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Woody Herman’s Early Work Collected on Mosaic

Mosaic Records recently released The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Woody Herman And His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947), a seven-CD box set that documents the early evolution of the widely influential bandleader. The set contains the work of Herman’s First Herd, plus first recordings by the Second Herd and the “group within the group,” the Woodchoppers.

Woody Herman’s career as clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist, sideman and bandleader was destined for greatness as soon as he hit the road back in 1932 with Tom Gerun’s Californians. His magnetic stage presence, ability to sing novelty and ballad numbers as well as his agility on all saxophones was admired by other bandleaders whom he joined like Gus Arnheim and more important, Isham Jones. His tenure with this bandleader and prolific composer turned into gold when Jones retired from leading the band and a cooperative formed with Woody as its leader.

Armed with a handful of hits for Decca including one of the more recognizable stalwarts of the Swing Era called “Woodchopper’s Ball,” Woody decided to change the sound of the band from the blues, ballads and good but average swing interpretations to a rambunctious, no-holds-barred swing outfit. Nicknamed “The Herd” by writer George Simon in Metronome, the catalyst of this change came with the hiring of Chubby Jackson, an imposing bassist from the Charlie Barnet band with a dynamic visual presence and a powerful technique. With Jackson’s keen ear, he and Woody were able to hire a core of unknowns who jelled into one of the greatest bands of any era: vocalist Frances Wayne, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, trombonist Bill Harris, vibist Margie Hyams and later Red Norvo, a blazing trumpet section that included Sonny Berman, Pete Candoli and Ray Wetzel in addition to veteran drummer Dave Tough and key arrangers Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti.

No other band sounded like this one, full of verve in fiery solos and brilliant arrangements. The Columbia recordings they made were continuously rated high with the critics and the public was certainly not ready for the surprise with each release. “Apple Honey,” “Northwest Passage,” and “The Good Earth” were all roaring originals and hits, but one that became an anthem of the big-band era was “Caldonia,” with a wild Herman vocal that became one of his classics. Woody’s vocal ballad style on “Laura” and others were also well received, but none matched the soul of singer Frances Wayne especially on “Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe,” a masterpiece that is forever linked to her.

Just when things couldn’t get any better for the band, Woody decided to break it up (citing personal reasons) and move his young family to Hollywood. He did continue to make solo vocal recordings but after a year was ready to start a new band. Again, Woody looked forward and added young Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Serge Chaloff and Ernie Royal to his arsenal, forming what would be known as the Second Herd or the Four Brothers band, so named after its’ signature sound of three tenors and baritone. The second musicians’ strike of the 1940s put and end to the Columbia contract but not to the band as it did record for Capitol (featured on Mosaic’s Complete Woody Herman box set MD6-196).

Thankfully, the original lacquer discs on which both these phenomenal bands recorded were preserved in the Columbia vaults and now have been the subject of a brand new Mosaic box set of Woody Herman’s big band artistry. 141 tracks have been assembled with 35 alternate takes and 10 previously unissued tunes. The liner notes have been lovingly written by musician and historian Loren Schoenberg and the discography has been painstakingly updated since practically every reissue of this material has had major faults and flaws. Rare photos of the band at the Paramount Theatre and the RKO Theater in Boston make this one of Mosaic’s finer moments.

For track list and personnel info on this release, visit

Originally Published