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The Ink Spots : Swing High! Swing Low!

CD:PPCD 78124 / CASSETTE: / RUNNING TIME: 57:18

"I'm totally blown away - I own over 40 different Ink Spots CDs and not one comes even close to the sound of yours. I put it on, and my jaw dropped" T Cote, CT, USA The much loved early recordings from 1935-38, their 'hot and jive-packed era'

Keep Away From My Doorstep << sound clip
Alabama Barbecue
'Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do
That Cat Is High << sound clip
Swing, Gate, Swing
Slap That Bass
Christopher Columbus
Yes Suh!
Your Feet's Too Big
When The Sun Goes Down
Swingin' On The Strings
Stompin' At The Savoy
With Plenty Of Money And You
Let's Call The Whole Thing Off << sound clip
Don't Let Old Age Creep Up On You
Don't 'Low No Swingin' In Here
Oh! Red
Old Joe's Hittin' The Jug
Whoa Babe!
Swing High, Swing Low

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the Forties, to the war years and particularly to the popular music of that era. Do you recall songs like ‘Bless You’, ‘My Prayer’, ‘Whispering Grass’, ‘Do I Worry?’ and ‘If I Didn’t Care?’ If you remember just one of these, then you will surely recall the identity of the singers. The introductory guitar notes with which they started all their famous recordings, the high pitched vocals, the talking bass lines, all were instant trademarks of a group whose style was uniquely sophisticated and ‘oh! so smooth’. Yes, of course, they were the Ink Spots.

Their ‘spark-plug’ was Deacon ‘Ivory’ Watson from Mounds, Illinois, who had started in show business as a singer and dancer at the age of six. When just twelve years old he led a group called The Riff Brothers. In 1934 he joined Orville ‘Hoppy’ Jones, Charlie Fuqua and Jerry Daniels to form a quartet for which they had no name. The story goes that whilst mulling over ideas with their manager, suggestions flowed freely, but the manager’s pen didn’t. He shook it onto a blotter, producing four ink blobs. That was it, a perfect description of the quartet – The Four Ink Spots! (The ‘Four’ was soon dropped.)

English band-leader Jack Hylton, visiting America in 1934 heard them, and was impressed enough to offer the boys engagements in England where they appeared at the London Palladium and then toured with Hylton’s band. Back in New York in January 1935, their first recording session took place at which they cut four sides for Victor Records. They didn’t sell very well and soon disappeared from the catalogue. Two of the titles re-issued on the company’s lower priced Bluebird label fared little better. Their style was, to quote one of the group, ‘as hot and jive-packed as a jitterbug’ and did little to distinguish them from many other acts vying for recognition and hopes for the big-time. However, they plodded on, playing theatre dates and appearing on radio. In 1936 Jerry Daniels left the quartet and his place was filled by Bill Kenny. In May they were asked to record again, this time for English Columbia. As the company had no facilities in New York, six titles were made in the studios of American Decca on West 57th Street, two in May followed by four in June. Decca’s astute recording manager Jack Kapp liked what he heard and offered them a contract to record for his company. They cut four titles in February 1937 and another four in April, then there was a long gap until March 1938 when two more were recorded. In May they cut the first title to use the now familiar guitar introduction, but ‘I Wish You The Best Of Everything’ still lacked the magic to produce a best seller. In August there were two further titles, surprisingly still in the up-tempo swinging style they had used since first forming the group. Like most of the previous records, the last was comparatively unsuccessful and left them wondering if it was all worth while. Bill Kenny observed ‘We learnt to our dismay that this style wasn’t getting the group anywhere, and we were on the verge of disbanding because we couldn’t get work. As a matter of fact, we were working at the Paramount Theatre in New York, not out front as singers, but backstage as porters, and the only singing we did was between pushes with the brooms and mops’.

The persistent and ever-patient Jack Kapp, however, felt they had something to offer and that success was only a matter of time. On January 12 1939, both he and the four boys found the magic that resulted in a hit record when they recorded a song by singer-songwriter Jack Lawrence entitled ‘If I Didn’t Care’. The rest is history. The record had it all – the ‘trademark’ guitar intro, Kenny’s falsetto vocal and Hoppy’s deep voiced talking chorus. Why they hadn’t used the style before is a mystery, especially as they had experimented with it way back on a broadcast in 1935, singing ‘The Old Spinning Wheel’. ‘If I Didn’t Care’ set the pattern for most of their subsequent recordings and the Ink Spots quickly became one of the most popular groups around, both in America and in Great Britain. Sadly, when everything was going so well for them, Hoppy died in 1944 and his place was taken by Kenny’s brother Herb.

All of the tracks on this album come from the Ink Spots ‘hot and jive-packed’ era, and whilst representing well-rehearsed and competent performances, it is easy to hear why they had a hard time finding that elusive best-seller. As noted earlier, they vaguely resembled other acts around at the time, with occasional hints of the Mills Brothers, scat singing in the style of Cab Calloway, and even a track owing acknowledgement to Fats Waller. Listen to the start of Swing, Gate, Swing and you will hear what I mean. Swingin’ On The Strings has vague suggestions of an early ‘spasm’ band, while Mama Don’t Allow It (originally released as Don’t ‘Low No Swingin’ In Here) is very much in the skiffle tradition. The remaining title from the early session for Victor is a number now associated with Fats Waller, though his own version of Your Feet’s Too Big was recorded nearly five years later. On most of the remaining tracks a distinctive guitar introduction is heard (though not the more familiar one). Alabama Barbecue and Don’t Let Old Age Creep Up On You both owe something to the Mills Brothers. Charlie Fuqua turns in some pleasing solo spots on his guitar, notably in Yes Suh! and Stompin’ At The Savoy, and Bill Kenny’s distinctive vocalising is used to great effect in Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off. I’m glad they didn’t!

This album presents most of the Ink Spots early recordings, and will serve as a fitting introduction to one of the best loved vocal quartets of all time.

GEOFF MILNE



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