Ella Fitzgerald’s Deep Cuts for Lindy Hop

Sometime last spring, a friend of mine, who also happens to be a jazz vocalist and a talented music producer, told me that she owned the Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks on CD. I knew something magical was about to happen.

Hours of downloading later, my music library was populated with some of the most incredible swing music ever to grace the dance halls of New York. Ella Fitzgerald is a queen, y’all, and today we’re going to review some of my favorites among her lesser-known tunes.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:36, 152 BPM

This peppy Irving Berlin tune has some lovely modulations between major and minor sounds, and it has a sweet build up to a triumphant feel at the end. (I also get a private kick out of the fact that this song features a lady singing about a very dapper outfit indeed.)

While searching for this song on YouTube, I ran across this Polish tribute to Ella Fitzgerald for her 100th birthday. The big band sounds great, and I love the vocalist’s outfit!

Things Are Looking Up, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:35, 135 BPM

I’ll be honest, the band here sounds good, but they aren’t swinging quite as hard as some other dancing tunes. However, the lyrics are so bright and pretty, and the tone is so upbeat given the slower tempo, that I love having this song around to pick up an empty dance floor.

In A Mellow Tone, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:50, 133 BPM

Hey Mister Jesse recommended this album, Ella at Zardi’s, when it was released last year, and I like it a lot! This particular version of “In A Mellow Tone” features some dope scatting, and solid swinging rhythm from a piano-bass-drums trio.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, 3:21, 159 BPM

The saxophones and trumpet provide great accompaniment to this foot-patting song. The rhythm is super tight and easily audible, so it’s easy to dance to. (Thanks, Basie!)

Drop Me Off In Harlem, Ella Fitzgerald, 3:51, 118 BPM

This song was originally written by Duke Ellington, so it has all the swanky swing it can handle, while moving along at a tempo perfect for beginners or a late night. Before Ella comes on, it opens with some really wonderful trumpet and trombone solos.

The Lady Is A Tramp, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:45, 168 BPM

When you need an alternative to Frank Sinatra, I love this upbeat rendition of the popular tune “The Lady Is A Tramp.” The lyrics are clearly audible and so much fun, and the bass and horns thump along in grand style.

I Got Rhythm, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:23, 144 BPM

If I were ever cool enough to teach a solo jazz class, this is definitely a song I would use. It has consistently placed stops in the first few phrases that still have a light rhythm section going, which helps students to keep time. And it’s also a great choice for the dance floor!

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Ella Fitzgerald, 5:02, 84 BPM

Okay, this one isn’t strictly a Lindy Hop tune. But truly, if you ever need to warm up a blues floor, I can’t imagine anything sweeter than this crooner. The soft hi hat in the background keeps the beat, while Ella’s voice floats along and the piano adds some texture and rhythmic interest.

This Is Why You Should Be Listening to More Maxine Sullivan

I love Maxine Sullivan.

FROM THE VAULTS: Maxine Sullivan born 13 May 1911

I know everyone loves Ella, and I’m a big fan of Sarah Vaughan myself, but Maxine Sullivan is solidly tied with both of them in my book. Her vocals are energetic and always beautifully in rhythm, and dancing to her recordings is so much fun! I have a few concert videos down below where she’s well into her fifties and sixties, and her voice ages so well – it still carries the vitality of her early recordings, while possessing infinitely more character and charm.

The Aline Gubbay Fonds - Jewish Montreal of Yesterday

This 1968 concert in Japan features Maxine Sullivan singing with Scott Hamilton’s quintet. Some great swing tunes in this concert include “As Long as I Live,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “You Were Meant For Me,” and “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.”

Hot take – Maxine Sullivan’s version of “Exactly Like You” is my favorite one. I have four versions in my library – Carmen McRae (probably the one you’ll hear most in the Lindy scene), Eddy Howard, Helen Humes, and Maxine Sullivan – and I like Maxine’s the most. The horns have a swanky energy to them, and her vocals are understated, but they have a rich, full sound – unlike Helen Humes, whose voice has more energy, but is thinner and more reedy by comparison.

In 1985, Maxine Sullivan appeared on a TV show hosted by Johnny Desmond, where she performed four songs, including two swingers – “Loch Lomond,” which is the song she’s most famous for recording, and “Ev’ry Time (I Fall In Love).”

If you haven’t heard Maxine’s rendition of “Loch Lomond,” by the way, you should listen to it. It was the song that originally made her famous, and she sang it in the 1939 film St. Louis Blues. You can see that recording in the clip below:

For dancing, I prefer this hard-swinging rendition from her album We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye, with Bob Wilber.

In this 1958 clip from Art Ford’s Jazz Party, a forty-seven-year-old Maxine sings “Ace In The Hole,” which starts out as a slow ballad and then builds into a really easy, bluesy swinger. I found this video while doing research for this post, and it makes me want to add this song to my library!

At the 1975 Manassas Jazz Festival, Maxine Sullivan did a beautiful rendition of “You Turned the Tables On Me.” I think this clip is a really great example of how you can hear the swung rhythm in her vocals – her voice has this lilting quality that perfectly mirrors what the rhythm section is doing.

For comparison, watch this clip of Maxine singing “Some of These Days.” I couldn’t find a date for the clip, but it’s clear that she’s much younger – I would guess no older than thirty-five. Her voice still has that beautiful, alluring quality, but it lacks the character of some of her later concerts. (Bonus: there’s some sweet jazz dancing in this clip!)

I have a lot of other favorite Maxine Sullivan songs, too. Here is a list of some more for you to check out:

  • Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 135 BPM, 2:56
  • Blue Turning Grey Over You, 148 BPM, 2:32
  • Honeysuckle Rose, 176 BPM, 3:24
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’, 127 BPM, 3:20
  • As Long As You Live, 145 BPM, 2:38

Maxine Sullivan - Pittsburgh Music History

Lesser-Known Songs of Lionel Hampton

It now says on my about page that I go nuts for vibraphone solos. I added that to reflect my recently unearthed obsession with all things Lionel Hampton. I love his creativity and the way his vibes always fit perfectly into the songs where they feature. However, while everyone knows “Flying Home” and “Lavender Coffin,” I wanted to take a moment to feature some really swinging Lionel Hampton songs that I don’t hear as often.

By the way – I found all of these tunes for free at Classic Jazz Online, and with better sound quality than the clips in this post. Head over there and stock up!

I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me, 130 BPM, 3:16

I can’t get enough of this easy swinger. It starts out with a sweet saxophone solo and some excellent jazz electric guitar, almost certainly played by Charlie Christian. Then Hampton kicks in on the vibes, and they lend such an elegant sound to the rest of the song. I would love to play this after the floor was exhausted after a couple of high-tempo songs – it’s a great song for more relaxed dancing.

Open House, 132 BPM, 3:16

I love this song for its easily follow-able melody, and its beautiful solos – along with those vibes, you get to hear some saxophone, piano, clarinet, and electric guitar (Charlie Christian again!), and they all sound great. The mood is pretty chill, but the more upbeat feel of the main melody gives it a little more energy.

Loose Wig, 144 BPM, 3:03

This song starts out with some peppy hand-clapping, and then moves into a sax-trumpet call-response. The instrumentation is bold and features some pretty daring stuff on a soprano saxophone, and then the vibes hit and absolutely tear it up. Hampton is laid back and yet keeps perfectly on rhythm. (I think this is less surprising once you know that in his early career as a drummer, Hampton was famous for performing tricks like tossing and twirling his drumsticks and mallets, without ever missing a beat.)

Royal Family, 158 BPM, 3:09

love the melody of this song. The A chorus has an AAAB structure – super easy to swing out to – and the full chorus is AABA (just like they teach you in solo class!). Once the first chorus is through, you get beautiful soprano sax, piano, and that electric guitar! Throughout, Hampton holds it down on the vibes in the background, and his solo around 1:50 is understated but really funky and fun to listen to.

Wee Albert, 188 BPM, 3:20

This tune is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favorites. It swings along with a spiraling trumpet melody supported by a steady sax line, and it only gets more enthusiastic and upbeat as it moves along. There’s a pretty epic tenor sax solo starting around the 1:55 mark, and that wailing trumpet comes back and just does not stop. The vibes pop in right around the end for a big finish. Super fun!

When Lights Are Low, 200 BPM, 2:15

To me, this peppy rendition is an ideal demonstration of Lionel Hampton’s remarkable ability to carry the integrity of a melody while having all sorts of fun with rhythm and mood. The vibes start around :20 in and, supported by Charlie Christian holding down a steady beat on guitar, Hampton creates an artful portrait of the main melody of “When Lights Are Low” while somehow managing to move all over the vibraphone’s expressive range. I love this piece for solo jazz, and it would also get the balboa dancers hopping!

Flying Home: The Live Performance That Will Blow Your Mind

A post on Lionel Hampton would not be complete without a moment of appreciation for this eight minute long live rendition of “Flying Home” that pumps along at 256 BPM. Even if you don’t have time for the whole clip, at the very least watch the first few minutes and notice how much energy goes into Lionel Hampton playing on those vibes. This is clearly a man possessed by rhythm. His entire body bounces up and down with the beat, his hands bopping in time with the rhythm even when waiting to make his next move. I find this clip mesmerizing. Hope you enjoy!

The Home of Happy Feet Is A Van Alexander Album Not To Be Missed

I found a fantastic album on iTunes recently, Van Alexander’s The Home of Happy Feet, released in 2012, and I want to talk about a few of the songs on it. As mentioned in my previous post, Soulacious Mr. Ben turned me onto Van Alexander when he featured “Let’s Get Together,” the first track on this album, on Mr. Ben’s Songs of the Week.

Van Alexander was born in Harlem in 1915 – what a time to be alive, am I right? – and learned classical piano from his mother before he started getting into band leading and arranging in high school. (Reminds me of me – my father, a professional pianist, taught me to play at a young age, and then I betrayed him by becoming a swing dancer instead.) I love all the music on this album for its passionate, punchy sound, and the arrangements are super tight, as one would expect when a band’s arranger is also its leader.

