One of my favorite tunes to dance to has always been Don’t Be That Way. It’s often associated with Benny Goodman, since he is the one that brought it to the masses. The original, however, was composed by Edgar Sampson and first recorded by Chick Webb in 1934. I think (at least for me) part of the confusion on this tune came from an apocryphal scene in The Benny Goodman Story, a mediocre film from 1956 starring Steve Allen in the title role. At one point late in the movie, someone tells him they need to announce the title of the song they’re about to play. He replies (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Everyone’s always telling me, ‘Benny, don’t be that way,’ so that’s what I’m going to call this new tune.” I haven’t seen the film in years, but I remember thinking the delivery was robotic and I disbelieved the story immediately. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t even his tune.
The real story is that Edgar Sampson composed Don’t Be That Way for Rex Stewart’s band in 1933.¹ Unfortunately they did not record the tune, and that same year Sampson left Stewart to join Chick Webb’s band. This was a very prolific time for him; it was the same time period he composed such classics as Stompin’ at the Savoy, Let’s Get Together, and Blue Lou. Only later would Benny Goodman make Sampson’s creations worldwide hits.
Mitchell Parish, who also wrote the lyrics of Sweet Lorraine, Stars Fell on Alabama, and Stardust, put words to the tune a few years later in 1937 . There are relatively few recordings that include the lyrics, perhaps because the melody is somewhat difficult to sing.²
Here are some of my favorite recordings of Don’t Be That Way that showcase its versatility, through a number of styles and tempos.
Chick Webb And His Orchestra: Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan (tp), Sandy Williams, Claude Jones (tb), Pete Clark (cl,as), Edgar Sampson (as,arr), Elmer “Skippy” Williams (ts), Wayman Carver (ts,fl), Don Kirkpatrick (p), John Trueheart (bj,g), John Kirby (b,tu), Chick Webb (d); New York, September 10, 1934
The original recording has that characteristic Chick Webb stamp to it: snappy tempo, tight horns, and that rhythm that just makes you want to jump. I love the rhythm guitar by John Trueheart on the first B section, it almost makes you forget the trombones are even playing. Some signature Webb comes at the end with saxophone trills and a short drum solo. In all a solid recording, but fame would elude this tune for a few years.
Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra: Cootie Williams (tp), Johnny Hodges (as), Edgar Sampson (bar,arr), Lionel Hampton (vib,vcl), Jess Stacy (p), Allen Reuss (g), Billy Taylor, Sr. (b), Sonny Greer (d); New York, January 18, 1938
There were no studio recordings of the tune between the original and this one more than three years later by Lionel Hampton. Only three live recordings captured it in these interim years, so it is apparent the tune was not in high demand. All that was about to change, however. Just two days before this recording, Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall and opened with Don’t Be That Way.
Hamp may have recognized that the tune would be instantly popular and rushed to record it before Goodman had the chance to, or perhaps it was just coincidence. At any rate, we have an exceptional gathering of musicians here: the composer himself taking the first B section on baritone saxophone, then the incomparable Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams taking solos on the next chorus, respectively smooth and growling. Hamp changes just a couple notes here and there to let the melody take on a completely different feeling than Webb (or Goodman, for that matter) ever had.
Benny Goodman And His Orchestra: Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin (tp), Red Ballard, Vernon Brown (tb), Benny Goodman (cl), Hymie Schertzer, George Koenig (as), Arthur Rollini, Babe Russin (ts), Jess Stacy (p), Allen Reuss (g), Harry Goodman (b), Gene Krupa (d), Count Basie (arr); New York, February 16, 1938
The next month, Benny Goodman made it into the studio to record the tune along with One O’Clock Jump, which was also featured in the Carnegie Hall concert. The arrangement, by Count Basie, would become the standard that his big band would follow for years. The record was a huge hit for Goodman, and stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for 5 weeks starting that April. I’ve chosen not to include the live Carnegie Hall performance, and not even the record pictured at the right. What you hear is Take 2 from the same session; I find it much more interesting than the recording that took the country by storm, and I like to think it is the way the musicians really wanted to play. To start, the trumpets are a little punchier and staccato. The big difference, though, comes in the solos from Goodman and James. Instead of trying to spell out the melody again for the listener, they let loose as if they were in a jam session. If you have this one at home, try listening to them back to back.
Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra: Bobby Hackett (cnt), Pee Wee Russell (cl), Tab Smith (as), Gene Sedric (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Allen Reuss (g), Al Hall (b), Johnny Blowers (d); New York, March 23, 1938
Our next recording comes just one month after Goodman’s, and from none other than his piano player, Teddy Wilson. While Wilson didn’t play at Carnegie Hall, he knew a hit when he heard it. Again I am not including the commercially released take, but an alternate that is in my opinion superior. Wilson’s take on the melody’s rhythm and phrasing gives it an even livelier mood than before, especially with his playfully interwoven responses to the band on piano. Whenever I play this recording for friends for the first time, they tend to listen for a few seconds not knowing exactly what to expect, then say, “…Yeahhhhh!” out loud.
Ella and Louis Again: Louis Armstrong (vcl), Ella Fitzgerald (vcl), Oscar Peterson (p), Herb Ellis (g), Ray Brown (b), Louie Bellson (d); Los Angeles, August 13, 1957
We now fast forward two decades, where our tune has now achieved ‘standard’ status. It was one of the great anthems of the Swing Era, and now in 1957 it is a familiar and beloved melody. The songs in these sessions with Fitzgerald and Armstrong represent some of the best of classic American music, and Don’t Be That Way is right at home in the set list. This is our only example with the lyrics included, and the first noticeable difference is its drastically different tempo. They take on such a relaxed attitude that it is almost a different song from what we have heard before. Ella and Louis are both masters of singing ahead of and behind the beat, hitting each word early or late as they see fit. They do both here, and it is those late notes that make it feel even lazier and more dreamlike. This seems like worlds away from the first recording, and it must have been a great experience for Ella to put such a different spin on it since her days in Webb’s band.
Benny Goodman Live at the Rainbow Grill: Benny Goodman (cl) Joe Newman (tp) Zoot Sims (ts) Bernie Leighton (p) Attila Zoller (g) George Duvivier (b) Joe Marshall (d); “Rainbow Grill”, New York, June 28 & 29, 1967
Our last example, and the only live recording of the bunch, comes one decade later from the man who made the song famous, Benny Goodman. He keeps some pieces of the original arrangement, such as the staccato trumpet during the main theme, as a bit of an homage to the good old days. The player who really excels here though is Zoot Sims, whose driving tenor solo propels the song from the quaint intro to its rollicking finale.
These are just a few examples of the literally hundreds of times that Don’t Be That Way has been recorded. Write a comment below if I’ve missed your favorite!
¹ The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Jazz, pg. 101.
² American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, pg. 496.Posted in Music
7 responses to “Song Spotlight: Don’t Be That Way”
Jesse Hanus April 4th, 2009 at 23:10
This post came together really well, Mike! Your posts are always really well written, interesting, and easy to understand even if you don’t know a lot about music.
Yay Mike for being so awesome and sharing it with us!
Holly April 4th, 2009 at 23:50
What a pleasure to discover these recordings! You are very well written and your love for this music is so evident. Thank you for sharing.
Brody April 6th, 2009 at 19:32
Thanks so much Mike! This is absolutely one of my favorite songs, and I loved listening to all of the versions. It never gets old. But I do have to say, the Hampton version blew me away. I plan to request it from my local DJs. (Hear that, Dhruv?)
Laurel April 8th, 2009 at 13:37
wow i LOVE the hampton version.. kind of drunken and sloshy.. how fun! it’s totally going in my shopping cart.
Jeff Kaufman May 20th, 2009 at 09:21
I’m producing a documentary on Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Savoy Ballroom called The Savoy King. Can you send me your email address so I can send you a full introduction? We finished filming and I’m doing a final revision of the script (which I’d be glad to send you). I’d welcome a chance to consult with you about some visual options . . . for instance, right now I’m trying to cover a description of Edgar Sampson’s contribution.
Laurel June 10th, 2009 at 16:04
Could I make suggestions for future song spotlights? I’m looking for the perfect recording of two songs, one is St. James Infirmary, which I think is best slow, brassy, and haunting, and the other is Comes Love, which I can’t decide whether I like best cutesy and upbeat or a little more bluesy, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!
[...] Originally composed by Edgar Sampson, and popularized by Benny Goodman, “Don’t Be That Way” is the fourth track on the 1962 instrumental album, Playing It Straight, by comedy legends Henry “Homer” Haynes and Kenneth “Jethro” Burns: [...]
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