BENNY GOODMAN – The Kingdom of SWING

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The BG band at the San Francisco Golden Gate Expo in August 1939. Vocalist Louise Tobin sits and waits for her cue.

Early 1939 was an odd time for the Benny Goodman band.  On the one hand, they were at the height of popularity, with the weekly Camel Caravan sponsored radio series; a string of hit records (And the Angels Sing about to become a Number One hit); and the publication of Benny’s autobiography, The Kingdom of Swing, written in collaboration with Irving Kolodin.

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All was not well within the organization, however.  Personnel shakeups were affecting the band’s sound, most recently the loss of Harry James in January, who left to form his own orchestra.  Singer Martha Tilton left in May, to be replaced by Louise Tobin, who just happened to be Harry James’ wife!

Perhaps reflecting the situation, Benny’s recording of an original instrumental titled after his book was rejected and never issued on 78.

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A 78 test pressing of the unissued The Kingdom of Swing, recorded in April 1939.

Also in May, Benny left the Victor label, which had recorded the band since April 1935. Switching to the newly-reformed Columbia label, under the urging of friend and record producer John Hammond,  the band would debut a refreshed sound and personnel in August, during a lengthy stint on the West Coast.

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Around this time, Goodman saxophonist Jerry Jerome got his fellow bandmates to sign a copy of Benny’s book for his “jitterbug” sister.

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Strangely, Benny himself didn’t sign, but we have the signatures of Corky Cornelius, Chris Griffin (trumpets); Bruce Squires, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown (trombones);  Art Rollini, Hymie Shertzer, Jerry Jerome, Noni Bernardi (saxes);  Jess Stacy (piano); George Rose (guitar);  Nick Fatool (drums); Louise Tobin (vocals);  and Pee Wee Monte (road manager).

Missing from the page are Ziggy Elman, Lionel Hampton and bassist Artie Bernstein. Maybe they were all out having a drink!  Guitarist George Rose (he of the cute little caricature) joined the band around May 9 in St. Louis and was gone by July. Noni Bernardi was replaced by Toots Mondello around June 13, so we can definitively date the autographs to a brief period in May-June 1939.

The Kingdom of Swing book was quite successful and was reprinted several times, including a special paperback edition for the Armed Forces.  By the time the book had a commercial paperback version issued in 1961, Benny’s recording of the title time had finally been issued on a 1960 RCA LP, which just happened to have the same title. bg-kingdom-lp

Benny Goodman – Signing in at the Madhattan Room

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On a chilly evening during the first quarter of 1937, a privileged fan (perhaps a Camel Cigarettes executive) went to see Benny Goodman and his great swing band at the Madhattan Room in New York’s Pennsylvania Hotel. I say privileged since he acquired a lovely presentation copy of the restaurant’s menu, neatly autographed by every member of the band, plus a few ringers.

All except Benny signed in fountain pen, which was a pain to do on location. Most musicians’ autographs collected in those days were in pencil, since pens were liable to leak. Hymie Shertzer formally signed his first name as “Herman” and Ziggy Elman went for the less elegant “Ziggie.”

With the addition of Harry James in January, this was the classic configuration of the Goodman band that would remain intact for most of the year. As the newest member, perhaps it’s fitting that Harry signed his name in smaller letters than the others?

The musicians' view from the Madhattan Room bandstand.

The musicians’ view from the Madhattan Room bandstand.

The Madhattan Room would be the band’s continuous New York gig from the fall of 1936 to the spring of 1937 and again later in 1937-38. They were there during several of Goodman’s most sensational appearances, at the Paramount Theater and Carnegie Hall. Between their weekly Camel Caravan broadcasts and constant live remotes from Madhattan, eager fans nationwide could listen in to the band almost nightly.

Frances Hunt

Frances Hunt

Vocalist Frances Hunt was an interim singer, heard only on one Goodman record during her 4-month stay. After original vocalist Helen Ward left in December 1936, it wasn’t until August 1937 that Benny chose Martha Tilton as a permanent replacement. Frances, Peg LaCentra and Betty Van filled those open months, but were rarely heard on record if at all, since the band was on a recording hiatus from February through July 1937

The King of Swing greets his subjects.

The King of Swing greets his subjects.

Our next “signature” posting will feature a later edition of Benny’s band!