“125th Street Prophet” (1944) Woody Herman with Neal Hefti and Dave Tough

“125th Street Prophet”

Composed by Phil Moore; arranged by Neal Hefti.

Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra from a CBS Old Gold radio show rehearsal on September 13, 1944 in New York.(*)

Woody Herman, clarinet, directing: Ray Wetzel, first trumpet; Pete Candoli, Billy Robbins, Neal Hefti and Conte Candoli, trumpets; Bill Harris, first trombone; Ralph Pfeffner and Ed Kiefer, trombones; Sam Marowitz, first alto saxophone; Bill Shine, alto saxophone; Flip Phillips and Pete Mondello, tenor saxophones; Skippy DeSair, baritone saxophone; Ralph Burns, piano; Billy Bauer, guitar; Chubby Jackson, bass; Dave Tough, drums.

The story:

The year 1944 was a pivotal one in the long career of Woody Herman (1913-1987). That career started with Woody performing in vaudeville shows when he was a child. Long apprenticeship in traveling dance bands starting in 1928 followed that, and by late 1934, he had arrived as a sideman in one of the most renowned bands of the time, led by composer Isham Jones. Jones left bandleading temporarily in late summer 1936, and Woody, always a dynamic showman, emerged as the leader of a new band that included five ex-Jones sidemen. That band, which operated as a cooperative with each member being a part owner, worked steadily but not too profitably into the early 1940s. By that time, Woody had slowly bought out the other cooperative members, and was the sole owner of the band. He was, as almost all other bandleaders of the time were, looking for some success formula that would set his band apart from the field of other dance bands.(1)

Although many factors contributed to the emergence of the swing powerhouse that came to be called Woody Herman and his First Herd in 1944, including solid management of the Herman band by General Amusement Corporation (GAC), it is undeniable that the arrival of certain musicians in the band through the year that began in the autumn of 1943 was also very important. The arrival of those musicians was not by happenstance: Woody very deliberately wanted to build a great swing band. Bassist Chubby Jackson and vocalist Frances Wayne joined him in the waning months of 1943. Pianist/arranger Ralph Burns was hired by Woody in January of 1944. Drummer Dave Tough, after service in the U.S. Navy with Artie Shaw’s band called The Rangers, joined in late April.

The jazz tenor saxophone chair had been something of a revolving musical door over the previous two years. Maynard “Saxie” Mansfield, who had been the tenor soloist since the inception of the Herman band, gave way to Mickey Folus, who was followed by Vido Musso, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Georgie Auld and Herbie Fields. Those last five may well have been “ringers,” added to the band for recording sessions only. By early summer 1944, the jazz tenor chair was taken by Flip Phillips. Slightly after that, trombonist Bill Harris joined. At that point, the Herman band was a formidable swing ensemble. (Above left: Dave Tough with Woody Herman’s band in the summer of 1945, probably in Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania. The saxophone section members appear to be L-R: Skippy De Sair, Mickey Folus, Sam Marowitz, John La Porta, and Flip Phillips. Note the angle of Tough’s snare drum.)

In June of 1944, Woody signed a contract to appear on the weekly CBS radio network show sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes. He and his band would share the show with popular vocalist Allan Jones.(2) That show would run from July 24 to October 4. As so often was the case during the swing era, bands that were in the process of “happening” were funded by the money paid by a sponsored network radio show.

The Woody Herman band in 1945. L-R front: Margie Hyams, Billy Bauer, Woody, Flip Phillips, John La Porta, Sam Marowitz, Mickey Folus, Skippy De Sair; middle: Chubby Jackson, Dave Tough, Ralph Pfiffner, Ed Kieffer, Bill Harris; back: Neal Hefti, Charlie Frankhauser, Ray Wetzel, Pete Candoli, Carl “Bama” Warwick.

In preparing this post, I listened to many of the recordings Woody Herman made in late 1943 and early 1944 for Decca Records after Decca settled with the musicians’ union,(3) and what I found was interesting. The band Woody presented during the challenging early years of World War II was invariably well-rehearsed and disciplined. They played well. Yet many of their performances are flat, with little of distinction in them. The vast majority of those recordings were vocals, featuring Woody, who was an excellent, effective vocalist, and young Frances Wayne, who was still learning how to be an effective vocalist. The material Decca had Woody record was in many instances less than inspiring. A good Herman band was being under-utilized by Decca Records. By the end of 1944, Woody would leave Decca after eight years, having achieved only marginal success on that label.

125th Street in Harlem – autumn 1943.

Nevertheless, there were a few bright spots. The blues “Basie’s Basement,” recorded on November 8, 1943, is a tasty swinger composed and arranged by Gene Sargent, who intermittently through the mid 1940s played guitar in the Herman band. Unfortunately, Decca did not release it until several years later. The lovely ballad “Crying Sands” (January 8, 1944), which was composed by bassist Chubby Jackson, spots Woody playing his alto saxophone in the manner of Johnny Hodges, his idol. In addition, there is a solo from Hodges’s former sectionmate in the Ellington band, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, in a romantic mood. It also may be one of Ralph Burns’s earliest arrangements for Woody. The nicely swinging “Ingie Speaks,” an original by Dave Matthews, recorded on March 29, 1944, commemorates the first word Woody and his wife Charlotte’s daughter Ingrid uttered, which, appropriately enough in a family where the male parental unit was almost always away from home, was mother. After the midpoint of 1944, the Herman band sounded more consistently energized and inspired.

The music:

The attention-getting introduction to “125th Street Prophet” reveals immediately that the twenty-three year-old arranger Neal Hefti had a lot to say musically: he deftly juxtaposes the low saxophones with the bright brass and Chubby Jackson’s active bass. The first chorus spots Woody stating the main melody on his clarinet for sixteen bars. He is backed at first by surging saxophones, then pungent brass. The bridge is taken by those low saxophones again, with the oo-ah brass and Jackson’s bass bursts as sonic contrasts. Woody chimes in a bit at the end of this sequence and then plays on into the final eight bars of chorus one. (Above right: Chubby Jackson, Woody Herman and Dave Tough – 1945.)

There is a tasty transition into chorus two that features the syncopated brass and those low saxophones yet again. Hefti then uses the saxophones to carry the melody with the brass continuing to use the same syncopated rhythm behind them as swinging propellers. Notice the strong comping from pianist Ralph Burns and rhythmic coloration by drummer Dave Tough through this sequence. Woody returns to play the bridge. Hefti had the band lay out during this sequence, with Mr. H. being accompanied only by the tightly swinging rhythm section, an effective contrast to the muscular ensemble sounds that preceded this solo. Woody then wails away atop the ensemble for the last eight bars of the second chorus.

The third chorus begins with Neal Hefti himself playing a tasty jazz trumpet solo, using what appears to be some sort of Harmon mute in the instrument’s bell. His basic accompaniment is provided by the smooth saxophones with a few bright brass bursts thrown in along the way, underlined by Tough’s crackling snare drum bursts. On the bridge, Hefti has the brass playing oo-ah counterlines to his continuing trumpet solo, along with some fluttering saxophones and low trombones at the end of that sequence. Hefti finishes the chorus being swathed in wonderfully swinging and colorful rhythm from drummer Tough, bassist Jackson, pianist Burns, and guitarist Billy Bauer.

One of the perquisites arrangers who were also jazz soloists enjoyed during the swing era was that they could write charts that allowed them plenty of room to play solo. Hefti did that here and played tasty full-chorus jazz solo which definitely enhanced the music. (Above right: trumpeter/arranger Neal Hefti takes a solo with Woody Herman’s band – 1945.)

The final half chorus is taken by the entire ensemble, playing with controlled intensity. Woody garnishes this segment with a couple of clarinet bursts. Once again, the support the band gets from Tough and Burns is splendid.

Curiously, Woody never recorded this superb chart commercially. It showcases the 1944 Herman band as it was in the process of evolving into the First Herd. We must be grateful for the off-the-air sound check/rehearsal recording of it we have here.

P.S. I have at some time in my life read something about the Prophet of 125th Street. This person was some sort of mystical wise-man, who walked up and down 125th Street, which is the main east-west thoroughfare in Harlem, in the 1920s and 1930s, making predictions of various kinds. I have looked for some reference to the Prophet of 125th Street in preparing this post, but can’t find anything in my library. I welcome any information the intrepid visitors/researchers who visit swingandbeyond.com can provide. Whoever provides it will of course be credited here and thanked.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) The voice that is heard on this recording is that of legendary sports announcer Walter Lanier “Red” Barber.

(1) More information about Woody Herman’s early years as a bandleader can be found here:


(2) Allan Jones was the father of the fine pop singer of the 1960s and 1970s, Jack Jones.

(3) The Musicians’ Union, led by James C. Petrillo, imposed a prohibition on the recording of all music performed by its members. That recording ban started on August 1, 1942. It ended for Decca, which settled with the Union in the autumn of 1943. Victor and Columbia held out until November of 1944.

By 1945, the Herman band was a romping, swinging ensemble that played for keeps. Here are several examples:




Here is a ballad played by the Herman band from 1945:


And here are some later great Herman recordings:



Finally, here is a wonderful recording made by a band led by one of Woody’s most renowned musical sons, Ralph Burns:

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