“Rosalie” (1939) Artie Shaw with Tony Pastor, Buddy Rich and George Arus

“Rosalie”

Composed by Cole Porter; arranged by Al Avola.

Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird on January 17, 1939 in New York.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Bernie Privin, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Harry Rodgers and Les Jenkins, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Hank Freeman, alto and baritone saxophone; Tony Pastor and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Bob Kitsis, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums. Tony Pastor, vocal.

The story:

Hollywood has always been an insular and surreal place. It is the ultimate bubble where the people who run the movie-making business are all plugged-into the same feedback loop. To say that Hollywood is its own subculture would be an understatement. Today, as in the golden age of the studio system, roughly 1935 to 1955, the attitudes of the people who run the studios that make the movies, and who in large measure are responsible for the content of the films that are produced, can justly be called arrogant. The producers of Hollywood films today rely on data to inform their choices of what films will be made. Focus groups and computer algorithms  produce the data they use to determine what kinds of movies will be produced. But in the golden age of the studio system, there was only one metric: money. And money came in only after feature films were made and distributed.

The producers in the golden age were arrogant because whatever films they sent into their monopolistic and rigidly controlled stream of commerce, meaning the theaters where the films were exhibited, almost always resulted in great gushes of money flowing back into Hollywood. The operators of those theaters, which were either owned by the studios outright or indirectly by a subsidiary, had little choice when it came to accepting “product” from the studios they were affiliated with. Consequently, the lords of Hollywood convinced themselves that they had the Midas touch when it came to divining what the public would accept and like in the way of feature films. Indeed, M-G-M, the largest and most prestigious film production studio then, proudly proclaimed at the beginning of all of their films ars gratia artis …”art for art’s sake.” Perhaps a more accurate slogan would have been …money for money’s sake.

Most of the films that rolled off the M-G-M assembly line during the golden age were hardly art, despite the uniformly excellent technical production that was lavished onto even the most puerile of those movies. But in spite of this crazy system of film-making, some truly wonderful films were made in the period from 1930 to 1960.

One of the most successful producers at M-G-M in the 1930s was Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), who was known on the M-G-M lot as “the boy wonder” because of his apparent ability to know in advance what the American public wanted in the way of film entertainment. “While Thalberg lived, he was Hollywood’s supreme wonderkind, the producer who not only kept raking in money, but turned out those self-important M-G-M epics like The Barretts of Wimpole Street and The Good Earth, and the Romeo and Juliet that featured Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer. ‘I, more than any single person in Hollywood, have my finger on the pulse of America,’ Thalberg once said. ‘I know what people will do and what they won’t do.’ After his death at age thirty-six, he became Hollywood’s lost hero, its martyr.”(1) (Above left: Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer and Louis B Mayer – mid 1930s on the M-G-M lot.)

Here are a couple examples of Thalberg’s ability to know what the American movie-going public would accept, in advance. When Warner Brothers (a major competitor of M-G-M) released the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer in 1927, Thalberg’s considered opinion was: “…talking pictures are just a passing fad.” In the last year of his life, when M-G-M’s chief executive Louis B. Mayer called a meeting with Thalberg and other M-G-M executives to discuss the story of a southern girl named Scarlett O’Hara, “…Thalberg quickly became restless. ‘Forget it Louis’ he said to Mayer. ‘No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.’ Mayer, in deference to Thalberg’s ability to predict the future, closed the meeting by saying…Well, that’s it, Irving knows what’s right.'” (2)

After Irving Thalberg’s death in 1936, Mayer had to become more involved in dealing with the talented people whose services M-G-M was able to purchase. Here is an example of how he did that, with the great composer Cole Porter, recounted by Porter himself in a letter to Paul Whiteman in 1946:(3)

The music:

The Cole Porter song “Rosalie” was one of ten tunes included in a five-record Victor-Bluebird Artie Shaw album of 78 rpm records that was released in early 1939. That set was called Artie Shaw plays an Album of Popular Music. The “concept” of the album was to present ten songs written by the greatest composers of what later would be called “Great American Popular Song,” arranged and played in swing style by Artie Shaw and his band. Among the composers whose work was included: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers. Jerry Gray, Shaw’s full-time chief arranger, provided the scores for eight of the ten tunes. The other two arrangements were written by Artie himself (“Vilia”), and the splendidly swinging chart on “Rosalie,” by Shaw’s guitarist, Al Avola.

The Shaw band was in the last month of of a three and a half month engagement in the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan when they made this recording. The Bluebird session on January 17, 1939 that produced “Rosalie” lasted from 1:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m., and resulted in five of the ten tunes to be included in the album being recorded in that four-hour session. Artie Shaw and his band were obviously very well prepared, and inspired, when they entered the recording studio that day. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Shaw band was on fire then.

