Fats Waller and the 1920s “American Idol” (kind of)

The last two featured records on Zayde’s Turntable were, I must confess, selected with a little bit of deliberate purpose on my part. I liked the dichotomy of the John Gielgud performance of Oscar Wilde opposite the Billy Golden racist portrayal of “Turkey in the Straw.” This week, however, I have gone back to my original concept for this blog and selected a truly random album.

Original Columbia building in Washington, D.C., 1889.

Not surprisingly, having selected a record at random means the label of this record, Columbia, is one of the big three (Victor, Columbia, and Decca). The history of Columbia is far, far too long to delve in to here – it is, in fact, the oldest surviving record label still in existence. Briefly, it was founded by Edward Easton as the Columbia Phonograph Company in 1888, deriving its name from its original location in the District of Columbia. The company pioneered a number of critical advancements in recording technology, including “double-faced” records (albums with a song on each side) in 1908 and the internal-horn gramophone that, ironically, became associated more with their competitor, the Victor brand. The history of Columbia, as far back as 1894, is one of mergers, acquisitions, and receivership. In its current form today Columbia is a brand of the Sony Corporation and is most commonly known for its sister subsidiary of Sony, the broadcast television network Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Interestingly another Sony company, Columbia Pictures – the film studio – was originally not related to Columbia Records at all (it did issue records of its own, but on the Colpix and Arista labels). Columbia Records issued well over 160 different types and styles of labels on their 78-RPM records alone, so I will not be posting my usual picture of the variety of labels from one company. Sorry to disappoint.

Columbia 1833-D

This album is in Good condition, with some light scratches that do not prevent playability; unfortunately there is one exceptionally tiny but deep nick on the A-side track. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Columbia Records 1833-D and the master number is 148483/148484.

Lyricist Leo Robin (1900-1984).

The A-side recording features Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys backing up an unnamed vocalist singing the fox trot “Jericho,” written by Academy Award nominated songwriter Richard Myers (1901-1977) with lyrics by Leo Robin (1900-1984) who penned the words to the Oscar-winning Bob Hope tune “Thanks for the Memories” and did the lyrics to, among many other shows, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1949 and revived in 1995). ”Jericho” is the theme song from the 1929 motion picture “Syncopation.” It runs 2 minutes and 52 seconds. The unique Columbia code impressed on the record, 1-B-9, indicates that the recording was the first take, from the second mother, and ninth stamper – suggesting there were, at a minimum, 18,000 copies of this song pressed.

The legendary Fats Waller (1903-1943).

The B-side recording also features Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys backing up an unnamed vocalist singing the fox trot “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” written by Harry Link (1896-1956) and the famed jazz pianist and composer Fats Waller (1903-1943), who (along with Louis Armstrong) would go on to make the song famous, with lyrics by the influential theater impresario Billy Rose (1899-1966). It runs 2 minutes and 54 seconds. The Columbia code on the record, 1-B-7, indicates that the recording was the first take, from the second mother, and seventh stamper – suggesting there were, at a minimum, 14,000 copies of this song pressed.

The record dates from May 8, 1929, around the same time the film “Syncopation” was released. There is one dealer currently selling the same record, in Very Good condition, at Venerable Music auctions for $3, though Les Docks values the album at $7-$10. Interestingly, the unnamed vocalist on this record appears to be none other than the prolific singing cowboy featured on a previous record on Zayde’s Turntable – Smith Ballew.

Bandleader and music manager Ed Kirkeby (1891-1978).

Ted Wallace and his Campus Boys was a regular Columbia house band. The highest they ever climbed in the U.S. charts was their top-selling hit, “Little White Lies,” written by Walter Donaldson, which reached the #3 spot in 1930. Ted Wallace was, of course, a pseudonym. The man behind the band was conductor and music manager Ed Kirkeby (1891-1978). Kirkeby was one of the first producers at Columbia to record jazz albums and was a close associate and manager of Fats Waller (from 1938 to Waller’s death in 1943). Kirkeby’s foresight in viewing Waller, rightly in my view, as one of the most important figures in American jazz, led to the preservation of a remarkable volume of documents and other archival items related to Waller’s life and career at the Institute of Jazz Studies housed at Rutgers University.

The song “Jericho” was originated by the exceptionally prolific bandleader Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians in the film “Syncopation.” In the movie the song is performed by Morton Downey, with back-up vocals provided by the Melody Boys. In addition to the Waring version and the Kirkeby version, at least one other recording of the tune was made by Bidgood Broadcasters on Broadcast Record 413-A. In some sense, its placement on this record is a bit ironic: the song, written by two white men and performed by a white singer with a white band, is supposed to be “about jazz.” On the reverse of Columbia 1833-D, of course, we have a song written by one of the master’s of jazz, Fats Waller.

1929 sheet music to "Jericho".

Movie poster for the film Syncopation (1929).

The musical film “Syncopation” was released in 1929 and was the second film produced by RKO Radio Pictures (though the first released by RKO). It was directed by Bert Glennon and starred Downey, Barbara Bennett, Bobby Watson, and Ian Hunter; the script was based on the novel “Stepping High” by Gene Markey. RKO was a company in the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) empire and they used the film to test their new “sound-on-film” process – a process that is still used today (in a slightly updated fashion, of course) by Dolby and all the other big names in movie sound. The 1929 film, and Markey’s novel, centers on two vaudevillians who are close both on and off the stage. One day a dashing millionaire shows up and starts to woo the female partner. She becomes smitten with the rich man and begins to needle her partner about his musical and personal faults. Sounds like a heart-warming tale, I know. IMDB users rate it 7.9 out of 10.

“Syncopation” was, in some ways, not a far ways distant from contemporary pop culture entertainment. I referred to it somewhat in jest in the title of this post as being similar to “American Idol,” but it is not precisely identical. The concept of the consumer/viewer being involved in the crafting of entertainment is the same. Not with the 1929 version of the film, however. Here also the movie is similar to what we see today for in 1942 RKO “rebooted” their 1929 movie. The kept some elements of the plot – a romance between singer Kit Latimer of New Orleans and Johnny Schumacher, in which they argue over and demonstrate the various styles of popular music (ragtime, jazz, swing, and blues). Hilarity and musical numbers ensue. In the 1942 version they updated the plot to cover music released between 1929 and the outbreak of World War II (most notably boogie-woogie). RKO also added another element, however: they held a contest for the readers of the Saturday Evening Post to vote by mail on the musicians who would make up the “All-American Dance Band” that appears in the film (in the 1929 version this was Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians). The resulting musical ensemble was something of an all-star band for the era: Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Harry James, Jack Jenney, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey, Joe Venuti, with singer Connee Boswell. Of course, unlike “American Idol,” these artists were already famous – and they were voted on, not off.

“I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” was a wildly popular song first published in 1929 and recorded by dozens of artists, including Fats Waller himself; several of the recordings can be found online. Ironically, while “Jericho” has faded from the annals of jazz history, “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” quickly became a key number in it. In 1929 alone I identified eighteen different records with the song including (in addition to Waller on Victor and the Ted Wallace on Columbia) Gene Austin on Victor, Smith Ballew again on Okeh, the Continental Dance Orchestra on Oriole and Jewel, Jesse Crawford playing an organ instrumental version on Victor, Gay Ellis and Annette Hanshaw on Supertone, Diva, Harmony, and Velvet Tone, the Gotham Rhythm Boys on Jewel, Harold Lambert on Vocalion, Sam Lanin’s University Orchestra on Supertone, Miff Mole and his Little Mollers on Okeh, Joe Morris on Champion, Ben Bernie and Scrappy Lambert on Brunswick, The Mystery Girl on Columbia, Willard Robinson on Columbia, and Cliff Roberts on Romeo.

Original 1929 sheet music for "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling". Fats Waller uses his real name, Thomas Waller, here.

Ella Fitzgerald, with Dizzy Gillespie, in 1947, the same year she recorded a version of "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling."

Ella Fitzgerald and the Daydreamers recorded it on Decca in 1947 and Earl Hines made two recordings of it, one for Signature in 1944 and a second for Brunswick in 1952. Other mid-century recordings include James P. Johnson on Decca in 1944, Art Kassel on Mercury in 1947, and Joan Shaw with Russ Case’s orchestra in 1950 on MGM. The song was included in the musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which is a compilation of the music by Waller and other black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were so instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance. A 2008 revival of the play, featuring 2003 “American Idol” winner (oh, irony) Ruben Studdard, saw the song performed by Frenchie Davis.

Woody Allen in "Zelig" (1983).

In his 1983 film “Zelig” Woody Allen uses original footage of Fanny Brice singing the number on top of the Paramount Theater in New York. Allen edited the clip to splice in himself and Mia Farrow (the film is a fictional documentary in which Allen portrays a “human chameleon” who supposedly rubbed elbows with all sorts of famous people during the Roaring Twenties – kind of like a 1920s Forrest Gump). The original footage is available online and fun to watch, especially to see how Brice – a consummate performer – switches from her regular voice to her performance voice. In the clip Brice’s husband conducts the musicians – who is he? None other than Billy Rose, who penned the lyrics to Waller’s tune.

So, this week’s offering is a fun and up-beat album. I think it captures, in its own way, a touch of the state of American entertainment at the end of the Roaring Twenties, a time when the nation was poised, unknowingly, on the brink of some exceptionally hard and difficult times. But also, as suggested by both the songs on this record, on the brink of some of the most remarkable and important musical developments in the country’s history: the Jazz era.

A low note in American entertainment

Last week Zayde’s Turntable featured a record that captured perhaps one of the most culturally sophisticated and artistically profound albums in my collection. This week we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum, with a performance, while no less culturally important, of a far baser nature.

Some examples of the Harmony Disc Record label.

Harmony Disc Records (HDR) were manufactured in Chicago by the Great Northern Manufacturing Company starting in 1907. The label was discontinued after a merger of several labels in 1916 that formed the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, making this disc one of the oldest (though not the oldest) in my collection at probably around 100 years in age.

A Great Northern Manufacturing Company phonograph. The trumpet is probably not original to the machine. Note the large spindle pin in the middle of the turntable.

HDR albums are most notable because of their unusually large spindle hole in the middle of the record (at ¾” in diameter the hole is 200% the size of most 78-RPM records); this suggests the records were made specifically to play on a precise machine, one made by – you guessed it – the Great Northern Manufacturing Company. Kind of like how cell phones today can only plug into the charger manufactured by their company. Infuriating. HDR was not the only label to employ the extra-large spindle hole. Standard (at 1/2” diameter), United (1/5”), and Aretino (3”!) did likewise. All four of these labels were brands of the Great Northern Manufacturing Company and there are some instances reported of records in which two of these labels appeared on one disc, one on each side.

Great Northern sold their phonographs for a fraction of the cost of competitors’ machines (sometimes even giving them away): compare $1 for a Great Northern phonograph to $30 for a comparable machine from Victor. The cost savings are obvious, but once the customer was locked into the Great Northern machine, they could only play that company’s discs because of the spindle size. Again…this all sounds somewhat familiar. Sadly, some Great Northern owners reportedly went so far as to take drills or files to ¼” spindle hole discs to get them to fit on their Great Northern gramophone. The outcome of such an attempt can probably be guessed. Owners who later upgraded to a standardized ¼” inch spindle machine would likewise sometimes plug the holes of their Great Northern records to get a better fit.

Several labels had "Harmony" in their name, but they were not from the same company. The bottom image was a label that issued Christian Science recordings.

HDR should not, of course, be confused with Harmony records or the handful of other labels that employed the word “Harmony” in their brand name. The earliest HDR records (including this one) were one-sided issues and sold for four cents.

Harmony Disc Record #4100.

This album is in Fair condition, with the expected wear that would come from a record of such age. Despite its age, however, there are no significant scratches and the entire shellac is intact, though worn; the record is playable all the way through but the audio quality is poor (while I supply a clip below, I recommend following one of the links provided below to the full song available elsewhere online). It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¾” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Harmony Disc Records 4100 and there is no master number. There is only one side of recording on this album; an unnamed vocalist accompanied by an unnamed pianist singing the “Negro Shout” “Turkey in the Straw.” It runs 2 minutes and 36 seconds.

The back of the record has no grooves or recording, indicating it was from the earliest days of recorded discs.

The precise record date is unknown, but it likely falls some time between 1901 and 1908 (the record’s use of only one side and its thickness suggest an album of this age, as later discs tended thinner and double-sided as technology and engineering improved). It does not appear in Les Docks’ valuation guide and there is no dealer I could find currently selling this exact record (some are selling a similar recording by the same artist on different labels: Columbia for $5, Victor for $10, Edison cylinder for $10, Edison disc for $11, an unidentified label for $36, and American Record Company for $115). The final two sellers seem a bit over the range of the rest and I would estimate the value of my record therefore to be in the $10-$15 neighborhood.

The label, unlike with many other HDR discs, is not printed on paper affixed to the album, but seems to be printed directly onto the shellac at the center.

A label affixed to the unpressed back of the record warns against duplicating or reselling the record (Megaupload, be warned!). It somewhat optimistically cautions that purchase of the record is accepting the condition that, if the record is sold below the price assigned to it by the company, it may not be played. Finally, it notes that the record may only be played on a phonograph that has the properly sized center spindle pin.

The warning label on the back of the record, with some numeric stamps on it, possibly prices or catalog numbers.

After some research I was able to determine that the vocalist on this record is the minstrel and vaudeville comedian Billy Golden (1858-1926). Golden’s performance of this song was issued on a multitude of labels, with all issues dating from within the first decade of the 20th century (American Record Company 30501, Victor 65, 17265, and 4515, Edison disc 50605, Edison cylinder 8293, Columbia A1291, and Monarch 65). And, of course, Harmony Disc Record number 4100 (click to hear the entire song on the HDR record elsewhere or below to hear a clip off my own copy of the record).

Billy Golden (1858-1926).

Golden was a prolific comic of the late 19th century and early 20th century. He started in the entertainment industry with a blackface spoken word act in 1874 and pressed his first record, for Columbia, in 1891. He would record with a multitude of labels as a solo act between 1891 and 1908, including as one of the first artists on the Berliner label (in 1895), eight titles for Edison, and a remarkable 51 records for Victor between June 1900 and September 1906.  His three top records all placed in the top ten on the US charts the year they were issued (“Roll on the Ground” on Gramophone, his #2 selling record, placed 4th in 1901; “Turkey in the Straw” on Victor, his #1 selling record, placed 4th in 1905; and “Whistling Pete” on Victor, his #3 selling record, placed 10th in 1911). Fifteen of Golden’s recordings are available for a free listen through the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox. As a performer who specialized in the now highly insensitive and repugnant blackface routine, Golden (who was white, of course) has a roster of track titles that reads like a case illustration in the racially derogatory type of entertainment that was, unfortunately, for far too long a well-selling staple for the American music and comedy industries: “Turkey in de Straw,” “Yaller gal,” “Sisseretta’s visit to the North,” “Rabbit Hash,” “Roll on de ground,” “Crap shooting,” “Uncle Jefferson,” “In front of the old cabin door,” etc.

A 1900 ad for blackface vaudevillian Billy Van.

Blackface was a type of theatrical makeup and performance utilized, in America, during the minstrel show and vaudeville eras (from roughly 1830 to 1930), though its earliest recorded use dates as far back as the 15th century in Europe and blackface minstrel television programs in Britain persisted until as late as 1981. Blackface involved, for white performers, the heavy application of burnt cork and, later, grease paint or shoe polish, to darken the skin and exaggerate the lips; costuming would exacerbate the caricature and typically included wool wigs, gloves, and tailcoats or, with other common blackface “characters” (the cast of stock characters depicted was generally universal, similar to commedia dell’arte), ragged clothing. During the vaudeville period black actors who wished to take to the stage were even required to perform in blackface themselves. The blackface style died off finally with the successes of the Civil Rights movement, except for satirical uses and the occasional idiotic undergraduate costume party.

Billy Golden (right) with his post-1908 comedy partner Joe Hughes. Hughes was the straight man to Golden's buffoon.

