When the story of popular entertainment in the twentieth century is written, much will be said, no doubt, about the advent of rock 'n' roll, the arrival of the Beatles, about punk and rap, hit parades and charts, and about the major pop stars of the day. For all that, no study would be complete without a thorough review of the world-wide obsession with organised social dance, the kind of thing known to our elders and betters as ballroom dancing, which dominated our mid-century social scene.
Way back in the Twenties, on into the Thirties, the Forties and beyond, the public thronged to dance halls, lured by the lively atmosphere and buoyed up by romance, to dance the night away to the music of their favourite bands. They bought records too, in the millions - all 78rpm, of course - and danced some more at home, practising the latest steps and generally having fun. To our eyes now, these were times of innocence, of simple joy, of mostly humdrum lifestyles, just ready for an injection of glamour.
If boy was to meet girl, the local dance hall was the place to be. After work, best suit on, our young hero would venture forth, pay his entrance fee and survey the scene. A suitable companion in tow, he would take the floor, show off his command of the quickstep, the foxtrot, the waltz or whatever, pause for a break and whirl off all over again. Saturday after Saturday, wherever you were, in England or America, you could track down the finest swing bands of the day, and dance to them live, the whole attractive panoply opening up before your very eyes. Dance halls were like palaces, colourful and exotic, the bandsmen in sharp outfits, the entire experience suffused with the promise of unforgettable fun.
Everybody knew how to dance. And if you didn't, Arthur Murray and his many imitators made sure you soon learned, their schools and classes spread far and wide. Famous stars demonstrated how it should all be done on film, countless young people anxious to emulate the likes of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire when their own turn came on Saturday night. Records, songs, swing tunes, all were produced in quantity to feed the public's apparently insatiable demand for foot-tapping rhythms. Bandleaders became famous, constantly in the limelight, their public appearances earning them the adulation of the crowds much like today's pop idols. Every town and locality supported a neighbourhood dance hall. Bands played residencies at hotels as well, pleasing diners, while other outfits barnstormed their way around the circuits, every gig eagerly awaited by their fans.
Now, much of that has gone. The dance halls are no longer there. A few bands do remain and formal dancing is still popular with many people. However, as a mass activity, it's day is done. Our society now seeks more instant gratification. Mastering complex steps in unison and letting the rhythmic pulse of the music transport you into a sequinned world of enjoyment is no longer fashionable. There's still a desire to dance; it's just that the setting and the boundaries have changed.
Starting with the hot dance styles of the mid-Twenties our survey takes us deep into the heartland of the swing era, allowing us to sample the powerful sounds of the greatest bands from both sides of the Atlantic. The opening number is The Charleston, composed by jazz pianist James P Johnson and played here by the Savoy Orpheans, a top British orchestra. Premiered in the black revue 'Runnin' Wild' which toured America in 1923, this tune's intriguing stop-time rhythms generated an entirely new dance step, the Charleston becoming hugely popular. Little is known about Johnny Hamp and His Kentucky Serenaders but the choice of Black Bottom is significant. By the time of this recording, the Black Bottom had become white society's latest dance craze, ousting the Charleston, after it was included in George White's 'Scandals of 1926'.
The Savoy Orpheans were well known for their broadcasts from the Savoy Hotel in London. Debroy Somers founded the band in 1923 but by the time they recorded the fine Rodgers & Hart number Blue Room, they were directed by US-born pianist Carroll Gibbons. The close harmony warblings of The Hamilton Sisters are a charming period reminder. The Orpheans, who included American trumpeter Frank Guarente, were EMI's highest-paid band and made over 300 records between 1923 and 1927. Gibbons remained the Savoy's director of entertainment until his death in 1954. Jack Hylton led the most famous and largest show band in Europe for something like ten years. Its personnel included many star sidemen, some of whom like saxophonist Billy Ternent became bandleaders themselves. Hylton trumpeter Jack Jackson was later a pioneer disc jockey for the BBC.
Happy Feet introduces the heavy-weight talents of US bandleader Paul Whiteman and his vocal trio, known as the Rhythm Boys. They introduced the tune in a 1930 film, 'The King of Jazz', a title which was also attached, somewhat dubiously, to Whiteman himself. Whiteman was a dominant force in the US dance music business, earning the later description 'Dean of Modern American Music'. Incidentally, one of the Rhythm Boys went on to greater fame too. His name was Bing Crosby.
Our next tracks are by three of the most outstanding American bands. Duke Ellington's Rockin' in Rhythm dates from his heyday as music director at New York's stylish Cotton Club and features tightly muted solo trombone by the great Tricky Sam Nanton. The Casa Loma Orchestra was an influential white band, originally from Detroit, its strong rhythmic attack clearly evident on Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet. The vocals on this and the later Boogie Woogie Man are by trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who also achieved enormous success with a novelty Dixieland version of '12th Street Rag'. Cab Calloway's fervent vocal qualities and manic personality made him the ideal front man for his superb band. Cab achieved super-stardom as 'The Hi-De-Ho Man' and is still active in his eighties as entertainer and bandleader.
Jack Payne was Director of Dance Music at the BBC and employed the cream of British musicians in his band. Tiger Rag was something of a test piece, calling for skilled musicianship. The Dorsey Brothers featured the combined talents of two great American instrumentalists. Brother Tommy was a superb trombonist; Jimmy was a fine alto-saxophonist. They fought constantly and went their separate ways eventually but their bands were always of the highest quality, as is also evident on Tommy's Deep Night, with his smooth trombone solo. Chick Webb, a hunchbacked black drummer from Baltimore, was often in pain but drove himself hard. Webb, who discovered Ella Fitzgerald, was a favourite at the Savoy Ballroom in New York. The exhilarating swing and drum breaks in Clap Hands, Here Comes Charley easily explain why. The trumpeter is Taft Jordan and the trombone is by Sandy Williams. Another great black band was that of Mississippi-born Jimmie Lunceford whose For Dancers Only, composed and arranged by Sy Oliver, shows off the perfect instrumental blend and cohesion of this well-disciplined orchestra. The fierce high-note trumpet is by Paul Webster.
Red Norvo played the xylophone on the halls at first but soon caught the ear of jazz lovers. His bands always included other jazz musicians, among them the Chicago drummer George Wettling. Famed for his solo work on vibes, Norvo now lives quietly in retirement. Alto-saxophonist Louis Jordan was with Chick Webb at first but carved out a successful career for himself after forming his Tympany Five. With his perky vocals and its neatly arranged jump style, this group became very popular with black and white audiences alike. Its jump 'n' jive repertoire is now celebrated in the hit musical show 'Five Guys Named Moe'. It's said that Glenn Miller modelled his band sound on that of Lunceford. There are points of similarity inevitably, but the characteristic clarinet-lead pioneered by Miller remains his most memorable musical legacy. Although he was lost in an air accident in 1944, his sound lives on in the Miller-style bands led by Sid Lawrence and others. Tex Beneke is the tenor-saxophonist on Boulder Buff.
Our final tracks further illustrate the splendid diversity of dance music styles. Earl Hines band was led by one of the acknowledged greats of jazz piano, while Bob Crosby's was a cooperative unit whose leader was a non-musician. Crosby and co stuck to the classic jazz repertoire, fashioning new versions of old New Orleans jazz classics. The soloists included Yank Lawson on trumpet. Last on is the indestructible Nat Gonella, Britain's answer to Louis Armstrong. Nat, who is still going strong, directs his New Georgians here on a Cab Calloway novelty, rounding out our survey of the great days of the dance bands in sparkling fashion.
Make no mistake: those were the days, my friends!
Peter Vacher, October 1993