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People rarely recognize the state of Alabama as the birthplace of some of the most important American celebrities of all time such as Truman Capote, Willie Mays and Joe Louis. Since it remains unclear as to whether the great Lionel Hampton was born in Alabama or Kentucky, the title of reigning Alabama jazz champion belongs to trumpeter/composer Erskine Hawkins, who died 15 years ago in November, 1993.
Hawkins began his career in Montgomery as a member (and eventually leader) of the 'Bama State Collegians. By the mid-'30s, the group's success led it to long term gigs at New York's Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater. By that time, the Collegians had become Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra, and they began cutting records for RCA. This compilation from Vocalion highlights the group's popular recordings made between 1939 and 1950. Included are the three eventual standards that all made their respective debuts under Hawkins' leadership: "Tippin' In," "After Hours" and, most famously, "Tuxedo Junction." That's right; although the song is definitely best known as one of Glenn Miller's most beloved classics, the tune actually belongs to Hawkins' Orchestra, predating Miller's by one year. RCA released it in 1939 and it climbed to #7 on the American pop charts. Consequently, Miller's version reached number one in 1940 with ease.
This disc can justifiably be considered as a certifiable jumping-off point for Hawkins beginners. Boasting impeccable sound quality and a comprehensive program of 24 songs, it provides an exhaustive overview of the band's heyday. It should be noted that ten of the selections feature vocal performances from four respective singers: Ida James, Laura Washington, Jimmy Mitchelle and Asa A. Harris. The latter's performance on "Remember" stands out as the best of the singer showcases. The material's best moments, however, occur in the instrumental numbers where the band measures up to that of Miller, Ellington, Goodman and Henderson. An admitted Louis Armstrong junkie, Hawkins frequently showcases his high-note abilities, which bear a sonic resemblance to Satchmo's so uncanny you'd think they were sharing the stage.
If this release lacks anything it's a set of liner notes worthy of its song selection. Although they contain a nice biographical sketch of Hawkins, there's no song-by-song guide identifying where or when each number was recorded or what the personnel are. The disc may not be the essential, historical Erskine Hawkins tome; instead it's simply a highly enjoyable swing album that will enlighten listeners about one of the most underrated bandleaders of all time. Who said Alabama was solely for country music fans? Roll, Tide Roll!
Track Listing: Tuxedo junction; Song of the wanderer (where shall I go?); Wiggle worm; Fool that I am; Tippin' in; Remember; I've got a right to cry;
Gin mill special; Cherry; After hours; Sweet Georgia Brown;
Jumpin' in a julep joint; Bicycle bounce; It's full or it ain't no good; Dolimite; I know a secret; Hey doc!; Someone's rocking my dream boat; Norfolk ferry; Put yourself in my place; Corn bread; Good dip;
Gabriel's heater; Feelin' low.