Roll On Record

For this installment of Zayde’s Turntable I let my 2-1/2 year old daughter select the record and I’m very happy with the result! She certainly loved dancing to it – over and over again. A good reminder that, if you have 78 r.p.m. discs, it’s best to limit how often you play them on a traditional steel-needle phonograph (or, even better, not use one at all) and opt for a more modern player – that can spin at 78 r.p.m. – with a synthetic stylus. Also, she selected a record that, unbeknownst to me when she picked it, has a unique instrumentation: it’s a hopping jazz piano record from 1949/1950, but it’s not any old piano…

The record is on the short-lived Abbey label, not to be confused with Abbey Road. Searching for Abbey records background was a bit difficult. There is no entry for them in the Online Discographical Project.  Created by record producer Peter Doraine in New York City in 1949, Abbey represented Doraine’s attempt to become a big shot in the burgeoning post-war record industry. The label’s initial releases, in the R&B genre, had mediocre sales – including the Ben Smith Quartet performing the colorfully titled “I Ain’t Fattening Frogs For Snakes,” the Cabineers singing “Whirlpool,” which had some success, and some tunes performed by Bobby Marshall. The real shot in the arm, however, came later that year with Abbey 15003 – a disc featuring Lawrence Cook and The Jim Dandies (Cook also composed and performs on this week’s featured record below), with “The Old Piano Roll Blues” and “Why Do They Always Say No.” The record sold a then-remarkable 200,000 albums. What was especially remarkable about Abbey 15003, however, is that it was not a recording of a live pianist: it was a pianola playing a QRS piano roll. J.C. Marion, in Jamm Upp, writes:

 “…at this moment in history, memories and reminiscences of an earlier, simpler time were the biggest sellers… So, whether it was by design or merely by chance, ‘The Old Piano Roll Blues’ was a huge success. Quite a departure for the new R&B label in town! The tune by Lawrence (now nicknamed ‘Piano Roll’) Cook, was everywhere. But – Doraine continued on his R&B quest.”

“Nickel-Nabbers Sure!”

The label continued to sign and release recordings in the R&B genre, but had no more real hit records. Some of the other artists who released Abbey records in 1949-1951 included – and I include some of the more entertaining song titles here, as well – The Masterkeys, Art Long (“Blues Got Me Walkin, Talkin’ To Myself”), the Ray Parker Combo (performing with Bobby Marshall, on one album, the Inkspots’ song “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” later made famous by Elvis), the Eddie Wilcox Orchestra (“I Shouldn’t Love You, But I Do”), Ralph Willis, Billy Matthews, Elmer Crumbley, Johnny Felton (“You’re Spending My Money Too Fast”), Jewyl Lang, The Radars with the Conrad Fredrick Orchestra, Nellie Hill (“I’m Gonna Copyright Your Kisses”), Sister Dorothy Rivers and Her Gospel Singers, the Billy Ford Orchestra, Joe Candullo’s Orchestra (“I Cooed, I Wooed, I Wed in Tennessee”), Joan Shaw, Elaine Brent, and the King Odom Four (“Don’t Trade Your Love For Gold”). Despite having signed a few partners since 1949, Doraine is still the hear behind Abbey records and when he is signed as head of A&R for Allen Records in 1952 Abbey records fades away.

By the way, Doraine seemed to have something of a sense of humor. A 1950 news account related the following exchange over the phone between Doraine and a songwriter pitching a new tune: “He called up Peter Doraine…in New York and played it over the phone. ‘What’s its name?’ asked Doraine, adding that he liked it. ‘I’ll Write You a Letter,’ said Balee. ‘Why can’t you tell me now?’ said Doraine.”

This album, Abbey 15056, is in good condition, though it does skip twice at the beginning of the A-side recording. There is very little wear to the shellac or to the paper label. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78 r.p.m. black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The A-side recording features Lawrence “Piano Roll” Cook and His Orchestra performing Cook’s own composition “The Mason-Dixon Boogie.” The matrix number is G-989 and it runs 2 minutes. The B-side is the same musicians performing “San Antonio Rose” written and originally performed by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in 1938. The matrix number is G-990 and it runs 2 minutes and 36 seconds. I could find no date for the recording of the album, though Billboard magazine of November 17, 1951 includes an ad for a store called Speedy Record Sales in Yonkers, in which the album is listed in their top picks (alongside Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and Hank Williams records) and available for 60-cents. It was probably recorded in very late 1949 or at some point in 1950. Abbey 15056 does not appear in Les Dock’s guide to record values, but I found one dealer online selling a copy in V+ condition for $4. Abbey later re-released “Mason-Dixon Boogie” on 45 r.p.m. as Abbey 3029; I found one dealer selling that record for $20 and another selling it for $5.

Jean Lawrence Cook (1899-1976), aka “Piano Roll” Cook, has been mentioned on this blog before, coincidentally quite recently, for his 1955 piano roll version of John Moore and Ewart Abner’s “At My Front Door,” which he recorded under the pseudonym “Pep Doyle.” Cook was wildly prolific and by some accounts made more piano rolls than any other pianist in history – as many as 20,000 different roll recordings (over his 56 year career, that works out to about one roll recorded per day, every day of the year). Remarkably, despite being one of the most high-volume musical artists of the 20th century he is barely known today –a search on Amazon finds just 11 products with Cook’s performances on them (some CD and some records) and he has no channel – not even a presence – on digital music stations Spotify or Pandora. Cook, from Athens, Tennessee, became an orphan at the age of three and was raised by relatives who introduced him to music, and the piano more specifically, at a very young age. In March of 1920 Cook headed to the Big Apple to try his luck in the Tin Pan Alley scene. He landed at U.S. Music Roll Company, where he made some piano rolls, before being hired away three years later by the behemoth in the piano roll industry, QRS Music Roll Company. Cook remained with QRS for five decades. While most of his rolls and recordings were released under his own name, some were not – as we’ve already covered here on Zayde’s Turntable. Interestingly, however, some of Cook’s rolls were marketed as being recorded by an actual other living artist – Fats Waller – perhaps in an attempt to increase sales. The site linked above (click on Cook’s name in the first sentence of this paragraph) has an extensive biography, document images, and more, about “Piano Roll” Cook.

Jahn’s storefront, shortly before it closed in 2007.

Cook made many of his recordings and rolls (including possibly this one), not in a studio, but on the nickelodeon piano at Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor in Queens. Jahn’s (as in, “John’s” with an accent) was one of the neighborhood’s most popular dining establishments, serving dinner and ice cream. The business displayed many of the historic artifacts associated with the site’s long and proud history, including the working piano that Cook made his recordings on, until it went out of business in November 2007.

The site where Jahn’s once was is now a corner market.

Dink Embry

Cook’s tune “Mason-Dixon Boogie” has received very little play outside of this record, which is unfortunate because it’s a nice, jumping jazzy tune. Dink Embry (1920-1999) and the Kentucky Lads and Reece Shipley (1921-1998) made recordings of a song with the same name, but for which label and when I cannot find. I also could not confirm if their recordings were of Cook’s tune; I am skeptical that it was, as both Dink Embry and Reece Shipley were more rockabilly/country musicians than traditional “boogie” artists, but I may be mistaken. This is another instance where I believe this version (click the song title in the first sentence of this paragraph) is the only recording of it available online today – if you find any others, please let me know in the comments section.

Bob Wills, demonstrating one of the benefits of choosing a string instrument over a wind instrument.

“San Antonio Rose” was the signature tune for Bob Wills (1905-1975) and His Texas Playboys. Written originally as an instrumental song for the group in 1938, band members later added lyrics and it was renamed “New San Antonio Rose.” The melody is identical and hence the two titles are often used interchangedly for both songs, the instrumental and the vocal version. The song, which Wills derived from Mexican traditional “Spanish Two-Step” (the song’s melody is the Two-Step’s bridge in reverse), launched Wills and the Texas Playboys to national fame, selling over a million copies and becoming a standard hit for jukeboxes across the country. It’s been covered by countless professional musicians and groups from Patsy Cline to Willie Nelson to Carrie Underwood, and adapted into a variety of genres, including by Wills and the Playboys themselves, when they added drums and horns for a 1944 Grand Ole Opry appearance that “ruffled the feathers” of country music purists:

 “[Old-time country musician Uncle Dave Macon] ‘abut flipped his dipper,’ [drummer Monte] Mountjoy explained. ‘We were breaking tradition and all that. He went by a couple of time mumblin’ about ‘God-damn young upstarts’ and ‘What they doin’ with those drums here?’…Wills had remorselessly flouted Opry tradition…by the act of bringing a drummer.”

Q.R.S. piano roll of the “New San Antonio Rose” – the same tune as “San Antonio Rose” – performed by Lawrence Cook and written by Bob Wills. As a “word roll” the lyrics appear along side the piano roll’s perforations, hence the title “New San Antonio Rose.” Despite the inclusion of the written lyrics on the paper, however, I believe this roll is the exact same performance captured on Abbey 15056.

