Freddie Slack and His Orchestra: "Mr. Five by Five" [October 31, 1942]
Already, a novelty song. Found this one on a Rhino compilation called Songs That Got Us Through WWII Vol. 2, and in a more innocent time a song like this--"He's five feet tall and he's five feet wide," sings Ella Mae Morse, still a teenager and all poise; "There's no way of knowing whether he's coming or going," because as we all well know fat people are enormously funny just for existing, cough cough--probably did satisfy some need for public relief in the face of war. Either that or there wasn't all that else going on, which makes sense too. Actually, the lyric is probably less potentially offensive than I'm making it out to be--being five feet wide seems implausible if not completely impossible (at least if you're only five feet tall--one for Geeta's science blog! or maybe someone else's physiology blog, who knows), and while this swings neatly, its arrangement is boisterous, and Morse is buttery and a little tart, it's too slight overall to matter that much either way. 6
Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: "Trav'lin' Light" [November 7, 1942]
Thought I'd have the damnedest time finding this one until Douglas Wolk pointed out that the vocalist was Billie Holiday. Duh--not only did I have it already, I'd written about it for Nerve.com piece called "69 (Years of) Love Songs" that appeared around Valentine's Day earlier this year. (I'd link the piece but you need to be a member to access it. So $35/year and it's yours. Note to self: become a member so I can read my old stuff w/o digging through still-unpacked boxes for it.) What was doubly surprising about it is that I'd figured Paul Whiteman was finished long before 1942--he's pretty definitively a 20s figure, the era when he was the (caucasian) "King of Jazz," a violin-wielding bandleader who wished to "make jazz a lady" by interfacing it with classical music, a man whose music was frequently accused of lacking swing. But his stuff (that which I've heard, meaning this song and mostly 20s stuff) has a sweetness that mostly avoids outright sappiness, and that's certainly what's going on here. Unsurprisingly, it's not Whiteman or his band that puts the record over, though they're fine--it's Holiday, who's a bit more ethereal than usual, and maybe therefore more pop? Since this was the biggest R&B hit of its year (not a lot of competition since the chart debuted in late October, but still), you might think so. That, and the fact that her melancholy doesn't quite border on the suicidal--you might even choose to believe that her limbo status reflects a kind of relief, which given that the song sounds like a three-minute sigh would fit. 8
Earl Hines and His Orchestra: "Stormy Monday Blues" [November 14, 1942]
Haha--I'm writing this on Tuesday. (Rimshot!) Actually, considering that Seattle did undergo a storm yesterday, on Monday, I really should've written this then. But no, now it's sunny out, and whatever resonance my surroundings could have imbued the song with has been shattered.
Though one of the objects of this activity, at least as Tom Ewing and Michael Daddino have laid it out, is to capture impressions that are at least partly of-the-moment, and I was already pretty familiar with Hines and vocalist Billy Eckstine's "Stormy Monday" due to its inclusion on Indigo's 1942-45: The R&B Hits. (Indigo's series of R&B Hits compilations, the most recent of which is the 1952 volume, has been invaluable for this project, though the early volume misses a lot of number ones.) It's basically a rewrite of/sequel to T-Bone Walker's "Call It Stormy Monday," one of 1941's biggies (undoubtedly would've been a no. 1 itself had the Harlem Hit Parade, Billboard's first name for the chart, existed), and as such I think it's safe to call Hines/Eckstine's "Stormy Monday" the first straight-up blues (in structure, anyway) to top the chart. But A-B'ing the two, as I have been for the past hour or so, is instructive and perhaps a little unfair. T-Bone Walker's record jumps out of the box; it's one of the sexiest things I've heard. Hines and Eckstine, meantime, open with a moody piano, situating it in more of a jazz context. I don't know Hines' work that well, though I became a fan of Earl Hines Plays Duke Ellington, a 1971 solo session, after picking it up this spring after reading Ben Ratliff's recommendation in his top-100 jazz albums book. But even with that little bit of knowledge I find Hines' "Stormy Monday" intro appealingly familiar. Eckstine was famed for his smoothness; he is here, but like Billie Holiday on "Trav'lin' Light" there's an ethereal undercurrent that feels more swooning-from-heartbreak than above-it-all. Note how he strains against the top of his range on the second verse--or probably more accurately, how he feigns straining, creates the illusion of it, to get the lyric's emotion over, a trick Sinatra did a lot too if not learned from Eckstine. (That's a guess. If he didn't, I'm happy to be corrected.) The reason A-B'ing them is unfair is that T-Bone's "Monday" is a masterpiece while Hines' is simply pretty excellent. It's slower, draggier, and less overtly pop--at least till the horns start answering Eckstine in the verse, climaxing with a trumpet solo that both romps and exposes the scratchmarks on its heart. 7.5