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 low note in American entertainment

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

Some examples of the Harmony Disc Record label.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony Disc Record #4100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Golden (1858-1926).

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

A 1900 ad for blackface vaudevillian Billy Van.

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

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

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

Fred Gaisberg (left) with Edward Elgar in 1932.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The masters’ voices

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

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

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

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

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

His Master's Voice B.8883

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dame Evans as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version.

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

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

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

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

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

Gielgud in costume for the 1947 revival.

Gielgud (on right) in the 1947 revival.

Another shot from the 1947 production, with Gielgud kneeling.

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

Sir John Gielgud in 1973.

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

Gielgud as Richard II in 1936.

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

Gielgud, again in 1973.

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

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

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

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

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

A record for the radio

This week: the Mambo King, Mount Washington, the Grammys, two Tinsel Town lawsuits, and a Maine radio station, all connected to one record.

In the world of recorded music Decca Records was a relative latecomer to the party. Founded in 1929 in England, the U.S. label wasn’t established until 1934. It quickly grew to become one of the most voluminous producers of records in the nation (reaching the #2 spot within just a few years of its creation) and, unlike many other labels of the period, persists to this very day (as part of the behemoth Universal Music Group, a branch of Vivendi). The vast number and style of Decca labels is a testament to its prowess in the recording industry.

That's a lot of Decca labels...

As with Columbia and Victor and their stable of “dime-store” labels Decca’s strength came from acquiring smaller recording companies. They would then either dissolve the label, keeping the affiliated artists (for example, with the 1932 acquisition of bankrupt Brunswick Records, Decca gained Bing Crosby and Al Jolson) or continue to issue the label as a franchise of the Decca company. The number of labels Decca absorbed is pretty remarkable: Brunswick, Melotone, Edison Bell, Champion, Gennett, Broadway, Apex, and Vocalion, to name a few. Its roster of artists is likewise lengthy (too long to list here). It was a combination of this in-demand talent, shrewd management, and a low price point (35 cents in its earliest days) that led to Decca’s growth into a powerhouse record company. A book could be written alone on Decca’s contributions to recording technologies and phonograph players (it probably has), not to mention its advances in marketing and promotions and its pantheon of some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century in every genre.

Decca 27045 includes a mambo and a lawsuit-inducing foxtrot.

This album is in Good condition; there is some wear to the label and a little streaking of the ink from moisture on the B-side and the disc vinyl is a bit scratched on both sides, though it still plays fine. The ending gap on both sides shows the spiral groove characteristic of an album that sat spinning on the turntable a bit too long after the song was finished (there is more of the spiral on the B-side than the A-side, indicating the B-side might have been played more often). It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Decca 27045 and the master number is WL5553A4/WL552A3. The A-side recording features “Happy Pay Day,” an instrumental fox trot written by Jack Holmes and Eddie Brandt and published by the Lutz Brothers Music Company Inc.; it runs 2 minutes and 56 seconds. The B-side recording features “More More Mambo,” an instrumental mambo written by Damaso Perez Parado and published by the Peer International Corporation; it runs 2 minutes and 39 seconds. Both songs are performed by Sonny Burke and his Orchestra. According to the Sonny Burke Papers, housed at Duke University, the record can probably be dated to April 17, 1950, a date verified by the May 27, 1950 issue of “Billboard” magazine, which included the album in its “Advance Record Releases” section for that week’s magazine. It is valued at about $4 to $7.

The spiraling groove in the flat gap at the end of the recording grooves indicates that the record spun, unattended, for a short while on a phonograph with a steel needle.

One of the big draws for choosing this album for this week’s entry may already be apparent. It is not a standard release record; rather, it was a “not for sale” version released specifically for play on the radio only. Radio-only 78s fulfill the “scarcity” requirement that make most records valuable: they were not issued in as large a quantity as regularly released 78s. As an added benefit radio-issue 78s were typically made to be more durable than standard 78s, so they tend to have withstood the rigors of time more readily (especially if it was an album that was not played often over the air). Radio albums typically come with a clear admonition against reselling them (here the label reads “SAMPLE COPY; NOT FOR SALE”), as well as an indication of precisely how long the track is.

