Artie Shaw, 1939, Stereo. Most of us would look at those words and offer the sing-song Sesame Street response that went “one of these things is not like the others.” But today is not that day.
By now, we have featured several of the big bands from the 1930’s. I love those bands a lot, but there is a trade-off: in order to get that music, you must also accept the crude technology that was used to record and preserve it for us to listen to these many decades later, after all of the musicians are long dead and buried. But what if we didn’t have to accept that bargain?
Yes, I know that some of the old bands were recording into the stereo era that began in the late 1950’s and modern musicians have continued to play some of the old music in the digital era. But those recordings are just not the same. Musical styles change and players are influenced by new things every year, so an individual playing in 1939 would have a different sound and style by 1959 or 1979. Add the fact that the old guys had a very different attitude about a piece of music after playing it multiple times a week for decades – what was fresh and exciting in 1939 could be an ungodly chore twenty or thirty years later. Thus the trade-off: do you want your music with the excitement and electricity of young kids playing the latest stuff, or do you want high-quality sound? You must choose one or the other.
Or do you? I recently stumbled upon something completely new to me, that proves that every rule has an exception. Like a 1939 recording of the Artie Shaw band playing one of its most recent releases, The Donkey Serenade. In stereo. Glorious, uncompromised, no-excuses stereo. The real thing, not the product of some modern electronic fakery. Before we listen, we have to make a brief detour to ask: How is this possible? Because . . . Movies.
We have covered some of the milestones in recording tech – it was a big deal when the electric microphone replaced musicians blowing into a big horn that cut analog sound waves into a cylinder or disc from which copies were reproduced en masse for sale to the public. From that milestone in 1925-26, improvements in the music recording industry were more incremental. And while the recorded music of 1939 was of higher quality than that of 1929, it was not a whole lot higher.
It was not, however, this way in the movie industry. That, in the doldrums of the Great Depression, was where the money was in the field of sound engineering. From almost the beginning of commercial “talkies”, sound recording on film used processes that were a lot closer to modern tech than the stuff happening at the record companies. First, from about 1930, virtually all sound on film was recorded and played back optically.
Optical sound recording involved a new device, called the photocell, that converted electrical energy to light (or vise versa). A microphone sent electrical signals to a photocell, which created light pulses that were captured on film. The developed film had a “sound track” which was read by another photocell which converted the light pulses back to electrical signals that could be played through a speaker. Therefore, film sound was never captive to a process which required physical contact between a stylus and a disc, which hampered both the recording and the playback of music before the advent of magnetic tape after the war.
It was in 1931-32 when engineers at Bell Labs in conjunction with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra did some significant experimental work with recording multiple tracks simultaneously. Those innovations were noted by engineers at RCA who operated one of the two main sound recording systems in the movies – the RCA Photophone System.
It was in 1937 when a combined Bell-RCA concept was put to use in the Universal motion picture 100 Men And A Girl. This film, which featured Stokowski, used fourteen microphones to create nine tracks which were, in turn, used to mix the final mono sound track. Most information on this topic spends all its attention on the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, which was the first to fully exploit the use of multiple tracks in recording an orchestra on film – allowing full stereo when that film was re-released by Disney in the mid 1950’s. But those accounts miss an obscure side tour of sound recording for more plebian films, – which brings us back to stereophonic Artie Shaw.
By 1939 the recording tech that would become the standard for maybe the next decade was in place, especially at large studios like MGM. Sound for a motion picture would be recorded on a separate strip of 35 mm film that carried four tracks: one for dialog, one for sound effects, and (here’s the money shot) TWO for music.
“Why” you might ask “have I never heard old movies in stereo, then?” This, dear reader, is because that four track recording was strictly a back-room deal, used only by the sound mixers to get a properly balanced single optical sound track for the films released to theaters.
But what happens when someone finds, preserves and converts for replay some of those old duo-track optical music recordings? You get something really amazing. Like this:
In 1939 the Artie Shaw band was one of America’s most popular, and in January of that year won Downbeat Magazine’s reader poll in the swing band category. We have featured Shaw before, but only in his postwar incarnations (such as here). (And here). Always fiercely competitive, Shaw burst into popularity with a determination to elbow his way past the Benny Goodman band. Goodman, also a clarinet player, was known as The King of Swing, but Artie Shaw sought (and achieved) the crown in 1939.
You could tell a band was hot in those days when it was written into a movie, and MGM’s 1939 film The Dancing Co-Ed was Shaw’s first such vehicle after a couple of earlier short subjects. First, it is hard to think of a bandleader of the day who was more of a natural in front of the camera, one who was as good looking as any of Hollywood’s leading men.
As for the movie itself, IMDB’s plot summary probably tells you all you need to know: “After discovering his star dancer is expecting and can’t perform, film producer H.W. Workman and his publicist concoct a scheme to stage a college dance contest to find a new star.” OK, maybe you would also want to know that Lana Turner was in it.
The Donkey Serenade was a song Shaw recorded for RCA Victor in January of 1939. The song was also recorded a few months later at M-G-M for use in the movie but was, for reasons unknown, cut from the film before its September release. There it sat in the studio’s storage vaults for who knows how long. I came across this copy completely by accident, and apparently so did the guy who shared it on his YouTube channel, from a VHS tape bought at a thrift store, no less.
The song itself had its film debut a couple of years earlier in a movie titled The Firefly. You can listen to Alan Jones serenade a reluctant Jeanette MacDonald with it here, but I warn you that this clip will never find itself featured in a “Best of M-G-M Musicals” retrospective any time soon.
In the Shaw version, which was evidently the first purely instrumental arrangement of the song, Artie shows how his band became so popular. His 1939 band was not noted for many big names, but one exception was a 21 year old drummer named Buddy Rich in his first big-time gig. Gene Krupa, one of the great jazz drummers, once described Rich as “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath.” The following year Rich moved on to Tommy Dorsey’s band, where he would engage in epic contests of will with his equally volcanic band roommate, Frank Sinatra. And perhaps it was this movie that provided the occasion for two of Lana Turner’s relationships – She married Artie Shaw in 1940 (becoming the third of Shaw’s eight wives) and also had a fling with Buddy Rich somewhere along the line.
If this stereo recording does anything, it puts Rich’s drumming skills on full display. I don’t believe I have ever heard a recording from this period in which a percussionist’s skills come shining through so vividly. Whether it was the optical tech, the placement of the microphones or the acoustics of the room, this little bit of history is a great spotlight on a great drummer who was hard at work for the entire performance.
It was only about two months after this film’s September premiere that the mercurial Shaw got fed up with the music business. He refused to show for an engagement at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania on a Wednesday evening in November, 1939 and told his band he was quitting three days later. It would not be the last time this happened, but it was perhaps the most dramatic given the heights to which his star had risen by the second half of 1939.
I have done a little searching and have found a few other stereo film recordings from this period. Examples include two 1943 Tommy Dorsey numbers, Well, Git It from DuBarry Was A Lady and Opus One from Broadway Rhythm. For Glenn Miller fans there is Chattanooga Choo Choo from 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade and (maybe – I’m still trying to decide if this is the same thing) I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo of Orchestra Wives from 1942. Both of these Miller scenes include bonus dance sequences with fabulous Nicholas Brothers. There are surely other stereo film recordings from this era out there for someone with more time for sleuthing.
Whether it was because of technical issues in reproduction, in the actual studio or otherwise, the sound quality varies a bit and I did not find the examples above as stunningly vivid as Donkey Serenade, but maybe that’s just me. Also, some of them were more about the movie plot than about the music itself. The only other downside is that only the bands with the most mass market popularity got this treatment, so don’t go looking for anything off to the side of the spotlights.
Let’s finish back at The Dancing Co-Ed with one other recording, this time (not all that well) synchornized with the picture – Artie Shaw’s Traffic Jam seems to have been used for the movie finale. I find the visuals interesting, the theatrical flourishes a little annoying, but this is another alternative rendition (in stereo) of a well known record from Shaw’s early peak. Though I will admit that I find the source quality here just a half a step down also.
Recording tech at the record companies would eventually be able to capture and recreate sound of this quality, but it would be another twenty years before it would become the norm. So we jazz fans have scads of stuff that was fresh in the late 50’s where we are relieved of that trade-off between the excitement of the new and high quality reproduction. But to enjoy that freedom in music from the peak of the big band era is truly amazing, and something I have not yet gotten my fill of.
Embedded Musical Videos From the YouTube Pages As Identified
Promotional Photo from The Dancing Co-Ed without copyright markings, in the public domain
Early Film Credit for the G.E. Photophone Recording System
c. 1931 Photo of Leopold Stokowski inspecting recording equipment from Stokowski.org
1937 Universal Pictures Promotional Poster from 100 Men And A Girl via moviepostershop.com
1939 MGM Promotional Poster for The Dancing Co-Ed from en.notrecinema.com
1937 G. Schirmer sheet music for The Donkey Serenade via Pinterest
c. 1948 Ad for WFL (Ludwig) Drums featuring Buddy Rich via Pinterest
August, 1939 promotional advertising for Eastwood Gardens in Detroit, Michigan, via theconcertdatabase.com