Vocalion 3567 – Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians – 1937

Erskine Hawkins in 1936 or earlier, pictured in the 1942 Victor and Bluebird Catalog.

Right up there in the pantheon of great jazz trumpeters resides the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, whose popular recordings helped to define the Swing Era.

Erskine Ramsay Hawkins was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 26, 1914, named for local industrialist Erskine Ramsay, who promised to open bank accounts for boys named in his honor.  He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School and played trumpet in the band under director Fess Whately before graduating to the State Teachers College.  There, he led the ‘Bama State Collegians, with whom he later traveled to New York to embark on his recording career.  Hawkins cut his first two records on July 20, 1936 for Vocalion, debuting with “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem”.  Thereafter, he returned to the Vocalion studio four times, recording four sides at each session, resulting in a total of twenty.  He also secured a gig as house band at Harlem’s renowned Savoy Ballroom, alternating with Chick Webb’s orchestra, an arrangement which lasted a decade.  Billed as the “Twentieth Century Gabriel”, as his popularity climbed, he was signed by the RCA Victor Company in 1938 to record for their Bluebird label, a fruitful arrangement that resulted in prolific recordmaking and numerous successes, including his own “Tuxedo Junction” in 1939—most famously covered by Glenn Miller’s orchestra—and “Tippin’ In” in 1945.  He remained with RCA Victor, eventually graduating to their flagship Victor label, until 1950, after which he moved to Decca’s budget label Coral.  After the conclusion of the Swing Era following World War II, like so many of his contemporaries, Hawkins’ fame began to wind down, but he remained active as a musician.  From the 1960s until the end of his career, he led the house orchestra at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  Erskine Hawkins died on November 11, 1993 at his home in New Jersey.

Vocalion 3567 was recorded on April 19, 1937 in New York City.  The ‘Bama State Collegians are Erskine Hawkins, Wilbur Bascomb, Marcellus Green, and Sam Lowe on trumpets, Edward Sims and Robert Range on trombones, William Johnson and Jimmy Mitchelle on alto saxes, Paul Bascomb on tenor sax, Haywood Henry on clarinet and baritone sax, Avery Parrish on piano, William McLemore on guitar, Leemie Stanfield on string bass, and James Morrison on drums.

First up, the ‘Bama State Collegians play a swinging orchestration of the Stephen Foster standard “The Old Folks at Home”, here given the familiar title “‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

On the flip, they play an outstanding jazz rendition of the 1921 Henry Creamer and Turner Layton composition “Dear Old Southland”, quite probably my personal favorite swing side.  Brian Rust notes that this piece was arranged by trumpeter Sam Lowe, and I suspect the former side was as well, though not noted as such.

Dear Old Southland, recorded on April 19, 1937 by Erskine Hawkins and his ‘Bama State Collegians.

Okeh 41571 – Chick Webb and his Orchestra – 1934

February 10th marks the anniversary of the birth of one of several men who may well have been the father of swing music—the incomparable Chick Webb.

Chick was born William Henry Webb in Baltimore, Maryland.  The year of his birth has been disputed, with 1902, 1905, 1907, and 1909 all suggested, though ’05 is the most likely candidate.  As a child, tuberculosis of the spine stunted his growth and led to his hunchbacked appearance.  His doctor suggested the young Webb take up the drums to help alleviate his condition, so he worked as a newsboy to save up enough money for a kit.  By the mid-1920s, he was leading a band in Harlem.  After one unissued side for Vocalion in ’27, Webb cut his first record for Brunswick in 1928, issued under the pseudonym “The Jungle Band” (a name usually reserved for Duke Ellington’s recordings on that label).  These two Brunswick sides, titled “Dog Bottom” and “Jungle Mama” were stomping hot jazz.  In 1931, Webb’s orchestra became the house band of the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem,  Following a ’31 date with Vocalion, Webb signed with Columbia, waxing thirteen sides in 1933 and ’34, four of which appeared on their subsidiary Okeh label.  Two months after completing his final Okeh recordings in July of 1934, Webb signed with Decca, which would last him the remainder of his career.  Not too long after beginning his contract with Decca, Webb brought on a new girl singer by the name of Ella Fitzgerald.  In a number of “battles of the bands” at the Savoy, Webb and his orchestra bested the likes of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, though he once lost to Duke Ellington’s band.  By the end of the 1930s, however, Webb’s condition was catching up to him.  Following an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939 in his hometown of Baltimore.

