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.”

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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.