Thursday, June 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Benny

This past weekend, my Dad and I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the King of Swing.
All weekend long we played Benny Goodman in the shop and, honestly, he never sounded better.

Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago. He was the 9th of 12 children born to a poor family. His parents were recent emigrants to the United States from what is now Poland.

He picked up the clarinet when he was 10, and by the time he was 16 he was playing professionally around Chicago with a number of bands, most notably the Ben Pollack Orchestra. It was with Pollack that he made his first recordings in 1926. Just as the Great Depression was getting under way, he made his way to New York and started earning a reputation as a solid session player.

He worked in Broadway orchestras (for at least one show he shared the pit with Glenn Miller), in dance bands and recording under his own name and as a sideman for other bandleaders (here’s some trivia: he was one of Red Nichols’ Five Pennies).

In 1934, NBC was putting together a regularly scheduled three-hour music program called Let’s Dance. They were looking for 3 bands to fill each slot: a “sweet” band, a “dance” band and a “hot” band. Benny put together a group, auditioned, and was selected as the “hot” band.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the program would air live, beginning at 9 PM. Benny’s “hot” band didn’t get on the air until 11; long after his target audience (high school kids) was in bed. The radio broadcast lasted just one year.

After the show was canceled, Benny took the band on the road, meeting with only modest success. Few outside the New York dance clubs had heard of him.

Until he got to the West Coast. The 11 PM slot in New York was an 8 PM slot in California and he was a hit. But he didn’t know that. When he got to his booking at The Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, his shows were booked to capacity (the ballroom could hold 4,000 dancing couples). It was a phenomenon. Unexpected. And unprecedented.

Newspapers across the country carried stories about this new craze. Hot music! Hot dancing (they called it “jitterbug”)!

Benny was an innovator. In addition to his Big Band, he had several smaller combos, including a quartet (Benny Goodman-Gene Krupa-Teddy Wilson-Lionel Hampton). To this day, in my opinion, no one was better when they played live.

His was also the first commercial band to mix white and black musicians on stage. That was a big deal in the 1930s. And long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in big league sports.

My Dad and I didn’t agree on much musically. He liked Woody Herman (I thought he was OK, maybe) and Stan Kenton (I confess that I still don't get Stan Kenton). I rather liked Glenn Miller, and my Dad allowed that Glenn was certainly better than, say, anyone who played rock 'n roll.

But we did agree on all things Benny.

When I was a kid, every Sunday morning my Dad would put his Benny Goodman records on the stereo (the stereo that I wasn't allowed to touch, and the stereo that NEVER played my Beatles or Paul Revere and the Raiders records). That was my introduction to Swing. It actually was a pretty good introduction.

The world lost a giant in 1986 when Benny Goodman passed. I lost a giant in my world last year when my Dad passed.

Still, my Dad and I had a pretty good time together this past weekend playing Benny Goodman CDs here in the shop. (And, yes, I did crank it up just a bit.) Thank you, Mr. Goodman, for all you gave to us. And thank you, Mr. Lewin, for introducing me to all things Benny.

Let’s do it again.


  1. Someday I may be writing a blog entry like this about the Beatles. :)

  2. Let's hope that day doesn't come too soon.

  3. Well, yeah, no, not what I meant.

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