WMTW-FM buliding, atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

When stations made the move from vinyl to cassette or other media they disposed of their massive record libraries – sometimes by selling them off, other times (sadly) by simply junking them, and still other times by simply moving the old media into storage on or off-site of the station. This particular record comes from the library of WMTW, a radio station based in Maine. A WMTW signed on to the air on July 9, 1958, transmitting from a station on the top of Mount Washington in neighboring New Hampshire. The station (today 94.9FM-WHOM, “safe for the whole family”) featured instrumental versions of pop songs, along with the occasional soft vocal number, until 1990. WMTW was sold off in 1971.

The WMTW antenna withstood the August 21, 1938 hurricane, the “highest wind ever recorded” on Mt. Washington.

I am not entirely convinced that this is the same WMTW that owned this record however; an earlier station with the same call letters existed on Mount Washington and predated WMTW-TV (which was founded in 1954 and owned 94.9FM). The first incarnation of a radio station broadcasting from Mount Washington was an AM station built around 1937; its FM counterpart, W39B, went on the air on December 18, 1940. In 1942 running water and additional accommodations were added to the station to facilitate 24-hour operation during World War II. Then, on November 1, 1943, following changes in FCC rules, the station’s call letters were changed to WMTW (the last three letters serving as an acronym for the station’s physical location: Mt. Washington).

I believe it was this earlier WMTW, and not the station that eventually became WHOM, that was the original owner of this Decca record. My theory primarily comes from the fact that as the record was released in 1950, it is quite unlikely that a station that didn’t even exist until 1958 (and which, when it did come on the air, played popular contemporary music for the period), would own a then eight-year old album.

The A-side recording is the up-beat foxtrot “Happy Pay Day.” While this version is instrumental, the song does have lyrics, which can be heard on some contemporary covers of the song. The June 17, 1950 “Billboard” magazine reviewed it as follows: “Relaxed, straight swing instrumental in a catchy riff. Fine precision and color in the ork’s work” and rated it 72/100.

Little Willie Littlefield (1931-)

The instrumental song was issued contemporaneous to the Decca release on the Brunswick label (record #04567) in 1950, featuring Sonny Burke and his Orchestra. In 1949 Austin McCoy recorded a two-part album entitled “Happy Pay Day” on RPM Records (record #300), a primarily rhythm and blues label – due to its date prior to the Decca release, which I believe to be the first release of Holmes and Brandt’s song, I suspect this is a different song altogether. The June 17, 1950 issue of “Billboard” magazine reported the upcoming release of another recording of the song, this time I believe Holmes and Brandt’s, by the artist Little Willie Littlefield on the Modern Records label (record #20-754).

Ella Mae Morse singing "Blacksmith Blues," the song that rocketed her to stardom.

Perhaps the most notable part of “Happy Pay Day,” however, lays not its recording history but rather in its role in a lawsuit. In 1952 Jack Holmes wrote a song for Ella Mae Morse entitled “Blacksmith Blues.” It was published by Hill and Range Sons, arranged by Billy May and Nelson Riddle, and then released on a Capitol Records 45-RPM disc (record #F1922), with Morse singing and Riddle conducting the orchestra. The song was an instant hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard charts, selling over one million copies, and propelling Morse from somewhat obscurity to substantial fame (it would be her biggest hit in her career). The Capitol record is on sale on EBay from five separate sellers, ranging in price from $3.60 to $23.23.

Sheet music for "Blacksmith Blues" as performed by Ella Mae Morse.

"Blacksmith Blues" appeared on many labels throughout the 1950s.

The song was so popular it was covered by the Tri-Tones on a Black Mountain Records 78-RPM (record #R-1006-A and currently on sale on EBay for $25), the John Barry Seven and Orchestra on a Columbia 45 in 1962 (record #4898), Ted Heath and his orchestra with vocals by Lita Roza around 1954 on Decca (record #16895 currently on sale on EBay for $10), Birds of a Feather (conducted by Zack Lawrence) on a 45-RPM for Page One Records (record #21028 currently on EBay for $0.50), Sid Phillips and his band with vocals by Denny Dennis on His Master’s Voice (record #6132 on sale on EBay for about $6), and – perhaps most notably – by the legendary Bing Crosby.

Sheet music for the Sid Phillips arrangement of "Blacksmith Blues" taking the title a bit too literally.

OK – why the interest in a seemingly unrelated tune? It turns out “Blacksmith Blues” was at the center of not one but two legal disputes.

In 1952 a woman named Mildred Schultz heard “Blacksmith Blues” on a television program and subsequently sued Holmes, Hill and Range, Capitol, Decca, RCA, and several other parties. She claimed the music for Blacksmith Blues was plagiarized from a copyrighted song she wrote in 1941 entitled “Good Old Army” and later renamed “Waitin’ For My Baby” in 1949. The song was never published or recorded. The court report, linked above, is worth a read, but I won’t get into the details except to say the court, when it finally ruled in 1959, did not find for Mrs. Schultz. If you haven’t played the links above to the music for both “Blacksmith Blues” and “Happy Pay Day” you might miss the connection. The two songs are the same, with different lyrics. According to the court record Holmes had changed the lyrics of “Happy Pay Day” for Hill and Range and, voila, created the hit “Blacksmith Blues.”

Bizarrely, the court records also refer to the song’s similarity to a song titled “Happy Pay Off Day.” And, according to Capitol Records, “Ella Mae Morse had a hit record in 1952 with ‘Blacksmith Blues,’ which was originally published in 1950 as ‘Happy Payoff Day’ in 1950.”

At first I thought this was simply an error, but then I discovered this from an article in Billboard magazine from October 25, 1952:

“Len Ross, of KRUX, Phoenix, Ariz., taped an interview of Mickey Katz, who was playing a benefit with his ork there. Katz told him he recorded a tune called “Happy Pay-Off Day” two years ago, the melody of which he says parallels “Blacksmith Blues.” Ross suggest that jox who have the Katz disk [I have not been able to locate any recording of it] will find a before-and-after comparison interesting.”

Mickey Katz (1909-1985).

There is no indication Katz was involved in the lawsuit or pursued the matter much further than kvetching on the KRUX interview.

Here’s the court’s report on “Happy Pay Off Day”:

“In 1950 Jack Holmes… wrote a song which he entitled “Happy Pay Off Day.” Holmes, a singer who resided in the Los Angeles area, transferred his rights in this music to a Hollywood music publishing company known as Tune Towne Tunes. This company, which is one of the appellees, copyrighted the unpublished music on January 25, 1950. Printed copies of “Happy Pay Off Day” were placed on sale on April 11, 1950. Tune Towne Tunes copyrighted the published work on April 17, 1950, and later assigned it to Hill and Range Songs, Inc., of New York City. The latter company is also one of the appellees.

“Sometime during the next two years Holmes rewrote the words and music under the title “The Blacksmith Blues.” Hill and Range Songs, Inc., published and copyrighted this new version of the Jack Holmes music in January, 1952. Since then this company and, through licensing arrangements, some of the other appellees have marketed “Happy Pay Off Day” and “The Blacksmith Blues” in the form of sheet music and records. While Holmes was named a defendant in this action, he was not served with a copy of the complaint, and it was later learned that he had died before the suit was instituted.”

Eddie Brandt (center) with Spike Jones (right).

