But even Berry wasn't the first, not by a long shot. Sex began exposing itself in American popular music long before there were even Victrolas. The blues, for instance, have always had players and listeners that delighted in explicit lyrics and primal rhythms. The first time that sex entered popular music en masse, however, was during the big-band era. As proof, there is no better introduction to the origins of libido-levitating radio hits than two recently released boxed sets: Swing Time! The Fabulous Big Band Era 1925-1955 and Count Basie, The Complete Decca Recordings.
While Swing Time! chronicles the history of big-band--or swing-- music, it also shows how sex first slipped in and then out of the covers over the course of swing's 30-year reign. As a perfect companion piece, the Count Basie discs showcase the most carnal of all the swing bands as it seduced America during its 1937-1939 heyday. Swing music, like rock n' roll, is best defined by feel rather than words. Built around loose rhythms that "swung," the big bands upped both the volume and tempo of blues-based tunes. But swing wasn't just playing a song fast, it was turning an up-tempo beat into a driving, locomotive chug that forced whole crowds to shake body parts. A hot swing band would move the most self-conscious listeners into publicly gyrating in ways previously saved for honeymoons. The best swing bands were defined by their ability to empty all the chairs in the ballroom by means of the most infectious rhythms the bands could create. Our grandparents didn't call it swing music because they were swinging their arms, you know.
Swing Time! begins with the first swing bands of the late 20s and early 30s. These first swingers pummeled the dance floor with an awkward new beat supplied by the rhythms of banjos and tubas--the guitar and bass of their day. The Chocolate Dandies and Fletcher Henderson Orchestra flew through up-tempo dance numbers like "Birmingham Breakdown" and "Sugarfoot Stomp" with a primitive stab at loose and hip that sounds laughable today. Dances like the Charleston ruled back then, and when dancing bodies swung, it was still mostly below the elbows and knees. But not for long.
The midsection of Swing Time!'s 66 selections shows swing maturing into the macho braying of Pee Wee Russell's clarinet on Louis Prima's 1936 hit "Cross Patch" and the growling trumpet of Bunny Berigan on Tommy Dorsey's cover of the Irving Berlin song "Marie."
Ten years after the swing experiment began, big-band music was reaching its prime. A dozen horns could now play in perfect unison. The newest melodies were almost terminally catchy. Many of the soloists, having made names for themselves with distinct styles of playing, found themselves hounded by fans and groupies.
These best years of swing refuse to sound corny and flat even a half-century later. Crank up the volume on the best cuts on Swing Time! to rock n' roll level and see if you don't find yourself ecstatically writhing the same way your parents (or grandparents!) did. For an even more pungent taste of how radical this music was, modern listeners should search out the still-available video clips of swing's frenzied dance-floor scenes. They'll see the hardwood floors in front of the bandstands filled with panty-flashing and spread-eagle gyrating as the big bands roared through songs at breakneck tempo. Nobody shaking his thang in the most recent Prince video has come up with a move that wasn't already flaunted to the tune of "St. Louis Wiggle Rhythm" by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band way back in 1936. Swing dancing was vertical humping, safe sex and approved exhibitionism all at the same time. And all of it came to exist because swing had been built on finding the rhythms common to both music and nookie.
Sadly, big-band music eventually went limp with age. Cut 41 on Swing Time! is a bucket of cold water that drowns any lusty intentions born of early swing music. Ray Noble and His Orchestra play their 1939 hit "Cherokee" and offer a startling intro to the 15-year-long demise of the big-band era covered by the boxed set. Impressed with the grooves conjured up by the mostly black bandleaders of big band's past, Noble and other white bandleaders decided to get into the act. While greatly expanding big-band audiences, they were unable to find their crotch with both hands. Ray Noble's brass section feigns swing with all the eroticism of a drunken, potbellied accountant at a Chippendale tryout. Some of the new pretenders to the throne wisely gave up trying to ape the rhythmic thrusting of their mentor bands and settled for romantic music to hold hands by. Harry James' and Jimmy Dorsey's groups slowed the tempos down to ballad pace with the insipid lovey-dovey cooing they presented on "All or Nothing At All" and "Green Eyes." Most of the last two dozen cuts on Swing Time! are merely a big, bland song cycle about the slow castration of swing music.