Benny Goodman

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs

Perseverance usually pays off—that is, if you can stay alive until you hit the big time. Clarinetist/band leader Benny Goodman made many false moves before ascending to the role of the “King of Swing,” beginning with the caliber of musicians he chose for his band. Early on, they just weren’t very good.

Clarinetist/band leader Benny Goodman made many false moves before ascending to the role of the “King of Swing,” beginning with the caliber of musicians he chose for his band. Early on, they just weren’t very good.

The Goodman band’s first hotel engagement was in May 1935 at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, usually home to the sweet sounds of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Goodman’s attempts at swinging didn’t go over well with the twelve members of the audience. He was hardly a household name at that point and he was certainly no Guy Lombardo. Goodman was given his two weeks’ notice on opening night. Lucky for him he had two formidable men championing his talents: John Hammond, the legendary record producer, and MCA booking agent Willard Alexander. Together, they pushed Goodman to improve the band’s roster and persevered in finding work for the young leader.

In July of 1935, Goodman sat in with Teddy Wilson’s Orchestra and they recorded three classic songs with vocals by Billie Holiday, “I Wished on the Moon,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Miss Brown to You.” Wilson returned the favor on July 13th when he joined Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa on four sides for Victor Records. Though Wilson wouldn’t actually join Goodman’s band for a year, these first recordings by the Benny Goodman Trio were the start of a historic relationship.

Goodman went on tour with little success until August 21st, when he played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The band opened with some dance arrangements and the audience was definitely not amused. Krupa told Goodman, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.”

Out came the band’s swing arrangements, written especially for them by such greats as Fletcher Henderson, and the audience cheered. They rushed the bandstand, not dancing but content to stand and listen to this exciting music. It was a personal revelation to Goodman. No more would he try to conform to the tried and true. He began to trust his instincts and from then on, he vowed to play only music in which he believed. The band was held over for a second month. Radio broadcasts from Los Angeles helped spread the word nationwide, and the band began to build a national reputation.

When they reached Chicago they were received with mild interest. Their first performance, at the Joseph Urban room at the Congress Hotel, took place on November 6, 1935. While in the Windy City, they participated in what is generally agreed to be the first jazz concert in the United States. Helen Oakley, a Chicago socialite interested in jazz, started The Rhythm Club, a group of jazz lovers in Chicago. She hired Goodman and members of Fletcher Henderson’s band (also in Chicago to play at the Urban Room) in what she advertised as a “Tea Dance.” It was so successful that Time Magazine reported on the event. As Goodman’s engagement at the Urban Room was extended, Oakley produced two more Sunday concerts for the Rhythm Club.

The second concert took place at the Grand Terrace Ballroom, where Fletcher Henderson’s band was holding forth. Goodman and Krupa played along with Henderson’s outfit, marking what was probably the first time that black and white jazz musicians played together before a paying audience. But there was more to come. The third concert took place on Easter Sunday, March 29, 1936, back at the Congress Hotel. Oakley arranged for Teddy Wilson to come from New York and sit in with Goodman. Hammond, Kaufman, and Goodman decided that Wilson would join Goodman and Krupa and play as a trio during intermissions. They were such a success that Wilson stayed with Goodman, creating the first racially integrated band.

Goodman was held over at the Urban Room for six months. His radio broadcasts from the hotel and the hit recordings he made while in Chicago raised his national profile considerably. Goodman was definitely in the groove—he won the 1935 Metronome poll as Best Swing Band.

In 1936, after a detour to Hollywood to make the Big Broadcast of 1937, Goodman returned to New York and the Madhattan Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton joined the band and the Benny Goodman Quartet was formed.

Though they had all of the earmarks of success, it wasn’t until March 3, 1937, that the band officially “made it.” They were playing the Madhattan Room to large and polite audiences when they landed a booking at the Paramount Theatre on Times Square. The theatre was showing a lackluster film, Maid of Salem with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, so that certainly wasn’t what drew the thousands of fans to the immense theatre. As soon as the band rose into view on the hydraulic orchestra pit elevator, the theatre went wild. In scenes that presaged Sinatra’s later triumphant appearance at the same theatre, fans crowded the stage, jitterbugged in the aisles, and fainted at their seats. There had never been such a frenzy created by live performers, yet here, in the midst of the Depression, was an emotional outlet for anyone who could afford the thirty-five-cent admission. The privation on the streets and somber mood of the times were forgotten for a few hours inside the gilded movie palace, as hordes jived to their favorite band, live and in person—not on radio or records or in a stuffy hotel ballroom.

In the days before television, fans could only glimpse their favorite performers in fan magazines or an occasional film appearance. They were starved for the real-life experience of their recording idols. With the advent of TV, these stars were suddenly accessible—but imagine being able to see the band of your dreams for less than half a dollar. Audiences immediately felt the power of the music much more palpably than they had when it came from the horn of a Victrola. They saw their idols moving right in front of them (though they might have been almost a city block away from their seats in the upper tiers). The excitement grew into a kind of mass hysteria, and it was that energy that propelled the Goodman band into the stratosphere.

Goodman’s band was the most thrilling of all the bands. When they swung, they really swung. Goodman’s clarinet playing, cutting through the sound driving the band forward while embroidering the melody. The trumpet section was certainly the strongest of all bands, with Chris Griffin, Ziggy Elman, and, perhaps most importantly, Harry James blowing hard. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton filled in the holes with élan and drummer Gene Krupa kept the band strictly in the groove. That groove was probably what made the Goodman band so successful. Whether playing a ballad with the luscious Helen Forrest providing the vocals or an full on aural assault, the Goodman band played strictly in the center of the groove. While not as much of a machine as the Count Basie organization, the Goodman group swung but with emotion be it the longing of “It Never Entered My Mind” or the pure joy of “Swing, Swing, Swing,” the Goodman band put emotions first. Despite their reputation as a hard-driving swing band, a look at the Great Songs section reveals an uncommonly high number of ballads. And some of the swing tunes, like “Bob White,” “Elmer’s Tune,” and “Oh! Look at Me Now,” were gently swinging songs that were easy to dance to.

One barometer of exactly how great the Goodman ensemble was is the number of members who left to start their own conglomerations of musicians. Krupa, Hampton, James, even Count Basie.

In a land full of counts, kings, and at least one duke, Benny Goodman deserved the moniker “The King of Swing.” (KB)

What's he doing in there?

While out of town with the show On Your Toes, Lorenz Hart went down to the men’s room of New Haven’s Shubert Theatre and wrote the lyrics to “There’s a Small Hotel.”There’s a Small Hotel

Resumé material

This song was a favorite with B.G. De Sylva, so he hired Mercer to work at Paramount and later, De Sylva, Glen Wallichs, and Mercer started Capitol Records.Bob White (Watcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)

Away from the lights

“The Man I Love” is that rare Gershwin brothers song that achieved fame away from the lights of Broadway. Not that there wasn’t a concerted effort to use the song in a show. It was written for the Fred and Adele Astaire vehicle Lady, Be Good! but cut in Philadelphia. In 1927, it was inserted into the score of Strike Up the Band (as “The Girl I Love”) but that show closed out of town. Its final stage appearance was in Rosalie (1928), where it was sung by Marilyn Miller, but again it was cut before the show reached Broadway. Lady Mountbatten introduced the song, by then published, to the haut monde in England and it soon conquered the continent, too. Finally, America woke up to the song and it became a hit in the States in the thirties.The Man I Love

Twenty-four encores

One of the most famous songs to come from a Rodgers and Hart show wasn’t even written by them. Berlin’s “Blue Skies” was interpolated into the show Betsy and sung by Belle Baker. The opening-night reception was tumultuous, with Baker enjoying 24 encores—the last with composer Irving Berlin, who was summoned up from the audience. Talk about stopping the show!Blue Skies

The value of rehearsing

"The biggest thing I noticed from my standpoint was the value of rehearsing. He would go over it and over it and over it. There is such a thing as over rehearsing something but not in his case because he was rehearsing the section pieces, then leaving the choruses open for free form extemporizing. And also Benny had a tremendous amount of discipline. I’ve used all those things."Peggy Lee

On Goodman’s clarinet

"I think he takes the damn thing to bed with him."Harry James

I'll never be satisfied

"I’ll never be satisfied with any band. I guess I just expect too much from my musicians and when they do things wrong I get brought down."Benny Goodman to George T. Simon

Playing our own thing

"If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing."Gene Krupa

I remember you in Chicago

"I remember you in Chicago when you were sitting under Jimmy Noone trying to learn something. Now your head’s got fat."Louis Armstrong

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Recordings
It's Only A Paper Moon
Nat King Cole Trio
Let’s Do It
Frank Sinatra
Music by Gershwin, 2/19/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD