Roll On Record

For this installment of Zayde’s Turntable I let my 2-1/2 year old daughter select the record and I’m very happy with the result! She certainly loved dancing to it – over and over again. A good reminder that, if you have 78 r.p.m. discs, it’s best to limit how often you play them on a traditional steel-needle phonograph (or, even better, not use one at all) and opt for a more modern player – that can spin at 78 r.p.m. – with a synthetic stylus. Also, she selected a record that, unbeknownst to me when she picked it, has a unique instrumentation: it’s a hopping jazz piano record from 1949/1950, but it’s not any old piano…

The record is on the short-lived Abbey label, not to be confused with Abbey Road. Searching for Abbey records background was a bit difficult. There is no entry for them in the Online Discographical Project.  Created by record producer Peter Doraine in New York City in 1949, Abbey represented Doraine’s attempt to become a big shot in the burgeoning post-war record industry. The label’s initial releases, in the R&B genre, had mediocre sales – including the Ben Smith Quartet performing the colorfully titled “I Ain’t Fattening Frogs For Snakes,” the Cabineers singing “Whirlpool,” which had some success, and some tunes performed by Bobby Marshall. The real shot in the arm, however, came later that year with Abbey 15003 – a disc featuring Lawrence Cook and The Jim Dandies (Cook also composed and performs on this week’s featured record below), with “The Old Piano Roll Blues” and “Why Do They Always Say No.” The record sold a then-remarkable 200,000 albums. What was especially remarkable about Abbey 15003, however, is that it was not a recording of a live pianist: it was a pianola playing a QRS piano roll. J.C. Marion, in Jamm Upp, writes:

 “…at this moment in history, memories and reminiscences of an earlier, simpler time were the biggest sellers… So, whether it was by design or merely by chance, ‘The Old Piano Roll Blues’ was a huge success. Quite a departure for the new R&B label in town! The tune by Lawrence (now nicknamed ‘Piano Roll’) Cook, was everywhere. But – Doraine continued on his R&B quest.”

“Nickel-Nabbers Sure!”

The label continued to sign and release recordings in the R&B genre, but had no more real hit records. Some of the other artists who released Abbey records in 1949-1951 included – and I include some of the more entertaining song titles here, as well – The Masterkeys, Art Long (“Blues Got Me Walkin, Talkin’ To Myself”), the Ray Parker Combo (performing with Bobby Marshall, on one album, the Inkspots’ song “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” later made famous by Elvis), the Eddie Wilcox Orchestra (“I Shouldn’t Love You, But I Do”), Ralph Willis, Billy Matthews, Elmer Crumbley, Johnny Felton (“You’re Spending My Money Too Fast”), Jewyl Lang, The Radars with the Conrad Fredrick Orchestra, Nellie Hill (“I’m Gonna Copyright Your Kisses”), Sister Dorothy Rivers and Her Gospel Singers, the Billy Ford Orchestra, Joe Candullo’s Orchestra (“I Cooed, I Wooed, I Wed in Tennessee”), Joan Shaw, Elaine Brent, and the King Odom Four (“Don’t Trade Your Love For Gold”). Despite having signed a few partners since 1949, Doraine is still the hear behind Abbey records and when he is signed as head of A&R for Allen Records in 1952 Abbey records fades away.

By the way, Doraine seemed to have something of a sense of humor. A 1950 news account related the following exchange over the phone between Doraine and a songwriter pitching a new tune: “He called up Peter Doraine…in New York and played it over the phone. ‘What’s its name?’ asked Doraine, adding that he liked it. ‘I’ll Write You a Letter,’ said Balee. ‘Why can’t you tell me now?’ said Doraine.”

This album, Abbey 15056, is in good condition, though it does skip twice at the beginning of the A-side recording. There is very little wear to the shellac or to the paper label. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78 r.p.m. black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The A-side recording features Lawrence “Piano Roll” Cook and His Orchestra performing Cook’s own composition “The Mason-Dixon Boogie.” The matrix number is G-989 and it runs 2 minutes. The B-side is the same musicians performing “San Antonio Rose” written and originally performed by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in 1938. The matrix number is G-990 and it runs 2 minutes and 36 seconds. I could find no date for the recording of the album, though Billboard magazine of November 17, 1951 includes an ad for a store called Speedy Record Sales in Yonkers, in which the album is listed in their top picks (alongside Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and Hank Williams records) and available for 60-cents. It was probably recorded in very late 1949 or at some point in 1950. Abbey 15056 does not appear in Les Dock’s guide to record values, but I found one dealer online selling a copy in V+ condition for $4. Abbey later re-released “Mason-Dixon Boogie” on 45 r.p.m. as Abbey 3029; I found one dealer selling that record for $20 and another selling it for $5.

Jean Lawrence Cook (1899-1976), aka “Piano Roll” Cook, has been mentioned on this blog before, coincidentally quite recently, for his 1955 piano roll version of John Moore and Ewart Abner’s “At My Front Door,” which he recorded under the pseudonym “Pep Doyle.” Cook was wildly prolific and by some accounts made more piano rolls than any other pianist in history – as many as 20,000 different roll recordings (over his 56 year career, that works out to about one roll recorded per day, every day of the year). Remarkably, despite being one of the most high-volume musical artists of the 20th century he is barely known today –a search on Amazon finds just 11 products with Cook’s performances on them (some CD and some records) and he has no channel – not even a presence – on digital music stations Spotify or Pandora. Cook, from Athens, Tennessee, became an orphan at the age of three and was raised by relatives who introduced him to music, and the piano more specifically, at a very young age. In March of 1920 Cook headed to the Big Apple to try his luck in the Tin Pan Alley scene. He landed at U.S. Music Roll Company, where he made some piano rolls, before being hired away three years later by the behemoth in the piano roll industry, QRS Music Roll Company. Cook remained with QRS for five decades. While most of his rolls and recordings were released under his own name, some were not – as we’ve already covered here on Zayde’s Turntable. Interestingly, however, some of Cook’s rolls were marketed as being recorded by an actual other living artist – Fats Waller – perhaps in an attempt to increase sales. The site linked above (click on Cook’s name in the first sentence of this paragraph) has an extensive biography, document images, and more, about “Piano Roll” Cook.

Jahn’s storefront, shortly before it closed in 2007.

Cook made many of his recordings and rolls (including possibly this one), not in a studio, but on the nickelodeon piano at Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor in Queens. Jahn’s (as in, “John’s” with an accent) was one of the neighborhood’s most popular dining establishments, serving dinner and ice cream. The business displayed many of the historic artifacts associated with the site’s long and proud history, including the working piano that Cook made his recordings on, until it went out of business in November 2007.

The site where Jahn’s once was is now a corner market.

Dink Embry

Cook’s tune “Mason-Dixon Boogie” has received very little play outside of this record, which is unfortunate because it’s a nice, jumping jazzy tune. Dink Embry (1920-1999) and the Kentucky Lads and Reece Shipley (1921-1998) made recordings of a song with the same name, but for which label and when I cannot find. I also could not confirm if their recordings were of Cook’s tune; I am skeptical that it was, as both Dink Embry and Reece Shipley were more rockabilly/country musicians than traditional “boogie” artists, but I may be mistaken. This is another instance where I believe this version (click the song title in the first sentence of this paragraph) is the only recording of it available online today – if you find any others, please let me know in the comments section.

Bob Wills, demonstrating one of the benefits of choosing a string instrument over a wind instrument.

“San Antonio Rose” was the signature tune for Bob Wills (1905-1975) and His Texas Playboys. Written originally as an instrumental song for the group in 1938, band members later added lyrics and it was renamed “New San Antonio Rose.” The melody is identical and hence the two titles are often used interchangedly for both songs, the instrumental and the vocal version. The song, which Wills derived from Mexican traditional “Spanish Two-Step” (the song’s melody is the Two-Step’s bridge in reverse), launched Wills and the Texas Playboys to national fame, selling over a million copies and becoming a standard hit for jukeboxes across the country. It’s been covered by countless professional musicians and groups from Patsy Cline to Willie Nelson to Carrie Underwood, and adapted into a variety of genres, including by Wills and the Playboys themselves, when they added drums and horns for a 1944 Grand Ole Opry appearance that “ruffled the feathers” of country music purists:

 “[Old-time country musician Uncle Dave Macon] ‘abut flipped his dipper,’ [drummer Monte] Mountjoy explained. ‘We were breaking tradition and all that. He went by a couple of time mumblin’ about ‘God-damn young upstarts’ and ‘What they doin’ with those drums here?’…Wills had remorselessly flouted Opry tradition…by the act of bringing a drummer.”

Q.R.S. piano roll of the “New San Antonio Rose” – the same tune as “San Antonio Rose” – performed by Lawrence Cook and written by Bob Wills. As a “word roll” the lyrics appear along side the piano roll’s perforations, hence the title “New San Antonio Rose.” Despite the inclusion of the written lyrics on the paper, however, I believe this roll is the exact same performance captured on Abbey 15056.

It may seem incongruous to have a “country” style tune opposite a boogie – maybe Doraine thought it could be sold as a “southern-themed” record. Whatever the reason it’s a fun album and I love sharing the up-beat music with my energetic daughter. The fact that the piano parts are most likely off another obsolete musical medium – the piano roll – makes it that much more of a delight.

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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.