“Washboard Blues” (1938) Tommy Dorsey/Deane Kincaide with Johnny Mince and Skeets Herfurt

“Washboard Blues”

Composed by Hoagy Carmichael; arranged by Deane Kincaide.

Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on July 11,1938 in Hollywood.

Tommy Dorsey, first and solo trombone; directing: Augusto “Andy” Ferretti, first trumpet; Aniello “Lee” Castaldo (Castle), George “Pee Wee” Erwin, trumpets; Earl Hagen and Les Jenkins, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Freddie Stulce, alto saxophone; John H. Muenzenberger (Johnny Mince), clarinet; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt and Deane Kincaide, tenor saxophones; Howard Smith, piano; Carmine Mastrandrea (Carmen Mastren), guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Maurice Purtill, drums.

The story:

Tommy Dorsey was unquestionably one of the most successful bandleaders in the world of swing from the late 1930s until his untimely death in late 1956. In addition to being a superb virtuoso trombonist, Tommy lavished much of his time and attention on his band. Unlike most other successful bandleaders, Tommy tinkered obsessively with the personnel in his band. Apparently his drive for musical perfection caused him to move musicians in and out, and indeed around within his band, almost constantly. He understood well the roles that existed for the musicians who made up his bands, and he was always looking for musicians who could fill those roles to his exacting specifications. He himself took care of the solo and lead trombone duties, and his efforts can be justly praised as uniformly excellent. He also always had top-notch first trumpeters and first alto saxophonists. He always sought out the best jazz trumpeters he could find at any give time, in addition to jazz tenor saxophonists, clarinetists, and drummers.

He was also an excellent rehearser of his bands. Seldom if ever did he present music that was ill-prepared or played with imprecision. Rehearsals conducted by TD were rigorous. Both Bud Freeman and Johnny Mince told me that Tommy was incredibly focused in rehearsal, and knew exactly what he wanted to hear in the music. He communicated that clearly to his sidemen, and would work toward his objective along with them until he got what he wanted. Freeman, Mince and other musicians who worked for TD over the years often stated that Tommy always worked as hard, or harder than he expected his sidemen to work. It was understood by everyone who joined the TD band that whenever they were working with him, they had to give the music ALL of their attention and skill. Effort at 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 was what Tommy demanded. If any musician couldn’t perform at that level, he would soon be fired.

Tommy also strove constantly to present a wide variety of music to his audiences. Fundamental to his approach was the notion that whatever music he presented, it had to be danceable. In the late 1930s, dancers were the primary customers who purchased the music of swing bands. TD understood this as well as any bandleader. Tommy also understood that he was selling music to audiences, and that without the money they paid for his music, he would be out of business. Consequently, he did things musically that other bandleaders, especially those who led bands that could swing, balked at doing. He always had a good boy and girl singer, and they were presented often during his band’s appearances. He almost always dabbled in other vocal music, provided at various times by members of his band (the Three Esquires), or by a discrete vocal group that was very much involved in creating the music they performed with the TD band (the Pied Pipers). He regularly played music with his band written by a large contingent of arrangers. In 1938, this contingent included Paul Wetstein (Weston), who was then Tommy’s chief arranger; Axel Stordahl, who wrote many of the charts that featured vocals; Deane Kincaide, a saxophonist (and sometimes TD sideman) who had a very personal approach to traditional jazz tunes; Freddie Stulce, a stalwart TD sidemen who at various times in his seven years as a member of Tommy’s band played on every chair in the saxophone section. All of these arrangers were “inside,” meaning they were on Tommy’s payroll. TD also used the arrangements of “outside” writers like Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson and others who specialized in swing. (Deane Kincaide is pictured at left in the mid-1930s.)

Tommy also had a revolving contingent of very good jazz players in his band, from the late 1930s right up to the end. A partial list would include these names: Bunny Berigan, Max Kaminsky, Pee Wee Erwin, Yank Lawson, Ziggy Elman and Charlie Shavers on trumpet; Bud Freeman, Babe Russin, Don Lodice, Al Klink  and Boomie Richman on tenor saxophone; Joe Dixon, Johnny Mince, Gus Bivona and Buddy DeFranco on clarinet; Dave Tough, Moe Purtill, Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson on drums.

Tommy Dorsey also engaged in vigorous public relations in order to create as high a profile as possible for himself and his band. In fact, he had on his payroll in the late 1930s a full-time public relations specialist, Jack Egan. Tommy constantly pressured Egan to come up with publicity stunts and gimmicks to get his name and/or picture into print. The culmination of the Dorsey-Egan publicity machine was Tommy’s publication of a newspaper about him and his band (among other features) called The Bandstand, which came out monthly starting in January of 1939. This quixotic gambit, one of the most expensive in Tommy’s career, lasted six months, mushroomed to a circulation of 180,000, and cost TD some $65,000.00. (1) (Multiply by 15 to get the value of today’s dollars.)

The Bandstand may have come about as a result of Tommy’s irritation with one of the then-current pop music publications, Down Beat. Below is the article that appeared in the August 1938 issue of Down Beat. My informed speculation is that the article, which is well-written and cogent, was written by Jack Egan, with considerable input of ideas by TD.

Here is a readable version of the article:

TOMMY DORSEY CRITICIZES DOWN BEAT ‘Too Many People Think Your Critics’ Prejudices are the Policies of D.B.!”

“I’ve discussed Down Beat with a good many leaders during the last few months,” said Tommy Dorsey to Carl Cons, managing editor of Down Beat, in his dressing room at the Chicago Theater last month, “If you really want some friendly, honest criticism, I’ll give it to you – I’ve always been interested in Down Beat ever since I was a sideman not so long ago. I’ve watched it grow; watched it formulate editorial policies; and heard a lot pro and con from the boys who read it – the boys who make their living in the business. In the first place, during the last couple of years your writers seem chiefly interested in taking pot-shots at everybody. They don’t seem to offer friendly, constructive criticism but rather try to divide bands into two groups – the ones they like and the one they don’t like. The latter, to use one of their favorite words, stink, according to their views. Why? Only last month, a critic in writing up Goodman’s band said that the work of Benny’s vocalist, Martha Tilton, stunk. Now as far as I and almost everyone else is concerned, Martha is one of the top-notch girl vocalists in the business. Just because she does not sing in the style of Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald or a few others whom this critic seems to admire is no sign that she has a bad voice. As a matter of fact, she has a fine style, sings in tune and swings right with the band. His opinion is strictly personal and reflects only an individual taste. In fact, it doesn’t even coincide with what you yourself think – which brings up something else.”

Stick to News! “When you do use articles of this kind, you should have some way of informing your readers that the content and opinions expressed are strictly those of the writer and do not reflect the attitude of you, the editors. To be perfectly frank, Down Beat should for the most part be current news and not opinions. Joe Public might be interested in what your critics think, but musicians as a whole form their own opinions. They have their own likes and dislikes too and the ideas in most of your articles infer that anyone who doesn’t agree with your alleged critics is strictly an ‘ickie.’ Take another critic for instance. There is no denying that his editorial efforts are interesting bit everyone who reads his stuff knows that there are only two bands in the business of which he entirely approves, Goodman and Basie. Admittedly, he comes out with a good word for other bands occasionally, but it gets to be a joke the way he harps on those two. One of his pet peeves seems to be the Casa Loma outfit, for example. Maybe Casa Loma doesn’t swing out the way he himself thinks they should – but is that any good reason why they aren’t a good band? Your writers should try to see a few of the good points about the different bands to try to advance music. I don’t mean false praise of the slush variety, but if they think a band could do better have them criticize constructively and suggest a remedy thus doing the leader a good turn.” (Above right – marquee of the Chicago Theater – June 1938. Backstage Tommy Dorsey was giving a piece of his mind to Carl Cons, managing editor of Down Beat.)

Is It True? “And we leaders would appreciate it if you would not print rumors. Check with us to find out if the source of information is authentic before you print it. Don’t say so-and-so is leaving such-and-such a band before you actually know what the story is because such erroneous information is liable to cause embarrassment for both the leader and the sideman. Down Beat has definitely established itself among the trade and leaders, and musicians like to look upon it as a reliable source of information. They want to know that anything they read in your editorial columns is absolutely true without qualification. Your position in the music world is an important one – keeping the trade accurately and efficiently informed is an important mission and it should not be treated lightly in any sense of the word. And don’t forget Carl, these are not personal opinions or a beef because some writer might have taken a crack at me or my band. As a matter of fact, most of the stuff you’ve printed about me has been pretty swell. I’m merely reflecting the views of a few maestros I’ve talked to who are interested in the welfare of Down Beat and the dance music world.

Thanks for voting me the number one trombone player. Though I may be a band leader to the public, I’m just another trombone player to the boys.”

The music:

The music for “Washboard Blues” was written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1924. It was apparently first recorded by O’Bryant’s Washboard Band in early 1925 in Chicago on the Paramount label. Carmichael himself first recorded it on the Gennett label on May 19, 1925, with the record label reading as by “Hitch’s Happy Harmonists.” A few other recordings were made of the tune in the period 1925-1926. One of the most notable recordings of it was made by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra for Victor on November 18, 1927. In the Whiteman orchestra for that recording were Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey. Carmichael sang the song’s lyric (written by Fred B. Callahan) on that recording. Subsequently, the song was recorded by the Casa Loma band in 1932, and by Hoagy himself (ever the promoter) in 1932, 1933 and 1934. The next period of interest in “Washboard Blues” came in 1938. Mildred Bailey sang it as a guest on Whiteman’s radio show on April 1, 1938, and recorded it herself shortly after that. Tommy Dorsey had arranger Deane Kincaide write a chart on it for his band early in the summer of 1938. That arrangement was recorded on July 11, 1938.

It is significant that Tommy Dorsey was present on the Whiteman recording of “Washboard Blues” on which Hoagy did so much singing. The two men quickly became friends. Their paths would cross periodically in the years ahead, most notably in 1939 when Tommy, acting as the co-producer of his sponsored radio program, put together an all-Carmichael music show which included as performers both Hoagy and his mother, a very competent pianist. (Above right: Tommy Dorsey and Hoagy Carmichael – 1939.)

The Kincaide arrangement of “Washboard Blues” catches the mood of lament in the song. The opening measures spot juicy low-register reeds supporting open brass played into metal derby mutes. Tommy plays the main melody on open trombone against a cushion of reeds with Johnny Mince’s clarinet in the lead. The descending part of this melody has the straight-muted brass garnishing TD’s silken trombone sound. This initial melody sequence is then repeated. Dorsey and the reeds then engage in a musical dialogue for a few bars. Tommy’s playing on this recording shows conclusively that he was not just another trombone player. (At left: L-R: front – TD, Deane Kincaide, Johnny Mince, Freddie Stulce; back – Carmen Mastren, Pee Wee Erwin, Andy Ferretti.)

The next part of the arrangement has the open brass, led with precision by Andy Ferretti, joined by the reeds in a modulation into Johnny Mince’s jazz solo on clarinet. Mince was one of the best jazz clarinetists of the late 1930s. His solos were always well-played, swinging and creative. The sounds behind Mince’s bright clarinet tone are created by the trombones, led by TD, in straight mutes. Skeets Herfurt follows on tenor saxophone. Herfurt, an impeccable musician, very often played the tenor saxophone during the mid to late 1930s. But soon after this recording, he de-empahasized his tenor playing, and began concentrating on working principally as a lead alto saxophonist. That was a good move on his part because he excelled in leading various saxophone sections in countless settings over the next 35 years. Here, his solo against the singing clarinets, is well-played, but a bit stiff rhythmically. This solo is followed by a brief tract of straight muted brass, blended with Herfurt’s tenor saxophone. (At right: Skeets Herfurt solos on tenor saxophone in the summer of 1938. Behind him, L-R: Gene Traxler, Carmen Mastren, Hymie Shertzer, Freddie Stulce and Johnny Mince.)

The next chorus starts with low-register reeds (clarinets prominent) played against chirping straight muted brass, and ends with a declamatory passage by the clarinets. Then the build-up to the dramatic conclusion begins: a cushion of low register clarinets, a bit of Andy Ferretti’s straight-muted trumpet with the main melody, and then a taste of TD’s open trombone. The descending clarinets set up Tommy’s final and dramatic trombone bursts.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Tommy Dorsey …Livin’ in a Great Big Way, by Peter J. Levinson (2005), 102.

Here are links to other great performances by Tommy Dorsey from the late 1930s:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/04/17/its-all-yours-1939-tommy-dorsey-with-edythe-wright-and-dave-tough/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/08/07/after-youve-gone-1936-tommy-dorsey-with-bud-freeman-joe-dixon-and-dave-tough/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/08/04/tin-roof-blues-1938-tommy-dorsey-deane-kincaide-with-yank-lawson-johnny-mince-and-babe-russin/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/01/11/im-in-a-dancing-mood-1936-tommy-dorsey-with-jack-leonard-dave-brubeck-quartet-with-paul-desmond-1959/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/12/27/rhythm-saved-the-world-1936-tommy-dorseys-clambake-seven-with-edythe-wright/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/12/22/youre-a-sweetheart-1937-tommy-dorseys-clambake-seven-with-edythe-wright-1971-billy-may-with-dick-nash-and-eileen-wilson/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/09/28/bud-benny-and-the-high-holidays/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/03/04/milenberg-joys-1939-tommy-dorsey/

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3 Comments

  1. I was really thrilled to find this recording being spotlighted, as it’s a favourite of mine from the Dorsey discography. The song, too, is one I consider to be a landmark in pop writing and among the great Carmichael’s finest compositions.

    As we know, the TD orch — having established itself, through its leader’s incredible determination and ceaseless attention, as one of the top swing bands — recorded prolifically in ’37 and ’38. This period began auspiciously with the waxing of its deserved monster hit, “Marie,” and continued with a string of stellar instrumentals, heavy on the jazz content, and hit vocal treatments of worthy material. Also, in these two years, the TD crew gamely took on its share of the Tin Pan Alley dross that was being circulated, the worst of which seems generally to have been assigned by Captain Dorsey to his Clambake Seven, whose name appears often to have set the tone for the treatments of these duds. This steady stream of the aggregation’s Victor records unquestionably enhanced the profile of the success-mad bandleader, but we may believe that this deluge of product — which, as time wore on, took on a sameness among the vocal sides — led to Tommy’s eventual insistence on an overhaul of the ranks. The best, and most meaningful, aspect of the homogeneity of the sides in those two years is Tommy’s own work as an instrumentalist, attesting to the extraordinarily standards to which he held himself as a musician and artist. Many of the Clambake Seven records contain seemingly off-the-cuff samples of the trombonist’s dazzling facility in the trad, Miff Mole-inspired style, but we know that it was Tommy’s sensitive and seamless legato playing on the ballads that garnered the greatest attention, burnishing his “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing” image.

    For this listener, “Washboard Blues” is a standout recording for the Dorsey orch, particularly in the context of this period in the band’s history. Tommy approaches the song as the ballad that it is but also embroiders some here and there, reminding us of his love — and talent — for jazz. His playing contains the same kind of feeling that is present in the greatest vocal treatments of the song, those from composer Hoagy and also Mildred Bailey, one of the most brilliant interpreters in the bucolic realm.

    Arranger Deane Kincaide, in whose work so often can be found that quasi-spiritual quality, pulls off quite a feat in emotional expression: He uses instrumental textures and figures in his writing to convey the sameness and drudgery in the lyric activity — “down to that water once more … so weary of tubbin’ them clothes … scrubbin’ dirty clothes all year … up and down, back and forth all day long …” — and yet manages to achieve tremendous drama in his sonic depiction of “cloudy skies and rain” and a life entirely lacking in variation and joy. Of particular delight to me is his use of the clarinet choir, a device I find to be affecting in a variety of mood settings. Johnny Mince, a favourite clarinetist of mine, steps out from the section with his poignant and instantly recognizable tone to cry in frustration against the grueling and inalterable daily routine. Amazingly, Kincaide’s trumpets both plod, with the story, and swing!

    I well recall first hearing Hoagy’s vocal on the ’27 Whiteman recording of the tune: We know that in those days it was not uncommon for male and female vocalists to sing lyrics that were (and remain) associated with the perspective of the opposite sex, but I was struck deeply by Hoagy’s authenticity as the poor protagonist in the story. This genuineness is a large part of the record’s potency. The composer, despite his baritone voice, is most convincing — and moving — as the passive and weary woman. Later, the celestial Mildred, in the proper vocal range, became that woman, with equal — or even greater — trueness; she seems not to seek sympathy — but arouses it, just the same.

    Here, in the Dorsey band recording, the supremely confident, hyper-masculine Tommy takes on the roles of both exhausted, defeated scrubber and narrator, describing the monochrome, impoverished scene with a mix of gentleness and starkness. At the climax, instead of the ominous “Hurry, day” of the lyric, we get Tommy in his more familiar aggressive mode, letting loose with a stream of high D’s that say, “Enough, already … goodbye!” We’re very fortunate to have this record, which I feel towers above most of the sides, some which became hits, that the busy Dorsey crew produced in this period. The trombonist chose to commit to wax what we must understand to have been a personal favourite, a song by his pal, a piece for which he communicates strong feeling.

