Power Bands of the '50s


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Duke Ellington, Harry James, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Les Brown and Charlie Barnet all piloted top-notch bands in the 1950s. But there were plenty of other superb leaders and bands who recorded during the early LP era. They didn't have marquee names and didn't record as often as the familiar ones, but their albums were terrific nonetheless. The reason these albums have remained on the dark side of the moon is because today's record labels haven't seen value in re-issuing them or don't even know they exist in their vaults.

Fortunately, European labels have been traveling deep into the jazz mineshaft to extract valuable ore. European copyright laws are different than in the States, and albums from the 1950s are fair game for reissue without assuming copyright royalties. These labels include Spain's Fresh Sounds, the U.K.'s Ace and Jasmine, Germany's Bear Family and dozens more.

Another one—Montpellier Records—came to my attention recently after I posted about bandleader Tommy Alexander back in March. Colin Goodall of Montpellier reached out to let me know that the label had issued Tommy Alexander's Alexander the Great along with Presents His Golden Trombones plus four bonus tracks on one CD. When I asked what else the re-issue label had in its catalog, Colin along a link. There were quite a few gems, but four stood out: Tomboy—Tommy Alexander and His Orchestra (1955-'56), Flag Waver—Jerry Gray and His Orchestra (1956-57), Sam Donahue: The Mood We're In (1958) and George Williams: Beautiful Rhythm (1956).

The U.K. label has been reissuing superb, obscure big-band albums since the late 1990s thanks to an arrangement with Ray Anthony's Big Band Library. Many are long out of print here, never made it to the digital format or are largely unknown and unheard. Here are the four I mention above plus a track for each to give you a taste:

The material on the CD above features two albums plus four bonus tracks. Alexander the Great was arranged by Bill Holman while the personnel on Golden Trombones is unknown. But the entire CD swings like a train and the taste is fabulous and pure Hollywood in the '50s. Go here. Here's The Song Is You

In the mid-1950s, Jerry Gray recorded fronting his own band. Gray is best known as a swing arranger who worked for Artie Shaw but left for Glenn Miller's band when Shaw broke up his orchestra in 1939 and retreated to Mexico. Gray's style in the '50s had a bouncy, taut sound and a perfectionist's ear for tight horn sections. Go here. Here's Off Limits

Swing saxophonist Sam Donahue pops up in a range of bands in the 1940s and '50s, including ones led by Gene Krupa, Billy May, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and others. He also was a superb arranger. Donahue is probably best known for taking over Artie Shaw's band when Shaw went into the Navy in the early 1940s. In the late 1950s, Donahue toured and recorded with his own band. This CD features two obscure LPs, Dance Date with Sam Donahue (Remington) and Listen to Sam Donahue (Prescott), both from 1958. Go here. Here's At Sundown

In 2011, the late Hal McKusick turned me on to George Williams, a big band composer and arranger for Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Ray Anthony and many other bands. Williams' own albums in the '50s are few but superb—The Fox in Hi Fi, Rhythm Was His Business (a tribute to Lunceford), and others. But for some reason, We Could Make Such Beautiful Music was never issued digitally. This CD features Beautiful Music complete as well as tracks from Rhythm Was His Business. Go here. Here's Beauty Rest

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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