Okeh 41571 was recorded on July 6, 1934 in New York City by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.  Purportedly, matrices W 152770 and W 152772 were the last masters recorded by the Columbia Phonograph Company before its absorption into the American Record Corporation.  Webb’s Orchestra is made up of Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, and Taft Jordan on trumpets, Sandy Williams and Fernando Arbello on trombones, Pete Clark and Edgar Sampson an alto saxes, Elmer Williams and Wayman Carver on tenor saxes, Joe Steele on piano, John Trueheart on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass, and of course Chick Webb on drums.

First up, baritone Charles Linton delivers a wonderful vocal on Webb’s all-around magnificent rendition of the 1932 “Fats” Waller, Don Redman, and Andy Razaf standard “If it Ain’t Love”.

If it Ain’t Love, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

Next, trumpet man Taft Jordan performs a Satchmo style vocal on “True”.

True, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

Decca 7815 – Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law) – 1940

Though he wasn’t the most talented instrumentalist, nor the most able vocalist, the popular blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw—the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff from Hell—achieved great success in his time, and made a considerable impact on fellow musicians for years to come.

Contrary to the events presented in the 1977 film Petey Wheatstraw, Peetie Wheatstraw was not born as a walking, talking child.  Rather, he was born as William Bunch on December 21, 1902, likely in Ripley, Tennessee or Cotton Plant, Arkansas.  He learned to play the piano and guitar and in 1929 took up residence in East St. Louis, assuming the moniker “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law”.  Some have suggested the “Peetie Wheatstraw” name traces its roots back to early Afro-American folklore, yet others suggest that Bunch himself was the originator.  Brought to the studio by bluesman and talent scout Charley Jordan, Wheatstraw made his first record for Vocalion in 1930—”Tennessee Peaches Blues”, assisted by an unidentified fellow by the name of “Neckbones” (possibly J.D. “Jelly Jaw” Short)—and he continued to record for them until 1936, with a handful of recordings made for Victor in 1931 on the side.  While still featured on Vocalion, Wheatstraw began recording for Decca in 1934, soon switching to that label exclusively.  Peetie Wheatstraw died in a car accident on his thirty-ninth birthday—he was sitting in the back seat of a Buick driven by a friend, when it struck a standing freight train, killing all passengers—less than one full month after recorded the prophetic seeming “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”.

With an idiosyncratic and formulaic style of singing and playing piano, Peetie Wheatstraw maintained a position as one of the top-selling and most prolific blues artists throughout the decade of the 1930s, alongside Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill, and Bumble Bee Slim.  Influences of Wheatstraw’s signature piano style, mumbled vocals, and “hoo-well-well” holler could be heard in the music of many less successful blues artists across the land, such as Alabama’s Peanut, the Kidnapper (whose stage name is one of the few to rival “Peetie Wheatstraw”).  A testament to his success, fellow blues musician Robert Nighthawk was billed by Decca for a time as “Peetie’s Boy”.  Even noted Texas bluesman Andrew “Smokey” Hogg started out veritably copying Wheatstraw’s vocals and guitar playing, and was known as “Little Peetie Wheatstraw”.

Decca 7815 was recorded on April 4, 1940 and August 28, 1940 in New York City.  Peetie Wheatstraw is accompanied by Jonah Jones on trumpet, possibly Lil Armstrong on piano, and Sid Catlett on drums.

