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Big Band Music: The 10 Greatest Swing Songs
The roots of big band music date back to the 1930s and '40s when a group of 12 to 25 musicians used to play arranged jazz music.The era was popularly called the Swing Era, and the large ensembles that played this music (often collaborations of more than a dozen musicians) were called big bands.
The Swing Era was known for dancing and swinging around to the music of big band orchestras. Every big band had its own bandleader, lead arranger, and personnel. The band usually reflected the personality of its band leader, each of whom had his or her own style. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Duke Ellington led some of the most popular big bands of the era.
Here is a list of 100 greatest songs by big bands during the Swing Era. Almost all of the songs included in the list are from the '30s and '40s. The list also includes a few famous songs that big bands covered.
If you find any of your favorite big band songs missing, then let me know in the comments.
1. "Chattanooga Choo Choo" by the Glen Miller Orchestra
This classic tells the tale of a man traveling from New York to Chattanooga. Recorded in 1941 for the film Sun Valley Serenade, this song became the world's first certified gold record the following year for selling a record-breaking 1,200,000 copies.
2. "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin
This song was originally written in germ on for the musical drama Die Dreigroschenoper. While it was composed by Kurt Weill, and the lyrics were written by Bertolt Brecht, the most famous version is an English version by Bobby Darin.
3. "I'll Never Smile Again" by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra
This song was originally written by a woman, Ruth Lowe. However, the most successful version—eventually being added to the Grammy Hall of Fame over 40 years after it was recorded—was by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. The lead singer in this version is Frank Sinatra.
4. "Stardust" by Nat King Cole
"Stardust" is a famous song covered by many of the star voices of the big band era. It was written in 1927 by Hoagy Carmichael, and lyrics were added two years later by Mitchell Parish. Famous covers include ones by Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps one of the best covers of the song is by Nat King Cole.
5. "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby
This song, which appears in the classic Christmas film of the same name, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling single of all time. A perennial favorite, the song was actually written by Irving Berlin.He was the first artist to inspire celebrity portrait tattoos, a trend which is very popular now.
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6. "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)" by Billie Holiday
This distinctive Billie Holiday song was written for her by Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez, and James Sherman. It talks about a woman's longing for someone to love her, and the melody perfectly captures that longing.
7. "Begin the Beguine" by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra
A Beguine is a slow couple's dance in the Caribbean, and this song was written by Cole Porter during a cruise (albeit the cruise was not in the Caribbean, but in the Pacific).
8. "In the Mood" by Glenn Miller
This song by Glenn Miller was one of the greatest hits of the Swing Era. It has been so influential that NPR includes it on its list of "the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century."
9. "Take the A Train" by Duke Ellington
This song was Duke Ellington's most famous. It describes how to get to Harlem "in a hurry." And Ellington says the song also came to him in a flash; he says he composed it without thinking, "like writing a letter to a friend."
10. "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Benny Goodman
This song, most famously covered by Benny Goodman, was originally written by Luigi "Louis" Prima. Goodman's recording is unusual for its length; most big band songs were limited to the three minutes so that they could fit on one side of a 10-inch record. On the other hand, one record recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing" is roughly nine minutes long!
Shout out loud about your favorite song from Swing Era in the comment section below.
Your Favorite Big Band Song: Share Your Thoughts, Comments, and Suggestions or Just Say "Hi"
Christopher Nowak on December 17, 2019:
I always felt that C JAM BLUES was a simplified mistake by Duke Ellington.
However, this group makes the song at least a little more interesting:
Christopher Nowak on December 16, 2019:
I remember transcribing MINOR RIFF by Stan Kenton many years ago when I was attending the Humber College music program (Toronto, Ontario) from 1980- 1983.
I think that this song should be included.
Paolo on September 19, 2019:
Love the Big Bands. Have seen Glenn Miller, Count Basie, & (hard to believe), Duke Ellington Orchestra Duke conducted. 1970 Salem, Mass. Salem State College. Cost- 50 cents, duration- 4.5 hrs. Duke tux changes-5, and he loved the roux madly.
dave danze on August 22, 2018:
Why can't I find any history of the big band tune "Always"? One of my favorites! Benny Goodman played it. Who wrote it?
Any tips appreciated!
ray ritter on October 27, 2017:
I'm looking for the songs from the most popular singers from yhew big baND ERA
ray on October 12, 2017:
Do you have the following songs: teach me tonight,hey there
Michelle ET Chamberlain on September 03, 2017:
I grew up with the Big Band / Swing era with my Dad, however also loved the little band sound with the english Bands of the 20,s, 30,s and 40,s they will be with me forever. I cherish this kind music forever!
'96rev on August 17, 2017:
No sinatra though?
Oic117 on July 22, 2016:
Surely the greattest bib band track has to be Stardust by the Artie Shaw band withe Billy Butterfield on trumpet
Jimmy Dorsey on May 20, 2016:
There was an album that played Tommy Dorsey's rendition of (In the Mood) (Tuxedo Junction) along with a few other big band hits. It was a differnt band then the original Dorsey's but was recorded with some of the same musicians and was recorded I think the seventies or eighties.I was a mobile DJ in the late eighties and early to mid nineties and used the cd for those tracks. The quality of the stereo sound was terrific and always made the wedding I did a smash. I forgot the name of the band. Can anyone one recall the cd I'm referring to.
the Man on August 10, 2015:
sing sing sing all the way
Lynnette Witwer on November 29, 2014:
great selection! I'm a believer!
John Felix Koziol on October 18, 2014:
My dad was born in 1925 and also was a World War II vet so the big band sound was prevalent during his time and, thanks to him, I fell in love with the music too.
Sheilamarie from British Columbia on October 12, 2013:
My dad loved this music, but I only learned to appreciate it after I moved out on my own.
MysticHipGyp on August 15, 2013:
Swing Swing Swing of course <3
anonymous on June 01, 2013:
"I've Heard That Song Before"-Harry James I was in college '45-'49 and a DJ in Lincoln, NE '50-'51 and a GI '51-'52 and crooner
"wanna-be" before going to New York for a career in advertising so i was overwhelmed, and still am, by the music of those years.
Truly the Golden Years of singers, musicians and writers. Thanks for this terrific "reminder" of those wonderful years.
JeffGilbert on February 27, 2013:
A lot of great tunes over the years. Very nice lens!! :)
ManipledMutineer on January 04, 2013:
Some great tracks here - good to see Stardust near the top of the top 100, also some tracks cut by lesser-known but still great bandleaders like Bunny Berigan and Charlie Barnet
anonymous on August 22, 2012:
Can't find the title, but was listening to one that had a line like: "wish I was still in love, miss those conversations with the throwing dishes/plates" something on that line, cracked me up! Anyone know the title?
thomanna on February 26, 2012:
I used to play the trumpet. Haven't picked it up in years. "In The Mood" was always my favorite song to play in my high school jazz band.
DollarTycoon on February 15, 2012:
Great Lens! I was not born in that era, but I enjoy it!
Ronald Tucker from Louisville, Kentucky on December 11, 2011:
Living in Harlem, New York in the late 1970s I would take the A train to work...Duke Ellingtons rendition has always been one of my favorite Big Band recordings.
daveframer lm on December 01, 2011:
I remember growing and watching tv, one of my favorite movies was The Glenn Miller Story, and there cames my introduction to Big Band music, I still like to listen to big band music at Christmas time ,like Bing.
MusicFan57 on November 11, 2011:
Great lens. Our cable company took away the big band channel, which I used to listen to constantly. Really miss it.
hughgrissettsr lm on October 29, 2011:
best big band lens i've seen! you really have a through knowledge of popular music!