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"Perfessor" Bill Edwards Guide to Ragtime and Traditional Jazz Composers

This guide is designed to provide anything from condensed biographies of well known ragtime composers to fairly comprehensive ones with as much known data as possible on lesser known composers, some of who have never had much of anything written on them in the past. Each biography here was written from scratch by myself, Bill Edwards, based on original research, and each includes that composer's known repertoire of both published and unpublished tunes. Some of the larger biographies are not always complete, as there are many outstanding detailed books on some composers collectively and individually. They are meant to provide more insight for the ragtime novice, or perhaps a quick reference or new point of view for those well versed in the genre. In the case of songs or collaborations, other people are noted in brackets [ ] or through numbers with a key listed at the end. The dates listed are either known dates of composition, copyright or publication, except where noted. Some of these represent the only current resource available on certain composers. For further information I may suggest certain reference sources, and for an overall view of good references currently available or tucked away in your local library, please check out my Bibliography and Sources page. I am not trying to duplicate the efforts of anybody else, just enhance some of what is already available in a concise and easy to access format. Comments are always welcome. More complete reference sources for any particular point are available by request. Please inform me if you intend to quote any of these articles in part or in full, and make sure there is proper attribution out of respect for my time and financial investment in the research on these individuals.
Victor Arden Felix Arndt Marvin Ash Burt Bales Roy Bargy
Rube Bloom Jimmy Blythe Lou Busch Charles Chaplin Zez Confrey
Seger Ellis Will Ezell Byron Gay George Gershwin David Guion
W.C. Handy Alex Hill Eddy Hanson James P. Johnson Max Kortlander
LaRocca & Shields Meade Lux Lewis Gil Lieby Paul Lingle Billy Mayerl
Jelly Roll Morton Phil Ohman Joseph Oliver J. Russel Robinson Arthur Schutt
'Pine Top' Smith Willie 'The Lion' Smith Charley Straight Sugar Underwood Thomas Waller
Pete Wendling Del Wood Jimmy Yancey Bob Zurke  

Click on a name to view their biography below.

Younger Victor Arden Portrait Older Victor Arden Portrait
Lewis John Fuiks (aka Victor Arden)
(March 8, 1893 to July 31, 1962)
Safety Pin Catch [1]
Just Blue [2]
In My Dreams
Lucille [2]
Marilynn [2]
Honeymoon: Waltz [w/Ray Sherwood]
Hy n' Dry
Rose of the Orient [2,3]
Dolly, I Love You [2,4]
Molly [2,4]
Who Wants a Baby? [3]
Dottie Dimples [3]
In Blossom Time [w/Louis Weslyn]
'Round the Town
Hand Painted Doll [3]
1921 (Cont)
Lonesome Land [3]
After A While (You're Goin' to Feel Blue)
    [3] [w/Walter Hirsch]
My Sweet Gal (Girl) [3]
I'm Happy: Fox Trot [3]
Hearts in Harmony
We'd Rather Die Upon Our Feet (Than Live
    Upon Our Knees) [w/Harry Murphy]
Unity [w/J. Russel Robinson]
Let's Incorporate [w/Lawrence M. Klee]

1. as Lewis J. Fuiks
2. w/F. Wheeler Wadsworth
3. w/George Hamilton Green
4. w/Dick Long
Victor Arden was born, in theory and in name, a lot later than the man who actually created him as a pseudonym, Lewis John Fuiks. The only son of Samuel Fuiks and Vallie Worley, both Illinois natives, Lewis was born and raised, for a time, in Wenona, Illinois, not far from Peoria. His father was listed in the 1900 census as working in "general merchandise," likely managing or owning a general store of some kind. Not much has been reported about Lewis' early musical training, but there was probably some piano instruction involved, along with harmony and theory. As evidence of this, Fuiks was able to publish a rag at age 16 in Chicago with the unusual title of Safety Pin Catch. By the time of the 1910 enumeration the family had moved to Chicago, where they were erroneously enumerated as the "Fox" family. Samuel was shown to be working in a clothing store as an assistant buyer.
honeymoon waltz cover
In the fall of 1910 Lewis was enrolled in the University of Chicago, and he emerged with a degree in music in short order. This was followed by training at the American Conservatory of Music, also in the "windy city." There is some possibility that Fuiks was producing piano rolls as early as 1915, likely in Chicago. There are some roll titles that were released by Imperial, a Chicago company, in the mid to late 1910s. In their advertisements of 1916 they promote Fuiks as "the Chicago University Musical Wonder." He and fellow dynamo performer Zema Randale were considered the primary "raggists" of the Imperial label. In a Music Trade Review notice in the October 7, 1916 edition, it was noted that: "...the Jazz-Ragger Fuiks and the inimitable syncopating star, Zema Randale, are coming under the protection of insurance companies. The Imperial Co. sells its high-grade products at such fair prices that it will not subject itself to loss through the inability of any of its staff to play."
Yet Imperial did suffer that very loss shortly thereafter as Lewis moved on to greener pastures. To compound things, their other star, Miss Randale, tragically died in 1918. It is not known for certain when Fuiks moved to New York City, but given that his first output from there came in 1917, and he is known to have contributed at least four "operas" to the Chicago Blackfriars, the last presented at annual musical in May of 1916, he likely left for Manhattan late in 1916, along with his new wife Ilse Spindler.
One of Fuiks' first jobs in New York may have been as an accompanist for the movies and, given his training, for hire by singers as well. However by February 1917 he was arranging and recording piano rolls as his primary career. There was some output from the Rythmodik roll company in 1917 through 1919, including his own Honeymoon Waltz which was considered somewhat of a hit. However, the bulk of Fuiks' early works were on the Ampico label, the parent company of Rythmodik, turning out "hand-played" expression rolls of popular dance tunes, tangos, and operettas. When the Rythmodik label was finally abandoned many of his cut were re-released on Ampico rolls. Early advertisements for both labels touted him as a jazz artist.
While about two dozen of these were printed under his given name of Lewis J. Fuiks, this may have proved problematic to either Lewis or Ampico management for obvious linguistic reasons (this has not been officially established in fact but has been discussed), and he was soon rechristened as Victor Arden on his popular jazz rolls as early as February, 1917.
The All Star Trio around 1920 with (l to r) George Hamilton Green, Wheeler Wadsworth and Victor Arden
the all star trio
Even though Lewis still used his given name for legal purposes, Arden would be the name he was professionally known as for the rest of his life, although rolls played by Fuiks were still shown in the listings as late as 1929. In at least one 1920 advertisement, both names are listed, a matter of continuity and removing the necessity to relabel all of the older rolls with the artist's new name. His 1917 draft record, taken in New York City, shows him working for the American Piano Company (Ampico) as a musician, with an address north of the city in Yonkers.
Starting around 1918, Victor formed a group called the All Star Trio, with George Hamilton Green on saxophone and F. Wheeler Wadsworth on the newly-minted vibraphone and other tuned percussion. They recorded for the next two years on the Edison label initially, turning out recordings for Victor, Brunswick, Pathé, Okeh, Paramount, Emerson, and for the Vocalian label of Aeolian, a subsidiary of the American Piano Company. Fellow pianist and roll arranger Max Kortlander stepped in for Arden on occasion. Arden also continued to turn out great rolls of popular tunes during this time, earning him the title of King of the Piano Roll. The bulk of Victor's compositions were from this period. In either June or July of 1918 Arden shifted gears and labels as he started arranging and playing for QRS, the dominant standard roll manufacturer.
It was at QRS that Victor first met pianist Fillmore (Phil) Ohman, who had been there for a couple of years. They found they had similar backgrounds, abilities and points of view concerning performance, and neither lacked the energy to explore new ways to play things. The duo quickly found they could produce some amazing roll arrangements with little effort, and were soon inseparable. Their first QRS rolls started to appear within weeks off Arden joining the firm. Ohman sketched out the general direction of what they would play without full notation, then they would record with Arden in the bass and Ohman in the treble.
One critic who observed them up close found Ohman to be the "wag and clown of the pair," calling Arden the "serious minded, painstaking musician." While a slightly imbalanced point of view, Ohman's humor was more likely to come out in his playing, even during serious classical recitals that he accompanied. Both quickly became celebrities both in and outside the circle of jazz performers, and the public proved to be thirsty for their duet piano rolls. Lewis is listed in the 1920 census as a "musician recorder" living in Yonkers with Ilse, and a new addition, Lewis John Fuiks Jr., born in July of 1919. Son Robert Spindler Fuiks would follow in 1921.
While Arden and Ohman continued to make rolls both together and separately, Phil, through praise brought for his public performances, was offered a job in the fast-rising orchestra of Paul Whiteman, the so-called "King of Jazz." Not able to keep all his various positions, Ohman had to quit QRS and break up the duo for a while. Victor would continue to do duets through the mid-1920s, but with Kortlander, who he had been playing with since joining QRS, filling in for Ohman. Victor also kept busy with outside obligations. The All Star Trio expanded from 1921 to 1922 as the All Star Trio with Orchestra, featuring the distinctive Billy Murray on vocals. They signed a contract with the B.F. Keith Vaudeville Circuit for a 1922 tour.
While the job with Whiteman was both good for his exposure as well as making connections, Ohman realized, as did Arden, that it was less fulfilling than their duo performances. my sweet gal song coverSo after a year or so he quite Whiteman's orchestra and concentrated on local gigs with Arden. They built their repertoire playing in clubs in midtown Manhattan, particularly on 52nd Street, and finally went into the studio late in 1923 to record live as a duo. Among their eclectic choices were the 1888 galop Dance of the Demons by multi-piano composer Eduard Holst and the popular rag turned song Canadian Capers. They were also one of the earliest piano duos to appear on radio as early as 1922, and were featured in one notable broadcast on wireless Chicago station KYW on April 11, 1925, for an estimated audience of 300,000 listeners. Phil had further exposure on the popular Roxy and His Gang Show which was broadcast from the Capitol theater where Ohman had worked. He brought Arden on for occasional appearances on the show.
The performances were a sensation, and Broadway soon discovered them as well, knowing that they would be an additional draw to certain shows. The use of dual pianists or pianos was not new on Broadway, but their reputation was about as solid as their first Broadway employer/collaborator, Gershwin himself. So it was that they co-led the pit orchestra for Lady Be Good in 1924. According to the January 3, 1925 edition of The Music Trade Review: "An interesting anecdote relative to the two Story & Clark small grands being used by Phil Ohman and Victor Arden in the musical show 'Lady Be Good,'... was told this week by L. Schoenewald, New York district manager of the Story & Clark Piano Co. 'The original arrangement was that two of our pianos were to be used by the show when it opened in Philadelphia... but an error on the part of the stage carpenters resulted in building of the special moving platform too small to hold them. Although they had requested Story & Clark grands, Ohman and Arden were compelled to play their duet numbers on two 4 feet 8 grands of different make during the Philadelphia engagement. They were not satisfied with the tone of these pianos, so on coming to New York Victor Arden prevailed on the management to enlarge the platform to hold our 5 feet 2 inch grands. It has afforded the Story & Clark Piano Co. much pleasure to realize that our pianos are held in such esteem by two such talented pianists as Phil Ohman and Victor Arden.'
Gershwin started what would become a popular trend throughout the remainder of the 1920s and into the 1930s, supported in the end by the economy of having two pianists and requiring less orchestra personnel. This trend was noted in The Music Trade Review of July 16, 1927, in the following excerpt:
Piano Duos Featured in Both Productions and Over the Radio as Well as in Moving Picture Theatres—Wide Variety of Effects Obtainable
A FORM of presentation of popular numbers which during the past season has reached a new point of popularity is the piano duo as exemplified by nearly half a dozen teams of pianists featured in the orchestra pits of the leading musical comedy successes. The use of specially arranged numbers for four hands is a practice older than jazz itself and originated many years ago in the recording studios of the pioneers in music roll making. Since that time, with the development of the augmented dance orchestra, the employment of two pianos has followed the trend of the day and the sparkle of special choruses for the pianists in skillful teamwork has become one of the bright spots of an evening at the dance floor or cabaret.
About three years ago Phil Ohman and Victor Arden, seasoned recording pianists, were featured in a specialty in "Lady, Be Good," a George Gershwin musical show. This started things for the theatrical presentation of piano duos and the same team appeared the following year in the pit of the Gershwin show, "Tip Toes." Here the effect was more impressive than in the previous engagement, where they had appeared on the stage but only for a short time. In the second show the two pianos were an integral part of the orchestra during the entire evening.
Anyone susceptible at all to rhythmic and harmonic effects in popular music will not soon forget the thrill of hearing the arpeggio passages of Phil Ohman on the upper register of his piano in the number, "That Certain Feeling," of Gershwin. The pianists had carefully gone over the entire score with the composer in rehearsals and every place that afforded a pianistic "break" or embellishment was so treated. The result was a score far more brilliant and individual than is customarily heard from the orchestra pit and a new custom was started...
But the spread of popularity of the piano due has not ended in the theatre. The radio, too, has developed favorites in four-hand interpretation of the latest hits.
Phil Ohman moved from QRS to Aeolian in July, 1925, to cut Duo-Art rolls, effectively ending the six year run of QRS duets he had done with Arden. However, it was not the end of their partnership by any means. Their first Broadway success would be followed by more Gershwin shows such as Tip Toes in 1925, Oh, Kay in 1926, and Funny Face in 1927. Other shows included Treasure Girl in 1928, both Spring is Here and Heads Up in 1929.
Victor Arden (l) and Phil Ohman (r) in a
late 1920s publicity shot.
arden and ohman publicity shot
In between the Broadway shoes they recorded and performed on the road on the vaudeville circuits. Among the labels Ohman and Arden appeared on were Columbia, Victor (soon to be RCA Victor) and Gramophone.
It should be noted that when they were billed in any venue that the order of their names did not matter to them, the sign of a solid partnership. They were also sought out in the late 1920s, as many New York acts were, by Warner Brothers for a few Vitaphone sound shorts, one of the first being The Piano Dualists in 1927. They were later seen and heard playing Dancing the Devil Away in the 1930 RKO musical The Cuckoos. Arden turned out many interesting arrangements during the 1920s of dance tunes on record, many sold very cheaply in Woolworths and similar outlets, making his name perhaps even better known than Ohman's.
One of their contemporary critics, Gay Stevens, said the following concerning this formidable duo: "There is not a piano player in the land who, after hearing Ohman and Arden interpret a piece of jazz music on their two pianos, has not wanted to throw his piano out of the window. The keyboard magic of this duo-team has been the inspiration and despair of every real American youngster who sedulously practiced his Czerny with a secret desire to win excited gasps of admiration from the fair young things in his circle by his jazz piano playing."
Arden, Ohman and Kortlander appeared together often for QRS promotions in the mid-1920s, playing live performances of their collective solo and duet piano rolls in addition the occasional trio. While Victor and Phil often performed just with the piano, the Arden-Ohman orchestra was started in 1925, initially for recording but later for both live performance and radio work. It was the latter that gave them their best overall exposure in the late 1920s through the first part of the Great Depression.
In addition to this live duo, Arden went back to work for Ampico in the spring of 1928, turning out new popular roll arrangements. As announced in The Music Trade Review of February 11, 1928: "J. Milton Delcamp, vice-president of the Ampico Corp., announces that arrangements have been made with Victor Arden, the well-known young American pianist and devotee of popular music to record his playing exclusively for Ampico records [rolls] in the future. Mr. Arden, a graduate of the University of Chicago and of the American Conservatory of Music of that city, came to New York several years ago, and in company with Phil Ohman has played in a number of musical comedy successes and has also been a member of Roxy's Gang." This job soon expanded into a series of duets with Ampico roll artist Adam Carroll. Carroll subsequently briefly joined Arden and Ohman to create a piano trio for a few performances on radio and for special functions.
From 1928 to the mid-1930s, Arden and Carroll turned out over 60 rolls with their names on them. However, while some may have been arranged initially by Arden, many were filled in (and some created) by Frank Milne at the factory (often edited with colored pencils on Milne's kitchen table). They are still often considered to at least be in the style of Arden and Carroll, even if not entirely played by them. Both turned out rolls separately as well, but the player piano business faded fairly quickly as the Great Depression set in and free entertainment was available via radio.
A 1931 broadcast transcription disc of Arden and Ohman with the Victor Orchestra.
arden and ohman radio transcription on victor
When Ampico failed in the late 1930s many of these rolls were re-coded for Duo-Art performances, making them among the rarer rolls that were available for both reproducing systems. As off the 1930 census Lewis and Ilse were still living in Yonkers with their sons Lewis and John and one servant, and Lewis Sr. was listed as a musician/performer.
Realizing that the best possible future for success was on the radio, the most effective medium of the 1930s, the dynamic piano duo re-teamed and hit the airwaves. Arden and Ohman had no issue finding good sponsorship, playing for everything from news programs to two or three numbers advertising toothpaste or fine watches. Some of their musical shows included The Bayer Music Review, The Buick Program, and the landmark American Album of Familiar Music. But the stresses of performance partnership eventually interfered, more on the professional level than on the personal level, and in 1934 Arden and Ohman split to go different directions, remaining friends. The duo reunited for one more recording session on Brunswick in 1935. Ilse Fuiks had her own hobby as well, dabbling in the world of equestrian competitions. She owned a few different horses during the 1930s, including one fine jumper named Happy Days.
While Ohman went on to some fame in Hollywood, Arden chose to stay back east where radio was still the predominant form of entertainment during the waning days of the Great Depression. He was able to secure work as both pianist and conductor on NBC (National Broadcasting System), including such shows as Kings of Melody, Sweetest Love Songs Ever and Broadway Varieties. Arden also worked and recorded with his own dance band, but with all the other engagements he had to keep it fizzled out before too long. He also filled in for leader Abe Lyman on many occasions, conducting for his popular Waltz Time shows. Arden enjoyed one last stretch on Broadway playing for the revue George White's Scandals of 1939.
Lewis and Ilse and their sons were still living in Yonkers in 1940 for the census, along with one servant, although father and oldest son listed themselves as John L. instead of Lewis J. For his "Victor" side he listed himself as a musician for "own orchestra & for others." In 1944 their younger son, Lieutenant Robert Fuiks, USNR, was first engaged to Thirsa Burr Sands that October. In the 1940s during World War II, Lewis continued to make records with various orchestras as Victor Arden, and was featured on the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round for a while in 1947, eventually landing steady spot on The American Melody Hour near the end of the decade. In the 1950s Arden again led an orchestra, this time behind the charismatic Dick Powell, the singing star of many MGM movies. One of his last projects was a reincarnation of his first group, the All Star Trio, after which he went into retirement. He had moved from Yonkers in 1951, buying an apartment at Douglas Park, located at W. 236th Street and Henry Hudson Parkway in Riverdale.
Lewis was remarried in the 1950s to Frances Newsom. During his last few years the couple lived at 77 Park Avenue in Manhattan. His former partner Phil Ohman died in the summer of 1954. Lewis Fuiks a.k.a. Victor Arden died almost exactly eight years later in 1962 at age 69 leaving behind a wealth of recordings allowing us a look into some of the most exciting music of the 1920s and 1930s. His work both alone and with Ohman brought a certain vitality to the driving rhythms and languid ballads of the 1920s and beyond, making the player piano a glamorous instrument, and its listeners always wanting more.
Thanks to New Zealand piano roll historian Robert Perry for additional information and clarification on Arden's career with various piano roll companies, and for the Gay Stevens quote. For more on piano roll artists, please visit him at The remaining information was researched by the author in public records, periodicals and recorded media.

Felix Arndt Portrait Alternate Felix Arndt Portrait
Felix G. Arndt
(May 20, 1889 to October 16, 1918)
71st Regiment Waltz
As Long As the Band Will Play [1]
Snow Time [w/Bert Fitzgibbon]
If That Ain't Love Wot Is? [2]
When Sunday Rolls Around [2]
Night Time [2]
When You Know Why [2]
Ev'ry Rose Reminds Me of You [2]
A Symphonic Nightmare: Desecration
    Rag #1
From Soup to Nuts
An Operatic Nightmare: Desecration Rag #2
Clover Club
In the Shade of the Mango Tree [2]
My Gal's Another Gal Like Galli-Curci [2]
1922 (Posth)
Nola (Song) [3]

   1. w/Harold Atteridge
   2. w/Louis Weslyn
   3. w/James F. Burns
Campin' on de Old Suwanee [1]
Florida Rag [1]
Persiflage [1]
The Smiler - A Joplin Rag
Porto-Rico - Rag Intermezzo
My Sumurun Girl
The Merry-Go-Round
The Haunting Rag
Thanks for the Lobster [1]
Notoriety Rag [1]
Hacienda Society Tango
Hesitation Waltz
From Soup to Nuts
Humoresque Rag
Desecration Rag
Too Much Ginger [1]
The Smiler Rag Medley [1]
Chinese Picnic [1]
Old Folks Rag [1]
Old Folks Rag (retake) [1]
Too Much Trouble [1]
Toots - One Step [2]
Le Trousseau [2]
Indianola Patrol - One Step [2]
Love in June
Go To It! [1]
Kakúda [1]
Azalea Waltz [2]
Annie Laurie/Coming Through the Rye [3]
Home Sweet Home [3]
Entr'acte Gavotte [2]
Old Folks at Home [3]
Old Black Joe [3]
When You and I were Young, Maggie [3]
Silver Threads Among the Gold [3]
Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes [3]
Woodland Sketches: To a Wild Rose [3]
My Old Kentucky Home [3]
Nearer My God to Thee [3]
Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night)
The Original Fox Trot [1]
I Wonder What Will William Tell [1]
Woodland Sketches: At An Old Trysting
    Place [3]
Whispering Hope [3]
An Operatic Nightmare
Valse Bleue
Water Scenes/Narcissus

1. w/Van Eps Trio or Fred Van Eps
2. w/Dr. Clarence Penny, Mandolin
3. on Keyboard Celesta
Matrix and Date
[Victor B-12237] 07/26/1912
[Victor B-12238] 07/26/1912
[Victor B-12239] 07/26/1912
[Victor B-12300] 08/08/1912
[Victor B-12301] 08/08/1912
[Victor B-12302] 08/08/1912
[Victor B-12303] 08/08/1912
[Victor B-12304] 08/08/1912
[Victor B-14419] 02/05/1914
[Victor B-14420] 02/05/1914
[Victor B-14493] 02/20/1914
[Victor B-14494] 02/20/1914
[Victor B-14502] 02/20/1914
[Victor B-14503] 02/20/1914
[Victor B-14541] 03/06/1914
[Victor B-14587] 03/19/1914
[Victor B-14588] 03/19/1914
[Victor B-14589] 03/19/1914
[Victor B-15093] 07/29/1914
[Victor C-15093] 09/04/1914
[Victor B-15094] 07/29/1914
[Victor B-15141] 08/24/1914
[Victor B-15142] 08/24/1914
[Victor B-15143] 08/24/1914
[Victor B-15144] 08/24/1914
[Victor B-15161] 08/31/1914
[Victor B-15162] 08/31/1914
[Victor B-15163] 08/31/1914
[Victor B-15375] 11/10/1914
[Victor B-15376] 11/10/1914
[Victor B-15377] 11/10/1914
[Victor B-15432] 11/25/1914
[Victor B-15433] 11/25/1914
[Victor B-15434] 11/25/1914
[Victor B-15435] 11/25/1914
[Victor B-15439] 11/30/1914
[Victor B-15440] 11/30/1914
[Victor B-15441] 11/30/1914
[Victor B-15558] 12/31/1914
[Victor B-15559] 12/31/1914
[Victor B-15632] 01/27/1915
[Victor B-15633] 01/27/1915
[Victor B-15634] 01/27/1915
[Victor B-15635] 01/27/1915
[Victor B-17399] 03/30/1916
[Victor B-17400] 03/30/1916
[Victor B-19200] 02/19/1917
[Victor B-19238] 03/05/1917
[Victor B-19290] 03/19/1917
[Victor B-19706] 04/20/1917

A rollography is being considered for this entry. However, given the huge volume of Arndt's rolls, even if minimized to those recorded under his name, this is a daunting process that may take a while to complete. For now, you can view and search on scanned rolls at the following sites:

Warren Trachtman's Roll Scans
Robert Perry's Pianola Roll Scans
Terry Smythe's Roll Scan Library
Felix Arndt, regarded by some as the earliest proponent of the novelty piano style, was born to royalty, at least in a sense. His mother, Charlotte Harpeur (5/1851), was born in Spain to a French father and Spanish mother. Charlotte was known as the Countess Fevrier of France, and was reportedly related to Napoleon III. (She was mistakenly listed as Carolyn in the 1910 census.) Felix's father, Andreas W. Hugo Arndt (2/1853), was a carpenter born in Switzerland. The couple married in Manhattan in 1888. Felix also had a younger sister, Charlotte A. Arndt (12/1890). Born in New York, Felix was educated in the New York City public school system, greatly improved as the influence of Tammany Hall was waning,from soup to nuts cover and usually fostering those who wanted to play instruments in the requisite school band. He took up the piano on his own, but later sought out advanced training in harmony and theory. One of his professors was pianist Carl Lachmund, who was a follower of Franz Liszt. Carl's son Arno F. Lachmund would one day work indirectly with Felix while employed by Duo-Art.
Once out of school, Arndt's talent for arranging was quickly recognized by publishers, and he got a job composing special material on demand for several years, including for vaudeville stars such as the husband and wife team of Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, and often with fellow composer Gus Edwards (although specific titles have not surfaced to date and may have been disposed of after use). His steady gig for a time was as the organist for New York’s famed Trinity Church, right on Wall Street and a focal point in the days following the WTC disaster of 2001. He was shown in 1910 as still living with his family, and as a musician working for a publisher. Charlotte is shown as a stenographer working for a publisher, possibly the same one.
One of his more fortuitous breaks came in 1912 when Felix joined banjoist Fred Van Eps and his brother Bill Van Eps on a second banjo to form the Van Eps Trio, the first of many such groups led by Fred. Van Eps had already been recording for Victor Records, so had no problem bringing Felix into the fold. When Fred first met Arndt, over a decade younger than himself, he was a fledgling arranger and demonstrator for publisher M. Witmark working for around $20 a week. Van Eps was impressed with his skill and style, and tried to recruit Felix against his European mother's objection, since she did not want him leaving a secure position to work as a performer. Fred told her that he would guarantee Felix $50 a week, but "if couldn't make $100 I didn't want him." She consented, and it launched a fruitful but short career for the talented youth.
Victor also accepted Felix as a soloist, and this started a flurry of recording activity over the next several years. Felix would cut at least 30 keyboard solo sides in addition to his recordings of the trio, and five with mandolin player Dr. Clarence Penny. Many of the sides also featured Felix playing the delicate keyboard celesta. He also debuted many of his own compositions simultaneously on record and piano roll over the next few years. After several cuts in 1912 there were curiously no solo sides from 1913, but as it turns out, Felix was pretty busy.
Another bit of good fortune came in 1913 when Arndt started at Universal Music Company during the advent of "hand-played" piano rolls. As announced in the Music Trade Review of March 15, 1913: "The Universal Music Co., 29 West Forty-second street, New York, is calling the attention of the trade to. the fact that Felix Arndt has just signed a contract to compose, arrange and play for the Uni-Record. Felix Arndt needs no introduction to lovers of popular music, either as a player or composer, as his renditions are known from one end of the country to the other." Even though he was signed at first as an "exclusive" artists, Arndt soon managed to get work with other concerns as well.
Being a fine arranger and pianist, the position with Universal allowed him the opportunity to advance his skills when applied to other composer's works, and helped him in his compositions as well. The following year, Arndt also became a staff musician for Aeolian Hall, creating Duo-Art reproducing rolls in the Popular Music genre.nola cover In his nearly five years for the two companies he reportedly created over 3,000 rolls, which would equate to three or four on an average work day. It should be noted that he was not confined to popular works only, taking on many well-known classics, operas, and even contemporary composers such as Claude Debussy in his own inimitable style. However, many of these rolls were sometimes re-released under multiple sub-labels, so that number was likely substantially smaller, yet still astonishing given the time frame.
It was during this period that he penned the first of a series of compositions that are now considered to be classic novelties, A Symphonic Nightmare: Desecration Rag (#1). It is an amusing send up of well-known symphonic pieces in a complex syncopated format. This was followed by the unusual From Soup to Nuts, and a piece that would be the harbinger of genius yet to come, Marionette, although the latter would not be fully released until 1917. Felix was a charter member of ASCAP, founded by several musicians in 1914 in an effort to provide a focal registration point for protecting copyrights and distributing royalties.
In late 1914 or early 1915 Felix met his famous muse, Nola B. Locke, a professional singer with the St. Louis symphony, and a vocal teacher and capable pianist as well. She was born in DeQueen, Arkansas, near Monroe, on July 11, 1889 to real-estate agent George Todd Locke and his wife Callie Blanche (Dooley) Locke. She was in the middle of six children in the family of three girls and three boys, the youngest boy dying in infancy in 1900. George died a year later in 1901. Nola was on her own as of the 1910 census, living in St. Louis and likely working as a teacher at that time, having not yet been engaged by the Symphony. The circumstances of how she met Felix are unclear, but in her obituary it was stated that Nola had traveled to New York to find a better situation for her vocal talents.
Soon after they met the couple was engaged, and Felix wrote his signature piece in honor of the occasion, Nola - A Silhouette for the Piano. A lilting tune made up largely of interesting patterns, and melodic lines that utilize both hands and span pretty much the entire keyboard, it was a much admired template for what would become the genre of novelty piano in the 1920s. Written and copyrighted in late 1915 it was first published and recorded early in 1916. Several months after the piece was composed they were happily wed. A later attempt to turn it into a relatively unsingable song version with lyrics by added by James F. Burns was met with lukewarm response, the difficult pairing proven by a vocal recording of the piece.
Felix performed both on record and live with variations of the Van Eps group, but at some point pianist Frank Edgar Banta started to fill in from time to time. According to Van Eps, he started to have trouble with his hands for some unknown reason, which made his live performances less consistent. Banta would eventually take over the piano spot in the group by 1916, partially at the insistence of Victor management who liked that particular combination.marionette cover However, it was over the next two years from 1916 to 1918 that Felix really started to find his niche as a composer as well as a performer and arranger on piano roll, which could forgive any issues he had with controlling his hands. There was a second Desecration, An Operatic Nightmare: Desecration Rag #2 (the first was renumbered at this time), and a nice dance piece titled Clover Club. On some of the many rolls for which Felix applied his flying fingers, Nola also accompanied him and got credit for their duets.
Right around the time of World War I was when young George Gershwin looked briefly to Arndt as a mentor of sorts. Felix likely got George his job with Aeolian Hall on 42nd Street in Manhattan in early 1916, potentially inspiring or even contributing a bit to the single rag that Gershwin wrote, Rialto Ripples. It has been suggested that Felix may have introduced George to his friend Irving Caesar, with which Gershwin would later pen his first and biggest hit, Swanee.
Felix's 1917 draft card shows him as an employee of Aeolian, and the sole support for Nola and her mother. His parents were still in Manhattan, and his sister Charlotte had recently married Alex Alexander. They subsequently had a daughter in 1918 named Elaine, and continued to live with Hugo and Charlotte for some time. On January 1, 1918, Felix added yet another notch on the ladder of success when he started with the now-dominant QRS piano roll company. They were also fortunate to have signed him exclusively to their label. He put his own full page announcement under his portrait in the trades in February, 1918:
To the Music Industry:
After six years' experience recording for different roll cutters, I have come to the conclusion that there is a wonderful field for this line of work and owing to the Q R S Company's various line of rolls and complete organization, my best interests lie in recording for them exclusively, except, of course, that I shall continue to play for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
I wish to take this opportunity of thanking you, my friends, who have been so kind as to express your appreciation of my work and believe that this new arrangement will offer greater possibilities for us both.
Sincerely, Felix Arndt.
Throughout 1918 Arndt turned out a torrent of rolls with dynamic arrangements. There were some issues of the trade papers in which his name might be seen associated with four different companies on the same page. Overall, he had recorded hits for Universal (including their Uni-Record line), Aeolian (including their Duo-Art, Metro-Style Themodist and Metro-Art lines), the Wilcox and White Company (including their Angelus line), the A.B. Chase Reproducing Piano Company,clover club cover Perfection and QRS. Other companies featuring his work would tout him as the well-known player of rolls, even though he was working for the competition.
Then the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic struck the world, and New York City was hit hard. According to the account in the Music Trade Review of October 26, 1918: "Mr. Arndt contracted cold on October 8, which developed into pneumonia, causing his death on October 16." The final analysis was that his system was weakened, and the influenza quickly overtook him at that point. This deadly sickness deprived the world of Felix Arndt shortly before WWI had ended. Arndt was interred at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York.
Nola went on with her life, and interestingly enough was known to have lived for a time with their mutual friend Caesar. Following her late husband's lead in the music business, she contributed the lyrics to Nobody Loves Me Now by Billy Tracey in 1922. While not readily found in the 1920 census, she was located in 1930 married to a Russian immigrant construction company president, Henry Mandel, working as a musician doing private concerts. Another song with lyrics by Nola appeared in 1938, Mia Cara (My Dear) with Oscar Malanga. From the late 1940s into the 1950s Nola worked as a music and drama coach in New York City. Little is known about the remainder of her life. Nola died in Manhattan on July 19, 1977. She was buried with her first love in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown.
As for her namesake composition, it continued to grow in popularity for decades after Felix's death. As noted in the February 28, 1925 edition of the Music Trade Review:
Composition by the Late Felix Arndt Continues to Grow in Favor Despite Long Time Since Published
"Nola," which has found such favor as a foxtrot with dance orchestras, theatres and in photoplay houses during the past season and also as a solo number by concert artists and in other is the work of the late Felix Arndt. As a piano silhouette it was recorded on the Victor records in 1915 and was first released in sheet music form by the present publisher, Sam Fox Publishing Co., Cleveland, Ohio, at that time.
The popularity of the number was immediate, demonstrating that the public, while favoring popular music, appreciates compositions of the better type. The original sales on this number were also produced by the renditions of pianists who gave it its initial popularity and who successfully presented it in the same manner as that of the composer.
In 1922 Vincent Lopez and His Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra rendered "Nola" as a fox-trot for the first time and later it was one of their features by radio. This quickly established "Nola" as a dance number and the publisher immediately forwarded orchestrations in fox-trot time to the leading orchestra leaders in all parts of the country. It undoubtedly became the outstanding instrumental hit of 1922 and the early part of 1923 and, of course, continues to maintain much of its popularity.
In 1923 Adelaide and Hughes, Florence Walton and Maurice and Lenora Hughes took up "Nola" as a special feature dance number. This brought further popularity to this offering. Bill Baker used it in the Music Box Revue for a full season. George Carey, xylophone soloist of Sousa's band, and the popular pianists, Roy Bargy, Frank Banta, Joseph Daily, as well as Frederick Fradkin, the solo violinist, played the number with unusual success. The latter also recorded the number with his own original arrangement for Brunswick records. Jascha Gurewich, the saxophone virtuoso, has proclaimed this number the greatest instrumental novelty ever written and many other outstanding artists seem to have a similar opinion.
The publisher is firmly of the belief that 'Nola' has not reached its peak and is anticipating that before the year is over the demand and sales for this charming composition will have increased double to what they are at the present time.
Nola managed to remain in print throughout the 20th century, selling millions of copies to hopeful pianists who wanted to try and catch that unique style. It was available as a popular piano duet as well. Overall the piece became perhaps the best seller in the catalog of Sam Fox who also had acquired many other Arndt compositions. By the late 1920s, Lopez had made it his theme song, preserving his arrangement on film in 1932 in the first of the Big Broadcast films and giving it constant radio exposure as well. A quickly rendered performance of it was heard in the orchestra introduction in the 1930 two-strip Technicolor film King of Jazz, starring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Guitarist Les Paul even had a top-ten with it in the 1950s using his revolutionary multi-tracking guitar recording technique. In the 21st century pianist Sue Keller has become associated with the tune, which was a favorite of her mother.
Arndt's music and style were most certainly influential on a number of composers of the 1920s, and they help provide us a continuation of his legacy and the amazing potential he possessed.

