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The Story About How Count Basie Got His Nickname

Wikimedia Commons
Count Basie in the 1950s

Williams James Basie, born on August 21st, 1904 in Redbank, NJ, would grow up to become jazz royalty.  Ever wonder how he got the name Count? Although there were different theories over the years, Basie himself cleared it up with the story reported in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By The Men Who Made It (1966) by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff.

“I got the name Count right in Kansas City in 1936 while at the Reno Club. I was known as Bill Basie at that time. One night, while we were broadcasting, the announcer called me to the microphone for those usual few words of introduction. He commented that Bill Basie was a rather ordinary name, and, further, that there were a couple of well-known bandleaders named Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. Then he said, “Bill, I’ll call you Count Basie from now on. Is that all right with you?” I thought he was kidding, shrugged my shoulders and replied, “OK.” Well that was the last time I was ever introduced as Bill Basie. From then on, it was Count Basie, and I never did lose that nickname. It’s funny the way those things will stick."

And what made the Count one of the giants of the Big Band era? WRTI's Susan Lewis talks with WRTI jazz host Bob Craig. 

Listen to WRTI jazz host Bob Craig talk with Susan Lewis about what made Count Basie great.

Radio script:

[Music: "One O’Clock Jump,"  from Count Basie, The Complete Decca Recordings]

Susan Lewis: Basie had played on the vaudeville circuit and for other bands, but in 1937,  One O’Clock Jump was a hit for his own band, the Barons of Rhythm.

Bob Craig: That really launched the Basie band on its own.

SL: WRTI jazz host Bob Craig.

BC: One time on the show 60 Minutes they said, count,  what is the basie sound.  He said all you have to do is tap your foot. And that was the Basie sound.

SL: An enthusiastic radio announcer gave him the nickname that stuck—and Count Basie became a big name in swing. Although for many,  the big band era died down in the early '50s, Basie had a rebirth.

BC: They had a phenomenal hit with “April in Paris." 

[Music: “April in Paris,” from the album, April in Paris]

SL: It was a great arrangement and they had fun with it! In one section:

BC: Thad Jones the trumpet guy,  broke into a little chorus of "Pop Goes the Weasel."  And people just loved that. And of course at the end of it, with Basie calling out to the guys:

Count Basie: One more time! 

SL: Singer Joe Williams hit the charts with the Basie band.

[Music: “Every Day I Have the Blues,” from the album, Count Basie Swings – Joe Williams Sings.]

BC: Shiny Stockings came along.  All of a sudden big bands were re-emerging again. So Basie really gave it a big shot in the arm.

[Music: “Shiny Stockings,” from the album, April in Paris.

SL: In 1958, Basie was the first African American to win a Grammy;  he went on to win 8 more.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.