“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 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.)
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.
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)
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/