“I Talk to the Trees” (1969) Benny Goodman

“I Talk to the Trees”

Composed by Frederick Loewe (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (lyric); arranged by Peter Knight.

Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Phillips in London, England on October 28, 1969.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bert Ezard, first trumpet; Kenny Baker, Tommy McQuator and Derek Healey, trumpets; Laddie Busby, Johnny Marshall, Jackie Armstrong and Chris Smith, trombones; Bob Burns and Don Honeywell, alto saxophones; Tommy Whittle and Frank Reidy, tenor saxophones; Roy Willox, baritone saxophone; Bill McGuffie, piano; Judd Proctor, guitar; Lennie Bush, bass; Ronnie Stephenson, drums.

The story:

By 1969, Benny Goodman had long since reached the place in his career where he was regarded as a living legend. The many triumphs he had achieved as a bandleader and entertainment headliner during the swing era were added to as the 1950s and 1960s progressed. In the mid-1950s, a Hollywood feature film was made that told the story, with much license, of his life to that point. That film was successful and it drove demand for Benny to appear in public and play his clarinet with musical ensembles of all kinds. He continued to practice obsessively, as he always had, and maintained his virtuosity on his instrument. Consequently, he was ready to play whatever music he might be called on to play. Although he took many jobs, he declined far more than he accepted. The demand for his services far exceed his ability for fulfill all requests for them. Benny like it that way. He chose his work carefully.

Money was certainly not an issue. Benny made a lot of money in the period 1936 through 1947, and he wisely invested much of it. He was not parsimonious about how he and his wife Alice (a Vanderbilt) and their children lived. But when it came to paying the salaries of the musicians he chose to work with, he was a hard bargainer. His attitude, developed in his halcyon days as the King of Swing, was that the musicians who played with him benefitted from simply being associated with him. They did not agree with Benny on this point. Trumpeter Chris Griffin loved to tell the story of his negotiation with Benny before he joined the BG band in 1936. At that time, Griffin was beginning his career as a Manhattan studio musician, and was working at CBS making a good salary, $105 a week, without the headaches of travel. Benny, master negotiator that he was, asked Chris how much he wanted as a base salary to join the Goodman band. Griffin responded that since he was making that $105 a week at CBS, Benny should pay him at least that much. Benny replied with a counter-offer of $100 a week as a base. Chris was taken aback. “I don’t understand your thinking, Mr. Goodman,” Chris said. Benny then explained: “You see, making $100 a week with Benny Goodman… is worth much more than making $105 a week at CBS.” Chris didn’t see that, at least not at first. But he liked the music Benny was making with his band, and after thinking it over, decided to accept the $100 a week base Benny offered him. Soon that base was augmented by the money the BG sidemen made on their weekly Camel Caravan radio broadcasts, a Hollywood feature film, and their many Victor recording dates, and Chris was making much more than $100 a week. And he was playing with …Benny Goodman! (1) (Above left: Chris Griffin takes a solo with Benny Goodman and his band – summer 1939. Chris found his employment with BG sufficiently stimulating and remunerative to remain with Benny’s band for three and a half years.)

One additional bit of context: When Chris Griffin was negotiating salary with Benny Goodman in the story related above, he was twenty years old. The “Mr. Goodman” in the story was not yet twenty-seven.

As the years passed, and Benny Goodman’s career progressed from him being a virtuoso clarinetist and inspired bandleader, to him being a cultural icon who simply had to be announced and walk onstage to receive a standing ovation, his desire to make music in front of audiences was as strong as ever. However, Benny’s majesty as The King of Swing, which after all was originally a marketing gimmick devised by the public relations department of Music Corporation of America (MCA), Benny’s booking agency, in 1936, almost always got in the way of him doing that.

The music:

The song “I Talk to the Trees” was composed in 1951 by Alan Jay Lerner (lyric) and Frederick Loewe (music) for the Broadway play Paint Your Wagon.

