a brook, the Biting Brass cuts like a knife. I don’t think there was a Swing Era trumpet section that was so well balanced as Benny’s of this period, in terms of ability of its components; even the contemporaneous Ellington trumpets — Cootie, Rex, Wallace Jones — were second to this team, I feel. And the creamy smoothness and buoyancy of the reeds beautifully counters the piquancy of the trumpets. Many of us have read that Vido Musso, a superb and distinctive soloist, wasn’t the best reader, but we couldn’t guess it from either of these performances.
At the time of the earlier recording, Harry had been with the band for only a couple of months, but I think we may conclude from his conspicuous role in Mundy’s chart that Benny was extremely impressed by the jazz skills of the most recent addition to his trumpet section. And who wouldn’t be? Trading eights, Harry goes toe-to-toe with a most discriminating virtuoso and gives as good as he gets!
Comparing the two versions, we may appreciate two things: 1) Though the band sounds abundantly confident and sure-footed on the first, they sound even more so on second — as we would expect, given the many performances of the chart between these two. 2) The crew, amazingly, seems almost fresher, more impassioned on the second, despite the many interim performances. How did they generate that passion and fire? Did they feed off the audience? Each other? Or both?
Krupa, who not only pushed the band but responded to its soloists, always seems to create an anything-might-happen atmosphere. For me, he, perhaps more than anyone else in the orchestra, gives these performances that occurred so long ago an organic quality. Nowhere is this more palpable than on “Ridin’ High.” Gene earned his pay!
In the Madhattan Room take, Benny makes an allusion to Leon Jessel’s “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” in the last four bars of his second eight bar spot in alternation with Harry; he sounds as if he wants to develop it further but realises he’s running out of space. Following the bridge, on which he goes back and forth with the brass and reed sections, he comes back for another eight and is finally able to get in a full quote of the opening of the famous Jessel tune (Ray Conniff, too, does this on the Berigan small group “Walkin’ the Dog”). To me, it sounds a little contrived, but it’s still cute. We must imagine that Benny’s cheery tone, combined with hot phrases, gave Great Depression audiences a sense that everything was going to work out all right. Harry just blows off the top of his top, with phrases that balance spontaneous fire with sound construction. On the Camel Caravan take, Benny comes in sounding as if he was raring to go. Harry’s initial response is so strong! — surely the leader felt as if he couldn’t let up for a second against this rangy whippersnapper.
It’s wonderful — and insightful — to have the opportunity to make these comparisons, from a period in which the band, at its pinnacle, really was ridin’ high!