Benny Goodman was a huge influence on the jazz world in many ways. He ushered in the swing era, bringing jazz from shadowy clubs into the nation’s spotlight and bringing fame to the musicians, like Gene Krupa, who played with him. He was an early integrator of jazz, inviting black musicians like Lionel Hampton to play with him regardless of the fact that segregated society still frowned upon such pairings. And he launched the musical careers of many who would go on to become legends themselves.
Benny Goodman, screenshot from “Stage Door Canteen” (Wikimedia Commons)
Today, 26 years after his death, we look at some of the musicians who had their first big break with Benny Goodman’s band.
In 1931, Benny Goodman heard a 16-year-old singer perform at New York club The Bright Spot. Two years later, that singer was ready to make her recording debut – with Goodman’s band. The singer was Billie Holiday, and she recorded two songs with Goodman. “Riffin’ the Scotch” became a hit… and a preview to a marvelous career.
Billie Holiday went on to record a few songs with a pianist who would, himself, soon become an integral part of Goodman’s band. Teddy Wilson had a definitive sound that was a great foil to Goodman’s swingin’ clarinet, and in 1935, Goodman broke segregation’s barriers to put the young black man on stage and make him a permanent member of his trio. After several years with Goodman’s band, Wilson went on to become a bandleader himself.
When Benny Goodman saw Peggy Lee singing at Chicago’s Buttery Room, he made her nervous with intense stare. Lee thought the then-famous bandleader didn’t like what he was hearing, but in fact, he was just concentrating hard – and, perhaps, thinking he had found his next singer. In 1941, Lee joined Goodman’s band, and the collaboration soon produced her first #1 hit, “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place.”
Goodman could be difficult to work with, and none of these musicians stayed with his band for a long time – after a few songs or a few years, they moved on to different things. But we’re grateful for Benny Goodman’s eye for talent – and for his willingness to give future stars a chance to shine.
Written by Linnea Crowther