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Swing With The Kings

by Graham Lees


The 1920's and 30's saw a period in music that came to be known as the Jazz Age. Exciting styles of music with its jazz based foundations drew popularity for big bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman. Fiddle bands picked up the big band influences and the likes of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Spade Cooley became highly popular around areas such as Texas, Oklahoma and California. The affluent arranged dance rhythms combined with a jazz style brought about a typeBenny Goodman of music that came to be popularly identified as Swing!

The Big Band Era is generally regarded as having occurred between the years 1935 and 1945. It was the only time in history that the popularity of Jazz music eclipsed all other forms of music in the U.S.A. Rightly or wrongly the appearance of Benny Goodman and his big band at the Palomar in Los Angeles in August of 1935 is often referred to as the official start of the Swing era. Without doubt one of the most colourful figures in the history of jazz, Joe Venuti can be seen as the father of jazz violin. He recorded numerous astounding sides for the Okeh Record Company between 1926 and 1933. Without his innovations both stylistically and technically, jazz violin and jazz per say would be different. The son of a violinmaker Joe was born in 1901 aboard a ship as his parents emigrated from Italy and trained to be a classical violinist from an early age. By 1915, Joe was an accomplished violinist with a technique ferocious enough to convince his young boyhood friend Salvatore Massars (1902-1933), to give up the violin and take up the guitar (with a name change, he became Eddie Lang) and started a local group with him. The two would go on to play and record with each other frequently up until Lang's death in 1933. Venuti was the first great violinist of jazz and would later be a major influence on Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli in France. He played Joe Venutibriefly with Red Nichols, toured with the excellent dance orchestra of pianist Jean Goldkette and played in the orchestra of many Broadway shows. He co-led a band with Lang off and on through most of the 1920's, which included Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols and Frank Signorelli of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In 1929 he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but was injured in an auto accident and re-join the band in 1930. Venuti was able to keep working as a musician the rest of his life and enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the 1970s. Eddie Lang was the first jazz guitar virtuoso and turned professional in 1924 with the Mound City Blue Blowers. He was soon in great demand for recording dates, in both the jazz and pop world. His sophisticated European sounding chord patterns made him a unique accompanist, but he was also a fine soloist. He often played with Venuti, Red Nichols' Five Pennies , Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke (most memorably on the song "Singin' the Blues"). He played in many orchestras including Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra, Jean Goldkette and with Paul Whiteman (appearing on one short number with Venuti in Whiteman's 1930 film "The King of Jazz"). Lang was a versatile player and was the house guitarist at Okeh Records from 1926 to 1933. Using the pseudonym of Blind Willie Dunn, Lang often teamed up with Blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Eddie Lang led several dates of his own between 1927 and 1929, including an interesting session with King Oliver and Johnson, under the name of Blind Willie Dunn and his Gin Bottle Four. He worked Eddie Langregularly with Bing Crosby during the early 1930s and appears briefly with him in the film "The Big Broadcast".

Tragically his premature death came about during a poorly performed operation, loosing too much blood during a routine tonsillectomy. Crosby was deeply troubled by Lang's death; he had not only lost one of his best friends and most talented sidemen, but also had personally urged Lang to have the operation.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were without doubt the best-known band in the history of Western Swing and was one of the very few bands to continue performing this once highly popular dance style music well into the 1970s.

After being sacked from The Light Crust Doughboys by Wilbert Lee O'Daniel, president of Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, Bob Wills started a new band and gained airplay on radio station WACO in Waco, Texas. The band consisted of Bob playing fiddle, Tommy Duncan vocals and piano, Kermit Whalin on steel and bass, Bob's brother Johnny Lee on tenor banjo and June Whalin playing rhythm guitar. During the early 30's the papers were filled with the exploits of the likes of Howard Hughes, Alfred Gwinn Vanderbilt and Tommy Mandel. Hollywood made films about playboys and in those days…being a playboy was as Cool as one could be! Bob Wills and his band were a young group with all but Bob in their mid-twenties, dressing like college students of the day, Wills called his band The Texas Playboys. Primarily a dance band, Bob Wills & His Bob WillsTexas Playboys performed some jazzy, rug cutting selections on and off the air and was highly popular in the rural area. As there was no air-conditioning in the houses at that time, in the summertime all the windows were left open. You could walk down the entire street and wouldn't miss a beat of that program, as the radios in all the houses would be tuned to Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.

