Remembering the ‘Big Bands’

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It has always bothered me that music arrangers (speaking here of big bands, but it applies to other musical forms also) don’t get enough credit. One guy may be the leader of the band, but it is the arranger who gives the band its sound. Of course the leader may be an arranger, too, or at least a very critical editor. But the poor arranger seldom gets any credit at all.

He’s the guy who writes every note for every instrument in the band. Let’s look at a few outstanding examples:

Duke Ellington did a lot of his own arranging, but he had a trusty  sidekick, almost an extension of himself, in arranging, Billy Strayhorn. It’s hard to tell which one did what. “Take the A-Train,”  Duke’s  famous theme song, was written by Strayhorn.

Then there’s Ralph Burns, pianist and arranger for Woody Herman’s First Herd. Woody had led “The Band That Plays the Blues,’ a fine  late ‘30s and ‘and early ‘40s band. But he was looking for something new. In came  Burns, along with soloists Bill Harris (trombone), Sonny Berman (trumpet), Flip Philips (tenor), and others, and came up with a truly memorable musical organization. Classics came out of it: “Northwest Passage,” “Wildroot,” “Apple Honey,” Bijou,” and on and on.  Also definitive versions of pop songs, like “Atlanta, G.A,” and “Let it Snow, Let it Snow.” And an even better version of “Woodchoppers’ Ball.”

Pete Rugulo was that kind of arranger for Stan Kenton, and Kenton had the troops to handle those arrangements — Vido Musso, Boots Mussuli, Kai Winding, Eddie Safranski, and many others.

Sy Oliver was a trumpet player and arranger for Jimmy Lunceford. Then he switched over to Tommy Dorsey, where he arranged many Dorsey classics.

Fletcher Henderson had a fine band of his own but it was not as well known as the up- and-coming Benny Goodman Band. So Fletcher started selling his arrangements to Benny Goodman. There were other arrangers, of course, for Goodman; but the basic sound of the Goodman “30s band is the sound of Fletcher Henderson.

In the early ‘40s, after the Carnegie Hall concert, after Krupa and James had left to start their own bands, Goodman came up with a totally new band.  He brought in Eddie Sauter from the Red Norvo band to do the bulk of his arrangements. Mel Powell, Goodman’s young pianist, also made some noteworthy contributions.

Sauter would go on to write the book for the new Ray McKinley band of the late ‘40s. They even had a hit or two, “Red Silk Stockings and Green Perfume” and “Civilization.” Later, he would team up with Bill Finnigan and they would co-lead the Sauter-Finnigan Band.

Glenn Miller was an arranger/composer of note himself, and he would get good arrangements wherever he could. But his main arrangers were Jerry Gray and Bill Finnigan. What a job they must have had. Did they ever sleep? Miller needed arrangements for three radio shows a week, a new song every week, and the “Something Old, Something Blue…” segment on every show. Plus dances, recording sessions, etc. They earned their money. Billy May came into the band late, but also contributed.

Most people had never heard of Ray Conniff. He was a fine big band arranger for Artie Shaw and especially Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. He did an arrangement for Shaw of “S’Wonderful”  that turned out to be a pretty popular record. “Light Bulb.” “What if … ” So he did the same arrangement, using voices instead of horns. That went over real big, and pretty soon, Conniff was turning out an album a week, all using that same “S’Wonderful” sound.

Larry Clinton arranged for Tommy Dorsey until he formed his own very successful band and they both had hit records of “The Dipsey Doodle.”

Count Basie had gotten along just fine, thank you, playing mostly the blues and arrangements by people in the band, but Neil Hefti, a former First Herder, came up with a big book of arrangements that brought a whole new life to the Basie Band

Axel Stordahl was a Tommy Dorsey arranger. He did most of the wonderful Frank Sinatra sides with Dorsey, and when Frank left the band, Stordahl went along as his musical director.

I don’t know who did most of Jimmy Dorsey’s arrangements. The name Tutti Camarata comes to mind. Anyway, somebody made Jimmy very popular with the boy (Bob Eberly) and girl (Helen O’Connell or Kitty Kallen) records.

Just a few thoughts off the top of my head, pleasant memories of the Big Bands.

 

Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note.

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