It may seem incongruous to have a “country” style tune opposite a boogie – maybe Doraine thought it could be sold as a “southern-themed” record. Whatever the reason it’s a fun album and I love sharing the up-beat music with my energetic daughter. The fact that the piano parts are most likely off another obsolete musical medium – the piano roll – makes it that much more of a delight.

Equal All Ways

A “monstrosity” and an early jazz smash hit share the shellac on this entry of Zayde’s Turntable!

Triangle was a short-lived label affiliated with the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount) and manufactured from September 15, 1922 to 1925 at the Bridgeport Die and Machine Company on Elm Street in Bridgeport, CT. The label touts the innocuous slogan “Equal All Ways.” Triangle, like most of Bridgeport’s labels at the time (Puritan being perhaps the most voluminous) drew on Paramount masters for their tracks until 1924, when Paramount collapsed in bankruptcy and the manufacturer turned to Emerson for masters. Their contract with Paramount restricted Bridgeport’s sales primarily to the east coast and mid-Atlantic, much of which was done through department store retailers and mail order firms.

With the move to Emerson in 1924, the company was able to branch out and took on the Hudson and Mitchell labels out of Detroit in 1924. Bridgeport was an incredibly prolific manufacturer of early 78s, as a sampling of just some of their associated labels makes clear – Baldwin, Belvedere, Broadway, Carnival, Chautauqua, Everybody’s, Hudson, Lyraphone, Mitchell, Music Box, National, Pennington, Puretone, Puritan, Resona, Supertone, Triangle, and Up-To-date, just to list a few.

Just a sample of some Bridgeport labels.

In addition to Paramount and its myriad affiliate labels (Broadway, Puritan, etc.), in their contract with Emerson the company pressed discs from Dandy, Grey Gull, Blu-Disc, Pathe, and Banner material. They even, briefly, issued their own master series (which can be identified by the master prefix “BDM”), which appeared on later Triangle labels from 1924 to 1925. Triangle classical records were also released (with catalog numbers in the 15000s), as were standards (9000s). Triangle met its demise with the July 1925 bankruptcy of the Bridgeport Die and Machine Company. Unlike other Bridgeport brands, which made their way into other company’s portfolios, Triangle did not live on, leaving just a four year window for their manufacture. To that effect, Triangle label records meet the general requirement for valuable records to be scarce. Of course, the quality, importance, and scarcity of the music still play a role.

This album, Triangle 11145, is in fair condition. It has wear to both sides, with the expected impact on the quality of the audio. The paper label shows considerable wear, rendering some of the text unreadable. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black shellac disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The A-side recording features the Society Syncopators performing “Hot Lips,” by Henry Busse, Henry Lange, and Lou Davis. The master number is 1101 and it was recorded June 29, 1922. It runs 3 minutes and 22 seconds and was published by Leo Feist Inc. of New York. The B-side recording is the same group performing “You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him,” by Dan Dougherty, with lyrics by William Tracey (though Tracey’s name does not appear on the label here, since this version is an instrumental only – no vocalist). The master number is 1100 and it was recorded the same day, June 29, 1922. It runs 3 minutes and 12 seconds. It’s interesting to note that the recording date actually precedes the establishment of the Triangle label by three months; this suggests that the recordings were likely made as a Paramount master and intended to be distributed on other labels, which, indeed, they were. The record does not appear in Les Docks’ value guide for 78 r.p.m. records, though there is one dealer selling the same recordings on Regal 9341 for $14.95 on Ebay.

“Hot Lips” (not a reference to the M*A*S*H character; the lyric is “He’s got hot lips when he plays jazz” and refers to the instrumentalist) was written by Busse, Lange, and Davis as a “blues fox trot” for male trio and solo trumpet, for George White’s Scandals of 1922. The Scandals were a string of revue style Broadway shows, produced by George White, that ran from 1919 until 1939. The 1922 cast included Lester Allen, Dolores Costello, Peggy Dolan, W.C. Fields, Winnie Lightner, Sally Long, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and the George White Girls. Busse was a founding member of the Whiteman orchestra and the song (released on Victor as 18920-A) went on to become a #1 hit for the group in 1922, holding the spot on the charts for six weeks. Legendary saxophonist Clyde Doerr played sax. Whiteman’s band recorded the song on June 23, 1922 – just six days before the Syncopators’ recording was made. The Whiteman recording was featured on the soundtrack to the Oprah Winfrey film The Color Purple in 1985. Busse himself led his own orchestra in the popular song 12 years later on a Decca, #25015-A, recording. Busse’s track was also used across the pond on Brunswick 03791-B, an English record, released the same year. The Decca track was also later re-released as a 45 r.p.m. Eventually it was the title track on a 33-1/3 r.p.m. LP.

Henry Busse on the record cover for the vinyl LP “Hot Lips,” featuring his signature tune as the title track.

The chorus to the song (not heard on this record, as it is instrumental only) is:

He’s got hot lips when he plays Jazz,

He draws out step, like no one has,

You’re on your toes and shake your shoes,

Boy, how he goes, when he plays Blues.

I watch the crowd until he’s through,

He can be proud, they’re cuckoo, too;

His music’s rare, you must declare, the boy is there

With two hot lips, he’s got hot lips.

After the Whiteman recording a plethora of other groups took on the hit song – including the Society Syncopators. Also in June 1922, the California Ramblers made a recording of the tune on Vocalion 14384-A. In August 1922 Bailey’s Lucky Seven pressed it for Gennett 4935-A. The Cotton Pickers made a recording of the song in July 1922 for Brunswick 2292-B. Henry Lange, one of the song’s composers, and his orchestra pressed it for Gennett 6263, Superior 306, and Genett Special 40102 concurrently in 1927. Even into the next decade, the song remained popular, with the Hoosier Hotshots releasing a recording of the “Novelty…Hot Dance with Singing” on Melotone 7-06-60 after recording it on October 5, 1936.

Henry Busse in 1921.

Henry Busse (1894-1955) was born into a musical family in Germany. Originally raised as a violinist, he had to abandon the instrument after a broken finger was set improperly and did not heal correctly; the boy picked up a trumpet in its place. Busse was made by his family to play in an “Oompah” band led by his uncle and he despised it; he made numerous attempts to escape, finally succeeding in 1912. Crossing the Atlantic, Busse found himself in the German neighborhoods of New York. Homeless and unable to speak English, Busse was picked up by the police while sleeping in Grand Central Station. After his release he found menial work on a ship heading to California; while at sea his English improved and by the time he landed in Hollywood the adventurous 20-year old was landing extra roles in Keystone Cop films (one can imagine his performances being inspired by his own run-ins with the police in the Big Apple a couple of years prior) and, fortuitously, playing his trumpet in movie theater pit bands. Busse initially played with the “Frisco Jass Band,” also called the Frisco Jazz Band (not to be confused with the Frisco Syncopators – see below) before forming his own “Busse’s Buzzards,” which went on to develop into the Paul Whiteman orchestra.

Despite being subject to discrimination due to his German accent, Busse found success in the California music scene. At one point in the 1920s eight of the top ten sheet music sales spots belonged to his band and Busse himself brought in more than twice the earnings of fellow band member Bing Crosby. Other members of the band included Tommy and Jimmie Dorsey. Busse began to tour and take his talents overseas and across the states. For a while in the 1930s he ran the house band at the Chez Paree in Chicago, where he worked directly for the club’s owner – Al Capone. Back in California Busse’s career found him leading bands appearing in feature films, including one with a speaking part for Busse – “Lady Let’s Dance”.

Busse in a promotional photo taken by the William Morris Agency when he was near the height of his celebrity.

Busse became a celebrity, with all the attendant scandal: after he partied hard at the Hotsy Totsy Club one night, he awoke the next morning married to a woman he had met the night prior. The legal wrangling for the annulment lasted 18 months, during which Busse toured Europe. Busse married twice more and professionally continued to lead his own dance orchestra, the Henry Busse Orchestra, until his death in 1955. Henry Busse’s fascinating life ends with not a little irony: the trumpeter was playing with the Shuffle Rhythm Band at a professional convention in Memphis when he suffered a heart attack. The meeting was the National Undertakers Convention.

Henry W. Lange (1896-1985), the “monarch of the ivories,” was introduced to music through a friend of his father: Arthur Kortheur, the conductor of the Toledo Orchestra in the early 1900s. After Kortheur’s death Lange’s musical education continued with the accomplished pianist Max Ecker. Lange graduated from the Illinois College of Music and went on to serve as music director for a handful of radio stations (WOAI San Antonio, WFAA Dallas, and WHIC Dayton) and pianist for a number of hotels across the southwest. From 1920 to 1924 he played with the Paul Whiteman orchestra in New York at the Palais Royale, where he crossed paths with Henry Busse. With the Whiteman band Lange served as one of the trio of pianists in the 1924 premiere performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – the other two being Gershwin himself and Ferdie Grofe, who shared a regular stint with the Whiteman band with Lange. Lange was apparently quite versatile, appearing both in dance bands and with the Ziegfield Follies, and in European tours performing classical concerts for members of the aristocracy and even royalty. His original piano compositions and performances were released on Ampico, Duo-Art, Melodee, Brunswick, Gennett, and Pathe, among others, and he spent some time as composer to the filmmaker Rudolph Valentino. Lange struggled with health problems for much of his life, and was forced to put his music career on hiatus for a period in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, when he was finally able to return to the circuit, the Great Depression struck and most of the bands dissolved. He performed solo under the moniker “Monarch of the Ivories” for a while, resumed his radio work, and eventually retired.

