When Lindy Hopper, Gary Boon, bought an ancient record player from a little old lady in Gloucester, in the West of England, he had no idea that he was about to discover a long lost piece of swing history. Swingland's Blaire Palmer has been finding out more.
Gary Boon, a leading light on the Gloucester swing scene, has a fascination for swing music history and is a regular DJ at events like Jumpin' At The Woodside, one of Britain's best swing dance camps. But when the old lady handed him a pile of her deceased husband's dusty vinyl records, he thought they'd be heading straight for the tip.
"Singalong-a-Max, John Denver and Harry Secombe spring to mind. There were about 35 of them and they were all awful", he recalls. But flicking idly through the pile back at home, something stood out as being a little different. "There was this little gem. A double album with a white cover called "And The Band Played On". It was a compilation from the late 30s and 40s of British swing bands who didn't swing - Jack Hilton, Charlie Kunz, Joe Lofs. But when I read the sleeve notes there was a version of Flat Foot Floogie by Lew Stone on Record Two so I thought I'd give it a listen". But disappointment was to follow.
He took the record out of the back part of the sleeve but it turned out to be Record One. So, he reached for the record in the front part of the sleeve only to find that was Record One too! So, no Flat Foot Floogie. Determined to find something of worth, Gary put Record One on the ancient turntable. Apart from a passable version of Georgia on My Mind, the arrangements were terrible. Gary was losing hope. A song entitled Horsy, Horsy was nearly the final straw. But then…… "These drums started", Gary whispers, the tense excitement in his voice building, "and my ears pricked up. This song just leapt into action and there it was! I thought it was fantastic and I just played it again and again"!
What Gary had discovered was a track called "Snake Hip Swing" by a band called Ken "Snake Hips" Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra. A quick check in Christian Bachelor's book of swing history, "This Thing Called Swing", revealed one small paragraph explaining that Ken Johnson's band was the only British band of the time that could swing like the Americans. The song, it turned out, had been written in 1938. But all the members of the band had been killed while on stage at the Café de Paris when it was burnt to the ground during the blitz in 1941.
Not much more is known about the mysterious Ken "Snake Hips" Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra. But on a recent trip to France, Gary managed to pick up one other titbit of information. "While I was there I met a fellow nerd who had an incredible collection of music - every swing song I could possibly think of and every version. Except no Snake Hip Swing". But a book on the Frenchman's shelves revealed that the band had made only four other recordings and this was one. Gary believes this band is the only British big band of its time to really swing. And he points out how unusual a black British swing band must have been in the 1930s.
As far as he knows it's never been lindy-hopped to. But all that is about to change. Snake Hips Swing is to get its world debut at Jumpin' At The Woodside 2000. On Sat 29th of April Gary intends to go public with his discovery. And he expects it to be BIG! "You can Shag to it, Balboa, and Lindy" Gary enthuses. "It's roughly the same speed as Sing, Sing, Sing. And when I put it on I expect everyone to jam!"
Listen out for Snake Hip Swing on Saturday 29 April at Jumpin' At The Woodside 2000. It starts with a drum solo, reminiscent of Sing, Sing, Sing. Then the clarinets wade in. There's a hint of Sweet Georgia Brown to the melody. A heavy bass drum rumbles underneath and then we hear the clarinet solo, a la Benny Goodman. The band is warming to its theme now and there follows a musical battle between the trumpets and trombones. Finally, the band mixes up the rhythm with syncopation and breaks - perfect for dancing! So, just remember folks, when you hear those drums - let the jamming commence!
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