Woody Herman prevailed for decades as a top swing band leader only to become in his final days a sad figure overwhelmed by debilitating illness and a crushing debt to the federal government.
Herman, a Milwaukee-born son of vaudevillians, was a singing, tap-dancing "boy wonder" on stage at 6. He gained fame in the late 1930s with "The Band That Plays the Blues," then went on to head a series of Herman "Herds" consisting of young, technically skilled musicians.
His clarinet and saxophone and his amiable singing remained his trademarks as he progressed from the blues to an intense, driving swing style —and one financially disastrous excursion into be-bop in the late '40s.
In 1981, when he had been a road-traveling bandleader for 45 years, Herman told an interviewer, "I would never play down to an audience. In other words, let them come find us. . . "
He kept his bands abreast of changing styles while managing to keep them rooted in the swinging years.
Over the years, he recorded such top-selling numbers as "Apple Honey," "Northwest Passage," "Early Autumn," "Wild Root" and "Caledonia."
His indebtedness to the Internal Revenue Service was a large burden that kept him on the road and working in an effort to keep up the interest payments.
In early 1984, after being a bandleader for almost 50 years, he told jazz critic Leonard Feather, "I've come to the conclusion, as Duke Ellington did much earlier, that leading a band is really a hobby — something you do because you love it. As a business, it's a complete flop."