Wills and his band moved from radio station to radio station due to pressure applied by O'Daniel. Travelling to Tulsa they gained the midnight slot playing on KVOO and making Tulsa their home. Even though O'Daniel tried to bring pressure to bare once again, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys stayed with the station until 1942 when the war caused members of the band to sign up for the services. Bob Wills was aware of the jazz recordings of various groups in New Orleans, New York, Kansas City and Chicago. Essentially a string band, Bob was impressed by the jazz violin playing of Joe Venuti and the jazz guitar of Eddie Lang. He wanted his music to be danceable and popular to a wide audience. Bob was very particular about the kinds of songs he performed for his audiences. One of his earliest selections was a well know Tin Pan Ally number "Right or Wrong" co-written by Avon Gillespie who had also co-wrote "Near You", "Lucky Old Sun" and countless others. Wills brought in several jazz fiddle players such as Jesse Ashlock, Louis Tierney, Joe Holley and Johnny Gimble alongside names such as Zeb McNally, and Leon McAuliffe with his electrified steel guitar. Others were Alton Stricklin described by Bob as "the old piano pounder" (took over piano from Tommy Duncan), Herman Arnspiger, Joe Ferguson and Smokey Dacus who introduced drums to country music. In 1944 the The Texas PlayboysTexas Playboys had as many as 22 members playing with horn players from the bands of Jimmy Dorsey and Glen Miller.

Due to his popularity over many years, Bob Wills was held in high esteem as the King of Western Swing. During the mid 30s Bob's manager O.W. Mayo had organised the Battle Of The Bands in Waco, where Bob Wills had won over the crowd with his personality and charisma. At the end of WWII Wills was based in California, as was Spade Cooley & His Orchestra. Donnell Clyde Cooley came from Oklahoma and in the early 30s had headed for California. He played fiddle with several bands around Los Angeles before arriving in Hollywood and been signed up with Republic Pictures. He had a resemblance to Roy Rogers, standing in for Rogers on several occasions. Rogers signed Cooley up for his touring band Riders Of The Purple Sage. In 1942 Foreman Phillips persuaded Cooley away from the Jimmy Wakely Trio and installed him as leader of the house band at the newly opened Venice Pier Ballroom. In 1943 Cooley moved his band to the Riverside Rancho Ballroom, Santa Monica and later to the Santa Monica Ballroom. These were very successful years for Spade Cooley, also gaining the reputation as the King of Western Swing. One of his best-remembered self-penned songs is 'Shame On You', becoming a jukebox favourite and country #1 hit in 1945 for Tex' Williams.

More jazz orientated than Bob Wills, Spade Cooley was his biggest challenge for the throne as King of Western Swing. Spade Cooley also attracted western swing zealots Spade Cooley and his orchestrato dance halls at Venice Pier and Redondo Beach. Hank Thompson said, "I remember seeing Wills and Cooley perform at Redondo Beach when I was stationed in San Pedro during the war. It was not uncommon to see ten thousand out at the pier." Snuffy Smith also recalled a Battle of the Bands between Bob and Spade Cooley at Santa Monica Beach when they called out the highway patrol because there were so many cars on the pier they feared it could collapse. Vocalist Laura Lee Owens recalled the huge crowds in California. "Bob had six bodyguards `cause people were wantin' to pull his cloths off him. He was a master showman."

Cooley pioneered television around the West Coast and premiered on one of the top shows, Hoffman Hayride on KTLA until 1958. Cooley suffered several heart attacks in the 50s from which he recovered, but things started to go tragically wrong. Decca Records dropped him, as was his TV show. In 1957 Cooley retired, his heavy drinking worsened and he became insanely jealous of his wife, suspecting her of having an affair she finally left him in the early 60s. Reconciliation was all in vain and in 1961 while in a drunken rage; Cooley beat his wife to death in front of their 14-year-old daughter. Cooley suffered another heart attack during the trial, but served his sentence as a model prisoner and even taught several prisoners to play the violin. He was granted parole for early 1970, but on 23 November 1969 he was allowed to perform at a benefit concert for the Alemeda County Sheriffs` Association. After finishing his performance Spade Cooley left the stage to a standing ovation. As Cooley stood backstage, he suffered another seizure, slumped to the floor and died.

In 1964 Bob's second heart attack forced him to slow down. During the late 60's early 70's Bob Wills suffered a series of strokes. In 1973 Bob made a few appearances and even held his fiddle while Hoyle Nix used the bow. He travelled to Dallas to attend a recording session of the reunion album Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys For The Last Time, when he included a few 'hollers' while the band recorded several of his hits. Sadly during the night Bob suffered a further stroke and remained unconscious for almost 18 months until his death on 13 May 1975. 

