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straw boss

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack (June 22, 1903June 7, 1971) was a drummer and bandleader from the mid 1920s through the swing era. His eye for talent led him to either discover or employ, at one time or another, musicians such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Jimmy McPartland and Harry James. This ability earned him the nickname "Father of Swing".

Born in Chicago, Illinois to a well-to-do family, Pollack was largely self taught as a drummer, and was afforded the opportunity to become the drummer for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a top jazz outfit, in the early '20s. In 1924 he played for several outfits, including some on the west coast, which ultimately led to his forming a band there in 1925. One of the earliest members of his band was Gil Rodin, a saxophonist whose sharp business acumen served him well later as an executive for the Music Corporation of America (MCA). Rodin also served as the "straw boss' for Pollack along with the young arranger-trombonist Glenn Miller. Already recognized as immensely talented on the clarinet, sixteen-year-old Benny Goodman began working with Pollack in 1925 as well.

In 1926, Pollack recorded for Victor. Many of his records were good sellers. From about 1928, with involvement with Irving Mills, members of Pollack's band moonlighted at Plaza-ARC and recorded a vast quantity of hot dance and out-and-out jazz for their dime store labels (Banner, Perfect, Domino, Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo, and others using colorful names like Mills' Merry Makers, Goody's Good Timers, Kentucky Grasshoppers, Mills' Musical Clowns, The Lumberjacks, Dixie Daises, The Caroliners, The Whoopee Makers, The Hotsy Totsy Gang, Dixie Jazz Band, and Jimmy Bracken's Toe Ticklers, and many others. Most of these records are usually listed in discographical books (like Brian Rust's Jazz Records as by Irving Mills. The rare Jack Teagarden's Music book lists them properly as being a "Ben Pollack Unit". Combining Pollack's regular recordings with these side groups made Pollack one of the more prolific bands of the 1920s and 1930's.

Pollack left Victor in late 1929 and subsequently recorded for most of the other labels Hit Of The Week (1930), the above listed dime store labels (1930-1931), Victor (1933), Columbia (1933-1934), Brunswick, Vocalion and Variety (1936) and Decca (1937-1938).

The band played in Chicago, mainly, and moved to New York City around the fall of 1928, having obtained McPartland and Teagarden around that time. This outfit enjoyed immense success, playing for Broadway shows, and having an exclusive engagement at the Park Central Hotel. Pollack's band also was involved in extensive recording activity at that time, using a variety of pseudonyms in the studios. The orchestra also made a Vitaphone short subject sound film (which has been recently restored). Pollack, in the meantime, had fancied himself as more of a bandleader-singer type instead of a drummer. To this end, he signed Ray Bauduc to handle the drumming chores.

Soon afterward, things began to become difficult for Ben Pollack. The Stock Market Crash of 1929, and subsequent effects on the music industry as a whole, had a negative effect on all bands at that time, and Pollack's was no exception. Work was scarce, and the band had several periods of inactivity, in spite of Pollack's best efforts in obtaining work. Changes in personnel were also inevitable. Benny Goodman and Jimmy McPartland left the band in the summer of 1929, either fired or quit, depending on whose story is to be believed. They were replaced by Matty Matlock on clarinet and Jack Teagarden's brother, Charlie, on trumpet. Eddie Miller was also signed as a tenor saxophonist in 1930.

Pollack made several forays into the U.S. Midwest in the early 1930s, and also made some trips to Canada. During this time, he became involved with the singing career of his girl vocalist, Doris Robbins. As he was also involved with her romantically, he began to de-emphasize his involvement with band matters, much to the consternation of the musicians. Eventually, Ben Pollack and Doris Robbins married.

More changes came for the band in the spring of 1933 when trombone star Jack Teagarden gave his notice during an engagement in Chicago. It was not long after that, possibly a year, when the rest of the musicians decided to leave Pollack, They re-formed soon after as a co-operative band, fronted by Bing Crosby's brother, Bob.

Pollack re-formed his band eventually, and had some top-flight talent, including Harry James and Irving Fazola in it, but never really achieved any of the success of his earlier bands. These two stars, also, found greater success after they left Pollack. In the early 1940s, Pollack was the organizer for a band led by comedian Chico Marx. He tried his hand organizing a record label, Jewel Records, and at other venues, including restaurants on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood and in Palm Springs, California. He also appeared, as himself, in the motion picture The Benny Goodman Story and made a cameo appearance in The Glenn Miller Story.

All through this troubled period, Pollack managed to record excellent records and had an occasional hit, like the 1937 "Peckin'", originally issued on Variety VA-556.

In later years, Pollack grew despondent and committed suicide by hanging in Palm Springs in 1971.

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