'MAKE it look as if it's hard for you to do. You're making it look too easy.' Louis Armstrong's advice to Erskine Hawkins was appreciated by the man who had already learned many of Armstrong's solos note-for- note. Hawkins could even emulate Armstrong's version of 'Shine' with its 100 top Cs culminating in a super-F.
It was his ability to reproduce Armstrong's more showy high-note solos which had, in 1936, persuaded the members of the college band 'Bama State Collegians' to elect Hawkins as their leader. Hawkins, a pleasant man but awkward in appearance, was never really suited to the leader's job, yet he led the band until the Eighties. His penchant for high notes, which were often inaccurately hit and with bad intonation, caused him to be billed as 'The Twentieth Century Gabriel'.
Most of the best jazz solos in the band came from two brothers, the trumpeter Wilber 'Dud' Bascomb and his brother Paul on tenor sax. Hawkins was content to split the trumpet solos equally with Dud Bascomb and over the years Hawkins was credited with many fine solos on record which were actually played by Bascomb. Other good soloists in the band included the pianist Avery Parrish, the tenor player Julian Dash and Heywood Henry, who played baritone from the band's formation in the early Thirties until it broke up in 1953.
Hawkins aimed to please dancers and did just that at the Savoy Ballroom in New York, where the band was resident, built a huge following and often won musical battles with visiting bands like those of Ellington, Count Basie, the Bunny Berigan band with Buddy Rich on drums and the Glenn Miller band. Dud Bascomb recalled Miller's visit to the Savoy, 'the home of happy feet'; 'We were poorer-looking than Glenn Miller's band and maybe even hungrier but our band was mean that night - we all but killed Glenn.'
The Hawkins band had good reason to go after Miller. Hawkins and some of the sidemen composed a powerful blues-riff number which they called 'Tuxedo Junction' and recorded it for the Bluebird label, a subsidiary of RCA Victor to whom both they and Glenn Miller were contracted. 'We were on tour when the record was released,' said Bascomb. 'We were informed by friends that it was a hit, so while it was still climbing Bluebird got Glenn Miller to do it, so that amongst the white public Miller got more credit than we did.' This was an understatement, for Miller and RCA made a fortune from the huge sales of Miller's simple cover version. Rival companies worked up contemporary versions of 'Tuxedo Junction' by the white bands of Gene Krupa and Jan Savitt into hit records. In those days record companies put their resources into promoting white bands heavily, to the exclusion of black orchestras.
Hawkins's band was vastly popular with black Americans, and stayed with RCA from 1938 until 1950 in an unusually long relationship between a band and its record company.
Most of the music, often based on simple blues, was played at a medium fast pace, only changing tempo for one of Hawkins's florid ballad solos. Hard times eventually forced cuts in the band, and from 1960 Hawkins led a quartet at the Embers in New York, occasionally re-forming the full orchestra when necessary.