JAMES P. JOHNSON MEETS LES BROWN (January 9, 1939)

On one of my record-hunting trips of 2014 I found a Les Brown 78 that would otherwise not have caught my eye.  That is not meant to demean the Brown band, just to say that I was never drawn to them.  But when I saw a Bluebird 78 of two lesser-known James P. Johnson songs (from the musical POLICY KINGS) I had to buy it to see what they sounded like.  The compositions were a love song called YOU, YOU, YOU — which I knew only through a much later recording by Dick Wellstood and Bob Wilber (instrumental) and one of the many songs celebrating a dance which possibly had a very short vogue if it had one at all, HARLEM WOOGIE.  (About a more famous recording of that song, more below).

The Brown band that recorded these two sides was John Martel, Melvin Hurwitz, Les Kritz (tp) Bob Fishel (tb) Les Brown (cl,as,arr) Steve Madrick (cl,as) Herb Muse (as,vcl) Wolfe Tayne, Carl Rand (ts) Billy Rowland (p) Allan Reuss (g) Bassie Deters (b) Eddie Julian (d):

YOU, YOU, YOU:

HARLEM WOOGIE:

Now, these are quite successful dance-band records, to my ears — although my ears are more accustomed to 1938 Basie, 1940 Ellington, 1939 Goodman, and so on.  And Herb Muse sings the two selections in a style, quite pleasant, that I associate with Pha Terrell and others.  But the records, judged as jazz opuses, are somewhat undramatic.

Here’s the HARLEM WOOGIE I remember, having first heard it around 1967 — featuring James P., Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Sidney Catlett, and Anna Robinson: searing!

Even though Herb Muse sang the lyrics more clearly, Anna Robinson clearly had great force and presence; Red Allen’s echoing the rhythm of her closing vocal phrase is priceless, as are Sidney’s accents behind James P.  And behind Sedric. But listeners can absorb this on their own.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, this is not a post setting up Bland White Swing Era music against Hot Black Authentic Jazz.  If you want to draw such conclusions, you are on your own, but I don’t encourage them, because the Brown and Johnson records have different purposes and intentions.

What does fascinate me is the brief moment-in-the-sun of two of James P. Johnson’s less intoxicating compositions.  Did he, or his publisher, offer them to as many “middle-of-the-road” Swing orchestras as possible, hoping for a hit, hoping for radio play?  Or was it the reverse (which I suspect): James P. was out of fashion in the late Thirties, attempting to be taken seriously as a classical composer — but — anyone who had been paying attention during the preceding decades knew that he wrote hits.  One of them was a love song, IF I COULD BE WITH YOU; another was a dance, CHARLESTON.  So it would be an odd bandleader who would ignore the songs from a James P. Johnson show.  It’s a pity the songs weren’t more memorable . . . or the recordings.  But it is, to me, a small but fascinating example of “crossover” before the term ceased to have any meaning.

May your happiness increase!

5 responses to “JAMES P. JOHNSON MEETS LES BROWN (January 9, 1939)

  1. Wow! Great performance, great band. Once again Big Sid makes it fly; such prodigious talent.

  2. No to sure what is happening, but links to the music and video that you include in you blog are not showing up at all. Has anyone else mentioned this problem? Side note: I was never drawn to the Les Brown band, either, although they were playing some pretty terrific jazz in the 1950s. Donn Trenner,Dick Kenny, Matt Utal and Billy Ussleton were all fine soloists. Dick Collins, who is sort of a cult figure to some, was with Brown for a while. Maybe I should share a clip of them one of these day?

    Mark

  3. Practical answer first: have you clicked on the title (the blue hyperlink) of the posting? That should take you directly to the full presentation. I agree that Brown led fine bands with great jazz soloists (including Zoot’s brother Ray Sims, a great trombonist) but I think these recordings are mild rather than spicy. Let me know if the clicking helps!

  4. Nineteen thirty nine..A great year of fantastic music by “Les Brown,” the band of reknown, and also the year of my birth.(which has nothing to do with this music) James P., a legend. If I see anything by the great pianist I’m on it!! Thank you for the awesome post NM.

  5. Wow the versions are so different. To my ears, the Les Brown “Harlem Woogie” sounds like a distant cousin “sing me a swing song and let me dance”

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