Equal All Ways

A “monstrosity” and an early jazz smash hit share the shellac on this entry of Zayde’s Turntable!

Triangle was a short-lived label affiliated with the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount) and manufactured from September 15, 1922 to 1925 at the Bridgeport Die and Machine Company on Elm Street in Bridgeport, CT. The label touts the innocuous slogan “Equal All Ways.” Triangle, like most of Bridgeport’s labels at the time (Puritan being perhaps the most voluminous) drew on Paramount masters for their tracks until 1924, when Paramount collapsed in bankruptcy and the manufacturer turned to Emerson for masters. Their contract with Paramount restricted Bridgeport’s sales primarily to the east coast and mid-Atlantic, much of which was done through department store retailers and mail order firms.

With the move to Emerson in 1924, the company was able to branch out and took on the Hudson and Mitchell labels out of Detroit in 1924. Bridgeport was an incredibly prolific manufacturer of early 78s, as a sampling of just some of their associated labels makes clear – Baldwin, Belvedere, Broadway, Carnival, Chautauqua, Everybody’s, Hudson, Lyraphone, Mitchell, Music Box, National, Pennington, Puretone, Puritan, Resona, Supertone, Triangle, and Up-To-date, just to list a few.

Just a sample of some Bridgeport labels.

In addition to Paramount and its myriad affiliate labels (Broadway, Puritan, etc.), in their contract with Emerson the company pressed discs from Dandy, Grey Gull, Blu-Disc, Pathe, and Banner material. They even, briefly, issued their own master series (which can be identified by the master prefix “BDM”), which appeared on later Triangle labels from 1924 to 1925. Triangle classical records were also released (with catalog numbers in the 15000s), as were standards (9000s). Triangle met its demise with the July 1925 bankruptcy of the Bridgeport Die and Machine Company. Unlike other Bridgeport brands, which made their way into other company’s portfolios, Triangle did not live on, leaving just a four year window for their manufacture. To that effect, Triangle label records meet the general requirement for valuable records to be scarce. Of course, the quality, importance, and scarcity of the music still play a role.

This album, Triangle 11145, is in fair condition. It has wear to both sides, with the expected impact on the quality of the audio. The paper label shows considerable wear, rendering some of the text unreadable. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black shellac disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The A-side recording features the Society Syncopators performing “Hot Lips,” by Henry Busse, Henry Lange, and Lou Davis. The master number is 1101 and it was recorded June 29, 1922. It runs 3 minutes and 22 seconds and was published by Leo Feist Inc. of New York. The B-side recording is the same group performing “You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him,” by Dan Dougherty, with lyrics by William Tracey (though Tracey’s name does not appear on the label here, since this version is an instrumental only – no vocalist). The master number is 1100 and it was recorded the same day, June 29, 1922. It runs 3 minutes and 12 seconds. It’s interesting to note that the recording date actually precedes the establishment of the Triangle label by three months; this suggests that the recordings were likely made as a Paramount master and intended to be distributed on other labels, which, indeed, they were. The record does not appear in Les Docks’ value guide for 78 r.p.m. records, though there is one dealer selling the same recordings on Regal 9341 for $14.95 on Ebay.

“Hot Lips” (not a reference to the M*A*S*H character; the lyric is “He’s got hot lips when he plays jazz” and refers to the instrumentalist) was written by Busse, Lange, and Davis as a “blues fox trot” for male trio and solo trumpet, for George White’s Scandals of 1922. The Scandals were a string of revue style Broadway shows, produced by George White, that ran from 1919 until 1939. The 1922 cast included Lester Allen, Dolores Costello, Peggy Dolan, W.C. Fields, Winnie Lightner, Sally Long, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and the George White Girls. Busse was a founding member of the Whiteman orchestra and the song (released on Victor as 18920-A) went on to become a #1 hit for the group in 1922, holding the spot on the charts for six weeks. Legendary saxophonist Clyde Doerr played sax. Whiteman’s band recorded the song on June 23, 1922 – just six days before the Syncopators’ recording was made. The Whiteman recording was featured on the soundtrack to the Oprah Winfrey film The Color Purple in 1985. Busse himself led his own orchestra in the popular song 12 years later on a Decca, #25015-A, recording. Busse’s track was also used across the pond on Brunswick 03791-B, an English record, released the same year. The Decca track was also later re-released as a 45 r.p.m. Eventually it was the title track on a 33-1/3 r.p.m. LP.

Henry Busse on the record cover for the vinyl LP “Hot Lips,” featuring his signature tune as the title track.

The chorus to the song (not heard on this record, as it is instrumental only) is:

He’s got hot lips when he plays Jazz,

He draws out step, like no one has,

You’re on your toes and shake your shoes,

Boy, how he goes, when he plays Blues.

I watch the crowd until he’s through,

He can be proud, they’re cuckoo, too;

His music’s rare, you must declare, the boy is there

With two hot lips, he’s got hot lips.

After the Whiteman recording a plethora of other groups took on the hit song – including the Society Syncopators. Also in June 1922, the California Ramblers made a recording of the tune on Vocalion 14384-A. In August 1922 Bailey’s Lucky Seven pressed it for Gennett 4935-A. The Cotton Pickers made a recording of the song in July 1922 for Brunswick 2292-B. Henry Lange, one of the song’s composers, and his orchestra pressed it for Gennett 6263, Superior 306, and Genett Special 40102 concurrently in 1927. Even into the next decade, the song remained popular, with the Hoosier Hotshots releasing a recording of the “Novelty…Hot Dance with Singing” on Melotone 7-06-60 after recording it on October 5, 1936.

Henry Busse in 1921.

Henry Busse (1894-1955) was born into a musical family in Germany. Originally raised as a violinist, he had to abandon the instrument after a broken finger was set improperly and did not heal correctly; the boy picked up a trumpet in its place. Busse was made by his family to play in an “Oompah” band led by his uncle and he despised it; he made numerous attempts to escape, finally succeeding in 1912. Crossing the Atlantic, Busse found himself in the German neighborhoods of New York. Homeless and unable to speak English, Busse was picked up by the police while sleeping in Grand Central Station. After his release he found menial work on a ship heading to California; while at sea his English improved and by the time he landed in Hollywood the adventurous 20-year old was landing extra roles in Keystone Cop films (one can imagine his performances being inspired by his own run-ins with the police in the Big Apple a couple of years prior) and, fortuitously, playing his trumpet in movie theater pit bands. Busse initially played with the “Frisco Jass Band,” also called the Frisco Jazz Band (not to be confused with the Frisco Syncopators – see below) before forming his own “Busse’s Buzzards,” which went on to develop into the Paul Whiteman orchestra.

Despite being subject to discrimination due to his German accent, Busse found success in the California music scene. At one point in the 1920s eight of the top ten sheet music sales spots belonged to his band and Busse himself brought in more than twice the earnings of fellow band member Bing Crosby. Other members of the band included Tommy and Jimmie Dorsey. Busse began to tour and take his talents overseas and across the states. For a while in the 1930s he ran the house band at the Chez Paree in Chicago, where he worked directly for the club’s owner – Al Capone. Back in California Busse’s career found him leading bands appearing in feature films, including one with a speaking part for Busse – “Lady Let’s Dance”.

Busse in a promotional photo taken by the William Morris Agency when he was near the height of his celebrity.

Busse became a celebrity, with all the attendant scandal: after he partied hard at the Hotsy Totsy Club one night, he awoke the next morning married to a woman he had met the night prior. The legal wrangling for the annulment lasted 18 months, during which Busse toured Europe. Busse married twice more and professionally continued to lead his own dance orchestra, the Henry Busse Orchestra, until his death in 1955. Henry Busse’s fascinating life ends with not a little irony: the trumpeter was playing with the Shuffle Rhythm Band at a professional convention in Memphis when he suffered a heart attack. The meeting was the National Undertakers Convention.

Henry W. Lange (1896-1985), the “monarch of the ivories,” was introduced to music through a friend of his father: Arthur Kortheur, the conductor of the Toledo Orchestra in the early 1900s. After Kortheur’s death Lange’s musical education continued with the accomplished pianist Max Ecker. Lange graduated from the Illinois College of Music and went on to serve as music director for a handful of radio stations (WOAI San Antonio, WFAA Dallas, and WHIC Dayton) and pianist for a number of hotels across the southwest. From 1920 to 1924 he played with the Paul Whiteman orchestra in New York at the Palais Royale, where he crossed paths with Henry Busse. With the Whiteman band Lange served as one of the trio of pianists in the 1924 premiere performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – the other two being Gershwin himself and Ferdie Grofe, who shared a regular stint with the Whiteman band with Lange. Lange was apparently quite versatile, appearing both in dance bands and with the Ziegfield Follies, and in European tours performing classical concerts for members of the aristocracy and even royalty. His original piano compositions and performances were released on Ampico, Duo-Art, Melodee, Brunswick, Gennett, and Pathe, among others, and he spent some time as composer to the filmmaker Rudolph Valentino. Lange struggled with health problems for much of his life, and was forced to put his music career on hiatus for a period in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, when he was finally able to return to the circuit, the Great Depression struck and most of the bands dissolved. He performed solo under the moniker “Monarch of the Ivories” for a while, resumed his radio work, and eventually retired.

The final credited name for “Hot Lips” is Lou Davis, about whom I could find almost nothing. The always-helpful World Catalog does reveal an extensive collection of original songs from the period with him named as a composer, lyricist, or arranger (I couldn’t determine which), but there is no biographical information about him that I could identify. If you know anything about Lou Davis, please share it in the comments!

The B-side recording is the blues tune “You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him” – also called in some publications by the rather lengthy title “The You Can Have Him, I Don’t Want Him, Didn’t Love Him Anyhow Blues.” The song should not be confused with Irving Berlin’s “You Can Have Him,” from the 1949 musical Miss Liberty or with Roy Hamilton’s 1961 “You Can Have Her,” which has been occasionally rewritten for female vocalists as “You Can Have Him.” The Berlin tune was recorded by the likes of Allyn McLerie, Mary McCarty, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Doris Day and Dinah Shore, Vanda King, Shirley Bassey, Anita Lindblom, Liza Minnelli, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, and Nina Simone. I cannot find many other references to the Tracey/Doughtery song, however, which predates the Irving Berlin tune and is here performed by the Society Syncopators. There was a recording of it made by the legendary blues singer Mamie Smith, with her Jazz Hounds, in August 1922 – around the same time as this recording – released on Okeh 4670. A little later, on October 3, 1922, the popular vaudeville duo Gus Van and Joe Schenck recorded it for Columbia A-3735. I cannot locate any other references to the tune being recorded after 1922. And the Van & Schenk and Mamie Smith recordings are the only two mentioned by Warren Vache in his 2000 book The Unsung Songwriters: America’s Masters of Melodies. The only critical review of the piece I could locate was a one sentence panning by Sigmund Spaeth in his 1948 History of Popular Music in America in which he simply called it “a monstrosity.”

Mamie Smith (left) and Van & Schenck (right). It is fascinating that two entirely different types of musicians/performers could record this song.

The catalog of copyright entries specifies that Dougherty penned the melody and Tracey the words to this “monstrosity,” though on this recording there is no vocalist and, hence, no lyrics.  A native New Yorker, William Tracey (1893-1957) was a staffer for a number of music publishers where he collaborated with a host of major composers from the early 20th century, including Lewis Muir, George Meyer, Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and Nat Vincent. A charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Tracey penned the words to such Tin Pan Alley standards as “Gee, But It’s Great to Meet a Friend from Your Home Town,” “Bring Back My Daddy to Me,” “Them There Eyes,” “Mammy ‘o Mine,” “He’s Had No Lovin’ For a Long, Long Time,” “Dixie is Dixie Once More,” “Give a Little Credit to Your Dad” (I like that title), and “Is My Baby Blue Tonight.”

Dan Dougherty (1897-1955) of Philadelphia joined ASCAP in 1927 and saw many of his popular songs end up in early films. He composed for Sophie Tucker and collaborated with Nick Kenny and Jack Yellen. His most well-known popular works include “It Certainly Must Be Love,” “It’s All In Fun,” “Glad Rag Doll,” “Mollie,” “Alone in the Rain,” “Moaning for You,” “I’m Dreaming,” “Sittin’ on a Rainbow,” “You’re Still in My Heart,” Mr. Segal, Make It Legal” (“the story of a girl who sleeps with her boss and gets pregnant. Naturally, the boss won’t answer her phone calls, hence the lyric, ‘Mr. Siegel, please make it legal.’”), and the political ditty “Let’s Get Behind the President” written with George Jessel for Harry Truman in 1949. “Glad Rag Doll” is perhaps his most recorded and longest-lived song, with versions being pressed by Dolores Costello for the 1928 film of the same name, again in 1928 by Ted Lewis and his band, Arthur Briggs and His Boys and Earl Fatha Hines in 1929, Tommy Dorsey, Ruth Etting, Johnnie Ray in 1954, Kay Starr in 1955, Barbara Cook in 1975, Joyce Moody and Earl Wentz in 2007, and Diana Krall in 2012. Other films with music by Dougherty include shorts Aunt Jemima: The Original Fun Flour Maker (1927), The Wild Westerner (1928), Grace Johnston and the Indiana Five (1929), the 1929 and 1930 Metro Movietone Revues, The Grand Parade (1930), Crashing the Gate (1933) and feature films Glad Rag Doll (1929), Call of the West (1930), Brothers (1930), Rain or Shine (1930), The Range Feud (1931), Under Pressure (1935), and Follow the Boys (1944).

