Willie "The Lion" Smith and His Cubs
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Willie "The Lion" Smith, Luckey Roberts, and James P. Johnson were Fats Waller's mentors and musical role models. While Roberts made far too few recordings in general and Johnson didn't lead full-blown studio swing sessions until the late 1930s, Waller & His Rhythm practically defined the genre of small group swing beginning in 1934. Willie "The Lion" Smith made his first recordings as a leader during the years 1935-1937 with a little group identified on the Decca label as His Cubs. The approach was somewhat similar to Waller's, and the Cubs do handle a Waller cover in the form of "There's Gonna Be the Devil to Pay," as well as a Waller original, "I Can See You all Over the Place," better known as "Squeeze Me." The Lion's uplifting "Echoes of Spring" appears in two alternate versions. All of his master takes have been reissued in chronological sequence by the Classics label, and crop up haphazardly on various other samplers. Timeless provides an uncommonly close look at one of the great, underestimated small swing bands of the '30s, represented here in three distinct lineups.
A unit drawn from the Clarence Williams orchestra includes cornetist Ed Allen, clarinetist Cecil Scott, and washboard handler Willie Williams, with vocals by Clarence Williams himself. The next edition of the Lion's Cubs included bassist John Kirby and several players who would later perform in his famous sextet. These were trumpeter Frankie Newton, clarinetist Buster Bailey, alto saxophonist Pete Brown, and drummer O'Neil Spencer, who frequently doubled as a vocalist. An additional trumpeter in this particular group was King Oliver's nephew Dave Nelson. The third "Cubs" lineup in this set featured musicians whose names are not quite so familiar even to most followers of swing from this time period. Tenor saxophonist Robert Carroll worked in the orchestras of Benny Carter, Don Redman, and Teddy Hill. Guitarist Jimmy McLin mainly recorded with Billie Holiday and Teddy Hill. Altogether, this is an excellent collection of vintage small group swing. Its catchiest selections include "Get Acquainted with Yourself," "Knock Wood," and "Honeymoonin' on a Dime." For enduring examples of the Lion's music interpreted by other swing bands, seek out Sidney Bechet's recording of "You're the Limit" and the Teddy Hill Orchestra's attractive adaptation of "Passionette," which features pianist Sam Allen.
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