I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor. The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible. The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.
Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)
The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date. Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it? We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.
The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence. Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries). The band was Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946. I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities. I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.
I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.
I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.
“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.
I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could. And the rest of the band. As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros. They really knew how to do it.” And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.
This music says YES, no hesitation.
May your happiness increase!