Two men are walking down a suburban street, conversing in lively fashion, gesturing expansively, and chewing. Both are wearing army uniform, the cloth darker in colour and better tailored than the coarser British battledress. Even their forage caps seem smarter, worn at a rakish angle. Their shoes shine. These exotic individuals are approached by two English youngsters, one of whom dares to ask, Got any gum, chum? Smiling, one of the American G.I.s (for that's what they are) reaches into his pocket and pulls out a couple of sticks of this much-coveted confection, and hands them over. Here you are, son, he says with a pronounced American accent, as he and his companion continue on their way. The two boys unwrap the chewing gum eagerly and soon begin to ape their Yankee friends, munching enthusiastically.
This apparently trivial event took place in North London in the mid-1940s. The identity of the soldiers we'll never know but that of the cheeky child who asked for gum is simple enough to establish. It was the author of these notes. Yes, the Yanks were in town, out and about, and ready for action. While many of their British counterparts were fighting far away, these paragons from another place were having a field day. With money to burn and tall tales to tell, they had their pick of the local female population, who swooned over these glamorous strangers, loving their opulent, expansive style. Just like Hollywood film stars, they said. No wonder a jealous observer coined the bitter aphorism about G.I.s in Britain being over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.
That American service-men were a vivid part of the British landscape was the inevitable result of their nation's participation in World War Two. Huge numbers were stationed here, many as part of the Allied bomber force, for instance, flying daily sorties over Europe from air-strips located in the Eastern flatlands, which became known as 'American-occupied England.' At one time, the US 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions occupied no less than 17 bases in the county of Norfolk alone. These mighty units were seen as 'the spearhead of their country's greatest strategic bombing force', in the words of one military historian. With the tensions of combat, it's no surprise that these displaced fighting men sought solace and recreation wherever they could. One local girl remembered, About 7pm every evening, the town filled up with Yanks pouring in. The cinema was full every night, all the pubs were overflowing, the dances were packed. A case, perhaps, of living for the moment, for who knew what the next day might bring? Indeed, some six thousand American airmen from Norfolk were to lose their lives on war-time active service. It is salutary to visit the American Air Force museum at Duxford and to see the vast roster of names of those who served in England and sacrificed their lives for the Allied cause.
Although Americans based in Britain were free to find fun and pleasure where they could, their government (through the USO or United Services Organisation) also arranged for US entertainers and dance bands to tour their bases here and in Europe and for that matter, those in the Far East and further afield. Indeed, many of the great swing band leaders enlisted and took their musicians into the service with them, visiting all the theatres of war to bring much-needed comfort and distraction to the enlisted men, often sharing their privations in forward battlegrounds. Down Beat magazine, then as now, a leading jazz publication, called them 'Soldiers of music' and ran a regular column headed 'Killed in Action.' The great clarinettist Artie Shaw joined the US Navy, turned his peace-time orchestra into a Navy band, and took them on an exhausting tour of the South Pacific, often performing a mere heart-beat away from mortal danger. One sideman recalled that the climatic conditions were so humid that his saxophone pads rotted and the instrument had to be held together with rubber bands. As a further test of their sang-froid, Shaw and his men were strafed by Japanese warplanes no less than seventeen times during their tour of duty.
Another famous bandleader, the trombonist Glenn Miller was based just outside London, leading his celebrated Army Air Force orchestra, broadcasting regularly via the service airwaves and playing concerts for combat units and local enthusiasts. The nature of his death, in unusual circumstances, remains one of the great unresolved mysteries of World War Two and continues to exercise conspiracy theorists to this day. It should be remembered, too, that US service regiments were rigidly segregated in those far-off days of overt prejudice, with all-black regiments located well away from their white confreres whether in England and elsewhere. Although fighting to pursue the same objectives as their white compatriots, black soldiers were aligned and commanded separately. Even blood supplies for the wounded were kept carefully apart and labelled according to racial origin. Despite these rigours, black Americans enlisted in considerable numbers and over a million served in the forces, half of them overseas. They also enjoyed USO-sponsored visits from their preferred artists like swing bandleader Count Basie and the jump jive funster Louis Jordan. As a measure of his popularity with the troops, Jordan's record company advertisement billed him as offering 'Music For the Morale Of A Fighting America.'
