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.

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A low note in American entertainment

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

Some examples of the Harmony Disc Record label.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony Disc Record #4100.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Golden (1858-1926).

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

A 1900 ad for blackface vaudevillian Billy Van.

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

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

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

Fred Gaisberg (left) with Edward Elgar in 1932.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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