The Savoy, billed as “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballroom,” opened its doors just before Christmas in 1926. Located on Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem, the ballroom was perched on the second floor of a building that ran the entire length of the block. Its long, narrow dance floor was called “the track” — it was springloaded, of course — and along the track were situated two bandstands and a retractable stage, allowing The Savoy to offer continuous music as well as their famous Battles of the Bands competitions. But most of all, The Savoy was a dancer’s paradise, where the best Lindy Hoppers and swing dancers of the era hung out, and where the biggest dance fads of the 1930s and 1940s began. So come on baby, let’s get togged to the bricks and cut a rug at the Savoy!

1. Chick Webb and His Orchestra – “Stompin’ at the Savoy”

Chick Webb became the official bandleader for The Savoy Ballroom in 1931, and his orchestra went on to win nearly every Battle of the Band contest over the next several years; it’s said that Count Basie’s band contested their loss for decades. Here is “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” the original 1934 version that lead Webb’s band to a famous victory against Benny Goodman’s orchestra.

2. Fletcher Henderson -“Christopher Columbus”

Written by Chu Barry specifically for Fletcher Henderson’s band, this version is less well-known than some of the dozens of other versions recorded, but it’s the original and arguably the best. Recorded in March, 1936, with the superlative Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge contributing a stellar solo.

3. Benny Goodman and His Orchestra – “Sing, Sing, Sing”

This is one of Goodman’s most famous songs, recorded several times by the orchestra; the first recording was so long at over eight minutes that it had to be split into two parts, one for each side of the 78 RPM record. The most famous version is the edited five-minute single — if you’re a heathen, you only know of this version because of those Chips Ahoy! commercials from the 1990s. This video, however, is a special treat: The 1938 live performance from an amazing Carnegie Hall concert. In the band are Goodman on clarinet, Harry James on trumpet and Gene Krupa on drums. Listen closely for a sample of “Christopher Columbus” a few minutes in.

4. Chick Webb and His Orchestra, featuring Taft Jordan on vocals – “I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)”

While not strictly novelty songs, slightly less serious topics have always made their way into jazz and swing, reflecting the fun and energy of what was a youth-centered culture. And for the older swing fans, there were often double entendres among the jokes, too. Several years after this song premiered in 1934, the phrase “ants in your pants” was salacious enough that Paramount insisted the name of a movie in Sullivan’s Travels be changed to Ants in Your Plants of 1939.

5. Fats Waller -“The Joint Is Jumpin'”

Speaking of naughty, Fats Waller made a career out of bridging that slender gap between disgusting and adorable. This 1936 song is one of his tamer offerings, seen here in a Soundie filmed in 1941. Soundies were the first music videos, played in jukeboxes across the country, and allowed people to not just hear Waller’s raucous revelry but bask in his badass eyebrow action.

6. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, featuring Trummy Young on vocals: -“Margie”

All danced out? It’s time for a breather! Let’s slow it down with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and this hip, laid-back version of the jazz standard “Margie.” James “Trummy” Young frequently joined Lunceford on vocals, his breathless style so cool you can hardly stand it.

7. Bunny Berigan – “I Can’t Get Started”

Written by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke for Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, “I Can’t Get Started” barely registered until Bunny Berigan recorded it in 1937. This slow, sentimental tune features Berigan on voice and trumpet, and became a huge hit for him that year. Berigan, after struggling with alcoholism for years, was unable to keep his band together after this initial huge success. He died in 1942.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_u7x-Q3oTjQ

8. Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra – “The Way You Look Tonight”

One of the best Billie Holiday recordings around, from 1936, during her two-year stint with Teddy Wilson on the Brunswick label. This was the first year she began recording songs under her own name rather than as an uncredited vocalist, and produced some of her most important work during this time.

9. Mildred Bailey with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra – “I Thought About You”

Mildred Bailey, though mostly unknown today, was a hugely popular and well respected vocalist of the swing era. The target of a series of rumors that she “just passed” as white and was illegally married to her white husbands, as well as attacks on her weight and looks that continue to this day, Mildred has sadly been forgotten by almost everyone save the most devout swing and jazz aficionados. And that’s a shame, because her smooth, lilting voice is one of the finest of the era.

10. Bob Haggart and Ray Bauduc – “Big Noise from Winnetka”

Bob Haggart and Ray Bauduc were members of Bob Crosby’s band, known as The Bobcats. Crosby – brother to Bing – was late to a performance one night, according to legend, leaving Haggart on bass and Bauduc on drums to improvise. They created “Big Noise from Winnetka” that night, and it later became a huge hit for the duo. Many versions have been recorded but this is the original from 1938, and can be heard on the Raging Bull soundtrack.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPp38__hYHQ

11. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, featuring Trummy Young on vocals – “T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”

This was a popular song to end a set with, having the ideal rhythm for the ultra-cool shim sham; patrons of The Savoy would often dance the shim sham all the way home after a hot night at the club. This 1939 hit was recorded by a host of swing bands, as well as the pop groups The Fun Boy Three with Bananarama in 1982.

12. Chick Webb and His Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald – “St. Louis Blues”

This 1939 live radio broadcast comes straight from The Savoy, with a 21-year-old Ella Fitzgerald absolutely nailing this essential jazz classic. A perfect end to a perfect night.

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