“I’ve Got the World on a String”
Composed by Harold Arlen; arranged by Johnny Keating.
Recorded by Ted Heath and His Music for Decca in October of 1957 in London, England.
Ted Heath, directing: Bobby Pratt, first trumpet; Bert Ezard, Duncan Campbell and Eddie Blair, trumpets; Don Lusher, first trombone; Wally Smith, Jimmy Coombes and Keith Christie, trombones; Leslie Gilbert, first alto saxophone; Ronnie Chamberlain, alto saxophone; Henry MacKenzie and Red Price, tenor saxophones; Ken Kiddier, baritone saxophone; Frank Horrox, piano; Ike Isaacs, guitar; Johnny Hawksworth, bass; Ronnie Verrell, drums.
The story – The Cotton Club:
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, a period of pervasive Jim Crow racism in the United States, the now legendary Harlem nightclub called “The Cotton Club” existed as sort of a black musical theater adjunct to Broadway. The revues that were produced for presentation there were astonishingly rich in terms of the talent that went into making them. The club was a clever exploitation of the schizoid racial mores of the Jim Crow era by New York gangsters who wanted to market their illegal liquor during Prohibition, another bizarre social/legal construct that existed in the United States through the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Their basic concept was to present black talent to all-white audiences, and make sure that plenty of bootleg liquor was available for sale to those audiences.
Here is the story behind The Cotton Club: “In 1920, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson rented the upper floor of the building on the corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem, and opened a supper club called the Club Deluxe. Owney Madden, a prominent New York bootlegger and gangster, took over the club after his release from the New York state prison at Ossining (Sing, Sing), in 1923 and changed its name to the Cotton Club. The two arranged a deal that allowed Johnson to remain the club’s manager. Madden ‘used the Cotton Club as an outlet to sell his #1 beer to the prohibition crowd.’
After the club closed briefly in 1925 for selling liquor (in violation of Prohibition laws), it soon reopened without interference from the police. An extensive drink list continued to be available on the Cotton Club menu for sale to white guests following the shut down. Herman Stark then became the stage manager. Harlem producer Leonard Harper directed the first two of three opening night floor-shows at the venue.
The Cotton Club was designed to admit only whites as patrons, with rare exceptions for black celebrities such as singer/actress Ethel Waters and dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. It reproduced the racist imagery of the era, often depicting black people as savages in exotic jungles, or as benign ‘darkies’ in the plantation South. A 1938 menu included this imagery, with illustrations done by Julian Harrison, showing naked black men and women dancing around a drum in the jungle. Tribal mask illustrations made up the border of the Cotton Club menu.
The club imposed a subtler color line on the chorus girls, who were presented in skimpy outfits. They were expected to be ‘tall, tan, and terrific,’ which meant they had to be at least 5’6″ tall, light-skinned, beautiful, and under 21 years of age. The male dancers, known as the Cotton Club Boys, had skin coloration that was more varied. ‘Black performers were not permitted to mix with the club’s clientele, and after the show many of them went next door to a basement speakeasy at 646 Lenox, where corn whiskey, peach brandy, and marijuana (were available for purchase.)’
Inside the Cotton Club – late 1920s: Duke Ellington is providing the music for the Cotton Club dancers who were “tall, tan and terrific.”
Duke Ellington, whose first engagement at the Cotton Club began in late 1927, was expected to provide ‘jungle music’ for a white audience. Ellington’s contributions to the entertainment presented at Cotton Club over the next decade were great. In 1937, after the Cotton Club moved into midtown Manhattan, the New York Times contained this blurb: ‘So long may the empirical Duke and his music making roosters reign—and long may the Cotton Club continue to remember that it came down from Harlem.’ Entrance was expensive for customers, and it included a two dollar minimum cover fee on weekdays for food and drink, so the performers were well-compensated.'” (1)
What has been peculiar over the decades since the Cotton Club closed in 1940, is that very few commentators have presented in their scholarship how the Cotton Club was perceived by the black people who lived in Harlem. Here is what black poet Langston Hughes (shown at left), who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote about the Cotton Club following his visit there: It is ...“a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.” In addition to the “jungle music” and plantation-themed interior, Hughes believed that the club’s idea of “authentic black entertainment” was similar to the entertainment provided at a zoo and that white “strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro (performers) – like amusing animals in a zoo.”
Hughes also believed that the Cotton Club negatively affected the Harlem community. He mentioned how many of the neighboring black cabarets were forced to close due to the competition from the Cotton Club. These smaller clubs did not have a large floor or music by famous entertainers like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. “Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang. ‘We can’t go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won’t even let us in your clubs.’ But they didn’t say it out loud–for Negroes are practically never rude to white people. So thousands of whites came to Harlem night after night, thinking the Negroes loved to have them there, and firmly believing that all Harlemites left their houses at sundown to sing and dance in cabarets, because most of the whites saw nothing but the cabarets, not the houses.”(2) Significantly, the Harlem Cotton Club closed after a race riot in Harlem in 1935. It reopened in 1936 at a location at 48th and Broadway in midtown Manhattan.
Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that reflects his impressions of the world of Harlem entertainment in the 1920s. It was written in 1926 and is entitled Harlem Night Club:
Jazz-band, jazz -band,
Play, play, play!
Tomorrow. … who knows?
Grin jungle joys.
Sing Eve’s charms!
What do you know
Where all paths go?
Play, play play!
Tomorrow. … is darkness.
The music for the song “I’ve Got the World on a String” was composed by Harold Arlen (the equally delightful lyric, composed by Ted Koehler, is not included in this performance), for the revue Cotton Club Parade of 1932.
The Ted Heath LP All Time Top Twelve, which was released in early 1958, was one of the first true stereophonic sound records to hit markets in the United Kingdom, Heath’s homeland, and the United States. The novelty of stereophonic sound, plus the superb sound quality of the recordings and the great performances by the Heath band, which was then at its zenith as a performing unit, quickly made this LP a best-seller.
The concept behind the album was to gather a dozen of the melodies that various authorities in the mid-1950s, including the music periodical The Billboard (3), had concluded were among the most popular songs in what is now known as the Great American Songbook. More important, at least from my standpoint as a historian whose focus is the music in the swing idiom, is the quality of the music itself, and the quality of the interpretation and performance of the music. There is a wonderful confluence of all of those elements in Ted Heath’s All Time Top Twelve.
Ted Heath and his saxophones: L-R: Ken Kiddier, Ronnie Chamberlain, Leslie Gilbert, Red Price and Henry MacKenzie. The bassist is Johnny Hawksworth; the pianist Frank Horrox.
This performance begins with a clever four-bar introduction: blast of brass followed by a decrescendo in the unison saxophones, continued in a downward direction by pianist Frank Horrox, who finishes the run with his left hand.
In the first chorus the main melody is presented by Ted Heath’s superbly integrated saxophone quintet, playing in harmony. (Notice their beautifully matched vibratos.) The first eight bars have the reeds supported only by the quiet playing of the rhythm section. Between the two eight bar tracts of melody, there is a bit of cup-muted brass, adding a gentle contrast. The muted brass continue to provide contrasting warm sounds through the second eight bars. The secondary melody (bridge) is played by the trombone quartet on open horns, with Eddie Blair (shown above left) providing an improvised Harmon-muted obbligato on his trumpet. The final eight bars of this chorus contain many dynamic and sonic contrasts: a powerful open brass led tutti followed by those saxophones again (and a few Basie-like tinkles from pianist Horrox), followed by the softly-played open trumpets and trombones.
The second chorus is presented dramatically. Master showman Ted Heath would have the brass and reeds stand while playing during this sequence to heighten the excitement of the music. The saxophones return here, but with the bridge melody, their robust sound being offset by the open brass, which then lead the entire ensemble through a return the main melody. In this sequence, drummer Ronnie Verrell adds a few dramatic touches to the music.
The coda contains the saxophones contrasted with Harmon-muted trumpets.
This is a well-constructed, beautifully paced arrangement which, first and foremost, celebrates a great melody. It also contains numerous contrasts, and it is played with feeling and precision by a virtuoso band. Bravo arranger Johnny Keating, master musician Heath sidemen, and Maestro Ted Heath.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The information presented in this post about The Cotton Club was derived from the Wikipedia post on that subject.
(2) The quotes of the words of Langston Hughes come from the first volume of his autobiography up to age 28, The Big Sea, published in 1940. A second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander, was published in 1956. Hughes’s perspective as a black man living in a racially segregated society are invaluable to anyone who wants to get a more complete picture of what life was like in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s.
(3) The Billboard is a music and entertainment magazine that has existed in various formats since 1894. It has long been a source of information on the relative popularity of various types of music via its “charts.”
Here are links to other wonderful Ted Heath performances here at swingandbeyond.com:
And some performances that feature the Heath band’s interpretations of other famous bands’ music: