|Benny Goodman - Benny's Girls: Goodman's Rare Songbirds|
|Written by Athan Maroulis|
It would be nice to think of the afterlife as a large ornate theater, where a dark purple stage curtain opens unveiling a big band backing a gal singer. Standing there in a long gown, a blue gardenia in her hair, she smiles politely to the crowd then steps before microphone to emote a lush ballad. This is the stuff dreams are made of.
Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about girls, and even more about gal singers—or "songbirds", or "canaries" as they were called. So too must the folks who put together this Benny's Girls: Goodman's Rare Songbirds collection. My hat's off to album producer Dan Rivard and Joseph F. Laredo (who supplies the fine accompanying liner notes) for their part in assembling this sampler of Goodman's lesser-known vocalists.
The Goodman band at one time or another worked with greats such as Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Helen Forrest and Peggy Lee. This set is devoted to those vocalists familiar only to the most serious Goodman enthusiast.
Benny Goodman loathed working with vocalists, whether male or female, yet knew vocals were necessary for success in the pop market. Truth is, having a pretty gal stroll out on the stage and do a light swing number or ballad was an intrinsic ingredient to the full entertainment package of all the big bands.
Goodman, to put it nicely, was a difficult boss—a perfectionist not known for his social skills. In fact, he was infamous for what became known as "The Ray," a stare he gave his players when they hit a bum note or when he wanted to express his displeasure about certain people. Oftentimes it was the signal that you were about to be fired. In fact, behind his back, his players often referred to him simply as "The Ray." As in many of the big bands, Goodman's vocalist spot on the bandstand was a constant revolving door—this compilation showcases eight of the gal singers that passed through from 1934 to 1951.
The set kicks off with vocalist Ann Graham, whose brief stint with the band resulted in the popular platter "It Happens to the Best of Friends" in 1934. Exactly one year after making this recording, Goodman's popularity exploded during a historic, frenetic show at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935—the date many cite as the official start of the Swing Era.
The dreamy Louise Tobin vocalizes on five songs here, highlighted by the delightful "Rendezvous Time in Paree" from August 1939, led by Goodman's outstanding clarinet. Tobin flexes her "white girls can sing the blues" abilities on a rare, previously-unreleased number with the working title of "Untitled Blues" from the same session.
Jane Harvey shines in a 1945 recording of "She's Funny That Way" with the trimmed-down Benny Goodman Sextet—featuring a stellar cast that included Red Norvo on vibes, the wonderful pianist Teddy Wilson, and Slam Stewart on bass. Harvey exudes exactly what you would want from a WWII-era vocalist, bringing plenty of girl-next-door-isms to the table.
Harvey's replacement was Kay Penton, whose short-lived moment with the band provided a memorable take on the standard heard here, "Ain't Misbehavin'." That same year saw at least five different female vocalists including Penton's replacement, Dottie Reed. The slightly distant Reed offers a quiet, more sultry approach than her predecessors, heard best on the Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael-penned tune "How Little We Know". At the end of that unique year, Goodman's vocalist was Liza Morrow, heard on four songs on this set including "That's All That Matters to Me", which was co-written by Goodman himself.
George and Ira Gershwin's "For You, For Me, For Evermore" is part of a trio of 1946 numbers from Eve Young, a vocalist with a sweet and simple delivery. Rounding out this CD we find vocalist Nancy Reed offering a pair of songs from 1950 and 1951, respectively. Reed penned the number "Toodle-Lee-Yoo-Doo" herself, and one cannot help but think of Ella Fitzgerald upon hearing Reed's fine delivery. These tunes boast another appearance by the Benny Goodman Sextet with Teddy Wilson on piano and Johnny Smith on guitar, and prove that Benny and company remained a creative force into the 50s.
This fine collection not only covers a lengthy 17-year period, it also provides the listener an opportunity to hear Goodman's interesting touch when working with vocalists. In fact, there's not a trace of his dislike for vocalists etched into these grooves. With quality sound, nice annotation and 24 tracks, Benny's Girls: Goodman's Rare Songbirds provides plenty of bang for the buck—as well as eight songbirds worthy of your attention.