Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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CHALLIS, Bill

(b 8 July 1904, Wilkes-Barre PA; d 4 October 1994) Arranger, one of the most influential of all: Benny Carter said, 'Bill Challis was my idol.' He was largely self-taught. He began with Jean Goldkette, and when that white band hit New York and gave Fletcher Henderson a drubbing in 1926, it was not only Bix Beiderbecke's cornet that knocked out Rex Stewart, but Challis's arrangements: he wrote for Bix the way Duke Ellington wrote for his stars, and he was already aiming at a smoother 4/4 feeling rather than the lumpier 2/4 that most bands were still playing. With several others Challis moved to Paul Whiteman's band, where the dance-band arrangements were first-rate and Challis's were among the best, among them 'Changes', 'Lonely Melody', 'Dardanella', 'Sugar', ''Tain't So, Honey, 'Tain't So' and 'Sweet Sue', many featuring Bix and some with vocals by Bing Crosby. Again and again the chords are imaginative, not what the listener would have expected, yet exactly right; Challis was also one of the few who knew how to give a small violin section something to do so that it did not sound surplus to requirements. During the same period Bix and Frankie Trumbauer were making classic jazz records; Challis's 'Singin' The Blues' was one of the most influential and imitated of the era. 'Sugar' was long attributed to Ferde Grofé, and 'Singin' The Blues' to Fud Livingston, but both were Challis's, as was Whiteman's 'San', another classic, played by ten men from the larger band (the piano player didn't show up, so Challis played on 'San'). It was Challis who wrote down Bix's impressionistic piano pieces, which otherwise would have been lost.

Challis also wrote for the Casa Loma Band, the Dorsey Brothers, Nat Shilkret and others. He recorded 25 transcription tracks in 1936 for World Records, for radio broadcast only, using the best studio men, such as Artie Shaw, trumpeter Manny Klein, trombonist Jack Jenny, guitarist Dick McDonough; these were issued on two Circle LPs '83 and later nearly all on one CD as Bill Challis And His Orchestra: the sound is that of a big studio dance band with strings, without much jazz content and without the élan of the Whiteman band at its best. He carried on writing for Fletcher Henderson, Lennie Hayton, Claude Hopkins, Jerry Wald and others into the '60s.

Challis recorded Bill Challis' The Goldkette Project '87 with the Vince Giordano Nighthawks augmented by Bob Wilber, Dick Wellstood and others including trombonist Spiegle Willcox (b 2 May 1903; d 25 August 1999, Courtland NY). The 16 arrangements from the Goldkette era include 'The Blue Room': the reed section states the tune; there is a rhythmic break by the brass after 16 bars and again at the end; the first break consists of two identical units of two notes each, a ricky-tick decoration of the sort this music calls for, but the second break, instead of repeating the first, is a group of four descending notes, and the sound of surprise, part of the essence of jazz writing, still raised a chuckle after more than 60 years.