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.

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Paper, not plastic

This week on Zayde’s Turntable we find a somewhat untraditional type of record. While the song and the performer are not that remarkable I was looking forward to posting about one of the several albums in my collection from the intriguing “Hit of the Week” label.

Examples of “Hit of the Week” label, with the monochrome illustrations on the back of some of the records depicted on the right.

“Hit of the Week” (HOTW) were a very unique series of albums issued in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, which were made – not of the standard shellac – but instead of a patented paper/resin product called Durium. Simply put, HOTW records, first issued in February 1930, were an ultra-cheap record for the impoverished nation. Each week the newest HOTW record appeared in flimsy rice-paper sleeves on newsstands  (not, as with other records, at record stores) for just 15 cents – the cheapest record available at the time. Despite the fact that they were printed on paper stock and not vinyl, HOTW records had remarkably good audio quality, often matching or exceeding the quality of shellac records of the same period. The single-sided records were sometimes issued with liner notes or the featured artist’s picture illustrated on the back (a feature missing from this particular album, however). By the summer of 1930, at its peak, HOTW were selling nearly 500,000 records each week (at 15 cents per record, that makes a weekly gross of $75,000 – or about $970,000 in today’s dollars); however, the continually worsening economy quickly claimed even the super cheap HOTW record company. Sales crashed and in March 1931 the company went into receivership. Two months later they were purchased by an advertising agency that attempted to revive the label, expanding the discs to five minutes in length, with two songs per record – still only on one side, and raising the price to 20 cents. The changes did not work and the final HOTW was produced in June 1932. The advertising industry continued to utilize Durium printed records throughout the decade, primarily as 5” and 3” promotional records. The agencies would even print the mailing address and affix postage directly onto the reverse of the miniature paper records. HOTW records are today relatively popular with collectors – even those with less remarkable songs or singers – largely due to the medium upon which they are pressed. HOTW did publish a number of A-list musicians’ works, however, including Duke Ellington (who appeared on the label as part of the group the “Harlem Hot Chocolates”), Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, and Gene Austin.

Hit of the Week #1088.

Rear of Hit of the Week #1088, lacking an illustration.

This album is in Very Good condition. It has a small chip at the edge, but it does not intrude on the grooves at all and has no effect on the recorded audio. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM brownish red Durium paper/resin disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Hit of the Week 1088. The A-side recording features the Vincent Lopez (1895-1975) Orchestra directed by Hymie Wolfson playing the foxtrot “Little White Lies” by Walter Donaldson (1893-1947). The vocalist is Lew Conrad and it runs 2 minutes and 38 seconds. The album was recorded in July 1930 and released by HOTW on September 11, 1930. Les Docks sets the value at $3-$6 and there is one dealer selling it on EBay for $4.

Columbia 45-RPM featuring Eartha Kitt’s 1963 cover of “Little White Lies.”

Donaldson originally wrote the 1930 foxtrot “Little White Lies” for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, who recorded it on July 25, 1930 for Victor, with Clare Hanlon providing the vocals. As this HOTW version attests, several artists ended up recording the popular tune in 1930, including – besides Lopez on HOTW – Ted Wallace on Columbia, Earl Burtnett on Brunswick, Johnny Marvin on Victor, Marion Harris on Brunswick, Lee Morse on Columbia, and Harry Reser and Annette Hanshaw on budget labels like HOTW. Jesse Crawford recorded an instrumental organ cover for Victor in 1930, as well. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a version of it for Decca in 1939 with Chick Webb’s orchestra. The greatest heights that the song achieved on the US charts was when a 1947 recording of the tune by Dick Haymes for Decca lasted 23 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #3 in 1948. Dinah Shore’s 1947 cover of it for Columbia records lasted one week on the charts at #28 and a 1957 version on Bally Records by Betty Johnson lasted one week at #25 in that year. The song was a hit overseas, too, with Ruby Murray recording it for UK Columbia in 1957 and Eartha Kitt doing likewise in 1963 for the same label. According to Paul McCartney the song was a favorite of both him and John Lennon when they were growing up in Liverpool, and likely had some influence on their later output.

This 1930 edition of the sheet music for “Little White Lies” features a photograph of Vincent Lopez. Donaldson’s publishing company simultaneously released versions of the same music with the photographs of a number of other performers who released recordings of the tune, including Ethel Merman, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and Jesse Crawford.

Songwriter and publisher Walter Donaldson.

Donaldson, the son of a piano teacher, began writing original music for school productions as a young boy, demonstrated sheet music for customers in five-and-dime stores, and accompanied nickelodeon films in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He saw his first published work when he was 22 and continued to perform, even after his enlistment in the Army, when he would entertain troops and play the piano at War Bond rallies. After his service in the Army during World War I Donaldson was picked up by the Irving Berlin Music Company to be one of their stable of in-house songwriters, a gig he kept until 1928 when he set up his own music publishing company. Around the same time he moved from New York to Hollywood, to join many of his fellow Tin Pan Alley songwriters in composing music for the burgeoning film industry; his film music credits include Glorifying the American Girl, Suzi, The Great Ziegfeld, Panama Hattie, Follow the Boys, and Nevada. By the time of his death in 1947 the tremendously prolific Donaldson had penned around 600 original songs, including some major smash hits that are synonymous with Tin Pan Alley and the music of the 1930s to this very day: “My Blue Heaven,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” recorded by John Pizzarelli, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I’ve Had My Moments” made famous by Frank Sinatra, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” rendered by Mel Torme, “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “Love Me or Leave Me” sung by Lena Horne. Remarkably, Donaldson’s publishing company is still in existence to this day and maintains a terrific website with the composer’s complete biography, his catalog with representative recordings (including a 1995 recording of Julie London singing “Little White Lies” for Liberty records), and information about licensing any of the composter’s 600 odd songs.