Sadly, that is about as much as I was able to learn in my research about Jack Holmes, too. His collaborator was Eddie Brandt (1920-2011), a composer who penned popular television and film music and other songs, including “There’s No Place Like Hawaii.” Educated at Northwestern University and Texas A&M Brandt wrote materials for Joan Davis, Eddie Cantor, and Spike Jones from 1946 to 1958. Interestingly his name does not appear in the Schultz lawsuit anywhere, even though it seems that she did not neglect to name most anyone associated with “Blacksmith Blues” as an appellee. It suggests Brandt was not involved with the transformation of the song from “Happy Pay Day” to “Blacksmith Blues.”

But this wasn’t the end of “Happy Pay Day”/”Blacksmith Blues”’s legal troubles. It seems even the act of changing the title and lyrics resulted in some litigation.

The August 2, 1952 issue of “Billboard” relates another lawsuit that was filed on May 5, 1952:

“The legal hassle between Lutz Brothers’ Music and Hill & Range Songs over “Blacksmith Blues” has moved from the jurisdiction of a local superior court into the U.S. District Court, making the second federal suit over the Ella Mae Morse Capitol hit tune. Lutz Brothers’ Music alleges that they inked a pact January 8, 1952, turning over the song “Happy Pay Day,” written by Jack Holmes to the Aberbach fraters’ firm, only to learn the next day that the song had been recorded with new lyrics under the monicker “Blacksmith Blues.” The Lutz firm alleges that they acquired the tune from Lynda Music pubber Ken Watkins. The H&R-LBM pact, which is part of the evidence filed, shows that LBM was to receive a $500 advance, two cents per piano copy, plus 10 percent of all mechanical and film royalties and performance payments.Previously Watkins had filed suit against Holmes and H&R, seeking a $100,000 judgment, on the grounds that “Pay Day” was turned over to Lynda Music January 23, 1949, by Holmes.”

“Billboard” provides the conclusion of the Watkins suit on January 31, 1953, under the unequivocal headline “’Blacksmith ‘ Suit Kayoed.” Apparently “Watkins…had failed to appear at two different times at which depositions were to be taken.”

Perhaps the Austin McCoy recording of 1949 was indeed an earlier version of Holmes’ song, originally promised to Watkins…according to Watkins. As I am unable to find a copy of the McCoy recording, I cannot confirm that.

Two final thoughts on this before I move on. First, I don’t believe this Ken Watkins is my mother-in-law’s father. But I could be wrong. But I’m probably not. Second, it seems pretty clear that these suits, as well as Katz’ remonstrations, were only the product of “Blacksmith Blues”’s wild success. When the ditty was “Happy Pay Day,” perhaps to Sonny Burke and Little Willie’s disappointment, there was, in the end, not much of a payday at all.

The B-side of this record features the catchy instrumental mambo number “More More Mambo” by Perez Prado (1916-1989), the “King of the Mambo.” Prado, a Cuban, was and still is an icon in Latin music. He was one of the most imaginative, prolific, and talented composers, arrangers, and bandleaders of the genre.

Perez Prado (1916-1989).

Prado practically defined the mambo style, with striking brass riffs and strong saxophone counterpoints. In his own recordings the bandleader can occasionally be heard exhorting the orchestra to “¡Dilo!” (“Say it!”). In 1950 Sonny Burke was vacationing in Mexico and heard Prado’s “Que Rico El Mambo” and thrilled at the music. He arranged and recorded it in the United States under the title “Mambo Jambo.” It was an instant hit (the “Billboard” review of “More More Mambo” references as a comparison: “Burke follows his fine disking of Perez Prado’s great ‘Mambo Jambo’ with another exciting swing Latin performance of another Prado mambo jumper. 75/100”). You can hear the band occasionally grunting (in rhythym) in Burke’s arrangement in the clip below – an apparent nod to Prado’s own vocalizations on his recordings. The success of Burke’s “Mambo Jambo” prompted Prado to make his own U.S. tour in 1951; every appearance on the tour was a sell-out and the Cuban mambo king signed to record with the powerhouse RCA Victor label. Prado’s arrangements go beyond mambo and Latin music, however, and included highly popular arrangements of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossoms White” and “Patricia,” the former of which appeared on three major film soundtracks and the latter of which appeared in two films, one episode of “The Simpsons,” a long-running British television commercial series for the Royal Mail, and the closing credits for HBO’s “Real Sex” series.