The final credited name for “Hot Lips” is Lou Davis, about whom I could find almost nothing. The always-helpful World Catalog does reveal an extensive collection of original songs from the period with him named as a composer, lyricist, or arranger (I couldn’t determine which), but there is no biographical information about him that I could identify. If you know anything about Lou Davis, please share it in the comments!

The B-side recording is the blues tune “You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him” – also called in some publications by the rather lengthy title “The You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him, Didn’t Love Him Anyhow Blues.” The song should not be confused with Irving Berlin’s “You Can Have Him,” from the 1949 musical Miss Liberty or with Roy Hamilton’s 1961 “You Can Have Her,” which has been occasionally rewritten for female vocalists as “You Can Have Him.” The Berlin tune was recorded by the likes of Allyn McLerie, Mary McCarty, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Doris Day and Dinah Shore, Vanda King, Shirley Bassey, Anita Lindblom, Liza Minnelli, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, and Nina Simone. I cannot find many other references to the Tracey/Doughtery song, however, which predates the Irving Berlin tune and is here performed by the Society Syncopators. There was a recording of it made by the legendary blues singer Mamie Smith, with her Jazz Hounds, in August 1922 – around the same time as this recording – released on Okeh 4670. A little later, on October 3, 1922, the popular vaudeville duo Gus Van and Joe Schenck recorded it for Columbia A-3735. I cannot locate any other references to the tune being recorded after 1922. And the Van & Schenk and Mamie Smith recordings are the only two mentioned by Warren Vache in his 2000 book The Unsung Songwriters: America’s Masters of Melodies. The only critical review of the piece I could locate was a one sentence panning by Sigmund Spaeth in his 1948 History of Popular Music in America in which he simply called it “a monstrosity.”

Mamie Smith (left) and Van & Schenck (right). It is fascinating that two entirely different types of musicians/performers could record this song.

The catalog of copyright entries specifies that Dougherty penned the melody and Tracey the words to this “monstrosity,” though on this recording there is no vocalist and, hence, no lyrics.  A native New Yorker, William Tracey (1893-1957) was a staffer for a number of music publishers where he collaborated with a host of major composers from the early 20th century, including Lewis Muir, George Meyer, Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and Nat Vincent. A charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Tracey penned the words to such Tin Pan Alley standards as “Gee, But It’s Great to Meet a Friend from Your Home Town,” “Bring Back My Daddy to Me,” “Them There Eyes,” “Mammy ‘o Mine,” “He’s Had No Lovin’ For a Long, Long Time,” “Dixie is Dixie Once More,” “Give a Little Credit to Your Dad” (I like that title), and “Is My Baby Blue Tonight.”

Dan Dougherty (1897-1955) of Philadelphia joined ASCAP in 1927 and saw many of his popular songs end up in early films. He composed for Sophie Tucker and collaborated with Nick Kenny and Jack Yellen. His most well-known popular works include “It Certainly Must Be Love,” “It’s All In Fun,” “Glad Rag Doll,” “Mollie,” “Alone in the Rain,” “Moaning for You,” “I’m Dreaming,” “Sittin’ on a Rainbow,” “You’re Still in My Heart,” Mr. Segal, Make It Legal” (“the story of a girl who sleeps with her boss and gets pregnant. Naturally, the boss won’t answer her phone calls, hence the lyric, ‘Mr. Siegel, please make it legal.’”), and the political ditty “Let’s Get Behind the President” written with George Jessel for Harry Truman in 1949. “Glad Rag Doll” is perhaps his most recorded and longest-lived song, with versions being pressed by Dolores Costello for the 1928 film of the same name, again in 1928 by Ted Lewis and his band, Arthur Briggs and His Boys and Earl Fatha Hines in 1929, Tommy Dorsey, Ruth Etting, Johnnie Ray in 1954, Kay Starr in 1955, Barbara Cook in 1975, Joyce Moody and Earl Wentz in 2007, and Diana Krall in 2012. Other films with music by Dougherty include shorts Aunt Jemima: The Original Fun Flour Maker (1927), The Wild Westerner (1928), Grace Johnston and the Indiana Five (1929), the 1929 and 1930 Metro Movietone Revues, The Grand Parade (1930), Crashing the Gate (1933) and feature films Glad Rag Doll (1929), Call of the West (1930), Brothers (1930), Rain or Shine (1930), The Range Feud (1931), Under Pressure (1935), and Follow the Boys (1944).

Specht’s Society Syncopators, sometimes called the Georgians or Specht’s Syncopators, in 1922. Paul Specht is at right with violin and trumpeter Frank Guarente is back center.

Who are the Society Syncopators? According to Michael Harris in The Rise of the Gospel Blues, when it came to the names of popular music recording ensembles of the early 1920s, “jazz was the most frequently used designation, with various forms of the word syncopated a close second…in 1923 appeared the Society Syncopators.” Initially, I thought the band on this record was Fate Marable’s Society Syncopators; Marable, a jazz pianist, led bands on Mississippi river boats that were the proving grounds for many of the legends of American jazz. That suspicion, however, was quickly rejected; Marable’s Society Syncopators only recorded one record – Okeh 40113, which has neither of these tunes. Strangely enough, the answer was suggested when I checked the recording date for Triangle 11145 at the Online Discographical Project: their database mistakenly lists two entries for this record, suggesting that it may have been issued with two different labels. The first, the one I have, only refers to the Society Syncopators; a second seems to refer to “Paul Specht and his Orchestra” on the A-side (that title may be an error – see below) and “Specht’s Society Syncopators” on the B-side.

Paul Specht and the Society Syncopators/Serenaders in 1921, with trumpeter Frank Guarente at the far left and Specht in center with his violin. That’s right: jazz violin.

Puritan issue of the exact same masters, using the exact same catalog and matrix numbers. Only the label is different; while Triangle is “equal all ways,” leave it to Puritan to claim it is “America’s best record.”

This recording, of June 29, 1922, was only the second made by Paul Specht’s orchestra – first coming five days prior with a recording session of “A Dream of Romany” and “In Rose-Time,” billed as “Paul Specht’s Society Serenaders,” a name which was used by the band in live performance from at least as far prior as December 1920. The band’s recording of the songs on this Triangle record appeared simultaneously on Banner 1090 and Imperial 1184 as “Specht’s Society Serenaders,” Paramount 20148 and Puritan and Triangle 11148 as “Specht’s Society Orchestra”, “Specht’s Society Syncopators” and, of course, simply as “Society Syncopators”, Emerson 10546 as “Emerson Dance Orchestra, and Regal 9341 again as “Specht’s Society Syncopators.” This illustrates the general lack of consistency in band names from the period, especially on printed labels, and also the on-going use of pseudonyms for, not simply solo musicians, but entire ensembles. Interestingly, studio records show the recording session of June 29, 1922 was booked for “Specht’s Jazz Outfit,” a name not found on any records issued by the group. The ensemble for the recording – and on this record – comprised of Paul Specht conducting, Frank Guarente on trumpet, Ray Stilwell on trombone, Johnny O’Donnell on clarinet, alto sax, and bass clarinet, Arthur Schutt on piano, Joe Tarto on tuba, and Chauncey Morehouse on drums.

Early jazz trumpeter Frank Guarente. Though Guarente left Specht’s ensemble, cordially, in the mid-1920s he is most likely the trumpeter on this particular recording.

Frank Guarente is likely the trumpet soloist featured on “Hot Lips.” Guarente was born in Avellino, Italy, in 1893 and emigrated to the U.S. out of Naples in 1910.

Paul Specht (1895-1954) was raised as a violinist by his bandleader father, Charles Specht. After graduating from Combs Conservatory in Philadelphia in 1916 Paul put together his first band. The group signed with Columbia in 1922, recording both as the larger band (called Paul Specht and his Orchestra – the reference to that ensemble having made this recording seems to be in error, as this record was pressed by the smaller jazz-focused set) and as a smaller jazz subset that Paul called The Georgians and, later, the Frisco Syncopators or the Society Syncopators. Specht and both of his groups were quite popular throughout the 1920s and starting in 1922 they toured several times to England, where Specht eventually established the “School for Jazz Musicians” in 1924. Specht’s ensembles started the career of many notable jazz musicians, including Charlie Spivak, Joe Tarto, and Chauncey Morehouse, among many others.

Paul Specht on board ship for one of his several trips to England in the early 1920s.

While overseas, however, the group ran into legal troubles: the British government refused to grant them work permits, a fact that Specht only learned after their ship was half-way across the Atlantic. Fortunately for Specht there was a delegation of attorneys, as well as American Secretary of State Charles Hughes aboard the same vessel; after playing some concerts for their fellow passengers, Specht made an entreaty and they intervened on the group’s behalf. There was some diplomatic and legal wrangling, but the group was allowed to disembark and perform. Specht was embittered by the experience, in addition to hassles he ran into with the British music unions, and did not return to England again after 1926, despite the existence of his school and the popularity of his music with the British people in general.

