Buying swing

Swing era

The great thing about collecting swing music from the very early days, is that it is mostly out of copyright, and therefore dirt cheap. At a mainstream record shop, you will find boxed sets of 4 CDs for a tenner, and each of the discs will be packed to capacity. One drawback of this, however, is that a great many compilation CDs exist, and you may find that the contents of these sets overlap a lot, and you end up buying the same numbers a few times over.

Do remember that the swing era was not just big bands. Smaller bands, even trios, often produced some really great stuff, and collections of "big band" music do tend to concentrate on a tiny number of old favourites. Personally, I'm bored stiff with In the Mood.

Fifties to Seventies

Great music that could be danced to was still being produced throughout this era, and recording technology improved greatly, so that recordings were sharper, clearer, and all instruments sounded right, where before some tended to get muffled or lost in the mix. In the early Fifties, Ella Fitzgerald was at her peak, and you could do a lot worse than start any swing collection with buying an armful of Ella recordings from this period.

Neo swing

Neo swing has tremendous energy and is good for firing people up when played loud. However, a lot of the bands never quite got to grips with what dancers want, and numbers tended to be a bit pounding, and all of one speed: fast. The players of neo-swing all grew up after the rock and roll era, and clearly they couldn't keep the influence of this out of their playing, so drummers tend to whack out a hard off-beat all the way through the tracks, and electric guitars grind away. For getting people interested, however, neo-swing is a good starting point, as the sounds of it are more familiar to the modern ear. After a while, though, most people graduate to the earlier jazz, simply because the musicians back then were so much more accomplished, and the music was so much more sophisticated. This is not to say that there aren't some cracking neo-swing numbers out there.

Other stuff

DJs in the Eighties started noticing that when they mixed together "breaks" in the music, adding drum noises over the top of the music, and mixing tracks together in a way that broke the monotony of the music they were playing, the dancers responded by doing extra special moves. After a while, the DJs started recording tracks with loads of these breaks put together, since they were more interesting than the ordinary tracks, and "break dancing" was born. In many ways, this was a return to the swing era. Today, lots of hip-hop dancers learn swing dances when they want to dance with a partner, and many Lindy hoppers learn a bit of hip hop in order to add to their swing. The occasional bit of superior hip-hop gets played at swing dance events.

Swing dancing at its wildest is fast and exuberant, but at its slowest is cool and mellow. When the music gets very slow and sultry, it merges seamlessly with blues. A musicologist will tell you that blues is defined by its structure, with phrases made up of twelve bars of four beats, but there are plenty of jolly fast numbers with this structure, and when people say "blues" they usually refer to much slower moodier stuff. Many great swing artists produced a lot of blues, Duke Ellington being a good example. Many dance camps devote an evening to blues music, and the people dance slowly and remarkably close together.

There are some non-swing numbers that just seem to work with swing dance. You might find them anywhere. Below, under recommendations, you'll find a few listed.


These are all taken from my CD collection, and I cannot guarantee that any given one is still available in the shops. Some are available from places like Amazon on the internet, and others can sometimes be bought from specialist swing stockists like the Rock Dance Trading Company.

A good taster album with tracks from the Thirties to the Nineties (concentrating on the more modern stuff) is the double album Swing Time (JAZZFMCD22). This is available in ordinary shops, and has the silhouettes of two dancers in blue on the cover. One is very recognisably Simon Selmon of the London Swing Dance Society.

A good cheapie I found in a remaindered book shop is It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing (QED 124 Quality Entertainment Division). This cost about two quid, and has 20 tracks almost all of which are danceable. Pink cover.

100 Big Band Classics (PBXCD 428 Castle Communications). This is 100 recordings by the original artists on four CDs, and will cost about £10 - that's 10p a track. There are many boxed sets like this, but I think that this one is particularly good. It gives you about four tracks each of many great names in American swing from the height of the swing era.

Swingdance Volumes 1-3 (SDCD 2262-2 Flyright Records). Put together by Malcolm Laycock of the BBC, these compilations concentrate on wartime era swing. Volumes 2 and 3 are better than 1.

Duke Ellington
The Duke produced a vast amount of work during his life, and there is almost no such thing as a bad Duke Ellington record. Some of his stuff was not aimed at dancers, though. By and large, a compilation with lots of dance-length tracks on it (3-4 minutes), one of which is his signature tune Take The A Train, should be fine.

Ella Fitzgerald

There are so many great recordings by this singer that it is difficult to know where to start. Her early stuff has a youthful naivety and harsh edge that some people like, but I think that she was at her peak in the early Fifties, when her voice was more mature, and she sang less frivolous songs. She became known as the "Queen of Scat", and though she didn't invent this style of singing, she certainly was good at it. She died in the Nineties, and was singing until very near the end. She sang many duets with Louis Armstrong, and even developed an amusing impression of his singing style. She seldom sang a song absolutely straight, and instead liked to come in ages early or late.

Some example Ella Fitzgerald albums:

(The definitive) Ella Fitzgerald from the Ken Burns series of jazz albums (549 087-2). This is one of the many collections that has the excellent track "Smooth Sailing" on it.
Lady Ella (PLATCD 940 Prism Leisure).
The Best of the Song Books (519 804-2 Verve Records)
The Enchanting Ella Fitzgerald - Live at Birdland 1950-1952 (BJH 309 Baldwin Street Music). This is a best-of album, with snippets from various live radio broadcasts from a night club. Some tracks are spoiled by the noise of people chatting and eating in the background, but there are great versions of "Preview" and "The Frim Fram Sauce".

Good numbers that Ella sings include: Undecided, Shiny Stockings, Oh Lady Be Good, Lullaby of Birdland, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Lady Is A Tramp, How High The Moon, It's Only A Paper Moon, Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.

Benny Goodman
The King of Swing. Particular favourites by Wor Benny are Jersey Bounce, Frankie and Johnny, Down South Camp Meeting, A String of Pearls, Stomping at the Savoy, and the classic swing jam number Sing Sing Sing! some versions of which last about eight minutes and almost all are played at ankle-breaking speed.

Louis Jordan
The show Five Guys Named Moe is based on Louis' life, and has his music in it, but I would recommend a compilation of numbers performed by the man himself, as it will probably have more numbers on it, be cheaper, and better. The one I have is Jump Jive! The Very Best of Louis Jordan (MCCD 085 Music Collection International). It is not the best, but it does include the essential classics Choo Choo Ch'Boogie and Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens. His stuff is not the most musically complicated, but he was a great entertainer, and his songs have a wacky comedy quality to them, and he was amazingly good at delivering fast clever lyrics.

Diana Krall
Much beloved by Michael Parkinson, this Canadian-born lady was the top selling jazz artist a few years ago. Her stuff tends to be slow and bluesy, but she has a voice like butter and can play the piano jolly nicely too. Go to any record shop, and you'll see loads by her. She is married to Elvis Costello.

Peggy Lee
This vocalist recorded plenty besides swing, but certainly left behind some great swing songs. She will always be remembered for her absolutely definitive version of Fever.

Wynton Marsalis
Mr Marsalis is an excellent jazz trumpeter who leads the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra. He has composed jazz symphonies, and made big and small jazz band albums that are first rate. He is an enthusiast both for the old and the new. My Jelly Lord (CK 69872 Colombia/Sony) is a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, and recreates very early jazz with modern recording quality. This is good for dancing Lindy hop with its Charleston roots. Look out for his stuff with the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra too. Their versions of C Jam Blues and Happy Go Lucky Local are to die for.

The Mask
Music from the film The Mask (OK 66207 Chaos Records) is very difficult to get hold of. You may have to get an import and pay a lot for it, as I did. There are two must-have tracks on it, that every swing DJ needs. These are The Business of Love by Domino, which is a great slow number with a dip moment every fourth eight-count, and Hi De Ho by K7, which is a great fusion of swing and hip-hop, being a hip-hop version of Minnie the Moocher. The latter comes from the album Swing Batta Swing which I rushed out and bought on the strength of the one track I knew. To my great disappointment, none of the other tracks is anything like as good.

Bette Midler
I only have one Bette Midler Album, and I bought it for one track: Stuff Like That There. Unfortunately, the rest of the album only has one or two danceable tracks on it, and the worst tracks are awful. This is so often the way - one hears of one track and has to have it, then rushes out full of gleeful anticipation to buy the album on which it appears, naively imagining that this will be a treasury of great swinging numbers, only to be disappointed. Well, the album is For The Boys (7562-82329 Atlantic Records), and the track is an absolute corker.

Barbara Morrison
They have just brought out an album by this vocalist called Live at the 9.20 Special and many people are raving about it, and it is getting played a lot. Personally, though it is fair enough, I don't see what all the fuss is about, and I hate the way every single number has an ending that lasts for ages.

Oscar Peterson
This chap has produced a lot of great jazz over the years. It is difficult for me to pick anything out, so for little reason more than that I happen to have this one in front of me as I write, I shall mention Satch and Josh - Count Basie encounters Oscar Peterson (CD 2310-722 Pablo Records) which features some nice piano duets, with a small band, giving Lindy hoppers something gentle to dance to.

Louis Prima
There are many compilations of this guy's music, and one of the best is Louis Prima from the Collectors' Series by Capitol Records (CDP 7 94072 2). This Italian American performed comedy swing numbers, and performed for many years at Las Vegas. You may know him from the fact that he sang I Wanna Be Like You in the film Walt Disney's The Jungle Book. He also wrote Sing Sing Sing although his version is not nearly as good or as famous as Benny Goodman's. Classic tracks of his to get are: Just A Gigolo (I Ain't Got Nobody), Jump Jive an' Wail, Whistle Stop, Banana Split For My Baby, I'm The Sheik of Araby.

Nina Simone
Nina was a classically trained pianist, and known for being moody, arrogant and difficult to work with. She wanted to be taken seriously as a musician, but instead became a jazz diva. There are many tracks for which she is famous. I Put A Spell On You (because you're mine) is a classic, but difficult to dance to. If you get a compilation of hers, make sure that it has My Baby Cares For Me and the utterly excellent Love Me Or Leave Me which I think is the definitive version of this song. Other versions fail to get across the pain of the lyrics. When listening to it, note how her piano solo in the middle tells you of her training. At times it sounds quite baroque, almost like a gavotte. Exactly Like You is another good number she sang.

Frank Sinatra
Ol' Blue Eyes recorded shed-loads of albums, but not much of it is great fodder for swing dancing. His best numbers that I know of are all slow stuff. Witchcraft is my favourite. I've Got You Under My Skin is another goodie, as are Nice And Easy, You Make Me Feel So Young, I Get A Kick Out Of You, Pennies From Heaven and Come Fly With Me. Look out for the Nelson Riddle arrangements. Be aware that he recorded the same songs many times. Some of his stuff is very cheap these days.

Neo Swing Groups

There are many of these, and their albums tend to be sharp, loud, and full of oomph. Here are some to look out for:-

Blue Harlem
The Crescent City Maulers
Lavay Smith and the Red Hot Skillet Lickers
The Phenomenal Pound Puppies
The Ray Gelato Giants
The Squirrel Nut Zippers
The Jive Aces
Royal Crown Revue
Blue Plate Special
The Flying Neutrinos

As you can see, they are worth something for their exotic names alone.

George Gee and his Make Believe Ballroom Orchestra is a particularly good band. It does great versions of Splanky and Blues for Stephanie.

The Cherry Poppin' Daddies were highly favoured for a while. An ex-ska band, they play with great energy, but their numbers are all a bit samey. Their single Zoot Suit Riot goes down well with new swingers, and was one of the few neo-swing singles to chart in this country. One of their songs opens with one of my all-time favourite song lyrics: "Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line, had a thing for the ladies, for which he did time. He reaped a little more than he could sow, of the pleasures the Mormons of Utah know."

Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums have recorded some very nice friendly swinging numbers, very danceable.

Casey Macgill and the Spirits of Rhythm have recorded two of my all-time favourites: Whad'ya Want? and Rhythm.

Swingerhead have produced some favourites, notably At the Strip and Lady with the Big Cigar which both appear on the album She Could Be A spy (COL98-0001 Colossal Music). They have a guitarist called Quiche Lorraine. 'Nuff said.

Deacon Jones and The Sinners is a local group. Catch them if you can.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra won a lot of praise and a few awards for the album Dirty Boogie (IND 90183 Interscope Records). Ex-singer of The Stray Cats, Brian certainly loves his rock and roll, but does occasionally stray into swing proper. The number You're The Boss is pretty good.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has attained quite a high profile, appearing in films such as Swingers, and doing the theme to Third Rock From The Sun. Their album Big Bad Voodoo Daddy shows that they were exhausted after thinking up a great name for the band. Though a good seller amongst swing dancers, the numbers vary mostly between the very fast and the rocket-like. Tons of energy, though. They also do a good version of Sing Sing Sing!

Indigo Swing has split up up, sadly, so can no longer be heard live, but it has left behind some good albums. Good vocals, and some nice danceable numbers, although still the post rock-and-roll feel creeps in.

There are some taster albums, full of neo-swing, which make good listening, even if not always the greatest dancing, each called Swing This Baby plus a volume number.

Single numbers by specific artists

Here is a list of particular tracks I love.

Now You Has Jazz, sung by Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, from the film High Society.

If Swing Goes, I Go Too, written and sung by Fred Astaire.

Wade in the Water, by Eva Cassidy. Shame about the repeat-and-fade ending.

The theme from The Pink Panther.

Massachussets, by Maxine Sullivan (and NOT the one by the Bee Gees).

All That Jazz, from the musical Chicago. There are several versions available, not all by Mrs Douglas. The one by Lisa Minnelli ain't bad.

Let There Be Love, by Nat King Cole. This is the definitive version. I still wish he had learned to pronounce the sound "awe".

Juke Box, by Sugar Ray's Flying Fortress.

Beyond the Sea, by Bobby Darin.

You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To, by Julie London.

Stranger in Paradise, the Mose Allison version.

Fine Brown Frame, by D. Reeves and L. Rawls.

Swinging on Nothing, Tommy Dorsey.

Less specific stuff

These numbers have been recorded by loads of people. They appear in order of title length.

Leap Frog
Nosey Joe
Apollo Jump
Flying Home
I Won't Dance
American Patrol
Tuxedo Junction
Jeep Jockey Jump
Begin the Beguine
Little Gate Special
Why Don't You Do Right?
Smack Dab in the Middle
Straighten Up and Fly Right
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Things Ain't What They Used To Be
It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing
It Ain't What You Do (It's The Way How You Do It)

Non-swing swinging stuff

Guaglioni by Perez Prado and his Orchestra is now known by many as "that one from the Guinness ad." It is silly, has strong breaks, and it swings.

Soul Bosa Nova by Quincy Jones, known to millions as "that one from Austen Powers" isn't really swing, but it really swings baby yeah!

The theme from Batman by Neil Hefti always gets a smile, and if you've got the energy, you can Lindy to this one.

Vem Viet by Lisa Ekdahl has taken the British swing scene by storm, and is played everywhere these days, much to the surprise of her native Swedes, who, it seems, never thought of dancing to this one. Great number - very friendly and gentle, with a bit of bounce to it.

The theme from Granada TV's Jeeves and Wooster. Short but sweet.

History Repeating by The Propellerheads featuring Miss Shirley Bassey.

Gangsters' Paradise by Coolio, and Dy-Na-Mi-Tee by Miss Dynamite are examples of hip-hop numbers I've heard played at swing nights, and which have gone down quite well. These are fairly gentle hip-hop, but harsher stuff could work with the right dancers.

Hanky Panky by Madonna is good for Long Legged Charleston variations. Very kicky.

Big Beat by Touch and Go is a pounding number, quite unlike the sociable swing one would normally Lindy to, but it is another one good for fast kicking.

DJing swing music

Every venue, every crowd, and every opinion is different, and the DJ’s job is to tailor his ‘set’ to all of these. Some dance events try to keep themselves ‘authentic’, which often means playing a narrow range of music from one particular era. Personally I like authentic music but I also like a lot of modern stuff and I think that there is room for both. A DJ should be aware of the acoustics of the venue and the performance of the equipment, because some venues will eat up bass sounds and just leave you with the treble, which means that any number with a double bass solo in it should be off the playlist. Some old recordings that are a bit quiet and muffled can be lost in the velvet furnishings of a big plush venue.

I have been asked to set down my opinions on the speed of music for swing dancing. Personally I measure my tempos in bars-per-minute, although beats-per-minute is another common way of doing it. Generally you just multiply bars by four to get beats. I use bars because the first CD I bought that had the speeds written on the sleeve used this measure, and now I’m familiar with it. I used to sit for hours of ‘fun’ with a clock and a pen, listening to music, and keeping a tally of the bars and working out the speeds. Fortunately, I now have a quicker method. I corresponded with a chap who ran a web-site and could programme a tool for measuring music speed, and now he has created a page to my specifications. Find it at http://www.all8.com/tools/barspm.htm.

After teaching Lindy hop for some while, I concluded that 37 bars (148 beats) per minute was the easiest speed for beginners to dance to, and this became my benchmark for the middle of middle. It is fast enough to do Charleston steps to without feeling awkward, and slow enough to be able to think about your Lindy footwork. Slower is definitely not easier. To slow music you have far more time to go wrong in, and you have to keep your balance for longer in each pose you strike. I notice now that the industry standard for mid-tempo has become 40 bars per minute (160 beats). One range of Lindy compilations has CDs with tracks up to 40 bars called “groovin’” and others 40 and over called “jumpin’”. Some tracks dance as if they were of some speed other than their strict true metronome tempo, because something about them gives them a cool slow mellowness or a firey fast kick, but broadly speaking, here are my speed recommendations. I’d be interested to hear from other swing DJs who may disagree or perhaps violently agree with me.

0 – 22 blues speed

23 – 28 faster blues, bottom end of slow Lindy

29 – 32 slow Lindy

33 – 36 slow to moderate Lindy

37 – 40 moderate Lindy

41 - 45 faster end of moderate Lindy

46 – 55 fast Lindy, slower end of Balboa

55 – 65 faster Balboa, fast Lindy jam speed for experts

65+ hell-for-leather


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