Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Clarinet As Vehicle to Stardom

These days, the drum machine is the “instrument” that helps an “artist” sell “records.” From 1955 until a few years ago, it was the electric guitar. During the 1960s, there was a stretch when a cheesy organ or a horn section would do the trick.

From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, there were actually competing bands that based their sound on the clarinet. Woody Herman fronted a band as a clarinetist, as did Artie Shaw. But the biggest, best, and most creative of them all was the jazz clarinet virtuoso Benny Goodman.

I didn’t grow up listening to Big Band music, but in the 1960s, Benny Goodman’s name, if not his recordings, were still part of the American pop-culture vernacular. As sometimes happens on this blog, I am probably writing for the under-40 set when I write the basics about Goodman’s career.

Benny was born in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrants. By the time he was 16, he had joined the orchestra of Ben Pollack in Benny’s hometown, Chicago. He was successful enough before he turned 20 that he tried to get his father to retire from his job in the Chicago stockyards. Instead, his father continued working, only to be killed by a car in 1929 as he stepped off a streetcar. He never saw Benny’s greatest success, and that loss affected all of the Goodman family.

In the early 1930s, Benny began working with a superb African-American pianist, Fletcher Henderson, and the result was a hotter form of jazz than what music fans were used to. His band was about to fold in 1935, when a couple of trajectories converged.

Benny’s band had been playing on a late-night radio show in New York called Let’s Dance. Few in New York listened to it, because it came on too late. The West Coast jazz crowd learned about Benny via that show, which aired at a listenable time there. When he took his band on the road, they wound up at the end, both literally and figuratively, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Ready to disband if they didn’t make a hit there, the band used the Fletcher Henderson charts they had used on the radio, as well as Henderson’s huge hit, “King Porter Stomp,” to turn the indifferent audience into an explosive, dance-crazy crowd.

After three weeks at the Palomar, playing for up to 8,000 people, Benny was officially reigning over the Swing Era as the King of Swing. And he did it all with a clarinet. By January, 1938, Benny and his band were big enough to play Carnegie Hall. There, they recorded their most iconic performance, “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).”

Given his musical longevity, it should come as no surprise that Benny tried out a number of different band structures. One of his more significant groups was a sextet that featured the early electric-guitar work of Charlie Christian. Beginning in 1938, Benny began recording Mozart, and after that, he commissioned clarinet works by Béla Bartók and Aaron Copeland, among others.

The 1955 film The Benny Goodman Story provided Benny with some amusement, but it contained a lot of good music, recorded by Benny, who was portrayed in the film by Steve Allen. If you want to know the Hollywood version of Benny’s life, check it out.

Benny died on June 13, 1986, and he left behind one of the largest legacies of any Depression-era artist. Of his 164 chart hits, 16 went to #1, including the two-sided 1936 hit “It’s Been So Long”/“Goody-Goody.” He worked with many huge stars of the Swing era: Gene Krupa, Bunny Berigan, Harry James, and numerous others.

If you don’t know his work, here’s a taste of it. In addition to the three songs listed below, here’s a 1937 film of the band in action, including drummer extraordinaire Gene Krupa:

For Saturday, we’re up to Week Thirteen of the 1950s charts. See you then!

Benny Goodman, King Porter

Benny Goodman, Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)

Benny Goodman, Goody-Goody


Lizzle-ba-Dizzle said...

Hey! The under-40 set appreciates the basics. :) At least, I do. I may never have thought to look up any information on Benny Goodman. I mean, I recognised the name, but only in a very vague way. And then I downloaded the songs you posted, and realised that my grandfather used to play this music ALL THE TIME. He never mentioned a name, though; he just put the music on, and I never thought to ask. Now I know! Cool.

jb said...

A friend of mine believes that Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing" is the first heavy-metal song. Listen to it again and see if he isn't right.