Monday, April 1, 2013

Let Me Dig That Jive Once More (Hep! Hep!): In the Age of Big Band, Swing and Sweet - Popular Music of the 1930's and '40's

 ~ Before you read this post I have to tell you....original swing and sweet band music played virtually the entire time as I wrote this out. Yeah man! It really kept me In the Mood! ~

 "Teenager: The U.S. is the only country having a word for members of this age group, and is the only country considering this age group as a separate entity whose influence, fads, and fashions are worthy of discussion apart from the adult world. Before 1935, U.S. teenagers considered themselves as, and were considered to be, young adults and not a special group."
Dictionary of American Slang (from before 1970)

Teenagers in the era of Swing and Sweet
I've written previously about my love for pre-Beatles rock-n-roll as well as a posting about the early Beatles music itself. I've even had a post on mid-60's rock and roll television.
For this week's posting I'd like to go back a bit further...back to the era of the late 1930's through the WWII era: the age of swing and big band, and even include the everyday lives of those who lived in those years these tunes were popular...the early days of the original teenagers.
I have been blessed to have parents who are from that era - my mother and father were both born in the 1920's - and I grew up hearing much of that music played on the living room console. I heard it all: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey, Kay Kyser, Harry James...
And growing up in the 1960's - the rock and roll era - I also saw many of these same artists on the TV variety shows. For my parents to see Benny Goodman on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 would be akin to me seeing Led Zeppelin today on some music channel special. But I remember thinking that Goodman and Kyser (et al) was just music for old people. It never ever occurred to me that this music my parents loved was the popular teen music of their time much in the same way that Zeppelin and Aerosmith were to me.
"Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?" Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five - an awesome jump swing band

It wasn't until new waver, Joe Jackson, released his Jumpin' Jive album back in, I believe, 1981 that I began to realize just how cool this music of my mom & dad's time really was, for it was here that Jackson lovingly paid tribute to the music he had heard his own father play: Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, and others. This was a musically life-changing collection of tunes for me; it opened my mind to a new/old kind of music that just a few years earlier I never thought would mean anything to me.
Though nearly everyone I knew, including record review critics, panned this album, I loved it. I listened to it incessantly. It made me happy and made my feet tap.
I wanted more.
Put another nickel in!
Digging through the record store bins, I saw a double LP collection of Glenn Miller hits called "Glenn Miller: A Memorial" and purchased it. These were all original RCA Victor recordings from the 1930's and 40's and they sounded great!
I then found a Louis Jordan set, another album by Cab Calloway, a wonderful collection of Benny Goodman hits, fun stuff by the Andrews Sisters, some great early Louis Armstrong...I was hooked!
And then, during the 1990's, the record companies began releasing all of this fine music on CD, combing their archives for tunes - some which hadn't seen the light of day in well over 50 years.
Time/Life released a terrific 41 CD set called "Your Hit Parade" in which the most popular music of our parent's generation was released in a mainly year-by-year fashion. Though this collection went into the early 1960's, nearly half of the music covered the era of the 1940's, beginning with the year 1940, and every song was a jukebox smash hit! Here is a sampling of 14 of the 24 tunes on that one disc alone:

In The Mood - Glenn Miller /There I Go - Vaughn Monroe /Darn That Dream - Benny Goodman /Sierra Sue - Bing Crosby /On The Isle Of May - Connie Boswell /The Breeze And I - Jimmy Dorsey /Down Argentina Way - Bob Crosby /Frenesi - Artie Shaw /Blueberry Hill - Glenn Miller /Maybe - Ink Spots /All The Things You Are - Tommy Dorsey /Only Forever - Bing Crosby /Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar) - Will Bradley /Ferryboat Serenade - Andrews Sisters...

