(originally published May 13, 2006)
The Virtual Victrola continues to Swing At Decca, and features the music of one of the most unique bands of the Swing Era, Bob Crosby and his Orchestra.
Most music enthusiasts know the Crosby orchestra as a "dixieland" band, and truly the band integrated more traditional New Orleans jazz sounds into its blend than any other big band of the time. But they were a fabulous ensemble that worked together with mostly the same personnel for over a decade, and produced some of the most thrilling and unique swing of the era.
The band started out as "Pollack's Orphans," a name jokingly given to the group by other musicians after the band as a whole gave its notice to its former leader, Ben Pollack. The band had gotten fed up with Pollack's leadership and cheesy self-promotion, but because of the strong friendships that had developed among the musicians, the band felt that they could make it on their own. After a few anonymous record dates and enough freelance work to keep the boys in the band from starving, their agent suggested finding a good front man to lead the band. Trombonist Jack Teagarden (who unfortunately had just signed a five year contract with Paul Whiteman's orchestra) and New Orleans trumpeter Louis Prima didn't work out. Finally, someone suggested Bob Crosby.
was Bing Crosby's youngest brother, 21 years old at the time and
working as a singer with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. From their
first meeting onward, the boys in the band liked Bob, and although he
couldn't play an instrument proficiently, he was a pleasant singer and
-- most importantly -- he was a natural at fronting the band: warming
up the audience, announcing the tunes, introducing the musicians, and
handling the vocals on ballads. He turned in his notice to the Dorsey
Brothers and began leading his new band, now billed as The Bob Crosby
Orchestra, in March of 1935.
Though Crosby was the group's stage leader, the real work of managing the band fell upon tenor saxophonist Gil Rodin, who had been part of the old Ben Pollack band since its earliest days. And in bassist Bob Haggart the band had a gifted arranger, composer, and musical director. Also instrumental in the group were drummer Ray Bauduc, guitarist Hilton 'Nappy' Lamare, clarinetists Matty Matlock and Irving Fazola, tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller, and trumpeter Yank Lawson. These musicians also created a small group inside of the Bob Crosby orchestra named the The Bobcats, which added true New Orleans-style dixieland jazz performances to the band's shows. And Bauduc and Haggart produced a classic hit with their duo performance of Haggart's "Big Noise From Winnetka," which featured Haggart whistling the tune's melody, accompanied by Haggart's bass and Bauduc's energetic drumming.
Bob Crosby was an exclusive Decca artist from the time he took over
the band in 1935 until he disbanded in 1942. During that time, he
recorded dozens of classic swing and jazz performances for the label.
Here are four of them:
Our first selection is the old dixieland warhorse At The Jazz Band Ball,
which was written and first recorded by The Original Dixieland Jazz
Band and dates from the earliest days of jazz. Bob Haggart's
arrangement reworks the tune into a vehicle for the entire band. This
number is typical of the expanded "dixieland" format that the band
enjoyed, and features great solo spots by Eddie Miller, Yank Lawson,
and Matty Matlock.
Swingin' At The Sugar Bowl pays tribute to the classic Harold Teen
comic strip, in which Harold and his friends from Covina High School
often hung out at the Sugar Bowl Soda Shop along with its proprietor,
Pop Jenks, and enjoyed "gedunk" ice cream sundaes. According to band
members, Harold Teen cartoonist Carl Ed was a fan of the Crosby band,
and this tune, based on the chord sequence of "Honeysuckle Rose," is
their tribute to him. The tenor sax solo is by Eddie Miller and
illustrates why he was one of the Big Band Era's top tenorists.
the end of 1940, the Crosby band was working in California, and was
hammering out difficulties caused by personnel changes and external
pressure from critics and booking agents who accused the band of
sounding dated. Pianist Jess Stacy, who had just spent four years with
Benny Goodman, had joined the band earlier that year. And while in Los
Angeles the band picked up famed Chicago cornetist Muggsy Spanier for a few months. Both are featured in this Bob Haggart original entitled The Mark Hop, presumably a play on the famous Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco.
the early 1940's, the Bob Crosby Orchestra responded to its critics by
restyling itself as a mainline swing band, adopting riff-based tunes
and largely abandoning the unique traditional jazz sound that
distinguished the band from its musical peers just a few years
earlier. But the band was still great, as this fantastic 1942
recording of King Porter Stomp shows. Although the
tune was well-worn by the time this recording was made, it became one
of the Crosby band's last hit records. Soloists are Yank Lawson, Matty
Matlock, and Eddie Miller.
During WWII, Bob Crosby spent a year and a half in the Marines, touring with a band in the Pacific. He remained a popular entertainer on radio and television and became the musical director for the Jack Benny Show from 1953 until Jack left radio in 1955. He continued to tour and lead reunion bands until the 1970's. The best musicians from the band continued to work together up through the 1980's. The most notable unit of ex-Crosby jazz musicians was The World's Greatest Jazz Band, co-led by Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart, which toured and recorded in one form or another for over twenty years.