Benjamin David Goodman was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 30, 1909, into a large, poor Jewish family. His parents, who had moved to the United States from Eastern Europe, were Dora and David Goodman.
He first started playing clarinet at a local Chicago synagogue when he was about ten. He learnt the clarinet with the help of a former musician of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A year later he was playing in the pit band of a local theatre. He also played at school dances and other local events. He dropped out of school at age of 14 to become a professional musician.
He made his first recordings in 1926, and made his first recordings under his own name in 1928. In 1934 he led his first band on a radio series called Lets Dance (which became the title of Goodmans theme song). The band also played at dance halls and made a handful of records.
Early in his career he played jazz in dance bands. At 16 he joined Ben Pollacks orchestra, he played with them for 4 years. Then he went on to perform with different bands on other venues such as radio shows and recording studios. In the 1920s a type of music called swing was borne from the big band style. As Bennys name became known he formed his own swing band and by 1935 their performances at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles attracted hordes of fans, thus earning him the title King of Swing.
Two of the finest musicians ever to work with Goodman were pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist-drummer Lionel Hampton . However, they played only in small-group arrangements because of the unwritten rule that did not allow white musicians and African American musicians to play together. Goodman was the first white bandleader to challenge segregation (keeping people of different races separate) in the music business, and as the rules eased he hired other African American greats.
Benny Goodmans band appeared as a specialty act in major musical features, including The Big Broadcast of 1937, Hollywood Hotel (1938), Syncopation (1942), The Powers Girl (1942), Stage Door Canteen (1943), The Gangs All Here (1943), Sweet and Lowdown (1944) and A Song Is Born (1948). Goodmans only starring feature was Sweet and Lowdown
Interestingly enough, Benny also made recordings playing instruments other than clarinet. On a few occasions in his career he played alto sax. At other times, he made recordings playing bass clarinet, baritone sax, soprano sax, tenor sax, and even cornet. You can even catch Benny singing on a few recordings, such as Gotta Be This Or That with Jane Harvey, one of Benny Goodmans many talented vocalists.
After winning numerous polls over the years as best jazz clarinetist, Goodman was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1957.
Goodman continued to play on records and in small groups. One exception to this pattern was a collaboration with George Benson in the 1970s. The two met when they taped a PBS salute to John Hammond and re-created some of the famous Goodman-Charlie Christian duets.
Despite increasing health problems, he continued to play until his death from a heart attack in New York City in 1986 at the age of 77, in his home at Manhattan House, 200 East 66th Street. A longtime resident of Stamford, Connecticut, Benny Goodman is interred in the Long Ridge Cemetery in Stamford. His last studio recordings were made in January 1986. The same year, Goodman was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Benny Goodmans musical papers were donated to Yale University after his death.