What ever happened to . . . ?

by William E. Paul

William Paul

William Paul

From the mid-1930’s to the early 1950’s, often called the golden age of jazz/swing music, numerous bands and singers popularized and perpetuated songs that have become classics of popular music, and many are still being played today. Here are a few brief sketches about some of the vocalists and instrumentalists of bygone days.

Al Jolson: As an early performer (1911-1950) Jolson was aptly dubbed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” with a singing style described as “brash” and “melodramatic.” Some characterized him as “braggadocio,” due to his famous quip, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” But this was all part of the persona he sought to project during his stellar, 40-year singing/acting career in circus, stage, burlesque, vaudeville, radio, movies (star of the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer), and recordings. Instead of being discriminatory, Jolson’s “blackface” performances were considered to have furthered the cause of black people. Jolson died of a heart attack in 1950, at age 64, following a strenuous Korean tour to entertain U.S. troops.

Andrews sisters: Unquestionably the best-known and most popular trio of girl singers during the WWII era, differences between the sisters eventually led to a breakup of their act in 1951. Each girl continued in a solo career, however, and they eventually reconciled. The girls had numerous big hits (including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”), with several of them addressing the loneliness experienced by wartime separations. LaVerne died in 1967, at 55. Maxene died in 1995, at 79, and the last sister, Patty, passed away just recently, on Jan. 30, 2013, at 94.

Artie Shaw: After having formed several different big bands, Shaw, an eccentric, obsessive perfectionist, ended his music career abruptly in 1954 to pursue other interests; however, he organized his last band in 1981 (with a different leader). His signature 1938 recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” became a swing era classic. Shaw’s exceptional clarinet ability rivaled Goodman’s, but his musical tastes were less favorable toward the swing era’s standard hits he so skillfully played. He was married eight times before dying in 2004, at age 94.

Benny Goodman: Nicknamed “The King of Swing,” Goodman’s swinging clarinet and orchestra made him arguably the most popular orchestra of the 1940’s big band era (along with Glenn Miller). He led one of the first well-known integrated jazz groups during the period of strident segregation in America. Goodman’s repertoire included such favorite swing numbers as “Sing, Sing, Sing” (1935) and “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (1936). In 1937 he became the first of several popular music bandleaders to perform a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. His closing years included exploring the merits of classical music. He continued his music career almost until his death in 1986, at age 77.

Bing Crosby: Crosby was dubbed “Bing” by a boyhood friend from a humorous feature called “The Bingville Bugle” appearing in a Spokane (WA) newspaper. His singing career produced more than one-half billion records (“White Christmas” alone sold 100 million) and his films grossed millions during his 50-years in show business. He was the first to use the then-newly developed magnetic tape for radio, TV and music recordings. Bing’s mellower vocal renditions earned him the term “crooner.” His last concert was held in England four days before he died of a massive heart attack while playing golf, in 1977, at age 74.

Charlie Barnet: Though recording since 1933, Barnet’s most popular bandleader years were 1939-1941. But, losing interest in music, he retired in 1949, being an heir of a wealthy family’s fortune. Admiring Ellington and Basie, Barnet was among the first to integrate his band (1935-37). His strong dislike for sweet, syrupy arrangements is seen by his swinging hits, “Cherokee” and “Skyliner.” His musical group was a fun-loving, notorious, party band with drinking, vandalism and little enforcement of dress or deportment standards. Charlie was married eleven times (plus a couple more that received Mexican annulments). He died from Alzheimer’s disease complications in 1991, at age 78.

Count Basie: Basie’s music career paralleled Duke Ellington’s in significant ways: both had parents who were musicians; he learned piano and wrote songs in his teens; he was influenced by New York musicians; he was known for innovative musical stylings; both assumed royal titles (“Count/Duke”); he was a prolific composer/arranger; he had good rapport with his musicians, etc. Basie wrote his classic jazz standard “One O’clock Jump” (that also became his theme song) in 1937, which featured his superb piano technique. This pounding instrumental was later listed as one of the “Songs of the Century.” The band’s popularity extended into the 1970’s with Basie dying of pancreatic cancer in 1984 at age 79.

