Composed by Edgar Battle, Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Edward Seiler; arranged by Jack Matthias.
Recorded by Harry James and His Orchestra for Columbia on December 30, 1941 in New York.
Harry James, trumpet, directing: Dominic “Nick” Buono, Alex Cuozzo, and Claude Bowen, trumpets; Dalton Rizzotto, Hoyt Bohannon and Harry Rodgers, trombones; Sam Marowitz and Clint Davis, alto saxophones; Eugene P. “Corky” Corcoran and Claude Lakey, tenor saxophones; Al Lerner, piano; Ben Heller, guitar; Thurman Teague, bass; Mickey Scrima, drums.
The story of Harry James’s first year (1939) as a bandleader is told elsewhere on this blog.(1) It was basically a year of struggle. The second year of the band’s existence, 1940, was not much more successful. Harry had recorded for Columbia through 1939, but then switched to the small Varsity label in 1940. That was a mistake because the recordings James made for Varsity suffered from poor distribution. James returned to Columbia in 1941, and continued to make recordings of all kinds, from flashy trumpet features like “Flight of the Bumble Bee” and “Carnival of Venice,” to pop ballads, sung by his boy vocalist Dick Haymes. Harry then added a string quartet to his band. On May 20, 1941, he recorded the sentimental ballad “You Made Me Love You,” as a schmaltzy instrumental with his band and string quartet. It was on the “B” side of a Columbia record, with Dick Haymes singing “When a Sinner Kissed an Angel” on the other side. That record hit the market around August 1. James was casting about, looking for what worked with audiences.
At the same time (the spring of 1941), Music Corporation of America (MCA), James’s booking agency, decided that what the James band needed was a lengthy radio build-up. Consequently, the band began an engagement at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in April, which did include frequent NBC broadcasts from that venue. The band remained at the Lincoln through June at least, then may have toured through the summer. They were back at the Lincoln in October however, and remained there well into December. By that time, it was apparent that the James recording of “You Made Me Love You” was going to be a hit.
The Benny Goodman band softball team – Central Park NYC – May 1938. L-R back: Bud Freeman, Chris Griffin, Harry Goodman, Arthur Rollini, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Vernon Brown, Noni Bernardi; front: Benny Heller, Pee Wee Monte, Dave Tough and Red Ballard. Pee Wee Monte began to manage Harry James in September of 1941. Almost immediately, Harry’s fortunes turned positive.
On the business side of the James band, despite Harry working very hard and trying every strategem he knew of to become a successful bandleader, he found that by the summer of 1941, he was $42,000.00 in debt. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) Then through the musicians’ grapevine, he learned that Frank “Pee Wee” Monte, who had served as Benny Goodman’s manager, was available. He and Monte came to an agreement, and very soon, Monte was directing the business of the James band in a way that allowed the band to operate on a daily basis without losing more money.(2) As the success of “You Made Me Love You” became more substantial, Harry began to receive large royalty checks from Columbia Records. Monte used that money to pay down James’s debts. Concurrently, the success of that recording caused the asking price for the James band to go up. Harry added the popular vocalist Helen Forrest to his band in October of 1941. That further enhanced the commercial aspects of the James band. By the end of 1941, the future for Harry James and His Orchestra looked very bright.
An ensemble blast provided the introduction for Harry James’s recording of “Strictly Instrumental.” The first chorus begins with a very simple unison saxophone section presentation of the melody juxtaposed with an equally simple melodic fragment played by James on his cup-muted trumpet for eight bars.(3) The first eight bar repeat of the main melody has Harry playing a different counterline to the unison the saxophones. The brass take the lead in presenting the secondary melody on the bridge, being answered by the saxophones. Harry returns to finish the first chorus by repeating the first eight-bar tract. This is swing music of utter simplicity.
The second chorus presents the newly arrived in the James band sixteen year-old Corky Corcoran playing a tenor saxophone solo that evokes the robust sound of Vido Musso. Notice the colorful backgrounds arranger Jack Matthias fashioned for Corcoran to play against: muted trumpets coordinated with oo-ah trombones. Corcoran’s sixteen-bar solo is well constructed and well played. James band fans would hear much more from him in coming years. There follows a brief transitional passage that ends as a fanfare announcing the arrival of Harry’s swaggering open trumpet. At first, James is backed by the saxophones playing the main melody. Then Matthias adds the low brass to thicken the sonic mix, as Harry completes a fine chorus of jazz.
The open trombones then take the melody playing against riffing open trumpets and saxophones, providing a brief ensemble climax. The quiet concluding bars reprise the opening two eight bar segments from the first chorus, where James repeats the solo “hook” of the first eight bars, and then the gentle counterline from the second eight.
Composed by Edgar Battle, Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Edward Seiler; arranged by Gerald Wilson.
Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra for Decca on June 26, 1942 in Los Angeles.
Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Paul Webster, Harry “Pee Wee” Jackson, and Freddie Webster, trumpets; Fernando Arbello, Russell Bowles and James “Trummy” Young, trombones; Willie Smith , first alto saxophone; Dan Grissom, alto saxophone; Joe Thomas and Benny Watters, tenor saxophones; Earl “Jock” Carruthers, baritone saxophone; Edwin Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Charles V. “Truck” Parham, bass; Jimmy Crawford, drums.
By the time this recording was made, Jimmie Lunceford and his band had been a potent musical organization for about ten years. During that decade, the personnel of the band had been remarkably stable. This can be attributed mainly to the strong and inspiring leadership of Lunceford, the strong sense of brotherhood among the musicians in the band, and the aggressive management of the band by Harold Oxley. Oxley kept the band working, even if they had to travel 400 miles between one-night stands, which they often did.
