SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE IN WHISPERS: “BON BON,” JOE THOMAS, EDDIE DURHAM, and BUSTER SMITH, 1941

Sometimes great art flourishes in corners where it is not at all expected even to survive.

George “Bon Bon” Tunnell (1912-1975) was an engaging singer — yet not well-remembered.  He was first a member of The Three Keys, and from 1937-42, he was the first African-American male singer to appear with a Caucasian band: Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters.  Incidentally, he was heavily featured with the band — and — one of the trombonists there was Cutty Cutshall (1939-40) something that would interest Condon scholars like myself.

The two sides below come from Bon Bon’s early solo career — four sides from this date, two the next year (where Decca seems to have wanted him to be an African-American Bing, or at least a Chick Bullock or Dick Robertson) and then some solo features with Steve Gibson’s Red Caps.  But with no disrespect to Bon Bon’s very nice singing, the two sides offer a rare combination — two musicians who, at this point in the Swing Era, did not receive all the opportunities to record their talents warranted.

They are guitarist / trombonist / arranger Eddie Durham, whose guitar sound is instantly recognizable — swinging but with sharp corners — and trumpeter Joe Thomas, also instantly recognizable and inimitable.  The second song, I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, is also Durham’s — although there are three other names on the label.  And, on clarinet, the”Prof” of deep Kansas City jazz, Buster Smith.   New York City, July 23, 1941: Tunnell, Joe Thomas, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Jimmy Phipps, piano; Al Hall, string bass; Jack Parker, drums.  The other two sides — which you’d have to track down on your own (they are on the THREE KEYS CD on the Chronological Classics label) are BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, and Fats Waller’s ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES.

SWEET MAMA  (from 1920, I believe, and recorded by the ODJB) has lyrics that suggest domestic abuse and a real need for anger management, but the band is splendid.  But first we hear Durham’s spiky arpeggios, a very dark and threatening orchestral passage featuring growl from Thomas (not his usual approach) and leafy clarinet from Smith — a passage reminiscent of Durham’s approach to GOOD MORNING BLUES for Basie.  I find Bon Bon hilariously sweetly unconvincing in his gentle singing: this man couldn’t do damage to a sandwich, but we will let that pass.  (When he returns for his second vocal, he wants to convince us: “Papa’s really gone mad,” but his heart isn’t in it.  Too kind to make anyone cower.)

The half-chorus Thomas solo that follows is quietly magnificent: even through his mute, the steady glow of his tone comes through, as does his fondness for repeated notes, his love of 1927 Louis; his stately glide.  Where other trumpeters shout, Thomas caresses, and his solo winds down rather than moving out of the middle register.  It is equally affecting for what he doesn’t care to do — remember, 1941 was the age of great brass virtuosity — as for what he does. Thomas whispers sweet epigrams to us, and their impact is only felt on the third or fourth hearing.  I’d also call your attention to the strong but not overdone rhythm that Hall and Durham offer, as well as Smith’s sweet commentaries.  Bon Bon returns to assure us of his menace, but no one would be all that scared of “the fine undertaker,” which seems like a Waller touch.

The more famous song, justly, begins with an orchestral introduction that borrows quietly from THE MOOCHE, and we then move to a love song — where Bon Bon sounds more comfortable.  Durham’s arpeggios threaten to take our attention away: he’s not aiming to copy Charlie Christian’s smoothness, but he makes a deep impression.  Eddie is much more prominent here — it was his song and I wonder if he’d brought a small-band chart to the session. Then, less than half a minute of Thomas, but his sound, even muted, is like sunshine coming through the windows in late afternoon.  His gentle intensity; his love of the melody — and that upwards arpeggio in the middle is purest Joe (and purest Louis, if you need to find an ancestor) — quite touching.  When the band and Bon Bon return, the blending is completely polished and fetching.

(Joe gets three more extroverted outings on BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, which he executes nicely, and Bon Bon scats in the best almost-Leo-Watson manner.  ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES bounces along pleasantly, but once again Bon Bon must pretend to menace — “I’m fit to fight” — which is sweetly unconvincing.  Durham is delightfully in evidence and the other horns show their individual voices — but the two sides here are, to me, the standouts. Tunnell’s final side for Decca, before the recording ban, SLEEPY OLD TOWN, could pass for Bing, and it is delightful — with Russ Solomon doing a commendable Bobby Hackett.  But it’s no longer on YouTube.)

And just because it exists on eBay, a little more Bon Bon memorabilia — a signed contract, with amendments.

and the reverse:

I haven’t analyzed the contract.  Perhaps Laura Windley, our swing star and lawyer, might have something to say about it.  Until then, I will cherish those two Decca sides, full of instrumental surprises and engaging singing.

May your happiness increase!

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2 responses to “SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE IN WHISPERS: “BON BON,” JOE THOMAS, EDDIE DURHAM, and BUSTER SMITH, 1941

  1. Ida Melrose Shoufler

    I enjoyed this so much. Nice swing in the band, and Bon Bon was a heck of a vocalist! Thank you NM

  2. The Three Keys – good group, btw. They’re not mentioned often because they’re in that early 30s blindspot wherte “everybody knows” there was no jazz. They’re assumed to be yet another Mills Bros. knockoff but in reality they were their own thing.

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