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Benny Goodman: "Sing, Sing, Sing"

David Rickert By

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Part I in a series exploring the history of the Swing Era's greatest songs.

The Paramount

Benny Goodman and his band arrived at the Paramount Theater on the morning of March 3, 1937 to find throngs of students waiting in line. Goodman had assumed that this engagement, which started at 8:30 in the morning and preceded a Claudette Colbert picture, wouldn't be that big of a deal. But when the band appeared on the slowly rising stage playing "Let's Dance," dance they did—all 12,000 of them, spilling out into the aisles, on the bandstand, and anywhere else they could find room. Goodman took the audience through a typical set with all the hits while fans clamored for autographs and snatched up $900 worth of candy. By the time Goodman finished with "Sing, Sing, Sing" at the end of a forty-three minute set, it could be safely said that the Swing Era had begun.

The Killer-dillers

The roots of the hot jazz associated with "Sing, Sing, Sing" can be traced back to an earlier performance by Goodman at the Palomar. The current diet of the big band performance was mild pop tunes, which were held to be what audiences favored. But faced with a listless, indifferent crowd, Goodman turned to the band and said something like, "To hell with it, if we're going to sink, we might as well go down swinging," and launched into "King Porter Stomp." The crowd went wild, and from that point on, the medium tempo, "sweet" numbers took a back set to the "hot" numbers, what arranger Jimmy Mundy called the "killer-dillers." Mundy was recruited from the Earl Hines orchestra to pad out the Goodman book and write he did: he created more than four hundred charts during the three years he was with the band. While he could handle the pretty melodies, his most lasting contributions to the band were the high-octane, intense instrumentals that were intended to generate excitement within the crowds. "Killer-dillers" like "House Hop" and "Swingtime in the Rockies" helped establish the template for the jump tunes that after Goodman every band had to include in their book, but the most famous of them all was "Sing, Sing, Sing."

"Sing, Sing, Sing"

"Sing, Sing, Sing" is probably the most famous tune associated with Goodman, if not the entire Swing Era. However, it was originally a tune written by Louis Prima, and did feature vocals as the title suggests. Thus when it was imported into the band, it was originally intended as a feature for singer Helen Ward. However, the talented instrumentalists in the band kept changing it in performances, adding new passages and quotes from other songs like Chu Berry's "Christopher Columbus" to the point where it bore little resemblance to the original. But the most recognizable part of the song is Gene Krupa's drumming, which exists as a motif throughout the song. Ward recalls that one night Krupa refused to stop drumming when he got to the end of the third chorus and Goodman picked up his clarinet and soloed right along with him. The tune continued to morph in this fashion until it reached a length of eight minutes and filled both sides of a 78.

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