Specht’s Society Syncopators, sometimes called the Georgians or Specht’s Syncopators, in 1922. Paul Specht is at right with violin and trumpeter Frank Guarente is back center.

Who are the Society Syncopators? According to Michael Harris in The Rise of the Gospel Blues, when it came to the names of popular music recording ensembles of the early 1920s, “jazz was the most frequently used designation, with various forms of the word syncopated a close second…in 1923 appeared the Society Syncopators.” Initially, I thought the band on this record was Fate Marable’s Society Syncopators; Marable, a jazz pianist, led bands on Mississippi river boats that were the proving grounds for many of the legends of American jazz. That suspicion, however, was quickly rejected; Marable’s Society Syncopators only recorded one record – Okeh 40113, which has neither of these tunes. Strangely enough, the answer was suggested when I checked the recording date for Triangle 11145 at the Online Discographical Project: their database mistakenly lists two entries for this record, suggesting that it may have been issued with two different labels. The first, the one I have, only refers to the Society Syncopators; a second seems to refer to “Paul Specht and his Orchestra” on the A-side (that title may be an error – see below) and “Specht’s Society Syncopators” on the B-side.

Paul Specht and the Society Syncopators/Serenaders in 1921, with trumpeter Frank Guarente at the far left and Specht in center with his violin. That’s right: jazz violin.

Puritan issue of the exact same masters, using the exact same catalog and matrix numbers. Only the label is different; while Triangle is “equal all ways,” leave it to Puritan to claim it is “America’s best record.”

This recording, of June 29, 1922, was only the second made by Paul Specht’s orchestra – first coming five days prior with a recording session of “A Dream of Romany” and “In Rose-Time,” billed as “Paul Specht’s Society Serenaders,” a name which was used by the band in live performance from at least as far prior as December 1920. The band’s recording of the songs on this Triangle record appeared simultaneously on Banner 1090 and Imperial 1184 as “Specht’s Society Serenaders,” Paramount 20148 and Puritan and Triangle 11148 as “Specht’s Society Orchestra”, “Specht’s Society Syncopators” and, of course, simply as “Society Syncopators”, Emerson 10546 as “Emerson Dance Orchestra, and Regal 9341 again as “Specht’s Society Syncopators.” This illustrates the general lack of consistency in band names from the period, especially on printed labels, and also the on-going use of pseudonyms for, not simply solo musicians, but entire ensembles. Interestingly, studio records show the recording session of June 29, 1922 was booked for “Specht’s Jazz Outfit,” a name not found on any records issued by the group. The ensemble for the recording – and on this record – comprised of Paul Specht conducting, Frank Guarente on trumpet, Ray Stilwell on trombone, Johnny O’Donnell on clarinet, alto sax, and bass clarinet, Arthur Schutt on piano, Joe Tarto on tuba, and Chauncey Morehouse on drums.

Early jazz trumpeter Frank Guarente. Though Guarente left Specht’s ensemble, cordially, in the mid-1920s he is most likely the trumpeter on this particular recording.

Frank Guarente is likely the trumpet soloist featured on “Hot Lips.” Guarente was born in Avellino, Italy, in 1893 and emigrated to the U.S. out of Naples in 1910.

Paul Specht (1895-1954) was raised as a violinist by his bandleader father, Charles Specht. After graduating from Combs Conservatory in Philadelphia in 1916 Paul put together his first band. The group signed with Columbia in 1922, recording both as the larger band (called Paul Specht and his Orchestra – the reference to that ensemble having made this recording seems to be in error, as this record was pressed by the smaller jazz-focused set) and as a smaller jazz subset that Paul called The Georgians and, later, the Frisco Syncopators or the Society Syncopators. Specht and both of his groups were quite popular throughout the 1920s and starting in 1922 they toured several times to England, where Specht eventually established the “School for Jazz Musicians” in 1924. Specht’s ensembles started the career of many notable jazz musicians, including Charlie Spivak, Joe Tarto, and Chauncey Morehouse, among many others.