It's also clear that some servicemen took their preferred music with them in the form of much-prized but vulnerable 78 rpm recordings kept in their quarters, and played on wind-up gramophones. The US government also instituted 'V-Discs' especially for their armed forces, persuading the best musicians of the day to give their services free and distributing the resulting recordings widely to American personnel wherever they were stationed. What with special radio programmes devoted to the music of the day and a cache of favourite discs, a young G.I. might while away the hours in a foreign land with a collection much like the one we have assembled for you here. Let's imagine that lonely 19-year old, perhaps from a small Mid-Western town, listening to a shiny new batch of records, their evocative power 'Next To A Letter From Home,' as the Commanding General of the 8th Air Force put it when describing the restorative value of Glenn Miller's all-American music.
Johnny Mercer's witty lyric for his own GI Jive paints a cheerful picture of service life, couched in 'jive' talk, a popular form of slang made famous by Cab Calloway. Mercer always had a flair for the telling phrase and went on to write the words for a host of songs, including the immortal Moon River. Dinah Shore occupied much the same position in America as Vera Lynn did in Britain, and became one of her nation's favourite vocalists. A Pair of Silver Wings (by the British writer Eric Maschwitz) is typical of the sentimental songs of the day, with its romantic yearning and pride in the achievements of her man - an Air Force pilot - wearing 'his silver wings.' Shore recorded with Major Glenn Miller's AAF Band in 1944 while in England, for the USO, their collaborations including the softly romantic All I Do Is Dream of You and Hoagy Carmichael's superb Stardust SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fouled Up) Jump is by the band alone and was recorded before Miller's men left for the UK. A vigourous swing number, it features hot trumpet from Bernie Privin and the rattling drums of Ray McKinley. Like Shore, Jo Stafford came up through the dance bands, singing with Tommy Dorsey and continued to make successful recordings until rock and roll took over. Her controlled reading of There's No You was typical of the era, note-perfect and cool. Again, the lyrics are designed to appeal to those far away who long to be home again.
Thomas 'Fats' Waller was a major jazz artist whose keyboard prowess and arcane vocal style ensured him undying fame. He’s the singer on That’s What The Well-Dressed Man In Harlem Will Wear,an Irving Berlin curiosity designed to tap into black America’s war-time patriotism. Note the reference to ‘Brown Bomber Joe’ aka Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion and a Harlem hero. The orchestra plays rousingly but there’s no room for Waller’s piano. Margaret Whiting was one of the grandes dames of American popular music and she is teamed with pianist Freddie Slack on That Old Black Magic, a Harold Arlen classic with lyrics by the prolific Johnny Mercer. Her second offering, Silver Wings In The Moonlight, is another tug at the heart-strings, romance losing out to the call of duty. Whiting’s full-throated style stands in contrast to the lighter touch preferred by Stafford and Shore.
The Ink Spots, a black vocal group, achieved extraordinary popularity right across America. Whispering Grass was their major hit, with its characteristic falsetto lead and soft harmonies.
By the time Benny Goodman came to record We’ll Meet Again (forever associated with Vera Lynn in Britain) he was billed as The King Of Swing, in deference to his status as the leader of the finest white dance-band of the day. His vocalist Peggy Lee (born Norma Dolores Egstrom) was influenced by Billie Holiday and went on to achieve international success as both an actress and major song stylist. It’s Goodman’s clarinet which carries the melody before Lee sidles in, her rhythmic ease markedly more advanced than others singers in this collection. The piano is by Mel Powell and it’s Vido Musso on tenor. My Guy’s Come Back features a later Goodman orchestra with a perky vocal by Liza Morrow. Note the period references. The song is by band member Mel Powell and was issued on a Government V-Disc.
Pianist Eddie Heywood cut his teeth as a theatre pianist in black vaudeville before forming his own combo. His stylised version of Begin The Beguine with its clever rhythmic patterns earned him enduring fame and fortune. Glen Gray was a fine arranger who masterminded the success of the Casa Loma (named for a never-opened Canadian hotel). They were equally at home with ballads like Shining Hour (another Arlen-Mercer collaboration) or hot dance music. The premier black vocal group of their time, the Mills Brothers made a speciality of imitating jazz instruments - notably the trombone and trumpet - in their improvised choruses. This earned them the nick-name of ‘The Human Orchestra.’ The influence of Louis Armstrong imbues Paper Doll, their greatest success. This is a wonderfully relaxed yet swinging performance and ensured the four brothers a very long career indeed. Bob Crosby was Bing Crosby’s younger brother and fronted a band packed with jazzmen, many originally from New Orleans. Guitarist Nappy Lamare is the vocalist on A Zoot Suit, with its snappy references to hipster dress; Eddie Miller’s short but tasty tenor solo and the clarinet of Matty Matlock add some spicy touches.
The sultry German-born actress and singer Marlene Dietrich moved to Hollywood in the 1930s, building a reputation for intrigue with her enigmatic performances. Hardly a singer at all, she sounds wistful yet detached on You Go To My Head. Dietrich’s many USO tours endeared her to the troops who flocked to her concerts. Freddie Slack was a boogie specialist and it’s his romping piano which opens the very lively Furlough Fling, the clarinet of former Ellington star Barney Bigard preceding Moe Schneider’s lively trombone. The British bandleader Joe Loss was a popular figure in war-time Britain and his recording of Eric Maschwitz’s lovely A Nightingale Sang caught the public mood with its evocation of a less troubled time. Paula Green’s vocal is quite perfect. Judy Garland remains an icon for many, her frequent personal crises and weaknesses widely documented. She was always a feisty vocalist and handles FDR Jones with typical gusto. This novelty song is a tribute to the real FDR, otherwise America’s resolute war-time President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Louis Jordan’s music has undergone an extraordinary revival in recent years, with the show ‘Five Guys Named Moe’ a smash here and in the US. Is You Or Is You Ain’t was premiered in the movie ‘Follow The Boys’ and stayed in Jordan’s repertoire for years. The cheery trumpet is by Eddie Roane. With Saturday Night by Frank Sinatra, we come to one of the defining sounds of 20th Century popular music. Sinatra had made his name with Tommy Dorsey, inspiring the bobby-soxers who loved his yearning style and matinee good looks. Benefiting from a superior arrangement by Axel Stordahl, these lyrics convey a poignant longing for a loved one. Sinatra always acknowledged the influence of Louis Armstring and would have loved Jodie Man - a black slang reference to the crafty interloper who moves in on a man’s wife while he’s away on active service. Listen to the magnificent trumpet introduction to this simple riff tune before Louis sings in his characteristic husky style.
Glenn Miller’s version of WC Handy’s St Louis Blues was dressed up in military fashion by arranger Jerry Gray and became more widely known following the 1953 biopic of Miller’s life. Our example was recorded in 1943 by Millers’s service orchestra and doubtless inspired a positive reaction from everyone who heard it. Singer Ella Mae Morse was another spirited performer whose Cow Cow Boogie with pianist Slack appealed to jitterbuggers and the soda fountain crowd alike.
Had Desert Island Discs existed in 1940s America, it’s likely that our typical G.I.’s short-list would have included many of these selections. There’s something here to meet every mood, whether upbeat or simply nostalgic: romantic ballads, swing tunes, rhythmic novelties, vocal numbers, swing specialities and period ditties. Unbeatable music!