Crowned the King of Swing, Benny Goodman earned his title by popularizing that style of music for white audiences. Swing had its origins in the mid-1920s, when African-American bandleader Fletcher Henderson and his arranger Don Redman began to mix Western musical theory with black jazz traditions. By the early 1930s, swing was the standard form of jazz played by most African-American bands. While some white artists, including the Casa Loma Orchestra and Mal Hallett, used elements of the style in their arrangements, for the average white listener in 1934 swing was unknown. That all changed in 1935 when Goodman suddenly took popular music by storm.
A native of Chicago, Goodman began playing clarinet professionally at thirteen after lying about his age to get a union card. He joined Ben Pollack’s orchestra in 1926 and toured the country before settling in New York as a studio musician in 1929. In the early 1930s, jazz patron John Hammond realized Goodman’s potential and introduced him to the swing style being played by African-American bands in Harlem.
Goodman formed a few short-lived orchestras before putting together what would become his most-famous outfit in 1934 for a booking at a new nightclub owned by showman Billy Rose. The orchestra initially played standard jazz, but after being fired by the club’s mobster backers the group landed on the NBC radio program Let’s Dance where it was required to play hot music. The live broadcast featured a thousand people in its studio audience, opening with Kel Murray performing thirty minutes of sweet dance music and Xavier Cugat following with a Latin set. Goodman finished out the program. The show aired on Saturday nights, sponsored by the National Biscuit Company to help promote their new product—Ritz crackers. Needing new music, Goodman began to expand his book with songs from black arrangers, finally hiring Fletcher Henderson to write original arrangements for the band.
Goodman disliked vocalists, feeling that jazz should be instrumental only. He knew, though, that in order to have commercial appeal he needed vocals for his band. He hired Helen Ward as his first singer, believing her to be the only white vocalist who could properly handle swing. In between vocal numbers on the program Ward would join a set of studio dancers to help entertain the audience, pairing up with a male singer.
In the early years, Goodman never found a male vocalist he particularly liked. He constantly hired and fired them, often giving their numbers to Ward. As such, she became a key part of the orchestra’s sound and by extension the sound of the swing era itself. Early radio set lists tended to feature vocal numbers for half the show, though Goodman finally settled into a pattern of three vocal tunes each program, with Ward typically as the only singer.
Goodman’s brand of swing was subdued in comparison to how black orchestras played the style, as he needed to please white mainstream audiences. Even so, the band didn’t always go over well. After the radio series ended, Goodman suffered a run of failed New York club appearances before taking off on a cross-country tour in 1935 where he encountered negative reaction all along the way until he reached Oakland. There, for the first time, the band scored a resounding success, followed by another at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Radio broadcasts from the Palomar helped spread the excitement from coast-to-coast, and Goodman’s orchestra unexpectedly found itself the hottest in the country. The swing era had begun. White audiences were finally hooked.
Famous Personnel and Years at the Top
Goodman’s band attracted many of the best white jazz musicians of the day, including drummer Gene Krupa, who joined in 1934. With his wild drumming style, Krupa eventually became a featured performer. Trumpet player Bunny Berigan joined the band shortly before it left on its 1935 national tour but remained only six months. Pianist Jess Stacy also became part of the band in 1935, with tenor saxophonist Vido Musso and trumpet players Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin following in 1936. Harry James joined as trumpeter at the beginning of 1937 and quickly established himself as one of the most popular musicians in the country. The combination of Elman, Griffin and James is often considered the best trumpet section of all-time.
Goodman hired African-American musicians as well, though they didn’t initially appear with the band on stage. To do so in the mid-1930s would have prevented the band from getting bookings. Goodman and Krupa first recorded with pianist Teddy Wilson in 1935 as the Benny Goodman Trio, with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton expanding the combo to a quartet in 1936. During interludes in band performances, Wilson and Hampton would join Goodman and Krupa on stage. Goodman also hired several African-American arrangers, including Horace Henderson, Fletcher’s brother, as well as Edgar Sampson and Jimmy Mundy. In 1936, he recorded using Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist. She did not perform live with the band however.
Vocalist Ward and Goodman dated on and off during her period with the band. Goodman was notoriously difficult to get along with. He lacked people skills, and his musicians often described him as cold, calculating and blunt. During his “on” periods with Ward, he would bring her a white gardenia every day. When he drifted into an “off” period, he would typically ignore her. Ward told that once, during a time when they weren’t seeing each other, he caught her out with another man and quickly asked her to marry him. She refused. While she believed that he did genuinely like her, she also felt that he’d only proposed to keep her from leaving the band. Goodman’s fears finally came true in October 1936 when she met him at a restaurant to announce that she was leaving to marry wealthy jazz patron Albert Marx. Goodman flung his dinner menu at her face.
Ward stayed through the end of the year, recording with the band in December. Goodman often went through rounds of rapid personnel changes, giving those he didn’t like what was humorously referred to as the Goodman “ray,” where he’d glance their direction and look right through them. If you got the ray you knew you were out. The ray was quite active in the search to replace Ward. He first considered Bea Wain but hired Margaret McCrae, who was quickly followed by Frances Hunt, who was then quickly followed by Peg LaCentra. He finally settled on Betty Van in mid-1937.
Van recorded with the orchestra but remained only a few months, leaving by the end of October. Goodman then finally found what he was looking for in Martha Tilton, who fit into the band quite nicely. Goodman, intending to give Tilton a good build-up during her debut, would introduce her as a singer “that’s really going places.” During one of her first appearances, she forgot her cue, and when she didn’t appear Goodman turned to the audience and joked, “Boy, she isn’t going places, she’s already gone!”
Despite Goodman’s intentions, fans had mixed reactions to Tilton. Down Beat magazine received so many negative letters about her that they decided to tabulate her approval rating. Based on the percentage of positive or negative remarks in reader letters, they found it to be only 68% positive. “Martha Tilton is rotten,” wrote one reader. “She stands stiff as a beanstalk and looks as if she’s going thru an operation when she sings.” Others defended her. “Where do readers get that stuff that Martha Tilton can’t sing?” wrote another. “Seems to me Benny knows something about singers, and I doubt that he would keep Martha with his ace-high outfit if she were not tops.”
Goodman’s band remained popular into 1938, reaching its high point in January of that year with its famous concert at Carnegie Hall, which left tuxedoed guests dancing in their boxes. By that time though, the swing craze had begun to subside, and a string of departures in 1938 and 1939 put stress on the band. Krupa was the first to leave, forming his own band not long after the Carnegie Hall concert. James, equally as popular as Goodman himself, left in December to start his own orchestra. The band then went through a major shake-up in early 1939, with many members being replaced. Wilson and Hampton also soon left to form their own orchestras.
The spate of personnel departures in 1939 left Goodman’s orchestra in less than stellar shape, and it limped along through the rest of the year, switching labels from Victor to Columbia. Tilton remained as vocalist until May 1939 when she was asked to leave, though official reports were that she was ill. Louise Tobin, then wife of Harry James, replaced her. Tobin didn’t stay long. Rumors constantly flew that she was leaving the band, and she finally did that fall after becoming critically ill. She was replaced temporarily, on stage, by Detroit radio singer Kay Foster, with noted white jazz singer Mildred Bailey signed to appear on Goodman’s radio show and in the recording studio. The hope was that Bailey would join Goodman’s band full time, but her health prevented her from touring. Foster would have likely ended up with the job permanently had not Artie Shaw quit the music business in November 1939. The Shaw orchestra voted to continue as a cooperative unit under saxophonist Georgie Auld. Goodman wanted Shaw’s singer, Helen Forrest, and worked out a deal with Auld, trading Foster for Forrest. Forrest became one of Goodman’s most popular vocalists, recording many classic numbers with the band. Goodman also recorded with singer Johnny Mercer in spring 1939.
In late 1939, Goodman was diagnosed with sciatica. He tried to continue leading the orchestra but in July 1940 was forced to disband while he underwent treatment. He returned in October and formed a new orchestra, with Forrest rejoining as vocalist. When she finally gave her notice in mid-1941, Goodman refused to accept it, and she ended up sitting out of the band for a month before he released her. She then joined Harry James. To replace Forrest, Goodman chose a relatively unknown singer named Peggy Lee, who had been performing in Chicago with a musical combo called the Four of Us. Lee quickly became a sensation. One of the finest jazz singers of all time, she stole the spotlight in a band that was often lacking of talent during this period and gave it a new breath of life.
Goodman began to hire male vocalists again in 1941. He first tried to woo Dick Haymes away from Harry James but couldn’t agree on terms. He then turned to Mitchell Ayres warbler Tommy Taylor, who joined in July and became the first boy singer the band had used in five years. Goodman let Taylor go in November, however, and replaced him with Art Lund, known at first as Art London. Lund was out of the band by May 1942, with Goodman looking to try something new in the vocal department. Saxophonist Johnny McAfee was hired and announced as Lund’s replacement but ended up not singing. Buzz Alston recorded with the band that year, likely replacing Lund. Trombone player Lou McGarrity also occasionally sang. Haymes then joined in May after a failed attempt to start an orchestra of his own. He didn’t stay long, leaving in August so that he could join Tommy Dorsey in September after Frank Sinatra bowed as a single.
In March 1943, Lee, who was married to ex-Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour, discovered that she was pregnant and gave notice. The Goodman ray went through a slew of failed attempts to fill her slot. In mid-June, he announced that his new female chirp was a mysterious young woman called E’lane. He wouldn’t divulge her true identity, saying she was a member of a prominent Southern California society family and wanted to find success on her own. She didn’t stay long. Susie Allen and then Monica Lewis went through the revolving door before Carol Kay met Goodman’s approval in August. Goodman hired Ray Dorey as male vocalist in July at the same time as Allen. Both Kay and Dorey remained with the band until the end of the year. Dorey fell victim to the draft in December, and Kay, preferring to stay in New York, quit in January 1944 when the band headed for the West Coast. In March, plagued by the loss of key personnel and unhappy with his booking agency, Goodman decided to call it quits. He disbanded the orchestra, using studio musicians to fulfill obligations.
Goodman spent the rest of 1944 performing with his small combo, entering the studio with it in November 1944 after the American Federation of Musicians lifted their recording ban. For these sessions he used Liza Morrow, Peggy Mann, and Jane Harvey as singers. In March 1945, Goodman put together a new orchestra for a booking at the Paramount Theater in New York, with Harvey as vocalist. The engagement proved a success, and he decided to continue with the new band. Harvey remained, with Bob Hayden joining as male vocalist.
Harvey left the orchestra in either April or May 1945, with Kay Penton briefly replacing her. Singers Dorothy Keller and Tim Herbert joined the band in June. The ray quickly took care of both of them. Dottie Reid signed with the orchestra for a seven-week tour in late June and didn’t return after the band’s August vacation. In need of a vocalist for a recording session in mid-September, Liza Morrow stepped in and remained with the band as it went on tour. She became very popular with both critics and the public and stayed with the orchestra through mid-1946, singing on a number of recordings. Eve Young replaced her in June of that year.
Equally as popular was Art Lund, who returned to Goodman in February 1946. A much more polished performer than he had been five years earlier, Lund became one of the most respected male band singers of that period, winning first place for that category in Down Beat magazine’s 1946 poll. He remained with Goodman until October when, tempted by radio and screen offers while the orchestra was on the West Coast, he asked to be released from his contract. Goodman flatly refused, telling him to either remain with the band for the duration or quit the business entirely. Lund went on a sit-down strike and didn’t return with the band to the East Coast. Interestingly, Lund’s agent was Goodman’s brother, Freddy, who couldn’t understand Benny’s obstinance.
Lund’s departure put even more pressure on what was already a stressful period for Goodman’s band. Though it was a critical success, the public’s taste in music was changing, and Goodman, realizing the inevitable, decided to pull the plug for good after Thanksgiving weekend in November 1946, giving the band its two-week notice. With the December 18 broadcast of Goodman’s NBC radio program, he moved to the West Coast, where a new group of musicians were assembled by the program’s orchestra manager.
Goodman continued into 1947 with his radio orchestra, ending his seven-year association with Columbia Records in January to sign with Capitol. Fans and critics complained about Goodman’s music in early 1947, calling it uninspired and out-of-touch. In May, he made his first concert appearance since disbanding, using a group that consisted of several members of his radio orchestra, including pianist Jess Stacy, mixed with other prominent musicians, most notably Red Norvo, who had worked in Goodman’s orchestra before he disbanded. The program at the Pasadena municipal auditorium also featured Peggy Lee, Benny Carter, Errol Garner, and Charlie Barnet. Stacy left Goodman’s orchestra soon after to form his own band.
Goodman continued performing into the 1980s, focusing mostly on small combos. He occasionally put together large bands for concerts and tours but never again lead a full-time orchestra of his own. He toured outside the United States on multiple occasions, performing in Europe, Australia, South America, and the Far East. In 1962, Goodman made history by becoming the first jazz musician to tour the Soviet Union. Singer Joya Sherrill accompanied Goodman as his vocalist. Sherrill elicited controversy when she sang a sultry jazz version of a patriotic Soviet song, “Katusha.” Her rendition provoked a strong negative reaction throughout the country. Crowds jeered at her, and the Soviet government denounced her performance as inappropriate. Sherrill and Goodman expressed indignation, failing to understand that, to Soviet audiences, it was the equivalent of a Russian singer doing a strip-tease to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Goodman removed the song from his show after only a few dates. He again performed behind the Iron Curtain in 1976, visiting Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague.
Benny Goodman gave his last concert in mid-1986. He passed away a few days later from a cardiac arrest, age 77.
At some point in 1941 Goodman recorded the odd and very un-Goodman-like song “Buckle Down Winsocki” with radio singer Tommy Dix. The song is a college fight song done in march time. It’s unknown what relationship Dix had with Goodman or the band. Dix re-recorded the song in 1947 with another orchestra. ↩︎
It’s unknown who Buzz Alston was or how long he worked for Goodman. There’s absolutely no information available about him. His name only appears on two record labels and in three issues of Billboard. In those Billboard issues he’s simply listed as the vocalist for the song “Dearly Beloved.” His name doesn’t appear at all in Down Beat or in any newspapers, and there are no dates given for his two recordings. As he obviously recorded before the AFM ban, which started in August 1942, he likely was in the orchestra between London’s departure and Haymes’ arrival. ↩︎
In a March 1946 article, Billboard stated that the William Morris Agency was looking to find a place for Haymes and convinced Goodman to drop Lund so Haymes could join. If this has any kernel of truth to it, then it doesn’t explain why Johnny McAfee was announced as Lund’s replacement or why Buzz Alston recorded with the band in between the time Lund left and Haymes joined. ↩︎
Phyllis Lane sang with the band at some point prior to it disbanding. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.