“Big Noise from Winnetka”: The Biography of a Great American Tune

Appeared in the Gazette, Spring 2019
By Duff Peterson

One Sunday afternoon in 1938, a group of New Trier students headed downtown to the Blackhawk Restaurant at 129 N. Wabash to see their favorite band, the Bob Crosby Orchestra. The Blackhawk was one of Chicago’s leading live-music venues at the time, and since a city ordinance prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, the Blackhawk’s Sunday shows were open to all ages[1]. WGN radio broadcast the shows live, and on a good night, the Crosby band’s spirited music could be heard all the way from the East Coast to the Rockies.

Bob Crosby, the brother of singer Bing Crosby, was only 25 at the time and looked younger. Although he was an accomplished singer, Bob Crosby knew he couldn’t compete with Bing on vocals, and focused instead on assembling the most swinging band in the country. Many of his musicians were from New Orleans, including a talented rhythm section made up of Ray Bauduc on drums and Bob Haggart on bass, and the lively musical traditions of the Crescent City permeated the band’s music[2]. Bob Crosby favored up-tempo numbers, rarely playing the romantic ballads that made his older brother famous.

The Crosby band had another unusual feature. Between sets by the full ensemble (usually 13-15 musicians), a subset of the band known as the Bob Cats and comprised of only eight musicians would take the stage and play a set of their own. The small-group format lent itself to even more spirited playing and improvisation, and close interaction with the audience[3]. The Bob Cats sometimes moved their gear off the bandstand and played right on the dance floor, pounding out rhythms just a few feet away from the young revelers who had come to hear them.

On that Sunday in 1938, the New Trier students had taken up positions near the band and continuously yelled and cheered during the Bob Cats’ set. Couples gyrated in a wild new dance called the Jitterbug, causing the Blackhawk’s dance floor to spring up and down like a trampoline. After eight or nine numbers, the Bob Cats concluded with a peppy tune called “Big Crash from China” and were about to take a break. As the drummer Ray Bauduc later recalled, the audience at that point “went wild and wouldn’t stop yelling for more.”[4] When the crew came out to take away the band’s gear, young fans grabbed Bauduc’s drums and engaged in a playful tug-of-war with the crew, refusing to let the drums leave the floor.

Earlier in the show, Bauduc and Haggart had learned that the teenagers whooping it up in the front were from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. Seeing the young fans’ excitement as the Bob Cats ended their set, Crosby strode to the microphone and announced that there was still a little time left and Bauduc and Haggart would play a bit more. Haggart righted his bass and Bauduc sat down at his drums, yelling into the audience, “OK, this is for those big noises from Winnetka!”[5]

Bauduc kicked off the impromptu jam with a furious drum solo, starting with a tom-tom barrage and eventually hitting every noise-making surface in his kit, including the snare, cymbals, rims, woodblock and cowbell. After a few bars, Haggart began a series of fast-paced B minor scales up and down the neck of his bass. Bauduc and Haggart traded four-bar licks for a while, then played together for eight bars, then sixteen. After a minute or two, Haggart stepped up to the microphone, and while continuing to pluck his bass, began to whistle a simple blues melody in time with the rhythm. After a high-energy tour of his entire kit, Bauduc came back to the floor tom-tom. Turning toward Haggart, he began hitting the bass’ G string with one drumstick, creating a percussive, low-pitched sound, while continuing to beat the floor tom-tom with the other stick. Haggart moved his left hand up and down the neck in a few rapid-fire arpeggios until the whole thing came to a crashing finish. The crowd exploded. “Big Noise from Winnetka” was born.

Crosby knew he had a hit on his hands, and he and sax player Gil Rodin soon came up with lyrics for the tune. The lyrics tell the story of a mysterious woman, nicknamed Big Noise, who “blew in from Winnetka,” stole the hearts of local men, and then left town. “Against her, no one stood a chance,” the first verse sadly concludes. The song featured prominently in two Hollywood movies of the era, Let’s Make Music (1941) and Reveille with Beverly (1943)[6]. It was one of the band’s biggest hits, receiving extensive airplay on radio stations around the country.

The Bob Crosby Orchestra disbanded in 1942 after many of its members enlisted in the armed forces. Crosby himself served in the Marine Corps, forming a band that entertained troops all over the Pacific, and later became a popular radio and TV host. The Big Band sound waned after the war as musical tastes changed and the costs of large group performances increased, but “Big Noise” remained popular. Small-combo jazz became the rage, and throughout the Fifties and Sixties, many top groups played it, especially groups led by drummers and bassists. “Big Noise” became a signature tune for one of the greatest drummers of all time, Gene Krupa, who made multiple recordings of it. Krupa’s four-piece band performed a bebop-influenced version on television in the Sixties that showcases Krupa’s great versatility as a drummer, above all the frenzied tom-tom assaults for which he had become famous years earlier. In the middle of the performance, in a nod to the Bauduc-Haggart jam that gave birth to the tune, Krupa gets up from his kit, shambles over to the bass while snapping his fingers in time to the rhythm, and starts hitting the bass’ G string with both sticks. Meanwhile, the bass player, a serene smile never leaving his face, runs his left hand up and down the bass’ neck at lightning speed in a reprise of Bob Haggart’s arpeggios.[7]

Over the next decades, “Big Noise” never lost popularity, and arrangements of it proliferated in all sorts of musical styles. Bandleader Lawrence Welk enlivened his usually sedate Saturday night TV show with a sprightly rendition of the tune in 1967, employing a professional whistler to duplicate Haggart’s blues melody. A few years later, Welk’s band played it again on the show, though this time a tap dancer furnished most of the percussion, mimicking Bauduc’s original drum part.[8] Around the same time, Los Angeles bandleader Chico Hamilton recorded a “cool,” slower-tempo arrangement, in which Hamilton quietly scats Haggart’s melody while playing a light cymbal vamp, giving a lot of space to his fine bassist, Richard Davis. Later, percussionist Cal Tjader transformed the song into a Latin-tinged vibraphone romp with a rollicking accompaniment on bongos. College marching bands took up “Big Noise,” and with its driving beat, thunderous drum parts and simple melody, the tune became a staple of halftime shows from Auburn to Arizona State. Most recently, bassist Kyle Eastwood offered up a sophisticated jazz arrangement, featuring tenor sax and muted trumpet along with his superb playing, a performance that one critic called “phenomenal, a collision between acid jazz and hard bop.”[9]

Even when “Progressive Rock” became fashionable for a few years starting about 1969, featuring flamboyant classical- and jazz-influenced compositions by rock musicians, “Big Noise” found its way into the repertoire. Clouds, a trio from Scotland, recorded one of the more unusual versions of the song in 1970 and performed it that year on Beat Club, a popular German TV show.[10] Their version starts out with two singers scatting the Haggart melody a cappella in close harmony, then launching at a fast rock tempo into totally new lyrics expressing a longing to return to Winnetka, concluding each verse with the refrain, “there’s a Big Noise down in Winnetka, and I intend to be there.” The electric bassist goes into a solo punctuated by unearthly electric organ sounds until the drummer gets up and begins an extended session of alternately hitting the bass strings and a set of bongos.[11]

But the greatest of all later arrangements of “Big Noise from Winnetka” is that of Bette Midler, who performed it as an extended suite to lead off her 1979 album Thighs and Whispers. Midler’s version manages to combine a Big Band sound with the “disco” beat of the era, cymbal crashes on the offbeat running continuously through the song. Midler’s high-octane arrangement has a little of everything: a driving tempo, key changes, a lively female backup chorus, a full brass section, a tom-tom interlude like those of of Bauduc or Krupa, and a sinuous clarinet solo. Midler added several new verses to the lyrics, declaring early on, with characteristic swagger, “I am the one they call the Big Noise,” the female backup singers chiming in with “she’s so restless / she’s on every guest list.” However, Midler’s new lyrics have a surprise ending: after relating that she danced her way to the big time doing the “samba, rhumba, mambo and pachanga,” she reveals that she has given it all up, settled down and had children. Where once she “picked up boys,” she now “picks up toys.” Midler’s ambitious arrangement concludes with a wistful send-off from the chorus: “Big Noise, we miss you!” Midler opened The Showgirl Must Go On, her 2008-2010 concert series at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, with the tune every night, performing it as many as 300 times.

Christine Ebersole, a Tony Award-winning singer and actress, Winnetka native and New Trier graduate, toured the country in 2015 with a show called Big Noise from Winnetka, combining popular songs from Broadway, rock and gospel with lighthearted anecdotes about her life. She made her entrance to the title tune every night, connecting “Big Noise from Winnetka” with the village whose high-spirited young residents had inspired it in 1938.[12] It’s time for the next generation of talented young musicians to discover this great American tune and make it their own.



[1]The Blackhawk Restaurant operated from 1920 to 1984 and featured live music, including some of the biggest bands in the country, from about 1926 to 1952. At one point its proprietor, Otto Roth, installed a telegraph machine so that WGN listeners could send in requests from all over the country. When Otto Roth died in 1944, his son, Don Roth, took over. Don Roth also operated his namesake restaurant in Wheeling from 1969 to 2009. http://www.diningchicago.com/blog/2009/11/05/so-long-spinning-salad-bowl-don-roths-blackhawk-to-close; https://web.archive.org/web/20090106180706/http://jazzinchicago.org/educates/journal/articles/bringing-down-blackhawk. Longtime Winnetka resident Arnie Berlin, a member of the New Trier Class of 1942, remembers that going to the Blackhawk on Sunday afternoons was popular with NT students at the time, and that he himself saw the Crosby band there. Interview with Arnie Berlin, March 23, 2019.
[2]Most of the history of the Crosby band, as well as many of the details of the creation of “Big Noise from Winnetka,” is taken from Chilton, John, Stomp Off, Let’s Go! The Story of Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats & Big Band. Jazz Book Service, 1983. Bob Haggart (1914-1998) and Ray Bauduc (1908-1988; pronounced “buh-DUKE”) had long careers in jazz, playing in a variety of bands for the rest of their working lives, but “Big Noise” is their only joint songwriting credit. Bob Crosby (1913-1993) also continued to perform until late in life, appearing as himself or some other musical figure in about 25 Hollywood movies.
[4]Recollections of Ray Bauduc, Stomp Off, Let’s Go!, p. 72.
[5]Howie Keefe, “The Real Story of the ‘Big Noise’,” Winnetka Talk, December 6, 2012. Keefe, a member of the New Trier class of 1938, was one of the NT students at the Blackhawk that Sunday in 1938.
[6]In the latter film, Beverly Ross (played by the 20-year-old Ann Miller) is a switchboard operator at a radio station who wants to be a disc jockey and play her favorite hot jazz records, but the station’s conservative leadership won’t allow it. She finally gets a break and is allowed to host an early-morning show that proves hugely popular with soldiers at a nearby army base. The film is most notable for the galaxy of contemporary musical talent who make cameo appearances. In addition to the Bob Crosby band, the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, the Mills Brothers and a young Frank Sinatra perform numbers. Crosby conducts a full Big Band in “Big Noise from Winnetka” and sings the first verse, then trades verses with a foursome of male and female singers that includes identical twin sisters, Lee and Lynn Wilde.
[7]Chicago-born Gene Krupa (1909-1973) was instrumental in transforming the role of the drummer from timekeeper to unstoppable force of nature, and one of the first drummers to take the spotlight during performances. He joined Benny Goodman’s band in 1934 and gave a show-stopping performance, heavy on tom-toms, at the band’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert in January 1938, above all in the classic Goodman number “Sing, Sing, Sing.” A later generation of rock drummers would idolize Krupa: Ringo Starr of the Beatles, Keith Moon of the Who, Max Weinberg of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and many others have cited him as a major influence. Krupa’s drum set configuration became the standard for rock drummers, and Krupa’s style of tom-tom playing would echo through the amplified, blues-based music that would eventually sweep the world. Starr’s tom-tom barrages contributed to the manic energy of the Beatles’ early records, and Moon, perhaps the most frenzied drummer of the Sixties and Seventies until his untimely death at 32, regularly imitated Krupa’s tom-tom rolls as well as his onstage antics and distorted facial expressions. See, e.g., https://www.moderndrummer.com/article/december-1981-january-1982-ringo/; https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/max-weinberg-on-his-future-with-conan-and-bruce-87220/; http://www.drumlessons.com/drummers/keith-moon/
[8]Lawrence Welk (1903-1992) grew up in a sod house on a farm near Strasburg, North Dakota, the son of German immigrants whose ancestors had settled generations earlier in the Ukraine. German was his first language, which accounted for his distinctive -- and often parodied -- accent in English. (He took the ribbing in stride, titling his 1971 autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful.) Welk left school in the fourth grade after suffering a ruptured appendix and being quarantined at home for three months. During his long period of convalescence on a bleak North Dakota farm, he began fooling around with his father’s old accordion, becoming quite proficient on it. He persuaded his father to buy him an expensive new model via mail order, promising to work off the high cost of the instrument on the farm, which he eventually did. He didn’t return to school, becoming an itinerant accordionist and later the leader of a band that played live shows over radio station WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, one of the most powerful stations on the Great Plains. During the heyday of his TV show in the Sixties, most young people viewed Welk and his music as hopelessly square, but he embraced their music, adding songs by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and other rock and pop artists to his band’s repertoire throughout the show’s lifetime. The Lawrence Welk Show ran on national television for a total of 27 years, attracting a weekly audience in the millions. Ian Frazer, Great Plains. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989, p. 63-65; https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-lawrence-welk-19920519-20160516-snap-story.html
[9]https://www.allmusic.com/album/paris-blue-mw0000386827. Kyle Eastwood is the son of actor-director Clint Eastwood, an excellent jazz pianist who plays on some of his son’s recordings.
[10]Clouds’ performance on Beat Club may be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9d054o7x8
[11]Despite rave reviews in the music press on both sides of the Atlantic, and a US tour that included a stop at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Clouds never really made it big, and disbanded suddenly the following year. Clouds’ website recounts one of the more bizarre band breakups in rock history, when keyboardist Billy Ritchie left the stage in mid-performance: “The band imploded on a dramatic night when, totally unexpected by everyone else including Harry and Ian, in mid-show, Billy threw all his equipment off the stage, riding the piano into the crowd like the pilot riding the atomic bomb out of the plane in Doctor Strangelove. Amidst the chaos and sparks and mayhem, Billy walked calmly through the stunned crowd and from the hall, vanishing from sight for decades. That was the dramatic end of Clouds.” https://www.cloudsmusic.com/biography.
[12]https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/skokie/news/ct-skr-go-christine-ebersole-tl-1015-20151020-story.html; http://www.playbill.com/article/christine-ebersole-gets-personal-about-family-and-politics-in-at-54-below-in-big-noise-from-winnetka-com-330060; https://centerontheaisle.com/1897/trading-the-big-chill-for-the-big-noise-at-54-below/.

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