On this day September 3, 1940…Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five recorded "Summit Ridge Drive," later voted the #8 record of all time in a 1956 Billboard magazine disc jockey poll.
Like Benny Goodman and other leaders of big bands, Shaw fashioned a small group from within the band. He named it the Gramercy Five after his home telephone exchange. Band pianist Johnny Guarneri played a harpsichord on the quintet recordings and Al Hendrickson played an electric guitar, which was unusual in jazz recordings of the time. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge later became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. The Gramercy Five's biggest hit was "Summit Ridge Drive".
As Johnny Guarnieri told "Piano Jazz" radio host Marian McPartland in 1981, he was already in
Shaw's big band when Shaw called him one day in the fall of 1940: "Shaw asked me if I'd ever played the harpsichord, and I said: 'Certainly.' And he said, 'Well that's great; we're gonna make some records tomorrow.' . . . I was lying! So I said, 'Artie—I don't know what a harpsichord is.' . . . He says, 'I have one up the house; let's go up there tonight—and we'll rehearse, and we'll make some records tomorrow.'"
The pianist got the hang of the antique instrument (with its stiffer keyboard action) pretty fast, he told a writer from Time-Life records in 1973: "I went home and practiced until I could trill with the fourth and fifth fingers for twenty seconds, then I was okay."
Also in the group that assembled on the morning of Sept. 3, 1940, at RCA Victor's Hollywood recording studio were bassist Jud DeNaut, guitarist Al Hendrickson, drummer Nick Fatool and trumpeter Billy Butterfield. The second of four sides they all cut that day was a foot-tapping Shaw original, a kicking blues riff showcasing Butterfield's muted but searing trumpet in tandem with Shaw's expressive and irresistible clarinet. Shaw named this seductive piece after the canyon street he lived on in the Hollywood Hills, where the sextet had rehearsed the night before: "Summit Ridge Drive."
The number epitomized all that was best about Shaw's swing-era music: It was classy but gutsy, smartly arranged yet spontaneous, sophisticated but hard-swinging. Guarnieri made the harpsichord sound supple, and the rhythm section's easy shag beat cushioned the soloists' emotional punch. It seemed like the perfect 78rpm platter: three minutes and 18 seconds of consummate jazz.
"Summit Ridge Drive" sold well in its initial release and was a juke-box favorite. But the platter really took off after being featured in the well-regarded 1945 movie "The Story of G.I. Joe" during a scene where a bunch of U.S. soldiers in war-torn Europe listen to the Gramercy 5 and dream of home. A reissued "Summit Ridge Drive" became a million-seller and one of Shaw's all-time favorite numbers, alongside "Begin the Beguine," "Star Dust" and "Frenesi."
"Summit Ridge Drive," put together in an hour at a jam-session rehearsal, was a number Shaw played
the rest of his musical life—recording it again with a 1950 Gramercy 5 and with his final 1954 combo (though in both cases with piano, not harpsichord). The blues riff stayed fresh; Shaw had a special facility for the blues.
But it was Shaw's 1940 recording of "Summit Ridge Drive," with its winning combination of clarinet, trumpet and harpsichord, that proved to be the classic. Characteristically, this hard-to-please artist was of two minds about that singular success. "The Gramercy 5," he said of his original combo a few years before his death in 2004, "was just a gimmick that caught on." But to that Time-Life writer in 1973, he'd conceded: "I'd made a record that was ahead of its time."
RCA re-released Summit Ridge Drive on this 45 record around 1950.
(Info mainly from Wall Street Journal)