1950s marvin ash portrait 1970s marvin ash portrait
Marvin E. Ashbaugh
(October 4, 1914 - August 21, 1974)
Known Compositions    
Pearl House Rag (1947)
The Little New Yorker (1949)
T 5 Blues (1951)
Cajon Lament (w/Gus Call) (1955)
Du a Ferdinand (1955)
Collective Discography    
10" 78s (Some released on 7" 45s)
Big Leg Mama/Last Call for Alcohol [1]
South Rampart Street Parade/Mama Inez [2]
Here Comes Your Pappy/Come Back Sweet Papa [2]
Original Dixieland One Step/They Called It Dixie Land [3]
Oh Baby/Ja Da [4]
I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate [3]
Sweet Woman/I Wonder What's Become Of Joe [3]
Sensation Rag/Sweet Lorraine
Lonesome Lovesick Blues/Sister Kate
Peg O' My Heart/Cannon Ball
Cannon Ball/Maple Leaf Rag
Pearl House Rag/Sweethearts on Parade [5]
How Come You Do Me Like You Do/Washington and
    Lee Swing [2]
Fidgety Feet/A Bag of Rags
10"/12" LPs
Honky-Tonk Piano
Marvin Ash
Marvin "Ash"
New Orleans at Midnight
Ukulele Ike Sings Again [6]
Deep in the Heart of Dixieland [6]

1. w/Wingy Manone Band
2. as Nappy Lamare's Levee Loungers
3. as Rosy McHargue's Memphis Five
4. as Rushton's California Ramblers
5. as Marvin Ash and His Mason Dixon Music
6. w/George Bruns' Wonderland Jazz Band
Matrix and Date
[Gilt Edge 535] 1945
[Capitol 15050] 10/27/1947
[Capitol 15325] 10/27/1947
[Jump J13] 12/07/1947
[Jump J19] 12/07/1947
[Jump J22] 12/07/1947
[Jump J28] 12/07/1947
[Jump J62] 12/08/1947
[Jump J66] 12/08/1947
[Vel-Tone SQ-601-A/B] 12/1947
[Capitol 15435] 1949
[Capitol 855] 11/15/1949
[Capitol 884] 11/15/1949
[Capitol CCR-323] 1950
[Capitol T-188] 1950
[Jump JL-4] 1951
[Jazz Man LJ-335] 9/14/1954
[Decca DL-8346] 1956
[Disneyland WDL-3003] 1956
[Disneyland WDL-3009] 1958
Marvin Ash was a remarkable and under-recorded New Orleans style pianist who actually spent much of his life wanting to visit the Crescent City, making him all that much more remarkable for his playing gifts. Born in Lamar, Colorado, one of two children to barber Roy Ashbaugh and his wife Nora Ashbaugh, Marvin grew up in Junction City, Kansas. He had a younger sister, Willie (likely Wilhemina) born in 1918. The family is shown in the 1920 census living in Junction City.
By 1925, the Ashbaugh family had moved to Emporia, Kansas, where they appear in the 1925 Kansas census. The following year they were living directly between Topeka and Kansas City in Lawrence, Kansas, where Marvin's graduation from Quincy Elementary School was announced in the paper on June 3, 1926. The greater Topeka area was where Marvin started playing with a number of bands as early as his high school years. Among the known musicians he worked with from Kansas City, the town that made the career of the legendary Count Basie, include Wallie Stoeffer, composer Con Conrad, Herman Waldman and Jack Crawford. He was greatly inspired while visiting Abilene one day in 1931 and heard "Fatha" Earl Hines perform in his capacious style. There was also an encounter one day at Jenkin's Music when seated at one of three grand pianos was Joe Sullivan teaching Thomas "Fats" Waller and Arthur Schutt, sitting at the other two, his own Little Rock Getaway. It set a desire in Ash to be able to play like all three of them - at once.
When Marvin was 22 he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to expand his musical horizons and do some work in radio as a studio pianist, musical director and sometimes announcer of station KVOO. With so much exposure to recordings from all around the country he was able to further hone his skills while absorbing a variety of piano styles. ash capitol single labelAmong his favorites influences were James P. Johnson and Waller, masters of stride, boogie man Pete Johnson, for whom he played the relief shift at the Sunset Cafe in Kansas City, jazz players Hines, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and long-time friend and traveling roommate Bob Zurke. As of the 1940 census, taken in Tulsa, Marvin was shown as divorced, indicating a brief marriage in the 1930s. He and his older roommate, Joseph O'Neil, also divorced, were both listed as radio musicians. On November 20, 1941, Marvin married Wavel Davis, a Creek/Cherokee American Indian-descendant of one of Tulsa's pioneer families. This may have been a second marriage since his enlistment card status indicates he had been divorced.
After a few years in Tulsa, Ash enlisted in the Army for World War II service on January 16, 1942, assigned initially to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. The terms indicated an enlistment "for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law." His civil occupation was listed as "Blacksmith or Band or Orchestra Leader... or Musician." It is hard to determine for certain, but Marvin likely spent at least some of his Army service in entertainment, something that head General Dwight D. Eisenhower in particular felt was essential for morale on the front lines. The army was true to their word and indeed kept him nearly six months after the end of the European segment of the war.
Following his four year stint (Marvin claims it was five in one source) Ash was let loose in Los Angeles and quickly found a place with the band of trumpeter Wingy Manone, resulting in some of his earliest ensemble recordings in late 1945. He also played in many of the clubs around the greater Los Angeles area, slowly growing his fine reputation. In 1947, jazz guitarist/banjoist Nappy Lamare and associates opened Club 47 (named for Musician's Union #47, not the year) on famed Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, an active music strip in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Ash was a regular there for the five years. Lamare ran the club, and it led to his initial sessions with Clive Acker's Jump Records as a soloist in late 1947 and with Rosy McHargue's Memphis Five. With a national musician's strike against the record companies looming in 1948, recording studios were very crowded in November and December of 1947 trying to get in last minute sessions, and Marvin was kept busy during that two month period. His work with McHargue also resulted in sessions with Lamare, drummer Ray Bauduc and others at Capitol Records (both companies used Radio Recorders, the best Hollywood studio at that time), recording as Nappy Lamare's Levee Loungers and Marvin Ash and his Mason Dixon Music. He also kept regular broadcast performance stints on radio at KRKD, as well as the aptly named Hangover Club on Vine Street in Hollywood where his late friend Zurke had held court from August, 1942, to his death in February, 1944, at age 32.
Ash's accurate no-nonsense jazz playing and his propensity for ragtime caught the ear of Capitol's producer and A&R man Lou Busch (who would later gain fame as Joe "Fingers" Carr), and he invited Ash to record a few more sides in 1949 with a small ensemble. Most of these would be incorporated into the groundbreaking 10" and later 12" Honky Tonk Piano LPs. His jazz interpretations of Maple Leaf Rag, Cannon Ball and Fidgety Feet were a nice contrast to Busch's arranged honky-tonk style and colleague Ray Turner's brilliant novelty recordings. Still, there would be no further work with Capitol.
Marvin was in the right place when television really took hold in Hollywood. He was one of the earliest traditional jazz pianists to perform live on the air in Los Angeles in 1949, first heard several times on KFI-TV (later KHJ) on various shows, often with actor Harry Hickox in an interview and performance format. ash caricatureLamare often joined them for some musical fun. In 1950 he was featured for a while on a talent program, Stars of Tomorrow, which aired on KTTV Channel 11. The Marvin Ash Trio was featured on the show for several weeks. There were many more live television and radio appearances throughout the early 1950s. One of his more enjoyable pursuits from 1949 to the early 1950s was traveling to the San Fernando Valley and entertaining veterans at Birmingham Hospital in Van Nuys. Ash would push his piano from ward to ward to entertain disable veterans, building up a strong fan base for his efforts. He was often called on to entertain at Veterans' Reunions.
Ash spent much of the 1950s playing in various lounges in the Los Angeles area, but had few recording dates under his name, instead working on many undocumented studio dates. Some include recording or live sessions with trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinet player Matty Matlock, New Orleans' sax player Pud Brown and cornetist Pete Daily, a favorite of Dragnet creator Jack Webb. Marvin's most significant sessions resulted in a continuous suite of an album for Decca titled New Orleans at Midnight, a virtual pastiche of elegant jazz and even a Scott Joplin rag. In 1956 he was part of an all-star mega-band at the annual Dixieland Jubilee at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, a group that sometimes-Firehouse Five Plus Two member George Bruns, FH5+2 and Kid Ory Band clarinetist George Probert, FH5+2 trumpeter Don Kinch, bassist Jess Bourgeois, Red Roundtree on banjo and veteran traditional jazz drummer Monte Mountjoy. They received the largest ovation of the event for Probert's emotional performance of Canal Street Blues.
The incurable entertainer also found some steady employment in the Walt Disney Studios music department playing for movie and television soundtracks, acting as the resident arranger and pianist for the Mickey Mouse Club Show, and performing with Bruns and his aptly-named Wonderland Jazz Band. Marvin's musical direction during this period was later described by Clive Acker, who noted that he had little patience for playing rags as written, and even taking liberties with the more complex works by composers such as Bix Beiderbecke, even though he could play note for note. "Even when humdrumming his way through the days at the [Disney] studios, he would seek a place, any place, where he could ply his first love, being a jazz pianist." Acker also cynically noted that Los Angeles was a town that had been hard on jazz pianists, such as Bob Zurke, Joe Sullivan and Jess Stacy, but that Ash was still a survivor in spite of the overall attitude of Angelenos.
Marvin was often sighted with this group or with his own small ensemble playing for events at Disneyland as well. He was a fixture at Jim's Roaring 20s restaurant and bar in the early 1960s with the band of Johnnie Lane. His regular haunt as a soloist during the late 1950s and early 1960s was Nick Arden's Restaurant at the piano bar. In 1962 he migrated to the Brass Tiger Lounge at The Inn in Studio City on Ventura Blvd. Another favorite spot where Marvin and his buddies would drop in was Wit's End, also in Studio City near Laurel Canyon Blvd. Among those he played with at Wit's End included "Wild Bill" Davidson, Sonny Criss, Matty Matlock, Benny Carter and Barney Bigard, all storied names in jazz music.
After his retirement from Disney in the mid-1960s, Ash spent some his last few years playing older jazz, stride and (sometimes allegedly grudgingly) ragtime in the cocktail lounge of Victory Bowl, a large San Fernando area bowling alley. He had a steady stream of regular customers and admirers, and was reportedly very happy with the situation. Another frequent haunt was The Pump Room in Studio City. He was still called on for special gigs and appearances up through his death, including festivals held by the Blue Angels Jazz Club for their 1969 and 1971 events. As late as October 1973 Ash was frequently noted in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section playing at south valley locations such as the Tail of the Cock in North Hollywood. He passed on in an Encino, California hospital in August 1974 at age 59, largely as a result of overindulgence in alcohol combined with a heart problem caused by Rheumatic Fever as a child, the reported cause being a heart attack. Marvin was survived by Wavel, his wife of 33 years, his sister (now Billie Katherine Freegard), and his mother Nora. According to her niece Wavel celebrated her 100th birthday in 2010.
Marvin left many jazz and ragtime fans wanting for more in terms of recorded legacy, but also sadly forgotten by all but a few hard-core fans. The author, who lived in Studio City as a teen, was fortunate enough to hear Ash perform on two occasions, and still vividly remembers how captivating and engrossing his performance was in the noisy restaurant bar. Marvin's ability to merge styles, and also to approach the same piece in many different ways made him versatile and listenable, and his "always-on" smiling demeanor made him a popular friend to all who crossed paths with him. His approach to ragtime was successful in showing that piano rags were the root of jazz, and therefore could fuse well into the genre, creating a fresh look at older material while still respecting that material.

Younger Burt Bales Portrait - 1950s Older Burt Bales Portrait - 1980
Burton Franklin Bales
(March 20, 1916 to October 26, 1989)
Cake-walking Babies From Home/Down Among
    the Sheltering Palms
Burt Bales & His Ragtime Piano
After Hours Piano
Jazz from the San Francisco Waterfront
They Tore My Playhouse Down (w/Paul Lingle)
On the Waterfront
New Orleans Jazz
Burt Bales - New Orleans Ragtime
Burt Bales 1947-1961
At the Jazz Band Ball
Turk Murphy Volume 1
Bob Scobey Volume 1
Burt Bales and the Rose & Thistle Jazz Band
Bob Scobey's Band
Bunk Johnson in San Francisco
[GTJ 35] 78-RPM
[GTJ 36] 78-RPM
[GTJ EP-1006] 7"
[GTJ L-19] 10"
[GTJ L-12025] 12"
[Cavalier 6010]
Unknown Issue
[Euphonic 1210]
[G H B Records 13] CD
[GTJ L-12005]
[GTJ L-12026]
[GTJ L.12032]
[Sacramento Jazz SJS-20]
Burt Bales is not a widely known name outside of ragtime playing circles, and he rightfully should have been. He was just born in that niche where he was too late for the original ragtime era, too sophisticated in many ways for the honky-tonk era, and too obscure for some in the ragtime revival. Bales was also sometimes overshadowed by other pianists in the San Francisco Bay Area, largely due to circumstance more than anything else, and sometimes of his own doing. Yet he was highly regarded by all who knew him, and much sought after as a band musician. Here is his story.
Burton was born in Stevensville, Montana, to Montana native father Benjamin Franklin Bales and his wife Elizabeth D. Johnson. Stevensville is located around 20 miles south of Missoula, the county seat, on the Bitter Root River. By 1920, the family had moved north about 60 miles to Pablo on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Benjamin (who later went by Frank B. Bales) was listed as a newspaper editor, but was a printer by trade. Burton would be joined by his younger brother Jack W. in 1919, and Robert S. in 1921. In 1925, Frank moved the family west to Marin County, California. By 1927 they were living at 322 Richardson Street in Sausalito, and Frank was listed as a printer. In 1930, the family was still in Sausalito, but now at 11 Princess Street, with Frank listed more specifically as a newspaper printer. By 1933, the Bales family had settled at 108A Sycamore Avenue in San Anselmo where they would remain for many years.
Burt came to Northern California right in the middle of jazz age, although most of the jazz in San Francisco, which was a bit of a trip for the family before any bridges spanned the bay, was more often performed by visiting groups. Later in the 1930s a few performers started making their home in the Bay area, most notably pianist Paul Lingle who would become a friend and colleague of Burt's. While there are reports that he had actually been performing in public at hotels and nightclubs since the age of 12 (around 1928), confirmation of any appearances before the mid 1930s is difficult to come by, so this might have been a slight exaggeration.
However, while he was attending Tamalpais High School in his mid to late teens, Bales had already begun playing piano professionally in the Bay Area, focusing his efforts on traditional jazz works by Jelly Roll Morton, and contemporary artists like Fats Waller.
The young, sophisticated pianist
in the 1940s.
Burt Bales c.1940s
According to a July 1956 article about trombonist Jack Buck, who Burt often played with, "in 1935 he joined Ellis Kimball's orchestra which was playing at the now defunct Topsy's Roost at the San Francisco ocean beach. 'Burt Bales was doing many of the arrangements for us' Buck said, 'and we were playing a lot of New Orleans jazz. This was several years before Lu Watters formed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and opened at the Dawn Club [1940]." Through listening to hundreds of recordings, and at times actually backing some legenday musicians, Burt soon became somewhat of an expert in Chicago jazz style, and particularly the traditional jazz of New Orleans, even though he had not visited there.
A frequent performer with bands at the iconic Dawn Club in San Francisco, Bales became known to bandleader Lu Watters, who had been working on a revival of the tunes first laid down by Joseph "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong nearly two decades before. Wally Rose was Watters' primary pianist, and a cornerstone of Watters' pioneering Yerba Buena Jazz Band, but Bales also started working with the group from time to time as a backup. Wally's style was much more traditional, based largely on ragtime, but he also did fine work in the Jelly Roll Morton idiom. Bales was adept at either but leaned much more in the Morton direction. Both made invaluable contributions to the early years of the revival, helping to keep it alive until it exploded nationwide around 1950.
From the late 1930s into the 1940s, Burt became known as a solid club pianist who was flexible for use with a variety of jazz musicians. As it was, he played with noted musicians such as Jack Teagarden, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and Bunk Johnson, a rarity in an era where integrated bands were not always welcome in any number of public venues. He also appeared on radio with banjo player Clancy Hayes in the late 1930s, a bit ahead of the coming revival. Having already recorded with Benny Strickler's group in 1942 on a KYA broadcast from the Dawn Club, Bales, along with Bunk Johnson, made one of his only studio recordings with the Yerba Buena Jazz Band in 1944 after Rose had been drafted into service. Burt himself had enlisted in the Army on January 23, 1943, but his service was short-lived, not even lasting through basic training due to poor vision issues from his myopia. This left Bales, along with Paul Lingle, as a viable Bay Area commodity during the war years, as many other musicians were fighting the battle overseas. Bales also led his own band from 1943 to 1946 before taking an extended residency at San Francisco's 1018 Club after the war.
One of Bales' first studio recording sessions was in 1947, courtesy of Lester Koenig and his Good Time Jazz label.
A Good Time Jazz EP release
from 1953
A Burt Bales EP release
Koenig had been recording Watters and Rose, among other bay area traditional jazz groups, since late 1941. Given that Turk Murphy was taking an increasing leadership role in the band, and that Bales was called on to gig with his group from time to time, it was natural that Lester became acquainted with his style. However, the sides were not released for 15 years. Bales was kept busy, however, playing also for the bands of Bob Scobey and Marty Marsala in 1948. In 1949, Koenig once again put Bales in front of the microphone in San Francisco, and eight recorded solo piano tracks from that session eventually made it to a 10" long-playing record in 1953. In May he laid down a set of tracks with Murphy and Scobey, this time in Los Angeles, and in December recorded four with Ed Garland on bass and the widely used Minor Hall on drums. Those four tracks were released on a 7" EP disc, also in 1953. More recordings with Murphy in Los Angeles, where Koenig had set up his company, followed in 1950, along with a couple of singles recorded with his own ensemble again, including vocalist Jeanne Gayle.
Following the success of Koenig's release of Lingle's famous 1952 studio recording for Good Time Jazz, and similar good response to Wally Rose's classic piano rag album, Lester saw fit to also release the Bales solo piano cuts, giving Bales more import in the national jazz press. It kept him dutifully employed throughout the 1950s, but mostly in the Bay Area which he preferred. Bales had the central theme of the influence of Jelly Roll Morton in common with Lingle, and while there was no overlap in their cuts, there was certainly a lot of variety between the two. This served Koenig well when he converted the entire Good Time Jazz line to 12" LPs in the mid to late 195os. While some were not re-released in the lengthier format, Bales and Lingle were combined on one of the most famous releases the company ever issued, They Tore My Playhouse Down, from 1958. The title and the cover referred to, in a thinly veiled manner, the "playhouses" of the Storyville district of New Orleans, or even of the notorious Barbary Coast area of San Francisco. Even as it caused some minor controversy among some concerning taste, the compilation sold briskly. It is still available on CD and via digital download some six decades after the original analog cuts were recorded.
In spite of his brief national fame, and slightly higher local favoritism, from the mid 1950s forward, Bales worked largely as a solo pianist in various clubs around the Bay Area, most frequently at Pier 23. Several tracks were recorded there during his tenure, but not all were as well received as his Good Time Jazz releases. In a Saturday Review mention of the 1958 release of the album Jazz from the San Francisco Waterfront released on the ABC Paramount label, author wrote that "Burt Bales sounds as if he'd spent a lot of time listening to [Joe] Sullivan, Fats [Waller] and Earl [Hines], but no one else. The ensembles are meaningless except for spots on 'Tin Roof' and 'Save it Pretty Momma,' when Matty [Masala] band saves them. This record, with all its faults, is still more enjoyable than the performances of people who never listened to music before 1958."
Burt at home playing at Pier 23
in the late 1950s.
Burt Bales at Pier 23
It was also in his new regular spot, located in a not entirely savory part of town in spite of its popularity, that one of the more interesting stories surrounding the eclectic pianist emerged, as reported in a San Francisco paper on March 21, 1958
3/21/1958 The boys at Pier 23 Tavern on the San Francisco Embarcadero had planned a little birthday party(?) for player Burt Bales last night. It was to be a real high class affair.
Then along came Fred A. Cellarius Jr., 26, a typesetter of 121 South St., Sausalito. He was acting up and this was not in keeping with the way owner Havelock Jerome and the boys had planned the evening.
Jerome refused Cellarius a drink and told him to leave.
Sellarius seized a chair and started swinging and after the melee four persons were treated for injuries. Police arrived and chased Cellarius across the Embarcadero into a warehouse at 1250 Sansome str., where he climbed 18 feet onto stored packing cases. It took a fork lift to get him down.
He was booked on suspicion of felony assault, drunk, battery and malicious mischief. His companion, Paul Johannes, 24, of 902 California St., was released as a drunk under $0 bail.
Jerome suffered cuts on the scap, lip and a black eye; Heber C. Galloway, 56, of 806 Page St., concussion and lacerations of the head, one finger nearly bitten off and a possible fractured arm; and Charles J. Ooghe of 209 Amhurst Ave., San Mateo, cuts on the head.
In the fight all the tavern's windows on the Bay side were broken out and the place was pretty much a shambles.
However, when Bales arrived for the party, Jerome, his head bandaged, his tavern littered and his cusomers battered, said the party would go on just the same.
Everybody wished Bales a happy birthday, there was fun and revelry and they forgot about that fellow who tried to break it up.
In 1959 Burt was included in A Survey of 60 Years of Piano Jazz held at the University of California, San Francisco on May 13 and 14. He appeared along with Wally Rose, Tiny Crump, stride pianist Ralph Sutton and modernist Richie Crabtree. Later that year he appeared with singer Lizzie Miles, whom he frequently backed, at the Monterey Jazz Festival down the coast, but may have been off his game as he received a scathing review in the San Mateo Times on October 10, 1959. The critic stated that "Burt Bales threw away a good chance too. Lizzie Miles couldn't even cover for him when he lost beat, tempo, focus and hearing through most of the numbers together."
Then came the crushing blow that caused Burt to take a mandatory pause in his life, and perhaps refresh his resolve as a performer. On February 26, 1960, Bales was crossing Seventh Street near the Greyhound Bus Depot in San Francisco when he was struck by a car. There was the possibility that he was going to lose his left leg.
Ev Farey's Golden State Jazz Band c.1979. Burt is leaning against the signpost to the right.
Ev Farey's Golden State Jazz Band - Burt is leaning against the signpost to the right.
By July, his leg still intact, he was informed that he might have to wear a cast on the leg for up to a year, but that a walking cast might be fitted by late 1960. That was enough encouragement to keep him going, since it would mean a return to his Pier 23 gig after nearly a year of convalescence and healing. Friends were always around him at the hospital, which further helped his spirts. To assist with his substantial medical bills, several benefits were held for Bales, resulting in $2,000 or more for many of the events, directly donated to the ailing pianist's cause. On one spring evening there were simultaneous coordinated benefits held at four of his favorite hangouts. By early 1961 he was indeed back on the bench at Pier 23, and even made a recording with a pick-up band, although the tracks were released many years later.
Burt spent the rest of the decade playing rather uneventfully at Pier 23 and other venues with a dedicated crowd following him around. By the 1970s he was starting to slow down a bit, but still kept a regular Monday Night gig at the Washington Square Bar & Grill into the 1980s. There was a brief flirtation with another jazz band from 1979 to 1980, but Bales preferred his solo work.
In 1989, in failing health, he finally visited New Orleans and felt a kinship with the musicians there who all greeted him warmly. Bales was ailing from cancer, diabetes, and cardio-vascular complications, having stopped playing regularly just a year prior. On October 26, 1989, at age 73, Bales died of complications from heart surgery at St. Mary's hospital, survived by his wife Yvonne, brother Jack, and mother Elizabeth. Around the same time his historic works were finding their way into the digital medium, and remain with us today. Even though he was under-recorded, sometimes under-regarded, and at times somewhat eccentric, Bales believed in his music and breathed joy into whatever he played for whoever would listen.

Roy Bargy Portrait
Roy Frederick Bargy
(July 31, 1894 - January 16, 1974)
* Slipova
* Justin-Tyme
* Sunshine Capers
* Pianoflage
* Jim Jams
* Behave Yourself
Ditto (I'll Have the Same)
It Must Be Someone Like You [1,2]
When You Come to the End of a
    Sometime [1]
Blue Streak
Rickety Stairs [1,3]
Lonely [1,3]
Little Thoughts [1,4]
The Old Garden Gate [1,3,5]
* Knice and Knifty [5] (1918/1922)
* Rufenreddy [5] (1918/1922)
1922 (Cont)
Tee-pee Blues [6] (1918/1922)
Broken Hearted Blues [7] (1918/1922)
Sweet and Tender
Foolish Child [8] (1918/1922)
Get Lucky (Chicago Stomp)
Feedin' the Kitty

* From 8 Piano Syncopations
1. w/Charley Straight
2. w/Harold G. Frost
3. w/George Moriarity
4. w/Hal Billings
5. Likely composed by Charley Straight
   around 1918, but listed as collaborations.
6. w/Roger Lewis & Ernie Erdman
7. w/Frank Henri Klickmann & Dave Ringle
8. w/McPhail Nelson
Selected Solo Discography    
Slipova (Unissued)
Sunshine Capers
Knice 'N' Knifty
Jim Jams
Behave Yourself (Unissued)
Matrix and Date
[Victor 25708] 09/30/1921
[Victor 25709] 09/30/1921
[Victor 26557] 06/27/1922
[Victor 26854] 08/31/1922
[Victor 26855] 08/31/1922
[Victor 26856] 08/31/1922
[Victor 29668] 03/17/1924
[Victor 26856] 03/17/1924
Roy Bargy was born in Newaygo, Michigan, to Frederick H. Bargy and Jessie E. Bennett McKee, the youngest of two children including his sister Myrtle (8/1888). However, he grew up mostly in Toledo, Ohio. Roy began to study piano at age five and proved to be a child prodigy at the instrument. Fred Bargy was listed as a musician in the 1900 enumeration, so likely had some direct influence on his son's talent and musical direction. pianoflage coverRoy continued taking lessons for 12 years and developed as a very competent classical pianist. He had aspirations of becoming a concert artist, but the thinking of the time was that serious pianists needed to study in Europe in order to be seriously regarded within classical music circles, a practice that continued into the 1940s. Family economics made this dream impossible to achieve at that time, as by 1910 his father was no longer working as a musician, but instead was listed as a market superintendent.
Discouraged but not daunted, Roy began to hang around the growing Toledo jazz community and, still in his teens, found work playing piano and organ in silent movie houses. He also organized his own pickup orchestra, which played for school dances. Roy took lessons in both organ and piano with C. Max Ecker of Toledo for as long as seven years. He often cited Ecker as the person responsible for the development of his dazzling technique. He claimed to have attended no music conservatory, and beyond his time with Ecker to have never studied composition, harmony, theory, or similar courses that most arrangers and composers were taking at that time. His knowledge in these fields was mostly self-taught, and came from his observation of how the instruments in an orchestra complimented or interplayed with each other.
Roy's 1917 draft card shows him listed as a musician playing for a Toledo country club. He ended up being enlisted for five months of 1918, serving in the Army in Central Officer's Training School in Georgia, and was honorably discharged at the end of November. In a Music Trade Review article of September 13, 1919, it was noted that: "Mr. Bargy was in an officers' training camp when the Germans resigned, and while in the service was a great organizer of bands and orchestras among the soldiers. He has played in many parts of the country and wherever he has appeared his true musicianship has been appreciated."
In the summer of 1919, Bargy auditioned for pianist Charley Straight, manager of the Imperial Player Rolls company. He was asked to arrange a pop tune for roll. The initial cut was so good that Bargy was quickly hired and the tune was put into their catalog. Straight cultivated Roy's arranging abilities as he was assigned to record novelties and popular songs. He soon challenged Bargy to compose some of his own novelties in an effort to compete with rising star Zez Confrey of QRS. Bargy came back with six of the Eight Piano Syncopations that were every bit as innovative as Confrey's (with whom he became a long-time friend), but his pieces were not quite as accessible to the average pianist.
Bargy (the pianist) leading the Benson Orchestra in 1922.
roy bargy and the benson orchestra in 1922
The six were committed to piano rolls in 1920 and published as sheet music from the rolls two years later. Two others were most likely written by Straight in 1918 or so, but Bargy got collaboration credit when they went to sheet form.
It was Straight that introduced Bargy to booking agent Edgar Benson who had just formed a dance orchestra which was slated to record for Victor Records. Benson was impressed by Bargy's skills and took him on as both pianist and musical director. The Victor recordings of The Benson Orchestra, which were very progressive for the time, helped secure many other bookings for Bargy as a pianist and arranger for other recording bands such as Isham Jones. Roy married to his first wife Gretchen Butler, also from Toledo, around this time. Their daughter Jeanne Phyllis was born in 1922. Patricia followed in 1924.
After creative conflicts with Benson in late 1921, Bargy left to launch his own orchestra, taking many members of Benson's group with him. He was helped by music entrepreneur Ernie Young, who managed not only to get Bargy's group booked for a solid year at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, but made certain that the group was the highest paid dance orchestra in the country in 1923. But the group disbanded after only a couple of years, after which Bargy joined the Isham Jones organization for a while. Roy traveled with that group to England and Europe in 1925, shown arriving back in the United States on the Mauretania on December 8, 1925. He had also done a couple of recordings with Arthur Pryor's band earlier in the year.
In 1926 Bargy continued again with his own orchestra, this time playing at the Hotel Stevens in Chicago. In May 1927 Roy was signed by Ampico as a roll recording artist. Bargy then migrated to Paul Whiteman's orchestra 0n February 1, 1928, quickly becoming Whiteman's musical assistant. Whiteman had been looking for a sound beyond the conventional dance band, and Bargy's arrangements provided much of that sound, some of them commissioned even before he joined the orchestra. Bargy claimed he joined Whiteman's organization so he could go to Europe with the group, which did happen in short order. Roy's piano was the featured attraction in Whiteman's film debut of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in King of Jazz, released in 1930. Bargy was partially responsible for the symphonic arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue, which varied in many ways from the original jazz band arrangement by his colleague Ferdé Grofé. It was played at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer or fall of 1929 while the band was staying in Los Angeles waiting for King of Jazz filming to start. His pianistic skills were also utilized on some of the early recordings made by Whiteman's star singer, Bing Crosby and the famous Rhythm Boys. For the 1930 enumeration Roy was difficult to locate as he was on tour, although Gretchen and their two daughters were living in his home base of Toledo.
the old garden gate cover
During the 1930s when Bargy wasn't playing with Whiteman during the occasional hiatus of the group, he would again assemble his own orchestra to work during the tour breaks. He and his groups continued to record for Victor Records, and were frequently heard on national radio broadcasts, mostly on NBC stations. As a member of the Whiteman Orchestra Roy became one of the premier interpreters of Rhapsody in Blue, and as of 1938 likely held the record for the number of performances of the work by one pianist. Soon after it was premiered, he was also featured in many performances of Gershwin's highly challenging Concerto in F. Bargy was also the assistant conductor, put in charge whenever Whiteman left the podium. By 1936 Roy and Gretchen had divorced. On June 15, 1937 he was remarried to Virginia MacLean, two decades his junior, who he had met in Zanesville, Ohio, while on tour with Whiteman.
In 1940, Bargy left Whiteman after a twelve year stint to arrange and conduct radio orchestras and bands. These included gigs with Lanny Ross (with whom he recorded some Irish tunes), Garry Moore, and famed Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat. As of the 1940 census, taken in North Hempstead, Long Island, New York, Roy and Virginia had his daughter Patty was living with him, and he was listed as a musician in broadcasting. (Gretchen died in Ohio in 1946.)
In a 1937 article published in Amarillo, Texas in September, 1937, Roy looked back on his fortunes and success. In spite of his lack of formal music education, Bargy said: "I certainly don't wish to discourage people from going to the conservatory and studying those courses which I did not have... Nevertheless, I believe the method I followed of studying privately with one excellent piano teacher for some seven or eight years, and the way I had to dig out my extra musical knowledge alone, was the best thing for me." When asked if his former instructor, Max Ecker, was proud of his achievements, he continued: "Proud of me? Oh no, he's disappointed! He thinks it's been very fine for me to be with a great orchestra like Whiteman's, but he doesn't think that is my field. He accepts the concert stage for me and nothing else." Bargy also made it clear that he liked his work on the radio more than anything else at that time.
Comedian Jimmy Durante, himself a competent pianist who got his start playing at Coney Island during the ragtime era, hired Bargy as musical director in 1943, and it was in this capacity that he remained until both of them retired from show business two decades later. Bargy and his orchestra were featured on the radio weekly on the show that originally starred both Durante and Moore on NBC radio. When Moore went to TV, Durante re-teamed with Alan Young, and retained Bargy for radio and live appearances. Roy's daughter Jeanne had debuted at age 13 on WPSD radio in Toledo in the mid-1930s as "the Voice of the Blues." She started to make a name for herself as a pianist and singer in the mid-1940s, appearing at various venues around the country, and favoring the style of her mother's good friend, singer Mildred Bailey. Jeanne also had a stint on CBS radio from 1948 to 1949.
While the circumstances are not fully clear yet, Roy and Virginia acquired two more children by adoption, who appear to be a brother and sister born in South Dakota. Roger Michael (MacLean) Bargy (03/08/1941) and Susan M. (MacLean) Bargy (c.1945), possibly the children of one of Virginia’s siblings, became members of the Bargy clan in the mid-1940s. An unfortunate accident involving a soda pop bottle exploding resulted in Roger losing his left eye in 1948, to which Roy sued the company (unnamed in the news reports) on Roger's behalf for $25,486.
There were two bits of nostalgic resurgence involving Roy in the early 1950s. The first was a series of brilliant interpretations of his early piano novelties by performer Ray Turner, who was known as "The Hollywood Pianist" due to his soundtrack work that made actors sound like accomplished musicians. Turner's recordings for Capitol Records appeared both as solos on a 16" radio transcription and on two albums as well, the pioneering Honky Tonk Piano and Turner's own Kitten on the Keys.
There was also a brief reunion of Roy with Paul Whiteman in 1953 when the two played along with others in a traveling revue. An ad for them in Reno in July, 1953, shows the "King of Jazz" on the same bill as the "Piano Extraordinary" of Bargy along with some teen-aged musical acts from Whiteman's television show. Unfortunately, performing became more difficult for Roy in the mid-to-late-1950s due to the onset of arthritis, so appearances by Bargy with Whiteman or Durante diminished throughout the decade. One of their last performances together was for Durante's Fiftieth Anniversary in Show Business special, broadcast in full color on NBC Television on August 9, 1961.
Roy spent the remainder of his years in the California sunshine playing golf for enjoyment, but also helping his second wife Virginia with the Country Day School she founded in Vista, CA. Students have memories of him as both the cook for lunch time, as well as the entertainer from time to time for assemblies or casual afternoons. Their daughter, Jeanne, composed lyrics and some music for several stage productions throughout the 1960s with composer Jim Eiler, including some that were broadcast on NBC Television.
Novelty pianist extraordinaire Roy Bargy died in his home in early 1974 after a fruitful career in music and helping with the Country Day School. It is reported that Virginia, who moved in with one of their daughters (likely Patricia) after his death, likely disposed of some additional compositions or arrangements that he had kept around their house. Roger (a.k.a. Michael) died in 1981 on Roy's birthday in San Diego. Virginia Bargy survived Roy until April, 2005, and Susan is still around as of this writing, as is Patricia. Although Bargy left behind only a few compositions, his contributions to recorded jazz are considerable but hard to measure because he left his imprint in so many places.
Thanks to ragtime researcher Robert Bradford, a friend of Susan Bargy, who was able to provide a few pieces of information on Bargy and his later years. The remaining information was culled by the author from public records, periodicals and collective writings on novelty piano, including piano roll catalogs.

Jimmy Blythe Portrait not available
James Louis (Jimmy) Blythe
(May 20, 1901 to June 21, 1931)
I'll Go to My Grave with the Blues [1]
Armour Avenue Struggle
Chicago Stomp
No Name Blues
Confessin' Blues
Mama Don't Want Her Sweet Man Anymore [1]
Matilda Brown [2]
True Blues [3]
Delta Bottom Blues [3]
Pomeranian Blues [attr]
I'm Crazy Over You [w/Eugene Hunter]
Fat Meat and Greens [4]
Jimmie Blues [4]
Georgia Breakdown
Cold Black Ground Blues
Back Alley Rub
Stepping on the Gas
Chicago Skiffle
Switch It Miss Mitchell [2]
Thirty Eight and Two [2]
Midnight Strutters [w/Janice Blythe]
The World's Jazz Crazy and So Am I [5]
Down to the Bricks [8]
Anna Mina Forty and St. Louis Shorty
Pump Tillie
Ape Man
Your Folks
47th Street Stomp
Idle Hour Special
I Won't Give You None
Little Bits Adam's Apple
Mecca Flat Blues [1]
Lovin's Been Here and Gone to Mecca Flat [1,2]
It Must Be Hard [5]
Messin' Around [6]
Bohunkus Blues [7]
East Coast Trot [7]
Chicago Buzz [7]
Hot Stuff
Weary Way Blues
Grandma's Ball
There'll Come a Day
Sock That Thing
Brown Skin Mama Blues
My Baby [8] [w/Roberts]
Oriental Man [9]
Have Mercy [w/Mary Slaughter]
Dixie Thumpers [w/Minor]
Alley Rat
Sweet Papa
Tack It Down
Bull Fiddle Rag
Shake Your Shimmy
Block and Tackle Blues [10]
Dustin' the Keys [10]
The Folks Down Stairs [9]
Gin Mill Blues [9]
Ain't Gonna Beg You For That Stuff [9]
That's My Business [9]
Regal Stomp a.k.a. Bow to Your Papa
Kentucky Blues
Wild Man Stomp

1. w/Alex J. Robinson
2. w/Clarence Williams
3. w/Priscilla Stewart
4. w/Aletha Mae Dickerson-Robinson
5. w/William H. Huff
6. w/Trixie Smith
7. w/Lathair "Vol" Stevens
8. w/Clarence Johnson
9. w/Ikey Robinson
10. w/Jim Evans "Buddy" Burton
Selected Discography    
Chicago Stomp
Armour Avenue Struggle
Fat Meat and Greens
Jimmie Blues
Anna Mina Forty and St. Louis Shorty [1]
Quit Knockin' At My Door [1]
Pump Tillie [2]
Lovin's Been Here and Gone to Mecca Flat
Mr. Freddie Blues
Bohunkus Blues [2]
Buddy Burton's Jazz [2]
Messin' Around [4]
Adam's Apple [4]
Ape Man
Your Folks
Don't Fish in My Sea [5]
There'll Come a Day [6]
Weary Way Blues [6]
Cootie Stomp [6]
Weary Way Blues [7]
Pouting Papa [7]
Hot Stuff [7]
Have Mercy [7]
It's Hot - Let it Alone
Bearcat Blues
My Baby [8]
Oriental Man [8]
Alley Rat
Sweet Papa
Dustin' the Keys [9]
Block and Tackle Blues [9]
My Baby [6]
Oriental Man [6]
Pleasure Mad [6]
Some Do and Some Don't [6]
Tack it Down [6]
Endurance Stomp [6]
Brown Skin Mama [6]
Tell Me Cutie [6]
Someday You'll Know [6]
How Would You Like to Be Me? [6]
Shake Your Shimmy [10]
Bull Fiddle Rag [10]
Bow To Your Papa [11]
Don't Break Down [11]

   1. w/Blythe's Sinful Five
   2. w/Jimmy Blythe's Night Owls
   3. w/Blythe's Washboard Band
   4. w/Jimmy Blythe's Ragamuffins
   5. accomp. Ma Rainey
   6. w/Blythe's Blue Boys
   7. w/Jimmy Blythe's Owls
   8. w/Jimmy Blythe's Washboard Wizards
   9. w/Jim Evans "Buddy" Burton
   10. w/The Midnight Rounders
   11. w/Charlie Clark
Matrix and Date
[Paramount P1750] 04/??/1924
[Paramount P1751] 04/??/1924
[Paramount P2201] 06/??/1925
[Paramount P2202] 06/??/1925
[Paramount P2415] 01/??/1926
[Paramount P2418] 01/??/1926
[Paramount P2420] 01/??/1926
[Paramount P2539] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2540] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2541] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2542] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2602] 08/??/1926
[Paramount P2603] 08/??/1926
[Paramount P2749] 10/??/1926
[Paramount P2750] 10/??/1926
[Paramount P4021] 12/??/1926
[Champion G12989] 08/12/1927
[Champion G12990] 08/12/1927
[Champion G12991] 08/12/1927
[Vocalion C1187] 10/05/1927
[Vocalion C1188] 10/05/1927
[Vocalion C1190] 10/05/1927
[Vocalion C1193] 10/05/1927
[Gennett G13299] 12/08/1927
[Gennett G13300] 12/08/1927
[Vocalion C1828] 03/30/1928
[Vocalion C1829] 03/30/1928
[Vocalion C1830] 03/30/1928
[Vocalion C1831] 03/30/1928
[Gennett G13682] 04/01/1928
[Gennett G13683] 04/01/1928
[Champion G13686] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13687] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13688] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13690] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13691] 04/23/1928
[Champion G14065] 07/18/1928
[Champion G14067] 07/18/1928
[Champion G14074] 07/19/1928
[Champion G14075] 07/19/1928
[Champion G14080] 07/19/1928
[Vocalion C2421] 10/09/1928
[Vocalion C2422] 10/09/1928
[Champion G17636] 03/20/1931
[Champion G17637] 03/20/1931
Jimmy Blythe represents another case of a working musician/composer who had some moderate success, yet very little is known about him outside of ragtime and boogie piano circles. He was born to former slaves turned sharecroppers Richard D. Blythe and Rena (Stovall) Blythe in South Keene, Kentucky, just southwest of Lexington. James was the youngest of five surviving siblings out of a total of eleven born to the couple. Others included Dovie (4/1880) who died in childhood, Bessie (7/1882), Effie (2/1886), Mary M. (11/1889), and Aubrey (7/1897). At least one sibling born after James had died by 1910.
The Blythe family was living together when the 1900 census was taken before Jimmy's birth. However, by 1910 their situation had changed. They had moved to Lexington, and may have fallen on hard times in the process.jimmy blythe columbia piano roll label Rena was working as a servant in the home of Florent Wilson. Effie and Mary were working as cooks and boarding with widow Emma Ross as well as a cousin, Lana Stovall. Richard and Jimmy were difficult to locate in that record or the 1910 Miracord, but it is known they were still living in Lexington with James working as a janitor or day laborer. The extent of Jimmy's early involvement with the piano is not well known, nor if he received any type of training in Lexington. Given the situation it seems that he may have learned simply by observing other ragtime performers and imitating their style. Not being found in the census also suggests living conditions that probably precluded regular schooling.
In the mid-1910s Effie married C.V. Merritt of Illinois and subsequently moved to south side of Chicago. Mary and her new husband Mario Slaughter were not far behind and moved in with the couple, as did Bessie. She also shows as having been married to a Mr. Clark, but her husband was not living with the rest of the group in 1920. Jimmy came to Chicago in the late 1910s (reports vary, but 1917 to 1918 seems most likely). In the January 1920 census Jimmy is difficult to locate. He had been living with Effie, but was not present for the census or had moved out of the Wabash Avenue home of his sisters.
Once in Chicago Blythe hooked up with transplanted Ohio ragtime/blues pianist Clarence M. Jones, who was classically trained, but already had some ragtime song successes to his name. Jones ran his own studio in Chicago's south side. As jazz started to enter the musical lexicon he quickly adapted to it and was able to teach some of the art of performance to Jimmy. While little else is known of his time in Chicago from 1919 to 1922, it is likely Jimmy was also exposed to a number of fine pianists and band musicians, and had played in a few public venues.
His break came in 1922 when Jimmy was hired by the Columbia Music Roll Company. He set to work recording popular songs and instrumentals of the day at a breakneck pace with increasing originality.jimmy blythe capital piano roll label Modeling some of his style on what he learned from Jones, Jimmy took the increasingly popular moving octave and boogie bass and applied them to some of the recordings, both for standard home use and multi-song commercial rolls. While not all of them are properly attributed, it has been estimated that Blythe recorded as many as three hundred rolls for Columbia, and then for Capital when the company was reorganized in 1924.
In spite of the limitations of paper rolls which had varying note resolutions, no dynamics, and often only edited sustain pedal punchings, Blythe's excellent performance skills still cut through and his rolls became quite popular. He was able to take simple popular songs and create an engaging performance from them in short order. Many of these were taken from the simple sheet music and expanded to include blues riffs, stride or boogie-woogie bass, and even pseudo-novelty figures. Musicians around Chicago and beyond worked to emulate his engaging style as his fame grew.
In April 1924 Blythe entered the recording studio and started to cut sides for Paramount Records (no affiliation with the film company of the same name). Some of his material, including songs written with his friend Alex J. Robinson, had already been covered by other artists on that label, so he had a head start. His first tracks, Armour Avenue Struggle and Chicago Stomp, had the rolling boogie-woogie blues bass pattern throughout. This ostensibly made him the first boogie-woogie pianist to be recorded on record, but verification or agreement of this fact is a matter of semantics on this point. It has also been suggested that his recording of Jimmie Blues from 1925 influenced Pine Top's Boogie Woogie recorded by Clarence "Pine Top" Smith in 1928, and some of the work of boogie-woogie player Albert Ammons.
Over the next few years, Blythe recorded with a variety of his own ensembles, some assembled just for recording. These included in approximate order Blythe's Sinful Five, Jimmy Blythe and his Ragamuffins, Blythe's Washboard Band, Blythe's Washboard Ragamuffins, Blythe's Owls, The State Street Ramblers, The Dixie Four and The Midnight Rounders. Many of these ensembles featured clarinetist Jimmy O'Bryant who Blythe apparently favored. Jimmy also played on sessions with Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards, and two fine piano duets each with Jim "Buddy" Burton and Charlie Clark, who was the son of his sister Bessie, working at that time as a barber. Their single piano recording of Bow to Your Papa, reproduced on piano roll as Regal Stomp, has become a blues and stride classic.
jimmy blythe gennet record label
Paramount was not the only company looking to use Blythe. With his groups or other artists he also cut sides for Vocalion Records, Okeh Records, and Gennett and their subsidiary Champion Records. In addition, he worked with musicians like reed player Johnny Dodds and accompanied a number of singers such as Sodarisa Miller and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, though not always properly credited. Collectively between his solo and ensemble records and his piano rolls, Jimmy accumulated a wealth of approximately five hundred recordings in just nine years, a feat that has rarely been paralleled, and for that time in society only approached by a couple of other African-American artists.
While many of the left hand lines of Blythe's compositions and recordings have a similar theme or style, he still did manage some distinction in many of his original works. Some were recorded by other artists, and he even co-wrote some on the spot with performers, including Priscilla Stewart and Trixie Smith. The family was also in on the act as his sister Mary contributed to Have Mercy. Another contributor he met around 1924, an amateur pianist named Janice (sometimes Jannie) from Louisiana, became his wife near the end of the year. Together they composed Midnight Strutters.
Jimmy's most frequent partner was singer Alex Robinson who was married to Aletha Dickerson of Paramount Records. Listings in the pioneering black newspaper The Chicago Defender, and occasionally in other Chicago papers, show Jimmy and Alex playing from time to time on Chicago radio station KYW in 1926 and 1927. Aletha's role should not be downplayed in the life of Jimmy or many black musicians. Starting as a secretary with Paramount she eventually helped to cultivate the talent and get their works published. In the case of Jimmy she got co-credit on at least two of his pieces. One of them, Fat Meat and Greens, was covered by no less than "Jelly Roll" Morton. Most of his compositions remained on record or piano roll. However, at least a couple were published by Chicago music school czar Axel Christensen, who also may have inadvertently taken credit for a couple more Blythe originals. His biggest hit, at least amongst performers, was Mecca Flat Blues, the title referencing a large and sometimes controversial apartment complex built in the 1890s. It also found its way into print in a Paramount produced folio arranged in part by Aletha Dickerson.
The Dreamland Café Around 1923
the dreamland cafe around 1923
In spite of his busy recording schedule, there are indications, some through scant notices and word of mouth, that he also performed live. Among the places mentioned were Mamie Ponce's tavern on the south side. Given the number of local venues in that area known as "the stroll," including the famous Dreamland Café on State Street and even the Lincoln Gardens, it is easy to imagine that he or his band was invited to play on one or more of the stages within that district. Yet he is also remembered for being in the background to some degree, drawing attention to his groups by not drawing any to himself. He was considered relatively quiet for an active musician, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that Blythe has been overlooked in some jazz histories, even though he is remembered among pianists. It has also been conjectured with some credible basis that Blythe used at least a couple of different pseudonyms for his work, including Duke Owens and George Jefferson.
As of the 1930 census Jimmy was living on South Michigan Avenue with Mary and her husband Mario, Bessie who had been recently widowed, and her son Charlie. He listed himself as a musician, while Mario was a janitor and Charlie was working for a barber. It appears that Janice, who very little is known about, was separated from Jimmy and living on East 44th Street. Both of them indicated that they were still married, however, so the circumstances are unclear. The couple never had children. Not quite a month after he turned 30, Blythe contracted meningitis and within a few days was gone.
Fortunately a great deal of his piano work was left behind to be discovered by future generations of boogie-woogie and stride pianists, and is still performed decades later in the 21st century. His role in fostering the growth of boogie or boogie-woogie piano has been challenged over time. It was a style that evolved from barrelhouses, largely in the Chicago area, but boogie-woogie was also heard in Kansas City and even Texas concurrently with early Chicago boogie blues. What Blythe did was to use his talent and musical charisma to get the style heard, showing it could be applied to popular music, not just blues. While Clarence "Pine Top" Smith is known as the guy to set the template and helped to provide the name for boogie-woogie blues with his early recordings, Blythe preceded him in utilzing the same left-hand style both on piano rolls and records, and would undoubtedly have been a major player in that genre in the 1930s had he lived.

Rube Bloom Portrait
Rubin "Rube" Bloom
(April 24, 1902 to March 30, 1976)
That Futuristic Rag
Indiana Moon [1]
Carolina Stomp (a.k.a. Flock O' Blues) [2]
I'm With the Right Girl Now [3]
Soliloquy: A Musical Thought
Spring Fever: A Novelty Fox Trot
100 Jazz Breaks for Piano
Sapphire: A Musical Gem
Silhouette" A Musical Outline
March of the Dolls
Fleur De Lis
Rube Bloom's Modern Jazz Piano Course
Jumping Jack [4,5]
Goin' Home [6,7]
Song of the Bayou: Piano Solo
Song of the Bayou: Song
(With You) Where You Are [8]
The Man From the South (With a Big Cigar
    in His Mouth) [9]
Puttin' It On For Baby [10]
Moods: A Modern Piano Suite
  Valse Petite
Aunt Jemima's Birthday
One Finger Joe
Southern Charms
Spring Holiday
Manhattan Skyscraper
When Spring Breaks Through [10]
Love Alone Lives On [10]
Along the Way That Leads to Yesterday
Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land [13]
A Stately Mansion
Southern Memories
Stay on the Right Side of the Road [10]
The Waltz is On [10]
Out in the Cold Again [10]
How's About Tomorrow Night? [10]
It Happens to the Best of Friends [14]
Savage in My Soul [14]
Cotton Club Parade of 1935: Revue [10]
  Rhythm River
  Good for Nothin' Joe
  Dinah Lou
  Waiting in the Garden
Rube Bloom's Guide to Modern Piano Playing
Lonely Mannequin [15]
Blackbirds of 1936: Revue [16]
  Dixie Isn't Dixie Any More
  Jo-Jo the Cannibal Kid
  Swing is the Thing
  Keep a Twinkle In Your Eye
  Your Heart and Mine
  I Knew
  Song of the Wind
  South Wind (same as above?)
  Why Can't It Be Me?
Tale of the Samovar
Public Wedding (Music Cues for film)
1937 (Cont)
Is This Gonna Be My Lucky Summer? [14]
Love is a Merry-Go-Round [16]
Song of the Bayou [17]
Feelin' High and Happy [10]
I Can't Face the Music (Without Singin' the
    Blues) [10]
I'm in a Happy Frame of Mind [14]
Cotton Club Parade of 1939 - World's Fair Edition: Revue
  What Goes Up Must Come Down (and
    Baby, You've Been Flyin' Too High) [10]
  If I Were Sure of You [10]
  Got No Time [10]
  Don't Worry 'Bout Me [10]
  Floogie Walk [10]
  The Ghost Of Smokey Joe [10]
  The Mayor of Harlem (Meet the Mayor) [10]
  Jitterbug Jamboree [10]
  I Did It for the Red, White and Blue [16]
  Day In - Day Out (a.k.a. Voodoo) [16]
Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)
Three Sons O' Guns (Part of Film Underscore)
Lady on a Late Evening
Take Me [18]
Wake Up and Dream: Film (rel. 1946) [19]
  Give Me the Simple Life
  I Wish I Could Tell You
  Into the Sun
Ranch House Saturday Night
Fifth Avenue Bus
Maybe You'll Be There [20]
Same Old Blues [21]
Lost in a Dream [22]
Here's to My Lady [16]
This is the Kiss [23]
I Don't Write, Nobody Answers [24]
If You Come Through [16]
Half-Zies [16]
Dreaming [10]
Ev'rybody's Twistin' [10]

1. w/Benny Davis
2. w/Bartley Costello
3. w/Jack Meskill
4. w/Bernie Seaman
5. w/Marvin Smolev
6. w/Eddie Lang
7. w/Joe Venuti
8. w/Mort Dixon
9. w/Harry Woods
10. w/Ted Koehler
11. w/Charles Tobias
12. w/Sidney Clare
13. w/Joe Young
14. w/Mitchell Parish
15. w/Sammy Lerner
16. w/Johnny Mercer
17. w/Howard Johnson
18. w/Mack David
19. w/Harry Ruby
20. w/Sammy Gallop
21. w/Bud Green
22. w/Edgar Leslie
23. w/Marty Symes
24. w/Bob Crosby
Selected Discography    
Flock O' Blues [1]
I'm Glad [1]
Down and Out Blues [2]
The Camel Walk [2]
Carolina Stomp [3]
Stomp Off - Let's Go [3]
Headin' for Louisville [4]
Carolina Stomp [4]
Pensacola [2]
Nobody's Rose [2]
Chinese Blues [2]
Bass Ale Blues [2]
Spring Fever
Lots O' Mama [2]
Back Beats [105]
Spring Fever
March of the Dolls
The Doll Dance
Spring Fever
Dancing Tambourine
My Blue Heaven
Mine, All Mine
(I'm Cryin' 'Cause I Know I'm) Losing You
That Futuristic Rag
Because My Baby Don't Mean Maybe Now!
I Can't Give You Anything but Love
Sonny Boy
There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder
The Man from the South [6]
St. James Infirmary [6]
Mysterious Mose [6]
Bessie Couldn't Help It [6]
On Revival Day [6]
There's a Wah-Wah Gal in Aqua Caliente [6]
Penthouse Romance
On the Green

1. w/Sioux City Six
2. w/The Hottentots
3. w/The Cotton Pickers
Matrix and Date
[Gennett G-09119] 10/10/1924
[Gennett G-09120] 10/10/1924
[Vocalion E-1678] 11/11/1925
[Vocalion E-1681] 11/11/1925
[Brunswick E-16985] 11/14/1925
[Brunswick E-16931] 11/14/1925
[Gennett G-09869] 12/02/1925
[Gennett G-09870] 12/02/1925
[Vocalion E-2077] 01/08/1926
[Vocalion E-2080] 01/08/1926
[Vocalion E-2206] 01/23/1926
[Vocalion E-2209] 01/23/1926
[Harmony 41895] 03/31/1926
[Harmony 41896] 03/31/1926
[Paramount P-2519] 05/01/1926
[Brunswick 3366-A] 09/??/1926
[Brunswick 3366-B] 09/??/1926
[Cameo 2425] 04/01/1927
[Cameo 2426] 04/01/1927
[Okeh 81021] 06/16/1927
[Okeh 81022] 06/16/1927
[Okeh 81169] 07/26/1927
[Okeh 81170] 07/26/1927
[Okeh 81416] 09/02/1927
[Okeh 81417] 09/02/1927
[Okeh 81768] 11/02/1927
[Okeh 81769] 11/02/1927
[Okeh 81940] 12/15/1927
[Okeh 400041] 01/23/1928
[Okeh 400042] 01/23/1928
[Okeh 400099] 02/21/1928
[Okeh 400848] 07/05/1928
[Okeh 401049] 08/01/1928
[Pathe (Perfect) 108507] 11/??/1928
[Pathe (Perfect) 108508] 11/??/1928
[Columbia W-149771] 01/16/1930
[Columbia W-149772] 01/16/1930
[Columbia W-150156] 04/09/1930
[Columbia W-150157] 04/09/1930
[Columbia W-150531] 05/24/1930
[Columbia W-150532] 05/24/1930
[Victor 86472] 12/18/1934
[Victor 86473] 12/18/1934