Paul Specht on board ship for one of his several trips to England in the early 1920s.

While overseas, however, the group ran into legal troubles: the British government refused to grant them work permits, a fact that Specht only learned after their ship was half-way across the Atlantic. Fortunately for Specht there was a delegation of attorneys, as well as American Secretary of State Charles Hughes aboard the same vessel; after playing some concerts for their fellow passengers, Specht made an entreaty and they intervened on the group’s behalf. There was some diplomatic and legal wrangling, but the group was allowed to disembark and perform. Specht was embittered by the experience, in addition to hassles he ran into with the British music unions, and did not return to England again after 1926, despite the existence of his school and the popularity of his music with the British people in general.

Specht (leaning forward with the white hat in his hand in the front row) and the band in England in 1923.

Specht’s group went on to become the first orchestra to broadcast for RCA, the first to broadcast on a nation-wide radio network (covering 109 stations in all), and one of the earliest to issue a “phonofilm” – sound on film – with a 1925 release. While Specht’s was the first orchestral phonofilm recordings, it was not the first phonofilm recording at all, as some have suggested; the very first phonofilms were made in 1922, with the first public presentations in 1923. Ironically, in 1929 Specht’s group was selected over Paul Whiteman’s (with Henry Busse and Henry Lange) to play at the inauguration of Herbert Hoover. Arthritis hampered his ability to play into the 1940s and he turned more to arranging music for radio and television until his death at age 59.

Guarente, center, is the star of the show in this performance by The Georgians in 1924, towards the end of his affiliation with Specht’s ensembles.

There are all kinds of fun little tid-bits of history associated with this record. The Bridgeport Company, the two “Frisco” bands, Busse’s fascinating career, brush with America’s most famous mobster, and his ironic death, Specht’s diplomatic drama and important role in early sound film, not to mention the “monstrosity” review. The fact that this record features a (once upon a time) hit back to back with a song that seemingly went nowhere is an extra historical treat. There’s still a lot of mystery around this record – why leave Specht’s name off the band’s credit if he was a relatively well-known celebrity? Why no vocalist for two songs written with lyrics? Who decided to do that? Who was Lou Davis? Maybe you know the answers to some of these questions or can provide more background on these tunes and this band. According to my research this record – truly drawn at random from my collection this time – has no monetary value. But I think it still adds another kind of value to my collection, nevertheless.

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Fame – and obscurity – on a Decca “sunburst”

This week’s album was again drawn at random from my collection and provides perhaps one of the only recordings of an obscure tune largely lost to history and an early recording of one of the most popular jazz songs ever written, with the normally sung lyrics replaced by a truly unique and remarkable trumpet performance.

The Decca "sunburst" label (left) compared to their more common later label at right.

The label is the Decca “sunburst” – Decca had, very generally speaking, three styles of label: sunburst, flat blue, and flat black. Sunburst labels are usually of more interest to collectors as they mark the earliest records issued by the company (from its formation in 1934 through 1937). On sunburst labels an art deco style “Decca” pops out with block letters and a false perspective angle. Decca would later reissue many of their sunburst recordings on the flat blue and flat black labels after 1937. Because of the tremendous quantity of Decca records issued after 1937 and the overall higher value attributed with first issues compared to re-issues, sunburst labels are usually of greater monetary value. This is comparable to what happened with Victor: savvy collectors know that if a Victor label is a plain circle it is almost certainly of little to no value and is very likely to be a reissue. Victor “scroll” labels, on the other hand, are older and more likely to be original issues.

Decca 620

This album is in Fair condition; there is a hairline crack through the disc at about 8 o’clock, however the needle on my Crosley Archiver was able to navigate it without difficulty. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Decca 620 A/B and the master number is 60065A/60063A. The A-side recording features the jazz fox trot “Basin Street Blues,” written by Spencer Williams (1889-1965); it runs 2 minutes and 59 seconds. The B-side recording features the fox trot with vocal chorus “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band,” written by Walter G. Samuels (1903-1994), Leonard Whitcup (1903-1979), and Teddy Powell (1905-1993); it runs 2 minutes and 37 seconds. The artist on both sides is jazz trumpeter and bandleader Clyde McCoy (1903-1990) and his orchestra. The album was recorded on October 14, 1935. Other owners of the album are selling it online for $1, $3, $4 (not the “sunburst” version, however), $4.25, and $5. Les Docks sets its value at $7-$10, which – given the prices for it online – seems a bit generous.