Golden’s repertoire included singing solo and duet, comic monologues, comic scenes, and laughing and whistling solos. This album was probably popular because it was a well-known song and his performance of it included almost his entire repertoire: singing, monologue, whistling, and laughing. His blackface “character” was a stereotyped buffoon performed with “unrestrained glee and wit,” as well as “black dialect” (an important cue to the listener once the blackface act became audio-only on a record). In 1908 Golden teamed up with comedian Joe Hughes and issued a number of records performing a two-man blackface comic bit that laid the groundwork for the likes of “Amos and Andy” and other performers (including, more immediately, Jack and Phil Kaufman). Golden and Hughes performed to great success both on vaudeville and on records, with Hughes taking the role of the straight man and Golden the joker, complete with “crazy laugh and exaggerated dialect.” Their acts had such titles as “Darktown Eccentricities,” “Unlucky Mose,” “An Easy Job on the Farm,” “Hotel Porter and the Traveling Salesman,” “Aunt Mandy,” “Jimmy Trigger’s Return from Mexico,” “Love Sick Coon,” and “The Coon Waiters.”

Fred Gaisberg (left) with Edward Elgar in 1932.

Bizarrely, Golden can also be credited with an act that advanced and made possible the career of one of the most important record producers in the classical music genre. One of Golden’s piano accompanists for his Columbia and Berliner recordings was a young Fred Gaisberg (1873-1951). Golden thought Gaisberg was talented and helped the pianist receive a job as a recording engineer for the Gramophone Company. In that position in 1902 Gaisberg recorded a now famous and exceptionally important series of albums for Victor featuring the tenor Enrico Caruso (the opera singers first recordings and also the first records to be issued on the His Master’s Voice label). From there Gaisberg was catapulted into the upper echelons of the classical music and opera world and became, in a sense, one of the first major classical music producers of the recording age.

Sheet music to "Zip Coon," also called "Old Zip Coon," which was based on the tune for "Turkey in the Straw." Zip Coon was a blackface stock character.

The song “Turkey in the Straw” is one of America’s oldest minstrel tunes. The earliest references to the song seem to be around 1820, with its melody based on a fiddle tune called “Natchez Under the Hill.” The historical derivation of “Natchez Under the Hill” has been traced even further back to the ballad “My Grandmother Lived on Yonder Little Green,” which is itself derived from the Irish ballad “The Old Rose Tree.” It was first published with lyrics in 1834 under the title “Old Zip Coon” and became wildly popular during the Andrew Jackson presidency. That the song was, in its infancy, entitled “Old Zip Coon” and that a blackface vaudeville performer would sing it is no coincidence. Even as early as the mid 19th century blackface performers were singing the song, as its title was, in fact, a reference to one of the most common blackface stock characters, Zip Coon:

George Dixon (1801-1861). This drawing was made two years after he originated "Zip Coon."

“First performed by George Dixon in 1834, Zip Coon made a mockery of free blacks. An arrogant, ostentatious figure, he dressed in high style and spoke in a series of malaprops and puns that undermined his attempts to appear dignified.”

As commonly happens with American folk songs the melody was appropriated for a variety of lyrical settings. The tune was set to songs about the American Civil War, obscenities, fishing, and even doggerel.

“Old Zip Coon” and Golden’s performance of it as ‘Turkey in the Straw” may clearly be classified as what musical historians have called “coon songs”: a heavily syncopated, fast-paced style of music (intended to mimic ragtime) commonly, though not exclusively, performed by blackface singers between 1880 and 1920 that – especially when accompanied by the blackface makeup, costume, and physical and vocal performances – portrayed blatantly racist and stereotyped images of blacks.  “Coon songs” were a national craze at the end of the 19th century, with over 600 such songs being published in the last decade of the century alone – one of many signals that, despite emancipation, black Americans had a long, hard road still to travel. The genre included songs with such names as “The Dandy Coon’s Parade,” “The Coons are on Parade,” “New Coon in Town,” “Coon Salvation Army,” “A Trip to Coontown” (written by black composer Bob Cole), “Every Race has a Flag but the Coon,” “Coon Coon Coon,” and “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”

The lyrics to "Old Zip Coon" from a mid 19th-century document printed in Vermont. I've included it at the largest size possible to permit the text to be readable.

Quite a bit could be written about the history, rhetorical and racial significance, and sociological or psychological underpinnings behind the blackface and “coon song” movements in the American entertainment industry. And, indeed, quite a lot has been written on the topic. It’s easy to judge these repugnant chapters in our history now, in retrospect; on the other hand, we simultaneously patronize media that presents other stereotypical caricatures, including those of Muslims, Latinos, gays, Native Americans… You get the idea. There seems to be at once a murky line in some instances between what is cultural comment and what is intended to mock, stereotype, or demean. In other instances the line is bright and clear. Perhaps one of the clearest cues when something is crossing that line is the consideration of the intended audience. Blackface minstrel shows and “coon song” records were intended for consumption by an almost entirely white audience; the stock characters and stock storylines reinforced existing bigoted notions of how black people looked and how they behaved. They were designed to be commercially successful and the shortest route to that end involved catering to the lowest, most base preferences and emotions of the consumer.

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” written and first staged in Britain while America was at the height of the blackface craze, was also a commercial success (and still is today) and it, too, mockingly satirizes a specific type of person and social institutions (British aristocratic society and Victorian conventions). Yet it avoids crossing that line. Is it because the targets of Wilde’s satire were white people? No. I would suggest it is because his art challenged the audience to think critically; it conveyed a social message, whereas blackface performers abetted and exploited a racist attitude that was latent. One pushed the audience to examine their culture; the other enabled them to stay safely ensconced in their comfort zone. As repulsive as their beliefs might be, it said to the consumer that those beliefs were acceptable and shared by others. In the end, while both records are still here in their physical form, the trajectory of history has – rightly in my view – elevated the former of these performances and disposed of the latter. One might well wonder which entertainment artifacts from today will persist in 100 years and which will not. And then one might wonder why.

The masters’ voices

This week on Zayde’s Turntable I’ve decided to feature one of the few non-musical records in my collection. While most of my spoken word albums are comic monologues, this one is a notable exception. It is also one of a handful of records I own that were originally from overseas – in this case, from England.

The label is “His Master’s Voice,” the more famous brand name of what was originally called simply the Gramophone Company, a British manufacturer of phonographs. The iconic image was based on an 1899 painting by English artist Francis Barraud.

Nipper listening to a recording of his late master, Mark Barraud.

When Barraud’s brother Mark died, the artist inherited his dog, Nipper. In the original painting, Barraud captured Nipper listening intensely to the sound of Mark’s recorded voice playing from a cylinder phonograph trumpet. Barraud marketed the image hopefully to numerous phonograph manufacturers and finally found a buyer in the Gramophone Company, who first required the artist to change the painting to depict one of their disc playing phonographs in place of the cylinder machine. Barraud assented and the image became the company’s logo in 1900. In 1902 the Gramophone Company’s American sister corporation, the Victor Talking Machine Company, also acquired the rights to the image and deployed it more aggressively. The image became so broadly associated with the companies that in 1908 the Gramophone Company changed its name entirely to “His Master’s Voice” (HMV). The subsequent history of the HMV trademark and brand is one of countless corporate consolidations and mergers, far too convoluted to get into here.

The many types of HMV labels. Good boy, Nipper.

His Master's Voice B.8883

This album is in Good condition, with some minor wear to the label and the vinyl, but nothing that impacts its playability or sound significantly. It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is His Master’s Voice B.8883 and the master number is OEA.75730/OEA.75740. The A-side recording features Part 1 of an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest,” in which Lady Bracknell interviews John Worthing; it runs 3 minutes and 2 seconds. The B-side recording features Part 2 of the same scene; it runs 3 minutes and 13 seconds. The role of Lady Bracknell is performed by Dame Edith Evans (1888-1976) and the role of John Worthing is performed by Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000).

A spoken record, capturing a bit of one of the most legendary performances in 20th century theater.

Edith Evans (standing) as Lady Bracknell and John Gielgud as John Worthing.

Roger Wilmut dates the record as being from 1938 in his podcast, but according to WorldCat the only existing copy in an academic collection, at Stanford, is dated from 1939. I believe 1939 is correct, as the renowned production itself took place in London that year and it is unlikely that HMV would wish to make a recording of a theatrical production before it opened. Furthermore the 1939 issue of Peter Hugh Reed’s “The American Music Lover: the record connoisseur’s magazine” lists it among the newly released albums for that year. Finally, also endorsing the 1939 year of issue is volume 22 of the “London Mercury,” published that year, which also first lists the record as newly released – and also includes the original selling price (3 shillings). Les Docks does not include it in his catalog of record valuations and it is not listed for sale by any dealer anywhere that I could find, making it impossible to say how much the record is worth today.

CD artwork for EMI's re-release of the Evans/Gielgud recordings.

EMI, one of the long line of companies to own some piece of the HMV trademark, released a CD some time ago with this scene and more from the recordings of Gielgud and Evans’ performances from 1939, suggesting this record was one of a set released around the time of the production.

The play is widely regarded as Wilde’s crowning achievement and is, at the very least, his most enduring theatrical work. It premiered in London in 1895 and has been staged countless times around the world, including three film adaptations (the first, in 1952, featured Dame Evans in the role of Lady Bracknell, where she had won acclaim following the 1939 production). A witty satire of Victorian conventions and attitudes the play won early praise from the start (though a few critics, wary of theater that seemed to lack a meaningful social message, were less than pleased by it, calling it even into the 1930s no more than a “trivial comedy” that lacked “realistic accessories”) and had it not been for Wilde’s own ignominious demise it would have doubtless had a longer original run than its brief 86 performances. It was a popular and enjoyable bit of theatrical fare for the late 19th century stage.

Dame Evans as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version.

I will leave it to the reader to discover the plot of the play elsewhere – or, and I highly recommend it, you can simply get the play script from your library and enjoy it yourself. There are also numerous outlets to get video or DVD both online and off of stellar performances (and a few subpar ones) of this play, including a 2002 film version with Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Dame Judi Dench, and Tom Wilkinson. If you are not familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to take an afternoon and read it or watch it; it is a classic, an enjoyable and witty piece of work, and, if you get the right performance, an amazing vehicle for some of theater’s most brilliant comic and satirical performances.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in a photograph from May 23, 1889.

This disc, most fortunately, captures the vocal performances of two of the actors who are most indelibly associated with Wilde’s play. Gielgud and Evans first appeared in a staging of the play at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in 1930, but they are most fondly remember for the London 1939 revival of the play at the Globe Theater (not that Globe, a different one) which opened on August 16th of that year. While the duration of the clip that I can share here is somewhat abbreviated, there are still other sources where you can access more of their performances (including at Roger Wilmut’s podcast, linked above, which also includes a wonderful performance by John Barrymore in a scene from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, part 3” recorded in 1928). In this scene the young John Worthing is being interrogated by Lady Bracknell, whose daughter he is courting. As she discovers the young gentleman’s provenance (it involves Victoria’s Station and a handbag) her modest approval of him quickly reverses. The entire scene runs just over six minutes and is worth a listen via one of the above links.

Caricatures of the 1939 cast, by Stanley Parker of 'The Sketch' magazine. The image features (clockwise from top) John Gielgud as John Worthing, Peggy Ashcroft as Cecily Cardew, Jack Hawkins as Algernon Moncrieff and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Gwendolen Fairfax, with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the center.

Unfortunately the outbreak of war in Europe meant that the curtain fell on the play (and all others on stage in London at the time) almost immediately after it opened. Gielgud kept busy by giving a series of afternoon lectures on “Shakespearean Peace and War” at the Globe Theater that raised 500 Pounds for the Polish Relief Fund (Gielgud’s father was of Polish descent). A revival finally happened in 1946/1947, with Evans replaced by Margaret Rutherford.

Gielgud in costume for the 1947 revival.

Gielgud (on right) in the 1947 revival.

Another shot from the 1947 production, with Gielgud kneeling.

Samantha Ellis’ write-up of Dame Evans for The Guardian in 2003 is worth a read for a concise background on this remarkable actor, if you are not already familiar with her work. Evans not only appeared on stage in countless productions – largely, though not exclusively, portraying haughty aristocratic women – but she also did some film work, receiving three Oscar nominations, a BAFTA award, and a Golden Globe. Her performance as Lady Bracknell, both in 1939 and in the 1952 film, however, was likely the single most recognizable and infamous role of her life. Her delivery of Lady Bracknell’s simple line “A handbag?” has become the stuff of theatrical legend. In her 60 year career Evans portrayed over 150 different roles and appeared in works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, Congreve, Wycherley, Bagnold, Fry, and Coward. In addition to Bracknell and originating six of Shaw’s most famous characters, Evans’ portrayal of Rosalind in “As You Like It” in 1926 and 1936 and the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” in 1932, 1934, 1935, and 1961 were both considered definitive performances that shaped how many future actors approached their own interpretations of those characters.

Sir John Gielgud in 1973.

John Gielgud well might be one of the most famous actors of the 20th century, as well as one of the most talented.  He is one of only ten artists who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award in competitive categories. His first major success was his acclaimed 1937 Broadway performance of Hamlet, which broke box office records, however he had been appearing on stage in England as early as 1929, including a previous performance of the broody Dane, and his first appearance as John Worthing in 1930. Gielgud would make Hamlet part of his artistic life for the duration of his career however, taking the performance to the original Elsinore Castle in Denmark, reviving it in 1944, touring a production he directed in 1945 to the Far East, and, in later years, taking the role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, first opposite Richard Burton, then Richard Chamberlain, and lastly in a radio production with his protégé Kenneth Branagh. Also among his early Shakespeare successes was a 1935 “Romeo and Juliet” in which he famously both directed and alternated the roles of Mercutio and Romeo with Laurence Olivier (the young Olivier’s first Shakespeare leading role). The gig with Olivier went sour, however (it’s said that Olivier resented the older actor’s direction).

Gielgud as Richard II in 1936.

The full list of this master’s performances is far too long and too complicated to detail here. Full books can and have been written about his life and his contributions to the theater, both as an actor and as one of the finest directors of the era. He played Hamlet, alone, over 500 times in six productions. He has appeared in most of Shakespeare’s plays, in most of the classics of western theater. He has appeared on most London stages and many of New York’s, opposite (though mostly leading) some of the biggest names in show business in the 20th century. His original “Ages of Man” – a one-man performance of Shakespearean experts – earned him a Tony, a Grammy (for the recording), and an Emmy for the producer when it was broadcast on television. Gielgud’s final on stage Shakespearean performance was his 1977 Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theater.

Gielgud, again in 1973.

In his later years Gielgud moved away from the classics and embraced newer playwrights, including Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, with his final stage performance coming in 1988. Tangential with his acting career was his directing career, including a Tony Award for “Big Fish, Little Fish” in 1961, though most critics believed his most powerful and lasting works were the Shakespeare productions he both directed and performed in. Gielgud did not limit his performances to the stage or screen, however, as his prolific recordings of radio dramas for the BBC attest (including a 1950s series with Gielgud as Sherlock Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson, Gielgud’s brother Val as Mycroft, and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty…I know, awesome, right?). His final radio production was in the lead role of “King Lear” in 1994, staged to celebrate his 90th birthday, with a cast including Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and Simon Russell Beale.

Gielgud as Pope Pius V in "Elizabeth" (1998), his final speaking role in a film.

Gielgud’s film career was slow to start, but began as early as 1924. It did not truly pick up speed in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s Gielgud famously renounced his aversion to film as an art and quickly appeared in so many films and television productions, of numerous variety, that it was jokingly said he was “prepared to do almost anything for his art.” Surprisingly, despite the vast number of films in which he appeared, very few were of poor quality, and many won awards – an Oscar, New York Film Critics Circle, BAFTA, etc. His final television appearance was in “Merlin” in 1998 and his final speaking film role was as Pope Pius V in “Elizabeth,” also in 1998.

