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.

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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.