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The Hidden Treasure of George Williams –
The Lone Arranger of the Big Bands

© By Bruce Rogers

There’s a treasure hidden near Grand Bend, Ontario.  Americans might argue that it’s a resource that should be housed at the Smithsonian, or perhaps at Julliard or some university library.  It is the legacy of the arranger and pianist George Williams, who single-handedly gave the distinctive Miller sound (clarinet lead) to many of the greatest swing hits of all time.  He did the same for nearly all the name bands – sounds which are available on lots of recordings, because Williams arranged more of the great hits of the big band era than any other arranger.  But today his silent manuscripts grow brittle and yellow.  They need a benefactor to help preserve them in living sound.

Remember “In The Mood” or “String of Pearls?”  The fun of “Pennsylvania 6-5000?”  Or the nostalgia of “Getting Your Kicks on Route 66?”  Recall the stars of the big bands – from Glenn Miller to Count Basie, from Lionel Hampton to Tommy Dorsey?  Would you like to relive the romance of slow dancing to “Serenade in Blue,” or swing to “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” perhaps take a “Sentimental Journey,” listen to “Cherokee,” or enjoy the great solo musicianship of stars like Harry James, Tex Beneke, Gene Krupa, and Benny Goodman?

One arranger penned those sounds.  He turned classic ballads like “Laura” and “September Song” and rhythmic hits like “Kalamazoo” (Miller’s second gold record) into the signature sounds of big bands.  Recordings by Boyd Raeburn and Doc Severenson preserve the work of George Williams.  Thanks to this man, Ray Anthony and Tex Beneke kept the Miller sound alive long after the famous Army Air Force band leader disappeared over the foggy English Channel during World War Two.  This arranger created the lush string sound of all those romantic Jackie Gleason albums and helped Bobby Hacket record a distinctive “Serenade in Blue.”

The legacy of George ‘The Fox’ Williams, the prolific and revered big band arranger, is more than the bounce and harmony on 9,000 recordings by famous bands.  It also lives in the huge book of charts with sidemen’s names written at the top of each part.  This valuable library includes tunes scored for Miller, Goodman, Buddy Morrow, Ralph Flanagan, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Hal McIntyre, Vaughan Monroe, Jimmy Lunceford, and Tommy Dorsey.  The list goes on.  These manuscripts are a silent archive – silent, that is, until musicians breathe life into them in driving, swinging, memorable sounds.

George Dale Williams was born in New Orleans on November 5, 1917.  He played piano with Sonny Dunham and Glenn Miller.  Find him credited on an old recording called “A Salute to Jimmy Lunceford.”  Williams was just 21 when he was hired by Miller.  He created 25 charts for Miller and went on to pen more than ten thousand arrangements for about 45 popular bands, each with a unique sound.  When Miller went overseas, Williams joined and led the huge Merchant Marine band.  He served in the U.S. Navy for three years. Williams fronted a band of his own for a time in the fifties.  But he is noted most of all for the work he did for Sunny Dunham, Johnny Long, Boyd Raeburn, Art Mooney, Vincent Lopez, Charley Ventura and many, many other bands.

His work can be found on recordings:  in performances preserved on vinyl, on tape, and now on CD.  But, of even greater historic value are the original manuscripts and the distinctive sounds Williams wrote on, above, and below the lines of staff – his directions, his phrasing marks, and his harmonies.

The George Williams book got to Grand Bend, Ontario because of his widow Betty’s confidence in the Canadian trombonist, composer, and arranger Norm Tufts.  When George passed away, his wife asked George’s close friend Norm to take responsibility for the arranger’s life’s work.  That’s how the treasure got to the shores of Lake Huron, where Tufts makes his home.  (Among his musical experiences, Tufts counts a tour with Les Brown and His Band of Renown.)

Swing is enjoying yet another revival.  The sounds and rhythms of decades past are a permanent part of the musical scene.  The big band era began in the twenties, but it spans the generations to today.  Swing is alive and well on CDs and on DVDs.  It’s music that pleases all.  Big band sounds reverberate in film and television scores, in the show music of Broadway, London’s West End, and Vegas, and in the orchestrations for pop vocalists.  Indeed, Williams toured the world as musical director for Bobby Hackett and Tony Bennett.  He wrote hits for Barbra Streisand including “Happy Days,” her first gold record.  Swing lives in popular music.  New generations discover the fun and the romance of big band swing; the lindy, boogie-woogie and jitterbugging enjoy a dance floor revival.

Imagine the excitement of the big band era:  a full size orchestra in tuxedos or white dinner jackets ranged in tiers on the band stand.  Dancers swing on the floor.  Others crowd in close to the stage to listen.  The swinging excitement of Benny Goodman’s clarinet, the trumpet flare of Ziggy Elman, and the percussive drive of drummer Gene Krupa still put enthusiastic dancers on the floor.  The distinctive clarinet lead of the Miller band fosters fond nostalgia.  The names recall the tunes, the sounds, and the rhythms – Count Basie, Harry James, and Stan Kenton.

All this musicianship is coordinated by the notes and chords, the phrasing, the harmonies, the fancy figures, the accents, and the syncopated riffs put on paper by an arranger.  For as many as 45 great name bands, that arranger was George Williams.  He wrote the rhythms, penned the quarter notes, raced the sixteenths and eighths, bent the half-note glissandos bends and shakes of Ray Anthony’s horn section.  He wrote the clarinet melody line for the Miller reed section on the romping hit “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.”

What we need is a new television series to tell the priceless history of the big bands and this great arranger – something like Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series on PBS.  It would be a natural for radio, too.  And new recordings would be a natural spin-off.  Contemporary musicians play the tunes of the swing era.  Archival film and tape can bring back the greats of the past in interviews with sidemen, band leaders, fans, and music historians.  (Recall, for instance Ina Ray Hutton’s famous orchestra, or how George Williams gave Jackie Gleason’s strings their distinctive sound.)  Each tune would introduce a different band’s distinctive sound, as preserved in the Williams charts.  The distinctive sounds of the Dorseys or Les Brown or the Les and Larry Elgart bands would live again on new, high quality digital recordings.  A film clip from “Orchestra Wives” would take us back to the Miller band’s Hollywood successes.  Again, the score would be from the pen of George Williams, who practiced his art in Hollywood, too.  Interview clips would reveal the secrets of the arrangements and the adventurous days on bus and train and in the clubs and big hotels.  People fondly remember dancing under the stars or in famous ballrooms or hearing network broadcasts on their console radios.  Those silent Williams arrangements preserve the swing era – as if in amber.  What we need now is a television series offering new performances of the big sounds of the great George Williams big band arrangements.  Tacit too long, they should be heard.

Bruce Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, and commentator – and a former host on CBC television and radio.

Copyright © 2017 by Bruce Rogers.

Author’s Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared in “Big Band World.”