Specht (leaning forward with the white hat in his hand in the front row) and the band in England in 1923.

Specht’s group went on to become the first orchestra to broadcast for RCA, the first to broadcast on a nation-wide radio network (covering 109 stations in all), and one of the earliest to issue a “phonofilm” – sound on film – with a 1925 release. While Specht’s was the first orchestral phonofilm recordings, it was not the first phonofilm recording at all, as some have suggested; the very first phonofilms were made in 1922, with the first public presentations in 1923. Ironically, in 1929 Specht’s group was selected over Paul Whiteman’s (with Henry Busse and Henry Lange) to play at the inauguration of Herbert Hoover. Arthritis hampered his ability to play into the 1940s and he turned more to arranging music for radio and television until his death at age 59.

Guarente, center, is the star of the show in this performance by The Georgians in 1924, towards the end of his affiliation with Specht’s ensembles.

There are all kinds of fun little tid-bits of history associated with this record. The Bridgeport Company, the two “Frisco” bands, Busse’s fascinating career, brush with America’s most famous mobster, and his ironic death, Specht’s diplomatic drama and important role in early sound film, not to mention the “monstrosity” review. The fact that this record features a (once upon a time) hit back to back with a song that seemingly went nowhere is an extra historical treat. There’s still a lot of mystery around this record – why leave Specht’s name off the band’s credit if he was a relatively well-known celebrity? Why no vocalist for two songs written with lyrics? Who decided to do that? Who was Lou Davis? Maybe you know the answers to some of these questions or can provide more background on these tunes and this band. According to my research this record – truly drawn at random from my collection this time – has no monetary value. But I think it still adds another kind of value to my collection, nevertheless.

America’s first platinum film album, featuring “the world’s greatest entertainer”

This week’s entry on Zayde’s Turntable: the first platinum film album in American history, featuring two extremely popular songs from an early 20th century feature, performed by an artist called “the world’s greatest entertainer.”

A Brunswick record sleeve.

The record is a Brunswick label. Brunswick records were issued starting around 1916 by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company of Dubuque, Iowa, as an after thought to their line of phonographs. Brunswick was an early adapter of the lateral cut system and, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign by the company, Brunswick records were in the “Big Three,” along with Victor and Columbia, for a number of years. Their acoustically recorded records were among the highest quality of the period, but the company made a miscalculation with the advent of electrically recorded albums. In 1925 Brunswick introduced their electrical recording technology, which they called the “Light-Ray Process” (it utilized photoelectric cells).

An example of a Brunswick record made using the company's "light ray" electric recording method.

The audio quality was dismal, the records flopped, and hundreds of recordings made using the new system were never issued. In time Brunswick’s engineers were able to improve the failures in their recording technologies and the company moved quickly to attempt to recover the market share they had lost to Columbia and Victor in the interim. It was around this time that the Chicago-based label released some of their most acclaim albums (including this one) from their leading artists – Al Jolson, Duke Ellington, Ben Bernie, and more. The two genres that Brunswick became especially known for in this time was their “race series” of cutting-edge jazz, urban and rural blues, and gospel performances, and their very highly regarded classical music recordings of some of the leading orchestras and conductors of the era, including Toscanini. In 1930 the company sold the Brunswick label to Warner Brothers, who planned on utilizing it for film soundtrack recordings employing a “sound-on-disc” system they called Vitaphone. The combination of the industry standard shifting to the sound-on-film system and the Great Depression resulted in Warner Brothers’ decision to sell the brand to the American Record Corporation. ARC elevated Brunswick to their flagship label, selling the records for 75-cents, compared to 35-cents for their other brand records, and reserving the label for their biggest artists: Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, and others. In a convoluted industry deal ARC transferred the brand partially to CBS – who discontinued it in 1940 – and partially to Decca, which used it to release previous recordings and new records of rock and roll and rhythm and blues titles. The label finally “died” in 1982 following legal troubles. In the course of its lengthy life, Brunswick released about 67 different 78-RPM labels worldwide.

Brunswick 4033 - the first album of film songs to sell over 1 million copies.

This album is in Fair condition; it has a slight dip that bulges the record slightly near one edge. Such bulging is not uncommon and often occurs from improper storage, excessive heat, or a combination of thereof; there is a technique to fix a warped disc like this – it involves a low-temperature oven, the flat back of a cookie sheet, and a very stead hand; I have not attempted it with this album and I do not intend to. The warp results in a distinct repetitive fluctuation in the music, especially on the A-side track. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole.  The record catalog number is Brunswick 4033. The A-side recording features “The World’s Greatest Entertainer With Orchestra” Al Jolson (1886-1950) singing  “Sonny Boy,” the “theme song from the motion picture ‘The Singing Fool.’” The song was written by Jolson, George “Buddy” DeSylva (1895-1950), and Ray Henderson (1896-1970), with lyrics by Lew Brown (1893-1958). The track runs 3 minutes and 6 seconds. The B-side recording is Jolson again, including a “whistling chorus” by the performer (listen to the link to the full song, not just the clip below, in order to hear Jolson’s impressive whistling), in the song “There’s A Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” also from The Singing Fool. “Rainbow” was written by Jolson, Billy Rose (1899-1966), and Dave Dreyer (1894-1967). It runs 2 minutes and 36 seconds. The album was recorded on August 20, 1928, the same year The Singing Fool was released. Brunswick 4033 was the first record of a film song in history to sell more than one million copies. It is one of a rare handful of albums that were recorded by popular artists – who are still popular or famous today – and were tremendous hits and that are of some monetary value (albeit slight, as is true for most all 78-RPM records, even the most collectible). Les Docks values it at $7-$10 and there are two dealers selling it on EBay for $5, one more at $10, and one at $11.

Al Jolson in 1916, twelve years before he made "The Singing Fool" and recorded Brunswick 4033.

Born Asa Yoelson in Russia, Al emigrated to America in 1894 with his family, settling outside Washington, D.C., where his father was a rabbi and cantor. After his mother’s death that same year, Asa and his brother Hirsch began singing for coins on street corners using the Americanized names Al and Harry. In 1902 he joined Walter Main’s Circus, initially as an usher, but was soon given a singing role. When the circus folded in 1903 Jolson picked up a part in the burlesque show Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. When the burlesque show also folded within a year Jolson decided to put together his own act, forming a vaudeville partnership with his brother Harry. It was as part of their act that, in 1904 while performing in Brooklyn, that Jolson decided to try wearing blackface as part of his act; it was a tremendous success, but the act fell apart after Harry and Al had a falling out and Al struck out on his own in 1906. From there Al found success as a solo blackface vaudevillian, performing in San Francisco and New York. It was on stage at the Winter Garden Theater in New York in 1911 that Jolson truly became a celebrity, with an unbroken string of box office smashes, the distinction of becoming the highest paid performer in show business by 1920, and, at the young age of 35, his very own theater on Broadway – making Jolson the youngest man in American history to have a theater named after him. Jolson’s acts consisted of both songs and comedy, but it was the musical portions that largely built his recording career. His initial contract, with Columbia, resulted in several dozen top selling records, but it was after he left for Brunswick in 1924 that he recorded the album featured in this week’s blog post. His Columbia recordings were largely of his theatrical songs; when he retired from the stage in 1926 and began focusing more on film his recordings likewise changed, so his Brunswick albums consisted more of his film songs.

Jolson performing on an NBC radio broadcast, some years after his major success on stage and film.

Jolson has been called one of the most influential and important singers and performers in American history. His stylings and performances of jazz, blues, and ragtime standards and new songs alike had a significant influence on later singers of the 20th century, including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Jackie Wilson, and even Jerry Lee Lewis, among many, many others. He was, without question, the most famous – and highest paid – American entertainer of the 1930s. Even before his largest smash hit, the film The Jazz Singer, in 1927, and his tremendous successes of the 1930s Jolson had already released, since 1911, 80 hit records, conducted 16 national and international tours, and sold out nine shows at the Winter Garden in a row. The brash, extroverted performer was known for his highly sentimental, almost melodramatic approach to songs. Jolson was the first performer to actively engage with his audience when performing, using a stage runway that ran out into the audience, which he would run up and down and perform upon, often singing to specific individuals in the audience. It was a new style and one that would lay the foundation for both the modern American musical and rock icons like Elvis Presley, who would later adapt Jolson’s performance techniques and “character”.

Jolson performing in blackface in the film "The Jazz Singer" (1927). He had employed the makeup for nearly twenty years by that point as part of his vaudeville act.

