A record for the radio

This week: the Mambo King, Mount Washington, the Grammys, two Tinsel Town lawsuits, and a Maine radio station, all connected to one record.

In the world of recorded music Decca Records was a relative latecomer to the party. Founded in 1929 in England, the U.S. label wasn’t established until 1934. It quickly grew to become one of the most voluminous producers of records in the nation (reaching the #2 spot within just a few years of its creation) and, unlike many other labels of the period, persists to this very day (as part of the behemoth Universal Music Group, a branch of Vivendi). The vast number and style of Decca labels is a testament to its prowess in the recording industry.

That's a lot of Decca labels...

As with Columbia and Victor and their stable of “dime-store” labels Decca’s strength came from acquiring smaller recording companies. They would then either dissolve the label, keeping the affiliated artists (for example, with the 1932 acquisition of bankrupt Brunswick Records, Decca gained Bing Crosby and Al Jolson) or continue to issue the label as a franchise of the Decca company. The number of labels Decca absorbed is pretty remarkable: Brunswick, Melotone, Edison Bell, Champion, Gennett, Broadway, Apex, and Vocalion, to name a few. Its roster of artists is likewise lengthy (too long to list here). It was a combination of this in-demand talent, shrewd management, and a low price point (35 cents in its earliest days) that led to Decca’s growth into a powerhouse record company. A book could be written alone on Decca’s contributions to recording technologies and phonograph players (it probably has), not to mention its advances in marketing and promotions and its pantheon of some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century in every genre.

Decca 27045 includes a mambo and a lawsuit-inducing foxtrot.

This album is in Good condition; there is some wear to the label and a little streaking of the ink from moisture on the B-side and the disc vinyl is a bit scratched on both sides, though it still plays fine. The ending gap on both sides shows the spiral groove characteristic of an album that sat spinning on the turntable a bit too long after the song was finished (there is more of the spiral on the B-side than the A-side, indicating the B-side might have been played more often). It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Decca 27045 and the master number is WL5553A4/WL552A3. The A-side recording features “Happy Pay Day,” an instrumental fox trot written by Jack Holmes and Eddie Brandt and published by the Lutz Brothers Music Company Inc.; it runs 2 minutes and 56 seconds. The B-side recording features “More More Mambo,” an instrumental mambo written by Damaso Perez Parado and published by the Peer International Corporation; it runs 2 minutes and 39 seconds. Both songs are performed by Sonny Burke and his Orchestra. According to the Sonny Burke Papers, housed at Duke University, the record can probably be dated to April 17, 1950, a date verified by the May 27, 1950 issue of “Billboard” magazine, which included the album in its “Advance Record Releases” section for that week’s magazine. It is valued at about $4 to $7.

The spiraling groove in the flat gap at the end of the recording grooves indicates that the record spun, unattended, for a short while on a phonograph with a steel needle.

One of the big draws for choosing this album for this week’s entry may already be apparent. It is not a standard release record; rather, it was a “not for sale” version released specifically for play on the radio only. Radio-only 78s fulfill the “scarcity” requirement that make most records valuable: they were not issued in as large a quantity as regularly released 78s. As an added benefit radio-issue 78s were typically made to be more durable than standard 78s, so they tend to have withstood the rigors of time more readily (especially if it was an album that was not played often over the air). Radio albums typically come with a clear admonition against reselling them (here the label reads “SAMPLE COPY; NOT FOR SALE”), as well as an indication of precisely how long the track is.

WMTW-FM buliding, atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

When stations made the move from vinyl to cassette or other media they disposed of their massive record libraries – sometimes by selling them off, other times (sadly) by simply junking them, and still other times by simply moving the old media into storage on or off-site of the station. This particular record comes from the library of WMTW, a radio station based in Maine. A WMTW signed on to the air on July 9, 1958, transmitting from a station on the top of Mount Washington in neighboring New Hampshire. The station (today 94.9FM-WHOM, “safe for the whole family”) featured instrumental versions of pop songs, along with the occasional soft vocal number, until 1990. WMTW was sold off in 1971.

The WMTW antenna withstood the August 21, 1938 hurricane, the “highest wind ever recorded” on Mt. Washington.

I am not entirely convinced that this is the same WMTW that owned this record however; an earlier station with the same call letters existed on Mount Washington and predated WMTW-TV (which was founded in 1954 and owned 94.9FM). The first incarnation of a radio station broadcasting from Mount Washington was an AM station built around 1937; its FM counterpart, W39B, went on the air on December 18, 1940. In 1942 running water and additional accommodations were added to the station to facilitate 24-hour operation during World War II. Then, on November 1, 1943, following changes in FCC rules, the station’s call letters were changed to WMTW (the last three letters serving as an acronym for the station’s physical location: Mt. Washington).

I believe it was this earlier WMTW, and not the station that eventually became WHOM, that was the original owner of this Decca record. My theory primarily comes from the fact that as the record was released in 1950, it is quite unlikely that a station that didn’t even exist until 1958 (and which, when it did come on the air, played popular contemporary music for the period), would own a then eight-year old album.

The A-side recording is the up-beat foxtrot “Happy Pay Day.” While this version is instrumental, the song does have lyrics, which can be heard on some contemporary covers of the song. The June 17, 1950 “Billboard” magazine reviewed it as follows: “Relaxed, straight swing instrumental in a catchy riff. Fine precision and color in the ork’s work” and rated it 72/100.

Little Willie Littlefield (1931-)

The instrumental song was issued contemporaneous to the Decca release on the Brunswick label (record #04567) in 1950, featuring Sonny Burke and his Orchestra. In 1949 Austin McCoy recorded a two-part album entitled “Happy Pay Day” on RPM Records (record #300), a primarily rhythm and blues label – due to its date prior to the Decca release, which I believe to be the first release of Holmes and Brandt’s song, I suspect this is a different song altogether. The June 17, 1950 issue of “Billboard” magazine reported the upcoming release of another recording of the song, this time I believe Holmes and Brandt’s, by the artist Little Willie Littlefield on the Modern Records label (record #20-754).

Ella Mae Morse singing "Blacksmith Blues," the song that rocketed her to stardom.

Perhaps the most notable part of “Happy Pay Day,” however, lays not its recording history but rather in its role in a lawsuit. In 1952 Jack Holmes wrote a song for Ella Mae Morse entitled “Blacksmith Blues.” It was published by Hill and Range Sons, arranged by Billy May and Nelson Riddle, and then released on a Capitol Records 45-RPM disc (record #F1922), with Morse singing and Riddle conducting the orchestra. The song was an instant hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard charts, selling over one million copies, and propelling Morse from somewhat obscurity to substantial fame (it would be her biggest hit in her career). The Capitol record is on sale on EBay from five separate sellers, ranging in price from $3.60 to $23.23.

Sheet music for "Blacksmith Blues" as performed by Ella Mae Morse.

"Blacksmith Blues" appeared on many labels throughout the 1950s.

The song was so popular it was covered by the Tri-Tones on a Black Mountain Records 78-RPM (record #R-1006-A and currently on sale on EBay for $25), the John Barry Seven and Orchestra on a Columbia 45 in 1962 (record #4898), Ted Heath and his orchestra with vocals by Lita Roza around 1954 on Decca (record #16895 currently on sale on EBay for $10), Birds of a Feather (conducted by Zack Lawrence) on a 45-RPM for Page One Records (record #21028 currently on EBay for $0.50), Sid Phillips and his band with vocals by Denny Dennis on His Master’s Voice (record #6132 on sale on EBay for about $6), and – perhaps most notably – by the legendary Bing Crosby.

Sheet music for the Sid Phillips arrangement of "Blacksmith Blues" taking the title a bit too literally.

OK – why the interest in a seemingly unrelated tune? It turns out “Blacksmith Blues” was at the center of not one but two legal disputes.

In 1952 a woman named Mildred Schultz heard “Blacksmith Blues” on a television program and subsequently sued Holmes, Hill and Range, Capitol, Decca, RCA, and several other parties. She claimed the music for Blacksmith Blues was plagiarized from a copyrighted song she wrote in 1941 entitled “Good Old Army” and later renamed “Waitin’ For My Baby” in 1949. The song was never published or recorded. The court report, linked above, is worth a read, but I won’t get into the details except to say the court, when it finally ruled in 1959, did not find for Mrs. Schultz. If you haven’t played the links above to the music for both “Blacksmith Blues” and “Happy Pay Day” you might miss the connection. The two songs are the same, with different lyrics. According to the court record Holmes had changed the lyrics of “Happy Pay Day” for Hill and Range and, voila, created the hit “Blacksmith Blues.”

Bizarrely, the court records also refer to the song’s similarity to a song titled “Happy Pay Off Day.” And, according to Capitol Records, “Ella Mae Morse had a hit record in 1952 with ‘Blacksmith Blues,’ which was originally published in 1950 as ‘Happy Payoff Day’ in 1950.”

At first I thought this was simply an error, but then I discovered this from an article in Billboard magazine from October 25, 1952:

“Len Ross, of KRUX, Phoenix, Ariz., taped an interview of Mickey Katz, who was playing a benefit with his ork there. Katz told him he recorded a tune called “Happy Pay-Off Day” two years ago, the melody of which he says parallels “Blacksmith Blues.” Ross suggest that jox who have the Katz disk [I have not been able to locate any recording of it] will find a before-and-after comparison interesting.”

