Fashions come and go, but the elegance of the ballroom still works its magic on dancers of all ages. We present here a second selection of classic dance numbers played by the top bands of the nineteen twenties, 'thirties and 'forties.
Undoubtedly the dominant dance of the time was the Foxtrot, first popularised by Vernon and Irene Castle. A close-coupled dance in common time, the Foxtrot was easily adapted to most popular songs of the day. The variations, such as the slow and melody Foxtrot are largely self-explanatory. The Quickstep evolved from the Foxtrot, incorporating elements of the Charleston, which flourished in the early 1920s. In the USA, the Charleston and related dances, such as the Lindy Hop, spawned Jive, introduced by Cab Calloway in 1934. This, and other swing dances, like the Collegiate Shag, whose breakaways took up a lot of floor space, annoyed ballroom operators, as it restricted the number of dancers who could be safely admitted. Hence the emergence of the Balboa, a return to the close coupling of the Foxtrot, with tightly controlled and subtle movements. Another way the dance hall manager could keep order was by encouraging group or barn dances, where at least everybody was going in the same direction! One such is the Palais Glide, a variation on the Lambeth Walk, introduced to popular acclaim in the 1937 show Me And My Girl. The Foxtrot and its ilk, of course, didn't have things all their own way – the Waltz, danced in triple time, originated in Bavaria around 1750 and remained the dominant triple-time dance; the Polka, a dance in double time, had its roots in nineteenth century Bohemia and crossed to the USA with European emigrants.
Turner Layton, who opens the proceedings with Deep Purple, first achieved fame as the composer of such standards as After You've Gone and Way Down Yonder In New Orleans. Following several Broadway hit shows, he formed a double act with Clarence Johnstone, which was as popular on record as it was in the theatre. Layton struck out on his own, just as successfully, after scandal engulfed Johnstone.
Based in Nottingham, Billy Merrin and His Commanders was one of the few provincial bands to sustain a recording career. We hear them here in On The Beach At Bali-Bali.
Harry Roy's band (Eeny Meeny Miney Mo) flourished during the 'thirties and 'forties, after which, like many bandleaders, he became an impresario. His drummer from 1937, Ray Ellington, became a star vocalist in the 'fifties, featuring weekly in The Goon Show.
Clarinettist Artie Shaw's career proceeded in huge fits and starts – a perfectionist musician, he was ill-at ease with the music business and several times “retired”, only to come back as good as ever. He came and went throughout the 'forties and early 'fifties, generally with huge success, until he finally gave up music to become a writer. Both Begin the Beguine and Oh! Lady Be Good show him at his fluent best.
Ronnie Munro, whose band accompanies Alice Mann in Sing A Song Of Sunbeams, had a long career spanning records, radio and theatre. In the 'fifties, his group was a mainstay of Music While You Work, a programme introduced during the war as a tool for increasing factory productivity, but which proved so popular that it lasted until 1967.
Joe Loss spent all but sixty years as a bandleader, and was as popular within the business as with his fans, who included the Queen Mother. Given that the Nazis regarded her as the most dangerous woman in Britain, this rendition of The Vict'ry Polka would have gone down well.
Benny Goodman (When Buddha Smiles) rose to fame on the tide of swing music he helped to create. As much a craftsman as Artie Shaw, he lasted rather longer, playing into the 1980s, venturing into classical playing and leading a famous touring band on a 1962 tour of the USSR, when relations between East and West were still dangerously cool.
Sid Phillips' long career included a spell as Ambrose's arranger, solo work in the USA and war service in the RAF. We hear his fluent clarinet work here on Palais de Danse. His band flourished in to the 1970s.
In the 1930s, before high fidelity recording and Ronald Binge's arrangements made Mantovani the king of cascading strings, he led a successful dance band. Let's Fall in Love For The Last Time is typical of the fare he offered at the Hollywood Restaurant, Piccadilly.
Tommy Dorsey recorded Sy Oliver's masterly arrangement of On The Sunny Side Of The Street, half way through a twenty-year career as a bandleader, having split from his brother Jimmy in 1935. Dorsey, like Glenn Miller, was a trombonist, and in fact lent Miller the start-up money for his band, although the arrangement ended in acrimony.
American Carroll Gibbons studied at the Royal Academy of Music and shortly afterwards settled in England. He led the Savoy Hotel Orpheans for over twenty years, recording prolifically with them and with a small group, the Boy Friends.
Stage and film actor Jack Buchanan recorded frequently for HMV in the nineteen thirties – Goodnight Vienna encapsulates his easy charm and debonair style.
Many regard Jack Hylton's as the supreme British dance band, and with good reason – he picked the best players and arrangers and sold out halls on frequent tours at home and abroad. That's You Baby is a good example of his vast recorded output. After the war he became an impresario and was involved in commercial television.
Duke Ellington was strong all around the course – composer, arranger and bandleader, whose royalties allowed him to finance a band when others couldn't, and who continued in harness until his death in 1974. Harlem Airshaft evokes the kaleidoscopic effect of life in a crowded tenement block.
Henry Hall came from Salvationist roots to lead the BBC Dance Band to such good effect that he took it into the outside world a few years later under his own name. Got To Dance My Way To Heaven was recorded during the BBC era.
After a successful career as a bandleader, Jack Jackson (You Turned Your Head) pioneered a style of disc-jockeying which foreshadowed the likes of Kenny Everett – a show in which the records were almost incidental!
It is sobering to think that Glenn Miller, three of whose timeless classics feature here, was only prominent for six years and yet remains the one dance band leader the man in the street will name if asked. Doubtless, associations with the war have something to do with this, as does his disappearance whilst flying to Paris in 1944, the circumstances of which have never been fully explained. Just as important, however, is his unique sound, rooted in the unusual use of clarinets, and the dedication (some would say obsession) with which he pursued his vision of what dance music should be. How many dances have been wound up with Moonlight Serenade, I wonder? And who are we to argue with such a tradition?
© 2014 TED KENDALL
Past Perfect Vintage Music