Newly available on CD, On The Radio: The Chesterfield Shows 1939-1940 contains eighteen songs performed by Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters. The performances are all taken from a three month period in which the Glenn Miller Orchestra was the featured act on the Chesterfield-sponsored CBS radio program. From December 27th, 1939 through March 31st, 1940, radio listeners were treated to first-rate big band music three nights a week.
Fans of these artists will definitely want to add this disc to their collection, but it also makes a nice introduction for anyone curious about pop music of that era. The collection is buoyed by the strong, almost maddeningly catchy, melodies. If you aren't accustomed to the sound of the era, give it a little time. Despite some obviously dated elements (this music is nearly 70 years old after all), it's easy to appreciate the craft and artistry invested in the music.
Backed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, these performances really swing. Glenn Miller is practically synonymous with the big band era. His most popular recording, "In the Mood," is instantly recognizable even to those with no knowledge of the genre. You won't find that tune, or any other big band feature, on this release. The focus remains on the Andrews Sisters for the duration. The trio of sisters sound even more vital and energetic in this live setting, no doubt bolstered by an extremely receptive live audience. The horn section really kicks, punctuating the Andrews' trademark harmonies. Occasionally, a trumpet or saxophone will contribute a short solo break.
My own introduction to the Andrews Sisters was through their appearances in early Abbott and Costello movies. More often than not, the musical interludes drove the comedy team's movies to a grinding halt. Not so with the Andrews Sisters, as their lively numbers gave me a taste of the music that thrilled my grandparents' generation. Arguably the Andrews' most notable film appearance was in Buck Privates, which featured their signature song "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." Don't expect to find that classic on On The Radio: The Chesterfield Shows 1939-1940, as these performances predate its release. But with more than one hundred Billboard charting singles to the Andrews' credit, this CD contains performances of numerous hit songs. The sisters sing in such close harmony, their three voices seem to ring out as one. Their continued influence can still be heard in contemporary music, such as Christina Aguilera's 2007 hit "Candyman."
Even though the individual performances have been cherry picked from the aforementioned three month period, they are presented on this disc as a seamless show. The listener is therefore able to experience it exactly as it was originally heard. Opening and closing announcements, with the orchestra playing "Moonlight Serenade," bookend the eighteen songs. Each song begins with a brief spoken introduction, identifying the song's title. Sprinkled throughout are mentions of the program's sponsor, Chesterfield cigarettes. Listen closely to "Little Sally Water," and you'll even hear a plug for Chesterfield in song's lyrics! Times have certainly changed.
Perhaps my favorite selection is the reworking of "I've Got No Strings," from Disney's Pinocchio. In the movie, of course, the song's meaning is quite literal: a marionette puppet who is no longer under the control of a puppeteer. In the Andrews' hands, it becomes a joyous celebration of being a single woman, liberated from any overbearing relationships. It's a refreshing twist on the song. The familiar melody is maintained, but it swings a whole lot harder than the original. Another highlight receives the shortest introduction: a simple exclamation of the title, "Well All Right." The band really cooks and the vocal arrangement is especially dynamic. Among the most recognizable hits found here is "Beer Barrel Polka," which is introduced as "every bit as popular as the cigarette that satisfies." For the most enthusiastic ovation, check out "Begin the Beguine," which gets the crowd cheering right from the introduction.
No need for concern regarding the audio quality. I can't imagine these nearly seven-decade-old radio broadcasts sounding any better than they do here. There are some anomalies here and there – a little scratchiness on one song, a fluctuation in volume on another – but nothing unforgivable. Boost the bass and you can even make out the rhythm section fairly well. On The Radio: The Chesterfield Shows 1939-1940 provides a snapshot of a bygone era, featuring two of the most celebrated acts in swing music. We're fortunate to have it readily available.