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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Artie Shaw and his band, (1940)

I’ve enjoyed music my entire life. As a kid, it was the nightly hit parade from 6:15 to 7:00 on our big Stromberg-Carlson radio. Those were the days in the late 40s when people like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Jo Stafford could record hits.

Elvis came by in the mid 50s and although I was never a big fan, I did like the artists who were inspired by him like Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Gracie.

By the late 50s into the mid 60s it was Dion, Freddy Cannon, Gene Pitney, Sam Cooke, some great black groups and flashes in the pan like Chubby Checker and “The Twist”.

Then it was the “British Invasion” with The Beatles, The Stones, and countless other groups until disco, electronic music, and a few other genres came by in the 90s including alternative rock which is now my current favorite pop music. If I’m in the car, I will have 103.9 welded on unless there is a ball game. At home it will be Channel 918 on Music Choice through Cox.

As much as I like those tunes through all the changes during the years, I never lose touch with the big band sounds that dominated through the 1930s and 1940s with guys like Harry James, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, The Dorsey Brothers, and many others.

Those guys were great and were a big part of the war effort in the 1940s with their style of “swing.” In those days you had to be in shape to swing or “jitterbug.” There was plenty of touching your partner then. Watch some musicals like “Stage Door Canteen” (1943) to get an idea what it was like. Those clowns on “Dancing with the Stars” wouldn’t have a chance in those days!

As entertaining and successful as James, Miller, and the rest of the guys were, I was fascinated with Artie Shaw. Artie was born in 1910 and lived until 2004 dying at 94 from the effects of diabetes. He was a complicated guy and even while his music made him as much as $60,000 a week, he would grow impatient with his gigs and look for new adventures in music and other fields.

Artie Shaw and his Band in "Second Chorus" with Fred Astaire (1940)

He was very popular with his 12 to 25 piece primarily brass bands but he wanted to explore other sounds like classical jazz and the use of strings. It annoyed Shaw that when his band appeared nobody cared about innovations. All they called for was his theme, “Begin the Beguine”.

He once described himself as a “very difficult man”. From 1932 until 1985 he was married eight times with three of the marriages being to Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Evelyn Keyes, three beauties of the day.

One of Shaw’s most fascinating songs to me is his 1940 recording of “Gloomy Sunday.” Being a sullen guy from time to time, he does a great job on this one with band singer Pauline Byrne. The song is also known as the “Hungarian suicide song” as the writer of it in 1933 eventually committed suicide. Some urban legends claim that many radio stations were prohibited from playing it because of suicide worries. Many also think it was the Depression that caused the suicides more than “Gloomy Sunday”. It didn’t help that the last line was “My heart and I have decided to end it all.”

Here is a link to “Gloomy Sunday”. It is true to the style of the day when the female band singer (Byrne) would come in after the first couple of bars from the band. I even found a YouTube showing someone putting the playing arm on the 78 rpm record from 1940. Some of you have probably never seen those.

It’s a sad song running 3:30 but is fascinating as a contrast to Artie Shaw’s normal dance band tunes.

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