Remembering A Queen And A Count – Count Basie Plays “HRH” (Her Royal Highness)

This space is not known for a tendency to be particularly timely. But there was some attention paid to an upcoming event which suggested a tie-in for our humble endeavor. It seems that King Charles III is – what – being coronated? Undergoing a coronation? Getting crowned? That last one sounds like something that has happened to yours truly a time or two, but I digress.

The occasion will surely not include any American jazz. However, the upcoming ceremony made me think of a tie-in between British royalty and some of the music we feature here from time to time. This time, we go back (again) to basic Basie and a piece from the 1950’s which was entitled HRH – which stood for Her Royal Highness.

The British royal family and American jazz music have more of an intersection than you might think. King George V invited Nick LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band to Buckingham Palace for a royal command performance in 1919. LaRocca, leader of the band whose title was more about good publicity than actually being “the original” recalled that attendees at that concert first “looked at us like we were covered in bugs” before they got into the groove of that new style of American music. The ODJB may not have been original in the strictest sense, but they are generally credited with the first to commit jazz (or jass) performances to wax around 1918.

The tradition of a royal command performance appears to go back to the 1840’s (at least in “modern” times for a country that dates back to the Roman Empire). It has typically involved an annual show that is put on at the King or Queen’s request. Beginning in the 1920’s, it became a tradition that the show has been a benefit for the Royal Variety Charity, a fund to support actors and musicians. It has also become one of the longest-running popular entertainment events in England.

One such event took place:

in the presence of

Her Majesty The Queen

on the Evening of Monday 18th November 1957

at The Palladium, London

At least according to the cover of the program. One performer whose presence had been requested for the evening’s programme (just watch me get into the spirit of the British-ness of the event) was a favorite of mine: The great Count Basie, who was probably at the peak of his success and popularity.

This was not the Count’s first foray across the seas. The band’s first tour of Europe was in early 1954 and there was a return engagement in September of 1956. The 1956 tour was probably planned in concert with (yes, I did that) the Royal Command Performance that had originally been scheduled for November 5, 1956. Unfortunately that event was was cancelled by the Suez Canal crisis that fall, so Basie and the boys were back the following year.

I can recall reading that the tune HRH (Her Royal Highness) had been written for the occasion of that performance, but some research suggests that this may not be accurate. I have not been able to locate evidence of what the band actually played that evening in 1957 (an evening which included a young Charles, III, just days out from his 9th birthday). It actually seems that the song was inspired by the evening instead of having been written for it. But we shall not let this detract from the festivities.

The song was recorded on one of several dates between March and December of 1958 in Capitol Records’ fabulous recording studio – often acknowledged as the place to go when you wanted to record a big band. That project culminated in the release on April 18, 1959 of the Roulette Records album “Count Basie – Chairman Of The Board”. This album was in the middle of a run where Basie was very much in demand by other artists for joint projects – what kind of other artists? Tony Bennett was one of them. This one, however, had the band back to its roots as the main and solo attraction.

The performance clocks in at a mere 2:40, but packs a lot into that short span. The Count Basie band of the late 1950s could still swing with the best of them, but had also developed the ability to play jazz with a certain dignity not often found by lesser outfits. This dignified style was a style befitting the Queen, and trumpeter Thad Jones (who wrote the piece) captured something of the regal essence that Queen Elizabeth was known for, and that this band was capable of.

Although HRH is a relatively basic big band blues of its time period, it is unique in incorporating a bit of royal fanfare in its theme. A fanfare is an actual musical thing, especially regarding royalty. It is a short introductory bit of musical flourish, usually played by trumpets. Like this serious version:

Or like this much shorter version some of we codgers remember from the commercials for Imperial Margarine:

Anyway, the Count Basie trumpet section starts HRH with a fanfare as clear and as regal as as any, but then immediately slides into a relaxed swinging gait as the band displays the disciplined section work it had become known for by then. That fanfare theme comes back for the great finish, where the band was hitting on all cylinders and bringing that combination of power and control that few other bands could master.

Queen Elizabeth II was not known as a jazz fan in the way that her father had been, but she did exhibit a regal bearing for her many years on the throne. Count Basie also exhibited a regal bearing on his piano bench and made a performance that will forever remind jazz fans of Elizabeth. I am not really all that into British royalty, but I hope Charles III is able to step into (and flourish in) the role that his mother commanded for so long. Will Charles inspire any really good music? We shall have to wait and see.

17 thoughts on “Remembering A Queen And A Count – Count Basie Plays “HRH” (Her Royal Highness)

    • I think that Sinatra made a lot of money for the Count. They did 3 albums together in the 60s, one of them a live performance from the Sands in Vegas around 1965, and I suspect that this show toured for awhile, which was probably the one you saw. Those two guys were consummate pros, and each worked so well with the other.

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  1. I read (and listened to) your post this morning, in time to tune into the last ninety minutes or so of the coronation. Thanks for the reminder, and a more timely piece than you might have thought!

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    • I was traveling over the weekend, and Marianne happened to turn on the television at almost the exact moment when the crown was placed on Charles’ head. So the timing was good all around.

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  2. I watched part of the coronation, well I put it on for my mother, but was wondering why Katy Perry was in attendance? Apparently there’s a Coronation Concert tonight (Sun) with Katy Perry, Lionel Ritche, Andrea Bocelli, Bette Midler and a bunch of others I didn’t recognize, although Tom Cruise, Tom Jones, Joan Collins and Hugh Bonneville have roles, Something for everyone I guess….but Lionel Ritchie? Far cry from Count Bassie.

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      • Yea…back in the 80’s. I always thought he won those Grammys in 1985 as Michael Jackson had beat him the year before, so it was kind of like a pity win?? And Katie Perry of the screeching voice and stupid lyrics. Not much better.

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  3. Well JP, you can count me in a fellow codger as I remember the Imperial commercial. As I’m a little late to this party and because of the five-hour time difference, the musical guests have done their entertaining and I was surprised at the list of entertainers. The radio news reported that Charles Camilla were “quietish” while waving their small Union Jack flags and watching Katy Perry belt out “Firework” so I thought I’d check out some videos of the concert on Twitter. That was a good description of their lack of enthusiasm, but Kate and her young daughter, Charlotte, were singing along and waving their respective flags. It appears some traditions must have gone by the wayside tonight. I liked the invitation you showed us for the Palladium event.

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    • Although I am an American through and through, I will admit to a fascination and respect for the traditions of the British Crown. And I like that American performers think enough of it to join in the show.

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      • There is a lot of pomp and circumstance for sure. I have watched some more snippets of the Coronation ceremonies this week on MSN. I also read a story about Prince William being not all that enamored with the idea of becoming King and he thinks the monarchy needs new fresh ideas. Wow! I agree with you as to the American performers. I am sure they were ecstatic to be part of the afterglow of such a large event.

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