Composed by Lady John Scott; arranged by Sy Oliver.
Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra for Decca on November 5, 1937 in New York.
Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Eddie Tompkins, first trumpet; Paul Webster and Sy Oliver, trumpets; Elmer Crumbley, Russell Bowles and Trummy Young, trombones; Willie Smith, first alto saxophone; Ted Buckner and Dan Grissom, alto saxophones; Joe Thomas, tenor saxophone; Earl “Jock” Carruthers, baritone saxophone; Eddie Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Moses Allen, bass; Jimmie “Craw” Crawford, drums.
What of this man, Jimmie Lunceford? As we look back at the leaders of the great big bands of the swing era, we wonder what kind of person would it have taken to perform successfully in that very demanding role. Invariably, the bands that achieved success were led by extraordinary people. The public face of any bandleader, which had to be happy, charming, graceful and witty in order to interact positively with audiences, was only a small part of a bandleader’s duties, though a very important one. How the leader interacted with the musicians in his band was of greater importance. He/she had to have enough musical intelligence and people skills to make sure his/her band was presenting a good musical product to audiences, with inspiration and integrity. This, of course, is much easier said than done.
Lunceford was renowned for being a strict musical disciplinarian. He lived and ran his band by the credo: Precision, Punctuality and Presentation, the Three Ps. These were not merely aspirational goals for Lunceford. They took on totemic importance in how Jimmie operated as a bandleader. Lunceford backed this up by imposing his will on his band, which in the 1930s and 40s was comprised of young, red-blooded musicians who sometimes were rather wild. In order to do this successfully, Lunceford had to have a strong personality, and he did have a strong personality.
Despite quite a few attempts to plumb the depths of Lunceford’s personality, an accurate sense of what he was like as a person has remained elusive. Although many of Lunceford’s musical associates had somewhat divergent opinions about Lunceford’s personality, there were nevertheless a number of things that they agreed on. Jimmie didn’t drink or smoke or gamble. Paradoxically, when the band members pressed him to bet on something, he would casually place his bet, and usually win.(1) This flummoxed them.
According to Sy Oliver, “he was consistent in everything he did and this gave the fellows in the band a sense of security.” (2) Oliver, who spent some six years in the Lunceford band starting at age 23, had a love-hate relationship with Lunceford. The “hate” part of their relationship was rooted in Oliver’s youthful resentment of Lunceford’s authority. Nevertheless, Oliver, at least in his later life when he reflected on his time with Lunceford, came to understand better why he and Jimmie did not get along that well. Lunceford was well educated, and this intimidated Oliver, who nevertheless was a very bright person. Still, Oliver could not help but notice that “…the moment Lunceford set foot on the stage, he was in charge. Without contributing that much to the band musically, he made the band. He was the boss.” (3) (Above right: bandleader, psychologist and reluctant pugilist Jimmie Lunceford.)
Like Lunceford, Sy Oliver had a strong personality. He and Jimmie clashed. This situation troubled Lunceford, who certainly understood what a gifted musician Sy Oliver was. Being a masterful psychologist, Jimmie created a situation that he thought might reduce tensions between him and Oliver. Lunceford, though he was rather portly from the late 1930s on, was nevertheless a big and powerful man. So was Oliver. But Jimmie had been a very good boxer while he was in college, and Oliver did not know this. “They had a little bad blood between them, so they thought they would have it out in a nice way. So they had this boxing match at the YMCA. They were in there and the band was in there (watching). Jimmie never said a word (about his experiences as a boxer in college). Sy got in the ring, and when the bell rang, they came out. Jimmie hit him once, and that was all there was to it.”(4) After that, Oliver was less truculent, for a while. (Above left: Sy Oliver, who grew up musically and personally under Jimmie Lunceford’s guidance.)
By the time this recording was made at the end of 1937, Jimmie Lunceford had been a bandleader for some eight years. He had assembled the personnel of his band with care. All of the musicians he chose were talented instrumentalists. But Lunceford also wanted them to be versatile entertainers. They had to sing, individually, in small groups and sometimes as a choir. They had to dance, shimmy and toss their instruments with perfect synchronization. Despite the theatricality that the Lunceford band was noted for (and which audiences loved), music was always first. Gradually through the 1930s, the Lunceford band mastered the art of swinging the music they presented. If any band during the swing era epitomized the delicate balance between discipline and relaxation in performance, it was the Lunceford band.
Sy Oliver joined the Lunceford band in 1933. By then, he was already a talented arranger. But over the next six years, he grew to understand how to deploy the musical assets of the Lunceford band in a way that maximized their impact in performance. His approach dovetailed perfectly with Lunceford’s dedication to discipline and colorful, indeed exuberant, presentation. (At right: Sy Oliver (left) with Lunceford band section leaders – trumpeter Eddie Tompkins and alto saxophonist Willie Smith.)
