“Blue (Because of You)” (1935) Earl “Fatha” Hines / (1940) Lionel Hampton and Nat “King” Cole

“Blue (Because of You)”

Composed by Quinn Wilson, Louis Dunlap and Charlie Carpenter; arranged by Quinn Wilson.

Recorded by Earl Hines and His Orchestra for Decca on February 12, 1935 in New York.

Earl Hines, piano, directing: George Dixon, first trumpet; Warren Jefferson and Walter Fuller, trumpets; Louis Taylor, Kenneth Stewart and James “Trummy” Young, trombones; Darnell Howard, and Cecil Irwin, alto saxophones; Albert J. “Budd” Johnson and Jimmy Mundy, tenor saxophones; Lawrence Dixon, guitar; Quinn Wilson, bass; Wallace Bishop, drums. Omer Simeon, alto saxophone soloist.

The story:

I am not the first person to observe that Earl Hines is one of the too often neglected heroes of not only the history of jazz piano, but also of the swing era. In a very real sense, Hines was the father of an entire school of jazz piano playing that extended from him to his musical sons, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy and Nat Cole. Those four men, who then influenced many other pianists, were deeply affected by Hines’s playing. As a pianist, Hines was immensely talented. He was also talented as a bandleader. Through the 1930s and into the 1940s, he led bands that always had their own musical personality, and swung.

The Earl Hines band in 1935: L-R rear: Walter Fuller, Warren Jefferson, George Dixon, Wallace Bishop, Quinn Wilson; front: Kenny Stewart, Trummy Young, Lawrence Dixon, Louis Taylor, Hines, Omer Simeon, Budd Johnson, Darnell Howard, Jimmy Mundy.

The world of swing, as it existed in segregated America in the period from the late 1920s through the 1930s and beyond, was a place of systemic, indeed cultural, racial inequality. Despite that, people of color found ways and means of creating vital, vibrant music and getting it heard by audiences. Many whites found music made by black musicians to be especially exotic. Certain people in the white community, those in the business of presenting music to the white public, noticed this. They also noticed that musicians of all colors, but especially black ones, were chronically underemployed, and when they were employed, they were chronically underpaid. This presented white entrepreneurs in the night club business with opportunities to secure the services of very good black bands, which their generally all-white audiences loved, for relatively little money. Also, due to the opportunities Prohibition provided for the criminal underworld to make huge profits off bootleg liquor, many of the owners and operators of the venues where musicians, black and white, worked were criminals.

Against this background, I begin the story of Earl Hines at the Grand Terrace Ballroom. The Grand Terrace was located at 317 East 35th Street, on the south side of Chicago. The Hines band debuted there on December 28, 1928. It would be almost a decade before they were free to leave that venue. What happened to Hines during that decade is the stuff legends are made of.

At some point in the early 1930s, an NBC network radio connection was installed in the Grand Terrace Ballroom. I’m sure this didn’t happen by accident. My informed speculation is that the gangsters who owned the Grand Terrace came to understand that broadcasting music from the venue would raise its public profile and increase business. That is exactly what happened, and it happened almost immediately. What also happen was that those broadcasts raised the public profile of Earl Hines and His Orchestra. But it took a while for the implications of that to play out in a positive way for Hines.

I have found the book The World of Earl Hines, by Stanley Dance (1977), to be an absolute treasure trove of information about that time and place. The content of the book, almost exclusively, consists of recollections of the musicians who were actually members of the Hines band when that band was employed at the Grand Terrace. The stories these men told in their own words (the world of swing was also largely dominated by men), are amazing, enlightening, sad, and very often, funny.

The great saxophonist Budd Johnson was on the scene then. Here is a part of his recollection: “Ed Fox, who ran the Grand Terrace, wasn’t paying Earl any money at that time. Fox had a contract with Earl where his wife took over if he died; if she died, the older son took over. If he died, then the next son. Earl (finally after many years) got lawyers to break that contract. (When they went before the judge) he said ‘If you ever come in here with a contract like this again, …I’ll put you in jail’! That contract was so one-sided.”(1) After that, the original Earl Hines band broke up. Many of the original members temporarily went into a band formed by Hines sideman, trumpeter Walter Fuller, that remained in Chicago. Several others, including Budd Johnson, worked with Hines to form a new Hines band. After the new Hines band began to operate successfully, most of the musicians who had joined Fuller, including Fuller himself, rejoined Hines. This would have happened in the spring and early summer of 1937. (Above right: Budd Johnson.)

The music:

The Earl Hines band of the early and mid 1930s had a unique charm. In addition to Earl’s piano for all occasions, there were a number of other musicians in the band who had something to say musically. These included the up-and-coming arrangers Jimmy Mundy and Henri Woode, jazz trumpeter Walter Fuller, jazz trombonist Trummy Young and alto saxophonist/clarinetist Omer Simeon. There was also the band’s bassist, Quinn Wilson. Jimmy Mundy remembered Wilson this way: “‘Kewpie Doll,’ as we used to call him, was the bass player in the Hines band. He was the first guy I ever met who had perfect and absolute pitch. You’d knock on the wall and he’d tell you what note it was. You ask him what voice you were speaking in and he’d tell you. You go and hit the piano to check it, and he was right. He never missed. He was unbelievable.”(2) Quinn Wilson was also a fine arranger, and wrote many of the charts played and recorded by the Hines band in the 1930s. He also composed on occasion. (Above left: Quinn “Kewpie Doll” Wilson.)

“Blue (Because of You)” was composed by Quinn Wilson, along with Louis Dunlap and Charlie Carpenter, two other young men who were associated with the Hines band in the early and mid-1930s. One thing that struck me when researching this post was the rather pervasive informality of the relationships between all of the people who were involved in the careers of Earl Hines and his band members. Almost everyone involved, from Al Capone and other notorious gangsters who were involved in ownership of the Grand Terrace, on the one side, to the kids who were go-fors for Hines and his musicians on the other, knew each other and interacted on a personal level with each other. Dunlap and Carpenter definitely started their careers in show business by being errand boys for the Hines band. One thing led to another, and they advanced up the ladder to more responsible and demanding duties.

Another thing that typified how Earl Hines dealt with those around him was his ease in delegating authority. His philosophy in these matters was that if someone wanted to do something, and he was in the position to say yes or no, he usually said yes. Carpenter and Dunlap toyed with the idea of writing songs. They went to Earl and asked if he would play any songs they would come up with. Hines told them if the song was good, he would play it. They began working on a particular song only to be stymied by the lyric. Carpenter later recalled what happened: (…I was in Hyde Park High School and was infatuated with a girl.) “Although she never knew I was alive, I was in love with her. Then one day, I saw an engagement ring on her finger and I asked her what was happening. (She told me that she was quitting school and) …’going to dance with a group called the Regalettes at the Regal Theater.’ The Regal was just opening in Chicago and when that girl walked out of school, it just tore me up.”(3) Carpenter then descended into an adolescent depression over this situation, wandering about in a daze and doing poorly in school. His friend, Louis Dunlap, as usual, was fooling around with various melodies. He kept humming a certain melody to Carpenter and asked him to write a lyric for it. Carpenter tried, but nothing happened. “I was sitting in history class in sort of a trance, and suddenly the words for that melody just flowed, one after the other. ‘Though you say we’re through, I’ll always love you. You can depend on me.’ I gave the completed lyric to Dunlap that night, and he almost had a fit. ‘This is IT! This is IT! he kept saying.”(4) Carpenter and Dunlap took the song, which they called “You Can Depend on Me,” to Earl Hines, and he did play it. However, recognizing that this song was an ideal vehicle for Louis Armstrong, who was also very much a part of that scene at that time, they also took it to him, and he soon recorded it, on November 5, 1931, and it became an underground hit, especially among jazz people.(5) (Above right: Louis Dunlap (R) and Charlie Carpenter in Chicago – late 1920s.)

Unfortunately, for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the song “You Can Depend on Me,” Earl Hines did not record it until 1940. Nevertheless, the strength of that song resulted in Louis Dunlap and Charlie Carpenter getting other assignments as song writers, including as co-composers of Quinn Wilson’s “Blue (Because of You),” which Hines did record.

The music:

Fatha plays the four bar introduction for “Blue (Because of You)” on piano, and then first trumpeter George Dixon plays the primary melody for sixteen bars on cup-muted trumpet. Dixon plays not only with technical mastery, he plays with feeling. Hines accompanies him colorfully as the humming saxophones provide a warm cushion. Hines then follows with an abstraction of the song’s secondary (bridge) melody. The entire ensemble finishes the first chorus brightly. (George Dixon is shown at right.)

The first half of the second chorus is given over to an alto saxophone improvisation by Omer Simeon. He is backed by muted brass and drummer Wallace Bishop, clicking away on the rim of his snare drum. Hines again plays the bridge, and then follows with an eight bar paraphrase of the song’s main melody. (Omer Simeon is pictured above left.)

The third chorus is the climactic band chorus, and they play as one instrumental block atop Bishop’s back-beats and Hines’s teasing piano asides. This is quintessential early 1930s swing, played with verve and enthusiasm by a great band.

“Blue (Because of You)”

Composed by Quinn Wilson, Louis Dunlap and Charlie Carpenter; head arrangement by Lionel Hampton and Nat Cole.

Recorded by Lionel Hampton for Victor on July 17, 1940 in Hollywood.

Lionel Hampton, vibraphone, directing: Nat “King” Cole, piano; Oscar Moore, electric guitar; Wesley Prince, bass; Al Spieldock, drums.

The story:

This performance is a perfect example of how jazz was evolving during the swing era, often within a remarkably short period of time. The span of time between the Earl Hines recording of “Blue (Because of You)” and this recording is about five and a half years. The connection between Lionel Hampton, Nat “King” Cole, and Earl Hines and black Chicago jazz, is everywhere in this performance. Yet at the same time, the solo statements by Hampton on his vibraphone, and Cole on piano, reveal two fully formed highly individual jazz giants at the peak of their creative powers.

The term “Chicago jazz” has come to mean the music originated and popularized by a number of white Chicago jazz musicians, starting in the mid-1920s. There is nothing wrong with that term, except that it is rather incomplete, and points up the inadequacy of that particular categorization. Before, during and after the white “Chicago jazz” era in Chicago, there was a concurrent school of jazz being played by many black musicians there, with Louis Armstrong’s empyrean musical presence being at the center of that movement. There is no doubt that all of the white “Chicago jazz” musicians were well aware of and grateful for Louis’s creative presence in their midst. It is not an overstatement to say that all of them were influenced by him in some way or ways, and these musicians always acknowledged their debts to Armstrong. Louis’s influence upon musicians white and black who played all instruments was great. Earl Hines, of course, was also very much a part of that same scene. But Hines’s role, principally as a jazz pianist, was very important from the standpoint of advancing how that instrument would be presented in a jazz context. 

One thing people tend to forget is that while Earl Hines and his band were being kept in a condition of virtual peonage at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago for almost a decade, they were nevertheless constantly creating a stream of their own music there during all of that time. And in addition to the many musicians who came into the Grand Terrace to hear the Hines band, many more  heard the band over radio. These are but two reasons why Hines exerted so much influence on other pianists, and why his band was such an important part of black Chicago jazz.

Both Lionel Hampton and Nat Cole were formed in the crucible of black Chicago jazz. Hampton, being several years older, developed earlier and left Chicago sooner than did Cole. But both ended up in Los Angeles, Hampton through the early 1930s, and Cole in the late 1930s. Hampton’s name and national reputation were made as a member of the original Benny Goodman Quartet. This happened largely because he was a featured performer with the Goodman organization on their CBS radio network radio show, The Camel Caravan, from late 1936 until late 1939. By mid-1940, Hampton was ready to step out as the leader of his own band.

The King Cole Trio opens Music City in Los Angeles – July 1940. By mid-1940, the King Cole Trio was a very popular Los Angeles band. National success was several years off however.

The path to Cole’s eventual success was longer, and the process of him becoming a nationally-known performer, was slower. Although Cole made his first recordings in Chicago in July of 1936, soon after that, he was in Los Angeles for what eventually was the rest of his life. His fame began to take vertical leaps in late 1943, during World War II, when he began his long and successful relationship with Capitol Records.

The music:

Whenever I listen to this performance, the words perfect and sublime run through my mind. Every aspect of this performance is perfect: Lionel’s full-chorus improvisation; Nat Cole’s accompaniment of Hamp; Nat’s improvisation and backing by Hampton; the perfect balance of the other musicians throughout; and the superb fidelity of the recording itself. The totality of what happens in the three minutes and three seconds of this recording is pure musical magic.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) The World of Earl Hines, by Stanley Dance (1977), 213-214.

(2) Ibid.198.

(3) Ibid.142.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Earl Hines finally got around to recording “You Can Depend on Me,” in an arrangement by Budd Johnson, on June 19, 1940. That recording and the continuing popularity of Louis Armstrong’s recording of the song, provided the stimulus for many bands to record it during the swing era. After that, it was a standard.

(6) I have been baffled for years by the attribution of composer credit on Lionel Hampton’s Victor record of “Blue” that was made and issued in 1940. That attribution reads: Clarke-Leslie-Handman. The tune that Hampton recorded is clearly Quinn Wilson’s melody. Why, I wonder, was Mr. Wilson’s name not on that record label?

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1 Comment

  1. When I discovered in my youtube alerts that you’d posted the Hines version, the first thing I actually thought of was the later Hamp-King Cole Trio record. Glad to see both takes being featured, given the connection, both locational and musical, that we swing aficionados know to have existed between Hines, who was so long confined to Chicago; Hamp, who worked in Chi for a time, and Nat, who both grew up and began his career in the Windy City.

    It was Fats Waller’s version of “Blue,” recorded just a few months after Hines’, that introduced me to the song. The pianist-vocalist’s “Aw, don’t make a fat man blue, no, baby — come ‘ere!” that concludes the four-bar introduction sets the half clowning-half earnest mood of the performance. Interestingly, Hines, whose trumpet-style piano (surely shaped in part from his association with Louis) was so different from that of the stride specialist, paid tribute to Fats in an all-Waller composition session that took place less than two months after Fats’ untimely death.

    The song itself is strong, both lyrically (as in Fats’ rendition) and musically. My only, relatively small criticism of the otherwise superb Hines treatment has been that George Dixon’s skippy, tra-la phrasing in the opening melody statement seems rather at odds with the title and mood of the material (though this version is instrumental, we may assume that the band members were familiar with the lyric, as the number was an in-house concoction). The trumpeter’s tone, however, is beautiful. Much more in line emotionally with the song is Omer Simeon’s rhapsodic turn, which opens the second chorus; I love the sympathetically weeping muted trumpets behind him, too. Hines’ playing throughout, comping and soloing, is ravishing, fully imparting the desolation in the lyric, albeit with flair. Highly imitated, as we know, but never truly duplicated, the idiosyncratic Fatha plays here, as always, in a manner that displays genuine, in-the-moment emotion. Though he had his Hinesisms, as any musician has identifying musical mannerisms and devices, he always sounds spontaneous and present — never as if he’s merely phoning it in. The final ensemble half-chorus is socko, very impressive — putting a big azure bow on a stylized reading of the pretty “Blue.”

    As to the Hampton record … well, for openers, this very lovely performance (put to wax just short of two months after Hamp’s final studio session with the Goodman Sextet) is one of my favourites from the discographies of both Lionel and Nat. Though the side maintains a quiet mood from start to finish, the vibraphonist and pianist convey stark — and compelling — feeling in their solos and comping that is entirely consonant with the despair in the lyric. While I appreciate the energy and extrovert enthusiasm that defines so much of Hamp’s work, particularly as a leader, I’ve always much preferred his more nuanced playing with the Goodman Sextet and in his early solo career, as represented by this side. Similarly, I love Nat’s recordings of this period, both those under his own name, with the trio, and as a sideman. Though I feel that the King Cole Trio, in some ways, reached its zenith in ’46, I have a great fondness for the group’s pre-Capitol work, much of which I find extremely atmospheric. On a side note, I’ll confess that I like Nat’s singing less and less as he progresses in his career and becomes more polished and mannered in his vocal approach. Hamp and Nat (with Oscar Moore and Wesley Prince) give “Blue” a “rainy afternoon” or “dark night in a lonely flat” ambiance, one that I often seek, strangely enough, in music of the early ’40s. I love the killer-dillers (in gatorese) as much as the Swing Era kids did, but I, as an introvert, am equally — or more — fond of the more subtle, finely shaded treasures of this period in pop. Both Lionel and Nat’s playing on “Blue” is very elegant — we don’t need a Hampton or even Cole vocal, as the words are all there in the notes. As a guitar player who greatly admires Oscar Moore’s artistry, I have to mention that the Texas-born musician’s work, too, on this side is exquisite. Though he was plugging in by the time of this session, advantageous microphone placement allows us to appreciate the acoustic qualities of his Gibson near the close of the side. As the final bridge is ending and they’re going into the last A, we can find him comping in a manner that reminds me a bit of Allan Reuss’ delicate work on Goodman’s “Goodbye.”

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