Interestingly it was in his blackface performances that Jolson truly stood out as a talented performer and they were, by his own account, some of his most enjoyable performances. Unlike other blackface actors of the period, however (such as Billy Golden and the Kaufman brothers, whom I have discussed in previous posts), Jolson’s blackface act did not lampoon or satirize black people. Rather, by bringing a simultaneously dynamic and sensitive approach to his blackface act Jolson felt he was at once celebrating the true energy and spirit of jazz and blues music and liberating himself as a performer to truly become a whole new person. Indeed Jolson has been credited with leading the fight against anti-black discrimination on Broadway from as early as 1911 and his efforts helped make possible the careers of such black musicians as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters. Growing up Jolson was a close friend of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and in 1911, at the age of 25, he helped black playwright Garland Anderson produce one of Anderson’s works, which became the first play with an all-black cast ever produced on Broadway. After his fame, and clout, grew, Jolson pushed to feature all-black dance troupes in his stage act and fought for equal treatment for Calloway when the two performed together in the film The Singing Kid. It was even said that there were black nightclubs in Harlem to which no white would be admitted – except Jolson. When Jolson died countless black actors lined the funeral processions and Noble Sissle, president of the Negro Actors Guild at the time, attended the funeral on the group’s behalf. Jolson’s blackface act helped bridge a cultural gap between white and black America by introducing black musical stylings such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, to white audiences.

Most music historians think one of the key facets that made Jolson’s blackface performance disarmingly non-offensive was that it was, whether intentional or not, an illustration of the mutual suffering shared by both blacks and Jews in America. The metaphor of the Jewish entertainer donning blackface was not lost on contemporary observers of Jolson’s work. For example, after seeing Jolson’s stage show, the writer Samson Raphaelson said “My God, this isn’t a jazz singer. This is a cantor!” From that image Raphaelson penned the story of The Jazz Singer, Jolson’s largest hit film and the first full-length picture with sound, in which Jolson portrayed the son of a cantor who wants nothing more than to become a jazz singer. One film critic astutely reflected:

“Is there any incongruity in this Jewish boy with his face painted like a Southern Negro singing in the Negro dialect? No, there is not. Indeed, I detected again and again the minor key of Jewish music, the wail of the Chazan, the cry of anguish of a people who had suffered. The son of a line of rabbis well knows how to sing the songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world’s history.”

Black audiences responded to The Jazz Singer with acclaim. A crowd at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem wept during the film and the Harlem newspaper Amsterdam News raved of Jolson that “every colored performer is proud of him” and of the film that it was “one of the greatest pictures ever produced”

Jolson would return to the concept of a shared oppression between Jewish and African American peoples, especially in terms of how they suffered in a new land, in his film Big Boy. Jolson, in blackface, plays a former slave who leads a group of recently freed slaves (all played by black actors) in the slave spiritual “Go Down Moses.” One contemporary critic of Big Boy keenly observed:

“When one hears Jolson’s jazz songs, one realizes that jazz is the new prayer of the American masses, and Al Jolson is their cantor. The Negro makeup in which he expresses his misery is the appropriate talis [prayer shawl] for such a communal leader.”

Jolson performing for American troops in Korea in 1950. The trip would exhaust the performer and lead to his death at 64 that year.

Jolson, who was politically conservative – a rarity amongst Hollywood and Broadway stars, especially Jewish entertainers – was keenly interested in supporting America’s fighting men. As early as 1922 he held a hugely successful benefit performance at the Century Theater in New York, with the proceeds raised going to aid Jewish veterans of World War I. During World War II he was the first major star to travel abroad to entertain the American troops and, during the Korean War, he went overseas to perform for the troops again. The trip to Korea – 42 shows in just over two weeks – was grueling and, just a few weeks after returning to the U.S., he died from the exertion. As a result of his service to the troops the U.S. military awarded him (posthumously) the Medal of Merit.

Original 1928 movie poster for "The Singing Fool."

The Singing Fool (1928) held the box office record for attendance for 10 years, when it was broken by Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Its worldwide gross of $5.9 million made it Warner Brothers’ most financially successful film for 13 years, until 1941’s Sergeant York. The Singing Fool, produced by Warner Brothers, solidified both the idea of sound in film as a standard practice from that point forward (many audiences were forced to watch The Jazz Singer without sound as few movie theaters were equipped to play any sound in 1927) and advanced the genre of musical film in general. However The Singing Fool, like The Jazz Singer, was actually only partially synchronized with recorded music and spoken dialogue – Jolson’s first all-talking film, Say It With Songs, would be released in 1929 – and in some places was even released and shown as a completely “silent” film.

Jolson and Davey Lee (as Sonny Boy) in a promotional still from the film that became an iconic image of the movie and later was used on the cover of the novelization of the film's story.

In addition to “Sonny Boy” and “There’s A Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” the next most famous Jolson tune from The Singing Fool is arguably “I’m Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” Many of the songs from the film were tremendous hits when sold on record, piano role, or sheet music. It was an all-around commercial triumph for Jolson and for Warner Brothers. In the film Jolson plays Al Stone, a struggling singing waiter. Stone finally gets his big break when, on one night, his performance wows a big-shot producer and the showgirl that he fancies. Stone is catapulted to stardom, marrying the gold-digging girl and finding Broadway success. In typical melodramatic form, however, fame does not bring Stone happiness: Stone’s fickle wife leaves the performer, taking their son, whom he calls Sonny Boy, with her. The heartbroken singer falls from stardom and must rely on his old friends from the speakeasy where he got his modest start to save him from a dismal life on the hard streets.

 

“Sonny Boy” was the first song from a movie to sell over a million copies, eventually topping over 3 million copies sold of its record, piano roll, and sheet music (the first record of any type to break the 1 million mark was an Enrico Caruso album from 1904). The Brunswick recording held the #1 spot on the U.S. charts for an impressive 12 weeks. The heavily melodramatic tearjerker, sung by Jolson to his son in the film, has had surprisingly few covers since his 1928 recording: the Andrews Sisters cover of the song in 1941 reached #22 on the charts and a 1955 Arlid Andresen version, on piano, guitar, and bass, appeared in a medley of melodies released on the His Master’s Voice Label.

Sheet music for "Sonny Boy" featuring Davey Lee and Al Jolson.

“There’s A Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder”, “Sonny Boy,” and “I’m Sitting On Top Of The World,” were the three biggest hits of The Singing Fool. Jolson had a hand in the composition of “Rainbow” and it became one of his more recognizable trademark tunes and a staple of his stage performances and his shows abroad for U.S. troops. Among other artists to cover the tune were Donald Peers, with dual pianos, in 1949, which was released on His Master’s Voice, and Bobby Darin, who recorded a version in 1962 that was released by Capitol Records.

Sheet music to "There's a Rainbow 'Round my Shoulder".

There’s a lot that could be written about Jolson – about his personal life and relationships, his works, his influence of later performers, his use of blackface, his pioneering work to bring sound into the movies, his efforts to advocate for and defend black entertainers and musicians when it was socially and professionally risky, and even his role in U.S. politics and presidential campaigns. If you would like to find out more about the “world’s greatest entertainer” (if not perhaps one of its most important), there are many other outlets online and in print to do so. I’m immensely pleased to have this and a few other Jolson records in my collection – indeed, I cannot imagine any library of important, or even standard, recordings from the early 20th century of American music, could considered complete without some of these Jolson classics. I’ll simply close with a quote from Jolson’s friend, the actor George Jessel, who was speaking the eulogy at Jolson’s funeral in 1950 after the 64 year old singer had died.

“The history of the world does not say enough about how important the song and the singer have been. But history must record the name Jolson, who in the twilight of his life sang his heart out in a foreign land, to the wounded and to the valiant. I am proud to have basked in the sunlight of his greatness, to have been part of his time.”

Fame – and obscurity – on a Decca “sunburst”

This week’s album was again drawn at random from my collection and provides perhaps one of the only recordings of an obscure tune largely lost to history and an early recording of one of the most popular jazz songs ever written, with the normally sung lyrics replaced by a truly unique and remarkable trumpet performance.

The Decca "sunburst" label (left) compared to their more common later label at right.

The label is the Decca “sunburst” – Decca had, very generally speaking, three styles of label: sunburst, flat blue, and flat black. Sunburst labels are usually of more interest to collectors as they mark the earliest records issued by the company (from its formation in 1934 through 1937). On sunburst labels an art deco style “Decca” pops out with block letters and a false perspective angle. Decca would later reissue many of their sunburst recordings on the flat blue and flat black labels after 1937. Because of the tremendous quantity of Decca records issued after 1937 and the overall higher value attributed with first issues compared to re-issues, sunburst labels are usually of greater monetary value. This is comparable to what happened with Victor: savvy collectors know that if a Victor label is a plain circle it is almost certainly of little to no value and is very likely to be a reissue. Victor “scroll” labels, on the other hand, are older and more likely to be original issues.

Decca 620

This album is in Fair condition; there is a hairline crack through the disc at about 8 o’clock, however the needle on my Crosley Archiver was able to navigate it without difficulty. 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 Decca 620 A/B and the master number is 60065A/60063A. The A-side recording features the jazz fox trot “Basin Street Blues,” written by Spencer Williams (1889-1965); it runs 2 minutes and 59 seconds. The B-side recording features the fox trot with vocal chorus “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band,” written by Walter G. Samuels (1903-1994), Leonard Whitcup (1903-1979), and Teddy Powell (1905-1993); it runs 2 minutes and 37 seconds. The artist on both sides is jazz trumpeter and bandleader Clyde McCoy (1903-1990) and his orchestra. The album was recorded on October 14, 1935. Other owners of the album are selling it online for $1, $3, $4 (not the “sunburst” version, however), $4.25, and $5. Les Docks sets its value at $7-$10, which – given the prices for it online – seems a bit generous.

Clyde McCoy, jazz trumpeter and bandleader.

Clyde McCoy, of the Hatfield and McCoy feud McCoys, grew up in Kentucky but moved to Ohio as a young boy with his parents. In Ohio he took up the trumpet and quickly moved from playing at church and school functions to performing on the riverboats. After a successful temporary gig at a Knoxville Resort, McCoy proposed taking the same band to New York. When success in the Big Apple eluded the band they headed west, first to Los Angeles, and eventually to Chicago.  It was in the Windy City where he first performed his best know song, “Sugar Blues,” which was written for him by Clarence Williams and Lucy Fletcher; the song placed on the charts in 1931, 1935, and again as late as 1941. Later musicians, including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mercer also covered it. Near overnight radio success with the original recording led to contracts first with Columbia and later Decca in 1935 (the same year this album was recorded, making it one of the earlier Decca records from McCoy). McCoy’s act grew in complexity and became almost vaudevillian in nature, including tremendous “battle of the bands” type face-offs between McCoy’s band and another A-list group of the time. All of these battles ended as “friendly ties.”

The bottom of the 1967 Voy Clyde McCoy Wah Wah Pedal for electric guitar featured McCoy's image. This pedal has clearly seen some use.

McCoy’s most lasting influence on music was not any one song but, rather, a musical effect. A talented trumpet player, McCoy could create an amazing variety of sounds and effects with his advanced technique; foremost, and most popular with audiences, was the distinctive “wah wah” sound, created by fluttering a specific type of horn mute in the bell of his trumpet (I read some unconfirmed accounts that he actually used a toilet plunger, not a mute). You can hear it distinctly at 1:53 in “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band” below and throughout “Basin Street Blues” (click on the link to the Vogue Picture Record recording of it elsewhere online). The effect became so popular and such a recognizable trademark sound for McCoy that the Thomas Organ Company built it into the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal for electric guitar in the mid 1960s. The Clyde McCoy Pedal, later named a Cry Baby Pedal, has become a staple effect for guitarists of all genres. In 2002 Vox reissued the Clyde McCoy Pedal with its original vintage look, including with McCoy’s image and signature on the bottom – a feature that the original pedal from the 1960s sported as well. If you regularly skip listening to the clips or the links to the full recordings on this blog, this is not one to miss – McCoy’s talents with the trumpet are quite unique and well worth a listen.

Songwriter Spencer Williams, composer of "Basin Street Blues."

Spencer Williams was a composer, singer, and pianist who helped author some of the earliest standards of the American jazz era. Born in New Orleans Williams was one of the chief collaborators for Fats Waller. In addition to “Basin Street Blues” – perhaps his most enduring song (it is still being recorded by musicians to this day – he penned “Squeeze Me,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Around That Mountain,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Royal Garden Blues, and “I’ve Found a New Baby” among many, many others.

“Basin Street Blues” is a standard of Dixieland jazz bands to this day. It was published in 1926 but really became famous when Louis Armstrong issued a recording of it in 1928. Basin Street is the main thoroughfare of Storyville, which had been the red-light district of New Orleans’ French Quarter from 1870 through the early decades of the 20th century. McCoy’s recording became part of his portfolio of trademark songs and proved so popular it was later reissued on a Vogue Picture Record in 1946 (click the link to see a video of the record, with McCoy’s picture on it, and also listen to the recording in its entirety).

Original 1926 sheet music for "Basin Street Blues."

The song has been recorded by Bob Wills, Ben Pollack, Tommy Duncan, Louis Prima, Dr. John, Connee Boswell with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald with the Sy Oliver Orchestra, Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine, saxophonist David Sanborn, “turntablist” Kid Koala, Sam Cooke, Jack Teagarden, and Liza Minnelli. Some may also recognize the tune from its more recent use on the soundtrack to the major feature film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The song’s lyrics went through an interesting, albeit temporary, metamorphosis in the mid-1950s that is quite revealing of the prevailing attitudes towards race relations at that precise time in American society: the lyric referring to Basin Street as the place where “the dark and light folks” meet was altered to the less controversial line that it is the place where “the young and old folks” meet. Thankfully most contemporary recordings (after the Civil Rights era) returned to the original lyrics as Williams wrote them. The McCoy recording, as you might have guessed, replaces the vocal line with McCoy’s own remarkable performance on the trumpet.

 

If “Basin Street Blues” is an enduring standard still recorded to this day, than “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band”  is the complete opposite. The song was entered into copyright on September 21, 1935 by Chappell and Company of New York. I can find no other mention of it being recorded by any artist excepting this one by McCoy for Decca. The tune is an up-beat song about how a musician will win the girls and make the football players’ jealous through his skills in the college band: band geek’s revenge, Tin Pan Alley-style. It is not a bad song, but simply proved unmemorable and never became a commercial success, despite the fact that one might assume it would be popular with college pep bands of the time. If it was, there is no record of it being performed and no other recording of it by any such band that I could locate.

Walter Samuels was an enormously prolific composer, who wrote music for films and television starting in 1932 (Blondie of the Follies) and ending in 1989 (Harlem Nights with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor). Interestingly there was a sizable gap between his song “Chuck a Luckin” on the soundtrack to People Are Funny in 1946 and his tune “March Winds and April Showers” for a 1978 episode of Pennies from Heaven. In all he wrote 32 songs that eventually appeared on a soundtrack. A review of his soundtrack songs, his works for Broadway, and his singles reveals no real chart-toppers.

Like Samuels, Whitcup wrote numerous songs (23 in all) that appeared on film and television soundtracks from 1932 (again, Blondie of the Follies) through 2008, when his tune “From the Vine Came the Grape” was used posthumously for the TV movie That’s Amore!. Indeed many of his songs continued to be used in soundtracks after his death in 1979, including what is probably his most famous number: the song “Frenesi,” written in 1939, which appears on the soundtrack to 1980’s Raging Bull.

Composer and moderately successful bandleader Teddy Powell.

Teddy Powell, born Teodoro Paolella, was a jazz guitarist, big band leader, and composer. Powell started as a violinst, then moved to the banjo, and finally picked up the guitar and formed his own band at the age of 15. The band stayed intact for 24 years – a remarkable feat in the 1930s and 1940s, when most groups were dissolving, dividing, and reorganizing on an almost yearly basis. Powell’s band was not one of the big A-list gigs, reaching fame for only one brief period in 1939, though they were able to hire on some highly regarded musicians from other top orchestras – including Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey’s. They may have gone upward from that 1939 point, but a tragic fire at a New Jersey nightclub where they were playing in 1941 destroyed all of their instruments. The group never recovered and dissolved in 1944, just missing out on the high-water mark for big band music in the early 1940s.

In researching “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band” I was not surprised to discover almost no information about it online – no recording history, no critical reviews, no references to its performance, no complete recordings, and no description of its lyrics. It is, for all intents, a song that never existed outside of this Decca record. Indeed countless songs – thousands upon thousands – from the first decades of recorded music have likely suffered a similar fate, whether deserved or not. Therefore I have decided to post the lyrics and the entire song here on Zayde’s Turntable, so that any future researcher who might – for whatever reason – have an interest in the tune will find it online, saved for posterity, in at least one location. It seems ironic that despite the hundreds of millions of websites today, not one has the details of this song, which is – after all – only 77 years old.

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

I’m gonna play in the varsity band,

To win the heart of my co-ed with melody.

I’m gonna play in the varsity band,

And make you football heroes jealous as can be.

I’ll never make the team,

But you can safely bet,

I’ll make my college win this game by playing my cornet.

The girlies cheer,

‘Cause I’m the band-leading man,

I’m gonna play in the varsity band.

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Decca 620 offers both an enduring classic and a song lost to history. Listening to it made me better understand that all recorded music – records, CDs, cassettes (even 8-tracks) – presents us with a complete program of songs selected for a reason and performed as a whole or in some order for (usually) a specific artistic purpose. I love iTunes and the ability of the listener to craft their own song lists; and the release of singles is, of course, a long-standing practice of the music industry, but there’s something to be said for taking an “album” in whatever form and appreciating all (or both) of the songs on it as an artistic whole. If nothing else it forces us, as listeners, to keep songs that would otherwise be lost to time for whatever reason – be they ahead of their time and not fitting with popular taste in the day when they were released or be they simply bad.  No matter why, if we wanted “Basin Street Blues” we would need to have “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band,” too. Both of them would be on our turntables, if only one of them would stay in our minds and in our ears.

Musical Depreciation: fun for the eyes and the ears

This week’s selection is by special request from none other than Zayde himself! My collection includes a number of single albums by the prolific and immensely talented comic musician Spike Jones, the self-described “man who murdered music” (for our younger readers, imagine a mid 20th century Weird Al Yankovic). Rather than feature just one of these records, however, I’ve decided to feature a compilation.

Musical Depreciation, with "Maestro" Spike Jones and his City Slickers

“Musical Depreciation” is a bound set of five standard electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl discs with lateral grooves and ¼” spindle holes. The musician on all the records is “Maestro” Spike Jones and his City Slickers. The records themselves are housed in plain brown paper sleeves that are bound together in a cardboard book that measures about 12” wide by 10-3/8” tall by 5/8” deep. The cover has a full color caricature illustration of Spike Jones, wielding a popgun and surrounded by musical instruments. The front and back boards are blue with a red paper over the spine and the album title and artist name appearing in gold lettering down the side. The cover shows some wear but the majority of the rubbing and damage is along the binder’s edges and corners, as well as the spine. Neither the set nor the individual albums (nor any Spike Jones album, for that matter) appear in Les Docks’ valuation guide for collectible 78-RPM records, however I was able to find three dealers selling the set online for $19, $40, and $50.

Spine of the compilation.

Three other RCA Victor compilation sets in my collection.

The set was issued by RCA Victor, one of the many labels and brands of the Radio Corporation of America and Victor. Victor, of course, is perhaps the most prolific record company of the 20th century. The company’s history and diversity of labels are, as was the case with Columbia, far too long and complicated to detail here. I will point out that RCA Victor issued a number of sets of records with the exact same dimensions, color schemes, and even typeface on the spine as “Musical Depreciation.” Bound sets such as this one were a way for a record company to issue a compilation of songs by one artist (or, with their classical records, to release a multiple movement symphony in one package). The key with bound sets, however, is that they are almost never the first issue of a particular recording. In order to be worth the expense that the binder and artwork entailed, companies would only issue works and artists that had already had proven commercial success. Despite the fact they are “reissues” of previously released recordings, bound sets today are not terribly common. The great irony is that many record sellers would remove the records from the set, discard the binder, and sell them individually; the end result is a glut of A-list musicians’ records – all represses and individually mostly without any collectability or value – that, had they been kept in their original album, might actually be more valuable.

Several other RCA Victor album covers with Frank Decker's rich illustrations.

The illustration on the cover is by the artist Frank Decker. I could find almost nothing about the personal life of this 1940s-1960s illustrator in my research. Decker was an in-house RCA Victor album illustrator, though he was not the company’s only such artist. Album artwork today is for many as collectible as the records themselves – for some, in fact, it is more so, and album covers with no records in them at all can sometimes fetch far more than the associated record in a plain sleeve with no illustration. Decker was heavily influenced by the man who supposedly originated the concept of album artwork: Alex Steinweiss, the in-house illustrator for Columbia records. Steinweiss, who passed away last year at the age of 94, was a member of the Columbia advertising department when he was approached by some of the company executives in 1939 to develop strategies to improve record sales. His first illustrated album cover, for a collection of Rogers and Hart songs, was a massive success and Columbia moved quickly to re-release their most popular albums to that point with new illustrated covers; in most cases sales increased by nearly ten times their previous level for the same record.

Decker was more than just an album artist. He did this cover illustration for Pic magazine in 1946, the same time he was busy working for RCA Victor.

Ad for the Park-Sheraton hotel illustrated by Frank Decker in 1960.

The other record companies were quick to catch on to the concept and began releasing (and re-releasing) their own compilations and solo albums in the new illustrated album cover or sleeve in the 1940s. Decker, who was with RCA Victor, based his illustrations on the same style and sentiment that Steinweiss had popularized: geometric patterns, bold solid colors, and whimsical or fantastical depictions of scenery or other elements illustrative of the album content. Decker’s most famous works were probably his classical music album covers, which captured creative, fantastic scenes in a style that was remarkably at once both rigid and fanciful. The illustrations took liberties with scenes and people and the earliest reviews of the pieces I could find – in Billboard magazine from 1947 – indicate that some in the music industry, while impressed with the artwork, were a bit confused with Decker’s (and presumably Steinweiss’) imaginative interpretations. Where Steinweiss remained primarily an album artist until the 1970s, when a more psychedelic style of artwork became the fad and he chose to retire, Decker apparently branched out early, doing magazine covers and advertising art as early as the mid 1940s, while also continuing to provide illustrations to album artwork well into the era of the 45-RPM.

Album boxes for 45-RPM records, illustrated by Frank Decker.

Spike Jones. His band's trademark outfits sported garish plaids, stripes, and bowler hats, to accent their looniness and guarantee the viewer would remember them.

Spike Jones (1911-1965) was born Lindley Armstrong Jones and earned his nickname as a young boy when his father’s business colleagues at the Southern Pacific Railroad compared the thin boy to a railroad spike. He had an early affinity for music, getting his first drum set at the age of 11 and learning how to beat out rhythms from a chef in a railroad station restaurant who taught him how to play on pots and pans in the back kitchen. A short stint in theater orchestra pits led to a job playing drums for a number of larger bands, including as the percussionist on Bing Crosby’s first recording of “White Christmas.” It was in the pit orchestras, however, where the young drummer discovered the niche market of novelty orchestras.

The City Slickers, in an early performance.

Jones was described as being, in private, a moody and ambitious man who was deeply interested in finding new ways to promote himself and build his own name in the public. Bringing together other musicians from his studio gigs, most importantly the vocalist and clarinetist Del Porter and violinist Carl Grayson – both relatively big names at the time – Jones assembled his own novelty band. Originally named the Feather Merchants, the group rechristened itself the City Slickers (after a Cindy Walker tune that Jones had played in the band for entitled “We’re Gonna Stomp Them City Slickers Down”). If in private he was broody recluse, in performance he was the consummate ham. Spike Jones and his City Slickers became infamous throughout the 1940s for their satirical arrangements of popular songs – from contemporary fox trots to classical works – and for utilizing a bizarre assortment of “instruments” including shotguns, birdcalls, police sirens, and cowbells.

Greg Gormick tells of the moment that proved the band’s break-through success:

Donald Duck mocks Hitler and the Nazis.

“The big break came in 1942.  Jones’ RCA Victor recording contract of 1941 produced three initial recording sessions that yielded some interesting sides that didn’t exactly set the music business on fire.  But the fourth session included a song written for the Walt Disney cartoon, Donald Duck in Nutzi Land (click the still to the left to view the cartoon), which poked fun at Adolph Hitler and the Nazi scourge overrunning Europe.  Take one ended with a trombone “schmeer” effect after the last mention of der Feurher, but the second substituted a loud and rude “raspberry” effect, which more accurately summed up how most Americans felt about Hitler.  It was take two that was issued and it was Der Fuehrer’s Face that made Jones a household name.  Played repeatedly by several famous American disc jockeys, it swept the country and soon spread abroad, reportedly even to Hitler’s ears.  It was that little something extra that Jones needed to grab the public’s attention.”

Following “Der Fuehrer’s Face” the group issued hit after hit. The band eventually took their show on tour around the U.S. and Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the title The Musical Depreciation Revue. The group was so popular they even appeared on various radio programs from 1945 to 1949, and on television programs on both NBC and CBS from 1954 to 1961. In the end, Jones achieved his wish: a famous name, numerous records at the top of the charts, millions in sales, and a top-ticket touring and television act. As with contemporary satirists like Weird Al Yankovic, however, Jones was not always looked on fondly by the musicians whom he parodied; many songwriters tried to prevent Jones being allowed to create his “arrangement” of their tune. Gormick, again, tells two interesting anecdotes that illustrate the tension between musician and mocker is nothing new to the American entertainment industry:

“Composer Jerome Kern was furious at Jones’ version of his late friend Gus Kahn’s Chloe…  Kern thought the song was an insult to its lyricist and he urged Kahn’s widow, Grace, to pursue the matter.  She thought it was hilarious and was pleased that it breathed new life into the corny song, telling Kern nicely to mind his own business. Not so good humoured was singer Vaughan Monroe, who was one of Victor’s top-selling artists in the late 1940s and a large stockholder.  When Jones parodied his hit recording of Riders in the Sky, it ended with:  “I can do without his singing, but I wish I had his dough.”  To satisfy Monroe and Victor executives, the record was withdrawn and a new ending fabricated in the New York studios, with Spike nowhere in attendance. The original version still turns up and is a prized collectors’ item… In addition, Spike circulated copies of the full parody to disc jockeys, counting on the controversy to create the kind of publicity he savoured.”

The City Slickers grew in size and took their (expensive) show on the road for "Musical Depreciation."

Popular taste changes in comedy perhaps quicker than any other form of entertainment, and Jones was no exception; the musical comic act was dying and being replaced by spoken word comedy recordings by the likes of Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, and Tom Lehrer (Jones tried his hand at spoken word comedy on the LP “Omnibust” but it was not a big hit). His popularity peaked by the mid-1950s and began a slow decline from there. Coupled with the large expense associated with a traveling revue featuring dozens of performers and Jones’ choice to walk away from the Victor label the Spike Jones phenomenon plummeted. Jones, whose fodder was big band tunes and highly lampoonable pop music of the 1940s, was hurt by the rise of rock-n-roll in the 1950s and 1960s. There were attempts at children’s records (“Socko, the Smallest Snowball!”) and even a few serious music recordings under the moniker Spike Jones’ New Band, but the bandleader failed to recapture the successes of his earlier period.

Then, on May 1, 1965, at the age of 53, Jones – who smoked countless cigarettes every day, died from emphysema. Just as Jones had been influenced by the novelty orchestras (and the Marx Brothers) of the 1920s and 1930s, however, the City Slickers left an indelible impression on American culture and paved the way for performers such as Stan Freberg, Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach, Frank Zappa, and, of course, Weird Al Yankovic. Even the Beatles, by way of the Goons, drew some inspiration from the drumming musical murderer from Southern California.

My copy of the album set features five completely immaculate interior envelopes.

Interestingly, of the three individuals selling this set online, not one of us has the same five records in the album. All are RCA Victor labels and all feature five of Spike Jones many records. This is because it was very common for owners of these albums to mix and change up the records that were stored in the album binders, often based on preference or simply replacing a damaged record with another one by the same artist. I have not been able to identify the exact recordings that comprised the album set as originally released. Below I provide the information about what is on each of the five records I have in the set, along with links to complete versions of the songs elsewhere online. I do not go much into detail about the writers or performers, but where there is some interesting comment about the song itself I’ve included that.

Disc 1:

20-3177-A            “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)” by Don Gardner, vocal refrain by George Rock (recorded December 6, 1948)

20-3177-B            “Happy New Year” by Eddie Brandt and Freddy Morgan, vocal refrain by Sir Frederick Gas, Doodles Weaver, George Rock, and Spike Jones (1948)

This disc does not appear in the sets of the other three versions I found and is probably a later addition to the “Musical Depreciation” compilation I own. “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” one of Jones’ most famous songs, was written in 1944 when Don Gardner, a music teacher in Smithtown, New York, asked his second grade class what they wanted for Christmas. He realized most the children were answering with a lisp because they were missing at least one of their front teeth. Thirty minutes later he had the song written. When he performed it in 1947 at a music teacher’s conference it was picked up by a representative of the Witmark Company and, ultimately, had its first recording (the one in this set) made by Jones and his band in 1948. To Gardner’s utter amazement, it reached the top of the pop charts in 1949. It has since been covered by the likes of Danny Kaye with the Andrews Sisters, the Platters, Nat King Cole, the Three Stooges, the Chipmunks, and Count von Count of Sesame Street. How many other songs can say that?

Disc 2:

20-1893-A            “The Glow-Worm” by Lilla Cayley Robinson and Paul Lincke, arranged by Spike Jones, vocal refrain by Red Ingle and Aileen Carlisle with chorus (1946)

20-1893-B            “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai)” by Ralph Freed, Johnny Noble-Leleiohaku, vocal refrain by Spike Jones and his Wacky Wakakians with chorus (1946)

In the process of preparing this week’s entry and digitizing the records in this set I was very saddened to discover that this particular record has a straight-line crack at about 7 o’clock rendering it entirely unplayable. Nevertheless, I included it here. Only one of the three dealers selling this set online also had this album in the compilation. “Hawaiian War Chant” was written in the 1860s by the Hawaiian prince Leleiohoku and was originally entitled “We Two in the Spray,” with lyrics telling of two lovers, not a battle. In 1936 Ralph Freed changed it to English lyrics and Johnny Noble altered the melody, and the tune was performed by the Tommy Dorsey Band in the 1942 film Ship Ahoy. It was this version that Jones would lampoon in 1946, kicking up the tempo and changing the lyrics with Grayson doing the (uncredited) lead vocals. Jones’ version reached #8 on the U.S. charts that year, yet another example of a Spike Jones satirical take on a pop song actually selling better than the original song itself. Freed and Noble’s version proved more enduring, however, as Les Paul and Mary Ford, Sandi Griffiths, Sally Flynn, the Muppets, Nathan Lane (as Timon in The Lion King), Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and Weird Al Yankovic all recorded covers or adaptations of it. The song is in the regular repertoire of both the University of Hawaii Marching Band and the Michigan Marching Band. Finally, Disney has used it in two of their theme park attractions (the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and the Adventurers Club’s Pleasure Island).

 Disc 3:

20-1654-A            “Chloe” by Gus Kahn and Neil Moret, featured in the Paramount picture “Bring on the Girls”, vocal refrain by Red (Swamphead) Ingle (1945)

20-1654-B            “A Serenade to a Jerk” by Del Porter and Carl Hoefle, vocal refrain by Judy Manners and Red (Jerk) Ingle (1945)

This album, with its two fox trots, appears in all three versions of the “Musical Depreciation” set I could locate online, as well as in my own; therefore, I am fairly confident it was part of the original compilation issued by RCA Victor. Interestingly the label (which simply reads “Victor” instead of “RCA Victor”) differs from the other four albums in my set.

“Chloe” reached a relatively unimpressive #441 in the U.S. charts when it was first released in 1927. That version, of course, was the original song – “Chloe (Song of the Swamp)”, with music by Neil Moret and lyrics by Gus Kahn (see above for the anecdote related to Kahn’s friend, Jerome Kern’s, less than pleased reaction to the Spike Jones spoof). Jones’ version would place in the top 5 on the charts in 1945, again illustrating the often powerful effect that satire could have for boosting a song’s popularity – albeit in an altered, and not always desired, form.

The film “Bring on the Girls” was a moderately successful comedy starring Veronica Lake, Sonny Tufts, and Eddie Bracken. In the movie a millionaire joins the Navy hoping to find a girl who will marry him for himself and not his money; a beautiful gold-digger working at a resort hotel sets out to “get him.”

Disc 4:

20-1895-A            “That Old Black Magic” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, vocal refrain by Carl Grayson

20-1895-B            “Liebestraum” by Del Porter and Franz Liszt, arranged by Spike Jones and Del Porter, vocal refrain by Red Ingle, narration by Richard Morgan

This album likewise appears in all three versions of the “Musical Depreciation” set I could find online, as well as my own; therefore it was also likely part of the original compilation. While the Liszt spoof is quite entertaining “That Old Black Magic” was the more popular.  Harold Arlen wrote the tune and Johnny Mercer the lyrics, and it was published in 1942, quickly becoming a very popular standard. The initial recordings in 1942 were made by Glenn Miller, Margaret Whiting, Frank Sinatra (the Chairman of the Board sang an altered version entitled “The Old Jack Magic” at a celebration for John F. Kennedy the night before his presidential inauguration), Sammy Davis Jr., Mercer himself, and Judy Garland, for whom Mercer actually intended the song when he wrote the words. The song placed in the top ten for two separate recordings (Miller’s and Whiting’s) in 1943 and went on to be recorded by just about every major singer of the 1940s-1960s. Ella Fitzgerald crooned it in 1961 and Billy Daniels’ 1950 version earned him the nickname “The Old Black Magic Man.” Sammy Davis Jr. sang it on a guest cameo on I Dream of Jeannie and, perhaps most infamously, Marilyn Monroe sang it in the 1956 film Bus Stop. Who else? Jerry Lewis, Louis Prima, Dave Brubeck, Cab Calloway, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Mathis, Van Morrison, the Platters, Kevin Spacey, Mel Torme, Tom Jones… Over 75 recorded versions (including Spike Jones’ and one by the Muppets – I’m noticing a pattern there) and five appearances on feature film soundtrack, background music on two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and as background music to the 1996 Miss Universe beauty pageant semifinals.

Disc 5:

20-2023-A            “The Jones Laughing Record (introducing The Flight of the Bumble Bee)” by Spike Jones and his City Snickers

20-2023-B            “My Pretty Girl” by Del Porter and Ray Johnson, vocal refrain by The Foursome, whistling by Gene Conklin

My apologies to the link to the song of “My Pretty Girl.” The only recording I could find of it online was that one. There is a fun live performance of just the Spike Jones version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” to be found elsewhere, however.  Again, this record does not appear in the other three sets of “Musical Depreciation” I found online, suggesting it was probably added by a later owner of the compilation. The original “Flight of the Bumblebee” was an orchestral interlude by Rimsky-Korsakov written in 1899 for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The piece closed Act III, Tableau 1: the magic Swan-Bird changes the Prince into a bee so he may fly off to visit his father, who believes the prince is dead. The song is infamous for its highly technical complexity, consisting primarily of long runs of sixteenth notes. While the original composition (mercifully) split the runs up among the various orchestra instruments, later adaptations were crafted and arranged to showcase virtuosity on a single instrument by highly skilled musicians. Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the piece for piano is probably the most famous. Later musicians used it as a solo piece for violin, guitar, and – with Jones’ recording – trombone.

Spike Jones a few of his comic comrades...

78-RPM recordings of novelty orchestras are normally of high monetary value, but Spike Jones and his City Slickers were so popular and so prolific that their albums were produced in huge quantity, making them almost without value to a collector. But, to a music enthusiast – especially one with a sense of humor – they are a must have for any collection of 20th century American records. Clever, fun, and upbeat, you are almost certain to at least crack a smile, if not burst out laughing, at each one. I had the great joy of putting this week’s entry together with my toddler running around and it was wonderful to watch her laughing and dancing to these songs as I played each one in turn (she especially enjoyed “Liebestraum”). So, click the links above to the songs in “Musical Depreciation” – and then click around to the other Spike Jones recordings available online. Then put your feet up and laugh a little.

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.