The musical had a pre-Broadway try-out at the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia opening on September 17, 1951. It opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theater on November 12, 1951, and closed on July 19, 1952, after 289 performances. The London production fared a bit better: It opened at Her Majesty’s Theater in the West End on February 11, 1953, and ran for 477 performances. It is likely from the London production of Paint Your Wagon that the producer (John Franz) of the Benny Goodman Phillips LP for which it was recorded, London Date, first encountered the song “I Talk to the Trees.” But the tune languished for almost two decades after that production until the Hollywood film version of Paint Your Wagon was released on October 15, 1969. That film pushed the song into public consciousness for a while.(2) (Above right: Benny Goodman walks onstage to an ovation before a full house at Royal Albert Hall, London, on October 2, 1971.)

This arrangement of “I Talk to the Trees,” written by Peter Knight, presents Frederick Loewe’s lovely melody, complemented by a simple but affecting melodic fragment that first appears in the introduction, played by the saxophone quintet. That melodic fragment is used effectively as a recurring theme throughout the arrangement.

BG presents the main melody in the first eight bars of the first chorus, playing quietly with just the piano, guitar, bass and drums to support him. Notice how arranger Knight adds an aureole of warm open trombone sounds at the end of this sequence which link together the first and second eight-bar melody statements. Then the recurring complementary theme in the saxophones reappears. Those open trombones, augmented by the open trumpets lead Benny into the secondary bridge melody. The final eight bars of chorus one return Mr. Goodman to the main melody, backed once again by that catchy saxophone countermelody.

The second chorus contains sixteen bars of improvisation by Mr. Goodman, followed by a kaleidoscope of sounds produced by the rhythmic saxophones and open trombones, with the bass trombone playing a particularly piquant part. Benny returns to finish the second chorus and then lead the way into the finale. Benny’s clarinet tone is particularly beautiful in this performance. His use of vibrato is perfectly effective.

A bit more story:

One of the major challenges Benny Goodman had in the later decades of his career was assembling the musicians who could perform effectively with him in a big band. Many of the exceptional musicians who were working in New York then were deeply involved in free-lance studio work, and were reluctant to break away from that to work for a period of time with Goodman. Others, who were not as involved in studio work, but had previous experience with Benny, often found those experiences not to have been either pleasant or enjoyable. This problem did not present itself with the big band that backed BG on this and other recordings he made in the autumn of 1969 in London. On October 16, 1969, Benny flew to London for what was intended to be a two-week vacation in a city he enjoyed. While there, he was approached by producer John Franz of Phillips Records to listen to a big band comprised of British musicians that had been assembled by saxophonist Frank Reidy, playing arrangements written by local talent. He agreed to do that. Upon hearing them, his immediate reaction was: “Hey, these guys are good!” (3) Quickly, Goodman agreed to work with that band to create an LP of music to be recorded for Phillips. That LP was entitled London Date, and was issued in 1970.(4)

Benny was so pleased with the British band that worked with him to produce the London date LP that he began putting together an European tour on which he would lead that band, with a few different musicians, from early February through most of March of 1970. Unfortunately, he was injured in an accidental fall from a stool on which he was sitting, practicing, which exacerbated his already chronically painful back. That injury essentially ended the tour.

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

Notes and links:

(1) The basic outlines of the story of Chris Griffin’s hiring by Benny Goodman in 1936 are in the book Jazz Gentry, (1999) by Warren W. Vache, 138. I heard Mr. Griffin tell that same story, with slightly different dollar amounts, more than once.

(2) The details about the play Paint Your Wagon come from the Wikipedia post on that subject.

(3) The Record of a Legend …Benny Goodman, (1984) by D. Russell Connor, 277.

(4) Of the eleven cuts on the Phillips LP London Date, eight were performed by the big band that made the recording presented with this post. The remaining three tracks were performed by Benny Goodman leading a septet.

Here is a link to a recent conversation between Benny Goodman’s older daughter, Rachel Edelson, and clarinetist Julian Milkis, one of very few informal “pupils” Benny had. In their colloquy, they she discuss her father from her unique perspective as his daughter, and he as a young clarinetist whom Benny took an interest in. Particularly fascinating are Ms. Edelson’s insights about her father, arrived at after a lifetime of being his daughter.  She also discusses a book she is writing, which will present her thoughts about Benny Goodman. I will be eagerly awaiting publication of this book. I must also say that in appearance, Rachel is a perfect combination of her father and her mother. The babies were definitely not mixed up in the hospital after she was born. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pehGvDAVlIk

Here are links to Benny Goodman playing other great melodies:









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