At the President’s Birthday Ball

Mickey McMickle, Johnny Best, Zeke Zarchy, Billy May (tp); Glenn Miller, Paul Tanner, Jimmy Priddy, Frank D’Annolfo (tb); Skip Martin, Wilbur Schwartz, Ernie Caceres, Tex Beneke, Al Klink (reeds); Chummy MacGregor (p); Bobby Hackett (g & cornet); Doc Goldberg (b); Maurice Purtill (d); Marion Hutton, Ray Eberle, Tex Beneke, The Modernaires (vcl); Bill Finegan, Jerry Gray, Billy May (arr).

RCA Victor Studios, New York – January 5, 1942, 12:00-5:30 PM

068833-1      At the President’s Ball (MH & M vcl, BM arr)        Bluebird 11429-A

068834-1      Angels of Mercy (RE, M & Band vcl)          Bluebird 11429-B

068836-1      On the Old Assembly Line (TB, MH & M vcl, JG arr)  Bluebird 11480-A

068837-1      Let’s Have Another Cup O’ Coffee (MH, EC & M vcl, JG arr)         Bluebird 11450-A

gm pres ball

As 1942 dawned, America was a month into World War II.   The news from the Pacific Theater of Operations was, to put it mildly, terrible for the Allies. There was little to cheer about in Europe, either.

Ironically, 1942 was perhaps the greatest year for the big bands, with many units at the top of their game. Glenn, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Claude Thornhill, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Jimmie Lunceford and Kay Kyser were at or near their creative peak, producing hit after hit.  Yet by the end of the year it all began to slowly unravel.

The wartime draft quickly began picking off  healthy young musicians.  Glenn and Artie Shaw disbanded to enter the service.  Shockingly, death claimed several great innovators – Bunny Berigan, Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton.  The ill-timed record ban would lock the bands out of the recording studios for more than a year. In retrospect, the handwriting was on the wall for the Swing Era.

gm pres

For the moment, Glenn Miller’s biggest goal to boost public morale.  He had begun a series of Saturday afternoon Sunset Serenade broadcasts the previous August. Designed to appeal to peacetime servicemen, each show paid tribute to a Army camp with a song popularity contest to award records and phonographs to the chosen camp. These sustaining shows were paid for by Glenn, who also picked up the tab for all the contest giveaways. The show continued into 1942 and the contest segment would eventually be folded into Glenn’s Chesterfield program.

Six of the eight selections he would record in January had wartime connotations, either sentimental or martial.   Songwriters and performers would quickly find that listeners and dancers much preferred the sentimental numbers rather than the jingoistic ones. Fortunately, the Miller band avoided the worst of the cheesy and racist songs that poured out of Tin Pan Alley in the early months of the war.

Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin

Glenn had recorded just a handful of Irving Berlin songs before.  Suddenly, we are treated to three of them on the January 5th session, all products of the composer’s patriotic desires. The first had the shortest topical shelf-life.  Berlin wrote AT THE PRESIDENT’S BALL to publicize the President’s 60th Birthday Ball, held every year since 1934 as a fundraiser for the Infantile Paralysis Fund, a cause close to FDR’s heart. In 1942, Glenn was the National Chairman of the Dance Band Leaders’ Division of the event and the band was scheduled to play at the Ball in Washington on January 30th, but a previously scheduled engagement at the Paramount Theater in NY prevented the band from appearing. Instead, Johnny Long played at the Ball itself and Glenn appeared with the band at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for one of the ancillary balls held nationwide.   Eddie Cantor also performed.  Preserved broadcasts of the event suggest that a swell time was had by all.

gm ball

The song is a groovy, up-to-date number given a Lunceford-style two-beat treatment by Billy May.  Marion and the Modernaires have fun with it.  For some reason, RCA Victor had difficulty settling on the correct title, as there are copies of the disc out there with THREE different printed titles – AT THE PRESIDENT’S BALL, AT THE PRESIDENT’S BIRTHDAY BALL and THE PRESIDENT’S BIRTHDAY BALL.

gm angels mercy

ANGELS OF MERCY was “written for and dedicated to the American Red Cross” and all of Berlin’s royalties were donated to the organization.  It’s a brief, anthemic number, running just a fraction over two minutes.  Ray and the band stolidly chant the somber lyrics, intended more for patriotic fervor than dancing.

gm mercy

The third Berlin number, LET’S HAVE ANOTHER CUP O’ COFFEE, dates back to 1932 and was the hit from the Broadway musical revue, Face The Music.

gm coffee sheet

In its original staging, it was sung by newly-broke customers in a Depression-era Automat, resolving to stay cheerful in the face of adversity.  Irving revised the lyrics slightly in 1942, dropping the 30s-era references to John D. Rockefeller and President Hoover. Now the “rainbow in the sky” being hoped for was the end of the war, though only suggested obliquely.

gm automat-2

Glenn smartly added a topical special-material chorus for Ernie Caceres (“our Good-Will Ambassador”) and the gang in Spanish, reminding listeners that much of our coffee came from South America, land of the Good Neighbor Policy.

gm cofees

The performance could have used a bit more punch, as everybody sounds a bit too laid-back.  The next disc, ON THE OLD ASSEMBLY LINE, has punch and excitement, alright, but it’s wasted on a piece of blatant propaganda that would be more suited to a movie production number than a popular record.

gm OnTheOld

Ray Henderson’s tune is OK, but Bud Green’s lyrics are pretty cringe-worthy – “When the overalls combine with the mighty dollar sign, there’ll be miles and miles of American smiles from the factory to the mine, on the old assembly line.”  Who would want to play that on their home radio-phonograph combination?  The most enjoyable moments are Jerry Gray’s bouncy intro and coda.

gm old assembly

Everything would continue to hum-hum-hum on the old RCA Victor assembly line when Glenn returned to the studio on January 8th!

gm big coffee

Let's Have Another Cup O' Coffee!

Let’s Have Another Cup O’ Coffee!

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