“Limehouse Blues” (1934) Fletcher Henderson with Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Keg Johnson and Ben Webster/ (1935) Benny Goodman with Bunny Berigan, Jack Lacey and Arthur Rollini

“Limehouse Blues”

Composed by: Philip Braham (music) and Douglas Furber (lyric)(*); arranged by Benny Carter.

Recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra for Decca on September 11, 1934 in New York.

Fletcher Henderson, piano, directing: Russell “Pop” Smith, first trumpet; Irving “Mouse” Randolph, and Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Claude Jones and Frederic “Keg” Johnson, trombones; Hilton Jefferson, first alto saxophone; William C. “Buster” Bailey, alto saxophone and clarinet; Russell Procope, alto saxophone; Benjamin F. “Ben” Webster, tenor saxophone; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Elmer James, bass; Walter Johnson, drums.

The story:

In general terms, what was happening to Fletcher Henderson in the early to mid-1930s is discussed in the post here at swingandbeyond.com on “Happy is the Day is Long.” A link to that post can be found at endnote (1).

More specifically, the year 1934 found Henderson struggling to get enough work to keep his band together. Anyone who knows anything about the high-risk business of leading a band during the swing era will recognize this list of disappointments: “Don Redman beat out Henderson for a good engagement at Cafe’ de Paris on Broadway; a proposed European tour fell through; Coleman Hawkins left the Henderson band after eleven years (basically because Henderson could not keep him working regularly); a promising job at the Cotton Club collapsed at the last minute; and an alliance with a new agent ended in disillusionment.” (2) The vast majority of bands during the swing era were only one or two disappointments away from folding. The ongoing costs of keeping a band of a dozen or more musicians working on gigs that generated enough money simply to balance ongoing expenses was daunting enough. Many bands went broke working seven nights a week on the road for weeks on end simply because those one-night jobs did not generate enough cash each week to balance expenses. In order for any band to stay in business, someone had to be keeping a careful tract of ongoing expenses. Then whoever booked the band had to make sure that whatever work was done each week by the band, the income from that work had to equal or exceed expenses. It is truly astonishing how many swing era bandleaders never understood this.

Fletcher Henderson and his band in the spring of 1934: L-R front: Red Allen, Joe Thomas, Russell Smith, Horace Henderson, FH, Hilton Jefferson, Russell Procope, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins; rear: Keg Johnson, Claude Jones, Charles Holland (vocalist), Walter Johnson, Bernard Addison, John Kirby. This was one of Henderson’s greatest bands.

Perhaps a more accurate way of expressing this is that many bandleaders simply wanted to lead their bands in creating and performing music, period. They may indeed have understood the basic accounting principles that governed successful operation of a big band, but due to their desire simply to play music, ignored those cold realities. That can go on only so long before dire warning signals are thrown off. The first of these was usually that the bandleader would ruefully explain to his sidemen on pay-day that he didn’t have enough money to pay them completely. But this bad news was always followed-up with rosy reports of the various possibilities for good work that lay just over the horizon. If  a sideman generally liked the band he was in on a musical level, he would usually stick around for a while to see what might happen. All too often, nothing positive happened, more wages went unpaid, and the sideman’s worsening financial position made it untenable for him to remain with the band. He gave his notice and left, with regrets. In many cases, the bandleader would promise the musician he would pay him what he was owed as soon as he could. Very often, the bandleader paid what was owed, albeit after many weeks or months. Being a sideman during the swing era had its risks too.

In any event, shortly after this recording session, Fletcher Henderson was forced to disband this stellar, seminal swing ensemble. Fortunately, Henderson had gathered a number of very important fans over the years. None would be more important to him than John Hammond, a wealthy young swing aficionado who loved Henderson’s music, and advocated for it to anyone who would listen. Hammond could also be quite pushy in his advocacy. This sometimes put-off the people he was trying to convince. One person he was constantly trying to convince about the Fletcher Henderson band and its music was Benny Goodman.

As fate would have it, just as Fletcher Henderson was shutting his band down, Benny Goodman was starting his. Benny needed arrangements for his new band, including some that would demonstrate how he and his band could swing. By the end of 1934, he began to acquire copies of some of the Henderson band’s greatest swing arrangements. One such was the chart by Benny Carter that Fletcher used on “Limehouse Blues.”