Django Reinhardt has stunned and thrilled numerous generations of guitar players and jazz lovers with his amazing command of the guitar and is still mystifying artists of today. At Liberchies Belgium, Django was born into the open-air rambling lifestyle of his gypsy parents during 1910. At the age of eight, his mother's tribe settled near the fortifications surrounding old Paris. With a keen interest in music at twelve years of Django Reinhardtage he received his first instrument, a banjo/guitar from a neighbour. He quickly learned to play, mimicking the fingerings of musicians he watched. He was soon astounding people with his guitar playing skill and before he was thirteen had begun his musical career playing with popular accordionist Guerino at a dance hall on the Rue Monge. On November 2nd 1928, his life change forever, when 18-year-old Django returned to the caravan that he shared with his new wife after a night of playing music at a new club "La Java". The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at the local market. Accidentally Django knocked over a candle whose flame caught the highly flammable celluloid flowers and the caravan became a raging inferno. Somehow he and his wife escaped outside, but Django was terribly burned down his right side from knee to waist and the third and forth digits on his left hand were also badly burnt. Django's future as a guitarist was outwardly in ruin. His ability was so promising that the accident is said to have caused his Gypsy community to weep….even then, his genius was evident. This did not deter Django's infatuation for the guitar. The burns on his body were an afterthought to Django. The pain that seared was not from his physical circumstances, but the fear that he might never play again. Whenever his mother, who never left his bedside, asked him, "What are thinking about, Django?" He would reply, "my hand."

Django was bedridden for eighteen months. During this time he was given a guitar, and with great determination developed a unique new fingering system built around the two fingers on his left hand that had full mobility. His fourth and fifth digits of the left hand were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire and used them for barring purposes Jazz recordings of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington influenced Django. Classical music remained a heavy influence throughout his career, but it was jazz that was in Django's heart. His passion made him a little overbearing. Violinist Stephane Grappelli, who began a twenty year partnership with Django in the early 30's, recalled that "sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, because as everyone knows, he was rather difficult…but we got on well, anyway…music came first." This allegiance with Grappelli led to the formation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, which was Django's main means of expression for the majority of his career. A small record Hot Club de Francecompany Ultraphone recorded their first sides "Dinah", "Tiger Rag", "Oh Lady Be Good", and "I Saw Stars". These first records caused a sensation! The Quintet went on to record hundreds of sides and had a following on both sides of the ocean. In 1946 Djamgo toured briefly with Duke Ellington in America. Unfortunately, critics dismissed his work and Django's tendency for drinking and showing up late didn't help the situation. Fortunately though, jazz fanatics at the time were obsessed with recording live music. The shows Django played with Ellington were recorded by a fanatic named George Steiner, who hung a microphone from the balcony at the Chicago Civic Centre, capturing the wonderful performance of the two legends. Jazz lovers found it a dream pairing, besides his Gypsy styled music and the classical background, Django had been drawing much of his inspiration from American jazz at the time. He was to record several sides with Coleman Hawkins and drew from big bands such as Benny Goodman and later from bebop. Returning to Paris he continued his career until 1951 when he retired to the small village of Samois sur Seine. On May 16th 1953 Django suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and died.

The Gypsy community hold Reinhardt in high esteem, generating a tremendous following in his own faction of Gypsy culture, the Sinti's, who now hold major residence in areas of France and Holland. However, his motivation has gone far beyond that. What separated Django was his style. Every note rang true, his tone was startlingly clear and he voiced each phrase with great passion. Besides that, his runs up the neck were taken at breakneck speed. Django was not just a great guitarist, but was unique and will continue to influence guitarists for years to come. Reinhardt left a legacy of exciting music that remains as fundamental today.

Stéphane Grappelli was a self-taught violinist who started playing professionally at Stéphane Grappelli the age of 15, performing in various Parisian cafés and cinemas. A chance meeting with Reinhardt led to their continued relationship through the Hot Club de France and their renowned fame and popularity. During the Second World War Grappelli lived in London, working with such musicians as pianist George Shearing and in the early 70's was rediscovered by a new generation of jazz fans. He has performed at the Newport Jazz Festival and at New York's Carnegie Hall, and remained professionally active until the time of his death, at the age of 89 in late 1997. Even today Stéphane Grappelli continues to enchant new fans with his magical style.