“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (1939) Benny Goodman with Louise Tobin / Artie Shaw with Helen Forrest

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”

Composed by: Richard Rodgers, music, and Lorenz Hart, 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: Harry A. “Ziggy” Elman, first trumpet; Jimmy Maxwell and Johnny Martell, trumpets; Sterling “Red” Ballard, Vernon Brown and Ted Vesely, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Buford “Buff” Estes, alto saxophone; Clarence “Bus” Bassey and Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophones; Fletcher Henderson, piano; Arnold Covarrubias (Covey), guitar; Arthur Bernstein, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Louise Tobin, vocal.

The story:

The year 1939 was one of transition for Benny Goodman. The contemporary music press reported the various personnel changes in the Goodman band that happened throughout that year in generally negative terms, suggesting that Benny’s band  was somehow in decline. The departure of trumpeter Harry James in January to form his own band was justly regarded as a major loss. However, Ziggy Elman stepped-up his already high level of performance, and played splendidly throughout 1939 and into 1940. When vocalist Martha Tilton left in the spring, the trade papers made much of her loss. However, Benny soon replaced her with the dynamic and beautiful Louise Tobin, an excellent vocalist who soon became a favorite of Goodman fans. Benny and drummer Buddy Schutz clashed throughout the early months of 1939, and by May, Schutz was gone, being replaced by Nick Fatool, an excellent drummer who performed superbly with both BG’s big band and his newly enlarged small group, the Benny Goodman Sextet. Various lead alto saxophonists had passed through the Goodman band in the period late 1938-early 1939. For whatever reasons, Benny was not pleased with their work. He finally induced Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, one of the premier lead alto players of the swing era, to join. Toots not only led the saxophone section with distinction, he also played solos that Benny liked. Finally, 1939 was the year Benny became aware of the young electric guitar virtuoso, Charlie Christian. His impact on Goodman’s musical presentation, usually within the context of the BG jazz sextet, was immense. Last but far from least, Benny was playing brilliantly himself. So the year 1939 was a great one for Benny Goodman’s music.

July 1939 – Benny Goodman appearing at the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. In this photo, Benny is playing with a small group including Lionel Hampton on vibraphone. Guitar wizard Charlie Christian had not yet joined BG.

Another change that occurred in 1939 was Benny’s departure from Victor Records after four years. The basic reason for this was that Benny’s record sales had been passed in early 1939 by Victor’s new clarinet-playing star, Artie Shaw. As 1939 wore on, the sales of Shaw’s Bluebird records continued to rise, while Benny’s, with the exception of his recording of “And the Angels Sing,” slumped. Benny perceived this as Victor favoring Shaw over him, so he terminated his relationship with Victor in May. Jazz gadfly John Hammond, who had begun to work with the revamped Columbia Records label in early 1939, undoubtedly also had something to do with Benny leaving Victor, and eventually signing with Columbia.

Finally, Goodman was still being presented weekly through 1939 on his CBS network radio show, The Camel Caravan. This enabled him to continue to use that show to publicize his band’s activities, recordings and personal appearances. In addition, he toured with his band through much of that year, often playing week-long stands in large theaters. Working in theaters was a way that enabled bandleaders to make a lot of money in a short period of time. Based on Benny’s schedule for 1939, he made a lot of money playing theaters that year.

Thus, the suggestion that Benny Goodman’s band was in decline in 1939 is inaccurate.

The story of Louise Tobin joining (and her departure from) the Goodman band is told elsewhere on this blog.(1) Her tenure with BG, which lasted from mid-May until late October of 1939, was one of ever-increasing personal success. She was an excellent singer who could belt a song when necessary, and also deliver ballads with a most charming Texas accent. Audiences liked her a great deal. Her departure from the Goodman band was as a result of a personal issue, and had nothing to do with her performance as Benny’s singer. (Above left: the effervescent and lovely Louise Tobin.)