The music:

Benny Carter’s arrangement on “Limehouse Blues” (which is not a blues, but a 32-bar song with two 16 bar sections) is a mid-1930s celebration of rhythm, and as this performance by Fletcher Henderson’s band shows plainly, of swing. Actually, it is a celebration of contrasting rhythms. The powerful introduction has the brass, led by first trumpeter Russell Smith (who plays brilliantly throughout this performance), blasting out high-register bursts of sound atop the strong, flowing rhythm provided by drummer Walter Johnson on his high-hat cymbals.

The first chorus spots the saxophone quartet, led by Hilton Jefferson, leaning into the “A” melody, with crisp, rhythmic brass punctuations to spur them along. The “B” melody is taken by the entire ensemble. The saxophones then return with a bit more of the “A” melody, then the band as a whole plays to end the first chorus.

The second chorus springs trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen into a joyous romp of a jazz solo that demonstrates his elastic use of rhythm, and his dramatic vaults into his high-register that show his admiration for Louis Armstrong. The next solo is played by clarinetist Buster Bailey. He was a masterful technician. (He and Benny Goodman had studied with the same teacher as boys in Chicago.) On occasion, Bailey’s technique could get in the way of him playing cogent, swinging jazz. But not here: This is one of the best jazz solos he ever recorded. (Above right: Buster Bailey and Red Allen – mid1930s.)

The next chorus features Carter’s inspired ensemble swells of sound (with Pop Smith’s brilliant trumpet on top) that catapult trombonist Keg Johnson into a delightful solo that floats on top of the band’s insistent, flowing rhythm. Jabbing ensemble blasts provide tenor saxophonist Ben Webster with a foil as he swaggers through his solo.

The final chorus is a superb exposition of at first of riffs (bright trumpets against low register saxophones blended with the two trombones), then of fiery trumpets atop lower register pads provided by the other wind instruments, leading to the ascending and shouting trumpets, with the final exclamation point added by Buster Bailey on his clarinet.

This is a great swing recording.

***************

“Limehouse Blues”

Composed by: Philip Braham (music) and Douglas Furber (lyric)(*); arranged by Benny Carter.

Recorded in performance by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra from an NBC “Let’s Dance” radio broadcast on January 5, 1935 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Ralph Muzzillo and Jerry Neary, trumpets; Jack Lacey and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Hymie Shertzer, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Frank Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.

The story: Benny Goodman and the NBC Let’s Dance radio show.

Even though there had been much publicity surrounding the departure of Billy Rose from the Billy Rose Music Hall in September of 1934, Benny Goodman’s newly organized band apparently continued to work there until October 17.(1)  After that gig ended, the Goodman band had spotty work at best for several weeks. On November 6, 1934, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra auditioned for the Let’s Dance radio program at NBC.(2) They got one of three available places on that show. This development, which led to Goodman appearing with his band on this sponsored network radio show for six months, jump-started his career as a bandleader.

The story of the NBC Let’s Dance radio series is an essential part of any review of how swing came to be a part of the mainstream of American popular music in the 1930s. The December 1, 1934 broadcast was the first of the Let’s Dance programs. It had been in the planning stages for several weeks. The public relations executives of the advertising agency handling the account had been filling the trade press with many handouts before the show debuted. Here in part is what the trade papers reported:

Let’s Dance is the first sponsored, three hour show, coast to coast, in radio history.” (Variety: October 23, 1934) “The National Biscuit Company is throwing a shindig November 21.” (Billboard: October 24, 1934); “Let’s Dance is to be on 57 NBC stations and supplement others. The first show is to be December 1, 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., going three hours into each time zone in the U.S.A.” (Broadcasting: November 1, 1934) “The National Biscuit Company radio show, Let’s Dance, is being extensively ballyhooed with a party last week, reams of releases and a ‘Hollywood’ opening with searchlights and ‘names’ at the first broadcast.” (Billboard: December 1, 1934).”(3) The show was used to launch Nabisco’s newest product, the Ritz cracker.

The Benny Goodman band appearing on a “Let’s Dance” broadcast in late January of 1935. The singers in front are Buddy Clark (Samuel Goldberg) and Helen Ward. front row L-R: Dick Clark, BG, Hymie Shertzer, Toots Mondello, Arthur Rollini; middle row: Frank Froeba, Harry Goodman, George Van Eps, Jack Lacey, Red Ballard; back: Jerry Neary, Sammy Shapiro, Pee Wee Erwin and Gene Krupa.

Helen Ward, who was the girl singer in Benny Goodman’s band then recalled: “This was the first time I ever worked with Bunny Berigan. The shows emanated from NBC’s Studio 8H (in what was then the RCA Building, now called 30 Rock).(4) The band sat on tiered platforms with the brass section perched on the top tier at the back. One night, Bunny fell over backwards, right off the stand! They had to rush out and get Mannie Klein to sub for the remainder of the show.”(5) (See comment below by saxophonist Ben Kanter about the December 29, 1934 New Year’s Eve Let’s Dance show when this happened.)


A print ad introducing some of the bandleaders who were to appear on network radio in late 1934.
 Although Benny Goodman is pictured playing a clarinet, the caption refers to him as “the hottest cornetist in the world.”

“Top-grade Manhattan dance band musicians expect the Let’s Dance show to have trouble building. They figure that established name orchestras on other networks will not be turned off for newcomers Kel Murray and the not-so-well-known Benny Goodman and Xavier Cugat, even though these outfits all have good musicians. A few of the opposition names are Hal Kemp, Wayne King, Freddy Martin, Enrique Madriguera, Joe Haymes, Glen Gray, Will Osborne, Eddie Duchin and Claude Hopkins. Another expected difficulty will be orchestrations for approximately fifty tunes, that being the number played during each three hour show.”(6)

Here is a detailed review of Let’s Dance from the January 1935 issue of Metronome:

“Dancing Party (fair).  Let’s Dance sponsored by National Biscuit with Kel Murray’s, Xavier Cugat and Bennie (sic) Goodman’s bands, vocalists: Phil Duey,  Frank Luther, Carmen Castillia, Connie Gates, Helen Ward, Jack Parker and Luis Alvarez, three hours, Saturday night, WEAF (then the New York flagship station for the NBC radio network).”

“Musicianship: Fifty-six stations on the red web carry these three hours of terpsichore to the four corners of the country. It means a five hour work out for the bands since they will be on the air from 10:30 p.m. in the East to 1:30 a.m.; 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 on the Pacific Coast. The three hours set up is for straight dancing, each dance running approximately three minutes in quarter hour period, for each band. Titles of numbers are announced. Cugat dishes out tangos, rumbas, waltzes and others of South American influence; Benny Goodman hands out the hot stuff and Murray comes smooth and sweet. Each band holds forth for four or five numbers, when another one is switched on (sic). Still greater variety would be secured if the bands alternated each number although that would not give them much of a rest. For a dance routine the bands mesh nicely. Kel Murray who is a first class musician, comes through with a sonorous and well balanced ensemble. Benny Goodman and his clarinet capers are outstanding. The vocalists singly and in combination are adequate.”

“Showmanship: There is nothing new about dance music on the air. Anyone can tune in on a Sat Night especially and get all they want from the best name bands. The only difference with this program is that you can set the dial at one spot and let it ride which makes it a little easier for lazy fans, and the majority are. Neither is it the longest sponsored program as announced. The Metropolitan Opera rambles on for four and sometimes five hours. But there are enough angles to this as a three hours strictly dance routine to make a spread about it, and Sat Night is a likely spot in the week.”(7)

“Each band played for fifteen minute alternating sets. Some trade press reports indicated that commercial skits were repeated late in the shows, but it is not certain if that also applied to band numbers. Reviews were generally unfavorable at first, asserting that the commercials were twenty years behind the times, and that there was plenty of good dance music being broadcast during those hours, without commercials. Don Carey, who hosted a long-running children’s show as “Uncle Don,” appeared on the first two shows, but then was dropped because, according to Metronome, “he was ribbed by every radio scribe in town.”(8)

“This program was an expensive undertaking in the middle of the Depression. In addition to all of the costs involved in paying the bands, and arrangers, copyists, and so on, for new music, and paying the large technical staff needed to stage the show, there was the cost of ‘renting’ the lines over which the NBC radio network’s programs flowed to its affiliates. The Let’s Dance show, a Saturday night dancing party, will run for three hours, beginning December 1. The sponsor is the National Biscuit Company and the program begins at 10.30 p.m. and continues until 1.30 a.m. Sunday in the East, with earlier times for Central, West and Pacific coast. The line cost for the three hours will be $30,000, approximately, which ordinarily would run the ante up to $45,000, since after 11:00 p.m. is quoted at half rate.”(9)

Bunny Berigan with Benny Goodman on the NBC Let’s Dance show.

Ben Kanter had played lead alto saxophone for BG at Billy Rose’s Music Hall. On a few occasions early-on, he filled-in as lead alto saxophonist in the Goodman band on the Let’s Dance show (probably during rehearsals as Toots Mondello the lead alto player on all of the Let’s Dance broadcasts, like Bunny Berigan, was very busy with other commitments during the week.) Kanter later recalled: “Bunny wasn’t a regular member of the Goodman band at this time as he was still working (full-time) at CBS (and he was also working outside jobs). He would not normally be present at rehearsals, but would just show up for the broadcasts.”(10)

Berigan continued working at CBS during the day in December 1934, appearing in all manner of combos, bands, and orchestras on the air, including as a member of the Instrumentalists, led by Harry Warnow, CBS conductor Mark Warnow’s younger brother, professionally known as Raymond Scott. He also took club dates on some evenings. Drummer Johnny Williams (father of legendary film composer John Williams), worked with Berigan at CBS and elsewhere then: “I did a couple of Benny’s Let’s Dance shows. Bunny was definitely on the early shows, even though he was still working over at CBS, plus doing some society dates with Joe Moss, who ran Meyer Davis’s New York office. He would get as much as $50 from Moss, which was big money then for a dance job.”(11)  Clearly, Bunny Berigan’s work with Benny Goodman at this time was strictly on the side. (Above left: Bunny Berigan and Benny Goodman: Because of his enormous musical talent and lofty standards, Goodman found it difficult to admire many of his musical associates. Bunny Berigan was one of the few exceptions.)

It appears that Berigan played on the December 8, 15, 22, 29 and January 5 Let’s Dance shows, and made a one-nighter with BG on December 25, 1934, at the George F. Pavilion, in Binghamton, New York. Ben Kanter later had vivid recollections of the December 29 Let’s Dance show: “That was a special New Year’s Let’s Dance program and Bunny had gotten so drunk he passed out in the middle of the opening theme! Once again trumpeter Mannie Klein came over from Kel Murray’s band to fill in for the show. Also, about that time, Dick Clark came in on 4th tenor for Gil Rodin, who was only there on a temporary basis.”(12) This is the same Berigan incident referred to, though somewhat differently, by Helen Ward.

It is almost incomprehensible today for us to understand how the incident referred to above could have happened as it did, but it did. It is safe to assume that Benny Goodman was livid at this sad event. Nevertheless, since Mannie Klein was literally backstage when it happened, and, sterling musician that he was, he covered passably for Berigan on the broadcast, relatively little damage to the broadcast was noticeable to the average radio listener. But then what?

We can only speculate about what transpired between Bunny Berigan and Benny Goodman in the week separating the December 29th and January 5 Let’s Dance radio shows. Whatever transpired, Bunny Berigan was back on the very next Let’s Dance show on January 5, 1935, and he was playing up a storm.

The music:

There was still electricity in the air from the tune performed immediately before “Limehouse Blues” on this Let’s Dance broadcast, “Honeysuckle Rose.” A link to a recording of that performance, which is the best example extant of Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan duking it out, and inspiring each other while playing lengthy and exciting jazz choruses, live on network radio! – can be found at endnote (13) below.

