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Instrumental theme songs from the Big Band Era featured bandleaders' expertise

Taking a look at Big Band Era instrumental theme songs.
Taking a look at Big Band Era instrumental theme songs.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: My oldies pop music articles generally focus on the '50s and '60s, but occasionally, they delve into the '70s or to the Big Band Era of the '30s and '40s. This item reviews a dozen Big Band theme songs featuring instrumental recordings, and is a follow-up column to Big Band theme songs with vocals, and to read that column, click here.]

The so-called Big Band Era, from the mid-1920s through the early '50s, was characterized by swing or jazz bands consisting of 10 or more musicians playing a wide range of instruments -- among them trumpets, trombones and saxophones. In addition, a rhythm section usually included drums, guitars, bass and piano.

Many of the bandleaders selected theme songs that featured the instruments on which they were personally proficient, and such recordings became known as that orchestra's "signature tune."

For instance, Benny Goodman's theme ("Let's Dance") featured the clarinet, Tommy Dorsey's theme ("I'm Getting Sentimental Over You") spotlighted a trombone solo, Harry James' theme ("Ciribiribin") had the trumpet front and center, and Frankie Carle's theme ("Sunrise Serenade") was a jazzy piano number.

This article takes a look at a dozen Big Band theme songs that were originally recorded as instrumentals, although some of them were later re-released with a vocal refrain, and obviously, each such song reflects its band's primary style of music. To hear any of the designated selections, simply click on the song title.

  • "LET'S DANCE" (Benny Goodman, 1935): The famed clarinetist from Chicago was dubbed the "King of Swing", and he had one of most-popular U.S. bands of the late '30s and into '40s. He first recorded under own name at age 19, and he was featured on NBC's "Let's Dance" Saturday night radio show in 1935, and this theme song was derived from that.
  • "ONE O'CLOCK JUMP" (Count Basie, 1943): William James "Count" Basie was a renowned jazz pianist, organist, composer and orchestra leader who hailed from Red Bank, N.J. He was was a leading figure of the swing era in jazz, and he formed his own big-band-style group in 1935.
  • "CIRIBIRIBIN" (Harry James, 1939): The famed trumpeter, who led a prominent swing band in the '30s and '40s, hailed from Albany, Ga., where he was the son of bandleader in a traveling circus. He began playing trumpet at age 10, and after moving to Beaumont, Texas, at age 15, he began playing in local bands. He debuted his own band after a stint with Benny Goodman's orchestra.
  • "MOONLIGHT SERENADE" (Glenn Miller, 1939): This theme song was composed by the well-known bandleader, who was born in Clarinda, Iowa, before relocating to Missouri and then Colorado. The recording was released as instrumental in 1939, and it was soon adapted as Miller's signature song. It featured the typical "Miller sound" and it went to No. 3 on Billboard's pop charts, and later, lyrics were added by Mitch Parrish. Miller -- the best-selling recording artist in the U.S. from 1939 to 1943 -- died at age 40 in 1944, when his plane went missing over The English Channel.
  • "TONIGHT WE LOVE" (Freddy Martin, 1941): The Cleveland native was a master at playing tenor sax, although he started out as a drummer. He formed his own band in high school, and he organized his own Big Band orchestra in 1931 at age 25. His theme song, adapted from the first movement of Tchaikowsky's B-flat Piano Concerto, was first released as an instrumental featuring Jack Fina on piano, but a later vocal rendition featured singer Clyde Rogers.
  • "RIPPLING RHYTHM" (Shep Fields, 1937): Born Saul Feldman in Brooklyn, he learned to play clarinet and tenor sax in college, and by 1933, at age 23, he had already formed his own band. He popularized the unique "Rippling Rhythm" concept by blowing bubbles into liquid through a straw, and that became part of his trademark sound, as reflected in his theme song.
  • "SNOWFALL" (Claude Thornhill, 1941): This jazz-pop standard was written by the bandleader as his theme song. The pianist, arranger and orchestra leader from Terre Haute, Ind., performed on Bob Hope radio shows and played on sessions with Glenn Miller in the mid-1930s before forming his own band in 1939.
  • "MY SHAWL" (Xavier Cugat, 1935 original, 1947): This Spanish-born bandleader was a major figure in the spread of Latin music in the U.S. He moved to Cuba at age 5 and came to New York City at age 15, and his multi-faceted talents included singing, songwriting, newspaper cartoon work, acting, directing and screenwriting.
  • "I'M GETTING SENTIMENTAL OVER YOU" (Tommy Dorsey, 1936): This famous Big Band figure was the younger brother of Jimmy Dorsey, and both were born and raised in Shenandoah, Pa. After forming his own band in the mid-1930s, his recordings topped the U.S. charts on 17 occasions. The theme song was originally an instrumental that featured a trombone solo by the bandleader, but Frank Sinatra later sang it on a later release. The song's words were written by Ned Washington, with music by George Bassman.
  • "CONTRASTS" (Jimmy Dorsey, 1940): The older brother of Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy wrote his eventual theme song as a youngster, and it was originally titled "Oodles Of Noodles." He was proficient at playing saxophone, clarinet and trumpet, and his band was extremely popular in the early 1940s.
  • "BEGIN THE BEGUINE" (Artie Shaw, 1940): The native of New York City, who grew up in New Haven, Conn., worked with many bands prior to forming his own in the late '30s. The theme song was a version of a well-known Cole Porter song for the clarinetist, author and orchestra leader.
  • "STARBURST" (Gene Krupa, 1947): The Big Band drummer, composer and actor from Chicago, moved to New York City in 1929. He began playing drums with several big bands as early as 1927, including stints with both Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey, and some consider him as the first superstar drummer.
  • "SUNRISE SERENADE" (Frankie Carle, 1938): Born as Francis Nunzio Carlone in Providence, R.I., the so-called "Wizard Of The Keyboard" formed his own orchestra in 1944. He wrote his theme song, with later lyrics by Jack Lawrence, and it was initially recorded by Glen Gray with Carle on piano. This is his best-known composition, and it ascended to No. 1 in the U.S. in 1938 and sold more than a million copies.

[You may subscribe to Bill Herald's oldies music columns -- free of charge -- by clicking on "subscribe" near the top of the column, after which you will receive e-mail notification each time a new item is published].

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