Clyde McCoy, jazz trumpeter and bandleader.

Clyde McCoy, of the Hatfield and McCoy feud McCoys, grew up in Kentucky but moved to Ohio as a young boy with his parents. In Ohio he took up the trumpet and quickly moved from playing at church and school functions to performing on the riverboats. After a successful temporary gig at a Knoxville Resort, McCoy proposed taking the same band to New York. When success in the Big Apple eluded the band they headed west, first to Los Angeles, and eventually to Chicago.  It was in the Windy City where he first performed his best know song, “Sugar Blues,” which was written for him by Clarence Williams and Lucy Fletcher; the song placed on the charts in 1931, 1935, and again as late as 1941. Later musicians, including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mercer also covered it. Near overnight radio success with the original recording led to contracts first with Columbia and later Decca in 1935 (the same year this album was recorded, making it one of the earlier Decca records from McCoy). McCoy’s act grew in complexity and became almost vaudevillian in nature, including tremendous “battle of the bands” type face-offs between McCoy’s band and another A-list group of the time. All of these battles ended as “friendly ties.”

The bottom of the 1967 Voy Clyde McCoy Wah Wah Pedal for electric guitar featured McCoy's image. This pedal has clearly seen some use.

McCoy’s most lasting influence on music was not any one song but, rather, a musical effect. A talented trumpet player, McCoy could create an amazing variety of sounds and effects with his advanced technique; foremost, and most popular with audiences, was the distinctive “wah wah” sound, created by fluttering a specific type of horn mute in the bell of his trumpet (I read some unconfirmed accounts that he actually used a toilet plunger, not a mute). You can hear it distinctly at 1:53 in “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band” below and throughout “Basin Street Blues” (click on the link to the Vogue Picture Record recording of it elsewhere online). The effect became so popular and such a recognizable trademark sound for McCoy that the Thomas Organ Company built it into the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal for electric guitar in the mid 1960s. The Clyde McCoy Pedal, later named a Cry Baby Pedal, has become a staple effect for guitarists of all genres. In 2002 Vox reissued the Clyde McCoy Pedal with its original vintage look, including with McCoy’s image and signature on the bottom – a feature that the original pedal from the 1960s sported as well. If you regularly skip listening to the clips or the links to the full recordings on this blog, this is not one to miss – McCoy’s talents with the trumpet are quite unique and well worth a listen.

Songwriter Spencer Williams, composer of "Basin Street Blues."

Spencer Williams was a composer, singer, and pianist who helped author some of the earliest standards of the American jazz era. Born in New Orleans Williams was one of the chief collaborators for Fats Waller. In addition to “Basin Street Blues” – perhaps his most enduring song (it is still being recorded by musicians to this day – he penned “Squeeze Me,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Around That Mountain,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Royal Garden Blues, and “I’ve Found a New Baby” among many, many others.

“Basin Street Blues” is a standard of Dixieland jazz bands to this day. It was published in 1926 but really became famous when Louis Armstrong issued a recording of it in 1928. Basin Street is the main thoroughfare of Storyville, which had been the red-light district of New Orleans’ French Quarter from 1870 through the early decades of the 20th century. McCoy’s recording became part of his portfolio of trademark songs and proved so popular it was later reissued on a Vogue Picture Record in 1946 (click the link to see a video of the record, with McCoy’s picture on it, and also listen to the recording in its entirety).

Original 1926 sheet music for "Basin Street Blues."

The song has been recorded by Bob Wills, Ben Pollack, Tommy Duncan, Louis Prima, Dr. John, Connee Boswell with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald with the Sy Oliver Orchestra, Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine, saxophonist David Sanborn, “turntablist” Kid Koala, Sam Cooke, Jack Teagarden, and Liza Minnelli. Some may also recognize the tune from its more recent use on the soundtrack to the major feature film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The song’s lyrics went through an interesting, albeit temporary, metamorphosis in the mid-1950s that is quite revealing of the prevailing attitudes towards race relations at that precise time in American society: the lyric referring to Basin Street as the place where “the dark and light folks” meet was altered to the less controversial line that it is the place where “the young and old folks” meet. Thankfully most contemporary recordings (after the Civil Rights era) returned to the original lyrics as Williams wrote them. The McCoy recording, as you might have guessed, replaces the vocal line with McCoy’s own remarkable performance on the trumpet.

