November 13, 2008 by A.C. Rhodes
It's le Fin de, le Fin de siècle.
Category: Question of the Week
Hindsight says I’d listen to Robert Johnson. But the truth is, if you transported the person I am today into the late-30s, I doubt I would have even heard of Robert Johnson.
I used to ask my parents about the various big bands … which ones had the best drummers, which ones had the most innovative this or that. My mom would always say that none of that mattered when they were young … the bands you liked best were the ones that were easy to dance to.
So I’d probably have been listening to Bing Crosby.
Or sometimes we get lucky enough to engage in a bit of time travel by finally “reviewing” something we first heard eons ago.
My earliest memory of listening to a specific record must have been around 1950-51, when I was 3 or 4, and my mother would play her 78 of the Gene Krupa Orchestra doing “Green Eyes” (she liked the song because that was her own eye color), with vocals by Howard Dulany and Anita O’Day. That whole bigger-world/first-music/maternal-bonding experience really imprinted the tune onto my soul. I still remember watching that red Columbia label spin so dizzily as “Green Eyes” warbled out of the old record player in our Mulberry Street dining room.
After my parents died, I found that same Gene Krupa 78 in their house, but I had nothing to play it on by then. A few years ago I bought a couple of different Sony CD compilations of ’40s sides of Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa. Both include “Green Eyes,” and after listening to it with my “mature” music-critic ears, I’ve realized it’s more than just a poignant memory, it’s really fine swing jazz in its own right. So I got off on a good musical foot, even without my parents having been jazz buffs by any stretch of the imagination.
There are many equally hep cuts on these Krupa/O’Day CD’s, including some in which O’Day trades vocal licks with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and it’s almost like they’re flirting with each other — a white woman with a black man, no less, which must have been explosive, almost avant-garde stuff when it was recorded in 1941.
Having my cake and reviewing it too.
Apparently, the big band guy who essentially rocked harder than anybody else was Artie Shaw.
Might be worth looking into…
In the 20’s I’d have been a Paul Whiteman fan. It sounds stilted today, but you have to make allowances for the limitations of recording technology– and for the fact that American music was still in a developmental phase. I hope I’d be into Duke Ellington by the 30’s, but my record collection would probably be mostly Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. I have a feeling I’d be listening to Stan Kenton in the 40’s.
If you are a white guy the likelihood that you’d be into “race music” before WWII is pretty remote, even though that’s the stuf that sounds the best to our ears today.
“If you are a white guy the likelihood that you’d be into “race music” before WWII is pretty remote, even though that’s the stuf that sounds the best to our ears today.”
Obvious counterexample: John Hammond. And his success as a promoter (the great Spirituals to Swing show at Carnegie Hall) and record company talent scout suggests that he wasn’t the only white guy buying “race records” back then.
John Hammond was a genius, and we all owe him– American music would be very different today without him. And there were certainly others as well. I’m not saying that the blues and gospel were completely closed worlds to white America– of course it wasn’t. But let’s be realistic here: the reason Elvis was a sensation was that he was a white man who sounded black. The reason Pat Boone existed was that he made “black music” acceptable for a white audience– and that was in the 50s and 60s. Before the Korean War the military and every other aspect of American life was pretty completely segregated. When Jerry Wexler died earlier this year I learned for the first time that he’d coined the term “rhythm and blues”— in 1949. It is pretty to think that we’d have been as astute about music and race as John Hammond or Jerry Wexler, but I am not confident that I would have been. Most people weren’t.
Whites and blacks may have lived under largely segregated circumstances before Brown vs. Board of Education, but that doesn’t mean they never enjoyed each others’ music. And if you thing that “most people” weren’t capable of hearing value in black music unless it was performed by whites, do some math. Through the 30s and 40s, African Americans constituted roughly 10 percent of the population. So if white people weren’t buying recordings by Louis Armstrong, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Nat “King” Cole and others, how could those artists have had any big hits at all?
BTW, Pat Boone wasn’t a racist plot to sell black music to white kids. Before rock in the ’60s cemented the notion of songwriting as a mark of authenticity, it was quite common for there to be numerous recordings of hit songs by a wide range of artists. “Body & Soul,” for example, was a hit for 14 different artists, ranging from Paul Whiteman and Ozzie Nelson to Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. Further, Boone didn’t just sell to white kids. He placed four singles on the Billboard R&B charts, all in the Top 15.
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