Duke Ellington: A childhood “chum” nicknamed him “Duke” because of “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, his dapper dress and É the bearing of a young nobleman.” Ellington, ambitious and entrepreneurial from his youth, wrote his first song at 15 and formed his first musical group a year later. He became internationally renowned as a prolific composer, pianist and a most enduring recording artist. His signature tune was “Take the A Train.” In 1999, the annual Pulitzer Prize for music, for which Duke was recommended but which was denied him in 1965, was awarded to him posthumously. Between 1965 and 1973 Ellington also wrote three Sacred Concerts. He had fronted his band from 1923 until his death in 1974, at age 75.

Frank Sinatra: After beginning his career in the mid-1930’s, Frank sang with Harry James and then Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940’s before, as “Frankie,” he captured the hearts of screaming, swooning teenage “bobby-soxers” during his solo act in 1942. He went on to a stellar film career as an actor as well as radio, stage, TV, nightclub and recording work. His popularity was somewhat tarnished by his failure to serve in the military during World War II, his alleged involvement with the Mafia and his flagrant, flaunted womanizing. He even failed in a suicide attempt in 1951. His career received rejuvenating, however, by his Academy Award movie performance in 1953, then continued, however bumpily, throughout the rest of his life. After suffering several heart attacks and bouts with dementia, he died in 1998, at age 82.

Glenn Miller: After phenomenal success with a talented, well-disciplined civilian band, known for its precision performances and swinging arrangements (Billy May, Jerry Gray) that developed and featured his distinctive sound, Miller joined the army in 1942. It was there that he was able to organize a larger, all-star orchestra that toured military bases to entertain American troops during World War II. Both orchestras produced numerous recordings which continue to be heard daily on “big band” radio stations. His “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was #1 in the U.S. in 1941, and the first song ever to achieve Gold Disc status (one million sales) in 1942. Glenn disappeared (and was presumed dead) over the English Channel while on a small plane flight from London to Paris in December 1944, at age 40.

Harry James: James’ first nationally recognized music career role was with the Ben Pollack band (1935); he then joined Benny Goodman (1937). He began his own orchestra in 1939, and that year hired Frank Sinatra as singer which helped launch his singing career. In 1942 he was second only to Glenn Miller as a recording artist. James’ outstanding trumpet skill is heard in his solo rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” But along with others James disbanded his big band in 1946, preferring to play with a smaller group after that. He played his last professional performance in Los Angeles just nine days before his death from lymphatic cancer in Las Vegas, in 1983, at age 67.

Jimmy Dorsey: Jimmy, a saxophonist, and Tommy, a trombonist, formed a studio orchestra for producing recordings in 1928-1934. It was called “The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.” The brothers separated over musical differences in 1935, but rejoined in 1945, with younger brother Tommy leading the band as “The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey” for a few years. When Tommy died, Jimmy took over the leadership of his brother’s band in 1953, but then died himself a few months later of throat cancer, in 1957, at age 53. Some of Jimmy’s memorable ballad arrangements were about beautiful women, “Amapola,” “Maria Elena,” “Green Eyes,” and “Tangerine.”

Tex Beneke: Beneke began playing tenor saxophone with the Ben Young band (1935), then was hired by Glenn Miller when he formed his band in 1938. He stayed with Miller’s band until it disbanded in 1942, being utilized as a sax and vocal soloist on “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” and “A String of Pearls.” Two movies that featured Beneke singing with the Miller band accelerated his popularity. Beneke led his own bands in the Navy during World War II, then after the war he led a “Miller-style” band (1946-1950) before forming his own orchestra which played into the late 1990’s. Suffering a stroke in the mid 1990’s, he died in 2000 from COPD, at age 86.

Tommy Dorsey: The younger of “The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra,” Tommy, though often moody and combative, became known as “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing” because of his smooth trombone playing. When the brothers broke up over a musical dispute in 1935 (reconciling in 1945) each subsequently led his own successful band before reuniting their talents. Tommy played both sweet, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” (1935) and “Marie” (1937) and swinging hits “Boogie Woogie,” (1938) and “Opus One” (1944). Tommy died in 1956 from choking while under sedation from sleeping pills, at age 51.

Woody Herman: Woody’s band, known as “The Herd,” became highly popular during WWII for its swinging jazz arrangements featuring Herman on the clarinet/saxophone. In 1946, along with as many as eight other big bands, Herman dissolved his orchestra but later formed several other bands into the mid-1980’s. His band is perhaps best known for his up tempo “Woodchopper’s Ball,” co-written by Woody, recorded in 1939 and selling in the millions. Regrettably, Woody died in 1987, at age 79, owing the IRS millions in back taxes.

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