If anyone ever understood the impact Bunny Berigan’s lead trumpet playing had on a band, it was Benny Goodman. Although many other great jazz trumpeters had the pleasure (it was also very hard work) of playing most of the first trumpet book in Benny Goodman’s band, (Shortly after Berigan departed in early 1935, George “Pee Wee” Erwin did double – duty as BG’s first trumpeter and jazz trumpet soloist. He was followed by Ziggy Elman, Harry James, Ziggy again, and a bit later Cootie Williams and Billy Butterfield.) …Berigan’s performance in that demanding role was superlative. BG later described it like this: “It was like a bolt of electricity running through the whole band. He just lifted the whole thing. You can explain it in terms of his tone, his range, musicianship, great ideas. It’s all of that…”(14) And it also included what I have described inadequately as “the Berigan magic,” that ineffable quality in his playing that so often made his music exciting and memorable, for his fellow musicians and his audiences.

All of what Goodman described is present in this (regrettably) low-fidelity aircheck performance of “Limehouse Blues.” Berigan is in attack-mode from the downbeat here. His edgy lead trumpet is evident in the brass blasts in the introduction and throughout the first chorus. The saxophone quartet’s sound, to correspond with the bristling brass, is augmented here by Mr. BG doubling Toot’s Mondello’s first alto lines on his clarinet.

Berigan then steps out with an agile trumpet solo played with a buzzing straight-mute in the bell of his horn. His leap into his high register is perfectly timed for maximum emotional kick. Benny follows, obviously inspired, with a cutting-edge mid-1930s jazz improvisation. Benny’s solo is followed by the ensemble swells that pack added sonic intensity as Berigan’s enormous trumpet sound engulfs the ensemble. Trombonist Jack Lacey, after a bit of toe-dancing early his solo,  wisely elected to play several lazy figures as a contrast to the rhythmic maelstrom surrounding him.

By the time tenor saxophonist Art Rollini’s solo opportunity arrived, the band, with Berigan’s trumpet on top, was rocking. Rollini was a splendid musician and a capable jazz player. Here, he glides gracefully through his chorus which is quite good, hoping no doubt to finish as soon as possible so he could hear how this wild outing was going to end.

The final chorus builds rhythmically at first, and then dynamically as the molten-hot brass quintet erupts in the finale. The final screeching high-note is played by Berigan.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. The Goodman aircheck required a good bit of audio reconstruction.

Notes and links:

(*) The lyric for “Limehouse Blues,” which is not heard in either of the performances presented with this post, contains racist references that were considered inoffensive by the Caucasian who wrote it, and those who comprised the largest part of the audiences who listened to sung performances of it. As sensitivities have evolved over that last century, those references have been removed.

(1) https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/07/01/happy-as-the-day-is-long-1934-fletcher-henderson/

(1) Thirty Years with the Big Bands, by Arthur Rollini, University of Illinois Press (1987), 36–7.

(2) How Benny Goodman got to perform that audition is explained in Swing, Swing, Swing, The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone Norton (1993),106–108.

(3) White materials: December 1, 1934.

(4) The “NBC studios” referred to by Helen Ward and contemporary press reports was the huge studio 8H, located in the then newly completed RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Studio 8H could comfortably seat an audience of over a thousand people. It was from studio 8H that Arturo Toscanini would broadcast with the NBC Symphony, starting on Christmas night 1937. Later, after the advent of network television, this studio became the home of NBC’s Tonight Show, first hosted by Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, and finally Johnny Carson. With Carson, the show moved to Burbank, California, in 1972. Studio 8H has for many years been home to Saturday Night Live.

(5) White materials: December 1, 1934.

(6) Variety, December 4, 1934; cited in the White materials, December 1, 1934. Benny Goodman’s near desperation to acquire arrangements that would be appropriate for presentation on the Let’s Dance radio show turned out to be a golden opportunity for Fletcher Henderson. He sold outright many of his band’s pre-existing arrangements on original jazz tunes to Goodman, and Benny then started using him to write new arrangements on pop tunes of the day and standards.

(7) Metronome: December 1935; cited in the White materials: December 1, 1934.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

(12) White materials: December, 1935. Before the Let’s Dance broadcast began at 10:30 p.m. on December 29th, Berigan had been celebrating New Years Eve is bit early at Hurley’s Bar, located adjacent to 30 Rock on Sixth Avenue and West 49th Street.

(13) https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2021/11/22/honeysuckle-rose-1935-with-benny-goodman/

(14) Bunny Berigan … The Pied Piper …1934 – 1940, Bluebird 07863-66615-2 (1995), liner notes by Richard M. Sudhalter, 5-6.

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