This joyous performance epitomizes Lunceford’s approach to music: it is disciplined and it swings mightily. Sy Oliver’s great, colorful arrangement is brought vividly to life by the Lunceford band. After a bright introduction, the open brass deliver the first pass at the main melody at a lower dynamic level, answered by the saxophones, with each instrument in each section playing in perfect blend with all of the others. The secondary melody is presented on the bridge via a surge in the saxophones, then with a burst of brass and a kaleidoscopic interplay between the brass and the reeds. The rhythm section, led by drummer Jimmie Crawford, swings with subtle intensity. Notice how he uses back-beats to support the ensembles, then backs them off a bit behind the soloists.
Tenor saxophonist Joe Thomas takes a robust sixteen bar solo to begin the second chorus, soulful and swinging, as usual. Thomas’s approach to playing had in it the seeds of what later became rhythm and blues. An orchestral sequence follows on the bridge, again demonstrating the incredible togetherness of this band. Thomas returns to rock on to the conclusion of his solo.
Trombonist Trummy Young then jumps into the swinging mix by playing a series of thrusting upward figures, followed by a melodic paraphrase. Notice how Oliver supports this solo with low, gently prodding saxophones, and the ever-percolating rhythm section. All of this keeps the overall rhythm of the performance at an intense level. The brass and reeds then riff, leading to a burst of solo trumpet by Paul Webster, a bit more riffing and then Webster going into his high register to provide a thrilling mini-climax.
The out-chorus has the virtuosity of the Lunceford band on display, with trombonist Young reappearing at the end for the big finale.
I think it important to state that by the time the Lunceford band made this recording in November of 1937, they had benefitted from the presence in their ranks of one of the pioneering masters of swing arranging, trombonist/guitarist/arranger Eddie Durham, from May of 1935 until early 1937. They, most definitely including Jimmie Lunceford and Sy Oliver, learned much from Durham’s overall approach to swing both as an instrumentalist and arranger. Durham’s influence, combined with Lunceford’s rigorous rehearsals and Oliver’s creativity as an arranger, enabled the Lunceford band to swing impeccably, as they do in this performance.
There was in fact an Annie Laurie. She lived in the early 1700s in a castle on Maxwelton’s braes, and was much celebrated for her beauty. A poem was written about her by one of her many smitten admirers, Willie Douglas of Fingland. This poem was later, in the 1830s, discovered by a formidable Scottish noblewoman, Lady John Scott. Lady Scott wrote a melody for the poem, which she edited rather severely, toning down Douglas’s lusty verses, and making them more acceptable to the society in which she lived in Victorian England. (5)
Here for comparison is Billy May’s 1970 recording of Sy Oliver’s great arrangement of “Annie Laurie.”
Composed by Lady John Scott; arranged by Sy Oliver. Oliver chart reconstructed by Billy May.
Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra on November 23, 1970 for Capitol in Hollywood.
Billy May, directing: Clarence F. “Shorty” Sherock, first trumpet; John Best, Pete Candoli, Uan Rasey, trumpets; Chuck Findley high trumpet only; Dick Nash, first trombone; Joe Howard, Lew McCreary, trombones; Trummy Young, solo trombone only; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon and Don Lodice, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.
In the years after Billy May made the recordings that now comprise the Swing Era set, he was asked many times how he felt about them. What he said always reflected these ideas: 1) He and the musicians who made those recordings with him enjoyed working on the project; 2) The music sometimes successfully evoked the spirit of the original recordings, though not always; 3) That he and the musicians involved in the project greatly appreciated the opportunity to work on making the recordings for a span of over two years – it was great work.
In the case of their recording of “Annie Laurie,” I think it safe to say that this performance by Billy May and his band of swing era veterans definitely evoked the spirit of the original Lunceford recording. I strongly suspect that the feeling of rocking, joyous swing that is evident throughout this performance is attributable in part to the presence in the studio of ex-Lunceford trombonist Trummy Young, who plays his classic solo on this recording with skill and verve. The other soloists are tenor saxophonist Don Lodice, who worked with and knew Sy Oliver in Tommy Dorsey’s band, and understood his music perfectly, and the younger trumpet sharpshooter Chuck Findley, who handles the high-note parts with elan. Other musicians who contribute notably to the swing of this performance are lead trumpeter Shorty Sherock, lead alto saxophonist Les Robinson and drummer Nick Fatool. (Above left – trombonist James “Trummy” Young.)
This is happy music!
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Rhythm is Our Business …Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express, by Eddy Determeyer (2008) 107-108. This story was recounted much later by trumpeter Russell Green, who joined the Lunceford band in 1943. By then, the story, which had been passed down through several years by Lunceford sidemen, had taken on the tinge of legend.
(2) Ibid. 106.
(3) Ibid. 105.
The Swing Era 1937-1938 (1970), notes on the music by Joseph Castner, 54-55.