Saturday, June 12, 2010

Forgotten Heroes of the Big Band Era: The early Vaughn Monroe Orchestra

Vaughn Monroe(1911-73) was one of the most prominent personalities of the Big Band era. With his good looks and booming baritone, he made quite an impression. However, his band never got the credit it deserved, especially the early edition of 1940-2 , the subject of this post. First, some backround on Mr. Monroe.

Vaughn was born in Akron, Ohio but raised in Cudahy, Wisconsin. He became a proficient trumpeter and despite ambitions for an operatic career, concentrated on dance band work as trumpeter and vocalist. He broke in with the Austin Wylie Orchestra in the early 30s followed by the Larry Funk band with whom he made his first recordings in 1934. In the late 30s Vaughn worked with the Boston band of Jack Marshard, also a succesful booker. Marshard realized that Vaughn had the potential to be a top-flight leader and helped him put together his first band in 1940. Also in 1940, Vaughn married his high school sweetheart, Marian Baughman. They had two daughters, Candace and Christina.

The early Monroe band spent a lot of time in the New England area and boasted many fine players from that area. Key men were Bobby Nichols (trumpet), only 18 at the time but already a mature jazz player. Trombonists Joe Connie(an uncle of baseball great Tony Conigliaro) and Art Dedrick (a succesful stock arranger). In the sax section were Andy Bagni, an exellent lead alto, Frank Levinea good hot tenor in the Tex Beneke style and Ziggy Talent (tenor) who became a top attraction with the band with his comedy and novelty vocals. Another saxist, Johnny Turnbull also sang with the band. Pianist Arnold Ross was a fine jazz soloist and arranger who later made a name for himself. The female vocalist, Marilyn Duke a tall attractive brunnete, was a superb singer with a nice jazz flair reminicent of Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley. Much of the early Monroe book was arranged by Johnny Watson, who had given the Jan Savitt Band much of it's succesful The Monroe band spent most of it's break-in time of 1940 in the New England area. During 1941 it began playing more national venues and gaing popularity. The band's 1940-2 Bluebird recordings have many fine moments. Here are some highlights.

On August 19, 1940 Vaughn recorded There I Go, one of his earliest vocal hits. This was a nice dance chart with a pretty alto spot by Andy Bagni. At the same session the old Allan Jones showpiece Donkey Serenade got the Monroe treatment. (Artie Shaw also had a great record of it). Vaughn's vocal is straight , without being melodramatic and the band swings nicely. Drummer Hy Levinson gets in some nice tom-tom licks. A good introduction to the swinging side of Vaughn Monroe.

On Dec.9,1940 Jerome Kern's classic, The Last Time I Saw Paris was waxed. This is an exellent chart with nice woodwinds on the intro and crisp muted brass on the theme. Vaughn gets in another pleasant vocal. (he would later get more boomy and dramatic). The band picks up the vocal with a swinging rideout and nice Levine tenor spot on the bridge.

The session of Jan. 13, 1941 saw three exellent swing sides cut. The old favorite Dardanella is given a pleasant swing treatment by Watson. A tasty alto spot opens and closes the side. Along the way we get Miller-like reeds and a Berigan-ish trumpet spot by young Nichols. Vaughn joined the trumpet section on a lot of these early sides. Take it, Jackson , a Watson original became one of Vaughn's most durable instumentals. A simple riff is offset by band vocal chant with solos by Nichols(in a Harry James bag), Levine and pianist Saul Skersey.Another oldie, There'll Be Some Changes Made is a delightful chart with an opening dixieland chorus leading to one of Marilyn Duke'svocals. She had a nice jazz feel and gives us some Lee Wiley-ish vocal glisses. (nice sax figures and piano under her). Bobby Nichols takes over for a hot half-chorus before Miss Duke reprises her vocal. A Wonderful Side!

On February 17, 1941 Vaughn recorded his famous theme, Racing with the Moon. He would re-record it many times thru the years. Also waxed was a cute duet by Vaughn and Marilyn, Requestfully Yours. The intro has shades of Jimmie Lunceford. (many of the early sidesare on a Lunceford kick). This is a good swinger with crisp band work and solo spots by Levine and Nichols. Miss Duke is especially solid on this track. She was a very underated singer. A solid riff instrumental Clam Chowder was also cut that day. (many of the Monroe titles had New England referances). G'Bye Now (3/31/41) is a medium swinger with another pleasant Duke vocal and Nichols trumpet. The Jimmy Dorsey hit Yours was covered on April 21. Vaughn later recorded a solo vocal but here it's Miss Duke's number. We get a differant verse and some nice trombones on a pleasant dance chart.

Arnold Ross had joined the band in the spring of 1941 and his piano and aranging talent would be a great addition to the band. On June 30, 1941 the band cut Love Me a Little (a pleasant tune also recorded by Artie Shaw with Lena Horne). Another Lunceford-ish intro brings on muted brass and reds for the theme. Another nice Duke vocal is folowed by a band rideout. Also cut that day was one of Ziggy Talent's best novelties Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long. When he relaxed he sounded a lot like Tony Pastor. He tended to overdo the comedy and freak notes. (he had a very elastic vocal range). Ziggy's just fine here with solid band backup and nice fills by Ross. One-Two-Three O'Lairy (8/15/41), another novelty has a cute Vaughn-Marilyn duet. (Vaughn wasn't a jazz singer ,but sounded fine when not going for the operatic sound). There are more Lunceford touches of staccato brass, Ross' piano and Nichols. Doodle-La-Do-Da is another novelty but shows the band at it's swinging best! The band chants the nonsense vocal with a nice bridge by Marilyn (in her Lee Wiley mode). We also get a chase by Bagni and Levine and solid brass figures. Ross gets in a neat piano spot and there are good drum breaks for swing veteran Harry Jaeger before the band gives us a swinging rideout.

