A Song By Any Other Name: The Right Amount of “Deep Henderson”

“Deep Henderson” illustrates one pop tune that became just popular enough. Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists thirteen different bands recording Fred Rose’s composition in 1926, the same year it was published in Chicago, with four other groups cutting the tune the following year (in three different countries, no less). Most bands also used the publisher’s stock arrangement, adapting it to their needs and style rather than starting over fresh as they might with so many other jazz warhorses. Unlike “St. Louis Blues” or “Tiger Rag, ” “Deep Henderson” became a controlled study in the variety of bands and approaches at one small juncture in American popular music.

Bill Edwards describes “…one of the most sorrowful and wistful songs [he’s] encountered,” with “…long sustained high notes leading downwards to the end of each phrase help[ing to] punctuate [his feeling].” Apparently the secret to this song’s success was jettisoning its sad, I-wanna’-go-back-to-the-South lyrics and slow, bluesy feel (which can still be heard courtesy of Edwards here). By the time the Coon Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra hit the studio to give “Deep Henderson” its inaugural recording, the tune was gussied up to make it more flapper friendly:

The Nighthawks were an immensely popular group, and their creamy saxes, strutting brass and re-playable shellac introduced a wide audience to “Deep Henderson.” Co-leader and pianist Joe Sanders handles the written solo with enough downhome swagger to offer some reminder of Rose’s original vision. Yet the rhythm is overwhelmingly upbeat (almost coy), aided by Pop Estep’s bumping tuba walking four to the bar behind the trumpet solo. While their reliance on written music and novelty numbers may deny them entry into the hallowed chapters of “jazz” history, the Nighthawks gave many Americans a good idea of how loose and lowdown pop can get.  They sound downright raunchy compared to Mike Markel’s band (follow the arrow to the link):

Deep Henderson

Markel’s block chord introduction and racehorse tempo likely impressed dancers, with robust saxes and clipped brass choreographing their stomping feet. Yet the band’s jerkier rhythm doesn’t leave much space for legs flying off the dance floor. The horn man (Red Nichols? Earl Oliver? An unknown player?) soars to the occasion, as do the saxes behind the brass, recalling society band string sections. In light of sax riffs getting faster, trickier and uniformly high-flying in the years ahead, their sustained harmonies are a nice touch. Markel’s approach has a nostalgic charm, a reminder of when pop music was intense and tight (in feeling if not always execution). Yet the recording does make the “New Orleans effect” even more apparent when listening to King Oliver and some neighborhood colleagues:

Oliver’s cornet immediately presages a much earthier, more personal account of the tune. The Dixie Syncopators’ tempo isn’t much slower than the Nighthawks, but their easygoing inflection and subtle backbeat make it sound like they’re taking their time. The saxophone section parts way for Barney Bigard’s slap-tonguing tenor, perhaps dated but undeniably percussive (and as texturally original as prepared piano or distorted guitar). Even the soprano sax adds a howling, haunting dimension to the clarinet trio.

Drummer Paul Barbarin’s “Oh, play it Mr. Russell!” during Luis Russell’s solo plays up the informal air, yet such exclamations may or may not reveal the insidious, timeless hand of marketing. Improvisation and swing are the breaking news here: Oliver’s greasy responses over the saxes (especially heroic in light of his aging embouchure), and Kid Ory’s lurching, sly trombone over the closing chorus make this, the second recording of “Deep Henderson” pressed, a very distinct chapter of the tune’s short but hot history.

Of course Miff Mole adds his smoother, more rounded yet equally punchy trombone over the chirping clarinets that close Markel’s recording, and even the drummer gets in some solo syncopations. The way each group, section and soloist navigates this arrangement points to a difference of delivery with a shared intent. The “same old stock” can never be the same, not if you’re a musician with something to say or a record consumer with a paycheck. At a time when pop is reticent to market covers (even as the same tune in the same rendition gets beaten into the ground over air and internet), it’s also a reminder that the question of originality often begins with “how” as well as “what.”

Lord lists seventy-one recordings total of “Deep Henderson.” I must admit that in light of Oliver and others’ experiments, Bela Dajos’ rich, buttery society version comes across as either insularity, or the sincerest form of parody:

Last one, I promise: here’s British bandleader Bert Ambrose’s thoroughly modern swing account from 1937:

Well, we can’t end without hearing Vince Giordano do it!  Live, in 3D, with glorious sound and from outside of Lord’ discography:

Want more? Be sure to share your favorites in the comments, and hope you enjoyed the tour.

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4 thoughts on “A Song By Any Other Name: The Right Amount of “Deep Henderson”

  1. Too many versions of ‘Deep Henderson’ are barely enough!

  2. M. Figg says:

    I concur, Michael! Maybe some enterprising musicology grad student can take all 71 and make a thesis? Here’s hoping; I’d love to read it!

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Fascinating stuff. A really great tune and one of Ambrose’s best recordings included on our all-orchestral Ambrose CD at Yesterdays’s Music from This England and Evergreen magazines.

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