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

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

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

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

Columbia 1833-D

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

Lyricist Leo Robin (1900-1984).

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

The legendary Fats Waller (1903-1943).

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

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

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

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

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

1929 sheet music to "Jericho".

Movie poster for the film Syncopation (1929).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woody Allen in "Zelig" (1983).

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

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