The music:

Rodgers and Hart’s great ballad “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” was a brand-new song in late 1939. It was a part of the score for the Broadway musical Too Many Girls, which opened on Broadway on October 18, 1939 at the Imperial Theater, running there until April 21, 1940, then transferring to the Broadway Theater on April 22, 1940, closing there on May 18, 1940. Clearly, BG had cannily pulled some show business strings to get to record this song more than a month before Too Many Girls opened on Broadway. (2)

John Hammond, who supervised all of the early Goodman-Columbia recordings in 1939, reported that the recordings he made for Columbia in New York, including the Goodman session that produced “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” were made in one of three Manhattan locations: Liederkranz Hall, which was located at 111-119 East 58th Street, between Park and Lexington; 711 Fifth Avenue, the NBC studios before they moved into the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in the mid-1930s; or CBS radio theater #3, located at 1657 Broadway, at 53rd.(3) Based on the ambient sound of this recording, which includes Liederkranz’s famous room resonance, my informed speculation is that the Goodman recording of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” was recorded at Liederkranz.

Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is fairly straightforward. His tempo selection was both perfect and prescient: this song, as it gradually became a standard, settled into this tempo as the one preferred by most performers. Composer Alec Wilder, in his book American Popular Song …The Great Innovators 1900-1950, made this astute observation about the mood of this song: “The melody of the chorus, due partly to the unusual opening harmony, has a mysterioso quality about it. One can’t determine if it will be resolved in E minor or G major.”(4) (Above left: 1939 – Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman engage in a conversation, probably broadcast over radio, using hand-held microphones. The man between them is the radio announcer. Ziggy Elman takes it all in.)

The brass-led introduction, resting on a cushion of reeds, gives way to BG playing the melody in the first chorus. Benny plays in his lower register here, swathed in warm mysterioso reed sounds. The saxophone quartet then takes the secondary melody, under Mr. Mondello’s singing alto lead. When Benny returns, he is in a higher register, but still surrounded by warm, humming reeds.

A brassy modulation sets the stage for Louise Tobin’s vocal. The saxophones behind Louise, backed down by the Columbia recording engineer, and reverberating in concert with the room, have an ethereal quality. The soft, open brass perk up on the bridge. The final eight bars of this chorus have those floating saxophones returning to caress Ms. Tobin’s voice.

The next chorus spots the open brass (led by Ziggy Elman) in conversation with the reeds, now augmented by BG’s clarinet lead. Benny plays a bit more of the melody solo, and then ascends to an ending high note.

The use by film-maker Woody Allen of Benny Goodman’s recording of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” in his 2016 film Cafe’ Society, is most effective musically and cinematically, and a reminder of how evocative that recording is.


“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”

Composed by: Richard Rodgers, music, and Lorenz Hart, lyric; arranged by Jerry Gray.

Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Bluebird on November 9, 1939 in New York.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Bernie Privin, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Harry Geller, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Les Jenkins and Harry Rodgers, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Hank Freeman, alto and baritone saxophones; Tony Pastor and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Bob Kitsis, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums; Helen Forrest, vocal.

The story:

This recording is one of four from the last recording session Artie Shaw made with this great band. Soon after this recording was made, Shaw left his band and drove from Manhattan to Mexico, where he remained for several weeks. The story of the turbulent time before Shaw left his band is begun in the link to Shaw’s recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good.”(5) That story is continued in the link to Shaw’s recording of “Star Dust.”(6)

The music:

My admiration for Artie Shaw’s skills as a clarinetist and bandleader is great. Likewise, I have great admiration for the work of arranger Jerry Gray. The music they made together is among the greatest made during the swing era. But by the time this recording was made, the stresses that Shaw was under, which would drive him away from his band a few days later, probably had begun to have an effect on his performance as a bandleader. Undoubtedly, those stresses prevented him from taking the time and lavishing the attention he customarily did with his band in rehearsal and performance. This is not to say that his clarinet playing was not still excellent and that his band was not immaculately rehearsed. But there are subtle signs that Shaw was not totally involved in being the meticulous bandleader in every respect possible that he was throughout most of his career. It’s little wonder: six days after this recording was made, Shaw played his last note with this band.

Helen Forrest sings with Artie Shaw and his band on the stage of the Strand Theater in Manhattan – late September 1939.

For example, it seems to me that Artie took Jerry Gray’s arrangement of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” which is wonderful, and simply recorded it at a medium bounce tempo, which is fine for dancing, and then moved onto the next tune to be recorded that day. His band was so good by that time that they played through the performance perfectly. Vocalist Helen Forrest, like all of the other members of the Shaw band, conformed to Artie’s tempo like the consummate pro she was, though she had to tip-toe a bit, especially on the bridge of her chorus. The result was a brisk performance that seems disconnected from the song’s poetic lyric, which is about the bewilderment and longing that comes with falling in love. (Two days after this recording was made, Shaw performed “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” at the Cafe’ Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania for an NBC broadcast. The tempo he used in that performance was even faster!) How Shaw performed and recorded this song, completely missed what Alec Wilder called its mysterioso quality. Nevertheless, since he performed it at a brisk tempo at least twice, we must assume that, for whatever reason, he thought that was the best tempo to use. (It is also possible that he and Jerry Gray decided before Gray wrote his arrangement that they wanted this chart to swing, using a medium-up tempo.)

Setting aside the issue of tempo, what Shaw and his musicians and Ms. Forrest do in this performance is first-class musicianship. The brief, ascending introduction involving all of the instruments in the band except Shaw’s clarinet fall away as Artie begins to play the main melody in the first chorus. Notice how arranger Gray subtly uses the four saxophones and the open brass played into their derby mutes to warm-up the background behind the solo clarinet. The open brass take the secondary melody on the bridge, abetted by the saxophones. The reed quartet and then the brass finish the chorus. (Above right: Artie Shaw and Jerry Gray. This photo was taken in April of 1939 while Shaw was hospitalized with a serious blood disorder.)

After a typically economical Gray modulation, Helen Forrest sings the lovely Lorenz Hart lyric. It is clear that she is swinging her way through her chorus. Nevertheless, she remains pitch-perfect while maintaining her always-pleasing voice quality. Her performance here is one of many that make it clear why musicians respected her singing. Jerry Gray used the saxophones behind Ms. Forrest in the three “A” sections of the song. They sing, enhancing her singing.  As a contrast, Gray uses the muted brass as a cushion for her on the bridge.

Georgie Auld follows, playing a brief modulation and then an excellent jazz solo, surrounded by an aureole of warm open trombone sounds. The ensemble then takes it the rest of the way, with Bernie Privin’s first trumpet much in evidence, radiating gentle heat through the ensemble in the closing measures. (Above left: Georgie Auld.)

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

Notes and links:

(1) Here is a link with more of Louise Tobin’s singing, and the story of her time as Benny Goodman’s vocalist: https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/08/16/one-sweet-letter-from-you-1939-benny-goodman-with-louise-tobin-and-ziggy-elman/

(2) The details of the opening and run of the Broadway show Too Many Girls is extracted from the post on that show at Wikipedia.

(3) John Hammond ..On Record, An Autobiography, with Irving Townsend (1977), 217.

(4) American Popular Song …The Great Innovators 1900-1950, by Alec Wilder (1972), 213.

(5) Here is a link to Artie Shaw’s recording of “Oh, Lady be Good,” which begins the story of why he left his band in November of 1939. https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/08/20/oh-lady-be-good-1937-benny-goodman-1939-artie-shaw/

(6) And here is a link to Shaw’s recording of “Star Dust,” which continues that story: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/10/21/star-dust-1940-artie-shaw/

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  1. Whenever Goodman and Shaw come up in a swing/jazz and/or clarinet prowess discussion, I recall a comment from Johnny Guarnieri (I wish I had the exact quote before me) in which the pianist, who worked for both bandleaders, averred that all Benny ever wanted to hear was how much better he was as a clarinetist than Artie — and vice-versa. How can one say? A jazz clarinetist, familiar with the intricacies of the instrument and the challenges it poses, would, we may assume, be best equipped to speak about the technical abilities of these two players, while any musician in possession of a prodigious knowledge of jazz instrumental vocabulary and how it relates to music theory might be able to discourse on the harmonic knowledge that each displayed in his playing. We must remember, though, that not every listener is a musician. There is validity in the impressions, based on emotions roused by the music, of those who don’t play clarinet — or any instrument. I’m just a guitar player (of some forty years experience) and former trombone dabbler, but I know both Goodman and Shaw to be virtuosi. As to their bands, I always cite Goodman’s as my favourite swing orchestra, while I put Artie’s in my Top Five (along with the aforementioned, and those of TD, Duke and Basie) and consider his ’44-’45 aggregation to be the finest swing outfit of its period. There’s no doubt in my mind, based on Artie’s own words, that Shaw considered himself to be the better musician, perhaps the best jazz clarinetist of them all. He observed that while Goodman swung, his playing reflected a somewhat limited harmonic knowledge. I don’t recall reading anything from Benny in which he discussed the territory of harmonic content or compared his own musicianship to Artie’s. Both clarinetists were magnificent — to my ears and those of many others. I think we may believe that a healthy competition existed between the two, as both musicians and record sellers.

    Rodgers and Hart’s exquisite “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” just happens to be my favourite song! Rodgers’ moody melody and intriguing harmonic structure work beautifully on their own — there are many excellent instrumental treatments of the song — and Hart’s lyric, with its cleverly metaphorical title, is at once lushly poetic and disarmingly straightforward. The talents of the two men pair so well in this poignant piece.

    These two treatments of the then brand-new song represent one instance in which The King of Swing beat out The King of the Clarinet — to me, anyway. On its own terms (kind of) the Shaw version is good — but the Goodman version is great.

    We may easily imagine that the stress that imminently caused Artie simply to walk off the bandstand, abandoning leadership of his very popular orchestra, was nagging intensely at him at the time of this recording session, and thus deduce that he was unable to give the date and its scheduled songs his full concentration or interpretive engagement. However, this light tempo was a key part of the typical formula for a Shaw band ballad arrangement with a vocal, particularly in the ’38-’39 period. It seems worse here only because this pacing is utterly ridiculous in relation to the song’s meter and lyrical content. In fairness, it sounds as if Artie really didn’t know what time it was and fancied he was running late! It’s always seemed to me that he regarded vocalists — specifically, those who specialised in ballads or “sweet” material — as merely a necessary evil in the enterprise of leading a swing band. Billie Holiday, whose sole recording with the Shaw band was “Any Old Time,” appears to have been the only chanteuse that Artie regarded as an equal artistically. Being musicians, Tony Pastor and the great Hot Lips Page, who handled largely different material, were in another category. Did Artie consider vocal choruses just a waste of time, which could be better allotted to an instrumentalist — or did he simply feel that most ballad singers were musically unknowledgeable or lousy? … Or, going deeper, was his disdain not just for the singers who delivered the lyrics but also for the lyrics themselves? Artie seems not to have been a highly sentimental person. In any case, surely he gave a glance to what Helen was supposed to sing. Even in the opening instrumental statement, neither arranger Jerry Gray’s phrasing, especially on the bridge, or Artie’s in the A section suits the material. They greatly reduce the potential impact of Rodgers and Hart’s respective contributions, taking a song — a kind of “before and after” affair — about revelation and transformation brought on by being in love and turn it into a happy-go-lucky stroll through the park on a sunny afternoon. Helen Forrest, though neither an interpreter of the stature of, say, Billie or Mildred Bailey, nor possessed of the jazz sensibility of, say, Jo Stafford, Helen Ward, Peggy Lee or, certainly, Anita O’Day and Ella, did her job just about as well as it could be done. She was there to give a straight exposition of the melody and lyric in a sincere and tuneful manner — that was the job of the sweet singer in a swing band. She had a fantastic voice, sang in tune and rendered the lyrics with what comes across as genuine feeling and understanding. During her stay with Artie, she was often hobbled by too-brisk tempos — which, I’m sure, were dictated by the leader. Here, she and the song are sabotaged. On the bridge, the worst part, when she sings “… to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone […] see your face, feel your touch, hear your voice …” she might as well be reciting her grocery list — butter, milk, eggs, bread. And it’s not her fault — there’s nothing anybody could have done with the tempo and the phrasing imposed by the arrangement. She did the best possible, in the circumstances.

