Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Swing Kids: Sing Sing Sing

from the 1993 movie with Christian Bale
About Sing, Sing, Sing, an excerpt from steynonline
Song of the Week #128, May 27, 2009
by Louis Prima
We're a little tardy with a new Song of the Week this week because of Monday's special Memorial Day presentation of "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic". But, if you're in the market for a wacky medley, segueing from the "Battle Hymn" into "Sing, Sing, Sing" is hard to beat. Its sheer rhythmic energy is the essence of an age, the Swing Era distilled, and we tip our hat to it in honor of a man born in Chicago one hundred years ago this week, May 30th 1909. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing, and it was a long reign: He was playing clarinet with the Ben Pollack band from 1925, had his first Number One record with "Moonglow" in 1935, veered into bebop and rather more profitably into classical music, became the unlikely star of a hit Hollywood biopic in the mid-Fifties, and swung to the end. I remember driving along a few years ago, listening to the radio, when on came a weirdly cool "Send In The Clowns", unencumbered by the customary deathly reverence: Benny Goodman playing Stephen Sondheim. It was slightly nutty, like discovering Paganini's still working but doing Celine Dion covers. The odds of a big bandleader living to celebrate 50 years in show business are only marginally better than gangsta rappers: Glenn Miller's plane disappeared over the English Channel, and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey died within a year of each other in the mid-Fifties. But the King of Swing kept swinging till his death in 1986.
Three of the best bandleaders of the big band heyday were clarinetists – Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman – and it seems to me that’s the core sound of the era, so seductive, so insinuating. Artie Shaw had no time for that kind of talk. He told me that the executives liked the clarinet because, in those days of primitive recording, its higher pitch made it cut through the band more clearly than the sax. So, said Artie, if you could play the clarinet, your chances of big time star status were higher than almost any other instrumentalist. Shaw, of course, was famously rude about all his contemporaries: Glenn Miller? “It would have been better if he’d lived and his music had died.” Well, okay, lots of jazz guys have a problem with Miller. So how about Benny Goodman? “Musically, he had a limited vocabulary,” sniffed Shaw.
Oh, come on. He played Hoagy Carmichael and Mozart: how limited is that? "Goodman played the clarinet, I played music," insisted Artie. "My life turned out the best, too." It's true that, unlike Shaw, Goodman can't claim marriage to Ava Gardner, betrothal to Betty Grable, and affairs with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth among his accomplishments - for one thing, Benny was plagued by appalling back problems almost as soon as he hit the big time. But the alumni of the Goodman band are in their way as impressive as Shaw's marital roster: Gene Krupa, Harry James, Teddy Wilson, Bunny Berigan, Peggy Lee, Ziggy Elman, Charlie Christian... He called most of them "Pops", even Peggy and the other canaries, as if making the effort to learn all the names would take too much time away from the music.
It took the King of Swing a while to get hep to the idea that his royal court needed strength in depth. His first band wasn't that good. And his first hotel engagement, subbing for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians at the Roosevelt in New York, was such a dud that Goodman got given his two weeks' notice on opening night. But then in the summer of 1935 the great record producer John Hammond arranged for Goodman to sit in with Teddy Wilson's orchestra at a couple of Columbia sessions. The results included the first records ever made by Billie Holiday ("I Wished On The Moon", "What A Little Moonlight Can Do") and still sound terrific three-quarters of a century later. The following month - August 1935 - Goodman's band was booked into the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, to play not the Columbia-type stuff but stock dance arrangements. The first set was a flop, and his drummer, Gene Krupa, told Goodman, "If we're gonna die, Benny, let's die playing our own thing." For the second set, Goodman ditched the stock charts and played the swing arrangements of Fletcher Henderson and others. When Bunny Berigan took off on "King Porter Stomp", the ballroom exploded with delirious applause. Goodman never looked back.
But, as I said, what Goodman really contributed to these numbers is a matter of conjecture. So instead let's go with a number that sums up both the band and the era:
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing
Everybody start to sing
La-dee-la, whoa-ho-ho
Now you're singing with a swing...
The man who wrote those words and those notes was Louis Prima - 20 years before his Vegas heyday with Keely Smith and Sam Butera. In 1935, Prima was a considerably more conventional musician: a working trumpeter around New York who'd put together a combo named after his home town - "Louis Prima and his New Orleans Five" - and opened, sensationally, the Famous Door club on 52nd Street. He did a few movie cameos, too, including one in a 1936 Bing Crosby picture called Rhythm On The Range. Prima and Crosby hit it off - they both liked the ponies and they went to the track together. And supposedly Louis originally wrote "Sing, Sing, Sing" as a homage à Crosby: "Sing, Bing, Sing." Seriously:
Sing, Bing, Sing, Bing
Everybody start to sing
Buh-buh-buh, bo-bo-bo
Now you're singing just like Bing...
But the world had other uses for it. The coolest bands picked up on the song, and eventually it came to the notice of Jimmy Mundy, the arranger poached by Benny Goodman from the Earl Hines orchestra and in charge of what Mundy called the "killer-dillers", the wild jump tunes that, in the wake of that Palomar engagement, were the band's bread and butter. Mundy had concluded, reasonably enough, that a tune called "Sing, Sing, Sing" would suit a singer. So he cooked it up as a feature for the band's vocalist, Helen Ward. In fact, de-Binged, there's not a lot going on in the lyric:
When the music goes aroun'
Ev'rybody goes to town
But here's something you should know
Ho ho, baby, ho ho ho...
Big deal. But the band's star players liked the tune. And eventually Goodman and Mundy figured that the lyric only got in the way. So Miss Ward lost her feature, and a song that exhorts you to "Sing, Sing, Sing" became instead a wild instrumental frolic. In fact, by the time Goodman and his soloists were through with it, you could pretty much do anything with "Sing, Sing, Sing" except sing, sing, sing it. Mundy combined Prima's tune with thematic material from another number by Chu Berry and Andy Razaf, "Christopher Columbus" (discussed in this space last Columbus Day):

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