The quintessential Swing Era song, Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing) was written by Louis Prima in 1936, and recorded by Benny Goodman and his orchestra in 1937. Not only did it become Goodman’s signature piece, it grew to represent the sound of those times for all the generations that have come since. Whenever anybody is trying to evoke the Swing Era in films or on TV, they resort to it, or something written to sound just like it.
Back when I was a kid in the Sixties, listening, if memory serves, to the Monkees and the Box Tops, my Dad decided I needed to hear some real music. Out came his classic 1938 recording of Goodman and the band at Carnegie Hall. I suppose I could have decided to rebel, you know, on principle, but man, you’d have had to be made of stone to resist Sing, Sing, Sing. Goodman and the boys really cook, propelled along by an indescribable rhythm supplied by the immortal Gene Krupa, drumming in a manner that simply can’t quite be replicated by anybody else, and never could. It gets you right in the most primordial part of your brainstem. That’s real drumming, Dad told me, and explained how Krupa was the greatest, simply the greatest, way better than that showboat Buddy Rich. When people went on about how Buddy Rich was the bee’s knees, I was not to believe it. Krupa. Plain and simple.
Just look at him. Dad was right, wasn’t he?
It’s more than a little disquieting to realize that at the time, Dad was about 20 years younger than I am now, and amazing to think that a record from only 30 years prior could have seemed like a message from another planet, so removed was it from the stuff we were then buying on 45s. I mean, at the time of writing, U2’s Joshua Tree was more than 30 years ago, and maybe it’s a sign that I’m out of touch, but I don’t sense any sort of gaping generation gap between that album and today’s output. In the Sixties it was different. Things were moving fast, back then, and the changes were radical. In my father’s lifetime, they were transitioning from tube radios to solid state colour TV, from scratchy 78s to long playing vinyl in glorious stereo over expensive hi fi consoles, from trains to supersonic airplanes, from Buck Rogers to real astronauts reaching for the real Moon. The Moon. It must have been dizzying.
The changes occurring in popular music were just about as great, but it wasn’t that Dad thought the new stuff was all crap by definition. He was a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel, and he appreciated the Beatles. There were, however, certain acts he really, viscerally disliked – among them was Chicago, a favourite of my brother’s (and ironically the nearest contemporary equivalent to the big bands he adored), whose shrill horn arrangements used to set his teeth on edge. He cringed whenever Mark slapped them on the platter. I can still see Dad, frozen in a state of near ecstatic relief, standing outside Mark’s bedroom door, after the record changed from something like Chicago to Creedence Clearwater Revival doing Down on the Corner. “That’s what I mean“, he told me, almost whispering. “There! That’s the real deal.” It was as if he didn’t want to move, in case he broke the spell and it’d be back to 25 Or 6 To 4.
No, Dad wasn’t the sort to claim that nobody did anything good anymore, like they did back in the day. There was, however, stuff from back in the day that deserved to be remembered and admired, and there was indeed modern crapola that couldn’t hold a candle to it.
There was, Dad. I know it.
It’s an amazing stroke of luck that the band’s performance of Sing, Sing, Sing was captured in relatively high fidelity on film, and looking at it now, I’m no less struck by it, no less in awe of the musicianship and the strength of the composition, than I was back in 1967, when I first heard it played on the aural meat-grinder we then had for the purpose. It was no stereo, that thing. It was barely a record player at all. It was the kind of portable monaural turntable/speaker/hinged box combination that had a pressed steel tonearm weighing two and a half pounds, augmented with a silver dollar or two taped to the head, the better to ensure that the roofing nail it used for a needle wouldn’t skip when encountering cracks in the record.
A stout pressing of the day – (cue Grandpa Simpson) they used to press them thick back then – was good for about 10 plays before the grooves wore down to nothing. You could almost see the vinyl shavings being peeled off the disc.
In the attached clip, that’s the magnificent Harry James on trumpet, while Goodman throws in his usual virtuoso turn on clarinet, and boy are the guys tight, and obviously enjoying the bejeebers out of their own masterful ensemble playing. Yet it’s Krupa that mesmerizes. I’ve heard many, many recorded attempts to reproduce that rhythm, all of them OK, more or less, but all if them failures.
It can’t be done.