Mickey Katz (1909-1985).

There is no indication Katz was involved in the lawsuit or pursued the matter much further than kvetching on the KRUX interview.

Here’s the court’s report on “Happy Pay Off Day”:

“In 1950 Jack Holmes… wrote a song which he entitled “Happy Pay Off Day.” Holmes, a singer who resided in the Los Angeles area, transferred his rights in this music to a Hollywood music publishing company known as Tune Towne Tunes. This company, which is one of the appellees, copyrighted the unpublished music on January 25, 1950. Printed copies of “Happy Pay Off Day” were placed on sale on April 11, 1950. Tune Towne Tunes copyrighted the published work on April 17, 1950, and later assigned it to Hill and Range Songs, Inc., of New York City. The latter company is also one of the appellees.

“Sometime during the next two years Holmes rewrote the words and music under the title “The Blacksmith Blues.” Hill and Range Songs, Inc., published and copyrighted this new version of the Jack Holmes music in January, 1952. Since then this company and, through licensing arrangements, some of the other appellees have marketed “Happy Pay Off Day” and “The Blacksmith Blues” in the form of sheet music and records. While Holmes was named a defendant in this action, he was not served with a copy of the complaint, and it was later learned that he had died before the suit was instituted.”

Eddie Brandt (center) with Spike Jones (right).

Sadly, that is about as much as I was able to learn in my research about Jack Holmes, too. His collaborator was Eddie Brandt (1920-2011), a composer who penned popular television and film music and other songs, including “There’s No Place Like Hawaii.” Educated at Northwestern University and Texas A&M Brandt wrote materials for Joan Davis, Eddie Cantor, and Spike Jones from 1946 to 1958. Interestingly his name does not appear in the Schultz lawsuit anywhere, even though it seems that she did not neglect to name most anyone associated with “Blacksmith Blues” as an appellee. It suggests Brandt was not involved with the transformation of the song from “Happy Pay Day” to “Blacksmith Blues.”

But this wasn’t the end of “Happy Pay Day”/”Blacksmith Blues”’s legal troubles. It seems even the act of changing the title and lyrics resulted in some litigation.

The August 2, 1952 issue of “Billboard” relates another lawsuit that was filed on May 5, 1952:

“The legal hassle between Lutz Brothers’ Music and Hill & Range Songs over “Blacksmith Blues” has moved from the jurisdiction of a local superior court into the U.S. District Court, making the second federal suit over the Ella Mae Morse Capitol hit tune. Lutz Brothers’ Music alleges that they inked a pact January 8, 1952, turning over the song “Happy Pay Day,” written by Jack Holmes to the Aberbach fraters’ firm, only to learn the next day that the song had been recorded with new lyrics under the monicker “Blacksmith Blues.” The Lutz firm alleges that they acquired the tune from Lynda Music pubber Ken Watkins. The H&R-LBM pact, which is part of the evidence filed, shows that LBM was to receive a $500 advance, two cents per piano copy, plus 10 percent of all mechanical and film royalties and performance payments.Previously Watkins had filed suit against Holmes and H&R, seeking a $100,000 judgment, on the grounds that “Pay Day” was turned over to Lynda Music January 23, 1949, by Holmes.”

“Billboard” provides the conclusion of the Watkins suit on January 31, 1953, under the unequivocal headline “’Blacksmith ‘ Suit Kayoed.” Apparently “Watkins…had failed to appear at two different times at which depositions were to be taken.”

Perhaps the Austin McCoy recording of 1949 was indeed an earlier version of Holmes’ song, originally promised to Watkins…according to Watkins. As I am unable to find a copy of the McCoy recording, I cannot confirm that.

Two final thoughts on this before I move on. First, I don’t believe this Ken Watkins is my mother-in-law’s father. But I could be wrong. But I’m probably not. Second, it seems pretty clear that these suits, as well as Katz’ remonstrations, were only the product of “Blacksmith Blues”’s wild success. When the ditty was “Happy Pay Day,” perhaps to Sonny Burke and Little Willie’s disappointment, there was, in the end, not much of a payday at all.

The B-side of this record features the catchy instrumental mambo number “More More Mambo” by Perez Prado (1916-1989), the “King of the Mambo.” Prado, a Cuban, was and still is an icon in Latin music. He was one of the most imaginative, prolific, and talented composers, arrangers, and bandleaders of the genre.

Perez Prado (1916-1989).

Prado practically defined the mambo style, with striking brass riffs and strong saxophone counterpoints. In his own recordings the bandleader can occasionally be heard exhorting the orchestra to “¡Dilo!” (“Say it!”). In 1950 Sonny Burke was vacationing in Mexico and heard Prado’s “Que Rico El Mambo” and thrilled at the music. He arranged and recorded it in the United States under the title “Mambo Jambo.” It was an instant hit (the “Billboard” review of “More More Mambo” references as a comparison: “Burke follows his fine disking of Perez Prado’s great ‘Mambo Jambo’ with another exciting swing Latin performance of another Prado mambo jumper. 75/100”). You can hear the band occasionally grunting (in rhythym) in Burke’s arrangement in the clip below – an apparent nod to Prado’s own vocalizations on his recordings. The success of Burke’s “Mambo Jambo” prompted Prado to make his own U.S. tour in 1951; every appearance on the tour was a sell-out and the Cuban mambo king signed to record with the powerhouse RCA Victor label. Prado’s arrangements go beyond mambo and Latin music, however, and included highly popular arrangements of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossoms White” and “Patricia,” the former of which appeared on three major film soundtracks and the latter of which appeared in two films, one episode of “The Simpsons,” a long-running British television commercial series for the Royal Mail, and the closing credits for HBO’s “Real Sex” series.

Edmundo Ros recording of "More More Mambo" on a London EP 45-RPM.

In addition to the Decca release “More More Mambo” was recorded by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra, with Ros doing the vocals, and appeared on a 45-RPM on the London label (record #6051 and currently for sale on EBay for $8). Prado’s own recording of the song was issued on “His Master’s Voice” (an RCA Victor label) (record #B10031).

Sonny Burke (1914-1980).

Sonny Burke (1914-1980) was a bandleader, composer, and leader in the music industry during some of the era’s most important years. Burke’s career started early, when he formed a jazz band at Duke University called the Duke Ambassadors. From the 1930s through the 1950s he served as a big band leader and band arranger for some of the hottest groups in New York City, writing or playing for Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Dinah Shore, among others. His most famous (and still relatively popular) original compositions are “Midnight Sun” and “Black Coffee.” In addition to his mambo and big band music, Burke began penning songs for Hollywood – most notably for Disney films. With John Elliot he wrote the music to the 1953 Oscar Best Short Animated Feature “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” and then followed that by joining with Peggy Lee to write the songs for “Lady and the Tramp” in 1955. His music and performances showed up on Warner Brothers, Reprise, Decca, and MCA Records.

Sonny Burke's star on the Hollywood Star Walk.

In his later career Burke became a highly sought-after arranger and bandleader for some of the leading vocal talents of the period, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Tormé. Sinatra was a close associate of Burke’s and eventually hired him to serve as Music Director for Sinatra’ own label, Reprise Records. In 1957 Burke and a handful of other leaders in the music industry came together to form the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; Burke’s modest contribution is said to be no less than the Academy’s awards, first given out in 1959, called the Gramophone Award or, as they are called today, the Grammys.

A Gramophone (aka "Grammy") Award, said to be conceived of by Sonny Burke when he helped found the NARAS.

An aerial photograph shows the destruction from the 2003 fire at the old WMTW radio station atop Mount Washington.

As for the WMTW facility on Mount Washington, where this album once called home, a fire on February 9, 2003 completely destroyed most of the buildings on the site. One might wonder what other relics of the “Golden Age” of radio were lost – dusty boxes of old records or grimy tapes, shoved into a basement corner, now melted and buried beneath the snow on the frigid peak of the tallest mountain in the northeastern United States.

DJ Old School.

Back in the day a radio DJ dropped a 78 or 33 record album onto a turntable and got one, maybe two or three, songs out of it, and then had to cue up the next one. Today radio programs are just that: programmed. They are digitally lined up, cleaned up, and burned to iPod or flash drive. The USB is plugged into the broadcaster, the music – focus-grouped, auto-tuned, and digitally perfected – goes out into the ether, and the DJ’s work is, mostly, done. When my brother and I had a radio show in college in the early 2000’s complete playlists, even then, were easily burned to CD and then loaded up for easy use.

One of the earliest photographs of WMTW-FM atop the highest peak in the northeastern United States.

One of the great attractions of this record, to me, is the imagery it conjures of a bygone era of sound. And to imagine that one of the greatest, most boldest and remarkable feats of human engineering – to build a then-cutting edge technological facility on one of the most inhospitable sites in that corner of the nation, nearly 6,300 feet up – all in the service of radio broadcasts, is astounding. And while the station was utilized for an important public service during the war and for broadcasting weather alerts and updates, its primary function was simply to play music and, on occasion, broadcast Red Sox games. Is there any better metaphor for the advancement of human technology and ability? We climb the tallest mountains…and build a radio station to broadcast “More More Mambo” to the world.

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