Bandleader Vincent Lopez.

Lopez, like Donaldson, was a Brooklyn kid. The song of Portuguese immigrants, Lopez was on track to become a priest before he found a new calling in music and formed his own dance orchestra in 1917. With Lopez at the piano, the band played numerous hotel and dance gigs throughout New York City. Lopez’s piano technique has been called “flamboyant and florid” and was a direct influence on later performers on the instrument, including Liberace. Numerous musicians who would later go on to fame in their own right spent some time in Lopez’s band, including Artie Shaw, Xavier Cugat, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Rudy Vallee, and Glenn Miller. In November 1921 the Lopez orchestra became one of the first to broadcast a regular radio program – a 90-minute weekly show on WJZ out of Newark. The notoriety from the show propelled Lopez to the front line of famous bandleaders of the 1940s and secured both his band and himself roles in a number of the hottest musical movies of the 1940s.

Vincent Lopez leads his orchestra in a photograph from the 1920s.

In 1941 Lopez and his band began a long-term residency as the house band of the Hotel Taft in New York City, delighting audiences into the late 1950s with swing, dance tunes, Dixieland jazz, country-western, and even, in the 1950s, with rock and roll songs. The liner notes to a “Best of the Big Bands” CD compilation from the 1990s offers this description of the show at the Taft:

The Lopez band practically defined the style of popular hotel orchestras of the time…Lopez was also an innovator when it came to the audience participation stunts that generated publicity. Wednesdays through Fridays, for instance, Lopez would have everybody in stitches at the Grill Room with his “Shake the Maracas” show, in which people came great distances to demonstrate their personal skill with the maracas and compete for such prizes as miniature piano cigarette lighters and autographed photos of the bandleader. On many an afternoon, tourists (and hooky-playing office workers) would head off to the Taft for an hour-long 1:00 PM dance session, often broadcast as “Luncheon With Lopez” over the Mutual Radio Network. He even sponsored “Fashions in Music,” a weekly afternoon fashion show in which models would display the latest in day and evening wear to the instrumental melodies of the band. Such novelties may have diminished the impact of his music, but it never affected his pocketbook – or his ability to hire the best musicians in town. For many years, a spot in the Lopez band was a real plum for a musician who also desired a stable family life; the show at the Taft always ended at 9:00 PM sharp, giving a sideman ample time to change into street clothes and be home in time to kiss the kids goodnight and watch the eleven o’clock news.

Singer Lew Conrad.

Lew Conrad was, like Donaldson, the son of a musical family, with both parents sharing a background as vocalists. They decided they did not want their son to be a – gasp – singer, so they had him take up the violin instead. Conrad was promoted by his parents as a violin prodigy for the vaudeville circuit, but he really did not enjoy that realm of the entertainment world. After graduating from Tufts Conrad took his violin to the Cleveland Symphony for a year, before landing a singing and violin gig with the Leo Reisman Band. Conrad also did recording sessions with the studio orchestras of Nat Shilkret and Ben Selvin, until, in 1929, he landed an audition for NBC, who offered him a contract. Conrad’s fame peaked between 1931 and 1933, shortly after he recorded this record for HOTW. His musical performances were being heard nationwide nine times a week on NBC network radio and in 1933 his band was featured in an installment of a series of musical film shorts. His fame seemed to have tapered off, for unknown reasons, into the late 1930s, with the last news account of the band performing coming in 1941.

During times of severe economic hardship the American people have gone with less or gone without, but our innate appetite for entertainment seems to persist, albeit in a diminished form. Consider the last twelve years of movie attendance: during the recession in 2008 1.37 billion tickets were sold at cinemas, just about the same as the number sold in 2000, before the recession after 9/11/2001. At the same time, the dollar amount spent on tickets when considering those two years increased by $2.37 billion – or 32%. This means that despite a tremendous jump in ticket prices and the hit to the economy, people were still willing to shell out for a movie ticket. The HOTW story, as a label, illustrates is just how truly awful the Great Depression was for the average American family. Despite our national natural thirst for escapism entertainment even the cheapest record label of the period felt the sting of the economic collapse. And while Americans were turning to new forms of entertainment around the same time – “talkie” film features, for example – the notion that the industry that was then, and is still today, our leading entertainment industry couldn’t cope is a telling piece of evidence of the disruption of the Depression. On a lighter note, I think any record collector with a stack of HOTW albums in their collection would tell you that the audio quality is generally just as good as their vinyl discs. And they’re a hell of a lot easier to move – and less likely to shatter when you drop one by mistake, as you will inevitably do. Perhaps if the Depression had not been as bad as it was Durium records would have replaced shellac more broadly as the preferred material for record albums. Considering the trajectory of recorded music, from 78-RPM to LP to tapes and CDs, it is interesting to imagine what innovations would have happened, not happened, or happened differently, if the principle medium of recording was so changed.

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.

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

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

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

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

Columbia 1833-D

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

Lyricist Leo Robin (1900-1984).

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

The legendary Fats Waller (1903-1943).

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

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

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

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

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

1929 sheet music to "Jericho".

Movie poster for the film Syncopation (1929).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woody Allen in "Zelig" (1983).

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

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

A 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.