“Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet” (1975) Roland Shaw

“Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet”

Composed by Don Ray and Gene De Paul; probably arranged by Roland Shaw.

Recorded by Roland Shaw in 1975 for Decca in London, England.

Roland Shaw directing: Personnel unknown – possibly: Eddie Blair, trumpet; Ronnie Chamberlain, alto saxophone; Bob Efford, tenor saxophone; Ronnie Ross, baritone saxophone; Richard Shaw, piano; Judd Proctor, guitar; Lennie Bush, bass; Ronnie Verrell, drums. Vocal group consisting of four female and four male singers.

The story:

So much of the music of the swing era is inextricably intertwined with events surrounding World War II. The period of the War in the United States, December 7, 1941 until August of 1945, was marked by cataclysmic events in both the theaters of the War and on the homefront.  I will not catalog those events, but there were many of them. In terms of the evolution of the music of the swing era, there were unmistakable changes. Bands were getting larger, often having eight brass and five saxophones, plus the complement of four rhythm. This enabled bands to present more complex music, especially harmonically. Arrangers were working with more instrumental blends and colors. In the immediate postwar period, a few bands were presenting music that could accurately be described as avant-garde. Much of the repertoire of the Boyd Raeburn band could be put into this category. Drummer/singer Ray McKinley, a folksy entertainer to be sure, was also presenting very complicated and sometimes abstract music, composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter, one of the most advanced musicians ever to emerge from the mainstream of American music. Woody Herman, another very strongly mainstream musician and singer, had pushed his hot swing band toward the new musical developments ushered in by some jazz musicians during the War that were called bebop. Herman also presented what can accurately be described as music that was far outside the swing mainstream, composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto.”

Paradoxically perhaps, as many musicians in the world of swing were embracing more complex and challenging music, producers in Hollywood were turning out many simplistic escapist feature films. As they had done during the Great Depression, in World War II they were offering audiences an oasis of illusion and escape for a couple of hours in exchange for the price of a ticket to a movie theater. When seen today, these escapist films seem to be absurd hodgepodges, often including, incongruously, some marvelously talented people. But life in the U.S. is substantially different now from what it was in the mid-1940s, though we still confront a good many absurd hodgepodges in the world of entertainment.

One of the key elements of many film musicals then was the desire of the film’s producer to give the audience a new song during the film, one that they would like. Producers would tell the music supervisors for these films “I want something catchy, that the audience can whistle on their way home.” Often, this meant weaving a novelty song into whatever action was happening on the screen at a given time. “Novelties,” as they were called in the swing era, were lightweight and lighthearted musical fare that were meant to entertain audiences. They were often funny and almost always were clever. They often included slang in their lyrics. “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet” is a fine example of a World War II era novelty song, with its slang lyric including some then-current “hep” jive talk.

It appears that “Milkman” was composed in early 1943 (it was copyrighted on April 13, 1943), and then was recorded by vocalist Ella Mae Morse on October 20, 1943 for Capitol Records. That recording became a substantial hit, spawning many cover versions including a good one by Woody Herman, and several more by various artists in wartime London. The song was an effective morale builder, riffing as it were, on the theme of “Rosie the Riveter,” depicted in many cartoons as a shapely and beautiful young woman trying to get some sleep at home after a tough shift at the aircraft factory where she was doing the job a man had done before the War. “Milkman” was then used in the M-G-M Technicolor musical film Broadway Rhythm, in which it was sung by Nancy Walker, with Tommy Dorsey appearing in scenes with her, incongruously, as a milkman. (A link to that film sequence can be found at endnote 1.)

Roland Edgar Shaw-Tomkins (1920 – 2012) was an English composer, arranger and bandleader. He was born in Leicester, England and attended Trinity College of Music. He served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, leading RAF No. 1 Band of the Middle East Forces. Following wartime service he arranged for English bandleaders Ted Heath, Montovani and many others.

The popularity of Shaw’s arrangements of themes from James Bond movies led to production of a number of albums issued under his name in the mid-1960s. In 1966, his orchestra released a compilation entitled Themes for Secret Agents. In 1967 Themes from the James Bond Thrillers Vol.3 (released in the UK as More James Bond in Action), followed the release of Casino Royale and You Only Live Twice.

Shaw followed these up in 1971 with a double album, The Return of James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (released as a single album in the UK as The Phase 4 World of Spy Thrillers), coordinated with the release of legendary actor Sean Connery’s return as Bond in the film Diamonds are Forever. (Roland Shaw is pictured at left in the mid-1960s.)

Roland Shaw arranged the music in several films and composed the music for the films The Secret of My Success (1965) and Straight on Till Morning (1972).

Shaw had a long-standing relationship with English bandleader Ted Heath. When Heath was forced to curtail his activities as a bandleader in the mid-1960s due to poor health, Shaw provided arrangements for and led the Heath band on a series of successful recordings through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, made for the British Decca label.

The music:

1940s pop singer Ella Mae Morse recorded “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet” on October 20, 1943 for Los Angeles-based Capitol Records. Capitol had only recently (on October 11, 1943) settled with the musicians union, which had called a strike to halt the making of all commercial recordings on August 1, 1942.(2) That recording quickly became a hit, and probably early in 1944, M-G-M producer Jack Cummings decided to include “Milkman” in the film he was producing, Broadway Rhythm. That film was released on April 13, 1944. After the currency of the film and the recordings of “Milkman” passed, the song settled into semi-obscurity. Roland Shaw resurrected it in 1975 as a part of an LP concept album he made for Decca Records in London that gathered together ten novelty songs that were popular during World War II. Shaw arranged all of those songs to highlight the talents of the musicians and singers he used to record them. That album was called Those Wonderful Whacky ’40s. The performances of all of the songs on that album are excellent, and Decca’s London-based  technicians recorded them in superb fidelity.

The instrumentation Shaw used on his recording of “Milkman” was that of a slimmed-down big band, plus eight singers, four male and four female. In addition, he utilized some sound effects to heighten the idea of the milk bottles that are the “hook” for the song’s lyric. The mood of the performance is relaxed, mellow and swinging. Particular attention should be paid to the choruses in the middle of the recording containing bluesy and insinuating saxophone riffs, and two marvelous solos, possibly by pianist Richard Shaw and trumpeter Eddie Blair, both of which are fine jazz. (At left: trumpeter Eddie Blair.)

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

Notes and links:

(1) Here is a link to Nancy Walker singing and dancing her way through the World War II pop hit “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.” Watch for Tommy Dorsey in this sequence:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWQeTPwTg60

This bit of film is from the M-G-M technicolor film, Broadway Rhythm, which was released on April 13, 1944.

(2) Decca Records settled with the musicians union in September of 1943. Capitol Records settled on October 11, 1943. Columbia and Victor did not settle until November 11, 1944. Consequently, Decca and Capitol increased their shares of the record market – their gains were losses for Columbia and Victor.

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1 Comment

  1. Fantastic songs don’t need to be high art. Milkman is a perfect example of music-meant-to-make-you-happy. Music of this kind doesn’t get the critical attention it deserves. Thank you for helping change that with this superb post!

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