The music business of the last fifty years or so has been markedly different from the way it was when 78 rpm records filled retailers’ shelves. From the 1960s through today, a new hit song is almost always the exclusive work of a particular performer and cover versions are the exception rather than the rule. But it wasn’t always so.
In the heyday of the big bands, everything was different. A new song would get published and multiple bands and singers would rush to record a version of it. Even when a song was written by a particular band, it was not long before others were doing their own take on it.
I thought that I would take a different approach today and showcase two very different treatments of the same song – one by the band that made it famous and another (recorded three months later) that, while far less popular, was quite different in its flavor. All at no extra charge to you, of course.
The very first record I bought in the 1970s when I started to become interested in music of this era was a two-disc album of Glenn Miller’s hits from 1939 to 1944. Glenn Miller is not remembered as a jazz great today. Although he was a trombone player, his solos were both fairly rare and fairly underwhelming. Sweet ballads were more his thing than real jazz numbers. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this he managed to have the most popular band in the country in the early 1940s on the strength of his great arrangers and his appeal to dancers of the day. It was a combination that proved to be extremely bankable.
His band was at the peak of its influence on the eve of World War II and it was on December 5th of 1941 that his band recorded a new composition by his arranger Jerry Gray as the “B” side to a now-obscure vocal number called Day Dreaming. Which I had never heard until listening out of curiosity in researching this piece. Frankly, it is much more typical of Glenn Miller than is A String of Pearls.
Glenn Miller’s trademark was exceptionally well-written arrangements of catchy tunes, all played with precision. And among arrangers of the day, Jerry Gray was one of the best. The arranger was the guy who took a basic tune and decided how to knead it into a finished product with the multiple instruments at his disposal. Openings, endings, transitions, backgrounds and the rest were all from the arranger. He would then write the music for every member of the band.
As for Miller’s sidemen, they tended to be capable players. However, very few of them were star soloists whose prior or subsequent work with other bands is well known.
The Miller version of String of Pearls is a little difficult for me to deal with. For anyone even remotely into this style and era of music, this may be one of the most well-known recordings of the early ’40s. It took a certain mindset for me to shake off the familiarity and listen to this with fresh ears.
This record is mostly about well-crafted ensemble work with constantly changing groupings of phrases and instruments so that it never gets repetitive or boring despite the simple theme, something not uncommon in a Jerry Gray arrangement.
Much of the middle of the recording is a series of back and forth two-bar solos handed off between tenor sax players Tex Beneke and Al Klink. The Beneke-Klink dueling sax thing was sort of a Miller trademark and went back to his 1939 record In The Mood. Neither would be on anyone’s list of “Ten Best Saxophone Players Of The Big Band Era” but their game of pitch and catch brings out the best in both.
I think the best solo on the record would be from Bobby Hackett, whose turn with the cornet was extremely well done. Some players were known for their style or technical skill, but Bobby Hackett was all about tone quality. The cornet is, by its nature, a little darker in its sound than the similar trumpet and Hackett got a simply gorgeous tone out of it that was both full and mellow and which stood out among his peers.
As an aside, Hackett had played earlier with Benny Goodman before an unsuccessful attempt at leading his own band. He joined the Miller band to pay the debts he had run up in that failed effort. He may be best known as the featured lead in a long series of mood music albums that Jackie Gleason (yes, that Jackie Gleason) put out from the 1950s into the early ’70s.
So to sum up, the Miller version of the song is all about the relaxed tempo, a highly musical series of ensemble segments punctuated with some fairly good dualing saxophones and Hackett’s excellent cornet bit. The song resulted in Miller’s first No. 1 hit record of 1942 (he would have four overall that year) and had a decades-long stretch of popularity.
As an interesting aside, a page on the website of the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, makes the claim that the Glenn Miller/Jerry Gray collaboration resulted in more top-10 records in a shorter period of time than any other musical team in history.
Benny Goodman’s band was not the first to cover the tune, but his may be the most memorable version by someone other than Glenn Miller. Goodman’s nineteen-year-old pianist and arranger Mel Powell picked up Jerry Gray’s basic song and took it in a completely different direction.
This recording from March of 1942 was, coincidentally, also a “B” side recording. Only instead of being the flip side of some forgotten ballad it was completely overshadowed by an iconic Goodman recording – Jersey Bounce. Which, coincidentally, has a flavor not unlike Glenn Miller’s A String Of Pearls.
Goodman’s take on A String of Pearls could not have been more different from the piece as played by the Miller band. Although it was also a pure instrumental, the record is vintage Goodman. This version is taken at a much faster tempo and is more of a classic jazz performance with a series of top quality solos. Goodman was just as much of a disciplinarian as Miller but he tended to attract better soloists and give them more room to work.
The record starts with the main theme along with a piano solo by Mel Powell in the background. The piece then moves right into a tenor sax solo by Vido Musso, whose rough-edged sound is probably most often associated with some of Stan Kenton’s 1940s bands.
Next up is the trombone work of either Lou McGarrity or Cutty Cutshall (I have not been able to determine which) and, of course, Goodman takes the last solo lap with his soaring, swinging clarinet.
I bought a Benny Goodman greatest hits album about two or three records after I bought the Glenn Miller record. A String of Pearls wasn’t on it, and I would not discover this recording’s existence until I bought a pristine 78 rpm disc of Jersey Bounce years later and found this on the flip side. This record caused me no trouble at all in preparing for this piece as I have never fallen out of love with it since my first listen.
If you will permit a digression, I would like to add a word about these unfamiliar record labels. During this era both Bluebird and Okeh were discount labels that sold for 35 cents (or three for $1) as opposed to the 50 cent prices of the black label Victor or red label Columbia discs from their respective companies. “Young peoples’ music” called for “young peoples’ prices”.
We have featured Benny Goodman before, in the context of his early popularizing of big band swing in the mid 1930’s. His band of the early to mid 40’s was also a top quality outfit that was good for a string (sorry) of great records, and may have marked the last of his periods of real innovation. Goodman would later revert into the safety of his early work for a loyal audience hungry for nostalgia.
Glenn Miller’s story is more tragic. He disbanded in August of 1942 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he assembled a band for entertaining the troops. The Army was lousy with top young musicians who had been drafted and many argue that Miller’s Air Corps band was far better than any civilian band he ever led in that the players were better, looser and swung harder. Sadly, Miller was flying across the English Channel one foggy night in December of 1944 when the plane went down for reasons that have never been definitively established. It was announced several days later that everyone aboard had been lost.
Contemporary bandleader Artie Shaw (whom we have also featured here) was a man who could be as tart and acerbic as anyone. He once remarked that it would have been better if Glenn Miller had lived and his music had died. I could see where this characterization could apply to a fair amount of Miller’s body of work, but must strongly disagree with Shaw about this recording. More charitable observers argued that a postwar Miller band would have been fabulous after his experience with the Air Corps outfit. But we will never know.
Me? I have a tough time picking a favorite between these two records. The Miller version may contain some of the best-written ensemble work of its era. It has a combination of an easy swing but with some drama and power behind it. And I can never get enough of Bobby Hackett’s cornet.
But the Goodman version is just such pure fun that you would never guess that the leader was one of the most difficult to work for of his era. And also so fun that you almost don’t notice the beautifully crafted solos that string the piece together. Maybe I just like the enthusiasm of the nineteen-year-old arranger that just bursts from the grooves all these decades later.
As a final note (I just can’t help myself), the “A” side of the Goodman record (Jersey Bounce) proves that he (and Mel Powell) could do ensemble work at a slower tempo with the best of them, faring right up there with Miller’s String Of Pearls in the popularity charts. But I digress. Again.
In the end I have to go with Goodman. I have come to the conclusion that the Glenn Miller record is great introductory material to big band jazz of the early ’40s because it is so immediately appealing and listenable. Its main strength is the well-crafted arrangement and its main weakness might be that it has become so well known. It is the musicianship of the Goodman version that takes things to the next level for me. I have concluded that it stands up better to repeated listenings on the strength of the players. But perhaps I tend to value great solo work over great arrangements – something that was not always true for me.
But that is just me. For those inclined to take a listen (or three) to both of these, I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
Both recordings are from the YouTube pages of MusicProf78, whose 65,000+ subscribers are treated to a never-ending treasury of old recordings that range from the earliest in recorded sound into the 1960s.
Opening photo combines the two 78 rpm disc labels from their original release. The source of this particular photo of the Glenn Miller label was Colorado.edu and that of the Benny Goodman label at MusicProf78.
Glenn Miller -1942 photo, author unknown, in the public domain (published in a periodical without copyright notice.)
Jerry Gray – 1946-48 photo in the public domain as part of the William Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress.
Bobby Hackett – undated photo from Wikimedia Commons (with clearly erroneous attribution information which claims the photographer’s own work from 2011)
Jackie Gleason Album Cover from the 1958 Capitol Records album of the same name.
Benny Goodman – 1942 photo, author unknown, in the public domain (published in a periodical without copyright notice.)
Mel Powell – 1947 photo in the public domain as part of the William Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress.
Glenn Miller Air Corps Band – 1944 Air Force photo by Air University History Office/cleared
Benny Goodman band personnel information from Jazz and Ragtime Records (1887-1942), Volume 1 A-K by Brian Rust and Malcolm Shaw.