Composed and arranged by Dave Matthews.
Recorded by Woody Herman and His Orchestra for Decca on March 29, 1944 in New York.(*)
Woody Herman, clarinet, directing: Ray Wetzel, first trumpet; Neal Hefti, Bobby Guyer and Mario Serritello, trumpets; Al Mastren, Ed Kieffer and Alex Esposito, trombones; Chuck Di Maggio, first alto saxophone; Ernie Caceres, alto saxophone; Pete Mondello and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Skippy De Sair, baritone saxophone; Ralph Burns, piano; Hy White, electric guitar; Chubby Jackson, bass; Cliff Leeman, drums.
The story of what was happening during the transitional period for Woody Herman and his band from late 1943 to mid-1944 is told elsewhere on this blog. (See endnote 1 for a link to that story.) (At right: Woody Herman in the early 1940s.)
The period from August 1, 1942 to November 8, 1943, some fifteen months, encompassed the musicians’ union strike (at Decca Records – Victor and Columbia did not settle until November of 1944), which prohibited swing era bands from making commercial recordings. In addition, it was a time when the United States was deeply involved in mobilizing its armed forces to fight in World War II. This greatly impacted big bands that were comprised almost exclusively of young men who were subject to being called into military service with little advance warning. These two factors were definitely handicaps to operating a successful swing band. That was challenging enough in normal times during the swing era. But World War II was definitely not a normal time in any sense for the Americans who lived through it.
But if for any reason a musician was not called into military service during World War II, and he had the skills and strength to work in a top-level swing era band, he could and usually did do very well for himself. Military conscription (commonly known as “the draft”) had continuously depleted the ranks of musicians who were qualified and capable of playing in big bands through the War years. That meant that those who remained available to work became rarer. The law of supply-and-demand ensured that the wages those musicians could earn increased.
The demand for the music created by the bands also increased during the War because people on the home front were working overtime in War-related industries, often making more money than they ever had before. They had money to spend, and after working hard, wanted to relax by dancing to the music of a good band. Unfortunately for them, and for the bands that would provide the music for their dancing, widespread rationing of various resources had been instituted by the U.S. government to assist the military in having enough fuel and rubber, among other things, to prosecute the War. That meant getting to ballrooms, many of which were in suburban locations, was challenging for both the dancers and the bands.
I have not been able to locate any specific information about why Woody Herman did not serve in the military in World War II. It may well have been that he was deferred because he was married and had a child. Woody and his wife Charlotte became parents on September 3, 1941. They named their baby daughter “…Ingrid, after her grandmother (Charlotte’s mother) Inga, and in order not to slight Woody’s mother, they gave her the second name Myrtle. ‘That shows their devotion to their parents, that they would saddle their child with such a ridiculous name. For years, I wouldn’t tell anyone my middle name.’ “...Ingrid Herman said many years later. (2) (The clipping at right was published in Down Beat, November 1941, page 10.)
Woody Herman literally spent almost all of his life performing before audiences. Consequently, he developed an almost superhuman tolerance of the foibles of the musicians in his band, and for humanity as a whole. And unlike almost all other major bandleaders, he had a great sense of humor about everything, including himself. Here is a story Woody told in his later years about being the leader of a band that always had some very good-looking guys in it. “We had a guy, …he had the sun-bleached blond hair, and he was six-two and a half, and a typical playboy type, very casual, at ease with the world, a ladies’ man. And having someone like this in the band, when we arrived at a local joint, they always thought (he was the leader and) I was the band boy or something. I would have trouble getting in ballrooms and in theaters and in joints, because I always looked like a little creep.” (3) (In the 1930s and 1940s, Woody was five eight and weighed about 130 pounds.)
Since Woody Herman was a bandleader for over 50 years, he was able to see many of the musicians who matriculated through his various bands go on to successful careers in music. They almost universally retained a fondness for Woody as a person, and great respect for him as a bandleader. They all understood that Woody was a brilliant bandleader. Pinning down exactly what that meant was more difficult. As Phil Wilson, who played trombone in one of Woody’s later bands, then went on to success as an arranger and educator, expressed it: “Nobody does what Woody does as well as he does it. If we could only figure out what he does…” (4) (Above left: Charlotte, Ingrid and Woody Herman – 1943.)
“When Dave Matthews, the saxophonist and arranger, wrote this tune, he called it ‘Biggie Speaks.’ ‘Biggie,’ he explained, was Neal Reid, a tall, forceful trombone player for Woody Herman. When the band played theater dates, Herman would introduce the sidemen and give each of them a chance to solo. Biggie played a strong horn, and I wrote this piece for him. The title came from a phrase we used for a good sideman: ‘Man, that cat can really speak!'” (5)
It appears that Dave Matthews came on the Herman scene in mid-1942. Neal Reid left the Herman band in the summer of 1943, being replaced by Alex Esposito. When this tune was recorded for Decca on March 29, 1944, the original lacquer recording disk on which it was recorded contained the title “Biggie Speaks.” Woody used his prerogative as a bandleader to rename the tune to commemorate his daughter’s first word, “mama,” spoken some time before this recording was made.
Pianist Ralph Burns plays the band on. The robust unison reeds play the simple melody for the first sixteen bars of the first chorus. Notice how they become harmonized at the end of each eight-bar segment, with the baritone saxophone part being prominent. (One of many nods by Dave Matthews in the direction of Duke Ellington, who found many ways to use the massive sound produced by his baritone saxophonist, Harry Carney.) The swooping clarinet played by Woody is a paean to Duke’s long-time clarinet soloist, Barney Bigard. Behind this solo, the brass go oo-ah, another Ducal touch. Alex Esposito’s robust open trombone solo evokes Duke’s Lawrence Brown, who could and did often preach like this. To highlight the preaching, Matthews has Esposito being echoed by the brass, a felicitous arranging touch. The virile tenor saxophone solo is played by Georgie Auld, a ringer in the Herman band whose services Woody secured for this recording date only. (Auld, who was then an idolator of Ben Webster, was leading his own band then, and had the day before made radio transcriptions with them.)
Hy White’s electric guitar solo is a delight, supported at first by the flowing, singing saxophones, and then by the rhythmic saxophones. After a transitional sequence, where the guitar is surrounded by riffing ensemble sounds, Matthews charted an eight-bar tract during which White and bassist Chubby Jackson play a duet, which provides a nice contrast. This contrast is one that very definitely was not Ellington inspired: Duke never featured an electric guitar in his music.
In the final chorus, we hear Esposito’s solo trombone again, and some juicy low register Herman clarinet. The finale comes after a brief Cliff Leeman drum burst. (Above right: Woody Herman and Cliff Leeman – 1944.)
Composed and arranged by Dave Matthews.
Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on February 22, 1972 in Hollywood.
Billy May, directing: John Best, first trumpet; John Audino, Ray Triscari, Pete Candoli and Uan Rasey, trumpets; Lloyd Ulyate, first trombone; Gil Falco, Dave Wells, Phil Teele and Joe Howard, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon and Plas Johnson, tenor saxophones; Jack Nimitz, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, acoustical guitar; Al Hendrickson, electric guitar; Morty Corb, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.
By the time Billy May recorded his version of Woody Herman’s “Ingie Speaks” in early 1972, he and his swing era cohorts were nearing completion of their extensive Swing Era series of recordings. The final recording session for that series came on March 6, 1972. (The first session was on December 3, 1969.) The series had been an unqualified commercial success in large measure because the partnership between Capitol Records and the vast and influential Time-Life magazine publishing enterprise. The promotion of the recordings made in the Swing Era series by Time-Life was excellent, and the recordings, being sold by mail order, reached every corner of the United States and indeed around the world. The musicians involved loved the project because it provided them with steady employment for over two years, and they really enjoyed playing the music of the swing era, especially under the direction of Billy May. (Above right: Billy May and his “guitar Mafia,” shown in the early 1970s. L-R: Al Hendrickson, May (seated), Bob Bain, and Jack Marshall. Billy’s appraisal of their talent – “These guys could play anything.”)
As the Swing Era venture was winding down, the producer of the series, Dave Cavanaugh, was something of a hero around Capitol Records because of the success of the project. As anyone who knows anything about the entertainment business knows, if something has been successful, the next step almost always is to create a follow-up, utilizing some of the components of the earlier success, but with a slight difference, for the sake of novelty. Here is what Billy May said about that follow-up project, recording in state-of-the-art stereo sound many of the pop music hits of the previous two decades, which was called As You Remember Them: “We had so much fun and it was such a good gig doing the Swing Era that Dave Cavanaugh cooked-up As You Remember Them to keep the ball rolling. Since most of the repertoire was crap, we kind of fluffed the whole thing off. (But those recordings) are an asset to Capitol…”(6) Fluffed or not, this series resulted in a string of 56 recording sessions from March 27, 1972 to June 18, 1973, and kept a lot of L.A.-based musicians busy.
Pianist Ray Sherman plays the band on. From this brief introduction through the entire performance, we can enjoy the superb bass-playing of Morty Corb. (Shown above left.) The robust unison reeds play the simple melody for the first sixteen bars of the first chorus. Woody’s swooping clarinet solo is replicated here by Abe Most. The swaggering trombone solo is played by Joe Howard. The tenor saxophone solo is played by Justin Gordon. Hy White’s electric guitar solo is played here by guitar virtuoso Al Hendrickson.
Also notable in this performance is the strong first alto saxophone playing of Les Robinson, and the extra-warm first trumpet part played by John Best. (Above right: Joe Howard and Willie Schwartz enjoy a break between takes at a recording session.)
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) This tune was recorded at the World Broadcasting System studio at 711 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
(1) Here is a link to the music and story from a few months after this recording was made that reveals how the Herman band was evolving through the year 1944: https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/03/24/125th-street-prophet-1945-woody-herman-with-neal-hefti-and-dave-tough/
(2) Leader of the Band …The Life of Woody Herman, by Gene Lees (1995), 80. Hereafter Lees.
(3) Lees, 84.
(4) Lees, 86.
(5) The Swing Era …One More Time, (1972), 55.
(6) The Music of Billy May, by Jack Mirtle (1998), 322.
Here is some romping swing, created a bit after “Ingie Speaks” by Woody Herman’s “first herd.”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/01/13/red-top-1945-woody-herman/
And here are links to other great Herman band performances over the years: