When Koffman, a Canadian jazz musician and composer, was recording his first album for Jubilee Records in Toronto in early 1957, he asked his quartet members to write a jazz flute piece for him. When they didn’t comply, he tackled the job himself, composing an instrumental called Blues à la Canadiana. The band (Moe Koffman, Ed Bickert, Hugh Currie, and Ron Rully) were surprised when producer Morty Palitz suggested that renaming the jaunty song Swinging Shepherd Blues could make it a hit.
Koffman told The Montreal Gazette in 1973, “It wasn’t meant to be a hit parade song and nobody expected it to be…. Jazz people would like it and jazz stations might play it. But that was all.”
But Koffman had been too modest. When the album, “Cool and Hot Sax,” came out, Chicago disc jockey Marty Faye played Swinging Shepherd Blues repeatedly. Other stations followed, and when a cover by Johnny Pate appeared, Jubilee issued the Koffman Quartette original as a single (with Hambourg Bound on the B side). Koffman adopted the nickname The Swingin’ Shepherd, and the song became his signature tune. The success of his 1958 recording established his name internationally as a flutist and helped to popularize that instrument in jazz.
January and February 1958 saw Koffman’s original go head-to-head with Pate’s cover and another by David Rose and His Orchestra, with Koffman’s peaking at Billboard’s No. 23. The song also featured on Cashbox’s singles chart for three months, and reached No. 4 on Toronto’s CHUM radio chart.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Koffman’s tune enjoyed another three-way fight for chart position in spring 1958, this time with Ted Heath’s big band cover (which reached No. 2) and the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal version (No. 15). This she had recorded for Verve on March 19, 1958 after Rhoda Roberts and Kenny Jacobson added lyrics featuring a Pied-Piper-like shepherd and a dancing flock of happy sheep. (The first to record the vocal version was actually Kirk Stuart and The Honeydreamers.) The sheet music was a best-seller through April and May 1958.
Jazz flute hits were virtually unheard of. Yet, the catchy Swinging Shepherd Blues competed successfully against easy-listening stars Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and rock and rollers Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, not to mention fellow Canadians The Diamonds and Paul Anka.
As Koffman told The Montreal Gazette, “The Swinging Shepherd Blues …. was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’m glad I wrote it and I’m glad it was a big hit. But I’ll probably never write a hit like that again. And you know what? I wouldn’t want to. I’ve done it.”
In the sixty years since its appearance, the BMI-award-winning Swinging Shepherd Blues has been performed as jazz, easy listening, Latin, classical and even country, by everyone from jazz greats to marching bands. Among their number are trombonist Rob McConnell; pianist Oscar Peterson; flutists Herbie Mann, Paige Brook, Bill McBirnie, and Alvin Hayes; conductor-arrangers Henry Mancini and Mantovani; vibraphonist Tito Puente; bandleaders Count Basie and Xavier Cougat; clarinetist Woody Herman; accordionist Dick Contino; guitarist Duane Eddy; and vocalists Natalie Cole and Ranee Lee.
Koffman re-recorded his hit for later albums, including a twist dance version (1962), “Moe Koffman Goes Electric” (1968), and “Moe Koffman – Live at George’s” (1975).
Toronto-born Moe Koffman (1928 – 2001) played the flute, soprano, alto and tenor saxophone and clarinet. He went to New York in 1950 to play with big bands including Jimmy Dorsey’s. In 1955, he returned to Canada, formed his own jazz group (originally a quartet which later became a quintet), became a fixture at George’s Spaghetti House jazz club in Toronto, and recorded two gold albums (“Moe Koffman Plays Bach” and “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons”). Koffman also recorded “Oop-Pop-A-Da” (1988) featuring Dizzy Gillespie, one the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. An officer of the Order of Canada and a SOCAN Award winner, Koffman was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame.