Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the eighth child of immigrants David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky Goodman, who left Russia to escape anti-Semitism. Benny's mother never learned to speak English. His father worked for a tailor to support his large family, which eventually grew to include a total of 12 children, and had trouble making ends meet.
When Benny was 10 years old, his father sent him to study music at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. There, Benny learned the clarinet under the tutelage of Chicago Symphony member Franz Schoepp, while two of his brothers learned tuba and trumpet. He also played in the band at Jane Addams' famous social settlement, Hull-House.
Benny's aptitude on the clarinet was immediately apparent. While he was still very young, he became a professional musician and played in several bands in Chicago. He played with his first pit band at the age of 11, and became a member of the American Federation of Musicians when he was 14, when he quit school to pursue his career in music. When his father died, 15-year-old Benny used the money he made to help support his family. During these early years in Chicago, he played with many musicians who would later become nationally renowned, such as Frank Teschemacher and Dave Tough.
When Benny was 16, he was hired by the Ben Pollack band and moved to Los Angeles. He remained with the band for four years, and became a featured soloist. In 1929, the year that marked the onset of the Great Depression and a time of distress for America, Benny left the Ben Pollack band to participate in recording sessions and radio shows in New York City.
Then, in 1933, Benny began to work with John Hammond, a jazz promoter who would later help to launch the recording careers of Billie Holiday and Count Basie, among many others. Hammond wanted Benny to record with drummer Gene Krupa and trombonist Jack Teagarden, and the result of this recording session was the onset of Benny's national popularity. Later, in 1942, Benny would marry Alice Hammond Duckworth, John Hammond's sister, and have two daughters: Rachel, who became a concert pianist, and Benji, who became a cellist.
Benny led his first band in 1934 and began a few-month stint at Billy Rose's Music Hall, playing Fletcher Henderson's arrangements along with band members Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa and Jess Stacy. The music they played had its roots in the Southern jazz forms of ragtime and Dixieland, while its structure adhered more to arranged music than its more improvisational jazz counterparts. This gave it an accessibility that appealed to American audiences on a wide scale. America began to hear Benny 's band when he secured a weekly engagement for his band on NBC's radio show "Let's Dance," which was taped with a live studio audience.