4. w/Pinkie's Birmingham Five
5. as Rube Bloom and his Orchestra
6. as Rube Bloom and his Bayou Boys
Selected Rollography    
Don't Wait Too Long
The Little White House (At the End of
    Honeymoon Lane)
Freshie (The New Collegiate)
Bam Bam Bamby Shore
I'm Gonna Charleston Back to Charleston
Pretty Little Baby
Lonesome (Gee I'm Aw'f'ly Lonesome)
Then I'll Be Happy
A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich and You
In My Gondola
Tentin' Down in Tennessee
I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and
    Ten Cent Store
What's the Use of Crying
All Alone Monday
Half a Moon (Is Better Than No Moon)
I've Got Somebody Now
I'll Always Remember You
Manhattan Mary
I Ain't Got Nobody
Jumping Jack
Label/Approx. Date
Aeolian 12/1925
Aeolian 12/1925
Aeolian 01/1926
Aeolian 01/1926
Aeolian 01/1926
Aeolian 01/1926
Aeolian 02/1926
Aeolian 02/1926
Aeolian 02/1926
Aeolian 03/1926
Aeolian 04/1926
Aeolian 05/1926
Aeolian 11/1926
Aeolian 11/1926
Aeolian 11/1926
Aeolian 12/1926
Aeolian 01/1927
Aeolian 07/1927
Aeolian 09/1927
Aeolian 11/1927
Aeolian 12/1927
Aeolian 10/1928
Rube Bloom was the third of five children born in New York City to Russian immigrants Abraham M. Bloom and Fannie J. Bloom. His siblings included Sidney Joseph (9/4/1898 - listed as Joseph in the 1900 census), Helen Ann (3/1900 - listed as Annie in the 1900 census), Harry (c.1905) and Milton (1906). Abraham came to the United States in 1888, followed by Fannie in 1895, and they were married in 1896. He was listed as a painter in a factory in the 1900 and 1910 Federal enumerations. that futuristic rag coverThere has been some confusion over Rube's true birth name. While sometimes cited as Rueben, it is more consistently spelled Rubin or Ruben in early public records, not an uncommon spelling among Russian Jews.
Details of Rube's years growing up are scant, including whether or not there was a piano in the family's home on Stockton Street. Whatever the circumstance, he quickly latched on to the piano, and it has been said that with virtually no formal training managed not only to learn to play, but to tackle the difficult concepts of harmony and theory on his own. A couple of later articles claimed that he had been, in fact, privately trained in composition and piano performance at some point, so the "no training" story is somewhat suspect, given his level of talent. It is unclear as to whether he eventually learned to transcribe his pieces or just used an arranger to do it for him. His obituary insisted that he composed directly on the piano and worked with arrangers to create both piano scores and orchestrations.
By the age of 17 Rube was out working the vaudeville houses of Manhattan, sometimes touring a bit beyond, as a rock solid staple of any company he was in, usually working as an accompanist during this period. The 1920 census shows Rube as a pianist in vaudeville. His father was now a shoemaker. Note that many historians insist his name was pronounced "Ruby" but at least one recording held by pianist Peter Mintun has it pronounced as "Rube" in his own voice. The music press helps confirm the former as they often used "Ruby" in print.
While he was making his way from the vaudeville stage to the band stage, Bloom started concocting his own compositions. The first one, Indiana Moon, was a simple song, but it was followed by That Futuristic Rag, which was a launching point for his career as a composer. It shows a penchant for moving whole note harmonies that somehow remain congruous with the key signature. While the term "rag" was quickly become stale in the early 1920s, the format was actually advancing, relabeled as novelty piano. Bloom did not move in the same dynamic direction as Zez Confrey or Frank Banta, but this work stood up to them rather well. He would not record it until six years after its initial publication. That Futuristic Rag is still played nearly a century later, quite notably by the brilliant Frederick Hodges.
Rube's reputation quickly grew, and as the jazz age began he found more work as a band pianist.
Rube (highlighted) with the Ray Miller Orchestra c.1923.
rube (highlighted) with the ray miller orchestra in 1923
Over the next decade he would play, and often record with many very reputable musicians and a number of fine jazz groups. Among those in his circle were other competent pianists, notably the brilliant Arthur Schutt, and musicians that would reach both fame and defeat, most notably composer and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. The groups he played for include The Captivators, Pinkie's Birmingham Five, Joe Venuti and his Orchestra, Hottentots, Joe Venuti's Four/Five/Six, Ray Miller's Orchestra, The Cotton Pickers, The Washingtonians, Arkansas Travelers, The Red Heads, Jay C. Flippen and his Gang, The Melody Sheiks, The Tennessee Tooters, Lee Morse and her Bluegrass Boys, and Ben Selvin and his Orchestra.
In addition, Rube was frequently tapped as an accompanist, a skill he refined during his vaudeville days. In the recording world breaking color barriers did not have the same impact as it did for live performances, so he got to work with some very fine black musicians, which further helped develop his playing and composition style in more of an African-American direction. Among the singers or instrumental soloists he backed, both jazz and classical, were Ruth Etting, Annette Hanshaw, Ethel Waters, Martha Copeland, guitarist Eddie Lang, Arthur Fields, Peggy English and The Kelly Sisters. The selected discography included here focuses on his feature and solo work, but his total easily tops sixty sides.
For his first studio session at Gennet Records in 1924, Rube backed Beiderbecke, trombonist Miff Mole, and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer for two tracks. One of them, Flock O' Blues, was his own composition, which later became known as the Carolina Stomp. It was said that Bix wanted to call the group the Davenport Six, honoring his home town in southeastern Iowa. However, Miff got the engineer to write down Sioux City Six because it was located at the extreme opposite end of the state. The band only recorded those two sides, but those takes still resonate with their obvious collective talent today. As for the Carolina Stomp version, upon its publication in 1925 it received some good press in The Music Trade Review of October 31:
Rube Bloom, who plays a wicked piano, has just placed with the Triangle Music Co. his latest effort entitled "Carolina Stomp." Joe Davis, who does all the angling for the Triangle, says that twenty-four hours after he took the tune he set the number for a Victor and Columbia recording. The Charleston Trio is making it next week for the Victor, and Fletcher Henderson and His Band is making it for the Columbia. A special dance orchestration by Elmer Schoebel will be ready within the next ten days. This number looks like a Triangle success.
soliloquy cover
From late 1925 to early 1926, Rube further made a name for himself recording with the Hottentots (one of many groups using that name). Along with Mole, the group featured trumpeter Red Nichols who was headed for his own fame in the jazz world. One of their finer takes was on the Chinese Blues, penned by yet another future piano jazz star, Thomas "Fats" Waller. He also made a brief entry into the world of piano rolls, cutting a number of popular pieces in his own style for the Aeolian company on their Aeolian and Mel-O-Dee lines from late 1925 through late 1927. But there were two other pieces he wrote and recorded in early 1926 that helped to define who Rube Bloom was to the music world.
Encouraged by the response to his playing and his earlier works and by Triangle Music publisher Joe Davis, Rube created two more fine progressive novelties in 1926. Spring Fever was an ambitious foray into that world, and was soon covered by a number of artists, including Bloom himself, and an early recording by Ray Turner who would help revive the genre in the 1950s. But it was Soliloquy: A Musical Thought that would stand as one of Rube's finest and most introspective piano solos, both in print and on record. It echoes some of the fine work he was doing as an accompanist for singer Ruth Etting, capturing elements of popular song (a paraphrase of My Mammy in one section) with the delicacy of parlor intermezzos. He would record the piece on a piano roll and at least three times on record over the next year along with Spring Fever.
They were initially published by Davis through Triangle Music, but even after that catalog was acquired by publisher Jack Mills, both remained good sellers in the Mills catalog for many years. Many publishers also encouraged many novelty piano stars to create method books to engage the public. Bloom's first, published by Alfred Music in 1926, was 100 Jazz Breaks for Piano, giving the consumer a glimpse into the methods used by many jazz pianists to creatively "fill in the gaps" in the middle of a repeated chorus. Soliloquy also was published in a popular orchestral version, and was performed frequently over the next few years. Rube was called on to present it, with the orchestration, at a Modern Jazz Concert on February 19, 1926 at Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. The program was hosted by Columbia Records artist and orchestra leader Leo Reisman, and featured composer Ferde Grofé, plus black trumpeter Johnny Dunn playing some blues numbers.
A follow-up to his two fine novelties was called for, and Bloom did not disappoint. In 1927 he crafted two more, Sapphire: A Musical Gem and Silhouette: A Musical Outline. sapphire coverThe hype presented by publisher Joe Davis in the trades that April, he said "that these two numbers have unusual possibilities, and are great follows-ups for the previous novelties by the same writer, called 'Spring Fever' and 'Soliloquy.'" All four would play an unusual but important role in copyright law in years to come.
With a busy recording and performance schedule throughout 1927, Bloom had little time for writing much more. His piano career was soaring, yet his personal life was a mystery. Rube was still living with his now-widowed mother and three brothers, although now they were now across the river from Manhattan in Brooklyn on Brooklyn Avenue in a larger home. Even though their sister had married, the brothers remained bachelors into the 1930s. Harry had become a lawyer, and Sidney was in the advertising business. Milton, on the other hand, followed his big brother into music as a trumpeter. No specific information was located to link them playing together in the same group or on a recording, but given the jazz world in New York City, there remains that possibility. Milton eventually moved to Los Angeles where he played and taught music for many years.
In 1928 there was a new group of Bloom compositions to delight fans and vex amateur pianists. His three solo novelties for the year included Fannette, Serenata and Fleur De Lis published by Triangle. In the middle of the year he jumped to two other publishers, one in part because his novelty work was co-composed with two other writers. First was his Modern Jazz Piano Course published by the Robbins firm, a formidable rival to Jack Mills in the piano novelty genre. Then there was a new tune that was noteworthy enough to garner an announcement in the Music Trade Review of August 4, 1928:
The Irving Berlin Standard Music Corp., New York, has recently released its first popular novelty tune, entitled "Jumping Jack," which is showing up well professionally and commercially. This number, written by Rube Bloom in collaboration with Bernie Seaman and Marvin Smolev, has been issued as a piano solo and also in dance orchestration form. "Jumping Jack" has been featured on several coast-to-coast radio hook-ups, and appears to be the type of novelty number which will be long lived. A new edition with lyrics will be off the press shortly and should open an additional field for the song.
It would go on to be included in the 1929 film The Show of Shows.
Rube went to England and Europe late in the summer for a brief performance tour, returning in September 1928. In an interview from that time he predicted that "a distinctive national school of music was being born in this country." Rube was certain that the United States would someday be the "musical center of the world. In the years to come there will arise a distinctive American music. Now it is in the embryonic stage. Music in the truly American idiom is 'blues,' which, of course, is Negroid in origin. Negro spirituals and 'blues' are practically all our worthwhile folk music... But I think of music that is American in the future without being Negroid, but individual, expressive and representative of this country as a unit."
Then another important event helped to increased Bloom's exposure as a composer, assuring him a bright future in that regard. The Victor Talking Machine Company held an open "$10,000 prize competition for the best concert composition within the playing scope of the American dance or jazz orchestra." Before the closing on October 29th, 1928, hundreds of entries were submitted. At the same time they were also offering a $25,000 prize for the best symphonic composition, a first in the music industry. The results were announced on December 28, 1928, and reported the next day in The Music Trade Review:
song of the bayou cover
ON Friday evening of this week the Victor Talking Machine Co. announced the winners of the prizes offered for short jazz compositions within the scope of the small American jazz or dance orchestra, the prizes being the largest ever offered for compositions of that character. The official announcement was made at a dinner given at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at which John Philip Sousa presided, and the prizes were presented by Edward E. Shumaker, president of the Victor Talking Machine Co., after S. L. Rothafel, chairman of the Judges' Committee, had described the contest and the manner in which it was conducted. Thomas Griselle of Mount Vernon, N. Y., was awarded the first prize of $10,000 for his "Two American Sketches," and Rube Bloom of Brooklyn, N. Y., was named as winner of the second prize of $5,000 for his composition, "Song of the Bayou." The playing time of each number is less than five minutes.
The contest, which was announced last May, was open only to American citizens, and was designed by the Victor Co. to encourage the art of musical composition in America. Prizes were offered for the two best compositions "within the playing scope of the American dance, jazz, or popular concert orchestra, not hitherto published or performed in public." Hundreds of manuscripts were received from every section of the country, many of them being of such excellence that the judges' committee required two months to reach their final decision...
Rube Bloom, winner of the second prize, is a native of New York. His study has been almost entirely with private teachers. During the past three years he has published several compositions, best known of which is "Soliloquy," a number that has been successfully played by several concert jazz orchestras. Other published works are "Sapphire," "Silhouette," "Serenata," and "'Fleur de Lis." Both prize compositions were broadcast over a large network of stations by a Victor orchestra under the direction of Nathaniel Shilkret...
A Victor record with both compositions performed by Shilkret was also offered to the public on December 29th. Both winners were able to choose the publisher they wanted to release the work, and Rube picked the firm of Leo Feist. In short order, Song of the Bayou, published as a piano solo and as a song with lyrics by Bloom, became a minor hit. As a result, Rube was kept busy with appearances in both the US and Europe during this period. There were apparently no recordings made of him as a soloist or accompanist in 1929, with the exception of a few minor band sides. In the 1930 enumeration he is shown living in Brooklyn with his mother and three brothers, listed as a musician/pianist. Within a year or two he would move out and live on his own at 1025 St. John's Place, still in Brooklyn.
In spite of the exposure for his earlier novelties, now being published by the combined Triangle/Jack Mills Company, Rube was still riding on the fame from his Song of the Bayou win. To that end, at the close of 1929 he formed a band that was destined for recording gigs only, Rube Bloom and His Bayou Boys. Starting in January they recorded a total of six released sides by May, a bayou boys columbia recordand some jazz historians regard these as some of the hottest records from the early part of the Great Depression. When you consider the lineup, that is no accident or understatement. Along with Rube on the piano, he engaged Manny Klein on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Benny Goodman on clarinet, Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone, Stan King on drums and vocalist Roy Evans at the microphone. They never performed live or on the radio.
Unfortunately, the unfolding fiscal crisis triggered by the Wall Street failure created a substantial dent in the recording industry, and the public was migrating to radio, which was a much less expensive and more current form of entertainment. Revenue from radio appearances evidently became necessary for Rube because an early 1929 Broadway gossip column noted that he had dropped his $5,000 winning into Wall Street, obviously not knowing what would transpire in October. Victor tried made the most of Bloom's radio appearances, but it was not enough to stave off the collective woes of the country's financial crisis which quickly put many record and piano roll companies out of business.
Fortunately Bloom had been working in radio since 1927, and was becoming increasingly familiar to listeners who could receive the New York stations, including WNAC and WABC. There were frequent advertisements in the papers throughout 1929 of his performances of Song of the Bayou and his other novelty works, so he was able to weather the storm relatively well. There was also a minor 1930 hit which really helped to launch his career as a songwriter. Rube had collaborated on a few tunes before, but The Man From the South (With a Big Cigar in His Mouth) penned with Harry Woods was the first that had life in the world of popular music. He also started a long collaboration with lyricist Ted Koehler with Puttin' It On For Baby that same year. They would improve on their skills and titles in short order.
While recordings all but shut down for groups like Rube's and radio even let up a little, Bloom was still highly regarded, and was commissioned at the suggestion of Shilkret to complete a special composition for the somewhat ill-timed 1931 opening of the ostentatious new Empire State Building. A passage concerning this was reprinted in Joun Tauranac's 1997 book The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark:
The contribution of the oil industry to the erection of the Empire State Building was 'strikingly dramatized' when a Mobiloil Concert hour was broadcast from the Empire State Building over NBC soon after the building opened, in June 1931. The drama hinged around the part played by Mobil in furnishing the oil that kept the machinery for building the great structure running smoothly. truckin' coverThe keynote of the program was the orchestra's rendition of Rube Bloom's "Manhattan Skyscraper," a composition said to have been inspired by the rising tower of the Empire State Building. Nathaniel Shilkret led the orchestra in playing Bloom's new piece, which was dedicated to Shilkret.
While there was a lack of recording activity from mid-1930 to late 1934, there was no lack of creative composition. In 1931 Rube released Moods: A Modern Piano Suite, which consisted of five different "moods." They were simply named - Metropolitan, Valse Petite, Gypsy, Blues and Primitive - with each one musically describing their respective title. There were a few other instrumentals that year, including Spring Holiday and Aunt Jemima's Birthday but Bloom also began working with a few fairly well known lyricists, putting some songs into circulation. There were no hits at that time, but his name did sell a few copies here and there.
Bloom either took a break over the next couple of years, or had trouble finding much more than occasional work on radio, and his output was light. He took a trip to Bermuda in the spring of 1933, but little other activity that was newsworthy. One song, Stay on the Right Side of the Road, was recorded by Bing Crosby, doing well on the radio. In 1934 Rube released a few songs, and at the end of the year recorded his final two known piano solos for Victor, Penthouse Romance and On the Green. Fortunately, some of the best was ahead for him, and he got a second wind in 1935.
The famous Cotton Club in Harlem, which had long provided black entertainment for white patrons, was undergoing some changes in management (which had reportedly been by crime bosses of the 1920s and 1930s including Owney Madden) and personnel, particularly with the departure of Cab Calloway who had achieved great fame there with Minnie the Moocher and his Hi-De-Ho style. A revue was commissioned in 1935 and lyricist/producer Ted Koehler chose Bloom to write the music. The two had worked together before, and this collaboration on The Cotton Club Parade for 1935 turned out some fine numbers, including Dinah Lou and the instantly catchy Truckin'. Some reviews of the show intimated that it sounded like it was written by a black composer, a compliment to Rube, but this was also in part due to the delivery by the black cast. Truckin' retained its status a popular dance tune for many decades.
The following year, Rube teamed up with a young Johnny Mercer, the singer and eventual founder of Capitol Records, for Lew Leslie's annual "all colored musical revue," this one the Blackbirds of 1936. The show did not yield any notable hits, but it was fairly well received when it opened in May 1936. fools rush in coverThe production was staged in London, so Rube played for a while in England in the late spring and early summer of 1936, returning to the United States in late July for a short run at the Gaiety Theater in Manhattan. It was not the end of his collaboration with Mercer, however. This work may have led to Rube writing music underscore and cues for a 1937 film, The Public Wedding. Song of the Bayou was released around the same time with a new set of lyrics added by writer Howard Johnson, and a revised version of Blackbirds was presented in late 1938. Rube's big hit of that year, penned with Koehler, was I Can't Face The Music (Without Singin' the Blues), covered by several artists.
In 1939 Bloom and Koehler were again engaged to provide tunes for a special Worlds Fair Edition of the Cotton Club Parade. Opening in February, it received a good amount of press, and yielded a couple more hits, including The Ghost of Smokey Joe and Don't Worry 'Bout Me, that latter one which would have a long shelf life. Day In - Day Out also had decent coverage beyond the show. Some of this publicity reignited interest in Bloom's earlier solo works, so they were kept in circulation by Mills into the 1940s. As of the 1940 enumeration, bachelor Rube was living with his mother Fannie and brother Milton in Brooklyn, listed as a song writer for a music publisher.
From 1940 forward Bloom's work was sparse at best. While not completely retiring at age 38, he did ease up on his activities a bit, playing as an accompanist or in dance bands. He managed one fine number with Mercer in 1940, Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread), which was covered by a wide spectrum of artists for many years, including crooners Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra, both already associated with several Bloom numbers. Another, Take Me, with Mack David, became a 1940s hit for the Benny Goodman and Dorsey Brothers' orchestras. Three more songs, this time with Harry Ruby, made it into the 1946 post-war film Wake Up and Dream. Of those, one in particular became a standard for both singers and jazz musicians, Give Me the Simple Life. While there were no more big hits to come from his hand, Bloom put out a handful of works with other lyricists over the next 15 years, culminating with Everybody's Twistin' composed with Koehler during the twist craze of 1962.
The United States Government teamed up with ASCAP in 1955 to sponsor an overseas tour to entertain the troops stationed around the world, particularly in Germany, France and North Africa. Rube played in several locations during this trip, which was both for morale and publicity. However, his style of music, which enjoyed yet another view during the first ragtime revival of the early 1950s, was quickly being overtaken by the upsurge of more youthful forms, most notably rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
The ASCAP Overseas Troupe of 1955.
Front row: Lou Handman, Florrie LeVere, Gerald Marks, Abel Baer, Mack Gordon, Rube Bloom, Bee Walker and John Redmond. Sitting on piano: Fran Russell, Gogi Grant and Marion Spellman.
the ascap troupe of 1955
In spite of a few more pieces, he mostly retired after 1956, and turned out a couple of books on piano method.
Rube was, however, involved in a lawsuit that had an impact on copyright law, particularly on the topic of whether renewal was the right of the incumbent owner or should be open game. His suit was led by well-known music lawyer Lee Eastman, the father of Linda Eastman who would eventually marry Paul McCartney, who also hired Eastman to secure rights to his own work. As noted in the May 19, 1956 of Billboard:
Bloom Sues Mills on Copyright Renewals [Lee Eastman] last week filed suit here [New York City] in behalf of client songwriter Rube Bloom against Mills Music for a declaratory judgment on copyright renewal rights for four of his tunes... "What happened in the first 28 years [of copyright] doesn't matter" said Eastman... In the Bloom case, Eastman... is taking the position that Congress intended the copyright renewal "should be a subject of independent action," as opposed to the current pattern wherein Eastman contends) a writer signs away his renewal rights on "printed pro forma forms which were not the subject of negotiation or discussion with respect to renewal copyright of any kind whatsoever."
Eastman had presented a similar case for Hoagy Carmichael and his composition Stardust, which was ultimately settled out of court. However, The bloom suit concerned renewals on his four most famous instrumental tunes, Spring Fever, Soliloquy, Sapphire and Silhouette. They eventually found in favor of Bloom, and made case law. This allowed for a review of interested parties with legitimate claims to be considered by the copyright office in the Library of Congress for owning the renewal of a copyright either by transfer or by right of having created the work in the first place, rather than the assumed right of renewal by the party currently owning the copyright. This topic would revisited over 40 years later in the so-called Disney/Bono legislation of 1998, which further extended the rights in favor of the original composer instead of their publisher, many cases still in contention concerning the clarity of both the Bloom case (and that of Euday Bowman's 12th Street Rag) and the recent changes in the law.
There was a new surge of interest in Rube's musical style in the late 1960s, and in his late 60s he came back out to perform with Joe Venuti for some reunion concerts in New York. His tunes were further revived in the late 1960s and early 1970s by pianist Dick Wellstood, who recorded some post ragtime novelties in 1973. The only other activity that he was occasionally noted for was trips to the track, as he had taken quite a liking to horse racing, as an observer and bettor. Bloom otherwise largely shied away from the public eye during his last few years.
Rube died at the end of March 1976, just as the second ragtime revival was starting to expand beyond the school of Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb, and many of the fine early novelty works were finding new popularity among pianists and collectors. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "A maid found him dead on the floor of his room Tuesday [March 30] in the Hotel Consulate in mid-Manhattan. A friend said he had recently complained of an ulcer but it was not known if he had undergone any treatment." He was interred at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York. Three weeks later on April 20, syndicated columnist of the Voice of Broadway, Jack O'Brian had perhaps the last fitting word on Rube's sometimes misunderstood but always important role in American music:
[A New York] paper gave great Tin Pan Alley Rube Bloom a totally unconscious compliment in its obituary: Rube Wrote Cotton Club shows, for a London "Blackbirds of 1936" and deep-south chamber pieces like his "Song of the Bayou." A rewrite-man-in-a-hurry labeled him "the self-taught black composer." Rube was a Yankee Doodle Jewish boy, one of our old friends, a great talent totally revolted by the rock-nonsense. Rube admired black music and soul so much he mastered the Negro mood perfectly. He and Johnny Mercer recently wrote several fine songs - they couldn't even get them recorded!
More than three decades later many of his best pieces are still being performed and recorded, making Mr. Bloom timeless. Not bad for a "self-taught" "Yankee Doodle Jewish boy."

Jimmy Blythe Portrait not available
James Louis (Jimmy) Blythe
(May 20, 1901 to June 21, 1931)
I'll Go to My Grave with the Blues [1]
Armour Avenue Struggle
Chicago Stomp
No Name Blues
Confessin' Blues
Mama Don't Want Her Sweet Man Anymore [1]
Matilda Brown [2]
True Blues [3]
Delta Bottom Blues [3]
Pomeranian Blues [attr]
I'm Crazy Over You [w/Eugene Hunter]
Fat Meat and Greens [4]
Jimmie Blues [4]
Georgia Breakdown
Cold Black Ground Blues
Back Alley Rub
Stepping on the Gas
Chicago Skiffle
Switch It Miss Mitchell [2]
Thirty Eight and Two [2]
Midnight Strutters [w/Janice Blythe]
The World's Jazz Crazy and So Am I [5]
Down to the Bricks [8]
Anna Mina Forty and St. Louis Shorty
Pump Tillie
Ape Man
Your Folks
47th Street Stomp
Idle Hour Special
I Won't Give You None
Little Bits Adam's Apple
Mecca Flat Blues [1]
Lovin's Been Here and Gone to Mecca Flat [1,2]
It Must Be Hard [5]
Messin' Around [6]
Bohunkus Blues [7]
East Coast Trot [7]
Chicago Buzz [7]
Hot Stuff
Weary Way Blues
Grandma's Ball
There'll Come a Day
Sock That Thing
Brown Skin Mama Blues
My Baby [8] [w/Roberts]
Oriental Man [9]
Have Mercy [w/Mary Slaughter]
Dixie Thumpers [w/Minor]
Alley Rat
Sweet Papa
Tack It Down
Bull Fiddle Rag
Shake Your Shimmy
Block and Tackle Blues [10]
Dustin' the Keys [10]
The Folks Down Stairs [9]
Gin Mill Blues [9]
Ain't Gonna Beg You For That Stuff [9]
That's My Business [9]
Regal Stomp a.k.a. Bow to Your Papa
Kentucky Blues
Wild Man Stomp

1. w/Alex J. Robinson
2. w/Clarence Williams
3. w/Priscilla Stewart
4. w/Aletha Mae Dickerson-Robinson
5. w/William H. Huff
6. w/Trixie Smith
7. w/Lathair "Vol" Stevens
8. w/Clarence Johnson
9. w/Ikey Robinson
10. w/Jim Evans "Buddy" Burton
Selected Discography    
Chicago Stomp
Armour Avenue Struggle
Fat Meat and Greens
Jimmie Blues
Anna Mina Forty and St. Louis Shorty [1]
Quit Knockin' At My Door [1]
Pump Tillie [2]
Lovin's Been Here and Gone to Mecca Flat
Mr. Freddie Blues
Bohunkus Blues [2]
Buddy Burton's Jazz [2]
Messin' Around [4]
Adam's Apple [4]
Ape Man
Your Folks
Don't Fish in My Sea [5]
There'll Come a Day [6]
Weary Way Blues [6]
Cootie Stomp [6]
Weary Way Blues [7]
Pouting Papa [7]
Hot Stuff [7]
Have Mercy [7]
It's Hot - Let it Alone
Bearcat Blues
My Baby [8]
Oriental Man [8]
Alley Rat
Sweet Papa
Dustin' the Keys [9]
Block and Tackle Blues [9]
My Baby [6]
Oriental Man [6]
Pleasure Mad [6]
Some Do and Some Don't [6]
Tack it Down [6]
Endurance Stomp [6]
Brown Skin Mama [6]
Tell Me Cutie [6]
Someday You'll Know [6]
How Would You Like to Be Me? [6]
Shake Your Shimmy [10]
Bull Fiddle Rag [10]
Bow To Your Papa [11]
Don't Break Down [11]

   1. w/Blythe's Sinful Five
   2. w/Jimmy Blythe's Night Owls
   3. w/Blythe's Washboard Band
   4. w/Jimmy Blythe's Ragamuffins
   5. accomp. Ma Rainey
   6. w/Blythe's Blue Boys
   7. w/Jimmy Blythe's Owls
   8. w/Jimmy Blythe's Washboard Wizards
   9. w/Jim Evans "Buddy" Burton
   10. w/The Midnight Rounders
   11. w/Charlie Clark
Matrix and Date
[Paramount P1750] 04/??/1924
[Paramount P1751] 04/??/1924
[Paramount P2201] 06/??/1925
[Paramount P2202] 06/??/1925
[Paramount P2415] 01/??/1926
[Paramount P2418] 01/??/1926
[Paramount P2420] 01/??/1926
[Paramount P2539] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2540] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2541] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2542] 05/??/1926
[Paramount P2602] 08/??/1926
[Paramount P2603] 08/??/1926
[Paramount P2749] 10/??/1926
[Paramount P2750] 10/??/1926
[Paramount P4021] 12/??/1926
[Champion G12989] 08/12/1927
[Champion G12990] 08/12/1927
[Champion G12991] 08/12/1927
[Vocalion C1187] 10/05/1927
[Vocalion C1188] 10/05/1927
[Vocalion C1190] 10/05/1927
[Vocalion C1193] 10/05/1927
[Gennett G13299] 12/08/1927
[Gennett G13300] 12/08/1927
[Vocalion C1828] 03/30/1928
[Vocalion C1829] 03/30/1928
[Vocalion C1830] 03/30/1928
[Vocalion C1831] 03/30/1928
[Gennett G13682] 04/01/1928
[Gennett G13683] 04/01/1928
[Champion G13686] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13687] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13688] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13690] 04/23/1928
[Champion G13691] 04/23/1928
[Champion G14065] 07/18/1928
[Champion G14067] 07/18/1928
[Champion G14074] 07/19/1928
[Champion G14075] 07/19/1928
[Champion G14080] 07/19/1928
[Vocalion C2421] 10/09/1928
[Vocalion C2422] 10/09/1928
[Champion G17636] 03/20/1931
[Champion G17637] 03/20/1931
Jimmy Blythe represents another case of a working musician/composer who had some moderate success, yet very little is known about him outside of ragtime and boogie piano circles. He was born to former slaves turned sharecroppers Richard D. Blythe and Rena (Stovall) Blythe in South Keene, Kentucky, just southwest of Lexington. James was the youngest of five surviving siblings out of a total of eleven born to the couple. Others included Dovie (4/1880) who died in childhood, Bessie (7/1882), Effie (2/1886), Mary M. (11/1889), and Aubrey (7/1897). At least one sibling born after James had died by 1910.
The Blythe family was living together when the 1900 census was taken before Jimmy's birth. However, by 1910 their situation had changed. They had moved to Lexington, and may have fallen on hard times in the process.jimmy blythe columbia piano roll label Rena was working as a servant in the home of Florent Wilson. Effie and Mary were working as cooks and boarding with widow Emma Ross as well as a cousin, Lana Stovall. Richard and Jimmy were difficult to locate in that record or the 1910 Miracord, but it is known they were still living in Lexington with James working as a janitor or day laborer. The extent of Jimmy's early involvement with the piano is not well known, nor if he received any type of training in Lexington. Given the situation it seems that he may have learned simply by observing other ragtime performers and imitating their style. Not being found in the census also suggests living conditions that probably precluded regular schooling.
In the mid-1910s Effie married C.V. Merritt of Illinois and subsequently moved to south side of Chicago. Mary and her new husband Mario Slaughter were not far behind and moved in with the couple, as did Bessie. She also shows as having been married to a Mr. Clark, but her husband was not living with the rest of the group in 1920. Jimmy came to Chicago in the late 1910s (reports vary, but 1917 to 1918 seems most likely). In the January 1920 census Jimmy is difficult to locate. He had been living with Effie, but was not present for the census or had moved out of the Wabash Avenue home of his sisters.
Once in Chicago Blythe hooked up with transplanted Ohio ragtime/blues pianist Clarence M. Jones, who was classically trained, but already had some ragtime song successes to his name. Jones ran his own studio in Chicago's south side. As jazz started to enter the musical lexicon he quickly adapted to it and was able to teach some of the art of performance to Jimmy. While little else is known of his time in Chicago from 1919 to 1922, it is likely Jimmy was also exposed to a number of fine pianists and band musicians, and had played in a few public venues.
His break came in 1922 when Jimmy was hired by the Columbia Music Roll Company. He set to work recording popular songs and instrumentals of the day at a breakneck pace with increasing originality.jimmy blythe capital piano roll label Modeling some of his style on what he learned from Jones, Jimmy took the increasingly popular moving octave and boogie bass and applied them to some of the recordings, both for standard home use and multi-song commercial rolls. While not all of them are properly attributed, it has been estimated that Blythe recorded as many as three hundred rolls for Columbia, and then for Capital when the company was reorganized in 1924.
In spite of the limitations of paper rolls which had varying note resolutions, no dynamics, and often only edited sustain pedal punchings, Blythe's excellent performance skills still cut through and his rolls became quite popular. He was able to take simple popular songs and create an engaging performance from them in short order. Many of these were taken from the simple sheet music and expanded to include blues riffs, stride or boogie-woogie bass, and even pseudo-novelty figures. Musicians around Chicago and beyond worked to emulate his engaging style as his fame grew.
In April 1924 Blythe entered the recording studio and started to cut sides for Paramount Records (no affiliation with the film company of the same name). Some of his material, including songs written with his friend Alex J. Robinson, had already been covered by other artists on that label, so he had a head start. His first tracks, Armour Avenue Struggle and Chicago Stomp, had the rolling boogie-woogie blues bass pattern throughout. This ostensibly made him the first boogie-woogie pianist to be recorded on record, but verification or agreement of this fact is a matter of semantics on this point. It has also been suggested that his recording of Jimmie Blues from 1925 influenced Pine Top's Boogie Woogie recorded by Clarence "Pine Top" Smith in 1928, and some of the work of boogie-woogie player Albert Ammons.
Over the next few years, Blythe recorded with a variety of his own ensembles, some assembled just for recording. These included in approximate order Blythe's Sinful Five, Jimmy Blythe and his Ragamuffins, Blythe's Washboard Band, Blythe's Washboard Ragamuffins, Blythe's Owls, The State Street Ramblers, The Dixie Four and The Midnight Rounders. Many of these ensembles featured clarinetist Jimmy O'Bryant who Blythe apparently favored. Jimmy also played on sessions with Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards, and two fine piano duets each with Jim "Buddy" Burton and Charlie Clark, who was the son of his sister Bessie, working at that time as a barber. Their single piano recording of Bow to Your Papa, reproduced on piano roll as Regal Stomp, has become a blues and stride classic.
jimmy blythe gennet record label
Paramount was not the only company looking to use Blythe. With his groups or other artists he also cut sides for Vocalion Records, Okeh Records, and Gennett and their subsidiary Champion Records. In addition, he worked with musicians like reed player Johnny Dodds and accompanied a number of singers such as Sodarisa Miller and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, though not always properly credited. Collectively between his solo and ensemble records and his piano rolls, Jimmy accumulated a wealth of approximately five hundred recordings in just nine years, a feat that has rarely been paralleled, and for that time in society only approached by a couple of other African-American artists.
While many of the left hand lines of Blythe's compositions and recordings have a similar theme or style, he still did manage some distinction in many of his original works. Some were recorded by other artists, and he even co-wrote some on the spot with performers, including Priscilla Stewart and Trixie Smith. The family was also in on the act as his sister Mary contributed to Have Mercy. Another contributor he met around 1924, an amateur pianist named Janice (sometimes Jannie) from Louisiana, became his wife near the end of the year. Together they composed Midnight Strutters.
Jimmy's most frequent partner was singer Alex Robinson who was married to Aletha Dickerson of Paramount Records. Listings in the pioneering black newspaper The Chicago Defender, and occasionally in other Chicago papers, show Jimmy and Alex playing from time to time on Chicago radio station KYW in 1926 and 1927. Aletha's role should not be downplayed in the life of Jimmy or many black musicians. Starting as a secretary with Paramount she eventually helped to cultivate the talent and get their works published. In the case of Jimmy she got co-credit on at least two of his pieces. One of them, Fat Meat and Greens, was covered by no less than "Jelly Roll" Morton. Most of his compositions remained on record or piano roll. However, at least a couple were published by Chicago music school czar Axel Christensen, who also may have inadvertently taken credit for a couple more Blythe originals. His biggest hit, at least amongst performers, was Mecca Flat Blues, the title referencing a large and sometimes controversial apartment complex built in the 1890s. It also found its way into print in a Paramount produced folio arranged in part by Aletha Dickerson.
The Dreamland Café Around 1923
the dreamland cafe around 1923
In spite of his busy recording schedule, there are indications, some through scant notices and word of mouth, that he also performed live. Among the places mentioned were Mamie Ponce's tavern on the south side. Given the number of local venues in that area known as "the stroll," including the famous Dreamland Café on State Street and even the Lincoln Gardens, it is easy to imagine that he or his band was invited to play on one or more of the stages within that district. Yet he is also remembered for being in the background to some degree, drawing attention to his groups by not drawing any to himself. He was considered relatively quiet for an active musician, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that Blythe has been overlooked in some jazz histories, even though he is remembered among pianists. It has also been conjectured with some credible basis that Blythe used at least a couple of different pseudonyms for his work, including Duke Owens and George Jefferson.
As of the 1930 census Jimmy was living on South Michigan Avenue with Mary and her husband Mario, Bessie who had been recently widowed, and her son Charlie. He listed himself as a musician, while Mario was a janitor and Charlie was working for a barber. It appears that Janice, who very little is known about, was separated from Jimmy and living on East 44th Street. Both of them indicated that they were still married, however, so the circumstances are unclear. The couple never had children. Not quite a month after he turned 30, Blythe contracted meningitis and within a few days was gone.
Fortunately a great deal of his piano work was left behind to be discovered by future generations of boogie-woogie and stride pianists, and is still performed decades later in the 21st century. His role in fostering the growth of boogie or boogie-woogie piano has been challenged over time. It was a style that evolved from barrelhouses, largely in the Chicago area, but boogie-woogie was also heard in Kansas City and even Texas concurrently with early Chicago boogie blues. What Blythe did was to use his talent and musical charisma to get the style heard, showing it could be applied to popular music, not just blues. While Clarence "Pine Top" Smith is known as the guy to set the template and helped to provide the name for boogie-woogie blues with his early recordings, Blythe preceded him in utilzing the same left-hand style both on piano rolls and records, and would undoubtedly have been a major player in that genre in the 1930s had he lived.

