Ziggy Elman (born Harry Finkelman) had an influence on both big band, swing, jazz, and klezmer music. His interpretation of the klezmer tune “Fralich in Swing,” recorded in 1939 with vocalist Martha Tilton as “And the Angels Sing,” became a major hit and still remains a classic of the swing era. Lyrics from this classic were provided by Johnny Mercer. Although he recorded more than two dozen tunes as a bandleader, Elman is best-remembered for his work with the Benny Goodman & His Orchestra in the 1930s and the Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra in the 1940s.
In an interview published in the February 25, 1939, edition of Collier’s, Goodman recalled “Back in 1934 while we were playing for a convention hall in Kansas City, Ziggy Elman reached for his trumpet, turned it toward heaven and swung into a head arrangement for a chorus of “Whispering.” A head arrangement, should you be interested, means merely that Ziggy took the deathless, if played-to-death, melody of the tune and embroidered it with a fanciful filigree of musical decoration, every note of which came into his head the instant before he blew it. Thus, by gifted improvisation, Ziggy put life and head into the song, gave it wings. In musical slang, he put rock into it.”
In 1956 he was asked to recreate his famous solo along with the original vocalist Martha Tilton for the movie, the Benny Goodman Story, but was unable to, his technique having since withered away. Elman appeared performing it in the film, but another trumpeter, Manny Klein, played the solo on the soundtrack. This song is arguably his longest-lasting musical legacy, since it has appeared in films up to 1997 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987.
Elman first attracted attention in 1932, when he played trombone on a recording by Alex Bartha. Four years later, he joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Elman found his pleasure through music. When Harry James joined the group, Elman was content with supplying harmony lines for James’ soloing. His most ambitious period came in 1938 and 1939 when he recorded 20 tunes as a bandleader. He continued to play with Goodman until leaving to join Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1940. He remained a featured member of the group until 1947.
While a member of Tommy Dorsey’s band he also played as a member of the military during the war. He loved frailach music, later known as klezmer, and made a few recordings of such with The King of Klezmer, Mickey Katz. In the period from 1940 to 1947 he was honored in Down Beat magazine’s Readers Poll six times. He led his own bands from 1947 although he alternated work with Dorsey’s group and leading his own band between 1947 and 1952.
By the 1950s, the music had changed. Big bands had declined and for a time he switched to entertainment work. In this decade he appeared in films mostly as himself. In 1956 he had a heart attack, curtailing his music career. By the end of the 1950s he was financially ruined and had to work for a car dealership. In 1961 it was revealed at an alimony hearing that he was virtually bankrupt. He later worked in a music store and taught trumpet to some up-and-coming musicians. He died in 1968 at 54 and was buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.