This arrangement allows the impeccable and swinging Shaw ensemble to shine, driven all the way by their new drummer, the 21 year-old phenom, Buddy Rich. Rich, after working in a number of bands in 1938, most notably Bunny Berigan’s, where he was encouraged to rock, was quickly becoming a virtuoso big band drummer. (Hear Rich’s great drumming on the Berigan aircheck of “Moten Swing” at endnote 4.) Very shortly after Rich’s childhood friend from Brooklyn, tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld joined the Shaw band on December 16, 1938, Auld learned of Artie Shaw’s difficulty in getting a suitable replacement for drummer Cliff Leeman, who had had to depart in early December for medical reasons. Auld reported this to Rich, Buddy came to the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln, sat-in, and impressed Shaw. Artie then asked Rich about his ability to read music. Rich, with total honesty, told Shaw that he couldn’t read music and didn’t have to read music. After hearing any arrangement a couple of times, he could play whatever was required, and usually a lot more. Artie was dubious, but he couldn’t help but notice that his band was greatly energized when Rich was playing with them, as was he. So he hired Rich sometime in late December, and Buddy gave Berigan two weeks notice.

Buddy began to attend rehearsals of the Shaw band during the first week of 1939. He did a lot of listening to the Shaw band, and of course a lot of playing with it. Shaw had taken several days off after January 1 to fly to Cuba for some rest. When he returned and the Shaw band appeared on the Melody and Madness radio show on January 8, Buddy Rich was well integrated into the Shaw band. Artie was amazed, and delighted: Rich would provide some serious rhythmic firepower for his band through 1939. (Above right: Buddy Rich and Artie Shaw – 1939.)

The Shaw band comes at the listener in the introduction with a blast, a Rich rim-shot, and then a quieter saxophone passage underlined by Rich’s tom-toms. The first chorus melody exposition begins with the brass playing in straight mutes against rhythm centered around Rich’s snare drum and high hat cymbals (16 bars). Shaw then appears with a paraphrase of the main melody. The entire ensemble then rocks through the last eight bars of chorus one. Artie returns with a tasty clarinet interlude (hear Avola’s crisp guitar in this space) that modulates into Tony Pastor’s vocal chorus. (Above left: guitarist/arranger Al Avola in 1939.)

Pastor was an ebullient singer who projected joy to his listeners, while swinging hard. Here he sings against a bubbling background of open brass played into metal derbies, and low register saxophones. The rhythm section of Bob Kitsis on piano, Al Avola on guitar, Sid Weiss on bass, and Mr. Rich on his high hats, dig in behind the vocal and project some great swing. The transitional passage after the vocal is led by the open brass, which catapult Shaw into a sizzling jazz solo to begin the next chorus.

Artie’s playing through the next sixteen bars is strong evidence that when he was inspired, he could swing on clarinet with the best. Notice how arranger Avola creates a sparse but molten-hot background for Shaw to play against in the first eight bars, with Rich’s snare drum cracks intensifying to increase the swinging tension. Then the singing and swinging saxophone quartet adds additional warmth as a background for the second half of this solo. Their popping of two eight notes at the end of this solo is a particularly tasty arranging touch, which keeps the rhythmic intensity of the music high, and vaults the band into the next chorus.

The final sequence has the band blasting away, Rich adding an explosion of drums, and trombonist George Arus playing a brief upward solo that leads to Shaw returning with a downward fragment at the conclusion. (At left: George Arus and Buddy Rich. The trumpeter in the background is Chuck Peterson.)

Despite Mr. Porter’s reservations about the quality of this song, which was a treacly waltz in the M-G-M film sung by Nelson Eddy, this is a terrific swing reinvention of it, which sold a lot of records.

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

Notes and links:

(1) City of Nets, by Otto Friedrich (1986), 16. Hereafter City of Nets.

(2) City of Nets, 17.

(3) Another song Cole Porter wrote for the M-G-M film Rosalie is the sublime “In the Still of the Night.”

(4) Here is a link to a great live performance from the autumn of 1938 by Bunny Berigan of “Moten Swing” featuring solos by Bunny on trumpet, Georgie Auld on tenor saxophone, Gus Bivona on clarinet, Ray Conniff on trombone, and great drumming by Buddy Rich: https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2017/08/16/buddy-rich-at-100-moten-swing-1938-bunny-berigan/

Here are some links to other great performances by Artie Shaw in early 1939:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/03/03/vilia-1939-artie-shaw/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/04/17/rose-room-artie-shaw-1939-two-versions/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/10/13/the-chant-1939-artie-shaw-and-klezmer-music/

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