On October 17, 1941 the band cut Tune Town Shuffle (also recorded by Count Basie). The intro is similar to Lunceford's Blue Heaven and the simple riff is played by the saxes with brass on the release. Levine is in his Tex/ Georgie Auld bag and Ross gets in a tasty solo. A baritone sax can be heard in the section. Tica-Ti(11/24/41) is a novelty in the style of TiPi Tin with a cute Duke vocal with band comments and a swinging ensemble. Pretty Little Busybody (12/18/41) is a pleasant medium tempo chart with a vocal duet by Marilyn and bassist Jack Fay. The saxes are especially good here.

1942 brought the band even more popularity and the band sounded better than ever. The January 15 session gave us Honey Dear an exellent side with more of the Lunceford influence. Bobby Nichols' trumpet spot is very Berigan-like and Miss Duke's vocal is solid with nice jazz glisses (Ross' piano fills are also tasty). Levine also has a good tenor spot.
Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry was a big hit for Helen O'Connell with JImmy Dorsey. The Monroe version features Ziggy Talent at his best. He sounds like a cross between Pastor and Prima and the band swings nicely thru several tempo changes. Ziggy hits one of his frak notes at the end. He could be a bit over the top. Check out his I Can't Dance from the 1944 film Meet the People. It opens the film and is pretty manic. (like Jerry Lewis with too much caffein). On February 24, the band cut one of their most popular instrumentals, Commodore Clipper (named in honor of the Commodore Hotel where the band was appearing). The Monroe-Watson original is based on the Lady Be Good changes and features nice muted Nichols, Levine a la Tex and Ross. Vaughn would revive this number several times.

In early 1942, Ray Conniff brought his trombone and arranging talents to the band. His Coming Out Party (3/11/42) is a solid riff with more of the Lunceford sound and good bones and saxes. There is an interlude similar to Sy Oliver's in Swanee River and high trumpets and tom-toms backed by the full band. Ross contributes a fine solo and the bones take the coda. All I Need is You (4/7/42) is a pretty dance chart with a lovely Duke vocal. The trombone intro and coda (a la Jack Jenney)quote a popular Monroe tune, I Ask the Stars. Vaughn also began doubling on trombone during this time.

Also worth mentioning are several titles taken from broadcasts. Harvard Square (another New England based riff) is similar to For Dancers Only and has a band vocal chant. The brass have solid staccatto phrases ( a favorite Lunceford device) and Ross and Levine get in solo spots. There's a nice drum brak before the theme reprise. The old Earle Hagen alto specialty ,Harlem Nocturne gets a great reading by Bagni who had become a top leadman. Boston Rocker is another swinging instumental. The theme sounds a bit like Hot Lips or Four or Five Times. There is nice muted brass, spots by Levine, Ross and a trumpeter (probably not Nichols). Ross' piano is very tasty in a Nat Cole style and the band has a solid rideout.

As Vaughn's vocals became more popular, the band 's specialties became less and less. Vaughn loved to feature instrumentals but the vocals would really put him over. The band carried on thru the 40s, adding a string section. Finally in 1953, Vaughn broke up the band, although he would still reform it for special occasions. The early Monroe band recieved so-so reviews. George Simon of Metronome was impressed with Vaughn, Duke, Talent and some of the soloists but felt the band was no more than a territorial favorite. Down Beat was more receptive and had many favorable reviews and print ads of the band. The 1940-2 Bluebird and Victor sides show a nicely swinging band with fine soloists and a greatly underated singer in Miss Duke. This band deserves a bigger chapter in the annals of Big Band history.

Vaughn dabbled in many aspects of entertainment in the 50s including acting in a couple of westerns and three TV series. His show of 1950-1 also had old buddy Ziggy Talent. Another variety show followed in 1954-5 and Air Time '57 featured Vaughn and Bobby Hackett's combo. He really hit it big as a spokesman for RCA Products in the 50s. He also had an interest in a Framingham,Mass. club, The Meadows (he occasionally appeared there).
In 1958, Vaughn made an exellent lp for RCA, There I Sing/Swing it Again in which he reprised many of his hits with a top-flight studio band. Arrangements were by Irv Kostal and Bill Stegmeyer. (we caught Billy Butterfield's horn on several tracks. )There are four instrumentals, Take it, Jackson, Commodore Clipper, Cape Cod Clambake(by Stegmeyer) and a new Boston Rocker by Kostal. The band is topnotch, I think it's the same house band that recorded under the leadership of Butterfield, Urbie Green and Peanuts Hucko.

Vaughn also appeared with a studio band on the 1960 TV special, The Swinging Singing Years and on a 1965 syndicated series, The Big Bands. On this show he did his hits plus instrumentals of Take it, Jackson and Cape Cod Clambake. Vaughn even joined the band occasionally on valve-trombone. He also led bands at Disneyland on ocasion. Vaughn's marvelous musical career ended with his death in May of 1973.

Although known as a vocalist and dynamic personality, Vaughn made a big contibution to those swinging years with his first band of 1940-2. The Old Moon Racer could really Swing!

CDs etc. There was an excellent import of the early band called Requestfully Yours. You could try Ebay or World's Records. The 1958 lp is available on Collector's Choice CDs and some of the instrumental sides have popped up on Best Of LPs. The Franklin Mint lp series on Big Bands had a side of early Monroe that is worth searching for.
The 1960 and 1965 TV shows were available on VHS. They may have made the transfer To DVD (try a search). Meet the People shows up on Turner Movie Classics occasionly.