First up, Peetie Wheatstraw sings one of his more famous recordings, the swing infused “Gangster’s Blues”.  The noted accompanists account for the reason why these two songs don’t sound just like most every other song Wheatstraw recorded.

Gangster’s Blues, recorded April 4, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Next, Wheatstraw sings “Look Out for Yourself”, one of countless blues songs echoing the melody of “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Look Out for Yourself, recorded August 28, 1940 by Peetie Wheatstraw (The Devil’s Son-in-Law).

Columbia 2586-D – Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra – 1931

So the time again come again to pay tribute to one of the forefathers of swing music and leader of one of the finest jazz orchestras of the 1920s and ’30s, the incomparable Fletcher Henderson.

Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., was born on December 18, 1897 into a middle class family in Cuthbert, Georgia in a home built by his father.  Like so many, Fletcher learned to play piano as a boy, along with his brother Horace, who also went on to become a noted jazz musician and bandleader.  Henderson graduated from Atlanta University in 1920 with a bachelor’s in chemistry and mathematics, and thereafter moved to New York City with intention to attend Columbia University.  He got sidetracked soon after arriving however, and instead made his entry into the world of Harlem’s jazz music; while lodging with a riverboat musician, Fletcher filled in for him from time to time.  He soon began working as a song plugger for W.C. Handy, which led his getting his big break in 1921.  When publisher Harry Pace broke with Handy to form Black Swan Records, he made Henderson the musical director for the fledgling “race” label.  At Black Swan, Henderson led his first orchestra, and he continued to lead after the company folded in 1923.  Henderson began to record prolifically on most every record label in existence, both as a bandleader and as an accompanist to early blues singers.  In its heyday, his band often included jazz luminaries such as Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, and, for a stretch in 1924 and ’25, Louis Armstrong.  A car accident in August of 1928 left Henderson with a few broken bones, and by some accounts a depression that caused his work to decline in quality.  Nonetheless, his orchestra continued to perform and record for another decade.  In 1931, his became the house band of Connie’s Inn, a prominent Harlem nightclub comparable to the famed Cotton Club.  As the swing era began to swing later in that decade, rising star Benny Goodman began purchasing arrangements from Henderson for his own orchestra to play; Goodman’s legendary rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter” is practically a recreation of Henderson’s recordings of the same from 1928, ’32, and ’33.  He continued to lead his own band as well until 1939, at which point he disbanded his group to join Goodman’s as a staff arranger, but re-formed an orchestra and recorded sporadically throughout the 1940s.  A stroke in 1950 left Henderson partially paralyzed, and he retired from music.  Fletcher Henderson died two years later on December 29, 1950.

Columbia 2586-D was recorded on December 2, 1931 in New York City.  The orchestra consists of Russell Smith, Rex Stewart, and Bobby Stark on trumpets, Jimmy Harrison and Claude Jones on trombone, Benny Carter on clarinet and alto sax, Harvey Boone on alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Clarence Holiday (that’s Billie’s father) on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass and tuba, and Walter Johnson on drums.

First up, Henderson’s orchestra plays what is in a constant struggle with “Copenhagen” for the title of my favorite of their tunes, Smack’s jazzed up fox trot arrangement of the old Paul Dresser waltz “My Gal Sal”.

My Gal Sal

My Gal Sal, recorded December 2, 1931 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “My Pretty Girl” in a similar manner as Jean Goldkette’s rendition of four years prior, with a vocal by Lois Deppe.

My Pretty Girl

My Pretty Girl, recorded December 2, 1931 by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra.

Victor 25523 – Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra – 1937

The nineteenth of November marks the anniversary of the birth of the legendary “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing”—Tommy Dorsey.  I could pay tribute to him with some rare and obscure hot jazz disc from his early days, and indeed I probably should, but frankly, I’d rather commemorate the occasion with one of my favorites of his records, one of his biggest swing hits.

Tommy Dorsey, pictured in a 1940-’41 RCA Victor catalog.

The younger of the famed Dorsey Brothers, Thomas Francis Dorsey, Jr., was born on November 19, 1905 in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, one of four Dorsey children, of whom three survived into adulthood.  Tommy initially took up the trumpet as a boy in his father’s band, and later switched to trombone.  He played both instruments proficiently throughout his career.  Tommy got his first professional gig in 1921, when his brother Jimmy recommended him to replace trombonist Russ Morgan in Billy Lustig’s Scranton Sirens Orchestra, and both brothers played in that band until Jean Goldkette poached them for his own orchestra in 1923.  Tommy made his first recordings with Goldkette in 1924, but remained in the band’s roster—which also famously included the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang—only until 1925, when he left to join the California Ramblers. and began working prolifically as a studio musician.  Before departing, Tommy, along with other members of Goldkette’s orchestra, sat in at the first session of Bix Beiderbecke’s Rhythm Jugglers in 1925.  Both Dorsey brothers joined “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in 1927.  He made his first record under his own name in 1928: a pair of trumpet solos on the Okeh label.  The Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra also made their first records for Okeh in 1928, originally strictly as a recording band made up of studio men, an arrangement which continued into the 1930s.  Not long after forming a “real” band around 1934 with a recording contract for Decca, Tommy—always the temperamental one—stormed off the stage in 1935, creating a rift between the brothers.  Thereafter, the brothers split up; Jimmy continued to lead the former Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra for Decca, while Tommy bought out Joe Haymes’ orchestra and began recording for Victor.  Both Dorseys enjoyed great success leading their own orchestras, and the two became leading names as the swing era began.

With “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” as his theme song, Dorsey’s orchestra was known for playing music on sweet side, but he also led a smaller jazz group: the Clambake Seven.  Among the many hits to Tommy Dorsey’s name were “Song of India” and “Marie” in 1937, “I’ll Never Smile Again” in 1940, and “Opus No. 1” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” in 1944, the latter two featuring arrangements by Sy Oliver.  In 1939, Dorsey replaced vocalist Jack Leonard with a young man from Hoboken, who had previously made his first records with the orchestra of Harry James: Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra remained in his band until 1942, when, as things tended to go with Tommy Dorsey, they parted ways acrimoniously.  In 1947, both Dorsey brothers appeared in the biographical picture The Fabulous Dorseys, and in 1953, they finally reunited when Jimmy disbanded his own band was invited to join Tommy’s.  Together once again, they began appearing on television.  Tommy Dorsey died after choking in his sleep on November 26, 1956.  Jimmy took over and led his band until his own death the following year.  Like that of fellow bandleader Glenn Miller, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra continued to operate and perform into the modern day.

Victor 25523 was recorded at RCA Victor’s Studio 2 in New York City on January 29, 1937 in a session supervised by Leonard Joy.  The orchestra is made up of Bunny Berigan, Jimmy Welch, Joe Bauer, and Bob Cusumano on trumpets, Tommy Dorsey, Les Jenkins, and E. W. “Red” Bone on trombones, Joe Dixon on clarinet and alto sax, Fred Stulce and Clyde Roundson alto sax, Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Dick Jones on piano, Carmen Mastren on guitar, Gene Traxler on string bass, and Dave Tough on drums.  It originally appeared with Victor’s “scroll” label, which was discontinued in 1937, this pressing dates to soon after, probably around 1938.  It was Tommy Dorsey’s first big hit with his own orchestra, after his split with brother Jimmy.

On the “A” side, designated a “Swing Classic” and rightly so, the boys swing the old “Song of India”, originally from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1896 opera Sadko, with an enticing arrangement by Dorsey.

Song of India, recorded January 29, 1937 by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.

On “B”, they play a song that’s truly near the top of my very long list of favorites, Irving Berlin’s “Marie”, with a lead vocal by Jack Leonard, backed by a chorus made up of members of the band—and a solid trumpet solo provided by Berigan.  I tell you, all the really best swing records have Bunny Berigan in the lineup.

Marie, recorded January 29, 1937 by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra.