Monday, December 10, 2007

Sing, Sing, Sing

A few years ago I attended a high school musical performance my daughter was in which included the Jazz hit “Sing, Sing, Sing.” I looked at the pamphlet they handed out and gritted my teeth. It was attributed to the great swing clarinetist, Benny Goodman. I like Goodman, but -- come on.

I was disappointed and had a difficult time concentrating on the concert. My neighbors did not seem to recognize the offense. I had discovered Sing, Sing, Sing as a kid on my father's jazz album, long before I learned its real composer just happened to be my all time favorite musician. S, S, S isn’t just any jazz piece. If you have not heard it, it is (here’s where I display my comprehensive lack of knowledge about music) a festival of rhythm and brass unlike anything else ever played, and not just in my evahumble opinion, as you will see. It's like (here's where I display my comprehensive lack of poetic ability) that perfect summer day when even the air smells good and you feel exhilarated.

But it wasn’t written by Benny Goodman, dammit -- no matter how often you see it attributed to him.

S, S, S is not only one of the greatest jazz songs ever written (in my and others subjective opinions -- the greatest), but oddly, I actually - just like in the climatic courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street - have some strange legal authority to support this position? No less a court than the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals (usually deemed the second or third most important court in the country) opined in a 1999 copyright infringement case like so:

“At the heart of the litigation before us on this appeal is a jazz tune popularized by the well-known swing clarinetist Benny Goodman. The song entitled "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" is one of the most recognizable from the height of the swing era in the 1930s. A 1999 poll of National Public Radio listeners named it one of the 100 most important musical works of the 20th century. . . For those familiar with the Benny Goodman version of it with its upbeat syncopation and counterpoint, "Sing, Sing, Sing" is as distinctive and recognizable as the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are to a classical music lover. . . . This song, a Louis Prima composition, was popularized by Benny Goodman and turned out to be one of his most famous and enduring. See Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman 161 (1993). A recording of it was hailed as one of the best known records of the big band era. . . . EMI has earned over $4.7 million mostly from films and commercials during the 63 years it has licensed those rights.”

Of course, you will note the repeated use of Benny Goodman’s name and the one measly mention of Prima’s. But, the association of Louis Prima’s song with Benny Goodman is understandable. Prima wrote it in 1936. Goodman started playing it right away, possibly hearing it at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Although written reports sometimes give the impression that it was a one time sensation in a 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, that isn’t true. By then the song had been in four movies. Two years – FOUR movies! That’s insane. In 1937 Goodman had already made a popular recording of it, unusual for its great length -- almost three times the usual tune, and combining with it another piece known as Christopher Columbus (by Leon “Chu” Berry, a saxophonist who usually played with Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson’s bands). Nor was it arranged by Goodman, although he almost always get credit. That was the work of Jimmy Mundy, an arranger (originally Earl Hines’ saxophonist) who also worked for Count Basie, Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Mundy was Black and Goodman was the Beatles of his time for young white audiences. Such is life. However, for some reason Prima almost always gets ignored or plays second fiddle.

The studio recording set the table for the ‘38 Carnegie Hall performance with much of the same all star band, including drumming sensation Gene Krupa, Harry James and Ziggy Elman on trumpet and Red Ballard on trombone, among a lot of other then jazz stars whose names are less familiar today. It may be the most famous single performance of a piece in musical history, and you have to give a large part of the credit to the music itself. From then on, it was as if it was Goodman’s song. Even the NPR top 100 list that the court of appeals referred to mentions that the song as written by Prima but performed by Goodman.

Prima, of course, made his own recording and played it at his own concerts. In fact, his own version sounds pretty much like Goodman’s greatest performance. I would bet most people wouldn’t know one from the other, although they are not by any means identical. Prima also has an outstanding version with lyrics, done in his own inimitable style , which you can find on his incredible Capitol Records collection.

But as one court opinion and a subjective top 100 list isn’t enough to appreciate just how special S, S, S is, consider this:

Aside from Goodman and Prima, the great composition has been covered by a multitude of musical artists, including, The Andrew Sisters, Anita O’Day, The Boston Pops, Buddy Rich & Max Roach, Chicago and the Gipsy Kings, Clark Terry, Gene Krupa (his own band) and Henry Mancini, just to name the ones with which I’m familiar. The actual list is a much longer. EMI list 80 versions for it. Although that's a lot, it's not even close to the record, but it is pretty amazing for a piece which many (most?) people have heard, but wouldn't necessarily recognize by its title.

Ironically, although celebrated by musicians and music lovers, it is in the visual media where it has had its greatest success. Sing, Sing, Sing has been featured in four, count ‘em, four Broadway hits: 1978’s Dancin’, 1999’s Fosse and also Swing, and 2000’s Contact. I am not sure how impressive that seems to you, so I will ask anyone who actually knows anything about Broadway to tell me if any other 20th or 21st century songs or instrumentals have been featured in that many shows? I don’t know any, but if so, it has to be a rarity.

But Broadway is just the entree. S, S, S’s frequent usage on television may also be unique. Even a long running Russian game show, which is actually played all over the world wherever there are Russians (“Что? Где? Когда,” if you want to check it out) has been playing it since the 1970s. It’s also the theme song for a Peruvian show, Cinescape, and also played on a Swedish tv show, Livshunger.