Edmundo Ros recording of "More More Mambo" on a London EP 45-RPM.

In addition to the Decca release “More More Mambo” was recorded by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra, with Ros doing the vocals, and appeared on a 45-RPM on the London label (record #6051 and currently for sale on EBay for $8). Prado’s own recording of the song was issued on “His Master’s Voice” (an RCA Victor label) (record #B10031).

Sonny Burke (1914-1980).

Sonny Burke (1914-1980) was a bandleader, composer, and leader in the music industry during some of the era’s most important years. Burke’s career started early, when he formed a jazz band at Duke University called the Duke Ambassadors. From the 1930s through the 1950s he served as a big band leader and band arranger for some of the hottest groups in New York City, writing or playing for Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Dinah Shore, among others. His most famous (and still relatively popular) original compositions are “Midnight Sun” and “Black Coffee.” In addition to his mambo and big band music, Burke began penning songs for Hollywood – most notably for Disney films. With John Elliot he wrote the music to the 1953 Oscar Best Short Animated Feature “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” and then followed that by joining with Peggy Lee to write the songs for “Lady and the Tramp” in 1955. His music and performances showed up on Warner Brothers, Reprise, Decca, and MCA Records.

Sonny Burke's star on the Hollywood Star Walk.

In his later career Burke became a highly sought-after arranger and bandleader for some of the leading vocal talents of the period, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Tormé. Sinatra was a close associate of Burke’s and eventually hired him to serve as Music Director for Sinatra’ own label, Reprise Records. In 1957 Burke and a handful of other leaders in the music industry came together to form the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; Burke’s modest contribution is said to be no less than the Academy’s awards, first given out in 1959, called the Gramophone Award or, as they are called today, the Grammys.

A Gramophone (aka "Grammy") Award, said to be conceived of by Sonny Burke when he helped found the NARAS.

An aerial photograph shows the destruction from the 2003 fire at the old WMTW radio station atop Mount Washington.

As for the WMTW facility on Mount Washington, where this album once called home, a fire on February 9, 2003 completely destroyed most of the buildings on the site. One might wonder what other relics of the “Golden Age” of radio were lost – dusty boxes of old records or grimy tapes, shoved into a basement corner, now melted and buried beneath the snow on the frigid peak of the tallest mountain in the northeastern United States.

DJ Old School.

Back in the day a radio DJ dropped a 78 or 33 record album onto a turntable and got one, maybe two or three, songs out of it, and then had to cue up the next one. Today radio programs are just that: programmed. They are digitally lined up, cleaned up, and burned to iPod or flash drive. The USB is plugged into the broadcaster, the music – focus-grouped, auto-tuned, and digitally perfected – goes out into the ether, and the DJ’s work is, mostly, done. When my brother and I had a radio show in college in the early 2000’s complete playlists, even then, were easily burned to CD and then loaded up for easy use.

One of the earliest photographs of WMTW-FM atop the highest peak in the northeastern United States.

One of the great attractions of this record, to me, is the imagery it conjures of a bygone era of sound. And to imagine that one of the greatest, most boldest and remarkable feats of human engineering – to build a then-cutting edge technological facility on one of the most inhospitable sites in that corner of the nation, nearly 6,300 feet up – all in the service of radio broadcasts, is astounding. And while the station was utilized for an important public service during the war and for broadcasting weather alerts and updates, its primary function was simply to play music and, on occasion, broadcast Red Sox games. Is there any better metaphor for the advancement of human technology and ability? We climb the tallest mountains…and build a radio station to broadcast “More More Mambo” to the world.