Benny Goodman: ‘The King of Swing’

The year was 1935. An enthusiastic crowd of young dancers gathered at the famous Palomar Ballroom on Vermont Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Two nights before, the young band and its leader, Benjamin “Benny” Goodman, had played to a sold-out crowd in Oakland’s McFadden Ballroom. In the Bay Area, Goodman along with vocalist Helen Ward and drummer Gene Krupa performed before large crowd of young dancers, dancing and applauding the music they heard. San Francisco Chronicle communist Herb Caen wrote, “From the first note, the place was in an uproar.” One night later at Pismo Beach, the show was a flop, and the band thought the overwhelming reception in Oakland had been just a fluke. But the next night at the Palomar in Los Angeles changed everything. The struggling clarinet player and his group of musicians was about to emerge as America’s favorite new band, and its leader crowned the ‘King of Swing’.

Goodman was born in Chicago, the ninth of twelve children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. To give his children an appreciation for music, his father enrolled ten-year-old Benny and two of his brothers in music lessons at the local synagogue. The following year Benny joined a boy’s club band, and in 1921 made his professional debut at the Central Park Theater in Chicago. He entered Harrison High School in Chicago a year later, and then joined the musicians’ union in 1923 and by the age of 14 was in a band featuring Bix Beiderbecke.

At the age of 16, young Benny joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra. It was with Pollack’s organization that he made his first recordings in 1926. Goodman made his first record under his own name for Vocalion Records in 1928. In a notable Victor recording session in March of that year, Goodman played alongside Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Joe Venuti in the ‘All-Star Orchestra’, directed by Nat Shilkret.

Goodman moved to New York City in 1930, and by 1935 Benny’s band was one of three featured on Let’s Dance, playing arrangements by Fletcher Henderson along with hits such as “Get Happy” and “Limehouse Blues”. Benny and his band remained on Let’s Dance until a strike by employees of the sponsor forced the cancellation of his radio show. The band set out on a tour of the United States in May 1935, but was poorly received. By August 1935, Goodman found himself nearly broke and ready to quit.

In July, a record of the Goodman band playing “King Porter Stomp” backed with “Sometimes I’m Happy” was released by RCA Victor to great editorial reviews, but the band still continued largely unnoticed until they arrived in Oakland, California to play at McFadden’s Ballroom. The next night in Pismo Beach, the band was meet with another disappointing reception. The following evening, August 21, 1935, Goodman and his band began a three-week engagement at the Palomar Ballroom. That night’s engagement would not only reverse the fortunes of the Goodman organization, but create the launching pad for what was to become the ‘Swing Era’.

Goodman started the evening’s first set at the Palomar with the usual ‘stock’ arrangements, but after a tepid response from the crowd, he began the next set performing “hot” arrangements by arranger and bandleader Fletcher Henderson- arrangements that departed from the more romantic style of the day by employing loose, upbeat, syncopated rhythms that had been common in African-American jazz groups for years. Instantly the crowd broke into thundering cheers and applause. News reports spread word of the exciting new music and the enthusiastic dancing to it. The Palomar engagement was such a success it is often described as the “dawn of the Swing Era.”

By May of 1936, the band’s new found popularity had propelled them to Hollywood to film The Big Broadcast of 1937. It was during that period that the media dubbed Goodman the “King of Swing”- a title that would follow him the rest of his career. In late 1937, Goodman’s publicist attempted a publicity stunt by suggesting that Goodman should play Carnegie Hall in New York City. If such a concert were to take place, then Goodman would be the first jazz bandleader to perform at Carnegie Hall. Management of the venue took the stunt seriously, and booked Goodman and his band to perform on the evening of January 16, 1938.

The sold out concert featured many of Goodman’s hits and ultimately provoked five curtain calls and cries for an encore. By the time the band got to the climactic piece “Sing, Sing, Sing” (written by Louis Prima), the concert’s success was assured and today is regarded as one of the most significant events in jazz history.

Benny Goodman’s influence and legacy is unparalleled in Swing and Big Band history. While Goodman was regarded by some as a demanding taskmaster, his musical talent and contributions to racial integration in America is unchallenged. In the early 1930s, white and black musicians could not play together in most clubs and venues. Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with his organization, and in 1936 hired vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. By 1939 Goodman had added guitarist Charlie Christian to his band where he remained with Goodman until Christian’s untimely death from tuberculosis three years later.

After winning numerous polls over the years as best jazz and swing clarinetist, Goodman was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1957. Despite increasing health problems, he continued to play until his death from a heart attack in New York City in 1986 at the age of 77. That same year, Benny Goodman was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, permanently cementing his reputation as “The King of Swing.”