That’s just Europe. In America, its repeated use up to date, over 70 years after it was written and made famous, is probably unparalleled. Just in recent years it has been played on Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Gilmore Girls, Malcolm in the Middle, Doctors (2007), Baseball (the Ken Burns documentary), 3rd Rock from the Sun and Carnivale. It was also used in a Chips Ahoy commercial and a tv movie, Tower of Terror. Again, maybe there are other pieces that have made it onto the small screen this often, but I don’t know what they are. Feel free to chip in.

But it is film makers that have really exploited S, S, S. This should blow your mind. If it doesn’t convince you of the imposing staying power of Prima’s greatest work, perhaps nothing will. It has been featured in the following movies:

Sing Banditry (as a violin piece) (’36)
After the Thin Man (’36)
Torture Money (’37)
Hollywood Hotel (’37)
The Benny Goodman Story (of course) (’55)
Jovenes y rebeldes (Mexican and under the name Canta, Canta, Canta - ‘61)
All that Jazz (‘79)
American Pop (‘81)
Star 80 (‘83)
Power (’86)
Big Business (’88)
New York Stories (’89)
Awakenings (’90)
The Butcher’s Wife (’91)
Swing Kids (’93)
Manhattan Murder Mystery (’93)
Casino (’95)
Deconstructing Harry (’97)
Dance With Me (’98)
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (’98)
Fille sur la pont, la (’99)
Pollock (’00)
The Majestic (’01)
Hyper (’02)
Below (’02)
Gangs of New York (’02)
Bright Young Things (’03)
Swing Girls (Japanese – ’03)
and even a 2003 documentary, Hollywood’s Magical Island: Catalina. Since its birth, the only decade in which Hollywood ignored it was the forties. Then, again, after four movies in the thirties, how soon could it be used again?

Astonishing? Absolutely. Let’s take what I would say is S, S, S’s top competitor for the greatest instrumental piece of the last century – In the Mood, a piece that has been played at a zillion catered affairs, and which really gets people on the floor. So as not to be inconsistent – it was written by Joe Garland, not Glenn Miller, as many think. Despite its immense popularity, I could find only four movies and ten television shows which featured it. That’s outstanding, but it doesn’t compare to S, S, S. How about a more modern song like Rock Around the Clock? That’s a song that really sets the mood for the fifties and you’d think would be in many movies. It is - seven films that I could find. No comparison.

Let’s get out of the century and country and compare it with the opening strains of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, to which the court of appeals compared it - possibly the most recognizable music ever written. That actually is used in a lot of movies, almost as many as S, S, S, but half of them were in the 1930s and 1940s (lots of WWII flicks), and not at all between few 1946 and 1991, a huge gap. There may be other classical works, mostly by Beethoven, in that league. Even if there is (using the term “classical” loosely) and I don’t know that to be true, S, S, S seems to be the most frequently piece of the last century in film. I can’t check every song (actually the above is the extent of my checking) but I double dog dare you to find another 20th or 21st century song or instrumental that has been used more often by film or television. If there is, I’d like to know. Prima deserves a special Oscar.

I’ve tried here to explain the merit of a work of music to you, and, of course, this can’t be complete without you hearing it yourself. Unless you just hate any swing music (there’s always somebody), but don’t know this quintessential swing piece, go to itunes or wherever you get your music and download it. If you can’t be bothered, then just check out http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8729749476567875092 and you can listen to Prima's version with lyrics. Or to watch a part of Goodman's Carnegie Hall Performance you can go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9J5Zt2Obko.

Stay tuned, hep cats. More on the incomparable and under appreciated Louis Prima coming in the future.

3 comments:

  1. Great topic. It's about time someone around here wrote about music. This is the same thing as "Take Five". Brubeck played the definitive version, he is identified with it, he owns it, but he did not write it. Goodman was such a great player, and he organized the greatest players to play with him, so he owns the song even though he didn't write it. No reason to feel sorry for Louis Prima though. On the other hand, Paul Desmond never became a star like Brubeck, or Prima, or Goodman. Also, most times songs appear in movies etc... You forgot Xmas songs. White Christmas, Silent Night, and some of the others no doubt eclipse S,S,S for usage.

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  2. Bear may be right. I have no idea how many times Silent Night, White Christmas or even Jingle Bells has been in a movie, although I doubt its as much as you might think. However, on tv, there's no telling how many times these songs were sung by someone or was even on in the background. As far as recording, they definitely have been recorded more than practically every other type of song. Who doesn't want to do a Christmas album. But, it's actually kind of hard to track this stuff down, and just getting the info I did took more time than I like to spend on these things. Wikipedia, EMI and IMdb or all good sights, but none of them are comprehensive. You have to fish about a lot to get an answer and you can't with every song. Wish there was a website you could just get it from, but apparently, there's not. If anyone knows of one, let us know.

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  3. In writing my May, 2008 piece on Prima I realized I left out a few more movies SSS is in:

    Anger Management (2003)
    Below (2002)
    Hyper (2002)
    Sinatra (1992)

    and, now, in 2008,

    Leathernecks.

    It will never end.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .