Benny Goodman: The King of Swing (Bluebird's Best)
The 14 tracks on this remastered collection of Benny Goodman classics recorded between 1935 and 1939 contain many of the highlights of the group's recordings for the RCA Victor label. If someone just wants a representative sample of the Goodman Big Band in their collection or has never listened to Goodman, this is an excellent place to start. For anyone serious about swing music or Goodman, this small sampling just won't be enough.
Goodman organized his first band in 1932 and the second (which is the one featured on these recordings) in 1934. This group played on NBC's "Let's Dance" radio show and toured without getting much attention. Suddenly, in August 1935, the group caught on fire during their stay at L.A.'s Palomar Ballroom. From then on, Goodman and his band were like rock stars, attracting legions of screaming young women and dancing men wherever they appeared.
The King of Swing gives an excellent overview of the many arrangers Goodman used during his band's classic years, giving them a distinctive and polished sound. Fletcher Henderson provided a swinging update to Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp", highlighting the winsome trumpet sound of Bunny Berigan, a swinging sax section that included tenor player Art Rollini, and, of course, Goodman himself, relaxed and amiable in a swinging solo turn. Goodman is not generally thought to be the big band era's very best clarinet technician (Artie Shaw gets the nod), but Goodman had a beautiful, sweet sound and the ability to play what the dancing audience wanted to hear. Henderson also arranged "Sometimes I'm Happy", a number that may sound corny by today's standards, but is rescued by Berigan's trumpet work. Jimmy Mundy is probably best known for his arrangement of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing", which became a signature song for Goodman and a feature for the knockout drumming of Gene Krupa. Clocking in at eight minutes and 41 seconds, the number is a dance marathon if ever there was one with several false endings and burning solo turns by Goodman and trumpeter Harry James. Mundy also co-wrote "Springtime in the Rockies" with Goodman and provided the incredibly hot chart for "Bugle Call Rag". Another standout is Mary Lou Williams' arrangement of her own composition, "Roll 'Em" which swings with the fierce Kansas City rhythm she had learned from hanging out with Count Basie and Lester Young.
Goodman's big band also became famous in part because of the unique musicians he was able to attract. In some cases these were musicians that no other bands really wanted, yet Goodman was able to meld the individual players' personalities into a well-oiled swing machine. Trumpeters Berigan and Harry James stand out on several numbers, as does Krupa. On a couple of numbers from the late '30s we hear trumpet player Ziggy Elman soloing strongly. "Wrappin' It Up", again arranged by Fletcher Henderson, offers Elman and Chicago tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, who provides a swinging solo in the Lester Young mold. We also hear vocalists Helen Ward ("It's Been So Long") and Martha Tilton ("And the Angels Sing"). Neither number is there because of its outstanding vocal performance, however, but because it was a popular number and also because of the arrangement. The disc ends with Gordon Jenkins' somber arrangement of Goodman's closing theme "Good-Bye", which highlights the beauty of Benny's clarinet sound almost exclusively.
It's debatable whether King of Swing offers the very best Goodman performances available or whether the big band represented the Goodman sound at its best. Many, myself included, prefer Goodman's small combo recordings, such as his collaborations with pianist Teddy Wilson. However, the disc does represent the most well-known and classic works by the large band, and demonstrates Benny's excellent use of the best arrangers available, something which continued into the 1940s and Goodman's small-group experiments with the bebop sound. For anyone who wants to know what all the fuss was about back in the heyday of swing, this disc provides one very good clue.