    Artie once said of Glenn Miller/the GM band: “[…] But musically, his was essentially ground-out music — ground-out like so many sausages.” Well, Artie’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” sounds pretty “ground-out” too. Maybe the “morons” and bandleading were just getting to him. … With all this said, I think the Shaw reeds sound glorious, as always, as I like Georgie’s bridge, a bit reminiscent of his spot, another bridge job, on “Comes Love.”

    The Goodman record is an entirely different affair. To begin with, I’ve always wondered about the studio that produced the wonderful sound we find in this session. It can be appreciated in all six sides, one instrumental and five vocal, and particularly on this one and the mysteriously withheld “I’ve Been There Before.” Liederkranz Hall, site of many a Whiteman orch recording triumph, makes perfect sense! I’m so glad that Benny gave this assignment to Fletcher, my favourite Goodman band arranger (and second favourite in general, after Sy Oliver) rather than Eddie Sauter, the newcomer to the band. I can envision Eddie making of this already fairly information-dense material something even denser — to the point that it might have gone “thud.” The brilliant Fletcher allows the song’s inherent structure to do a good part of the work and doesn’t burden the chart with unnecessary frills. He instead relies heavily on the characteristic tones of each horn section to frame the material. The Toots-led reeds are limpid, which suggests the nebulous state of … well, not knowing what time it is. The assertive Ziggy-led trumpets, by contrast, convey the clarity that follows — “I’m wise, and I know what time it is now.” A couple of things stand out for me in Goodman’s playing: One is the extent to which he had developed as a story teller from his earlier days as a band leader. By this time, he had come to infuse even an essentially straight reading of the melody with a personal element, which brought greater depth to his artistry. This is not to say that Benny’s playing ever failed to communicate feeling or capture the mood of the song, but that by ’39, he seems to have been drawing increasingly upon inner resources rather than just the material itself. The other thing, which is related in a way, is that it sounds as if he really loves this song! We can hear in things like the Sextet’s “I’m Confessin'” and “Memories of You” Benny’s genuine feeling for the material, and I think we may also find that in “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” It adds to the power of the recording.

    Of all the wordsmiths of the Golden Age of pop music, Lorenz Hart, my favourite lyricist, seems always to have shown the most vulnerability in his writing. Though enormously clever and witty and sometimes acerbic, Hart wore his heart on his sleeve. In “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, ” he displays an almost childlike sense of wonder, which contrasts intriguingly with the sophistication in Rodgers’ moody melody and harmonic structure. Who knows what Louise Tobin, not quite twenty-one but still an experienced vocalist, was channeling in her interpretation, but she summons a very mature reading of the song, in the sense that she appears to have understood thoroughly what both music and lyric called for. She makes one boo-boo, singing “And like the month of May it was, and I’ll say it was grand” instead of the written “Warm, like the month of May it was …” but it doesn’t derail the performance — hopefully, it didn’t cause author Larry too much consternation. Too, her Texas drawl is enchanting, with “Then I met you” becoming “Thiiiinnn I met you.” The reeds under her vocal sound posh, but Louise reminds us that love isn’t confined to the Park Avenue set. It’s hard to believe that hubby Harry James — far from the sweetest gent, by many accounts — could have inspired the feeling so palpable in this chorus but, again, who can say?

    I love Fletcher’s intro — the first bleat from the reeds giving way to the proclamatory trumpets — then the modulation heralding the vocal; the brass behind Louise’s bridge and finally the interplay between the Goodman-augmented reeds and the brass. Fletcher, true to Hart’s lyric, masterfully tells a “Then and Now” story with this arrangement, Benny’s playing is immaculate and extremely expressive, and Louise’s evocative vocal makes us wish this very talented singer’s discography had been more extensive. … And the tempo is perfect!

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