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Music For A Lifetime: “Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)”

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Music lovers love lists, and I am not immune to this trait. I often wile away time ranking and reranking various songs, albums, artists, etc. One such mental list I keep batting around stems from a feature Playboy ran back in 1999 where it asked musicians to rank the greatest songs of the past millennium. Though Playboy certainly meant for the songs to come from the 20th century, the British guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, a student of musical history, took the exercise quite literally and gave songs dating back to the 11th century. Sadly, Playboy didn't use his list.

Every since I heard of this feature, I have bandied about a list in my mind. Not as broad as Thompson's, I've wondered what my list of ten songs of the past hundred years of popular music would contain. Mind you, this would not be a list necessarily of the best songs (though certainly all of them would be excellent) or of favorite songs, but of ten songs that best represent the past century of recorded popular music.

What a challenge! How many rock songs would I include? Jazz? Blues? Vocals? International? Would I include an Elvis song if I felt a Little Richard song better portrayed the raw energy of early rock? Would I include a song by the Beatles, whom I consider to be the greatest and most influencial rock group of all time, if another song of that era, say "Satisfaction", is better representative of that era? Crosby or Sinatra? Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker? The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols? Would I include anything from the past 20 years?

Obviously due to the difficulties of these questions and more, I've never been able to pin down a firm list. Multiple songs have come and gone from the list (and some have returned again). The challenge of narrowing ten representative songs is just too great, and yet one song has consistently remained on my list's many permutations:

"Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" by Benny Goodman

"Sing Sing Sing", recorded by Goodman in 1937, was written the prior year by the bandleader Louis Prima (quite a musical personality himself — hmmm… perhaps the subject of another blog best known today for his swing hit "Jump Jive An' Wail" and his voice of the orangutan King Louie in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book). Though vocal versions have been recorded by many artists including Prima, The Andrews Sisters, and Anita O'Day, it is the Goodman's instrumental version that is the most known.

The song is a high point of the swing era and just sizzles. Goodman's band at the time was a supergroup of sorts with trumpeters Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Chris Griffin (Duke Ellington called them "the greatest trumpet section that ever was"), Jess Stacy on piano, and the incomparable Gene Krupa on drums. The big band swing is followed by a number of outstanding solos including Harry James's blowing session two-thirds through followed by Goodman's fluid clarinet. At the end, Krupa, who has kept a steady tom-tom accompaniment throughout, bursts into a prolonged machine-gun roll with a power seldom seen on swing records. All in all, it's the perfect example not only of big band era swing but also of the brilliant soloing that helps define jazz. For these reasons, not to mention the irresistable groove of the song, "Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)" has stayed on my list.

Now if only I could decided whether to put the classic 1936 original on my list or the 12-minute essential live version done at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.

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