“Let’s Get Together” is a great tune from Van Alexander and His Orchestra that clocks in at about 188 BPM. It alternates between an infectious chorus melody and super fun solos. One of my favorite parts is the trumpet solos at about 0:55 and again around 1:30 – they have a marching feel, but the band maintains splashes of the original chorus behind them, so they feel tied in with the rest of the piece. Overall, this song lends itself well to fast Lindy or slow balboa, and I’m definitely putting it on my reference list of songs for competition finals!

“Stompin’ At the Savoy” is another gem from The Home of Happy Feet. Rather than the feverish tone that renditions of this popular tune usually strike, it has a very chill feeling, almost zen, with some phenomenal usage of what I think must be a xylophone. It’s a great introduction to “Stompin’ At the Savoy” for beginners, with a very friendly tempo of 124 BPM.

Not many people know that Van Alexander created the original arrangement of “A-Tiskey A-Tasket” that Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald made famous. Here is his own orchestra doing an instrumental version that features a sweet minor modulation around 1:20. I love the opening – it really just makes you want to move your feet.

I absolutely love this song – I think it might be my favorite on The Home of Happy Feet. “Blue Rhythm Be-Bop” comes from a smaller group, Van Alexander’s Blue Rhythm Band, and it has a bright, poppy melody that makes me want to hit the floor as soon as I hear it. At 162 BPM, it’s fast enough to keep the floor hopping but not so fast it wears people out, and the trumpet and clarinet solos strike a phenomenal balance between gentle and totally crazy. To top all that off, around 1:45 it has some stops that just MAKE it for me. It tics all my boxes for a great swing song, and I guarantee you’ll be seeing it around the blog quite a bit in the new year!

A fun bit of news before I let you go – I will be DJing at the Jam Cellar on Tuesday, January 9! If you’re in the DC area, I would love to see you there!

Happy holidays to all, and Merry Christmas!



Music Roundup for KissME in Ann Arbor

I’ve been working hard preparing my library to DJ at KissME in Ann Arbor this weekend, July 21-23. While I don’t DJ from Spotify (Jon Tigert has written about some great reasons why), I do think it’s an incredibly valuable tool for discovering new music, and a lot of great stuff has come my way in the past few weeks on Spotify that I’d like to share.

A Jumpin’s Something, Earl Hines, 2:47, 158 BPM

This song has wonderful energy for being a steady mid-tempo swinger, and hits the sweet spot of having both a memorable melody that beginners can follow, and excellent musicality and stops that give more experienced dancers lots to play with.

If I Were A Bell, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams with Count Basie, 2:45, 122 BPM

I love the call-and-response lyrics between Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams, and (surprising exactly no one) Count Basie’s accompaniment steadily drives the energy throughout the whole song and ends with a grand finish.

The Minor Riff, Jimmie Lunceford, 2:50, 190 BPM

When I first started DJing, I thought Jimmie Lunceford was only good for “Tain’t What You Do” and nothing else. No longer! This fun song is sure to be a great favorite with Balboa dancers for its speedy tempo and great brass solos starting at about a minute in. And this a radio broadcast recording, so there’s some applause and a little announcement at the end.

Watcha Know, Joe?, Tommy Dorsey with Joe Stafford & the Pied Pipers, 3:26, 165 BPM

This song has trombonist Tommy Dorsey’s excellent work on full display. The title spelling of “Joe” must be a mix-up, because in the song, they’re clearly speaking to Jo Stafford, the female vocalist in the Pied Pipers. Really, it should be “Watcha Know, Jo?”

Cole Slaw (Sorghum Switch), Louis Jourdan & His Tympany Five, 2:46, 138 BPM

This song is just sheer fun. The honky-tonk feel of the rhythm, Louis Jordan’s great voice on the silly lyrics, the stops towards the end – it just all comes together and works! Do you know what they serve you, down in Arkansas?

There’s Frost On The Moon, Chick Webb, 2:53, 168 BPM

Any Chick Webb song is going to have really tight orchestration, and this is no exception. What makes this song stand out is the chorally sung lyrics that remind me a bit of an old Western. It’s a different feeling from most swing music, but it’s still danceable, and I think it adds nice variety.

Social Call, Ernestine Anderson, 2:46, 122 BPM

I love Ernestine Anderson’s rich, sweet voice, and the story-telling lyrics of this song combined with the slow tempo make it a good pick for helping beginners get comfortable on the dance floor.

All The Things You Are, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie, 3:49, 165 BPM

Okay, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been on a Sarah Vaughan kick for the past few days. She’s known as one of the queens of 20th century vocal jazz with good reason – she has an amazing range, and she makes every word so expressive you just want to melt into it. No melting in this song, however, with its kicked-up tempo and beautiful instrumental solos that will keep the dance floor swinging right into her incredible long notes at the end.