SWING, SWING, SWING by Ross Firestone


The Life and Times of Benny Goodman
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 Goodman (1909-86) bestrides the Swing Era in this stirring portrait that focuses largely on the clarinetist's wonder years during the 30's and 40's--though his childhood as a musical prodigy and his later years following the death of the big bands get their due. Firestone's bio (following his coauthored lives of Diahann Carroll, Gary Crosby, and Elizabeth Ashley) is livelier and more readable than James Lincoln Collier's Benny Goodman and the Swing Era (1989), though Collier (a professional horn player) gave a richer analysis of the music. The Goodman story swings here--partly because of changes in Goodman's odd, often thorny character, and partly because readers may dig out records to swing along with Goodman, Harry James, and the other greats blowing on these pages (in 1933 alone, Goodman cut over 250 sides). Born into the Chicago slums as the ninth of 12 children, Goodman spent his early years in dire poverty, with his Jewish father at times having to shovel swine guts in the meatpacking factories. At ten, the clarinet became the boy's escape hatch. Not only was he a prodigy, he practiced incessantly to achieve perfection and, in later years, when he formed his own band, he rehearsed prodigiously and demanded perfection from his players. Goodman's terrible glance at a player who fluffed a note or had a bad intonation was called ``the X- ray''--or just ``the Ray.'' For years, the band business was unstable and, perhaps unconsciously, Goodman feared the bottom would drop out and plunge him back into poverty. As his swing band rose to number one, climaxing with 1938's famed Carnegie Hall concert, he grew ever more tense and demanding, firing and hiring willy-nilly--and remained so until the end of his life. Much of the story's energy comes from Goodman's hunger for hot swing and his love of killer-diller arrangements that, alas, the dance halls hated--posing the steady threat of disbanding. Benny blows--and the angels sing.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-393-03371-6
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1992