Lunceford made sure that they played music that struck a balance between what audiences demanded, and what the musicians could get excited about. He also was a masterful leader of the band in rehearsal. The Lunceford band was always one of the most highly disciplined and precise in the world of swing. They balanced that precision with a substantial amount of showmanship, that involved singing and dancing by the sidemen, and orchestrated movement of instruments and metal derby mutes. On top of it all, the Lunceford band played with great spirit. Audiences lapped all of this up. No band was more impressive on the stage of a theater. The Lunceford band personified theatricality. All of this amounted to a great formula for success. (Above right: Nat Cole, Jimmie Lunceford and a radiant Lena Horne pose together at an Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast in the summer of 1944.)
Unfortunately, nothing, no matter how well-organized or well-directed, lasts forever. By 1942, the musicians in the Lunceford band were growing weary of the endless traveling, the need to constantly appear exuberant onstage, even if they were exhausted, which they frequently were. And perhaps most importantly by 1942, the sidemen were simply not being paid salaries that reflected their market value, given the quantity and quality of the work they were doing. The eventual result of all of this, plus the overriding fact that the military draft was beginning to take members from the Lunceford band, was an almost complete turnover in the band’s personnel during World War II. That process was just beginning when this recording was made in late June of 1942.
The Lunceford version of “Strictly Instrumental” was of course a “cover” version of the Harry James recording, which by the summer of 1942 was a hit. As one would expect, the Lunceford band, an ensemble having its own strong musical identity, performed it their way. This performance contains many Lunceford trademarks, most notable of which are the surging saxophone section, led by Willie Smith, and the precise but intense syncopated brass bursts. In addition, the band, strongly driven by drummer Jimmy “Craw” Crawford, who applies a sheen of rhythm using his China cymbal, swings hard. There is also the overall ensemble precision that resulted from concentrated rehearsal and constant work. In short, this is a solid performance by a virtuoso swing band. (Above left: The Lunceford band entertains troops at McDill Air Force Base – Tampa, Florida on June 15, 1944. Lunceford watches Joe Thomas stir up the crowd.)
But there are also a few newer touches. At various places during this performance, we hear hints of what eventually would be called “rhythm and blues.” Recently, Lunceford had been toying with a wink-and-nod blues called “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” which he recorded on April 14, 1942. That recording was a cover version of the earlier hit record made by Louis Jordan on November 22, 1941. Lunceford noticed that audiences, both black and white, had begun to respond quite strongly to the sly blues lyric sung expertly by Dan Grissom, and powerful beat under the tenor saxophone solo played by Joe Thomas in that arrangement. In “Strictly Instrumental,” the somewhat gritty “singing” is done by Joe Thomas on his tenor saxophone, then later by Willie Smith on his alto saxophone. Trumpeter Paul Webster takes the solo on the bridge in Thomas’s chorus. A brief respite from the blasting comes on the strings of Al Norris’s electric guitar, then the explosive finale. (Joe Thomas shown above right.)
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(2) Trumpet Blues …the Life of Harry James, by Peter J. Levinson (1999), 99-100.
(3) The trumpet “answer” to the saxophones in the first eight bars of the first chorus of Harry James’s “Strictly Instrumental” for some reason always reminds me of the “pecking” melodic fragment in the deathless theme music from the Woody Woodpecker cartoon series.
Here are links to more recordings by Harry James’s band:
And here are links to some more recordings by Jimmie Lunceford:
This is another great post! Your readers might find it of interest that the “catchy” opening phrase of “Strictly Instrumental” can be traced back to Lester Young’s seminal 1936 recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good!”, made with a Basie small group under the name, “Jones – Smith Inc.” Lester improvises that exact phrase in his amazing two-chorus solo.
On a personal basis, I selected “Strictly Instrumental” as the title track for my Octet recording for Concord Records so many years ago. I think pianist Dick Wellstood’s playing was a highlight of that recording.
Bravo Dan. You have ears like a vacuum cleaner!
Best wishes, Mike
“Strictly Instrumental” was, if not the first, one of the first sides I heard, way back when, from Harry’s band. Being quite new to swing at the time, I didn’t stop to consider the fact that both the song and the arrangement are rather simple fare in comparison with many of the high-information songs and charts of the era. All I knew was that the intro was socko and the side swung. Now, having become very well-acquainted with the James band’s work throughout its history, I marvel at the quality of its output in the scuffling couple of years before the “You Made Me Love You” commercial breakthrough. For me, it’s the sides featuring Dick Haymes vocals that tend to be the weakest of this early period — simply because many of the tunes are sub-par and the young vocalist, while displaying a glorious tone, in many instances sounds as if he’s still sorting out his approach as an interpreter. In fairness, though, as Dick’s tenure with the band progressed, he did produce some superb work — “I’ll Get By,” “Walkin’ By the River,” “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” being key examples. The James band instrumentals of the pre-success days, however, are always terrific as well as varied in style. By the time of “Strictly Instrumental,” the orchestra sounds supremely confident. The ensemble work here is excellent, and Harry and Corky’s solos have plenty of fire. The young tenor star became one of the band’s most important soloists, as we know, and, too, was leader of a marvelous ’45 Keynote ad-hoc small group session.
While I’ve always very much enjoyed the Lunceford take on “Strictly Instrumental,” I feel that the outfit went very perceptibly downhill in quality terms with Sy Oliver’s departure. Though many of the band stalwarts as well as some of the defining elements of the Lunceford sound were still in place at this time, it seems to me that the magic was largely gone. Joe Thomas and Willie Smith provide some searing work and Craw’s drumming is spectacular on this side, however.
… Yes, there are a couple of points, one in his first chorus and one in the second, when Pres plays a figure on the V chord of “Oh, Lady Be Good” that anticipates the arresting “Strictly Instrumental” opening phrase.