  2. Hi, Mike, this is my first comment to your wonderful site. Let me begin by thanking you for the great way you highlight the amazing music of the Swing Era and your marvelous insights into the people, music, and business of those years. I’ve been enjoying your posts for many years and hope to do so for many more.

    I was very happy to see you highlight Deane Kincaide in this entry, as I think he’s one of the more overlooked great arrangers of the era. Not only did he do yeoman work for the wonderful Bob Crosby band, but, if I have my facts straight, he’s responsible for arranging three of my favorite Tommy Dorsey numbers–in fact, they’re three of my favorite songs from all of the Swing Years. The first is TD’s 1938 version of Hawaiian War Chant, which features terrific ensemble work and some great solos by Bunny Berigan, among others. The second is the 1939 recording of Boogie Woogie, an extremely successful attempt to translate that groundbreaking piano composition to a big band arrangement. I believe that recording wound up being the second best-selling Big Band instrumental of the all time, behind only Glenn Miller’s In The Mood. The last song is not nearly as well known as the first two, but it might be my favorite of the bunch. It’s a remarkable arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, recorded, I think, in 1941. This plays around with the timing of the song in a very unusual way–passages begin unexpectedly and end abruptly, with multiple melody lines being performed simultaneously. It took me a while to understand and appreciate it, but it’s now one of my favorite big band songs ever. The fact that one man was (I believe) responsible for the arrangement of these three great, but very different songs, is very impressive to me.

    I’d love to hear what you think of these numbers. I’d also be very interested in hearing more about Mr. Kincaide’s career and his life. Please keep up the good work, Mike, and know that I’ll be happily following all of your very informative and entertaining posts about the Swing Era.

    Larry

    • Hi Larry. Thanks for your kind words about swingandbeyond.com. They are much appreciated. In fact, they are my “pay” for the work I do to put together the posts that appear here.

      As you know, swingandbeyond.com is about the history (stories) and music of the swing era and beyond. My objective has always been to present worthwhile music in the swing idiom, and set that music in its proper context by telling the stories of the people and events that were involved in making that music. We tend to forget that the music, great as it is, was made by people, human beings, who lived their lives much in the same way that we do. Of course, the difference is that the people who made the music were extremely talented musicians, and that alone set them apart from the rest of us.

      At the heart of what I try to do is to present historical facts when I tell the story behind the music. This involves doing a good bit of research for each post. Most of the time, this research simply confirms what I have known for many years. But sometimes, my research turns up new nuggets of information about the music and those who made it that are a revelation to me. That is what keeps me doing research. The thrill of discovery.

      No one person knows all there is to know about the music of the swing era. Indeed, no one person can know all of that. There is simply too much information to gather, assess, cross-check and understand. However, I am most grateful that there are many extremely knowledgeable people out there who visit swingandbeyond.com regurlarly, and take the time to correct any misinformation that finds its way into posts on the blog. They are helping me to create and preserve as accurate a historical record as possible regarding the music and stories that appear at swingandbeyond.com.

      Addressing the issues you raised in your comment, Deane Kincaide was a most talented musician. Although he was a capable saxophonist, his main talent was in making arrangements. You have identified some of the better-known of the arrangements Deane wrote for Tommy Dorsey. I would add to your list Tommy’s great recordings of Kincaide’s charts on “Milenberg Joys,” and “Tin Roof Blues,” both of which are the subjects of posts here at swingandbeyond.com, and can be accessed by clicking on the links to them that appear above. There are more Kincaide-TD arrangements, but not that many more. Tommy used Deane’s charts as “specials,” meaning he featured them in his band’s presentation when he wanted to give his audiences a musical treat.

      Kincaide’s chart on “Boogie Woogie” transcended that and became a permanent part of TD’s musical presentation because audiences demanded it. The great trumpet solo on Tommy’s Victor recording of “Hawaiian War Chant” was played by Yank Lawson. During Bunny Berigan’s six-months stay with TD’s band in 1940, he played that solo, as well as the trumpet solos on the other Kincaide charts Tommy was then featuring. Later, Ziggy Elman and Charlie Shavers inherited the trumpet solos on those arrangements.

      As to which recordings of the swing era sold the most copies, I have no definitive information. I will say however, that Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie,” Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine,” each sold a lot of copies, well into the millions.

      Thanks again Larry for following swingandbeyond.com and for posting a thoughtful comment.

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