When I first began to get interested in big band music in the 1950’s, the era was actually starting to wind down, with droves of music fans moving to rock and roll and other modern sounds. But I’ve always been a little bit of a contrarian, and although I wasn’t immune to the attractions of modern music I still found myself fascinated by the rich history of the big bands. At first, I was drawn to the big names – Goodman, Ellington, the Dorseys, Miller and others – but I gradually began to realize that there were some lesser-known bandleaders whose bands had generated some pretty darn good music.
I also discovered that knowledgeable music fans defined the music two different ways. Bands who had a generally conservative sound and played audience-pleasing pop tunes were considered ‘sweet’ — even if some of their musicians were very capable of dazzling listeners with their solos. Orchestras with a riskier, purer jazz style were called ‘hot’ or ‘swing’ bands (although the latter term was later used to describe all music from the era).
Sometimes hot orchestras paid a price in terms of popularity, because – as has always been the case in music – those who cater to a broader audience generally have more commercial success. But there were many fine ensembles on both sides of the aisle, and a few even straddled the line — with varying degrees of success. One group that might have suffered from a lack of focus was the band headed up by Johnny Long, who called himself ‘The Man Who’s Long On Music’.
Johnny was a North Carolina farm boy who was so determined to be a musician that he didn’t let a childhood accident to his hand keep him from playing his beloved violin. The teacher re-strung it for him and Johnny learned to play all over again — left-handed.
As he grew to adulthood and went to college, his interest in music continued to intensify and he was soon leading his own groups. When he graduated, it was the 1930’s and the big band era was in its full stride. Young Johnny kept his college band together and they began hitting the circuit. Their songbook included a little bit of everything – both sweet and hot – and at first it helped build the band’s popularity.
By 1939 they’d made some radio appearances and scored a recording contract, and the following year they produced a million-seller, “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town.” It became their signature song, and was just the first of many hits, but even though the band had some first-class musicians and tried to straddle the line by playing hot tunes like “Carribean Clipper, they mostly played sweet. That included most of their bigger hits — “No Love, No Nuthin’,” and “Time Waits For No One,” along with “My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time.”
But the band was very successful for years, and at the height of its popularity even began to appear in Hollywood films, which was common at that time, but in one movie Johnny played a straight role as the second lead. That was unusual, and was a tribute to his good looks and smooth persona.
The group’s popularity continued through the decade but as the big bands began to fade, Long’s group seemed to suffer more than some. The fickle pop music fans no longer bought the records quite as often, and the lack of a solid jazz reputation hurt the band with the purists. Long managed to keep his band going in a reduced form into the 1950’s, but the handwriting was on the wall and within a few years he retired from music and embarked on a second career as a teacher. Unfortunately, his health declined and he died in 1972 — still a young man in his fifties.