During the 1920s, Paul Whiteman
was the biggest name in popular music. He was billed as "The King
of Jazz" during the very era that later became known as "The Jazz
Age." While music critics tend to scoff at his jazz king title on
grounds that he was mostly a purveyor of commercial popular music and not
"real" jazz, Whiteman was one of the early pioneers who helped make
jazz socially acceptable by introducing jazz elements into popular
dance music. But Whiteman's musical career outlasted the Roaring
Twenties decade that he musically helped define. I thought it might
be interesting to put together an update featuring recordings from different
periods of Whiteman's long career as a bandleader.
On Image For Larger View
In A Corner
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra
This pretty George Meyer composition
was very popular in 1923. The recording predates the introduction
of electrical recording technology by about two years. Nevertheless,
I think it has a rather nice sound to it and is an example of the level
of quality that was often achieved during the final years of acoustical
By the time this recording was made,
Whiteman had been America's most famous bandleader since late 1920 when
his very first record made him an overnight success. The record featured
the song "Whispering" and sold over a million copies. In 1923,
the band's fame spread to both sides of the Atlantic when it embarked on
a very successful 5 month engagement in London. While in England,
Whiteman became friends with the Prince of Wales. In February
1924, Whiteman held his famous "An Experiment In Modern Music" concert
at Aeolian Hall in New York in which the band introduced a now classic
work that Whiteman commissioned specifically for the program: George
Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. In the decades that followed,
was the Whiteman band's theme song at public appearances and on radio.
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra
Bing Crosby, vocal
(Victor 21274-A mx 41689)
On this recording, two legendary
performers stand out: vocalist Bing Crosby and Bix Beiderbecke, whose cornet
playing can be heard in the opening passages. At the time, both were
relatively unknown rank and file Whiteman employees. Four years later,
Crosby struck out on his own as a soloist and became a major Hollywood
star. Beiderbecke was not so fortunate. By late 1929, he was
unable to continue working with the Whiteman band due to ill health brought
on by heavy drinking and hard living. He died in 1931 at the
age of 28. During his life, Beiderbecke's work was well known and
admired by his fellow jazz musicians - but it wasn't until after his death
that his fame began to spread.
This recording was made February
28, 1928. A few months earlier, Whiteman announced his decision
not to renew his recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company
. Instead, he chose to sign up with rival Columbia. Knowing it was
losing its top star, Victor made the most of the time remaining on Whiteman's
contract and ordered the band into the recording studio. Almost 60
sides - including this selection - were made in the three months prior
to the April expiration of Whiteman's contract.
The late 1920s marked the high point
for the Whiteman band in terms of both financial success and the quality
of its output. Many of the band's recordings from this period
featured lush, almost orchestral arrangements mixed with an upbeat
syncopation and "hot" solos performed by some of the top white jazz musicians
of the day. Whiteman's name for this style of music was "Symphonic
Jazz." In 1928, the Whiteman organization had over 30 musicians on staff
- and they were the highest paid of any band in the country.
As was the case for many Americans, it seemed as if the prosperity and
giddily good times would never end. In October, 1929, the Whiteman
band left for Hollywood for what appeared to be yet another triumph: a
major musical motion picture The King of Jazz centered
around Whiteman and the band. A $2 million Technicolor extravaganza,
it was the most expensive film ever made up to that time and was only the
second ever all-talking, all-color full length picture. Also included
in the film was the first color cartoon. At the end of that
same month, however, the stock market crashed and soon the entire country
would be plunged into the Great Depression.
White House Of Our Own
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra
Jack Fulton, vocal
By the time this recording was made
in early 1933, the Whiteman band had largely dropped its Jazz Age
era syncopation and jazz solos in favor of a more sedate, mellow sound.
The early 1930s were difficult for
Whiteman. The King of Jazz, which was completed in March 1930,
did not fare well at the box office. As the effects of the Depression
spread, bookings for the band dried up. So did record sales
as people chose to save their money and listen to the "free" music available
on radio. To make matters worse, Old Gold cigarettes dropped
its sponsorship of Whiteman's lucrative radio program. Whiteman
was forced to slash the size of his organization by over 30 percent and
imposed significant pay cuts on those who remained. To survive, the
band took on whatever bookings it could find - including the sort of exhausting
road trips of one night engagements that previously would not have even
been considered. Eventually, Whiteman's fortunes began to improve
with a long term booking at Chicago's Edgewater Hotel followed by another
at New York's Biltmore Hotel. Ultimately, however, it was through
landing coast to coast network radio programs that Whiteman was able to
reestablish himself as one of the top bandleaders in the country.
Paul Whiteman and His Swing Wing
Four Modernaires with Jack Teagarden, vocal
(Decca 2222-A mx 64793)
In 1935, a new style of popular
dance music - swing - based largely on the "hot" sound created by black
jazz bands of the early '30s took the nation by storm. Almost overnight,
Benny Goodman became the "King of Swing" seriously threatening the ability
of the "King of Jazz" to appeal to younger audiences.
Whiteman's response to the new direction
in popular music was to embrace it and he promptly created a unit within
his band devoted to the new style. Whiteman called this "band within
a band" his "Swing Wing" and it provided him with a means of appealing
to the tastes of younger listeners without alienating his existing audience.
The Four Modernaires are best remembered
for their later work with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. But like Bing
Crosby, Mildred Bailey and many others, The Modernaires' first big break
was with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra
Joan Edwards, vocal
(Decca 2578-A mx 65863)
By 1939, what is now called
the "big band era" was well established. Here is how the Whiteman
band sounded at the time on a slower tempo selection. This song is
an adaptation of Tchaikowsky's 5th Symphony, 2nd Movement. The Glenn
Miller Orchestra's version of the song became one of the top hits of 1939.
In 1943, Whiteman became the Music
Director for the Blue Network - which later changed its name to ABC.
In 1947, he launched The Paul Whiteman Club which was network radio's
first coast-to-coast disc jockey program. Whiteman entered
the age of television with his own program, Paul Whiteman's Goodyear
Review, which debuted in 1949. He also hosted a TV series, America's
Greatest Bands, which was a summer replacement series for the Jackie
Gleason program in 1955.
Paul Whiteman died in December 1967
Richard Himber and His Orchestra
(Decca 3618-B mx 68452)
The Richard Himber band was very
popular with New York City high society during the 1930s and 1940s and
was a feature at such prestigious hotels as the Essex House, the Ritz-Carlton
and Hotel Pierre. Through its radio broadcasts and records, the band
was also quite well known throughout the country.
I discovered this recording a few
weeks ago while going through a stack of blue label Decca records that
I have had for quite a while but had not gotten around to listening to.
Himber's band was very versatile and was comfortable playing both up tempo
swing and slower "sweet" selections. What I like about this week's
recording is its mixture of both. It starts out with slow, lush
strings which suddenly give way to a pretty decent swing sound. The
recording was made in late 1940 but was not released until early 1941.
You can hear a number of other recordings by the Himber band from the early
1930s on my online radio station Radio
"Blue Moon" was composed by
Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Lorenz Hart and had a rather interesting
history before it finally became a bit hit in the late 1930s.
Initially, Rodgers and Hart wrote the song for the MGM film
Review of 1933 which was supposed to star Jean Harlow.
The song had entirely different lyrics and was called "Prayer."
Both Harlow and the song, however, were dropped from the picture
which eventually opened under the name Hollywood Party. MGM
then asked Hart to give the song new lyrics for another picture,
Melodrama which opened in 1934 and starred Clark Gable, William
Powell and Myrna Loy. Manhattan Melodrama, by the way, was
the film that the notorious 1930s bank robber John Dillinger had
been watching at Chicago's Biograph Theatre shortly before he was gunned
down. The original plan was for the song to be performed under
the title "Its Just That Kind of Play" - but it too was dropped from the
picture. Once again, Hart made changes and the song finally debuted
in the film under the title "The Bad In Every Man" performed
by Shirley Ross. After Manhattan Melodrama, Jack
Robbins, the head of the MGM's publishing division, told Hart that
he did not like the song's title but agreed to promote it if Hart changed
the title to something more commercially viable. Hart replied by
asking if Robbins what kind of title he had in mind - something corny
such as "Blue Moon"? When Robbins answered in the affirmative, Hart
once again rewrote the lyrics and "Blue Moon" became Rodgers and Hart's
biggest hit up to that time.