Time/Life also released a Big Band series where each disc/record featured a separate artist such as Bob Crosby, Charlie Barnett, Stan Kenton, Jimmie Lunceford, Les Brown, Lionel Hampton...and many other artists.What is unique about this individual artist collection is that each disc not only includes the well-known tunes but many "deeper cuts" that are nearly all but forgotten.
Sheet music from 1944
RCA released a series known as "Nipper's Greatest Hits," covering nearly a century of music via two CD's per decade.The four CD's of the 30's and 40's had the popular tunes such as Glenn Miller's In The Mood and Benny Goodman's Sing! Sing! Sing!, but also long forgotten tunes such as the King Sisters Hut Sut Song.
And there were literally hundreds of collections and box sets coming out including the complete RCA Victor recordings of Glenn Miller on a 13 CD box set, the complete Decca recordings of Louis Jordan on a nine CD box set, fine smaller (but still extensive) collections from Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Harry James.
Many various artists compilations saw the light of day during the 1990's revival of the 1940's music, including one called Swing Time: The Fabulous Big Band Era 1925 - 1955. In fact, nearly every record label from the 30's and 40's that was still around in the 90's released multiple compilations: Decca, Columbia, RCA, Capital. And new labels jumped on the bandwagon, such as Rhino Records, who released the wonderful two volume set of "Songs That Got Us Through World War II." The label Vintage Jazz Classics (VJC) took it a step further and released rare live radio broadcast collections, and included some of the newly released unreleased V-Disc music as well.
What's a V-Disc you ask?
I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen
V-Disc
Well, in a nutshell, V-Discs - or "Victory Discs" - were recordings made as morale boosters when the American Federation of Musicians went on strike for royalties from the record companies to finance an unemployment fund to compensate musicians who lost work because of competition from recorded music. Because of this, the production of new commercial recordings was cut drastically, and the record companies had to dig into their vaults in search of unreleased music to release. This also meant the men fighting overseas would not get new music as well, of course. In July of 1943, approval from Washington allowed musicians to record music especially for (and only for) the troops, and, thus, the V-Disc was born. Many popular singers, big bands, and orchestras recorded special V-Disc records, gathering at special V-Disc recording sessions in various theaters in New York and Los Angeles, including what is now the Ed Sullivan Theater and the current home of Saturday Night Live, to make these discs. The V-Disc records themselves were pressed at the Columbia and RCA Victor pressing plants. The unions were assured that these recording would be used strictly for the military and would not be available commercially, that the recordings would be destroyed when no longer of use to the armed forces.
V-Discs were larger than the normal 10" 78 rpm records one could normally buy; they were 12" with a special patriotic red, white, and blue label attached.
Although most V-Discs were destroyed as promised, many survived and were brought back to the United States. The Library of Congress has a complete set of metal masters as well as the issued recordings in its collection.
Unless one was in the armed forces overseas during the period of 1944 through 1949, this music was not heard. It wasn't until the 50th anniversary of World War II that the musicians unions and the record companies agreed to waive their ban on the commercial release of these recordings and began transferring the collections of music onto compact disc to sell to the public.
To my knowledge (and I may be wrong here), it was Time/Life that released the first extensive collection of this historic music - even before VJC - when they put out a 4-disc collection of these wonderful V-Disc recordings.
I was in my glory.
Funny thing is most of my friends at the time (except for a very few) either barely tolerated or downright hated this music I loved so much. Ha! One co-worker even said to me, "Dude! They're dead! How can you listen to dead people?"
He was a big 'Doors' fan.
Though swing continued into the early 1940's, the true age of swing was mainly in the late '30's. In fact, in the August 8, 1938 issue of Life Magazine, there was a multi-page article where the author wrote:
It was the fashion two years ago, and a year ago, and six months ago to say that the form of jazz called "Swing" was on the way out. It is still the fashion to say that Swing is on the way out. Maybe so--but the fact is that, as of August 1938, Swing is the most popular kind of popular music.
Proof comes most emphatically from broadcasting chains who report that more than half the dance numbers played today are done in swing style and that Swing is played 50% more frequently today than it was a year ago. And every half-dozen college boys who merge windy trombones with tremulous saxophones to form a summer resort band automatically name themselves "Somebody's Swing Sextet." 

Do you jitter?
A couple pages later in the same issue, there is an interesting article that speaks unfavorably of that group of young people known as Jitterbugs:
Jitterbugs are the extreme swing addicts who get so excited by its music that they cannot stand or be still while it is being played. They must prance around in wild exhibitionist dances or yell and scream loudly. In their quieter moments, they discuss swing with weird words like "jive," "gut-bucket," "dog-house," and "push-pipe." 
To the hot musicians, jitterbugs are plain poison. But, they must be humored because they have brought prosperity to swing. In 1931, with the rise in sweet bands, the interest in swing grew faint. Only a few jazz lovers wanted to listen to swing. In 1934, Benny Goodman played on a three-hour dance broadcast. He proved phenomenally more popular than any other band that shared the program. Swing came back and with it the Shag and Lindy Hop and a plague of jitterbugs.
The hot musician knows today that jitterbugs are the people who pay to get into dance halls, night clubs, and big outdoor arenas to hear him play, who buy his phonograph records and who listen to swing radio programs. But he shudders when he hears Benny Goodman announce his next radio number as a "killer-diller." The hot musician is further annoyed when jitterbugs burst into impolite applause after a soloist has finished his chorus. But the hot musician doesn't care how strange or frantic the jitterbugs dancers get just so long as they don't come up on the bandstand which, sometimes, they do.

It's not very far off from the next generation...you know, the off-spring of the jitterbuggers - the much maligned rock-n-roll audiences - is it? In fact, I remember one time when I must've been around fourteen years old (ca1975) when I was at a restaurant with my mother and her mother. On our table was the table-top jukebox that advertised three plays for twenty five cents. Of course, I asked my mom for a quarter. She responded with, "As long as you're not going to play any of that rock crap!"
To which her mother replied to her with, "Well, you're music wasn't any better!"
Ahhh...youth...always a thorn in the previous generation's side!

Who are the top bands of 1941?
 Popular music also played part in descriptions of events, just as they do to this day. In this first-hand account of when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, you will see of how music, in part, played a role in the memory of one man, and thus enhances it for us: The first torpedoes hit the Oklahoma with a crump and a boom. One sailor later remembered a phonograph playing the popular song "Let Me Off Uptown."
The battleship's lights went out; emergency lights flickered on, went out, came on again. The big ship started to list. Within twenty minutes it started to roll over.

(From the Time-Life History of World War II)
And it is during the anniversary date of Pearl Harbor that my mother likes to tell us where she was when she first heard about the attack: she was playing jump rope on her front walk. She remembers hearing the adults speaking of this foreign place in Hawaii that she had never heard of. My mother also explains the details of how she and her sisters, later in the war, would comb the neighborhood to collect tin, rubber, grease, and newspapers for the "war effort." And then the 'home-y' stories of listening to her favorite radio shows, playing games such as 'kick the can,' and working at the local 5 and 10 cent store, where she met my father (who would stop in in his military uniform). One of the first dates she and my father went on was to White Castles.
Upon further researching the era, words pop out of the pages of the book and becomes a vision in my mind: bread lines, banana splits, Jimmy Cagney, rationing coupons, Model A Fords with rumble seats, Scarlett O'Hara, jukeboxes, Li'l Abner, trolley cars, K-rations, saddle shoes, Mickey Mouse...
A date night might consist of walking to the corner Coke place, where a fountain Coke with lots of ice was five cents, so you might only be out ten cents for the evening. Movies were twenty to twenty five cents, while a dance date might cost a buck or two per couple.
Almost every American home had a radio and listened to the great comedians of the era: Amos n' Andy, Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Burns & Allen all kept listeners glued to their radio sets.
Then there was the music shows that were broadcasted. Saturday nights carried "Your Hit Parade", which was a review of the top ten hits of the week. And artists such as Goodman, Miller (sometimes with the Andrews Sisters), and Bing Crosby had their own weekly shows as well.

Hey! Car hop!
You got any fries
to go with that shake?
One of the really wonderful things that really took off during the swing generation is the drive-in restaurant. To me, drive ins and swing music go hand-in-hand much like cruising and rock-n-roll.
And one of the places that helped to put the car hop waitresses on the map was Sivils in Houston, Texas. Though car hops have been around since the early 1920's, the practice really took off after the February 26, 1940 issue of Life Magazine featured one of the "curly-haired cuties" ready to serve a customer on its cover.
The accompanying article stated that:
Twenty one year old Mrs. Sivils induced her husband to abandon his restaurant in downtown Houston to open an eating-place for the drive-in trade. She selects the girls, designs the costumes, makes the rules. Applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 25, have good figures, a high school education, health cards, and "come-hither" personalities. They must smile, stand erect, memorize the menus, endeavor to sell large orders of food. They work in 7 1/2-hour shifts, six days a week, for which they get no pay but average $5 a day in tips. Rules forbid them to touch a customer or his car, or to leave the lot while on duty. They must stand and "visit" with a favorite caller for ten minutes, but then must get back on the job.
Loud-speakers connected with a nickel record-playing machine flood Sivils' three acres with the latest hot music, inspire the girls to patrol the lot with military rhythm. Last week, the most popular record with the car hops was "The Man Who Comes Around."


Cigars? Cigarettes?
Folks during this era felt no qualms about smoking back then. Why not smoke? It was good for you. Full page magazine ads told them that "By speeding up the flow of digestive fluids and increasing alkalinity, Camels give digestion a helping hand."
And Humphrey Bogart, among the many other great actors and actresses of the time, almost single-handedly turned the cigarette into a "swagger stick" and showed just how cool one could look and be. Cigarette girls were a common sight in clubs, bars, airports and casinos during the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and were sometimes called candy girls. The cigarette girl would walk around with a tray held by a neck strap offering to sell cigars and cigarettes.
My own mother remembers being told that smoking would actually help her voice!
Truth in advertising lives...

And where would the hot music of the swing era be without the jukebox? After prohibition ended in 1933, taverns opened up on almost every street corner. For every speakeasy that disappeared, four or five bars opened, and many of these places added the nickel-in-the-slot music machine. From 1933 to 1937, the number of jukeboxes increased by 200,000. By 1939, jukeboxes were consuming around 30 million records per year, which greatly helped the record companies in more ways than one, for these coin-operated phonographs served as a double-function of buyer and seller: millions of records were purchased by music fans because they had been heard on the jukebox!
And during the war years, with the country's social life turned upside down, an atmosphere of uncertainty reigned; young men were fighting overseas, some never to return, while those who remained here at home worked very unsociable hours in the arms factories right alongside "Rosie the Riveter." Spending relaxing time at home for many was sparse, and so to escape their anxieties, young adults with money to spend could afford to eat out in restaurants, and the taverns were always full. Add to this the servicemen home on leave and one can imagine just what a night out was like! The jukebox was the focal point in nearly all of these places, and there was a spirit that drew people together and one felt less inhibited about dancing with a stranger. For many it was a carefree and romantic period, and the desire for music was great.
I've had a copy of this photo in my collection for years and have always wondered what song was playing on the jukebox that got the young lady jittering.
Wurlitzer 1015
When the war ended and the men returned home, the jukebox industry became more popular than ever before, and the demand increased beyond anyone's expectations.
The Wurlitzer Company was ready and, in 1946, released the epitome of jukeboxes, the Model 1015 (pictured left) - the best known and best loved of them all, with its unbroken arc of moving light, bubbles rising from the base, while two multi-colored fluorescent tubes revolved slowly within the two columns bathed the jukebox and its immediate surroundings in a soft warm glow of red, now blue, now green. By this time, so great was America's awareness of jukeboxes that the decision on where to eat, drink, and dance could actually be influenced by the type of jukebox that the location offered.
By the way, this 1015 'box has been often falsely featured in WWII movies made post-war; in actuality, they were built a year after the war had ended

Besides the links for the V-Disc collection and Joe Jackson in the above post, I also created here a list of CD's presently available (as of this writing) of original music from the 30's and 40's, both swing and sweet. It is only a basic list to serve as a beginner's guide:

Kiss the Boys Goodbye
Always In My Heart
White Cliffs of Dover
Greatest Songs of the 1930s
Songs That Got Us Through WWII
Songs That Got Us Through WWII Vol. 2
The Big Band Singers
Nippers Hits of the 30's Vol. 1
Nippers Hits of the 30's Vol. 2
Nippers Hits of the 40's Vol.1
Something For the Boys
Hollywood Stars Go To War
Your Hit Parade (This series is out of print. However, it can still be found on Amazon.com)
Glenn Miller
Benny Goodman - RCA Victor
Benny Goodman - Columbia (with Peggy Lee)
Harry James
Frank Sinatra & Tommy Dorsey
Andrews Sisters
Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters
Kay Kyser

And, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the music of the great band era was revitalized and "updated" in the 1980's with the Jumpin' Jive album by Joe Jackson. That was followed over the next decade and a half by his contemporaries, and it seemed that a new age of modern artists reviving the musical styles of the 1930's and '40's and even early '50's was at hand:
Squirrel Nut Zippers
Harry Connick Jr.
Brian Setzer Orchestra
Linda Ronstadt
The above are just a few of the more popular artists who have helped to bring back the sound and feel of another era. At the time I believed it was really going to become much bigger than it did. Unfortunately, it died a slow death, though it does have a fervent cult following, as does swing dancing.

I hope you enjoyed this excursion into the era of our parents (and grandparents for you whippersnappers!).  As I've written a couple times before, I got my fill of the 1940's, and even the 1930's, while I was growing up. Due to our parent's, aunt's, and uncle's stories, their music we grew up hearing and the classic movies  we grew up watching, those of us who are the children of WWII parents - baby boomers is what they call us, right? - almost feel as if we, too, lived through that era as well, don't we? I mean, it literally surrounded us as children, didn't it? And until the counter-culture revolution of the early 1970's went beyond the coast fringe, we also held most of the same values and mores of our parent's time as well.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the life I lived growing up in the 1960's and early 1970's was much closer to the 1940's style of living when compared to the 21st century way of life of today filled with smart phones, home computers, blu-ray, CD's, DVR, ipads, GPS's, and satellite or cable on your hi-def plasma TV.  
And I learned to really like - no, love -  the music and whole period from 1934 to 1946. Almost in a nostalgic way, I suppose.
I've come to look for America...

(All items pictured in this post are from my personal collection)












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3 comments:

Betsy said...

I love this era as well! I too had parents born then (1930) and grew up listening to this music, but didn't appreciate it until I was older. Born in 1972, that put me in the perfect position to be an MTV generation child, lol. Speaking of V-discs, I have a two-CD collection of V-discs that Frank Sinatra did. It's great! http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000009NY9/ref=oh_details_o08_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Jimio said...

I remember back in the mid 1980s I went over to this old guy's house to play chess. He was 72 I was 28 and he whipped out this Harmonicats Record and I chuckled to myself hearing it. But a few days later I thought that's no different than me whipping out my Jimi Hendrix record to play for some kid I'm playing chess with and he's laughing cause its not punk music.

Andrew said...

Congratulations - I've nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

http://victoriantailor.blogspot.com/2013/04/award-night.html

Cheers! Andrew