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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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.

A historic Harmony

This week on Zayde’s Turntable is an album of no true monetary value to a collector, but I wanted to learn a bit more about it because it captures an important historical moment in American history.

First, a word about the label. Harmony Records were pressed from 1925 until the early 30s and was owned outright by Columbia Records. It was often used as a low-price outlet for Columbia’s reissues and, in the 1950s, Columbia revived the label for a series of LPs with nothing but reissued tracks (about five songs per side). Columbia continued to release reissues on the LP version of the label into the mid 1970s.

Harmony labels (with the ca. 1950s version on the left and ca. 1930 versions center and right).

Perhaps the most interesting facets of the original Harmony Records is their role in straddling one of the most significant technological shifts in recording history: the movement from acoustic recording to electrical recording. Reportedly Columbia had just completed a major overhaul of their acoustic recording system when the new fad – electrical recording – came onto the scene. Rather than scrap their significant investment in the acoustical studio they simply continued to utilize it for their “lower end” Harmony label. The result is some of the finest, and last, acoustically recorded commercial records.

Acoustical recording is a mechanical process in which the artists performed live, their music being captured in a massive machine with a diaphragm; a needle connected to the diaphragm literally cut the recording into master disc (or cylinder). Level control was achieved by actually having a performer move physically closer to or further from the machine.

The Victor Orchestra recording acoustically. Auto-tune function not available on this model; sorry, Ms. Black.

Electrical recording was introduced in 1925 and is still, in many respects, the manner by which audio recordings are made. Electrical recording systems allow for microphones, over-dubbing, level adjustment, and, these days, even more. In its earliest incarnations, however, the process still physically cut a master record with a needle, meaning that a mistake at any point in the recording rendered the entire take – and record – useless. (Some labels would reissue scrapped takes of popular songs on later albums, though it was far more common to simply reissue the originally released take.)

This album, the only Harmony label in my collection (according to my notes from the late 1990s) is in Good to Very Good condition, with some slight wear and one light scratch to one side (the scratch does not effect the record’s playability and both my Symphony phonograph needle and my Crosley Archiver needle were able to navigate it without problem). It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Harmony 418-H and the master number is 144218/144219.

Harmony Records #418-H

Harmony records include a unique Columbia code.

Peculiar to all post-1924 Columbia records is a third identifying number pressed into the vinyl of the end gap of the record at the 12-o’clock position: 3-B-5 on the A-side 1-B-6 on the B-side. The first number is the take number, the middle letter designates the “mother” (the metal master disc), and the final number indicates the “stamper” (the metal “negative” of the mother). One stamper could press out about 1,000 copies of a record before it was no longer useable (hence the need for a “mother” that could create more stampers). With this information we know that the A-side song took three takes and the B-side song took only one take. At least two mothers were created (probably more), and at least 5 stampers for the A-side and 6 for the B-side – meaning, at a minimum, about 10,000 to 12,000 copies of this record were made.

The A-side recording is “Lucky Lindy,” lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert and music by Abel Baer, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The B-side recording is “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” lyrics by Howard Johnson and music by Al Sherman, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 55 seconds. Both songs are sung by tenor Jack Kaufman, backed up by an unnamed orchestra. While I could find no indication of a specific recording date, it is likely from 1927 or early 1928.

Both songs were written on the occasion of “Lucky” Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated May 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight. The record-setting event engendered a remarkable level of patriotic fervor and an incredible number of musical tributes, perhaps more so than any other event in American history until then or since. Ironically, the flight was considered an illustration of mankind’s (and America’s specifically) technological prowess and ingenuity – I say ironic because this particular record was recorded in what was then an antiquated technology, the acoustic method. Lindbergh became celebrated more than any star of Hollywood or radio and there was a rush to capture that spirit by the leading cultural medium of the day: recorded music.

Charles Lindbergh, around the time of his famous 1927 flight.

To say the quantity of songs written about Lindbergh’s flight exceeds that written to mark any single event in American history before or since is not an exaggeration. Not even including the still recognizable dance craze inspired by the flight (the Lindy Hop), in all in the two years following Lindbergh’s journey the U.S. Copyright Office received three hundred applications on songs related to the flight and the pilot. Thirty songs alone had the same title – “Spirit of St. Louis,” Lindbergh’s plane. Another twelve were entitled “Lindy” (there was some confusion over the spelling, resulting in Lindberg, Lindburg, Linberg, Linderburg, and Linbergh). The third most popular title was “Lone Eagle” – a commonly used metaphor for the pilot that combined jingoistic American symbolism with the physical feat of flying itself. Other Lindbergh tributes included “Won’t You Take Me to Heaven, Please, Lucky Lindy Do,” “America Did It Again,” “Like an Angel He Flew into Our Hearts,” “Plucky Lindy’s Lucky Day,” “Just Like a Butterfly through Sun and Rain, and “He Did It, the Thing that Couldn’t Be Done.” The Hoover for President campaign benefited from “If He’s Good Enough for Lindy.” The volume of musical tributes was so great that one Tin Pan Alley songwriting team even wrote one entitled “This Song Is Not About Lindbergh.”

Lindbergh received a hero's welcome on his return to the U.S.

In 1929 Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and Bertolt Brecht penned an opera entitled “Der Lindberghflug” (Lindbergh’s Flight), though Brecht would later remove all references to the pilot and rename the piece “Der Ozeanflug” (Ocean Flight) in 1950 in reaction to Lindbergh’s perceived Nazi sympathies. Indeed Lindbergh’s apparent right-wing political viewpoints also engendered negative musical references, though not for some decades after his flight. In the 1940s Woody Guthrie’s “Lindbergh” skewered the celebrated pilot for his affiliation with the far right America First Party (“They say America First, but they mean America Next”). Guthrie probably would have found the lyric “Lucky Lindy, right all along…” on the A-side of this record to be a bit too true.

On the A-side we have the prolific recording artist and vaudevillian Jack Kaufman singing Gilbert and Baer’s “Lucky Lindy” – perhaps the single most popular and widely produced of the Lindbergh paeans. Gilbert and Baer had just finished composing the piece on May 21, 1927 when word of Lindbergh’s safe landing at Le Bourget was announced on the radio. It was performed that very evening at several venues around New York City; Leo Feist printed the sheet music that very weekend and it was on sale by Monday. On Tuesday the number was headlining at the Paramount Theater, being performed on the cinema’s massive Wurlitzer in between films. The song was probably featured on every major label by most of the leading singers of the day. I can find evidence of (in addition to the Harmony recording) a ca. 1927 recording by Vernon Dalhart on Perfect (#12345), another Jack Kaufman recording (possibly the same) also from around 1927 on Velvet Tone (#1418-V), a Domino Records (#17260) recording with baritone Ernest Hare, another Ernest Hare recording on Banner (#1994-A) (which one EBay seller is currently listing for $1), and a May 26, 1927 (yes, five days after Lindbergh landed) Victor scroll recording (#20681-A) by Nat Shillkret and the Victor Orchestra. Not one of these albums appears in Les Docks’ guide to “collectible” records – in fact, I could not locate a single of the Lindbergh tribute songs anywhere in his compendium. This simply further illustrates that, today, value is determined more by scarcity than historical import, musical quality, or even the featured artist.

The sheet music for "Lucky Lindy" was on sale just a few days after Lindbergh landed.

Songwriter Abel Baer (1893-1976).

Abel Baer (1893-1976), a World War I veteran, originally trained to be a dentist, but abandoned that career in 1920 when he joined a music publisher as a staff writer. His works include many Tin Pan Alley hits, including “Mama Loves Papa,” “When the One You Love, Loves You,” and “I’m Sitting Pretty.” Less celebrated today is his World War II jingle “We’ve Got A Job To Do On The Japs, Baby.” Two years after penning “Lucky Lindy” – probably his greatest commercial success – Baer moved to Hollywood and wrote songs for the films “Paramount on Parade,” “True to the Navy,” and “Frozen Justice.” His credits also include the Broadway scores of “Lady Do” and “Old Bill M.P.”

Lyricist Wolfe Gilbert (1888-1954).

Louis Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970) started as a singer in a quartet on Coney Island, before being discovered by an English producer and being brought to London to perform as part of The Ragtime Octet. He started writing music in 1912 and made the move to Hollywood in 1915, writing – eventually – over 250 songs for film, television, and radio, including “Ramona” – the very first motion picture theme song, as well as numbers for the Eddie Cantor Show and the lyrics for the hit children’s program “Western Hop-Along Cassidy” on NBC. Gilbert was an astute self-promoter and one of the first songwriters to publish and market his own catalog; his acumen for the business led to his selection to serve as director of ASCAP from 1941 to 1944.

The B-side recording is Kaufman singing “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)” – again keeping with the eagle symbolism. It is clearly the more jingoistic of the two songs, with Al Sherman, the writer, appropriating snippets of melody from classic American anthems (listen for a bit of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle” in the clip below). Like “Lucky Lindy,” this tune was released within days, perhaps even hours, of Lindbergh’s successful landing in France in May 1927. In addition to this recording I was able to identify several contemporaneous recordings: three issues of Vernon Dalhart singing it, one recorded on May 23 (two days after he landed!) on a Victor scroll record (#20674-A – note how close the catalog number is to the “Lucky Lindy” Victor recording, illustrating how closely together the two albums were released), one on Edison Blue Amberol cylinder (#5362), and one on Perfect (#12345; the reverse side of the same disc with “Lucky Lindy,” exactly as with this Harmony record, though with a different artist; one seller on EBay currently lists this disc for slightly overpriced cost of $30). There was also a Harry Crane recording on Oriole Records (#922-A) and another issue of the Jack Kaufman recording found here on Velvet Tone (#1418-V – again, identical to this record, in this case in both song selection and artist).

Sheet music to "The Eagle of the U.S.A."

Lyricist Howard Johnson (1887-1941) was likewise a veteran of World War I. After getting out of the Navy in 1917 Johnson, a pianist, joined ASCAP and began his career as a songwriter. In addition to penning “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream” Johnson was behind many of the most popular ballads of the period. One of Johnson’s (now ironic) pieces was the 1917 song “China, We Owe A Lot To You” (music by Milton Ager). No kidding.

Songwriter Al Sherman (1897-1973).

Al Sherman (1897-1973) came to America from Prague in 1909. Speaking little English and serving as a surrogate father for his four siblings after their father left them, Sherman taught himself piano and quickly became one of the most in-demand improvisers in America. He developed a reputation for providing “mood music” and his skills were sought by many of the leading film stars of the silent movies; in 1916 Universal signed Sherman to do bit parts in the films himself. In 1918 he joined the Remick Music Company as a staff pianist, composing numbers alongside some of the top songwriters of the day, including George Gershwin. Sherman also organized and directed his own orchestra that played in both Miami Beach and New York City. Sherman’s sons, Robert and Richard, would continue in their father’s footsteps, eventually writing the music for the classic films “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Sherman’s own Tin Pan Alley credits include over 500 songs, most notably “Over Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Now’s The Time To Fall In Love,” which became his signature tune and “helped raise the spirits of the Depression generation.” His songs made or furthered the careers of a remarkable roster of musicians: Maurice Chevalier, Fred Waring, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, Ruddy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, Lawrence Welk, Peggy Lee, Patti Page, and Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club Orchestra. His music can be heard in the Broadway hits “Ziegfeld Follies,” “George White’s Scandals,” “The Passing Show,” and “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.” His film music includes songs for “The Big Pond,” “Sweetie,” “The Sky’s the Limit,” and “Sensations of 1945.”

Cyndi Lauper in 1983. Her cover of one of Sherman's songs earned her a Grammy award.

Sherman’s music continued to influence American musicians even into the 1980s, when Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of Sherman’s “He’s So Unusual” – titled “She’s So Unusual” (1983) – even featured scratches and hisses designed to sound like a vintage 78-RPM record. The song hit #4 on the Billboard pop charts and won a Grammy for Best Album Package; it made #494 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.

The vocalist on both sides of the album is tenor Jack Kaufman, one of the famous singing brothers Irving, Phillip, and Jack Kaufman, who originally hailed from Syracuse, New York, about an hour from where Zayde’s Turntable currently resides. Irving has been called the “most recorded singer between 1914 and 1930” and his two brothers, who performed for a while as “The Kaufman Brothers” (until Phillip’s death in 1918), were quite prolific in their own respects.

Jack (left) and Phil Kaufman in a promotional poster from around 1910.

Jack and Phil’s early vaudeville acts seemed to include quite a bit of the reviled “blackface” routines. An undated period newspaper review of their act states:

“The Kaufman Brothers… [began] their act by impersonating the Russian dancers and the Parisian vocalist who had just preceded them.” … “Especially worthy of attention are their parodies of Italian songs. Both men… play ‘swell coons’ attractively.” … “Their entrance is made in bangy, bangy coon-shouter style… These brothers have excellent voices, but are too full of monkeyshines to take time to sing properly.” … “Ragtime and Italian songs are their long suit.” … “They sing exceptionally well, but otherwise just indulge in effervescent nonsense and wear red vests and checkerboard suits.” … “Their Yiddiher Opera brought a storm of applause.”

They grew to become “second stringers” – vaudeville acts that filled out the bill for larger stars like Irene Franklin and Will Rogers.

Newspaper cartoons depicting Phil and Jack Kaufman in their blackface performance (top row and bottom left, 1910-1911; bottom right, 1914).

Jack and Phil Kaufman in an undated photo appear in blackface as part of their vaudeville act.

After Phil’s death, Irving joined with Jack and the two performed together for a number of years. The partnership dissolved in 1923, though they reunited briefly again starting in 1928. It was during this five year hiatus that Jack, performing and recording as a solo artist now, cut this album for Harmony Records. Irving and Jack (and, earlier Phil) were studio workhorses and recorded separately and together probably more albums during the Tin Pan Alley period than any other musical family, appearing by name or by pseudonym on quite literally hundreds of records for dozens of labels. Jack’s sense of theatricality, a maybe even bombast, comes across in the two recordings on this album – listen to his rolling R’s and energy, due probably to both the enthusiasm around the event and his own personality. The last Kaufman recording was made by the busiest of the brothers, Irving, in 1974, meaning the Kaufman era of original recordings lasted a remarkable 60 years.

Lindbergh and his plane.

Lindbergh and his plane - the inspiration for over 300 songs.

This May America will celebrate the 85th anniversary of Lucky Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. The air mail pilot took off from Long Island a virtual unknown and landed, 3600 miles and one day later, in Paris, France as a national hero and icon. One can imagine the songwriters, musicians, studio executives, sheet music publishers, and recording technicians scrambling for that one week in late May in 1927, trying to be the first to get a piece of that Lindbergh magic. In some ways it may not seem so different than today’s commercialism. But, when I put that record onto Zayde’s Turntable and try to imagine the energy, the (much needed) optimism, and the pride that must have been coursing through the singer, the band, and the original listener, playing this disc for the very first time in 1927, I can’t help but think that it is, maybe in some way, just a bit different.