 

If “Basin Street Blues” is an enduring standard still recorded to this day, than “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band”  is the complete opposite. The song was entered into copyright on September 21, 1935 by Chappell and Company of New York. I can find no other mention of it being recorded by any artist excepting this one by McCoy for Decca. The tune is an up-beat song about how a musician will win the girls and make the football players’ jealous through his skills in the college band: band geek’s revenge, Tin Pan Alley-style. It is not a bad song, but simply proved unmemorable and never became a commercial success, despite the fact that one might assume it would be popular with college pep bands of the time. If it was, there is no record of it being performed and no other recording of it by any such band that I could locate.

Walter Samuels was an enormously prolific composer, who wrote music for films and television starting in 1932 (Blondie of the Follies) and ending in 1989 (Harlem Nights with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor). Interestingly there was a sizable gap between his song “Chuck a Luckin” on the soundtrack to People Are Funny in 1946 and his tune “March Winds and April Showers” for a 1978 episode of Pennies from Heaven. In all he wrote 32 songs that eventually appeared on a soundtrack. A review of his soundtrack songs, his works for Broadway, and his singles reveals no real chart-toppers.

Like Samuels, Whitcup wrote numerous songs (23 in all) that appeared on film and television soundtracks from 1932 (again, Blondie of the Follies) through 2008, when his tune “From the Vine Came the Grape” was used posthumously for the TV movie That’s Amore!. Indeed many of his songs continued to be used in soundtracks after his death in 1979, including what is probably his most famous number: the song “Frenesi,” written in 1939, which appears on the soundtrack to 1980’s Raging Bull.

Composer and moderately successful bandleader Teddy Powell.

Teddy Powell, born Teodoro Paolella, was a jazz guitarist, big band leader, and composer. Powell started as a violinst, then moved to the banjo, and finally picked up the guitar and formed his own band at the age of 15. The band stayed intact for 24 years – a remarkable feat in the 1930s and 1940s, when most groups were dissolving, dividing, and reorganizing on an almost yearly basis. Powell’s band was not one of the big A-list gigs, reaching fame for only one brief period in 1939, though they were able to hire on some highly regarded musicians from other top orchestras – including Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey’s. They may have gone upward from that 1939 point, but a tragic fire at a New Jersey nightclub where they were playing in 1941 destroyed all of their instruments. The group never recovered and dissolved in 1944, just missing out on the high-water mark for big band music in the early 1940s.

In researching “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band” I was not surprised to discover almost no information about it online – no recording history, no critical reviews, no references to its performance, no complete recordings, and no description of its lyrics. It is, for all intents, a song that never existed outside of this Decca record. Indeed countless songs – thousands upon thousands – from the first decades of recorded music have likely suffered a similar fate, whether deserved or not. Therefore I have decided to post the lyrics and the entire song here on Zayde’s Turntable, so that any future researcher who might – for whatever reason – have an interest in the tune will find it online, saved for posterity, in at least one location. It seems ironic that despite the hundreds of millions of websites today, not one has the details of this song, which is – after all – only 77 years old.

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

I’m gonna play in the varsity band,

To win the heart of my co-ed with melody.

I’m gonna play in the varsity band,

And make you football heroes jealous as can be.

I’ll never make the team,

But you can safely bet,

I’ll make my college win this game by playing my cornet.

The girlies cheer,

‘Cause I’m the band-leading man,

I’m gonna play in the varsity band.

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Decca 620 offers both an enduring classic and a song lost to history. Listening to it made me better understand that all recorded music – records, CDs, cassettes (even 8-tracks) – presents us with a complete program of songs selected for a reason and performed as a whole or in some order for (usually) a specific artistic purpose. I love iTunes and the ability of the listener to craft their own song lists; and the release of singles is, of course, a long-standing practice of the music industry, but there’s something to be said for taking an “album” in whatever form and appreciating all (or both) of the songs on it as an artistic whole. If nothing else it forces us, as listeners, to keep songs that would otherwise be lost to time for whatever reason – be they ahead of their time and not fitting with popular taste in the day when they were released or be they simply bad.  No matter why, if we wanted “Basin Street Blues” we would need to have “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band,” too. Both of them would be on our turntables, if only one of them would stay in our minds and in our ears.