There are interesting parallels in the story behind this record. In 1895 the original run of “The Importance of Being Earnest” came to an abrupt end, as did the 1939 production captured on this album, though in 1895 it was due to the playwright’s fall from grace and in 1940 it was due to the outbreak of war. Indeed, even Wilde’s fall into disrepute is somewhat mirrored by Gielgud’s own struggle with negative attention, in his case following his 1953 conviction for attempting to pick up a man in a public lavatory. Whereas Wilde’s troubles ended up spurring a downward spiral of depression and sickness that culminated in his early death, however, Gielgud followed a different path: with the encouragement of friends and colleagues he stood strong, stayed in the theater (and even moved boldly into film work) and is now largely credited for being a leading figure in the movement that resulted in the decriminalization of homosexuality in England.

A closing observation: I titled this week’s entry “the masters’ voices,” referring to both Evans and Gielgud as masters of their craft. Naturally this recording is not entirely identical to their performances on stage in 1939, but, for that era, this is the closest we can come to capturing, reliving, and experiencing those performances. Many who follow the theater, as I do, read numerous accounts of these groundbreaking, and often character-defining, performances, but the most we can hope to experience them today is through static photographs and less than objective critical reviews. Of course, we lose a fundamental part of the performance when we cannot see the action, too; but, in a sense, as the voice is the instrument of a master actor, we have in this recording (and others like it from the period) a perfect vehicle to convey the power of live theater: a medium that combines just a bit of the actor’s magic, through their voice, and just a bit of our own imagination. And our own imagination is, after all, the most important ingredient in theatre.

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.

A historic Harmony

This week on Zayde’s Turntable is an album of no true monetary value to a collector, but I wanted to learn a bit more about it because it captures an important historical moment in American history.

First, a word about the label. Harmony Records were pressed from 1925 until the early 30s and was owned outright by Columbia Records. It was often used as a low-price outlet for Columbia’s reissues and, in the 1950s, Columbia revived the label for a series of LPs with nothing but reissued tracks (about five songs per side). Columbia continued to release reissues on the LP version of the label into the mid 1970s.

Harmony labels (with the ca. 1950s version on the left and ca. 1930 versions center and right).

Perhaps the most interesting facets of the original Harmony Records is their role in straddling one of the most significant technological shifts in recording history: the movement from acoustic recording to electrical recording. Reportedly Columbia had just completed a major overhaul of their acoustic recording system when the new fad – electrical recording – came onto the scene. Rather than scrap their significant investment in the acoustical studio they simply continued to utilize it for their “lower end” Harmony label. The result is some of the finest, and last, acoustically recorded commercial records.

Acoustical recording is a mechanical process in which the artists performed live, their music being captured in a massive machine with a diaphragm; a needle connected to the diaphragm literally cut the recording into master disc (or cylinder). Level control was achieved by actually having a performer move physically closer to or further from the machine.

The Victor Orchestra recording acoustically. Auto-tune function not available on this model; sorry, Ms. Black.

Electrical recording was introduced in 1925 and is still, in many respects, the manner by which audio recordings are made. Electrical recording systems allow for microphones, over-dubbing, level adjustment, and, these days, even more. In its earliest incarnations, however, the process still physically cut a master record with a needle, meaning that a mistake at any point in the recording rendered the entire take – and record – useless. (Some labels would reissue scrapped takes of popular songs on later albums, though it was far more common to simply reissue the originally released take.)

This album, the only Harmony label in my collection (according to my notes from the late 1990s) is in Good to Very Good condition, with some slight wear and one light scratch to one side (the scratch does not effect the record’s playability and both my Symphony phonograph needle and my Crosley Archiver needle were able to navigate it without problem). It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Harmony 418-H and the master number is 144218/144219.

Harmony Records #418-H

Harmony records include a unique Columbia code.

Peculiar to all post-1924 Columbia records is a third identifying number pressed into the vinyl of the end gap of the record at the 12-o’clock position: 3-B-5 on the A-side 1-B-6 on the B-side. The first number is the take number, the middle letter designates the “mother” (the metal master disc), and the final number indicates the “stamper” (the metal “negative” of the mother). One stamper could press out about 1,000 copies of a record before it was no longer useable (hence the need for a “mother” that could create more stampers). With this information we know that the A-side song took three takes and the B-side song took only one take. At least two mothers were created (probably more), and at least 5 stampers for the A-side and 6 for the B-side – meaning, at a minimum, about 10,000 to 12,000 copies of this record were made.

The A-side recording is “Lucky Lindy,” lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert and music by Abel Baer, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The B-side recording is “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” lyrics by Howard Johnson and music by Al Sherman, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 55 seconds. Both songs are sung by tenor Jack Kaufman, backed up by an unnamed orchestra. While I could find no indication of a specific recording date, it is likely from 1927 or early 1928.

Both songs were written on the occasion of “Lucky” Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated May 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight. The record-setting event engendered a remarkable level of patriotic fervor and an incredible number of musical tributes, perhaps more so than any other event in American history until then or since. Ironically, the flight was considered an illustration of mankind’s (and America’s specifically) technological prowess and ingenuity – I say ironic because this particular record was recorded in what was then an antiquated technology, the acoustic method. Lindbergh became celebrated more than any star of Hollywood or radio and there was a rush to capture that spirit by the leading cultural medium of the day: recorded music.

Charles Lindbergh, around the time of his famous 1927 flight.

To say the quantity of songs written about Lindbergh’s flight exceeds that written to mark any single event in American history before or since is not an exaggeration. Not even including the still recognizable dance craze inspired by the flight (the Lindy Hop), in all in the two years following Lindbergh’s journey the U.S. Copyright Office received three hundred applications on songs related to the flight and the pilot. Thirty songs alone had the same title – “Spirit of St. Louis,” Lindbergh’s plane. Another twelve were entitled “Lindy” (there was some confusion over the spelling, resulting in Lindberg, Lindburg, Linberg, Linderburg, and Linbergh). The third most popular title was “Lone Eagle” – a commonly used metaphor for the pilot that combined jingoistic American symbolism with the physical feat of flying itself. Other Lindbergh tributes included “Won’t You Take Me to Heaven, Please, Lucky Lindy Do,” “America Did It Again,” “Like an Angel He Flew into Our Hearts,” “Plucky Lindy’s Lucky Day,” “Just Like a Butterfly through Sun and Rain, and “He Did It, the Thing that Couldn’t Be Done.” The Hoover for President campaign benefited from “If He’s Good Enough for Lindy.” The volume of musical tributes was so great that one Tin Pan Alley songwriting team even wrote one entitled “This Song Is Not About Lindbergh.”

Lindbergh received a hero's welcome on his return to the U.S.

In 1929 Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and Bertolt Brecht penned an opera entitled “Der Lindberghflug” (Lindbergh’s Flight), though Brecht would later remove all references to the pilot and rename the piece “Der Ozeanflug” (Ocean Flight) in 1950 in reaction to Lindbergh’s perceived Nazi sympathies. Indeed Lindbergh’s apparent right-wing political viewpoints also engendered negative musical references, though not for some decades after his flight. In the 1940s Woody Guthrie’s “Lindbergh” skewered the celebrated pilot for his affiliation with the far right America First Party (“They say America First, but they mean America Next”). Guthrie probably would have found the lyric “Lucky Lindy, right all along…” on the A-side of this record to be a bit too true.

On the A-side we have the prolific recording artist and vaudevillian Jack Kaufman singing Gilbert and Baer’s “Lucky Lindy” – perhaps the single most popular and widely produced of the Lindbergh paeans. Gilbert and Baer had just finished composing the piece on May 21, 1927 when word of Lindbergh’s safe landing at Le Bourget was announced on the radio. It was performed that very evening at several venues around New York City; Leo Feist printed the sheet music that very weekend and it was on sale by Monday. On Tuesday the number was headlining at the Paramount Theater, being performed on the cinema’s massive Wurlitzer in between films. The song was probably featured on every major label by most of the leading singers of the day. I can find evidence of (in addition to the Harmony recording) a ca. 1927 recording by Vernon Dalhart on Perfect (#12345), another Jack Kaufman recording (possibly the same) also from around 1927 on Velvet Tone (#1418-V), a Domino Records (#17260) recording with baritone Ernest Hare, another Ernest Hare recording on Banner (#1994-A) (which one EBay seller is currently listing for $1), and a May 26, 1927 (yes, five days after Lindbergh landed) Victor scroll recording (#20681-A) by Nat Shillkret and the Victor Orchestra. Not one of these albums appears in Les Docks’ guide to “collectible” records – in fact, I could not locate a single of the Lindbergh tribute songs anywhere in his compendium. This simply further illustrates that, today, value is determined more by scarcity than historical import, musical quality, or even the featured artist.

The sheet music for "Lucky Lindy" was on sale just a few days after Lindbergh landed.

Songwriter Abel Baer (1893-1976).

Abel Baer (1893-1976), a World War I veteran, originally trained to be a dentist, but abandoned that career in 1920 when he joined a music publisher as a staff writer. His works include many Tin Pan Alley hits, including “Mama Loves Papa,” “When the One You Love, Loves You,” and “I’m Sitting Pretty.” Less celebrated today is his World War II jingle “We’ve Got A Job To Do On The Japs, Baby.” Two years after penning “Lucky Lindy” – probably his greatest commercial success – Baer moved to Hollywood and wrote songs for the films “Paramount on Parade,” “True to the Navy,” and “Frozen Justice.” His credits also include the Broadway scores of “Lady Do” and “Old Bill M.P.”

Lyricist Wolfe Gilbert (1888-1954).

Louis Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970) started as a singer in a quartet on Coney Island, before being discovered by an English producer and being brought to London to perform as part of The Ragtime Octet. He started writing music in 1912 and made the move to Hollywood in 1915, writing – eventually – over 250 songs for film, television, and radio, including “Ramona” – the very first motion picture theme song, as well as numbers for the Eddie Cantor Show and the lyrics for the hit children’s program “Western Hop-Along Cassidy” on NBC. Gilbert was an astute self-promoter and one of the first songwriters to publish and market his own catalog; his acumen for the business led to his selection to serve as director of ASCAP from 1941 to 1944.

The B-side recording is Kaufman singing “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)” – again keeping with the eagle symbolism. It is clearly the more jingoistic of the two songs, with Al Sherman, the writer, appropriating snippets of melody from classic American anthems (listen for a bit of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle” in the clip below). Like “Lucky Lindy,” this tune was released within days, perhaps even hours, of Lindbergh’s successful landing in France in May 1927. In addition to this recording I was able to identify several contemporaneous recordings: three issues of Vernon Dalhart singing it, one recorded on May 23 (two days after he landed!) on a Victor scroll record (#20674-A – note how close the catalog number is to the “Lucky Lindy” Victor recording, illustrating how closely together the two albums were released), one on Edison Blue Amberol cylinder (#5362), and one on Perfect (#12345; the reverse side of the same disc with “Lucky Lindy,” exactly as with this Harmony record, though with a different artist; one seller on EBay currently lists this disc for slightly overpriced cost of $30). There was also a Harry Crane recording on Oriole Records (#922-A) and another issue of the Jack Kaufman recording found here on Velvet Tone (#1418-V – again, identical to this record, in this case in both song selection and artist).

Sheet music to "The Eagle of the U.S.A."

Lyricist Howard Johnson (1887-1941) was likewise a veteran of World War I. After getting out of the Navy in 1917 Johnson, a pianist, joined ASCAP and began his career as a songwriter. In addition to penning “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream” Johnson was behind many of the most popular ballads of the period. One of Johnson’s (now ironic) pieces was the 1917 song “China, We Owe A Lot To You” (music by Milton Ager). No kidding.

Songwriter Al Sherman (1897-1973).

Al Sherman (1897-1973) came to America from Prague in 1909. Speaking little English and serving as a surrogate father for his four siblings after their father left them, Sherman taught himself piano and quickly became one of the most in-demand improvisers in America. He developed a reputation for providing “mood music” and his skills were sought by many of the leading film stars of the silent movies; in 1916 Universal signed Sherman to do bit parts in the films himself. In 1918 he joined the Remick Music Company as a staff pianist, composing numbers alongside some of the top songwriters of the day, including George Gershwin. Sherman also organized and directed his own orchestra that played in both Miami Beach and New York City. Sherman’s sons, Robert and Richard, would continue in their father’s footsteps, eventually writing the music for the classic films “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Sherman’s own Tin Pan Alley credits include over 500 songs, most notably “Over Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Now’s The Time To Fall In Love,” which became his signature tune and “helped raise the spirits of the Depression generation.” His songs made or furthered the careers of a remarkable roster of musicians: Maurice Chevalier, Fred Waring, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, Ruddy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, Lawrence Welk, Peggy Lee, Patti Page, and Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club Orchestra. His music can be heard in the Broadway hits “Ziegfeld Follies,” “George White’s Scandals,” “The Passing Show,” and “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.” His film music includes songs for “The Big Pond,” “Sweetie,” “The Sky’s the Limit,” and “Sensations of 1945.”

Cyndi Lauper in 1983. Her cover of one of Sherman's songs earned her a Grammy award.

Sherman’s music continued to influence American musicians even into the 1980s, when Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of Sherman’s “He’s So Unusual” – titled “She’s So Unusual” (1983) – even featured scratches and hisses designed to sound like a vintage 78-RPM record. The song hit #4 on the Billboard pop charts and won a Grammy for Best Album Package; it made #494 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.

The vocalist on both sides of the album is tenor Jack Kaufman, one of the famous singing brothers Irving, Phillip, and Jack Kaufman, who originally hailed from Syracuse, New York, about an hour from where Zayde’s Turntable currently resides. Irving has been called the “most recorded singer between 1914 and 1930” and his two brothers, who performed for a while as “The Kaufman Brothers” (until Phillip’s death in 1918), were quite prolific in their own respects.

Jack (left) and Phil Kaufman in a promotional poster from around 1910.

Jack and Phil’s early vaudeville acts seemed to include quite a bit of the reviled “blackface” routines. An undated period newspaper review of their act states:

“The Kaufman Brothers… [began] their act by impersonating the Russian dancers and the Parisian vocalist who had just preceded them.” … “Especially worthy of attention are their parodies of Italian songs. Both men… play ‘swell coons’ attractively.” … “Their entrance is made in bangy, bangy coon-shouter style… These brothers have excellent voices, but are too full of monkeyshines to take time to sing properly.” … “Ragtime and Italian songs are their long suit.” … “They sing exceptionally well, but otherwise just indulge in effervescent nonsense and wear red vests and checkerboard suits.” … “Their Yiddiher Opera brought a storm of applause.”

They grew to become “second stringers” – vaudeville acts that filled out the bill for larger stars like Irene Franklin and Will Rogers.

Newspaper cartoons depicting Phil and Jack Kaufman in their blackface performance (top row and bottom left, 1910-1911; bottom right, 1914).

Jack and Phil Kaufman in an undated photo appear in blackface as part of their vaudeville act.

After Phil’s death, Irving joined with Jack and the two performed together for a number of years. The partnership dissolved in 1923, though they reunited briefly again starting in 1928. It was during this five year hiatus that Jack, performing and recording as a solo artist now, cut this album for Harmony Records. Irving and Jack (and, earlier Phil) were studio workhorses and recorded separately and together probably more albums during the Tin Pan Alley period than any other musical family, appearing by name or by pseudonym on quite literally hundreds of records for dozens of labels. Jack’s sense of theatricality, a maybe even bombast, comes across in the two recordings on this album – listen to his rolling R’s and energy, due probably to both the enthusiasm around the event and his own personality. The last Kaufman recording was made by the busiest of the brothers, Irving, in 1974, meaning the Kaufman era of original recordings lasted a remarkable 60 years.

Lindbergh and his plane.

Lindbergh and his plane - the inspiration for over 300 songs.

This May America will celebrate the 85th anniversary of Lucky Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. The air mail pilot took off from Long Island a virtual unknown and landed, 3600 miles and one day later, in Paris, France as a national hero and icon. One can imagine the songwriters, musicians, studio executives, sheet music publishers, and recording technicians scrambling for that one week in late May in 1927, trying to be the first to get a piece of that Lindbergh magic. In some ways it may not seem so different than today’s commercialism. But, when I put that record onto Zayde’s Turntable and try to imagine the energy, the (much needed) optimism, and the pride that must have been coursing through the singer, the band, and the original listener, playing this disc for the very first time in 1927, I can’t help but think that it is, maybe in some way, just a bit different.

A Perfect record to get things started

For the first album we’ll look at on Zayde’s Turntable I’ve chosen a Perfect record.

That is neither its condition nor a description of its musical content. Perfect records first came on the scene in 1922 and was the American brand of the prolific European record company Pathé, which had been creating first cylinder recordings and later standard 78-RPM discs since the 1890s. Perfect records were lower quality dime-store albums, but the label proved so popular (read: affordable) with the American public that they continued as their own brand even after Pathé itself folded in 1929 during a large merger of many record companies into the mammoth American Record Corporation. Perfect records, headquartered at 34 Grand Avenue in Brooklyn, continued to be manufactured until 1938.

34 Grand Avenue in Brooklyn - once home to the Perfect record company. Now Raels Gable (sic).

A “Perfect” label of 45-RPMs was issued in the 1950s, but I can find no evidence that it was at all related to the original 1922-1938 company. In 1993 Dean Blackwood revived the label briefly to issue recordings by a handful of 1980s experimental rock and rockabilly artists.

Perfect labels from 1922 through the late 1950s.

Perfect record 15228, featuring the La Palina Broadcasters and Ted Bancroft - neither of whom existed.

This particular album is in Very Good to Excellent condition, which is not common for a Perfect record given, ironically, the generally lower quality manufacturing that went into the brand. It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM vinyl disc. The record catalog number is Perfect 15228 (15228-B) and the master number is 37047A (37047B). The A-side recording features the waltz “Pal Of My Sweetheart Days” by Benny Davis and Fred Coots and runs approximately 2 minutes and 45 seconds. The B-side recording features the waltz “All That I’m Asking Is Sympathy” by Benny Davis and Joe Burke and runs approximately 2 minutes and 50 seconds. Both songs are sung by “Ted Bancroft” (more on the use of the quotations below) backed up by the “La Palina Broadcasters.” Tyrone Settlemier dates the album to August 20, 1929, which seems to match with the appearance of the encircled “E” on the label – a feature that appeared on Perfect labels only in the late 1920s. The record is valued at approximately $7 to $10.

Side-by-side with another 78-RPM of the period the color difference of the Perfect is more apparent.

It is one of eight Perfect records in my collection, but is probably the one in the best condition. One reason I decided to start with a Perfect label is the company’s interesting decision to forgo the traditional black shellac for a reddish/orange shellac – not all 78s look the same and as record companies competed for ways to make their product stick out a bit more they became increasingly more creative in how they made their albums look and not just sound. Only one other label at the time – Vocalion – did the same. Another Pathé label, Pathé-Actuelle, pressed mottled vinyl albums for a time. The epitome of this practice were the picture discs, best represented by the highly collectable Vogue picture records – in which complete color illustrations were printed on paper, covered with a thin vinyl sheet, and then the recording grooves were pressed onto the disc. The albums were pretty, even if the sound quality was a bit less than ideal.

Another bonus aspect of this album is that it is in my collection in its original sleeve. While most collectors don’t care about the album sleeve (except for some records, mostly 45s, where the sleeve artwork is actually more collectible than the record itself), there’s something nice about having the disc in its original home. Album sleeves were prime real estate for the record company to advertise and promote the other recordings (hey, if you bought this one…).

B-side of sleeve lists Perfect artists (so to speak).

On one side the headline of the sleeve copy here reads “A Selected List of Perfect Standard RECORDS THAT SHOULD BE IN EVERY HOME.” It then lists 28 albums in six categories – Hawaiian (“Ciribiribin…With Whistling,” “Kawaha,” and “O Sole Mio” -?), Instrumental, Vocal, Humorous and Novelty (“Casey At The Dentist” – a less successful sequel to Casey at the Bat perhaps?), Sacred, and Operatic and Classical. The song “La Paloma” must have been a real hit as it appears twice – once under Hawaiian (featuring “Louise and Ferera” on Hawaiian Guitars) and once under Instrumental (featuring the Casino Orchestra). The sleeve implores the reader to “ASK FOR COMPLETE STANDARD CATALOG OF PERFECT RECORDS.”

A-side of sleeve with promotional image and copy.

The front of the sleeve touts “AMERICA’S FASTEST SELLING RECORD…Better Records Can’t Be Made”. The former claim may have been true, but the latter almost certainly not. In addition to a black and white illustration of various types of musicians performing on top of a record the sleeve front additionally partially lists 35 popular and famous artists and orchestras that appeared on the Perfect label (the Original Memphis Five, Ukulele Ike, Hotel Biltmore Orchestra, Harry Barth’s Mississippians, Phil Hughes and his High Hatters, Irving Kaufman, Arthur Fields, Yvonne Gall, etc.).

A better look at the sleeve graphic, untorn.

The music on the album is less than thrilling.

The A-side recording, “Pal Of My Sweetheart Days,” is a standard waltz like so many that came out of Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s, with a cookie-cutter sensibility to the tune, accompanied by trite rhymes and clichéd lyrics.

“Mem’ries awaken the old love again, pal of my sweetheart days / Tho’ we’re far apart, you seem to linger in my heart.”

You get the idea.

1929 sheet music for

In addition to appearing on Perfect a version of the song appeared on the Broadway label, featuring “Frank Raymond’s Do”, some time between 1929 and 1932. The song was published in 1929 by Coots & Engel Inc. of New York City. In addition to a piano, vocal, and ukulele sheet music and the albums the song appeared on a Sears “Supertone” piano roll (#4430) issued by Columbia featuring an unknown pianist (though I have a very strong suspicion that the artist was…well, I’ll give away part of the end of this post if I tell you now).

1929 sheet music to

The B side recording is likewise a standard waltz from the period. “All That I’m Asking Is Sympathy” was also recorded by Art Jarrett and his Orchestra for Victor (record catalog number 22236) on December 2, 1929. It received a revival (and serious tempo adjustment) in 1953 on the album “Slim Whitman Sings” – the third record from the prolific country music singer and acclaimed yodeler Ottis Dewey “Slim” Whitman (issued on an Imperial 78-RPM #8180 and currently selling on EBay for about $15). The song was published by the Joe Morris Music Company of New York in 1929. “You are all I had / Now I am so sad / All that I’m asking is sympathy.”

Lyricist Benny Davis (1895-1979).

The works of three composers appear on the record. Benny Davis (1895-1979) had a hand in both songs. Davis, a former vaudeville performer and accompanist, was one of the busiest, and most successful, lyricists of the period. In addition to the two songs here Davis was responsible for the lyrics to the hit song “Baby Face” and several dozen others. He wrote lyrics to the Broadway shows “Artists and Models of 1927” and “Sons o’ Guns” (1936), as well as three versions of the Cotton Club revue. His song most recognizable to contemporary listeners is probably “With These Hands,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands” sung by Tom Jones.

Davis’ colleague on “Pal Of My Sweetheart Days” (and many other songs) was J. Fred Coots (1897-1985), another high-volume Tin Pan Alley songwriter. A banker-turned-songwriter, Coots’ produced over 700 published songs and the scores to nine Broadway shows including “A Night in Paris“ (1926). His song “Louisiana Fairy Tale,” was used as the original theme song to the PBS show “This Old House” many decades later. In 1940 Coots – a fierce Rangers fan – wrote the “New York Rangers Victory Song,” which is still played after each of the hockey team’s home wins. Timely with the recent holiday, Coots most famous contribution to the American songbook, however, is doubtless the Christmas classic “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (1934) – the tune for which he supposedly cooked up in ten minutes and which has sold over 4 millions copies of sheet music (500,000 of which were in the first year alone).

Composer Fred Coots (1897-1985).

Jack Burton’s 1950 “Honor Roll of Popular Songwriters” in Billboard magazine ranked Coots at number #52. Burton’s profile of Coots relates how the young banker gave up a lucrative career (fortuitous with the eventual market collapse of the late 1920s) to follow a passion for music. He sold his first song, the less-than-marketably-titled “Mister Ford, You’ve Got The Right Idea” (1917) for $5 – then promptly spent the entirety of the earnings on a celebratory dinner that same night. Years later, when the same publisher who bought that 1917 tune was himself on hard times the then-wealthy Coots presented him with a check for $500: “I owed the guy,” he explained.

Coots also composed music for several popular “night spots” during Prohibition, including the Alamo in Harlem, where the songwriter discovered a large-nosed pianist with a ripping sense of humor. Coots persuaded the young Jimmy Durante to give up his 75-cents-an-hour piano gig to get onto the comedy circuit professionally.

Waite Hoyt: championship Yankees pitcher, funeral director, and vaudeville performer.

Coots himself also appeared on stage on occasion, mostly in vaudeville acts in New York City. Following the New York Yankees 1927 World Series victory Coots teamed up with Yankees pitcher Waite Hoyt – fresh off pitching two winning Series games – to perform to sold out crowds at the Palace Theater. Hoyt, a consummate performer himself, went by the nickname “The Merry Mortician” – an allusion to his two non-baseball jobs: running a funeral home and starring in vaudeville numbers (including acts with Durante, Jack Benny, and George Burns). One might imagine Derek Jeter doing soft-shoe with Zach Galifianakis…or one might not.

Davis’ collaborator for “All That I’m Asking Is Sympathy” was Joe Burke (1884-1950), a songwriter better known for his film scores and songs than his popular singles. Burke started his career as an actor, appearing as Senator Keene in the 1915 black and white silent film “The Senator” and in the 1929 flick “The Show of Shows”. His catalog of Billboard Number One hit songs includes “Moon Over Miami” (1936), “Carolina Moon” (1929 – the same year as “All That I’m Asking Is Sympathy”), “On Treasure Island” (1935, for Tommy Dorsey), “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” (1930), and “Who Wouldn’t Love You” (1942). He also penned the official college anthem for Villanova University (even though Burke himself was educated at UPenn). Burke’s most (in)famous song is perhaps “Tip Toe Through The Tulips” (originally for Nick Lucas for the 1929 show “The Gold Diggers of Broadway” and later more notoriously covered by Tiny Tim).

Tiny Tim, in his final video interview shortly before his death in 1996.

A second attraction for using this record to get Zayde’s Turntable spinning – in addition to its unconventional color – is its usefulness in illustrating the wide use of pseudonyms in the period. Collector and author of the “American Premium Record Guide” Les Docks notes: “the real name of the artist was not always used on all the affiliate labels…the purpose was often to evade exclusive recording artist contractual restrictions, or to avoid making royalty payments to artists…If this isn’t confusing enough, one pseudonym…might conceal the true identity of a dozen or more bands, whose performances appeared on other labels perhaps under different pseudonyms.”

Particularly fascinating on this record is that both the orchestra and the vocalist appear as a pseudonym. After a fair amount of digging I was able to ascertain the true identity of both the enigmatic “La Palina Broadcasters” and “Ted Bancroft.”

Bandleader Fred Rich (1898-1956).

Docks’ compendium lists several albums of value from the La Palina Broadcasters on Conqueror, Domino, Pathe-Actuelle, and Perfect – all valued $7 to $10. There is absolutely no record elsewhere of such an orchestra actually existing, however. La Palina was (and is) a brand of cigar, which – at one point – sponsored radio programs on CBS radio. In late 1928, a 30-year old man by the name of Fred Rich (1898-1956) was hired to be the music director for CBS radio. Rich, who came from an already lengthy career as a bandleader with numerous recordings to his credit, would be a natural to lead a radio orchestra (hence “Broadcasters” in the title) for Perfect (and other labels, all of which had some sort of business relationship with Columbia and CBS).

A search for more on Rich and La Palina confirm the pseudonym – Robert Stockdale’s “The Dorsey Brothers” lists four recordings on, literally, dozens of labels using up to six pseudonyms (“Ted White’s Collegians,” “Pierrot Syncopators,” “Pete Mandel and his Rhythm Masters,” “Vincent Lopez and his Orchestra,” etc.). Brian Rust’s “Jazz Records, 1897-1942” adds the front name “Jimmy Pollack’s Orchestra” on the rare Domino label to the mix. Docks identifies Fred/Freddie Rich and his Orchestra as being synonymous with the “La Palina Orchestra” – not Broadcasters – and lists over fifty of his albums on Banner, Cameo, Columbia (naturally), Gennett, Harmony, Hit-of-the-Week, Okeh, Pathe-Actuelle, Perfect, Regal, Romeo, and Vocalion – with an overall range of value between $5 and $30.

Rich’s recordings are mostly fairly standard and unimpressive dance fare (such as appear on this particular album), though he did press a few remarkable and acclaimed jazz albums. A writer in the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors 1971 volume observers about an unspecified La Palina Broadcaster’s recording: “Ted Bancroft does the vocal. There is the lead trumpet work, a lengthy Tommy Dorsey trombone solo, with brother Jimmy taking a clarinet solo. On the B-side the vocalist is Irving Kaufman [see list of featured Perfect artists above]. The quite commendable trumpet solos are by Leo McConville. The trombone solo is played straight but has T.D.’s [Tommy Dorsey’s] tone. A most interesting piano solo. Who? The B-side original issue cannot be traced. Banner?? It is a real sleeper.”

Rich’s finger-work as a pianist lives on immortalized in the dozens of piano rolls he also recorded for the Aeolian Company and others (perhaps even the uncredited roll for “Pal Of My Sweetheart Days”?). Rich left his job at CBS in 1938 but still made musical appearances on a number of programs (including The Abbott and Costello Show on NBC from 1943 to 1945). Leaving radio behind his final artistic endeavors were for the big screen, providing the scores to the films “Stage Door Canteen” (1943), “Jack London” (1943), “A Walk In The Sun” (1945), and “A WAVE, a WAC, and a Marine” (1944), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best score.

There is no Ted Bancroft. A cursory search finds references to a Benny Goodman drummer, Ben Pollack (hmmm….”Jimmy Pollack’s Orchestra”?), singing under the pseudonyms “Ted Bancroft” and “Eddie Gale” (not, of course, Eddie Gale the jazz trumpeter…confused yet?). Pollack was a bandleader and singer by the late 1920s and his band had recently relocated from Chicago to New York City. They pressed albums for a vast array of labels: Banner, Perfect, Domino, Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo, and Victor, under an equally vast array of pseudonyms: Mills’ Merry Makers, Goody’s Good Timers, Kentucky Grasshoppers, Mills’ Musical Clowns, The Lumberjacks, Dixie Daises, The Whoopee Makers, The Hotsy Totsy Gang, and Jimmy Bracken’s Toe Ticklers. But Pollack’s music was almost all straight jazz and “hot dance.” Furthermore, as I am certain that the La Palina Broadcasters are the Fred Rich orchestra, it seem very unlikely that Ben Pollack would appear as a solo vocalist on an album backed up by someone else’s band.

Ted Bancroft is another Columbia/CBS artist. A musician who provided vocal accompaniment to Fred Rich’s Columbia house orchestra on numerous Columbia labels, including the original “Singin’ in the Rain.” He was one of the original “singing cowboys” and appeared in western films for Paramount and 20th Century Fox up through the 1950s, including dubbing the singing for John Wayne in “Riders of Destiny” and “The Man from Utah” and starred opposite Frances Langford as the lead in “Palm Springs.” He recorded hundreds of records with dozens of bands (including Ben Pollack’s). His own short-lived orchestra, on the Okeh label, gave a start to Glenn Miller. His name was Sykes “Smith” Ballew (1902-1984).

Sykes “Smith” Ballew (1902-1984), aka Ted Bancroft, pictured in 1931 two years after recording this album and at the height of his one-time fame.

And not one of his albums is commercially available today. You can only hear them on Zayde’s Turntable.

And that, in some ways, seems Perfect.