Lou Busch as Joe Fingers Carr Portrait Older Lou Busch Portrait
Louis Ferdinand Busch
(July 18, 1910 - September 19, 1979)
Selected Compositions    
My Opening Number
Disc Jockey Blues [w/Peter Lind Hayes]
Roller Coaster [1]
Galloping Carousel [1]
Ivory Rag [w/Jack Elliot]
Two Dollar Rag
Million Dollar Rag
That Everlovin' Rag [w/Bernard Adler]
Fourth Man Rag [as Hamilton/Leland]
Carr's Hop
Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! [2]
Tom's Tune [2]
Round and Round [2]
Bar Room Boogie
Waltz in Ragtime
Boogie Woogie Rag
Lou's Blues
Finicky Fingers
Raggedy-Ann Rag
Rattlesnake Rag [Ethwell Hansen
     arr. Busch] (1917/1952)
Rapscallion Rag
Tin Pan Rag
Minute Waltz Boogie [w/Frederic Chopin]
Picadilly Rag
Doo-Wacky Rag
Zag-A-Zig [2]
Spanish Main [2]
It's Lots of Fun to Share [2]
The One Called Reilly [w/F.M. Drefnats]
Hook and Ladder Rag
My Birthday Comes On Christmas [2]
Barky-Roll Stomp [w/Jacques Offenbach]
1955 (Cont
The Skater's Nightmare [w/Emil Waldteufe]
Sabre Dance Boogie [w/Aram Khachaturian]
Tango Afrique
Jato (Jet Assisted Take Off)
Midnight Melody
Hot Potatoes
Fingers Medley
Looney Louie
Young Enough to Dream
Baked Alaska
Down Under
Ironfingers Rag [w/Alvino Rey]
Cap D'Antibes
Piano Picker Rag
The Young Bulls of Pamplona
Nocturne for Honky Tonk Piano
Oh! Play That Anti-Establishment Rag
Moon Child
Unpublished/Uncertain c.1950s
Blues for Baby
On a Sunday Afternoon
Am I Wrong? [2]
It's A Lot of Fun to Share [2]
Lemme Go [2]
You Get What You Pay For [2]
The Party Song [2]
Men Who Know Tobacco Best [2]
Tango Mañana [w/Milton Samuels]

1. w/Milton DeLuggi
2. w/Leon Pober
Selected Discography    
Capitol 7" 45s EPs (Some released on 10" 78s)
Ragtime Cowboy Joe/The Last Mile Home (w/Jo Stafford)
Bonaparte's Retreat/Someday Sweetheart (w/Kay Starr)
Ivory Rag/Sam's Song
Rootie Tootie/Snooky Ookums
Let's Do It Again/(Friendly Star)
Cincinatti Dancing Pig/The Red We Want is the Red
    We Got
Rocky's Rag/Lovebug Itch
Tailor Made Woman/Stack-O-Lee (w/Tennessee Ernie Ford)
Chicken Song/If You Want Some Loving (w/Dottie O'Brien)
Bye Bye Blues/Tom's Tune
Ballin' the Jack/It Must Be True
I Love A Piano/Ventura Blvd. Boogie (w/The Ewing Sisters)
Ivory Rag/Down Yonder
Cecelia/Snuggle Bug (w/Candy Candido)
Ragtime Melody/Snow Deer Rag
Music Makin' Mama From Memphis/When You're Smiling
Noodlin' Rag/Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!
That Ever-Lovin' Rag/Goodtime Charlie
Stumbling/Boogie Woogie Rag
Rattlesnake Rag/Headin' for Home
Aloha Oe/Doo-Wacky Rag
Mexican Joe/Here Comes My Daddy, Now!
Doodle Doo Doo/San Antonio Rose [2]
Collegiate/The One Called Reilly [2]
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)/Maple Leaf Rag [2]
Until Sunrise/Humoresque
Too Bad/Fiddle-A-Delphia
Riviera Rag/Piccadilly Rag
Put Another Roll on the Player Piano/Mister and Missus
    Cocynut [2]
My Birthday Comes on Christmas/Jingle O! the Brownie
    (w/Dallas Frazier)
Ragtime Cowboy Joe/Let Me Be Your Honey, Honey
Deep in the Heart of Texas/The Barky-Roll Stomp
Give Me a Band and My Baby/Zig-a-Zag [2]
Zambezi/Rainbow's End [1]
Memories of You/Henderson Stomp
11th Hour Medley/The Charming Mademoiselle From
    Paris France [1]
Portuguese Washerwomen/Lucky Pierre
Tango Afrique/Jato [1]
Portofino/Friendly Persuasion [1]
I'm a Little Echo/La La Collette
How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm/Swingin'
    Down the Lane [1]
The Wild Ones/Midnight Melody [1]
Loco-motion/Brazilian Hobo
Cayo Coco/Hot Cappucchino [1]
Band of Angels/How About That? [1]
    (w/The Four Preps)
Sea Breeze/Sophia
Kitty/Always Fall in Love [3]
Street Scene '58/Cool [1]
Fingers Medley/Dominque
March to the Blues/Lazy Train
Ladies Please Remove Your Hats/Young Enough to Dream [1]
12th Street Ha Cha Cha/Fan Tan Fanny
Capitol 7" EPs (Some released on 10" 78s)
Ivory Rag/Down Yonder/Sam's Song/Snow Deer Rag
Rattlesnake Rag/Stumbling/Boogie Woogie Rag/When
    You're Smiling
My Birthday Comes on Christmas/Jingle O! The Brownie/
    Up on the Housetop/Jingle Bells (w/Dallas Frazier)
Capitol 10" (H)/12" (T) LPs
Honky Tonk Piano
Bar Room Piano
Rough House Piano
Joe "Fingers" Carr & his Ragtime Band [2]
Fireman's Ball [2]
Joe "Fingers" Carr Plays the Classics
Parlor Piano
Capitol Mono (T)/Stereo (ST) 12" LPs
Mister Ragtime
Pee Wee and "Fingers" [3]
Honky-Tonk Street Parade
Joe "Fingers" Carr and Pee Wee Hunt - Class of '25 [3]
Joe "Fingers" Carr Goes Continental
Lazy Rhapsody [1]
"Fingers" and the Flapper
Joe "Fingers" Carr and his Swingin' String Band
The Hits of Joe "Fingers" Carr
The Black & White Rag
Later 12" LPs
The World's Greatest Ragtime Piano Player
    Also released as Mr. Ragtime Globetrotter
Joe "Fingers" Carr With Ira Ironstrings - Together for the
    Last Time
Giant Hits of the Small Combos
The Riotous Raucous Red-Hot 20's
    Also as Joe "Fingers" Carr
Brassy Piano
Oh You Kid (with Dorothy Provine)
Mr. Ragtime Meets Mr. Honky Tonk (w/"Big Tiny" Little)
"Zambezi" and "The Young Bulls of Pamplona"
Hits of the '60s
Joe "Fingers" Carr and The Bluegrass Jug Band
The Happy Sound Piano & Orchestra
    Also on Sears [SPS-438]
    Both compiled from Capitol Ragtime Band albums/singles

  1. as Lou Busch
  2. w/His Ragtime Band
  3. w/Pee Wee Hunt
Matrix and Date
[Capitol F-710] 1949
[Capitol F-936] 1949
[Capitol F-962] 1949
[Capitol F-438/1074] 1950
[Capitol F-1132] 1950
[Capitol F-1182] 1950
[Capitol F-1311] 1950
[Capitol F-1349] 1950
[Capitol F-1409] 1950
[Capitol F-1484] 1951
[Capitol F-1558] 1951
[Capitol F-1733] 1951
[Capitol F-1777] 1951
[Capitol F-1847] 1951
[Capitol F-1876] 1951
[Capitol F-1974] 1952
[Capitol F-2009] 1952
[Capitol F-2081] 1952
[Capitol F-2087] 1952
[Capitol F-2257] 1952
[Capitol F-2359] 1953
[Capitol F-2463] 1953
[Capitol F-2557] 1953
[Capitol F-2581] 1953
[Capitol F-2665] 1953
[Capitol F-2730] 1953
[Capitol F-2812] 1954
[Capitol F-2834] 1954
[Capitol F-2883] 1954
[Capitol F-2956] 1954
[Capitol F-3152] 1954
[Capitol F-3201] 1955
[Capitol F-3231] 1955
[Capitol F-3272] 1955
[Capitol F-3304] 1955
[Capitol F-3349] 1955
[Capitol F-3418] 1955
[Capitol F-3432] 1956
[Capitol F-3520] 1956
[Capitol F-3541] 1956
[Capitol F-3642] 1956
[Capitol F-3667] 1956
[Capitol F-3681] 1956
[Capitol F-3735] 1957
[Capitol F-3775] 1957
[Capitol F-3791] 1957
[Capitol F-3831] 1957
[Capitol F-3837] 1957
[Capitol F-3883] 1957
[Capitol F-3996] 1958
[Capitol F-4019] 1958
[Capitol F-4163] 1958
[Capitol EAP-1-417] 1951
[Capitol EAP-1-497] 1952
[Capitol EAP-1-789] 1954
[Capitol H/T-188] 1950
[Capitol H/T-288] 1951
[Capitol H/T-345] 1952
[Capitol H/T-443] 1953
[Capitol H/T-527] 1954
[Capitol H/T-649] 1955
[Capitol H/T-698] 1955
[Capitol T-760] 1956
[Capitol T-783] 1956
[Capitol T-809] 1956
[Capitol T-935] 1957
[Capitol T-1000] 1957
[Capitol ST-1042] 1957
[Capitol ST-1151] 1958
[Capitol ST-1217] 1958
[Capitol ST-2019] 1963
[Capitol ST-11303] 1974
[Warner WBS-1386] 1960
[DICO 1302]
[Warner WBS-1389] 1960
[Warner WBS-1406] 1960
[Warner WBS-1423] 1961
[Point Records 271]
[Warner WBS-1456] 1962
[Warner WBS-1466] 1962
[Coral CRL 757444] 1965
[Dot DLP-25705] 1966
[Dot DLP-25715] 1966
[Dot DLP-25767] 1966
[Pickwick SPC-3060] 197?
Lou Busch was born to William H. Bush and Anna Irene Ernwein (sometimes seen as Irene A.) in Louisville, Kentucky in the midst of the ragtime era and the jazz age. He had an older brother, Richard H. Bush (4/3/1909). When Louis was born his parents were living with Irene's family, the Ernweins. Anna's father Peter was born in France in 1849, but migrated to Kentucky when he was only four years old. In the 1920 Census the Bush family is shown living in Louisville at 731 32nd Street with William listed as a laundry salesman.
Even though the family name was Bush, Lou added the c for Busch at some point in the 1920s, largely for the uniqueness it provided. The change was likely for stage purposes and not completed legally. One of his California death records indicates Busch while another one plus his Social Security and Army enlistment records indicate Bush. Truly blessed with an inherent music talent, he was already leading a ragtime and jazz band by the time he was 12 years old. At 13 Lou led a combo called Lou Bush and His Tickle Toe Four. At 16 he left school and home for a career as a professional musician, playing with the likes of "Hot Lips" Henry Busse, Clyde McCoy and George Olson. One travel manifest shows him working with the McCoy band on a cruise to the Bahamas in 1929. Louisville was still considered his home base, as he was listed there with his brother and parents in the 1930 Census as an orchestra musician.
The Hal Kemp Orchestra around 1940 with Lou at the piano and singer Skinnay Ennis at the microphone.
the hal kemp orchestra around 1940
The family was residing at 802 41st Street, with William still a laundry agent, and Richard now working as an auto mechanic. After a few years on the road, his desire to learn more about music theory led him to study at the Cincinnati Music Conservatory in Ohio in the early 1930s.
Following his music education break, Busch became the pianist for Hal Kemp's "sweet music" band for the remainder of the 1930s. Lou also honed his arranging skills, being offered an arranging position when arranger John Scott Trotter left the band in 1936. This position was shared with another key arranger, Hal Mooney, and was invaluable experience for both of them. The Kemp Orchestra had been making short sound films since 1928, and Lou appeared in a few of them between 1936 and 1938, as well as some recordings by the group.
The 1940 Census taken on April 8 found Lou at home with his parents and older brother in Louisville, listed as an orchestra musician, probably on a break from touring. The band continued working through most of 1940. However, after Kemp died December 21, 1940 from complications suffered during a head on automobile crash two days earlier, the group quickly disbanded. Busch and Mooney made their way to California in early 1941 to work as studio musicians and at whatever gigs they could find. This was interrupted by World War Two, which presented an opportunity for Busch to hone both his musical and production skill set.
Busch enlisted on July 27, 1942, in Los Angeles, and was considered immediately for entertainment duty, as his Civil Occupation is shown as a musician and the branch is shown as "Branch Immaterial - Warrant Officers, USA." Busch and many others in his field were considered highly valuable for morale in their entertainment roles. So many groups of musicians were assigned to play behind radio or film stars, and some were also involved with set traveling shows, often performing near the front when not on broadcast duty. Private, and later Lieutenant Busch ultimately spent three years in the Army, utilizing his musical talents from time to time during the war as part of the 1st Radio Production Group of the Army Air Corps. (Glenn Miller headed up the 2nd RPG.)
Even this early in his career, Lou did make the news from time to time. While he was in the band he met the band's singer and soon to be Hollywood actress, (Martha) Janet Blair. According to an October 1942 syndicated news item from Hollywood's Louella O. Parsons: "Now we understand why [actress] Janet Blair is not one bit interested in the boys around town. Her heart is in the keeping of Private Lou Busch, stationed at Fort MacArthur and formerly an arranger with the late Hal Kemp's Orchestra. Oh, it is not a new thing by any means. Janet met Lou when she was the canary with the same band and talk is that the gal who is sure to zoom to stardom after My Sister Eileen is released will wed Private Busch very soon." In fact Janet did wed Lieutenant Busch on July 12, 1943.
After his tour of duty, Busch decided to dive back into the music business, but desired a more stable position than just a musician. It was around this time that singer Johnny Mercer was recruiting artists and employees for his recently formed label, Capitol Records, so Busch was hired for the radio transcription service in 1946. At the same time he was working part-time with Columbia Pictures recording songs for films. In 1948, Busch was hired full-time at Capitol and put in charge of production of promotional radio shows featuring Capitol artists for distribution to stations around the country. He also helped to score and produce famous cuts from the label including Bonaparte's Retreat by Kay Starr and both Yingle Bells and I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas by Yogi Yorgesson (comedian Harry Stewart).
By 1949 Lou had been promoted to A&R (Artist and Repertoire) man given his considerable talent and contacts. During this time he also served as a pianist for studio groups backing singers such as Peggy Lee, "Tennessee" Ernie Ford and Jo Stafford. honky-tonk piano coverIn early 1950 Lou and Janet split, with Janet claiming mental cruelty and casting Busch as a "born bachelor." Lou was quoted as saying "There will be no sensational charges. We just drifted apart." The couple was divorced in short order after a March 1 hearing. He got married again in August, this time to Capitol singer and rising star Margaret Whiting. She had recently divorced Hubbell Robinson, vice president of CBS Radio. Their daughter, Deborah Louise "Debbi" Busch (now Whiting), was born in October. In a September 1950 interview, Margaret worried that "her baby will sing like her husband, Lou Busch, and play the piano like she, herself does."
Three events from this time, all having to do with Capitol Records, helped spur the ragtime revival of the 1950s. Interest in the music of the late 1910s through the 1920s had been growing out of San Francisco for nearly a decade, particularly through Lu Watters, Wally Rose and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, so the seed had been planted. The first event was bandleader W. Gerhart "Pee Wee" Hunt's surprise hit with Twelfth Street Rag, something recorded simply to use up time at the end of a broadcast transcription in 1948 as a bit of a joke. Since Busch was involved with radio transcriptions as part of his job at the time, he may have been responsible for editing or distributing this particular session. The cut was requested by listeners so often upon broadcast that the demand warranted a single release, and it soon became a runaway hit. The following summer, Busch backed singer Jo Stafford and conductor Paul Weston on the hit record, Ragtime Cowboy Joe. He was also uncredited on the Ray Anthony recording of Spaghetti Rag, another sizable hit. These successes and the moderate hit Sam's Song from late 1949 encouraged both Lou and the label to release his own original single, Ivory Rag, early in 1950. Over the spring it became a bigger hit than the previous two in both the U.S. and overseas. It was also the first piece incorporated into the Crazy Otto Medley by German pianist Fritz Schulz-Reichel, which was later associated with Johnny Maddox in the U.S.
These events coupled with the 1950 release of the book They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, gave indications that ragtime might yet live again. Busch decided to produce one of the new Capitol 10" long play (LP) records of the music, and recorded pieces by himself, Ray Turner and Marvin Ash for Honky Tonk Piano, released in April 1950. The Honky-Tonk reference, more often identified as a Country Music term, is likely in conjunction with the type of "joint" the music was played, but the sound of the piano might also apply, as they sometimes used hardened hammers or detuning to alter the tone. However, instead of just piano, Busch and company followed the lead of the traditional jazz revivalists of the late 1940s and added percussion and bass. The whimsical style coupled with clever arrangements made the records accessible to a public craving nostalgia, and Capitol's distribution helped make Honky Tonk Piano a big hit for many years.
The Busch Family in 1952, with
(l to r) Debbi, Lou and Margaret
lou busch with debbi and margaret
Lou's name was as much in the news in the early 1950s for his music work as it was for his public problems with Margaret, largely because of her popularity as a Capitol Records artist. In 1950 and 1951 it was largely positive, with items about Debbi's birth and bits of Capitol publicity fluff with posed pictures. An October 15, 1951 syndicated article had nothing but good spin in it:
Margaret Whiting said today that old wheeze about husbands and wives not working well together is a bunch of hooey. She's got her old man to thank for a whole new career. He's Lou Busch, a minor musical genius when it comes to singing or arranging or plinking out a hot tune on the piano. No slouch at launching a gal on a night club tour either. Even when the gal's his wife.
"I was scared to death," Maggie said. "All I'd ever done was radio and records and a few TV guest shots. But night clubs are full of real people. You have to compete with filet mignons and halibuts. And leave us face it, sometimes the halibut wins out."
Busch talked her into it, and then, Maggie said, went out and did everything but sing the songs for her.
"He picked out my numbers, arranged them, conducted the orchestra, and set up the mikes and the lighting," she explained. "He even told me what kind of gowns to buy. Now he's got me broken in," she said, her fingers crossed. "And just to show you how wrong people can be, we haven't had a single fight in all this time. The only things we fight about are things we don't work together on. And he's always right. In fact, he's always right about my career, too. Never saw such a man. He told me how to stand up to a mike... what to do with my hands... and how to treat hecklers.
"That's what worried me most. On radio or TV people come because they want to hear you. But in a night club they're just sitting there DARING you to please them. Lou warned me there'd be people who'd talk while I was singing. And there were. He told me the drunks would probably holler during my most dramatic ballads. And they did. He even warned me about people who threw pennies at entertainers. So far that hasn't happened. But it might some day. Like I say, Lou's always right.
Which probably accounts for the reason Maggie and Lou never fight. Who's gonna battle with a dame who thinks you're wonderful?
In later interviews Margaret continued to assert that Lou was largely responsible for her early success and grooming as a singer. However, things turned the corner for the couple within the year. Syndicated news reports started appearing as early as November 1952 stating that "Margaret Whiting and hubby Lou Busch are straining at the marriage ties." Their separation was publicly announced in March 1953. Gossip made the newspapers in April when Margaret was linked up with her agent, Phil Loeb, cited as a primary reason for the separation, although there were likely other overriding reasons. Among them, according to claims made in court by Margaret, were flying dishes in their household. They finalized things in late December 1953. Busch reacted to the situation largely by burying himself in his work with Capitol, performing more in nightclubs, and turning out a number of good ragtime albums.
Taking on the persona of Joe "Fingers" Carr, Busch released a succession of ragtime albums and singles throughout the 1950s that remained popular well into the mid 1960s. He later admitted that the early recordings were filled with some gimmicks (particularly the Ragtime Band releases), but eventually settled down to record the music more authentically, albeit with his easily recognizable licks and playing style. On the origin of his alter ego's name, Lou said: "I figured there was a real need for some straight ragtime piano, so I worked up some arrangements. Lou Busch isn't much of a ragtime name and I'd long had this 'Fingers' idea floating around. That led to Lou 'Fingers' Busch, but I knew that wouldn't have any appeal.
Lou Busch as Joe "Fingers" Carr
busch as joe 'fingers' carr
So I went through the phone book, real scientific like, and came up with 'Joe' for a short, raggy name. 'Carr' seemed pretty good for the last name, and I must say 'Joe Fingers Carr' has taken on pretty well." Even though Lou came up with the catchy name for his character, it was Capitol that pushed the nostalgic Carr image with the derby and the cigar more so than Busch. Because of this he worked hard to keep his records from becoming mere whimsical fluff, choosing the best music and sidemen for each session.
It was later noted that Lou's ability to play ragtime at all was fairly surprising as, unlike many of the great ragtime performers that preceded him, such as Eubie Blake or Willie "The Lion" Smith, or even his contemporary Dick Hyman, Lou had fairly small hands. As a result, he could not stretch as far as many other pianists, making the playing of tenths very difficult. What this limitation did was to refine his style so that he played more towards the center of the keyboard using richer left hand chords. It is also the primary reason why all of his albums, with one exception, had an ensemble accompanying him, and on some of them he even double tracked his playing for more spectacular results. That one exception was Parlor Piano, of which the final track, Home Sweet Home, is the only example of Busch playing syncopated piano without at least his usual bass and drums.
Lou's biggest hits from the 1950s include Portuguese Washerwomen, Sam's Song, a cover of Del Wood's version of Down Yonder (a hit for many other pianists as well), and the international hit Zambezi, later covered in 1982 by the British group, The Piranhas. Some of the singles include his vocal backup group, the cleverly-named Carr Hopps. As of 1955 he was the only Capitol artist with a contract allowing him to appear under three different names - Joe "Fingers" Carr, Joe Carr and the Joy Riders (a re-working of the Carr Hopps), and his original stage name, Lou Busch. Of all the albums Lou recorded for Capitol, including one of the first stereophonic ragtime albums ever, his 1956 opus Mister Ragtime was perhaps the most memorable. Calling on some of the best and a few of the more obscure piano rags, including a redux on an earlier take of 12th Street Rag originally released in 1952, Busch was able to balance the honky-tonk image with respectable and well-arranged performances of real ragtime. Other Capitol albums included two with his ragtime band, one of them clearly a response to the popularity of The Firehouse Five Plus Two, and a pair of albums recorded with the band of Pee Wee Hunt, highly stylized and arrangements of ragtime songs with a Dixieland twist.
Often overlooked are several mainstream and jazz sides he recorded as Lou Busch, featuring exciting band or orchestral arrangements. One early release, Roller Coaster, became the end theme music for What's My Line for many years. Now and then a well-crafted single would emerge, such as Cool from West Side Story or Memories of You in response to The Benny Goodman Story. In 1957 he was finally either encouraged or allowed (accounts vary) to release an album of his orchestrations, Lazy Rhapsody, which was one of his first stereophonic recordings. On this album he still managed to touch on ragtime with soft renditions of the original novelty Nola and a rich orchestration of In a Mist by tragic jazz pioneer artist Bix Beiderbecke. Never big sellers, they were still often played on the radio for many years along with cuts by groups like Capitol's Hollyridge Strings and the two piano arrangements of Ferrante and Teicher. He also orchestrated and produced some other Capitol hits, including 26 Miles Across the Sea, the first major recording by The Four Preps.
In late 1958 or early 1959 Lou left Capitol for Warner Brothers Records where he took on the same general responsibilities as a producer and A&R man. When the ragtime revival died down he focused more on arranging and conducting responsibilities again, one of the most notable being the musical force behind comic singer Allan Sherman. It was Lou's talents that helped bring out the best comical aspects of Sherman, and gave his tunes, and lyrics, the great comic punch that fit so well with Sherman's delivery. Lou also spent a great deal of time working up a television show for Sherman that did not last terribly long in spite of the comedian's popularity. He even contributed musical settings to a Los Angeles area production of Moliere's The Amorous Flea in 1964. Continuing to work through the late 1960s, including guest appearances as a conductor at the famous Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, Lou was elected as the national treasurer of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for at least two terms.
A few later albums were released on the ragtime-centric DOT label, and in the late 1970s he produced one more effort with friend and jazz pianist Lincoln Mayorga, complete with a couple of new tunes, The Brinkerhoff Piano Company. The pair had been performing under that title since at least 1975, doing live performances through Southern and Central California. Lou had actually helped Lincoln get his first ragtime album produced in 1958, which was recorded under the name Brooke Pemberton, and the remained good friends until Lou's death.
The Brinkerhoff Piano Company:
Lou Busch (L) and Lincoln Mayorga (R) in 1976
lou busch with lincoln mayorga
Busch's influence in ragtime remained for many years, affecting notable performer/composers such as Dave Jasen, Trebor Tichenor and Dick Zimmerman, as well as a young "Perfessor" Bill. Busch never fully retired from music, and married a third time to Nita Strickland Archambeau, a music clearance specialist. They were both good friends of Capitol artist Stan Kenton and his wife Audrey. This last marriage could have driven his desire to work since he once noted to a friend that he was "trying to keep up with alimony for three wives," (which may have been a misheard since he and Nita remained married for over 14 years until his death).
Although it has been reported that Lou rarely performed ragtime publicly, his daughter Debbi notes that he did some tours for Capitol in the 1950s, including a substantial one to Australia in 1956 with Stan Freberg and Don Cornell. She also asserted that he was generally a "big ham" when it came to being on stage. The Allan Sherman albums, although live, were generally recorded for invited guests in a Warner Brothers studio. He was persuaded by Dave Jasen to participate in a ragtime concert at the C.W. Post Center on Long Island in October 1976 in his guise as Joe "Fingers" Carr. Others in that concert included Jasen, Neville Dickie, Bob Seeley, Dick Wellstood, and Dick Hyman. In the mid to late 1970s of course there were the live performances with Mayorga and others in Southern and Central California.
Busch also occasionally still made the news for non-ragtime or music related reasons. One particularly visible tongue in cheek commentary was an editorial of his published in the October 1, 1975 Los Angeles Times. During a particularly turbulent time in American history following Watergate and Vietnam, he made a call for some positive thinking. "One of the high spots of my day occurs around 7:30 a.m. when... I turn to the 'Letters to the Times; section of your newspaper. What drama! What controversy! And what a marvelous source of information for keeping up-to-date with the 'Game...' 'Find The Villain And Blame Everything On him.' Presumably the result is a nice warm glow of satisfaction to the searcher for, having found the source of all the trouble, he need worry no further... My checklist so far includes (but not necessarily in this order): the President, past Presidents, Vice Presidents, Congress, the Cabinet, conservatives (all shades), liberals (all shades), oil companies, General Motors, bankers, interest rates, the Federal Reserve Board, the media (and anti-media), the Sierra Club, the lumber interests and more coming! If you would permit a suggestion. I believe that setting a limit of only on 'Villain' to a customer would make the arguments more concise and also serve to concentrate the contributor's livid anger on a single target... With the hope you are not adverse to a positive statement once in a while, I would like to thank you and your Letters contributors for helping to get my heart started in the morning. LOU BUSCH, Beverly Hills."
Lou Busch met a tragic end in an automobile accident on a foggy Camarillo highway near his home in October 1979. Lou and Lincoln had been planning another benefit concert of Brinkerhoff material that evening. Busch was interred in the Westwood Village Mortuary near UCLA. Fortunately for all of us he left behind an exciting and well documented musical legacy and a lot of smiling faces and tapping toes.
I would like to add a personal note of thanks to Debbi Whiting, daughter of Lou and Margaret, who along with me has been championing the legacy of her father and collecting information for his biography and perhaps more exciting future developments to honor Lou. Note also that he has been officially well-regarded by his home town of Louisville, KY, and was the finest left-handed (piano) slugger to ever emerge from there. The remaining information was collected by the author from public records, newspapers and periodicals, and various remembrances by and interviews of Capitol Records and Warner Brothers personnel.

Young Charles Chaplin Portrait Middle Age Charles Chaplin Portrait Old Charles Chaplin Portrait
Charles Spencer Chaplin
(April 16, 1889 to December 25, 1977)
(Note that many dates shown represent known or approximate composition dates rather than copyright, since some pieces associated with films were not published or copyrighted until some time after the film's release.)
Oh! That Cello!
The Peace Patrol
There's Always One you Can't Forget
Sweet Love [1]
With You, Dear, In Bombay
Sing a Song [2]
City Lights: Film
   Unveiling the Statue
   At the Night Club
   The Blind Flower Girl
   Beautiful, Wonderful Eyes
   Misfortunes of a Street Cleaner
   The Burden of Poverty
   Tramp Theme
   Hopes of Riches
   A Boxer By Necessity
   Tragic Love Theme
Modern Times: Film
   Lunch Time
   The Workers Demonstrate
   A Huge Meal, Thanks to the Police
   Smile (Theme Music)
   Toy Waltz
   Skating in the Department Store
   In the City
The Great Dictator: Film [3]
   Falling Star
   Conspiration's Meal
   Napoli March
The Gold Rush: Film Re-release
   The Road to Fortune
   A Delicious Dish: Boiled Boot
   Georgia's Theme
   The Ballet of the Bread Rolls
   Square Dance
Monsieur Verdoux: Film
   Cancan a Paris Boulevard
   Tango Bitterness
Limelight: Film
   Eternally (Terry's Theme) [4]
   I'll Be Loving You
   Spring is Here
   Animal Trainer
   The Life of a Sardine
   The Death of Calvero
Smile (Song from "Modern Times") [4,5]

1. w/Edward Smalle
2. w/Gus Arnheim
3. w/ or arr. by Meredith Willson
4. w/Geoffrey Parsons
A King in New York: Film
   The Spring Song
   Park Avenue Waltz
   Mandolin Serenade
   Weeping Willows
   Bathtub Nonesense
   Clown Smile
   The Paperhangers
   Without You
   Now that it’s Ended
   A Million Dollars
The Chaplin Revue: Film Package
   Green Lantern Rag
   Song Triste
   Shoulder Arms
   Coffee and Cakes
   The Pilgrim
   (Bound for) Texas
A Countess from Hong Kong: Film
   My Star
   This is My Song
   The Ambassador Retires
   Crossing the Dance Floor
   Zigeuner - The Three Ladies
   The Deb Shakes
   Chamber Music
   A Countess from Hong Kong (Waltz)
   Change Partners
   Bonjour Madame
   Hudson Goes to Bed
   The Ill-Fitting Dress
   The Countess Sleeps
   Gypsy Caprice
   Tango Nastacha
The Circus: Film Re-release
   Swing High Little Girl
   Circus Fanfare
   Pursuer Pursued
   A Magician Exposed
   Love at First Sight
   You Are the Song
   The Clown's Appearance
   The Barber's Apprentice
   The Intruder in the Lion's Cage
   Love's Disillusion
   The Tightrope Walker
The Idle Class: Film Re-release Score [6]
The Kid: Film Re-release Score [6]
Pay Day: Film Re-release Score [6]
A Day's Pleasure: Film Re-release Score [6]
Sunnyside: Film Re-release Score [6]
A Woman of Paris: Film Re-release [6]

5. w/John Turner
6. w/ or arr. by Eric James
7. w/Harry Boden
With You, Dear, In Bombay [8]
Sing a Song [8,9]

8. Conducting the Abe Lyman Orchestra
9. Vocal by Charles Kaley
Matrix and Date
[Brunswick 15849/50] 05/??/1925
[Brunswick 15872] 05/??/1925
Pieces About or Associated With Charlie Chaplin    
That Charlie Chaplin Walk [William S. Downs & Roy Barton]
The Charlie Chaplin Glide [Gordon Strong]
The Charlie Chaplin Trot [Gustave Leon]
The Charlie Chaplin ["Pauline"] (c.1915)
Those Charlie Chaplin Feet [Edgar Leslie & Archie Gottler]
Funny Charlie Chaplin [James G. Ellis]
Charlie Chaplin's Frolics: Eccentric Dance [Theodore Bonheur]
Charlie! Charlie! [Herman Darewski & Dan Lipton]
Broadway Is My Home Sweet Home [Meyer Davis, Uriel Davis & Donald M. McLeran]
The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin (Parody)
    [Unknown author - Melody of Red Wing by Kerry Mills]
At the Moving Picture Ball [Howard Johnson & Joseph H. Santly]
The Kid (Introduced in 'The Kid') [Joe Bren & Haven Gillespie]
Charlot (French Fox Trot) [Harold de Mozi, Henry Moreau & Jack Cazol]
Mandalay [Earl Burtnett, & Abe Lyman]
Who is This Man (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin?) [Tommy Handley]
Mutual Film Corporation
The Floorwalker
The Fireman
The Vagabond
One A.M.
The Count
The Pawnshop
Behind the Screen
The Rink
Easy Street
The Cure
The Immigrant
The Adventurer
Chaplin Studios
How to Make Movies
Various Scenes with Harry Lauder
Scenes shot with Visiting Celebrities
First National
A Dog's Life [2]
The Bond
Shoulder Arms [2]
Sunnyside [2]
A Day's Pleasure [2]
The Kid [2]
The Idle Class [2]
Pay Day [2]
The Pilgrim [2]
United Artists
A Woman of Paris [2]
The Gold Rush
The Circus [2,4]
City Lights [2]
Modern Times [2]
The Great Dictator [2,3]
The Gold Rush [Redux] [2]
Monsieur Verdoux [2,3]
Limelight [2,4]
A King in New York [2]
The Chaplin Revue (Compilation) [2]
A Countess from Hong Kong [2]
Roy Export Company
The Gentleman Tramp
The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin

2. Scored or Retro-Scored by Chaplin
3. Oscar™ Nominated
4. Oscar™ Winner
chaplin as a child actorAs there has been so much written on the life of Charlie Chaplin, this biography will largely focus on and take into context the parts of his life as a composer and musician, while still covering the major events and time line. Chaplin was not really a ragtime composer per se, but he did what he could to keep music viable in his films by directing the use of certain pieces or genres of pieces, and eventually composing them as well. Many of these works made it into print as far back as the mid-1910s, and a handful endure today. So his music was born out of the melding of ragtime and popular music as it accompanied early silent films, and therefore he should be not be ignored as a composer who drew on that era for some of his work. But he went well beyond that, as will be seen here, and should further be acknowledged for the boldness he displayed in scoring some of his later films as well, putting him also in the category of film composer.
Early Years
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in England to Charles Chaplin and Hannah (Hill) Chaplin, both performers in London music halls. Name after his father and his uncle, Spencer Chaplin, Charles had an older brother, Sydney (John Hill) Chaplin (1885), by a different father, whose identity has never been fully confirmed, but is considered by a handful of researchers to be a Sydney Hawkes.the girl was young and pretty sheet music Charles Chaplin Sr. was a talented actor and singer, and even a published composer. One of his pieces was The Girl was Young and Pretty, the theme of which was later echoed in his 1992 film biography directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. Another was a poignant waltz song called Every-Day Life with lyrics by Harry Boden from 1891. The sheet music advertised that it had been "Composed and Sung with Enormous Success by Charles Chaplin." However, he was also an alcoholic, and ended up separating from Hannah when Charlie was around two. In the 1891 England census Hannah Chaplin is listed as an unemployed professional singer residing with Sydney and young Charles in the St. Mary district. Hannah showed as being married, but without her husband in the household. He was living nearby in the same district in a boarding house with other music hall artists.
To compound an already difficult situation, Hannah had some mental illness, and her inability to keep jobs required the broken family to move from place to place around Kensington Road, so as to be close enough to the theaters. Yet they still lived in relative comfort above the poverty level. Charles had constant exposure to the stage, and to the music as well. His mother, who worked under the name Lilly Harley, preferred to bring the boys to the theater rather than leave them alone, so they quickly became familiar with the songs of the day, bawdy and otherwise. They would occasionally see Charles Sr. perform as well, even after he had left the family. One of his frequent haunts was the Canterbury Music Hall.
As Charles relayed it in his autobiography, his first time on stage was when he was but five years old. He was backstage at the Aldershot Canteen while Hannah was performing for a group largely made up of soldiers. She was having a rough time of it, her voice cracking during her song. Whether Charles ventured out after she left the stage or whether he was pushed on remains conjecture or hearsay (he claims the latter). However, he took over for his mother, singing two or three songs, one of them being Jack Jones, and picking up coins thrown on stage by the amused audience in response to his work before he left. It was the start of a very long career performing for the public, and was claimed to be his mother's last night on stage.
Following this, Hannah, who had been prone to increasing bouts of laryngitis, was no longer able to work consistently as a singer, leaving the family of three suddenly living day to day in poverty. After a year or so they had to retreat to the workhouses, and at times were separated. Hannah recovered briefly, then had a breakdown. She was sent to Cane Hill Asylum at Coulsdon for recovery,
Charlie Chaplin as a Souse in Karno's Night in an English Music Hall.
charlie as a souse
and Charles and Sydney were sent off initially to live with their father and his mistress Louise for a while. She, in turn, sent them to the Archbishop Temples Boys School, and had a tenuous relationship with Charles and Sydney. This was exacerbated by her drinking as well as their fathers, and the presence of a boy in the home who was four years younger. This was Charles' other half-brother, but he did not know it at that time. After a few months the boys went back again to live their mother after she was released. However, she was not able to properly care for them, and was again committed to the asylum while the boys were sent to a school for paupers. Sydney eventually went to sea and Charlie was at times out on the streets fending for himself.
Even as a juvenile performer Chaplin claims he had not yet really discovered music. However, he told of that day in his biography, leaving the impression that he was perhaps eight at the time. Charles had come home to his father's empty house, and bored after a while he wandered out into the streets again to try to find food and solace. As he tells it: “Suddenly, there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square. The tune was The Honeysuckle and the Bee, played with radiant virtuosity on a harmonium and clarinet. I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were... It was all over too soon and their exit left the night even sadder... It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment.”
Charles first worked as a billed artist in 1898 with a group of pre-teen clog dancers. They were called The Eight Lancashire Lads, and the experience allowed him to hone his agility of movement as well as gain a better sense of timing and rhythm in conjunction with the musical accompaniment. Although the work was necessary to help support his family, he was thoroughly at home on the stage, and became quite acrobatic as a result of his time as a dancer. He reportedly may have also done some singing and a little comedy with this act, but there is no direct billing that fully supports this contention. As of the 1901 England census he was rooming with a troupe of actors, possibly the clog dancers. Like the others, Charles was listed as a "music hall artiste." Neither his mother or Sydney were residing there, but he was one of ten juveniles living in the flat of John Jackson, son of the troupe's leader who himself was all of seventeen. That same year, Charles Sr. finally died at age 37 from cirrhosis of the liver and complications related to alcohol abuse.
At twelve and a half years of age after a year of odd jobs, and shortly after his mother was recommitted to Cane Hill, Charlie managed to snag a plum role in the C.E. Hamilton Company as Billie the Page Boy in a production of Sherlock Holmes. After getting good reviews in an otherwise poor play staged before the Sherlock Holmes tour, he continued in the role for three seasons. In the fourth season he ended up playing the same role opposite the author of the play. The four years emboldened him as an actor and established his stage presence, but not prepare him for comedy. Now sixteen and a bit cocky, Charlie decided to turn down the next role because it required traveling. As a result, he spent nearly a year not working.
Steady work of any kind was hard to come by, so he was supported in part by Sydney, who had been with British performer and producer Fred Karno's comedy company since 1906. Charles secured some music books and Jewish humor jokes, attempting to make a splash as an ethnic comedian. He was ill-prepared to do direct comedy as opposed to character comedy, and this venture lasted one performance. There were other minor failures on stage as well. Then at age nineteen Charlie, morally supported by Sydney, secured a position with Karno as a replacement actor playing opposite comedian Harry Weldon in a sketch called The Football Match.
Chaplin (center) and others from the Karno company in 1912 aboard the Oceanic.
charlie on board the oceanic
Within a week he had a long-term contract with Karno, and his career as a comic actor was finally established.
Working in various groups of Karno's traveling organization, Charlie quickly became a star of the sketch and pantomime comedy sketches, and his timing and choices were evidently highly regarded by the boss. It has been noted that his use of music in his act fully availed itself of the possibilities presented in the rhythmic and melodic elements of a tune, adding to the overall essence of his act. The acts often used classic 18th and 19th century melodies accompanied by sound effects or slapsticks to emphasize falls or other actions, which gave his form of comedy its name, even before he became associated with it. Among the actors he worked with during his time with Karno was another future comedy star, was Arthur Stanley Jefferson, known on stage as Stan Laurel. Stan ultimately served as Chaplin's understudy and backup while with the Karno company.
Charlie met a girl in the chorus line named Hetty Kelly and was instantly transfixed by her. His emotions for her became so strong that on their first outing he referred to her as his "nemesis," which she could not understand. Within days he had asked if she loved him, which she felt unfair given that Hetty was just short of sixteen to his nineteen years. Chaplin ended it right there after all of four encounters, but went to her home the following day to say goodbye once more just to be sure. He would never forget Hetty, and subconsciously would search for her over the next 34 years. In fact, when he met her just over a year later she was now seventeen and well-developed, but not the same girl in many ways, so he continued searching.
The Karno company toured Europe a couple of times from 1909 to 1910. At one show in Paris presented at the famous Folies Bergère, composer Claude Debussy was in the audience with a lady friend from the Russian ballet, and asked to meet Charlie after the show. The impressionist composer told him, "You are instinctively a musician and a dancer." While this was clearly a great compliment to Charlie, he was not sure how to reply, and he did not know who Debussy was at that time. However, he eventually knew all to well, noting in his autobiography it was the same year that "Debussy introduced his Prélude à L’Après Midi d’un Faune [Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun] to England, where it was booed and the audience walked out."
Charlie toured Canada and the United States extensively with the American Karno company from late September 1910 to early 1912. They entered the United States on October 1 after having arrived a few days earlier to Quebec on the Cairnrona, and proceeded quickly to New York City for their first engagement of six weeks. Reports that he was the featured star entertainer with the troupe on that trip are not fully supported by newspaper advertising of that time until closer to the end of the tour, which was extended for twenty weeks to the west, another six in New York, and another twenty in the west again. Among the acts that toured was one titled The Wow Wows that featured Charles as "The Original Souse." In late 1912 the core of the Karno company again ventured to America to tour the vaudeville circuit for another year, arriving this time in New York Harbor on October 12 aboard the Oceanic as second class passengers.advertisement for karno show featuring chaplin One of Chaplin's specialties in the Night in an English Music Hall sketch was playing an inebriated souse much older than himself, who randomly invaded the audience, then the stage, with his drunken antics.
Stan Laurel remembered several facets of this second trip and recounted some information about Chaplin in a later interview with historian John McCabe. "Charlie carried his violin wherever he could. Had the strings reversed so he could play left handed, and he would practise for hours. He bought a cello once and used to carry it around with him. At these times he would always dress like a musician, a long fawn coloured overcoat with green velvet cuffs and collar and a slouch hat. And he’d let his hair grow long at the back. We never knew what he was going to do next.” This concurs with Chaplin's own account of his first trip to the states: "On this tour I carried my violin and cello. Since the age of sixteen I had practised from four to six hours a day in my bedroom. Each week I took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended. As I played left handed, my violin was strung left handed with the bass bar and sounding post reversed. I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act, but as time went on I realised that I could never achieve excellence, so I gave it up."
It also during the second trip while they were playing in New York City that Chaplin went to the Metropolitan Opera House to see the opera Tannhäuser, something that may have influenced even more his sense of the melding of music and storytelling. According to Charlie: "I had never seen grand opera, only excerpts of it in vaudeville – and I loathed it. But now I was in the humour for it. I bought a ticket and sat in the second circle. The opera was in German and I did not understand a word of it, nor did I know the story. But when the dead Queen was carried on to the music of the Pilgrim’s chorus, I wept bitterly. It seemed to sum up all the travail of my life. I could hardly control myself; what people sitting next to me must have thought I don't know, but I came away limp and emotionally shattered."
On the 1912 to 1913 trip Chaplin was clearly the star of the Karno troupe in their primary sketches, A Night in an English Music Hall and The Wow Wows. While on the second American tour, Charlie was witness to, and soon was entranced by the growing medium of motion pictures, now well into their second decade. The notion of putting something into a permanent record that could be viewed by potentially millions in a short time, as opposed to hundreds in a week, was appealing to him, as was the potential in what was a forced pantomime. So near the end of 1913 when his contract with Karno expired, Chaplin decided to achieve his own success in America and left the company to pursue a career in the movies.
The Cinema and Rise to Fame
In a sense, Charlie was offered a carrot to stay in the United States. His act had been seen during the first tour by movie producer Mack Sennett, then working for D.W. Griffith, and some of his future comedy stars, including Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle who at that time was one of the Keystone Kops.
Charlie's first time as the tramp with Mabel Normand in Mabel's Strange Predicament.
charlie with mabel normand
They were named after Sennett's Keystone Studios which was located in Edendale, California, just east of present day Hollywood. Chaplin was hired to do comic roles on film and as a contingent replacement for his star Ford Sterling, who was going to Universal for a better deal (although he returned to Keystone within a few months). Charlie quickly found out that acting in front of a camera doing stunts and multiple takes without audience feedback was a much different experience than working on the stage. Receiving a standard salary of $150 per week, nearly double his pay from Karno, his first appearance as a newspaper reporter with questionable scruples in Making a Living did not fully support his making even that much. It was found later that most of his funny bits had been deliberately edited out by jealous director Henry Lehrman, but it was also clear that his talents were not properly utilized in that short.
Actress Mabel Normand took up Charlie's cause and insisted that Sennett give him another chance under her tutelage. Although he had issues with a woman directing his acting, Chaplin persevered and came back strong in the next film, Mabel's Strange Predicament.. According to his autobiography Sennett had asked him to dress in a comedy make up of some kind. The famous incident with him finding his new identity was poetically recreated in the 1992 biopic Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr., but Chaplin's own passage was actually a bit more practical:
I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in the previous film Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born...
[Sennett] stood and giggled until his body began to shake. This encouraged me and I began to explain the character: 'You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette-butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear – but only in extreme anger!'"
charlie chaplin walk cover
In reality, the hat and oversized pants came from the rotund Arbuckle and the shoes from Ford Sterling. The concept itself was evocative of his early years living in poverty and making due with whatever was at hand. While the tramp did appear briefly in Mabel's Strange Predicament, the first film that featured that character, shot the following week, was Kid Auto Races at Venice released in early February 1914. The simple plot had him mugging annoyingly for the camera at a soapbox derby race while directors and cameramen try to keep him out of the picture. The tramp character immediately caught on with audiences, and several more shorts were made featuring Chaplin. He immediately adopted the oversized shoes, baggy pants, and penguin-like walk that made him stand out. Charlie did play a Keystone Kop in one recently discovered short, but once the tramp character was established he rarely veered away from his creation. Little known to most of the public, the tramp also had a name, the French derivative of his own, Charlot.
By the middle of the year Chaplin shorts were drawing crowds, and they were appearing frequently in advertising, often trumping the feature they were playing with. It was clear to Sennett and Chaplin that $150 per week was hardly appropriate any more, and the two tussled over numbers for the remainder of the year. Chaplin also wanted more control over scenarios, editing, and even directing. He was now making $175 per week plus a $25 bonus for each completed film. Sennett and Chaplin were often at odds, but the studio head put up with it because his revenues had increased significantly thanks to Charlie's films. Even before the end of 1914, Chaplin was the most famous movie comedian, and arguably the most famous comic actor in the United States. During his one year contract Charlie appeared in 36 Keystone films, a brutal pace considering the amount of physical action and location shooting done in the early days of film.
It was a show of respect by Sennett that he did not openly contest Chaplin leaving his organization to work for Essanay Studios (S and A for owners George K. Spoor and cowboy star G.M. "Bronco Billy" Anderson) in 1915 for a great deal more money. News reports of the time put it at over $100,000 for the year. By then, Sydney had also come to the United States, and for a time replaced his brother in Keystone comedies.those charlie chaplin feet cover At Essanay Charlie was given a bit more freedom to develop his gags, and regularly used a stock set of actors for consistency. Among them was a young lady named Edna Purviance and villains Bud Jamison and Leo White. Essanay managed to distribute Chaplin films to every corner of the country and heavily advertised their star property as well. Chaplin films even managed big draws in New York City, where entertainment was available at every turn. However, much of the crowd seeking entertainment from the tramp were immigrants who still did not have command of the English language, and did not really need to in order to grasp the universal pantomime slapstick that Charlie was mastering.
Charlie had another trick up his sleeve as well, making an attempt at a popular song in 1915.He sought to have his music heard in America. When Oh! That Cello was self-published in 1915 it had a slow start. But after a piano roll of it was released the following year the name association caused some head scratching and curiosity in the music industry, as reported in The Music Trade Review of September 9, 1916.
CONSIDERABLE anxiety has been expressed in various quarters to know whether the Charles Chaplin who appears as the composer of "Oh that 'Cello" in the August bulletin of the Q R S Co. is in reality he of the slap-stick motion picture comedy fame. The Q R S Co. aver that it is the simon pure Charles. He is doing quite a bit of composing nowadays between acts, so to speak, and moreover is publishing his own compositions. "Oh that 'Cello" is quite pleasing even to the ear of one who does not revel in the popular music of the day. Lee Roberts [main arranger and vice president of QRS] made a hand played roll of it and has a nice letter from the real Charles written from Los Angeles giving his permission for its inclusion in the Q R S catalog.
Even before the discovery that Chaplin was a composer, composers discovered Chaplin, and in 1915 alone no less than eight pieces named for Charlie or his feet were in the stores. The most popular of them were That Charlie Chaplin Walk and Those Charlie Chaplin Feet.oh that cello cover The reason such a comic association between music and Chaplin's screen persona seemed so natural is that it often was. Chaplin, like many other fine comic actors, knew that there were layers of rhythm within the concept of "comic timing." Even today, scripts for television and movies often use the term "take a beat" or "two beats" at times, informing the actor to pause for an amount of time that would be analogous to the current pace of the action. Sennett often had musicians in his employ to provide not only mood music but rhythm to help the flow of action for the actors.
Chaplin sometimes did the same, and he also knew the importance of both acting and editing in such a way that music played to his films, the big end factor over which he had virtually no control over at that time, would naturally find a sweet spot through his pacing. Many of the songs about Chaplin fit that mold nicely, and were not only used to accompany some of his films but sold in the lobbies as well. Others were featured on stage, managing to make the presence of Charlie known even at the popular Ziegfeld Follies. Chaplin himself made it known that certain popular piece might even inspire action sequences or scenarios. "Simple little tunes gave me the image for comedies. In one called Twenty Minutes of Love, full of rough stuff and nonsense in parks, with policemen and nursemaids, I weaved in and out of situations to the tune of Too Much Mustard, a popular two step in 1914. The song Violetera set the mood for City Lights, and Auld Lang Syne the mood for The Gold Rush."
Chaplin's first Essanay film was made at their Chicago headquarters, a place he deplored. So he went to their studio in Niles, California, which was situated near the San Francisco Bay area and featured very usable old-west scenery. During the process of making his fourteen films at Essanay Charlie's musical proclivities became better known to his colleagues. He bought a higher quality violin, perhaps favoring it over the cello. It was said that he would "scrape away" at the instrument for several hours at night. As he and the other actors were often housed next to the studio at Niles, Chaplin staying in the surprisingly sparse quarters of millionaire Bronco Billy, they would often suffer through sleepless nights listening to Chaplin trying to master the instrument. That misery did not last long. After four more films Chaplin retreated to Southern California and rented a studio near downtown Los Angeles for the remaining Essanay films.
Charlie conducting a band in a rare snippet likely taken at the New York Hippodrome in 1916.
charlie conducting a band at the hippodrome
After a successful but sometimes choppy run with Essanay in 1915, Sydney arranged a lucrative agreement for his brother for $670,000 ($10,000 per week plus a $150,000 signing bonus) with the Mutual Film Corporation for twelve two-reel comedies in 1916, one per month. Mutual wisely gave him more or less carte blanche in terms of artistic control, content and personnel. The same was true in terms of time, because as the Mutuals went along Chaplin required a longer shooting and editing schedule. The initial twelve months stretched into just over eighteen. However, every one of the twelve films has remained a classic for nearly a century, and Chaplin stated in his autobiography that it was the most productive and happiest period of his career.
Mutual allowed Chaplin to form his own separate production arm named Lone Star Productions. In spite of his success with the tramp, the character was not featured in all of these shorts. In The Fireman he is obviously a fireman in and The Cure Chaplin plays an alcoholic who checks into a sanatorium. One of most unique Mutuals, One A.M., features Chaplin as an adventurous bachelor who arrives home quite inebriated and has to negotiate the hazards of his own home in order to get to bed, or something like a bed. There is a clear rhythmic pace in this solo effort that is punctuated by a wall clock with an oversized widely swinging pendulum. In The Vagabond he played a saloon violinist who rescues a girl from a cruel gypsy master. In it he is seen playing in his usual left-handed manner. The Rink, Easy Street and The Pawnshop have also remained favorites.
Chaplin's new role as a comic leading man opened many doors to him, but also brought obligations. He was asked to do benefits and promote causes.
Charlie with pianist Leopold Godowsky in 1916.
charlie with pianist leopold godowsky
In one instance he did a benefit at the famous Hippodrome in New York City. A filmed snippet remains that is thought to be from that benefit. It shows Chaplin in his guise as a musician, conducting the band half seriously while clowning around with them. Even though the appearance was staged, it had an air of spontaneity and joy. His fame also brought him many visitors and admirers. Among those wer two men that Chaplin himself had admired for some time, pianists Ignace Jan Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky, the latter who posed with Charlie in late 1916. There is no account of any lessons being given in either music or comedy during that visit. Chaplin also built up a fine ensemble cast and crew. In addition to his leading lady and constant companion Edna Purviance, who he was romantically involved with during 1916 and 1917, he brought in his half-brother Sydney as both agent and manager, and added a comic giant villain, Scottish import Eric Campbell, to his stock company. Charlie had known the 6'4" Campbell from the Karno company, and he was described as a very gentle giant. During the Mutual run Campbell lost his wife to sickness, and subsequently got involved in a sham marriage. Sadly, after the last Mutual production was finished, Eric died instantly in a tragic car accident on Wilshire Blvd. in December 1917, the result of too much alcohol.
To further extend his control over his end products, Charlie had formed the Charles Chaplin Music Company with comedian and pianist Bert Clark to publish Oh! That Cello. He likely had big plans for that concern, but in its short life of perhaps two months or so only two more pieces were published. The Peace Patrol was a simple but lyrical instrumental march.
Letterhead from Chaplin's short-lived
music publishing enterprise.
chaplin publishing company letterhead
While he was negotiating with the Mutual Company in New York City, Chaplin appeared at a benefit concert at the Hippodrome on February 20, 1916. There he led Sousa’s band in the Poet and Peasant Overture, followed by The Peace Patrol, perhaps its only public performance in his lifetime. This composition was followed by There's Always One You Can't Forget, a sentimental piece about his first true love, Hetty Kelly. (In 1921 he found out that Hetty had died during the flu pandemic which devastated him.) As for his publishing activities, Chaplin recalled that, "[Bert and I] had rented a room three storeys up in a down town office building and printed two thousand copies of two very bad songs and musical compositions of mine – then we waited for customers. The enterprise was collegiate and quite mad. I think we sold three copies, one to Charles Cadman, the American composer, and two to pedestrians who happened to pass our office on their way downstairs."
In the latter half of 1917 after nearly 18 months, Charlie left Mutual, where he later said he had enjoyed the best period of his life. He signed with First National for a contract of eight two-reel films (some would be longer). The money and freedom they gave him in addition to what he had earned from Mutual allowed Chaplin to build his own studio in Hollywood (presently the home to Disney's Jim Henson Studios). Chaplin remembered that "At the end of the Mutual contract, I was anxious to get started with First National, but we had no studio. I decided to buy land in Hollywood and build one. The site was the corner of Sunset and La Brea and had a very fine ten-room house and five acres of lemon, orange and peach trees. We built a perfect unit, complete with developing plant, cutting room, and offices." He met with resistance from a local residential neighborhood who opposed the encroachment, but ultimately was allowed to built by the city council. Sydney also joined him in this effort, becoming Charlie's manager.peace patrol cover He played a comic role of a food vendor in Chaplin's first film for the company, A Dog's Life, released in 1918.
From the time of the Great War (World War I) on there was some obvious controversy concerning Chaplin's patriotism towards the United States, more a reflection of his perceived political views than anything. One that persisted was that he tried to avoid the draft or enlistment. This is not true, and he indeed filled out a draft card on June 5, 1917, listing himself as moving picture comedian working for the Lone Star Company, the name of the production company he had formed at Mutual. In fact, it has been reported that Chaplin made three attempts [at least two confirmed] to enlist in either the American or British armies, and was rejected for one or another reason. At 5'6" and a mere 125 pounds he was a bit slight to be a soldier. Even though he was not a naturalized citizen, that fact did not make him ineligible. He had wanted to enlist in the British Army, but his Mutual contract stipulated that he remain the United States until it was fulfilled. Not knowing this, soldiers in the British army adopted a nasty parody, sung to Red Wing by Kerry Mills, called The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin, suggesting he be sent to the Dardanelles where a bloody campaign had taken place.
It is known that Chaplin was seen as an important entity in his capacity as an actor, as he was not yet involved with so-called subversive organizations or activities. He was also quite active in promoting the sale of bonds during a national tour with Mary Pickford, best friend Douglas Fairbanks, and actress Marie Dressler. This was followed by a short called The Bond, made at his own expense, which was used by the Federal Government to further promote sales. It explained several types of bonds, including friendship and marriage, ending with the most important type, Liberty Bonds. A final scene showed him wielding a larger mallet with "Liberty Bonds" painted on it, which he used to successfully pummel the Kaiser (played by Sydney), in a comical manner, of course. One of his early films through First National was the war-themed feature Shoulder Arms, which was a large success at the box office and considered by historians to be the best World War I film actually during the conflict. In it, Sydney reprises his role as the much abused Kaiser.
By mid 1917, most theaters in the United States had house musicians playing either piano or organ, or in some cases ensembles ranging from three piece groups to orchestras. In smaller towns it would often be a piano teacher or her star student playing classical tunes or the latest popular songs and rags to the films for some extra cash. For the most part, with few exceptions, there were no definitive music scores for movies, especially for the shorts.
Chaplin vigorously campaigning for the sale
of war bonds in New York City in 1918.
chaplin campaigning for war bonds in 1918
D.W. Griffith had commissioned scores for a couple of his feature films, but they were typically only used in the very largest metropolitan centers and not reduced to a piano or organ score. The following year would see the introduction of theme songs associated with films, but one song a score did not make.
Chaplin was well aware of this shortfall, and in particular recognized how the proper underscore would add to the emotional import of the action on the screen. Along with some other directors and producers his company sent out simple suggestions for the type of music to play for each scene, even with some popular titles. While this was not the same as a score, the guidance provided more consistency for film goers as long as the local musicians were capable of following these directions.
The first hint of coming disasters in his life came about in 1918 when Charlie, then 29, married a popular 18-year-old actress, Mildred A. Harris, a quickly formed union predicated on a pregnancy that turned out to be a false alarm. While their relationship seemed to be smooth at the start, things quickly fell apart after Mildred actually did get pregnant, then gave birth to a son, Norman Spencer Chaplin. Sadly, the child died at three days old on July 10, 1919. The couple was never able to fully reconcile, and Charlie set out on a series of affairs that occasionally made it into the press, not helping his image or his questionable marriage.
Being a top personality in show business, his endorsement was sought out by many companies, one comical example which was relayed in The Music Trade Review of December 21, 1918:
Charlie Chaplin received a letter from a certain manufacturer of musical instruments, proposing to present him with a saxophone providing he would be photographed with it, and permit the maker to use the indorsement [sic] for advertising purposes. Not being particularly interested in the saxophone but appreciating the gentleman's courtesy, Mr. Chaplin in part replied: "If you happen to have a spare 'Strad' violin knocking about that you don't want, well, you might send it on. I will have my picture taken with it, and I will give you a letter to the effect that I can thoroughly recommend it."
On February 5, 1919, with his new studio fully built and in production for a year now, Charlie joined one of the earliest ongoing efforts to promote individualistic freedom and support for film makers. Along with Sydney and their actor friends Mary Pickford (America's sweetheart), Douglas Fairbanks (America's screen hero), William S. Hart (America's favorite cowboy) and legendary director David W. Griffith, the group formed the United Artists production and distribution company. They had heard, in part through a woman detective they had hired, that some of the larger studios and distributors were banding together, which would have created a monopoly in the business, with little of the money going to the artists.
Charlie with the other founders of United Artists.
(L to R) Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin,
David W. Griffith, Mary Pickford.
chaplin with the founders of united artists
As was Chaplin's hope, the idea behind this organization was to allow the stars to be their own bosses. Through UA they had to do their own financing for projects, but they also were able to reap more of the profits, which had traditionally gone to the producers of films. Yet at the time he helped form the organization, Charlie still had an obligation of six films to complete with First National in order to exercise that freedom. Charles and Mildred appeared in the 1920 census living 674 Oxford Way in Beverly Hills with a live-in chef and his wife. They both listed their occupation as a motion picture actor and actress respectively.
In 1919 he completed two more films, the unusual three reel Sunnyside and the more traditional two rell A Day's Pleasure, the latter of which included several potential vomiting jokes. His next film for them was a six-reel feature, The Kid, starring child actor Jackie Coogan (who would later act as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family) along with Chaplin. Much more than a comedy it went through a variety of emotions including tragedy, sentiment and pure pathos. Charlie wanted this particular release to have something more attached to it. So The Kid was distributed with fairly specific cue sheets with title lists, and in some packages music as well. While this was not a Chaplin score per se, it helped him realize something much closer to the overall intent and emphasized the importance in which he held music as an important entity and even a character in his films. Joe Bren and Haven Gillespie wrote a song specifically for the film, but there is some uncertainty as to whether this piece was included in the official recommendations.
There may have been more music composed during the final stages of the film, but Charlie would not have time to tend to that. Mildred had filed for divorce and was reportedly attempting to seize his assets. In the process she had also publicly accused him of being a "red," or a Bolshevist sympathizer, the first time he would have to counter such a charge. Charlie had already moved out and was living in the Los Angeles Athletic Club, rather than at the apartment he had built at his studio. He had stirred the waters by suggesting that Harris was engaging in lesbian activities with other young actresses. Concerned that the authorities may move in, in the middle of the night Chaplin grabbed all of the film stock from The Kid and with Sydney's assistance moved it to a hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the editing was completed by Charlie himself. Upon the discovery that he was in Utah, where the authorities did not arrest or extradite him, one newspaper article observed of the 31-year-old star that "Charlie's hair is growing gray." Even without the full suggested score that he had hoped to assemble for the premier events, the movie was a huge hit and his reputation was kept intact. Mildred ended up with some of their joint property and a $100,000 settlement in November 1920. She would overspend and be bankrupt within two years.
Needing a break after the traumatic events involving The Kid, and the efforts involved in his next film, The Idle Class, in which he played two roles, Charlie sailed for England on the Olympic in late August, 1921, arriving in Southampton, England, on September 1. While he was aware he had achieved some level of fame on the continent and in his original home of London, Chaplin was quite awe struck and moved by the reception he received there. He also met with author H.G. Wells, but his hopes for a private meeting were dashed by the large crowds hanging around their rendezvous point. There were also some dissenters in London who had misunderstood his role in the Great War, so he ended up more or less escaping his original home and the mix of joy and angst he found there.
He left for Paris, then Berlin, and there met with Albert Einstein and his wife. Everywhere he went Charlie was met by large crowds who revered his talent, and underscored how universal his pantomime comedy, which transcended language barriers, actually was.
A 1920s Robert-Morton Organ similar to the type that Chaplin had installed in his new home in 1923.
a robert-morton organ similar to Chaplin's
Back in Paris Charlie reluctantly appeared at a benefit showing of The Kid, then retreated back to London. There he was able to spend more time with Wells and a number of British dignitaries who sought an audience with him. After a seven week vacation, Chaplin returned to New York, then Hollywood to resume his work with new energy. On the returning passenger list on the Berengaria, dated October 17, 1921, his nationality is listed as English. However it was apparently and inaccurately altered on February 7, 1936, with English written over with Hebrew for unknown reasons.
Chaplin made two more films to finish off his First National contract, Pay Day and The Pilgrim. While there was no specific score composed for these at that time (some of his early films would be scored in later years by Chaplin), they were accompanied by the same sort of cue sheets as had been sent out with The Kid. But as his films progressed, he was already experimenting more with composition, and in his leisure time was engaged ever more with performance.
Having made his first million and more, Charlie first procured a Brambach Welte-Mignon reproducing piano in late 1919. In 1922 he bought a Bilhorn Telescope Organ, a portable device that allowed him to take his music on the set with him. Chaplin then had an expensive Robert-Morton Pipe Organ installed in his new Beverly Hills mansion as it was being built in 1923. It was reported that he often sat at it for hours at a time playing older melodies and composing new ones. The procurement of the instrument was described in the music trade magazine Presto on February 3, 1923:
Movie fans in the country seldom realize the true character of their screen stars. Screen action, plot, and the vehicle representing our favorite doesn't always fully interpret the temperament of the actor.
It may be news to many readers that Charlie Chaplin is a clever musician, playing violin, piano and organ with unusual skill. The first intimation that many of Chaplin's friends and followers knew of this musical talent was the placing of an order for a Robert-Morton organ to be installed in his new [Beverly Hills] home in the course of construction. This is one of the finest, residences in the Hollywood district. In the music room provision was also made for an echo organ and a special roll device will also be installed on the instrument.
It is expected that Charlie will "shoulder arms" over the console of the new instrument when the Pipes of Pan are playing in the springtime.
Now one of the richest entertainers in the world, Chaplin was certainly enjoying and reveling to some degree in the spoils, which sent a mixed message to some fans and critics. In the September 2, 1922 Music Trade Review, Los Angeles music columnist Marshall Breeden made the observation that Chaplin had once "told this writer that in the early days of his stage life, and later in pictures, he strove to be artistic. He did not look only for the money. Now to him money comes, but he certainly is the one outstanding man in the world who comes closest to the border line between comedy and tragedy." In many ways those words were predictive as well.
Creativity and Chaos
In 1923 Charlie was free from First National, and ready to start on his contract signed with his own collective company, United Artists. With ready financing, his own studio, and the support of many of his peers, he was finally afforded the freedom to make films on his terms and his schedule. It would take nineteen years for him to fulfill his eight film contract, but they included his four most notable masterpieces, all of which had scores by the director and star as well.
Charlie with Pola Negri.
charlie with pola negri
His first effort with UA in 1923 was A Woman of Paris. Unlike his previous films, this one was a romantic drama, not a comedy, and while it was written and directed by Chaplin, he only appeared in it for a few seconds. It was in part a vehicle for his long time leading lady and former romantic partner, Edna Purviance, to help her launch a dramatic career. But by this time Chaplin was already involved with other partners, including serial millionaire divorcée Peggy Hopkins Joyce who had inspired the film. While A Woman of Paris was received very well by the critics and his peers, the public did not seem to care for it very much, and it did poorly at the box office. There was no specific score known to exist when the film was first released, just the cue sheets. However, A Woman of Paris would be the very last film he would score at age 86, when he went into the studio with his arranger, Eric James, and tried to breathe new life into the movie with appropriate music.
There was again some trauma in his life while working on A Woman of Paris. After a number of affairs, he became involved with a Polish actress named Pola Negri. While he had managed to keep many of the earlier dalliances off the radar, the relationship with Negri, which allegedly included a one month engagement that was most likely contrived by the press, became quite public. Whether this was for publicity purposes or not has not been ascertained for certain, but many aspects of Pola's time in the United States clearly were dramatized for public consumption. At the same time that Mildred announced her intentions to remarry, she also lashed out at Charlie and Pola, calling their romance "funny," and that he would never the same after the "marital lessons I taught him." The stormy relationship ended after the engagement debacle, with Negri feigning major heartbreak.
This was followed by an alleged affair with actress Marion Davies, who was known to have been involved with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In the end she stayed with Hearst, but their affair allegedly resurfaced a few times through the early 1930s. False stories have persisted concerning Chaplin and Davies, stating they were involved in the murder of Charlie's friend, film producer Thomas Ince, on Hearst's yacht on November 18, 1924, when Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him a jealous rage. The supportable facts that put this falsehood are that the relationship between Chaplin and Davies is hard to pin down, Chaplin was confirmed to have not been on the yacht that weekend, and that Ince actually died from a heart ailment a day after being removed from the yacht with a case of acute indigestion. Chaplin's aid and chauffer Kono reportedly claimed that Ince was bleeding from a bullet wound to the head when he was brought off the yacht. The case was closed even before the persistent rumors took hold. It harmed Hearst's career, but not Chaplin's.
Chaplin's next film, one of the masterpieces, was inspired by the tales of the men who in the winter of 1897-1898 braved the cold and brutal Klondike,with you in bombay dear cover having scaled either Chilkoot Pass or White Pass into Canada with the hope of finding gold in the fields near Dawson several hundred miles downstream. The Gold Rush would start out with a legendary shot recreating the treacherous climb up Chilkoot Pass, filmed near Truckee in Northern California, and using a deft combination of comedy and pathos, told the story of a simple and unfortunate tramp miner who eventually earned his keep, even though he seemed to have lost the girl of his dreams.
Wanting even more control over the music involved with the film, Charlie actually did write some specific music for The Gold Rush, and in the midst of filming stopped long enough to visit a recording studio in May, 1925, and record two pieces, conducting Abe Lyman's Cocoanut Grove Orchestra from the Brunswick single. The session was reported on in the Music Trade Review of July 18, 1925:
Film Comedian an Able Left-Handed Violinist and Recently Conducted Orchestra in Making of Brunswick Record
Few of the admirers of Charlie Chaplin, the well-known film comedian, know that he is a composer or that he is much of a musician. As a matter of fact, however, he is quite accomplished in this direction He studied the violin in his youth and is one of the few left-handed bow-players the world has known. He is also a conductor as was demonstrated by his ability in directing Abe Lyman's Cocoanut Grove Orchestra when they recently made the recording of his new song "With You, Dear, In Bombay." This record was made for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. Chaplin not only wielded the baton on this occasion but himself played the violin solo part of the recording.
It is said that the Brunswick Co. has inaugurated a special publicity department and will feature this Chaplin recording. "With You, Dear, In Bombay" is published by M. Witmark & Sons. Chaplin wrote both the words and music. It is a lively fox-trot with an appealing swing and very tuneful melody. The Witmark Co. will exploit the number on a wide scale.
Copies of the piece, which were included in the road show and big city premieres of the film, were available in the theater lobby. The cover featured a picture of Charlie standing in the snow in the elaborate Klondike town set constructed for the film at his studio.
Chaplin conducting the Abe Lyman Cocoanut Grove Orchestra in a recording.
chaplin conducing the abe lyman orchestra
The B-side of With You, Dear, In Bombay was Sing a Song co-written with and arranged by Gus Arnheim, but it was a forgettable tune. This music would be revisited in 1942 when The Gold Rush was scored for its sound re-release.
The chaos that had, for the most part, only mildly infiltrated the amorous comedian's life to that point, came to the forefront while filming The Gold Rush. While filming The Kid he had engaged a nearly 13-year-old girl named Lillita Louise MacMurray as an angel in a dream sequence, one in which ironically he had flirted with and kissed the girl. She came around looking for work, and Charlie decided to use her as the femme fatale for his new film. Now 16, and renamed as Lita Grey, Chaplin followed what had become a pattern and became romantically involved with the girl during the initial filming in 1924. The affair led to a pregnancy, which led to a more or less forced marriage, which led to shutting the production down while Chaplin dealt with this tenuous situation. Their union was a difficult one from the start, but they would stay together long enough not only for her to give birth to Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr., but also their second son Sydney Earle Chaplin soon after.
Chaplin had to scrap all the scenes with Lita and now employed an film extra who had recently arrived from Chicago, Georgia Hale. The pace of filming was no faster, even though the plot was changed very little during that period.
The Klondike town set for The Gold Rush which was filmed in Hollywood in fake snow during the summer of 1924.
the klondike town set for the gold rush
Even while Lita was pregnant with their second child, Chaplin started an affair with a willing Hale. Their relationship had a bittersweet ending that was later reflected in the sound re-release of the film in 1942, where the final scene with the two characters kissing was excised with a much less romantic shot of them walking into the background.
The Gold Rush was liked by virtually everybody who saw it, and it further established Chaplin as one of the best film makers of the era. It remains on the top lists of not only the American Film Institute but the Library of Congress and National Film Registry as well. However, there is a distinction to be made between the original and the 1942 re-release which Chaplin himself helped to score from certain selections, and composed some of the music as well. It is more often this version, with narration instead of inter-titles, which is the better preserved and more revered one, in part because of his direct musical involvement.
In addition to his original cues and songs (arranged by professionals but selected by the director), Chaplin liberally utilized Romanze, Opus 118, No. 5, by Johannes Brahms, the folk song Coming Through the Rye, portions of Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the main waltz theme from Sleeping Beauty by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Even though he did not compose all of the cues, these choices should not be dismissed as many film makers since that time have used similar classical pieces either as placeholders or suggestions to inform their hired composers, or in a stylized manner that suits their film, much as Chaplin did. It showed more than just an appreciation of classical music, going further to reinforce the actions or emotions on the screen with an underscore that was appropriate and not distracting. The few complaints about the 1942 release were more about the rapid-fire narration style of Chaplin than anything else.
After a short period of recovery, Chaplin purchased another reproducing piano, an Ampico, for his home in 1926. That same year he started on The Circus, a film based on love triangle themes that had been previously visited, most notably in his Mutual film The Vagabond. The making of this film was complicated by a legal battle that started with Lita filing for divorce from her famous husband. To the press she wailed that Charlie was starving her and his two sons, while in reality he was giving the lawyers checks, but they were rejected because they were not big enough. Charlie brought charges of defamation against Lita and her attorneys.
Charlie with Charlie Spencer Chaplin Jr. and second wife Lita Grey around late 1925.
charlie with charlie jr. and lita grey
The battle became so intense that he had to stop production for nearly eight months while Charlie fought against a seizure of his studio as a marital asset. It was also beset by other issues, such as winds bringing down the main circus tent set, film exposures that proved to be unusable, and a fire that burned all of the standing sets and props.
At the end of the divorce ordeal both parties dropped their charges and reached an amicable settlement of around $825,000 to support young Charlie and Sydney. It also helped to temporarily get rid of the distraction from the press. However, just prior to the last day of shooting when they took the circus wagons out of town to a friendlier location, the wagons were stolen as part of a college student prank for use as a bonfire. There were other perils while shooting the film, such as Charlie doing stunts on a high wire, and inside a lions cage for a reported 200 takes with the unfriendly beasts. Their mother, Hannah, also died during the filming seven years after having been brought over to the United States. Charlie and Sydney housed her in relative comfort in Glendale, California, until her death. Several years afterwards the half-brothers found out that they had yet another half-brother through their mother, Wheeler Dryden, who had been raised by Charlie Sr.
The Circus was warmly met by the public, and it was enough to earn him his first Academy Award at the very first Academy Award ceremony in 1929 (the term Oscar™ was not yet in use) for "Versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing." He had originally been nominated in several categories, but the Academy instead decided to give him the uncontested special award instead. Had it been a sound film they likely would have had to add "composing," making Chaplin one of the only film stars in history to excel in all five categories (he would later win an Oscar™ for a film score and was considered for one for choreography as well). Chaplin's direct involvement with the work of his favorite and most tolerant cameraman, Rollie Totheroh, might have also brought a consideration for cinematography. When he dictated his biography in 1964, Charlie made only a passing mention the film in the book at all, perhaps because of its painful relationship with the nasty public divorce and his mother's last years.
In the 1930 census, Charles Jr. and Sydney were living with Lita's grandmother, Louise Curry, at 521 North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. Lita was listed as living next door at 523 North Beverly Drive. Both were comfortably well off, showing as owning their expensive homes, paid for, no doubt, by Charlie. He was residing at 1103 Cove Way in Beverly Hills, with four Japanese servants and the wife and two sons of one of them, Robert K. Sato. Friendly rival comic actor Buster Keaton, who was listed on the same page just above Chaplin, was living three blocks off on Hartford Way, but would be gone from that household within a year.
Coping with Sound and Soundtracks
For his next act, Charlie would embark on perhaps the most difficult film journey of his career that not only tested his creativity in every way, but his resolve and limited patience as well. Even before The Circus had been released, the entire landscape of the motion picture changed with the release of the Warner Brothers synchronized sound film The Jazz Singer in the late fall of 1927.
Al Jolson serenading his Mammy in The Jazz Singer.
al jolson in the jazz singer
Even though most of the dialogue of that film used inter-titles, there was one scene in which star Al Jolson interacted live with his screen mother while playing Blue Skies which clearly showed the potential for sound. Other than Chaplin, Jolson was likely the biggest star in show business at that time, yet the public had seen much less of him since he was known for stage and sound recordings. Nearly overnight, however, many of Chaplin's previous efforts were overshadowed by the introduction of practical sound films.
Early conversion to sound was not inexpensive for theaters, and in order to accommodate both the synchronized discs of the Vitaphone system from Warner Brothers and the more practical sound on film system from Fox and Lee DeForest, even more equipment had to be installed. Yet by the end of 1928, with almost all of the major studios producing sound films in either format, more than half of the theaters in the United States had made the investment in one or the other system, or both, since that was what the ticket-buying public was crying for. By 1930 silent films would be all but gone.
For Chaplin this conversion presented a multiplicity of problems. For starters, his older films, most shot at an average of 18 frames per second, would not show correctly on the newer sound projectors which displayed films at 24 frames per second. Conversion of older films was costly, so the public soon accepted that silent films would simply look faster than sound films. He had often used undercranking of the film to his advantage to speed up certain portions, and would continue to, but the conversion of an entire film was a different matter.
The bigger problem was that the very thing that made him a star had the potential to be totally negated by sound. Chaplin was a pantomime artist. Many of his films used far less inter-titles than those of his peers, because the action was fairly obvious. Therefore, with only a little change in inter-titles to reflect the country of exhibition, his films did not need translation in any country. They were nearly as funny or moving in Hong Kong as they were in Paris, Berlin or St. Louis, Missouri. Spoken sound would immediately make each film an American or English language film. The use of dialog also negated some of the broad movements of pantomime, which would have been deemed overacting in conjunction with speech.
Charlie sings to a phonograph record on the set
of City Lights in 1930.
charlie singing on the set of city lights
He was also clear, as were many critics, that sound film had its place as far as presenting musical numbers, but dialog had gotten by just fine with inter-titles for over two decades.
City Lights had already gone through several alterations during 1929 and into 1930, most of them for story points. Scenes were shot dozens or even hundreds of times in order to capture a subtlety or an angle, and most were discarded. In the background, Charlie was concerned about how well a silent film would play when the public was asking for sound. He did some experimental takes with sound for one or two days on a couple of dialog scenes, then abandoned that concept. In the end, Charlie proposed that the only difference between this film and his previous efforts was that there would be a unified score distributed with the film by way of a soundtrack. This was the culmination of what he had been trying to do since The Kid.
It was Chaplin himself who either composed or selected the pieces for the entire score of City Lights. He engaged Arthur Johnson and Alfred Newman to arrange and orchestrate his choices, but there was no question who was in charge of the overall execution of the music. While Chaplin was not well trained in Western notation or harmony and theory, he had an innate sense of the emotional and action aspects of the right music. Calling on one of his favorite composers, Richard Wagner, as well as accurately predicting virtually every film composer from Max Steiner (whose score for King Kong in 1933 is regarded as the first fully original film underscore) to John Williams, Charlie worked with specific musical motifs assigned to a character, location or incident.
For the blind flower girl, played by the engaging but problematic Virginia Cherrill, he selected La Violetera (Who Will Buy My Violets) by José Padilla. Chaplin himself composed two other themes for her, one related to her simple but poor flat (apartment), and the other for emotional reflective close-ups. Additional musical devices composed by Chaplin include a fanfare which opens the film and is heard in a few places announcing another pending calamity, and a galop reminiscent of those of the 1890s or early 1900s for some of the action scenes. There is also a theme for his tramp character as he wanders through the lonely city, appropriately enough played on cello, although not by Chaplin himself. A faster theme played on the bassoon was used to accentuate his humorous moments.
Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin in a scene depicting an obsessed Charlie working on a score with a frustrated Alfred Newman.
robert downey jr. as chaplin in a scene depicting his scoring a film
Another predictive device was to substitute speaking with or through a saxophone for prattling dialog, similar to what would be used for adult speech in the Peanuts cartoons of the 1960s to 1990s. The rest of the cues were composed or cut to the action on the screen, also predictive of cartoon scoring of the late 1930s and beyond.
Chaplin did stray from his traditional background which included a healthy dose of classical and older popular music, and called on contemporary forms to keep the film current and vital. For a scene where he and the millionaire character played by Harry Myers go to some of the hotspots in town, a bustling jazz theme played by a smaller ensemble is used. It is contrasted with a Latin rhumba for a party at the millionaire's mansion. A dramatic motif was used in association with the suicide attempt of the millionaire, in addition to two different themes for his highly contrasting drunken and sober moods. A couple of other familiar themes were inserted as well; a snippet of Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov played in two different timbres, and the more common How Dry I Am often used by arrangers for scenes involving alcohol. Most of the sound effects were also done with instruments with the exception of, literally, bells and whistles.
While most films of the time were using underscore sparingly, often interspersed with on-screen musical numbers, the entire soundtrack for City Lights codified his abilities and instincts not only as a composer but as a competent score writer, which requires a different skill set. Musically he was able to clearly define comedy, pathos, wistfulness, whimsy, and even love. Everything from English music hall motifs and ragtime through classical, jazz and loosely defined tangos. Some of the themes from City Lights were also rescored and used in a clever fashion by director Attenborough in the 1992 film Chaplin.
There were many issues with the film, including the contentious relationship between the director and his co-star, Virginia Cherrill. He considered her an amateur in every way, and even fired her at one point. After a failed attempt at trying to fit Georgia Hale into the role, he brought Cherrill back to finish the film. After more than two years, City Lights was finally unveiled to a wary public in January, 1931. In spite of the lack of dialog and Chaplin's concerns about the public's reception, City Lights was an enormous financial success, just right for audiences in the deepening Great Depression who needed a heartwarming story that favored the poor over the rich. It was critically acclaimed as well, not only for the acting and writing, but for the effective use of music.
He was uncertain about how it was to be perceived by the public, now yearning for talkies. The first sneak preview to a half-full house did not go well. The Los Angeles premiere, where Charlie sat with the Einsteins, was interrupted in the middle by the manager who wanted to talk about his new theater. But Charlie was more worried about New York, which could make or break his valiant effort. He rented the 1150 seat George M. Cohan Theater on 42nd Street for $7000 per week for eight weeks, paid to fit it for sound films, then set out to charge more ($0.50 to $1.00) for his showing than most other movie theaters in New York were doing. In the end, Chaplin's instincts won out, and they trumped most of the nearby theaters in terms of attendance and profits. City Lights, the semi-silent gamble, was a critical and public success, much needed after his failed marriage and faltering career.
Chaplin had reached a new zenith in the creative process of the cinema. It would be five years until he unveiled his next act, and something else quite new where his fans was concerned. However, the news mongers were able to find enough to keep him in the press, and Chaplin's sometimes unraveling life certainly gave them material.
New Horizons - The World Tour
At nearly 42 years of age Chaplin's hair had partially turned white, perhaps from stress as much as heredity. Mabel Normand had died. Comedian Buster Keaton had been demoralized by his troubles with MGM and was becoming an alcoholic. Doug Fairbanks was having major issues in his marriage to Mary Pickford. Roscoe Arbuckle had barely survived three harrowing trials that proved him innocent, yet destroyed his film career, and would be dead within two years.
Chaplin with Mahatma Gandhi and family.
chaplin with mahatma gandhi and family
Many actors in Hollywood were finding that they did not sound quite how they looked, and they also lost popularity with the public.
Although he was often discouraged by having to battle misinformation or private information found in the press, Charlie still maintained a nearly religious dedication to his art, and his energy remained undiminished, even if his enthusiasm had faded a bit. In need of a rest and a change after City Lights, Charlie, his long-time Japanese valet and chauffer Kono, and his friend Ralph Barton, who had recently attempted suicide and was in need of a new perspective, set off that Spring on a 1931 world tour that would last for the better part of a year. The first stop was London where he attended the British premier of City Lights. They gathered a few companions along the way for some legs of the journey. One of those was May Shepherd, hired in London as his personal secretary for the duration to read and respond to correspondence. There have been reports that she went out with Chaplin and his entourage and had an affair with Chaplin, but correspondence confirms that she stayed behind in London. She did, however, have access to many of the salacious offers mailed to the star, or letters recounting previous passions, and used that in her favor later in the year to leverage for higher pay.
Sydney had already moved to Europe and he and his wife Minnie were living in Nice at that time. Being the brother of somebody so famous and at times controversial made it hard for Syd to hide from any transgressions, real or perceived. After ending his association with the film industry a couple of years earlier and selling out his shares, tax investigators questioned the reliability and validity of his claimed income. The couple first went to England, but found matters to be just as bad there. Thus it was in France where Sydney Chaplin would be found in 1931.
Having not been to London for a decade, Charlie found his tumultuous reception there had been magnified considerably from that of 1921, and with much more media present. Of course the star was invited to many events, including a dinner given in his honor by American born Lady Astor. He also was able to visit and spend more time at the familiar and bittersweet locations of his youth, including the boys home. The question had been brought up concerning his receiving a knighthood.
Charlie received a rousing welcome and a lift from the crowds in Berlin, Germany, 1931.
chaplin receives a rousing welcome in berlin
It has been considered that his involvement with underage girls and some of his political stances of that time kept Charlie from being honored as such in Buckingham Palace. Such an honor would have to wait. He also managed a visit with esteemed author George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill among other dignitaries, and spent more time with his friend H.G. Wells.
Chaplin had the privilege of meeting with India's biggest advocate and future leader, Mahatma Gandhi in Canning Town, London. It was the only time Gandhi would be in England, where he had been schooled, between 1914 and his assassination in 1948. Both the spiritual leader of India and the creative leader of comedy had large crowds surrounding them when they met, largely by happenstance, in the poor East End of London. Photographs were taken of Charlie with Gandhi and his family. They exchanged some dialog about the leader's struggles during a time when the Indian people were boycotting British machine-made fabrics, then both went on their way. Charlie and his friend Ralph Barton, who was still depressed after five unsuccessful marriages, visited Ralph's daughter in a London convent. There he learned that she would be going to Africa on a mission, but that outside contact was discouraged. Charlie then bid Ralph adieu, and he sailed back to New York City where he would be found dead by his own hand within two weeks.
The remaining party's next stops were in Weimar and Berlin, Germany, where his equally enthusiastic reception by the public would later be utilized in propaganda specifically against the comedian and the countries and alleged race that he represented. Chaplin would, in turn, use that propaganda to create a brilliant and eerily accurate response in one of his finest screen appearances. Even more than a decade after the war, his films had been banned in Germany in response to Shoulder Arms (1918) in which he handily defeated many German soldiers. Yet none of this seemed to dampen the legions of fans he had in Berlin, whether they came out to see an American celebrity, or had perhaps seen some of his contraband films in underground theaters. Among the stops they made in Germany were the royal palace where Frederick the Great had once dwelt, and back to the simple home of physicist Albert Einstein and his family, who had already been Chaplin's guests in Hollywood. One other visit was with singer Marlene Dietrich. The two had no connection other than mutual admiration, so there it has been historically considered that there was no publicity motive involved with their meeting.
Next on the agenda was a return to Paris. Chaplin was met at the station, and pretty much everywhere, with the same adulation he had found all along the way, if not even more intense. As in Germany, some parts of his clothing disappeared while trying to get to local transportation. He met with King Albert of Belgium, trying to address him as he would anybody, and finding out that Kings really do get special treatment.
Charlie meeting with Marlene Dietrich in Germany, 1931.
chaplin meeting with marlene dietrich
Charlie visited the tomb of Napoleon, a character he had flirted with playing now and then, but was reluctant to do so lest he upset the apple cart of fame for the sake of art. Staying later in Normandy with the Duke of Westminster, Chaplin experienced his first boar hunt and first time on a horse in years. He also spent some relaxing days with Sydney and Minnie at the French Riviera.
While studying the casinos in Nice and deciding they weren't for him, Charlie spotted dancer May Reeve, who Sydney said he knew. A meeting was arranged and Charlie was soon enamored with, then involved with her for some time during the remainder of the European portion of their extended trip. May fell for Charlie, although she was reluctant to even think of marriage. H.G. Wells again met with Charlie in France, and the combination of the two created enormous crowds everywhere they went. He also had a chance to spend time with Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife.
The entourage ventured back to London briefly in September, without May, to deal with business. A small part of this London visit was spent in dealing with Shepherd and her knowledge of Charlie's intimate life through his correspondence. A satisfactory arrangement was eventually realized. He also spent considerable time with the Prince of Wales.
Then, several months after having left Beverly Hills, the party went to Switzerland in December where his long-time friend Douglas Fairbanks was staying. Charlie, missing his new love, sent for May and she rejoined him there. They were inseparable for some time, but Sydney made clear some of his disdain for Charlie's public escapades and affairs, which it appeared he more or less ignored. Many thought that May would be that elusive perfect wife for the comedian. She clearly loved him and brought some stability to his demeanor. But Charlie simply never it took it that far, in spite of or perhaps because his obvious affinity for her. The group left Switzerland for Italy on their way to the Orient, with Sydney in tow. While in Italy, United Artists tried to have Charlie meet with the country's fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, who was already going by the title Il Duce. Fortunately for the reluctant Chaplin there was no time available in the leader's day, and he escaped what with hindsight would have been perhaps an even larger crushing blow than those that would eventually land on him.
Charlie with his European tour love, May Reeve, relaxing at San Juan les Pins.
chaplin with may reeve
By the time Charlie was on the ship to the Far East it was clear that May could not go along, and it was the last they ever saw of each other.
For the next two months, Charlie, Syd and friends toured Singapore, Ceylon, Java, Bali, and parts of the South Pacific. Charlie particularly enjoyed Bali, admittedly because so many of the women there walked around bare-breasted, but also because the culture had not yet been spoiled by Western influence. Even in these remote spots of the world, silent films had long been known and still presided, particularly those of Chaplin and his peers. Silent comedy needed no translation, so Charlie found himself beloved in even the more remote ports he visited that had the electricity to run a projector. Even though he was met with more subdued crowds in these countries, they were present nonetheless. However, the next highlight of the trip for Chaplin would be Japan, which they reached around June. It was also familiar territory to his companion and valet Kono, who preceded the party there by a few weeks to prepare the way.
A couple of years before, according to accounts by Kono, Charlie had attended an authentic Japanese play in Los Angeles and was captivated by the mixture of pantomime and music that was not only indigenous to Kabuki, but to Chaplin as well. He had made this clear to Kono at that time, then let the matter drop until the pending visit loomed in the immediate future. To go to Japan and experience it in its native environment was something he had looked forward to for a long time, and now asked Kono to help enhance that experience. The visit was extremely well publicized, and the government made sure that Charlie would realize all of the conveniences and opportunities they could afford him and his party. On the train from the port to Tokyo, they were ordered to stop at every station for a few minutes while Chaplin was seen by the immense crowds, and received all manner of gifts from local officials, such was his universal fame even there. While in Japan Chaplin enjoyed the trapping of fame, but more importantly their exquisite sense of storytelling through theater. It was one of the big highlights of his trip.
The stop in Japan could well have been his last. Although it took several years for the details to emerge, Kono had been approached before Chaplin arrived, warning him that his boss was in potential danger. As a sign of allegiance they asked him to have Charlie bow before the palace in Tokyo (stating that it was a tradition) before he even got to his hotel. While attending an event with the son of the Prime Minister, the son was called away with urgency, and when he returned a little while later relayed that his father had just been assassinated at his home by renegades from the Japanese Navy, and had he been there he would also have been a victim. Since suspicious activity had also centered around Kono, Charlie thought that there was more to the story. Chaplin found out years later that he was also a primary target as a symbol of America, but that they decided otherwise during his visit. He joked that if they had found out after his death that he was actually British that they would have politely said, "Oh, so sorry."
Then after nearly a year on the road, Charlie returned to Hollywood and world of the movies he had momentarily left behind. He had taken in a lot of world culture, absorbing facets of musical and creative arts as well as political ideas. Not having had the deadlines and expectations of creativity thrust on him, even if self-imposed, for some time, he came back weary but refreshed, and ready to tackle new horizons, including one big idea that had been running through his head for some time. However, as Chaplin would soon find, his charmed existence had lost some of its luster in his absence, and there was a difficult road ahead creatively, personally and politically.
The End of The Tramp - The Growing Turmoil
In spite of his new enthusiasm, Charlie felt a bit like a bum because he was not working and did not have an idea of what to do. Some of this was caused by the onset of sound, and he did not have a clue for several more months how he would make the tramp work in a sound movie. He even had thoughts of hanging it all up and moving to Hong Kong.
Charlie Chaplin with Paulette Goddard around 1935.
chaplin with paulette goddard
Then, recalling some of the discussions on his trip and some recent books he was read, he started to develop his next project. It was a pre-George Orwell look at the growing role of automation and martinet-like dominance over the American worker. While not overtly or consciously socialist in nature, it was his outlet to rail against some of the facets of progress that doomed those who were very much like his little tramp; the hapless everyday man with no direct recourse against authority. The idea had been around a while and germinated during his tour, viewing the ravages of the world-wide depression that had taken hold by then. So the core of the film project was ready to go in late 1932. He now needed to make decisions on the use of sound, and casting as well.
One of the lead roles, and indeed an inspiration for the film itself, came about after a weekend on the yacht of Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, in late 1932. Schenck and his younger brother Nicholas, would fairly soon be two of the lesser favorite Hollywood executives, between UA and MGM, but they still knew how to conduct business effectively. On that trip to Catalina Island, two actresses joined the party, one of them a former Ziegfeld girl and now contract player named Marion Pauline Levy. She was 22 at that time, historically a little older than Chaplin's taste had run, and had already been married and divorced once. But the actress had a childlike quality that Charlie instantly took to.
Charlie soon cast her under the name of Paulette Goddard in the role of the orphaned gamin in his upcoming film Modern Times, and before long the two took up residence together. The question remains to this day as to whether they were actually married. Both avoided answering the question as best they could, and told friends they had been married privately, either in China or at Sea. For a while, at least, few cared because they seemed made for each other. There were a few in Hollywood who saw their apparent co-habitation as scandalous, and the first rumblings were heard of making an example of the foreigner who had not even attempted to gain U.S. citizenship.
While making Modern Times, Charlie was either oblivious to this talk or simply didn't care. He was focused on the elements of producing, directing, casting, acting, set layout, and most importantly the use of music and sound. The role of the machinery required large sets, and the outdoor locations found contrasted the clean factory with the reality of the Great Depression that had settled in. The small shanty set up for the tramp and the waif bore striking similarity to many that had sprung up in public parks around the country, including Central Park in New York City. He also engaged the use of a downtown department store that was undergoing renovations for a daring and dangerous scene on roller skates.
While the formation of the plot and filming took a relatively short period of time, considering Chaplin's history, the application of sound and music merited a great deal of both pre and post production.
The tramp speaks at last - or sings at least.
Chaplin performing Titina in Modern Times.
chaplin performing titina in modern times
He had decided that all speech would be through machines, such as radios and a facsimile of early wall televisions that even invaded the privacy of the washroom. The remaining dialog would be through inter-titles or replaced by pantomime. There was one exception, however, which set the film world on its ear - Chaplin's tramp would not talk, but he would sing.
The way Charlie went about this very revelation was with a measured and intelligent approach. He chose a popular French tune from 1922 which had been a minor hit in the United States in 1925. Titina (Je Cherche Après Titine) had both French and English lyrics. However, Charlie chose to make up a nonsense set of lyrics with a mish-mosh of non-words and mangled European phrases. They all rhymed when necessary and some were close enough to reality that the idea of them was understood. However, it was, in the end, his performance of the piece with a live orchestra on the set that suggested what he was trying to get across. In a sense, he had created a musical pantomime in which the use of pauses, accelerations, and even vamps contributed to the way the lyrics were conveyed to the screen audience on the set as well as the theater-goers. It was a way to keep the tramp from being le Tramp Americán, while displaying his inherent musical talents.
Following the scoring success of City Lights, Charlie also wrote much of the score and underscore, using key classical or popular pieces for the remainder, and spending weeks in the studio with an increasingly frustrated Alfred Newman, who eventually abandoned the project in need of sleep and sanity. His name still appeared on the credits. In addition to the music, Chaplin also directly oversaw or contributed to most of the sound effects used in the film. In later years he would write about this part of the creative process and how important it was for him to be involved, referring with some ambiguity to Newman or his colleague Arthur Johnson:
One happy thing about sound was that I could control the music, so I composed my own. I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension. Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grace and charm, to express sentiment, without which, as [English critic and writer William] Hazlitt says, a work of art is incomplete. Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me and talk of the restricted intervals of the chromatic and the diatonic scale, and I would cut him short with a layman’s remark; "Whatever the melody is, the rest is just a vamp." After putting music to one or two pictures I began to look at a conductor’s score with a professional eye and to know whether a composition was over-orchestrated or not. If I saw a lot of notes in the brass and woodwind section, I would say: "That’s too black in the brass," or "too busy in the woodwinds". Nothing is more adventurous and exciting than to hear the tunes one has composed played for the first time by a fifty piece orchestra.
smile sheet music cover
As he had done for City Lights, Chaplin assigned specific motifs or themes to characters and situations. There was, however, one tune that permeated not only the film, but the hearts of those who would soon hear this song that warranted a separate publication. For anybody who had claimed that Chaplin's composing was pedantic or uninspired at best, they only needed to listen to the melody Smile to understand this to not be the case. The lyrics, which were added 18 years later in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, were approved by Charlie and spoke true to character of the tramp that he had portrayed for over two decades by this time. They also speak true to the sentiment of the beautiful and poignant melody: "Smile, though your heart is aching, Smile, even though it's breaking. When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by."
Modern Times opened in February, 1936, and both critical acclaim and controversy soon followed. It was evident to many that the tramp would now be history, particularly because in the end of this film, he not only gets the girl but he keeps her, for the first time walking off into the distance with her on his arm. But there was trouble from Europe as well. Tobis, a French and German film company, claimed that Chaplin had stolen some of his ideas from their similarly themed 1931 film A Nous la Liberté. The director, René Clair, an admirer of Chaplin, was not totally on board with this contention and noted that he was quite embarrassed by the proceedings. The court case floundered and was dropped during World War II, but came back again in 1947 with a request to suppress Modern Times from exhibition. Chaplin and UA settled not as an admission of guilt, but to make the issue go away.
There were also articles lambasting Chaplin for his indictment of progress and the American way of life, which in part was the intent of the film, but claiming him also to be against what America stood for. One authority figure of note, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had started a dossier on Chaplin even before Modern Times and took note of these views. However, his role in later controversies as portrayed in the 1992 biopic was exaggerated for the sake of having a protagonist, and he was not so active in anti-Chaplin sentiment at that time. If Charlie had any one public enemy who could turn the public against him, it would be popular print and radio columnist Hedda Hopper. For the time being, Modern Times was well-received, and did not overtly polarize moviegoers and Chaplin critics like his next film would.
Starting in 1937 the government and certain members of the public started to pay more attention to organizations that Chaplin either purportedly supported or was even peripherally involved with.
Charlie as fictional dictator Adenoid Hynkel on
the set of The Great Dictator in 1940.
chaplin as the great dictator
After actor Erol Flynn was falsely accused of financially helping Spanish Loyalists in the war in Spain against the Fascists, a cable to Chaplin surfaced thanking him also for his help with the Catalonian People who comprised the majority population of the country. Both actors came under public scrutiny for these associations. The "Red Scare" was not yet upon the country, but by 1940 there would be incidents affecting every studio from MGM to Disney concerning overbearing unions and links to communism. As of the 1940 census, taken in Beverly Hills, Charles and Paulette were actor and actress respectively in motion pictures. He had retained his staff of three, a Dutch maid, and his cook and chauffeur, both from Japan.
On the other side of the equation, in the late 1930s, the Nazi government released a book and a film, Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), deriding the reception that the German people had given the American comic in 1931, and making the claim that no "Juden" (Jew) was worthy of such an honor. (Charlie later wrote clearly that "'No, I am not Jewish... but I am sure there must be some somewhere in me. I hope so.") While trying to shame the German population, the film also incensed Charlie who started paying much more attention to what was happening in that country. The resemblance between Chaplin (with his moustache) and German dictator Adolf Hitler was not lost upon him, nor was the fact that they were born only four days apart. The idea of parodying Hitler in a comedy started to take shape after the German film was released. Indeed, many others noticed as well, including a clever British songwriter who got around a BBC ban of mentioning Hitler's name outside of the news by composing Who is This Man (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin).
In early 1938, Chaplin had visited author John Steinbeck at his home, seeking a conversation and autographs of two books. At that time Steinbeck had no idea who he was actually talking to, and a few months later in Hollywood he was reintroduced to Chaplin, and felt very embarrassed about the first meeting. They talked for many hours, and Steinbeck, who had no interest in various offers to write for films, agreed to help Chaplin with the plot and writing for his first talking film.
The Great Dictator had been a work in progress since perhaps 1938, but as conditions changed in Europe, especially for the worse for the Jewish population, certain elements of the plot also had to be changed to reflect the seriousness of the situation. Hitler was already a target as the lead character, but when Mussolini made it clear in the press that "The Italians do not find Mr. Chaplin funny," he warranted an important part in the film as well.
Charlie working with Meredith Willson on the
score for The Great Dictator in 1940.
chaplin with meredith willson
Chaplin endured fights with United Artists and many of his friends and advisors, as well as a number of anonymous threats from the public who did not understand the efficacy of the potential commentary that would result from his making a satire of the German Füehrer and his horrendous actions. However, he also received direct support from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who sent an advisor to the set to review the script and encourage Chaplin to complete his project in spite of any public or private objections.
In the story, Chaplin, who was not Jewish by birth (Sydney was half-Jewish from his mother), played the part of a Jewish barber who had been injured in World War One, and after twenty years of amnesia suddenly came out of it and returned to his shop. He also plays Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator who was running Jews out of the cities and into unknown regions. Mussolini was brilliantly represented in the character of Benzino Napaloni (Mussolini morphed with Napoleon), and Hitler's interior minister Joseph Goebbels became minister Garbitsch. For the most part the upper hierarchy of the countries involved as well as the army was parodied, and not always played for laughs. The Jewish characters, while providing some humor, were closer to their actual real-life counterparts.
Not only did Chaplin have to bring balance to the story, of which the ending was drastically changed after the invasion of Poland in 1939, but to his use of dialog and sound as well. As Hynkel he gave outrageous speeches of mixed German nouns, including food items and a nonsensical tirade against "Der Juden." As the barber he needed to be genteel yet urgent with his resolve. Having already tackled the art of composing for his films, Chaplin now needed to at times tune the acting and the timing to the expected tone of the score, so the musical aspects of the film informed him of the emotional ones, even before the score had been recorded. The trickiest aspect of this highly predictive film showing the expected direction of events in Europe with some modicum of accuracy, was the ending speech, which was written near the end of production after the Germans had invaded France.
Charlie as the Jewish barber giving his
customer a musical shave to Brahms.
chaplin as the jewish barber giving a shave
This time Charlie had conductor Meredith Willson at his side to do the scoring of the Chaplin melodies. With Willson's assistance, the music Chaplin either composed or selected perhaps subconsciously prepared him for his first driven and emotional dialog scene on screen, the barber's speech at the end of the film. That speech starts out simply and tentatively, building to an enormous climax in concert with the score. The music selected was the Prelude from Lohengrin by one of his favorite composers who he had called on before, Richard Wagner. Another seminal musical moment also utilizes that same Prelude as he toys with the idea of world domination by tossing an inflated globe around in his office. An almost identical globe, albeit not inflatable, was known to have existed in Hitler's office, and was one of the few remaining items found there after his suicide.
One of the cleverest uses of music with action in the score of The Great Dictator not only was a tribute to the pantomime of his tramp character, but was later copied by Chuck Jones in 1950 for his Bugs Bunny cartoon, Rabbit of Seville. While the wascally wabbit performed his tonsorial duties on customer Elmer Fudd to the music of Rossini, Chaplin did his amazing shave of a customer to Johannes Brahms' highly popular Hungarian Dance #5. While anybody familiar with film would imagine that this particular track was recorded in advance for shooting, the orchestra had not yet been hired as the score was not completed. So instead, Chaplin rehearsed and performed the delicate routine with no cuts (in the film or on the customer) to a phonograph record. Willson intended to record the orchestra in short segments of eight to sixteen measures for better ease of editing to fit the timing on the screen. However, at Chaplin's insistence, he did one full rehearsal take with the orchestra conducting to the film, and they nailed it in that one take.
When Chaplin was interviewed in 1940 about working with sound and music, he stated that "Film music must never sound as if it were concert music. While it actually may convey more to the beholder-listener than the camera conveys at a given moment, still it must be never more than the voice of that camera". Willson, working on his first major film project, had much more to add about his employer both in contemporary interviews and in his 1948 book And There I Stood with My Piccolo:
Chaplin confers with Meredith Willson during a recording session for The Great Dictator soundtrack in 1940.
chaplin with meredith willson and orchestra
I have never met a man who devoted himself so completely to the ideal of perfection as Charlie Chaplin... I was constantly amazed at his attention to details, his feeling for the exact musical phrase or tempo to express the mood he wanted… Always he is seeking to ferret out every false note however minor from film or music...
I've seen him take a sound track and cut it all up and paste it back together and come up with some of the dangdest effects you ever heard — effects a composer would never think of. Don't kid yourself about that one. He would have been great at anything — music, law, ballet dancing, or painting — house, sign, or portrait. I got the screen credit for The Great Dictator music score, but the best parts of it were all Chaplin's ideas, like using the Lohengrin Prelude in the famous balloon-dance scene.
On his experiences with The Great Dictator and City Lights, Chaplin was a bit more introspective in a later recounting of his role as a composer and his association with musicians compared with others engaged in various creative disciplines:
Writers are nice people but not very giving; whatever they know they seldom impart to others; most of them keep it between the covers of their books. Scientists might be excellent company, but their mere appearance in a drawing room mentally paralyses the rest of us. Painters are a bore because most of them would have you believe they are philosophers more than painters. Poets are undoubtedly the superior class and as individuals are pleasant, tolerant and excellent companions. But I think musicians in the aggregate are more cooperative than any other class. There is nothing so warm and moving as the sight of a symphony orchestra. The romantic lights of their music stands, the tuning up and the sudden silence as the conductor makes his entrance, affirms the social, cooperative feeling.
In spite of the outcry from certain factions in Hollywood, and the public, The Great Dictator opened to great acclaim in October 1940, and was ultimately Chaplin's biggest moneymaker. Even though the British government had made it clear in 1939 that they would ban the film from exhibition, by October 1940 the situation was clearly much different, and they stepped aside. In London The Great Dictator opened around the time of the German blitz on that city, so provided literal comic relief from the drastic situation they were experiencing in England. It also received great support from the Jewish community, only a few who were even somewhat aware of the horrendous actions being taken against their race in Germany at that time. Hitler was said to have viewed it at least twice, laughing at some scenes and clearly scowling at others. Chaplin later said that had he known about any part of the Holocaust, he likely would not have gone ahead with the project. The entertainment and political critics were glad he had done it. One of the theme melodies from the score would later be released with lyrics under the name of Falling Star.
The Great Dictator was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (film comedian Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni), Best Original Score (Willson), and Best Original Screenplay (Chaplin). Whether it was simply first rate competition from others in those categories or the politics of the voters of the Academy, The Great Dictator ultimately ended up with only the acclaim, and none of the awards. It would also, like Modern Times, spur a plagiarism suit from Konrad Bercovici who claimed to have written at least some of the story. While Steinbeck likely had a little more to do with it, Chaplin finally settled for $95,000 in 1947, in part to stave off any more negative press during a time of rapidly waning popularity. Even as the dust settled and the United States prepared for war with Germany, and were surprised by a military attack from the Japanese Empire, more of the personal wars of Chaplin were just around the corner as well.
Not All is Fair in Love and War
The next major film of Charlie's would find its birth in 1941, but it would be six years of misery and distraction before he could get it to the screen. In the interim, he did manage to resurrect his most venerable and beloved silent film for sound in 1942, The Gold Rush, by composing and compiling a new score, adding narration in place of inter-titles, and doing a little re-editing and excision.
Charlie being fingerprinted in early 1944
before his Mann Act trial.
chaplin being fingerprinted in 1944
Some film historians consider the redux of this story to be better than the original cut even though it leaves out the final kiss. Others feel it was butchered or over-revised. In either case it was the beginning of a successful project that would take most of the rest of his life - resurrecting his older silent films with new musical scores and some minor editing. The work also yielded Oscar™ nominations for scoring (Max Terr) and sound (James L. Fields).
The combination of his sometimes obsessive workload, hyper-focus on his work during The Great Dictator, and short attention span in other areas of his life spelled trouble for is relationship with Goddard, and by 1939 the two had been separated. In 1940 they announced that they had been married four years earlier, in part to squelch continuing speculation and criticism. Two years later Chaplin made an amicable legal settlement with Goddard, who continued on with her own career at Paramount and other studios. Charlie's next distraction would be his undoing, albeit unfairly.
Her name was Joan Barry (a.k.a. Mary Louis Gribble), an American actress of no particular distinction. Chaplin had hired her to his studio in mid-1941, keeping her on retainer will making sure she had acting lessons to realize her potential and help alter her nasal New York accent. Fixated on her form and figure more than anything else, Charlie had a short affair with Joan in mid to late 1942, but ended it after she proved to be mentally unstable. Barry would come to his home to harass him from outside, trying to gain sympathy and entry, and having to be taken away by police on a couple of occasions.
Ten or eleven months after their involvement allegedly ended, Barry gave birth to a girl, Carol Ann, and claimed that the child was Chaplin's. Charlie immediately and emphatically denied that this was possible and submitted to a blood test to prove the fact that he was not the father. However, Barry's attorney, Joseph Scott, did all he could to convince the jury that Chaplin, who had shown an affinity for underage girls and lurid behavior, was still responsible, and convinced the court that the blood tests should not be admissible as evidence. In late 1943 Chaplin was ordered to give Barry child support for the next eighteen years, which he did, in spite of the injustice, to help negate the already sensational and damaging publicity the trial had generated.
To add to his problems, Federal Prosecutors charged him with a violation of the Mann Act, which covered trafficking, prostitution, and immorality.
Charlie with his new wife, Oona O'Neill, at the Mocambo Nightclub in 1943.
chaplin with oona o'neill in 1943
He was acquitted of any such violation in 1944, but as his old friend Roscoe Arbuckle had found out, being proven not guilty did not always make prominent figures appear to be innocent to the public, especially one trying to find distractions from a world war. Ultimately it was clear that Barry suffered from deep mental illness, but this would not be evident until the early 1950s. By then it was too late for Charlie. Some lawmakers seeing the injustice done to the comic during the ordeal managed to change California law within a couple of years so that blood tests would be admissible in court for the purposes of identifying criminal suspects and establishing paternity. This did not help him in the two civil trials that followed which yielded the same result.
Yet by the time of even the first trial, Charlie seemed less troubled and more settled than ever before. He had finally found the equal of his first love, Hetty Kelly, in the person of Oona O'Neill, the daughter of famed playwright Eugene O'Neill. She had come from New York to California at age 17 to try and reconnect with her estranged father, a relationship that did not work out well. Oona also wanted to try her luck in Hollywood. As it happened, Charlie was looking for a replacement for Barry in the fall of 1942 for an upcoming film project, Shadow and Substance. When he first tried her out he deemed the girl too young for the part. However, she immediately took to Charlie and persisted in trying to convince him to use her. Within a short while, they became romantically involved and the film was put aside. Chaplin was reluctant to move forward with the relationship, but Oona pursued it, winning him over. They were married in Santa Barbara, California, on June 16, 1943. Immediately the press added another marriage to an 18-year-old to the list of supposed infractions committed by the aging star, which did not help with the first Barry trial soon to be underway.
Feeling that his words might have some sway still for fans, and even the governments of the United States and Great Britain, Charlie became vocal in late 1942, hoping to help fight the war with ideas. Among those was a secondary front to the east of the Axis of Germany and surrounding nations, which meant forming an alliance with the Soviet Union. While a combination of strategic air power and some cooperation with the USSR ultimately helped the Allies win the fight in the European and African theaters,
Chaplin as Monsieur Verdoux serving poisoned
wine to an unsuspecting Marilyn Nash.
chaplin as monsieur verdoux serving poisoned wine
there were many who saw Chaplin's ideas as a step towards aligning with communists, and his words on this topic would come back to assault him within a few years. Charlie, now engrossed in the Barry trials and working up his next movie project in 1944, finally backed down from voicing this idea further. On July 31 of that year, his third child and first daughter was born, Geraldine Leigh Chaplin.
Knowing that he could no longer get away with making a silent film, and having ostensibly given the tramp his last hurrah, disguised to some degree as the barber in The Great Dictator, Charlie knew that he would have to create an entirely new character for himself if he were to appear again on screen. That was the project that had been brewing since 1941. Orson Welles had learned of the execution in 1922 of Henri Désiré Landru, who had murdered ten or more women, two dogs, and one boy. Having finished his legendary but controversial Citizen Kane, Welles developed a story that had a similar character marrying women and killing them for their money in order to support his primary family. He thought of Chaplin for the part and had approached him. Chaplin was enthusiastic about the story, but not about being directed by somebody else. He wanted to take over the project, so for $10,000 and a guaranteed screen credit, "Based on an idea by Orson Welles," it became a Chaplin property.
While the Barry-related trials and the war both caused him to delay the project, Charlie's real life courtroom drama helped him create the ending for the story in which he would play the title character, Monsieur Verdoux. Even though it was finally written fairly quickly, there were troubles with the script approval in 1946 when he presented it to the Breen Office, the association responsible for monitoring and enforcing moral codes in motion pictures displayed in the United States. In one scene where Verdoux comes close to poisoning a girl just out of prison, in her original guise she had been arrested for prostitution. In a movie about a serial killer this was oddly unacceptable, so her crime was changed to theft. He also had to remove any suggestion that he was sharing a bed with any woman in his life, and "come to bed" in one scene had to be altered to "go to bed." There were few other alterations, and the production proceeded, although stiltingly.
Chaplin as Henri Verdoux.
chaplin as henri verdoux
At this time Charlie was involved many days with the final Barry trial, the second plagiarism trial for Modern Times, the plagiarism trial for The Great Dictator, composing themes for the film, and engaging in actual production.
Chaplin's score for Monsieur Verdoux, arranged and directed by Rudolph Schrager, is much sparser than those for the previous three films, in part because there is so much dialog. However, in many scenes the combination of camera work, lighting and use of the score were at the same level in many regards as the films of the famous suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. There were repeated motifs, such as the locomotive theme for Verdoux's frequent train trips throughout France, and a lot of use of the oboe either alone or mixed with other instruments in unaccompanied monophonic lines, often introducing a new scenario with Verdoux. His use of underscore in a scene with a young woman on who he was going to test a type of poison and changes his mind signals methods that would become common in the 1950s, withholding all background sound until the moment of danger, then retraction from his plan occurs.
The ongoing court battles with Barry helped motivate Chaplin for his somewhat controversial courtroom speech. Even though it is set in 1937, he gives a 1947 view of the world, pointing out that individuals who kill in small numbers are amateurs in comparison to governments who are able to render mass murders with great efficiency through warfare without themselves being held accountable. "Numbers sanctify," he tells a reporter. This was another astute yet incendiary phrase that would further alienate Chaplin from the public. Indeed, when the film came out in April, Charles had no delusions about what the press was most interested in. Resigned to not talking about the movie, he was relentlessly questioned about the trials, tax issues, and his refusal to become an American citizen. Most critics were also down on Chaplin's performance, some saying he was better in pantomime than when opening his mouth. There were, of course, his ardent supporters, but Monsieur Verdoux was a box office disappointment, in part because many theaters refused to exhibit it given the growing anti-Chaplin sentiment in the United States.
Chaplin on stage as Calvero in Limelight.
chaplin on stage in limelight
In spite of all these events, Chaplin's screenplay was nominated for an Oscar™ for best writing. When it was exhibited again in 1964 as part of a New York City Chaplin Film Festival, it was the biggest hit of that festival, raking in enormous sums for a single theater.
When the trials were over, Chaplin moved ahead with his life as best he could, albeit now under even more public and Federal Government scrutiny. In 1946 he had a second child with Oona, and was also still involved in the lives of Charlie Jr. and Sydney. After another break of a couple of years, he set his sights on what many historians have viewed variously as either an autobiographical story or in some cases one of self-pity for his plight. It was also came with a new set of creative challenges.
Limelight was the story of a once-famous stage clown comedian now in his decline, based on real-life people Charlie had observed going through similar situations. In particular were a Spanish clown named Marceline who he had worked with on London stages when he was young, and Frank Tinney, a comedian who had worked in black-face when it was still in vogue. One can't help but draw some comparisons to Chaplin's career as well, although realistically it had not gone into the same unfortunate state, and he was hardly impoverished. It took him over two years to develop the script, initially as an unpublished novel titled Footlights, and the music to go with it. He settled on two main characters, one the aging comedian Calvero, and another a stage dancer, Terry, based on Hannah Chaplin and Hetty, who was dealing with her own handicaps including having been literally paralyzed by fear. Much of the script was based on back story that Chaplin developed in order to flesh out the characters, and even though it is not shown in the film, the references alone are apparent throughout.
Of some importance to note are four of the actors in the film besides Chaplin himself. One was his second son, Sydney, who played a secondary younger male lead. Another was his older half brother Wheeler Dryden, making this more of a family affair.
Buster Keaton gives Charlie some pointers in
a rehearsal for Limelight.
chaplin with buster keaton in limelight
Claire Bloom starred as Terry, although she was doubled by Oona in a couple of scenes, and by New York Ballet star Melissa Hayden for an extended ballet sequence. The most welcome inclusion was that of his old slapstick rival Buster Keaton, who after several difficult years recovering from career mishaps and alcoholism was starting on his second rise to fame.
To this day there are aspects of Keaton's inclusion in the film that are still points of controversy among historians. He played in an extended scene with Chaplin near the end of the film where they engage in a slapstick routine involving a pianist and violinist. It has long been reported that Keaton may have actually upstaged Chaplin when they shot the routine, and most of his best work ended up excised from the final product. However, it should also be considered that the film was already relatively long, and some may have been left out due to time considerations, and the rest merely to fit the story line better in favor of Calvero. Their memories of this event are quite different. Keaton claims it was delightful and that he would have worked with Chaplin for nothing. Charlie made no mention of Keaton's involvement in his later books.
With a relatively tight shooting schedule, another aspect that had to be worked out in advance was the music for the ballet sequence, which required both composing and recording it. Charlie ended up composing a 25 minute ballet, although it was extensively reduced in the final cut. With the help of Ray Rasch and Larry Russell, he completed one of his finest scores yet. In particular, the haunting main love theme known as Terry's Theme is still regarded to be as venerable as Smile, and was published separately as Eternally. He also dug into his past of ragtime tunes and English music hall traditions, coming up with original tunes that echoed both quite effectively. It would eventually yield him another Oscar™, but that would have to wait.
Limelight was Chaplin's final United States film. Trouble had been brewing in Hollywood and Washington as more information emerged, not all of it genuine, about Charlie's communist sympathies.eternally from limelight cover Even though he was now in a very stable marriage that would last for 34 years to his death and produce eight children, the family that Chaplin had long desired, his past affairs were being brought up more frequently in a challenge to both his political and moral turpitude. In July it was announced that he was being investigated by and would be subject to a subpoena to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer charges he was promoting communist causes in Hollywood and beyond. He later wrote that "Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them." There was a call in Congress to commence with deportation proceedings during the height of the Red Scare in 1952. While it did not make it to the stage of deportation, Chaplin did help them out to some degree by leaving the country, albeit not to relocate.
In the long run it is still unclear what person in what government agency pounded in the final nail concerning his rights in the United States. While J. Edgar Hoover has long been suspect, Hedda Hopper had used her voice in the Hollywood gossip columns to turn public sentiment against Chaplin, also accusing him of communism. Some of the most credible speculation is that the Department of Defense, more so than the State Department, saw Chaplin as a threat through his potential sway over some of his more loyal fans in Hollywood and Washington. Chaplin left the United States for the British premiere of Limelight in early October, 1952 aboard the luxurious Queen Elizabeth. Almost as soon as he was gone, the Immigration and Naturalization Service through attorney general James McGranery revoked the visa of the country's most famous resident alien, and he would be denied re-entry into the country in which he had spent four decades setting the standards for film comedy, directing, and musical scoring, as well as contributing significantly to aspects of American life.
In reality, Chaplin could have returned, but before he would have been able to fully gain reentry, he would have had to appear before an INS board of inquiry to answer as to why he should be allowed back in. It was later revealed that the INS did not really have enough cause to ban him from coming back. When interviewed in London about his plight, he responded with a quote by a famous American figure: "As the late Calvin Coolidge said when he terminated his presidency and was embarking to go home, and waylaid by one of the pressmen who said, 'Mr. President, won't you say a few farewell words to the American people?,' he said 'Yes, goodbye!'" The American premiere of Limelight would be poorly attended, and due to the current sentiment about its star following his exile, would be shown on very few screens. As it would not last in Los Angeles for even a week, it was not eligible for Oscar™ contention. In hindsight this was probably a blessing for the comedian. In a very short time all of his films were banned in the United States, although this short-sighted way of thinking would not last very long, and before the 1950s were out Chaplin films would again appear on television and in selected theaters. But Chaplin himself would not be heard from in the United States for nearly two decades.
Exile and Reinvention
After having toured England and part of Europe with Oona and his four children, Charlie briefly considered stating his case and renewing his U.S. visa. He later recalled “that I was fed up with America’s insults and moral pomposity, and that the whole subject was damned boring." He finally reconciled that this would be a fruitless endeavor, and made his reasons known publicly: "Since the end of the last World War, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted.
Charlie fires back at Congress in
A King of New York from 1957.
chaplin in a king of new york
Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States" In this regard, his exile was actually self-imposed, a fact that was often misunderstood by most Americans during the ensuing decades. In early 1953, Charlie and Oona then established their family in a villa in the town of Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, the home of Nestlé Chocolate on the north shore of Lake Geneva. He would live on an estate there for the remainder of his life, around 24 years. He surrendered his U.S. visa in Geneva.
Oona returned to the United States alone to wrap up their affairs there. This included packing everything from their home and getting it sold, gathering all of the materials, including film negatives, from the studio, and taking care of other business affairs and transfers. Even though it was known she was in the country, something that made Charlie very nervous, Oona was not stopped or questioned on her trip, even though most other Chaplin associates were still in the hot seat. When she returned the Chaplins had a special film vault installed in their home, and his precious life's work was safely stored for later disposition or distribution. The world was thinking quite differently about Charlie now, and while there were detractors in the United States he still had many supporters there and in his home country of England. While the question of his receiving knighthood from the British Empire was again raised in 1956, it was denied once more due to what the British Foreign Office cited as concerns over his moral behavior. In short, it was still too controversial a move at that time. Oona eventually gave up her American citizenship for that of Switzerland, but was still allowed to return to the U.S. for family matters.
Even away from Hollywood, Chaplin found that there was no need to cease his motion-picture work, and set out to make not just a film but, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, a clear political statement on both his expulsion and the paranoid political climate of the United States in the 1950s. Hampered by not having his own studio, he now had to plan as much as possible in advance to make the best use of locations and rented facilities in order to maximize his investment. The story of A King in New York revolves around the congressional interrogation of a young boy, played by his son Michael who was ten-years-old. Under pressure he names the political affiliations and friends of his allegedly communist parents. One of those was King Igor Shahdov, played by Chaplin, who had been bilked of his funds by his own Prime Minister and had escaped to New York City after a revolution in his country. While campaigning for the use of peaceful and efficient nuclear power, he inadvertently becomes a television icon in commercials, which he acts in to earn money for his cause.
Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern in
A Dog's Life, included in The Chaplin Revue.
chaplin and scraps enter the green lantern
Grilled by McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, he is exonerated and retreats to Paris. There he welcomes the child and his parents and hopes to enlighten them to a new way of thinking.
The film takes obvious issue with the HUAC, new revolutions in film such as widescreen formats, the pitfalls and audacious effects of celebrity, television as a medium and its commercialism, and popular music. For the latter, Chaplin composed some pop music with non-clever rhymes to make his point. Unfortunately, given his time constraints, the music, cinematography, and even some of the writing have historically been scrutinized by film historians as shoddy or in need of editing and refinement. In addition, London was not an ideal stand-in for New York City, but he could not film on location for obvious reasons. A King in New York opened in virtually all major movie markets outside of the United States in September 1957, and did well enough that Chaplin was able to recoup his costs. It was largely ignored, however, in the United States. However, two other projects, one of them totally out of the hands of Chaplin, would help to start the long healing process.
In 1957. around the same time as the release of A King in New York, American film entrepreneur Robert Youngson compiled a documentary on silent film comedians. It included clips of the Sennett studio in action extracted from The Hollywood Kid, and had incessant narration throughout. The orchestrated music, mostly classical and largely culled from Chopin, has been viewed as not entirely appropriate, especially with some of the whimsical sound effects thrown in for fun. Still, The Golden Age of Comedy was well received and critically acclaimed, in spite of the obvious absence of Chaplin, Keaton and the third major comic genius, Harold Lloyd. In an effort to cash in on the film's success, and perhaps to rectify the omission of his first compilation, Youngson released When Comedy Was King in late 1959. While the inclusion of Chaplin and Keaton rectified their absence from the first film, Youngson evidently felt it necessary to temper Charlie's films with statements like "The young Charlie Chaplin, swept so quickly to fame, was to become a figure of controversy," and "But that was before the troubled times..." The second film, less weighed down by narration and abrupt pacing, did even better than the first.
Whether Charlie was emboldened by the results of The Golden Age of Comedy or was hoping to capitalize on its reception and improve on its faults is unclear. However, in 1959 he continued where he had left off with his redux of The Gold Rush.
Musical credits from The Chaplin Revue.
chaplin revue musical credits
Since his days at First National and A Dog's Life, Chaplin had full ownership of his film products, so naturally had access to and control of all the original 35mm negative elements. He also had the Essanay negatives, but these were inexplicably destroyed at Chaplin's request instead of being shipped to Europe. He took three of his First National Films, A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim, re-edited them slightly, added footage from How to Make a Movie which showed off his new studio, and packaged them as The Chaplin Revue in 1959. His friend, critic James Agee, also had a role in prompting the film, although his vision was to put the tramp in a more contemporary environment, which Chaplin quickly rejected.
This new release of his First National material was accompanied by minimally narrated introductions and a full score composed by Chaplin, some of it using musical elements from his previous film scores. Unlike the Youngson productions, which tried to retrofit classical and old popular tunes to the action, Charlie chose to underscore the emotion of each scene, with very few synchronized effects (such as the beating of a bass drum by a dog's tail). The recurring theme for the Green Lantern Inn became The Green Lantern Rag, an authentic ragtime piece that when fully assembled represents a three section rag. In A Dog's Life for a scene where Edna Purviance is singing a weepy ballad on stage, instead of trying to retrofit a known piece underneath her performance, he used a bowed saw instead to substitute as a forlorn human voice. Shoulder Arms used a more militaristic theme, yet it too played upon emotions more than comedy. For The Pilgrim, which features an escaped convict dressed in a Quaker pastor's outfit on his way from New York to Texas where he is mistaken as a real pastor, Charlie wrote a real authentic western tune, Bound for Texas, employing British singer and Decca artist Matt Monro (later known for recording Born Free) to don his best cowboy voice for the song.
Running two hours, The Chaplin Revue was released in September 1959 in England, and other parts of Europe over the next several months.
Charlie displays his newly published autobiography from his villa porch in Switzerland.
charlie and his new autobiography
The Chaplin Revue Copies of it made it into the United States where it received fairly good reviews by those who dared to do so. Some historians have derided the editing, in which some scenes were stretched and re-paced to accommodate the music, and a number of frames ere excised for the same reason. However, it has stood the test of time. With the McCarthy era now fading into the background, the film's popularity signaled the first rumblings of a Chaplin revival in the U.S. was the first film in which Charlie engaged Eric James as his orchestral arranger, along with Eric Spear and conductor Eric Rogers. Coincidentally, one of the sound engineers was named Eric Stockl.
In the early 1960s, Charlie took time out to compile a somewhat sanitized but otherwise selectively thorough autobiography. My Life would be published in 1964, followed by three other books over the next few years. He focused largely on life with Oona and his children in Switzerland. Home movies show an attentive and fun-loving family man who treasured his eight offspring and adored his strong and devoted wife. Among the visitors to the Chaplin estate in Vevey were friends of Oona, Walter and Carol Matthau. Carol and Oona had gone to school together and maintained their friendship. Walter would later play a role in Chaplin's reacceptance in the U.S. Sydney and his second wife, Henriette, were also visitors until Sydney's death in 1965. In 1962 he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Oxford University, and in 1965, shared half of the Erasmus prize with another famous director, Ingmar Bergman, amounting to five million French francs.
Charlie had used his wife in children at various times in films, and at home the family made their own mini comedies or dramas. A couple of them went a bit further in their acting ambitions. His second son, Sydney, went into films after World War II, winning a Tony Award™ in 1957 for Bells are Ringing, and a nomination in 1964 for his performance as gambler Nicky Arnstein opposite Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. Charlie's oldest daughter, Geraldine, had been seen briefly in Limelight. After she gave up the idea of a career in ballet she received training in acting. Her first major role was as Tonya Gromeko in the David Lean epic Doctor Zhivago, which earned her a Golden Globe™ nomination.
Chaplin gives direction to Sophia Loren on the
set of A Countess from Hong Kong.
chaplin with sophia loren
Fluent also in French and Spanish, she acted in films aimed at many different markets, including Robert Altman's Nashville in 1975 which earned her another Golden Globe™ nomination. Michael (1946), Josephine (1949) and Victoria (1951), all American born, also entered into film acting in some capacity.
Chaplin wanted to prove that he had at least one more good film in him, and in mid-1965 undertook his final production, A Countess from Hong Kong. He wrote the comedy as well, based on an idea called Stowaway which he had intended for Paulette Goddard in the late 1930s. It was about an American ambassador-designate to Saudi Arabia who makes his way to Hong Kong while finishing up a world tour. There he encounters a Russian countess who sneaks on board a luxury liner and into his cabin in order to escape a life of forced prostitution. A farce is in the works when the ambassador's wife boards in Hawaii. Included in the cast were three of his daughters in walk-ons. Sydney had a moderately important lead role and Charlie did a walk-on as a ship's steward. The stars were Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. A Countess from Hong Kong was Chaplin's first and only film in color and widescreen. Surprisingly he received support from Universal Studios in California, who had just entered the British film market at Pinewood Studios.
The expensive enterprise was not surprisingly plagued by problems on the set at Pinewood. Chaplin broke his ankle during a walk, the first serious injury he had ever sustained in his long career. Brando, who was second choice to Rex Harrison who had demurred from the part, was very much an admirer of Chaplin, but did not act this way during the filming and was difficult both on and off the set. Both later made it clear that the experience of working together was quite unpleasant. The same lack of chemistry and cooperation existed between Loren and Brando. There were also issues with the lenses used on the cameras, and problems with editing.this is my song cover The music was perhaps one of the best aspects of the production, as Charlie composed no less than fifteen themes, and used a couple of other classical works. One of his pieces, titled This is My Song, was covered by popular singer Petula Clark shortly after the release of the film. Chaplin did not care for her rendition, but it went to number one on the charts and turned out to be the only bright spot of a dark period.
When A Countess from Hong Kong was released in January 1967, there were projection problems at the London premiere in which the wrong lens was used and the film was displayed at an incorrect aspect ratio, setting the dismal tone for what was to come. Critical reviews on the editing and the partially spherical presentation of the premiere were rather abysmal. The British and European moviegoers took the critics at their word, and the $3.5 million film ended up recovering only half of the production costs. The lack of American distribution further increased any hopes for success. In spite of the support of a minority of critics, his film was regarded as a box office failure. Universal removed fifteen minutes from the original cut for a revamped release, but it did not do any better, and Chaplin felt that the cuts ruined the overall production. Charlie went into a deep depression that would last for some time.
Still interested in work in spite of the major setback, Chaplin revisited another film in 1968 that had not even been mentioned in his 1964 autobiography in spite of it being responsible for his first Oscar™. He resurrected his 1928 motion picture The Circus and wrote a fresh score for it which included a theme song, Swing, Little Girl. The piece was used for the title sequence. To further codify his involvement with the music and at the insistence of Eric James, who was again acting as arranger, Charlie actually sang the title sing at age 79, giving him a bittersweet involvement with this difficult project some four decades after it had been first completed. His next act would force him for the first time to contend with a soundtrack at the same time he was making a film. In his book My Life in Pictures, written in 1974, Charlie mentioned that he had been working on one more film project titled The Freak which was to star his daughter Victoria. Costumes were made as were film tests, but the production never got off the ground.
Now resigned to a retirement driven more by public sentiment than personal ambition, Charles retreated into his estate at Vevey, and into himself. He remained devoted to Oona and his children, but did not emerge publicly for nearly four years. Charlie did not know it yet, but there was one final act left that involved healing and his legacy, some of which would equal the pathos and joy found coexisting so effectively in his earliest films.
The Road Back Home
The Chaplin family became involved in Charlie's love of music. He had a collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes of classical music. They would often gather together in the evenings and listen to one or another symphonic work or piano sonata in a house only lit by candles. Discussions of the music would often ensue as well.
Charlie and Oona relaxing at home in Corsier-sur-Vevey in the early 1970s.
charlie and oona at home
Some of the influence of this practice showed up increasingly in Chaplin's scores as his musical vocabulary increased. He was better equipped to suggest instrumental timbres and combinations, cadences, and other technical facets of the score which Eric was able to translate. There are still hours of audio tape in the family collection that have Charlie working on melodies on the piano, humming at times to hone in on a certain melodic fluidity. He had said that even if he could not remember the melodic line as a series of notes, he could remember the physical patterns on the piano keys.
Throughout his life Chaplin had befriended many top musicians and composers, some as friends and some as acquaintances. They included Sergei Rachmaninov, Igor Stravinsky, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Vladimir Horowitz, Victor Borge, Hanns Eisler and Arnold Schoenberg. Others in the classical world continued to visit him from time to time in Vevey, and he would hold miniature concerts with them for family and friends. It may never be known what kind of influence they had on the later film scores that Chaplin composed, but it can be ascertained that there was some discussion from time to time on his music that may have included advice, solicited being the most likely type.
After taking a break for a couple of years, Chaplin decided to continue his project for completion of composed and recorded scores for his earlier films, this time with much less re-editing involved. In 1971, with help from Eric James, he managed to finish The Idle Class and his early masterpiece of pathos, The Kid. He also worked on some more potential book material as well, making sure to leave a more detailed accounting of his life as an artist in films.
In the interim back in the United States, silent films, which sometimes started out as filler material for shows on independent and public television stations, were being discovered by a new generation.
Charlie and Oona arriving in New York
in April, 1972.
charlie and oona arrive in new york 1972
There were still issues with their presentation as most television stations were not able to compensate for the slower frame rates, and many simply used random honky-tonk records as a music track. So the action was sped up and the accompaniment corny. Still, the films of Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin were now getting noticed again. There had been a Chaplin film festival held in New York in 1964 that featured works from his entire career up through Limelight, and it was popular enough that such events were repeated over the next several years with increasing attendance.
In 1971 Mo Rothman acquired distribution rights to Chaplin's films in the United States and was looking to promote then in some way. By this time, with the McCarthy era long gone, a new generation in power in government and entertainment, the focus being largely on the continuing war in Vietnam, expanding musical and creative horizons, more independent film makers, and a second wave of 1900s nostalgia following the widespread honky-tonk craze of the 1950s, it seemed that the time was right for a reconciliation with the exiled comedian. More than a simple apology was clearly in order, and with the cooperation of the United States Government, Hollywood was able to set the stage for perhaps the most emotional moment in the history of the cinema.
In early 1972, through Rothman and Academy member Bert Schneider, a resolution was drafted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to honor Charles Chaplin with an overdue honorary award to be presented to him in April. Even though Hoover was still running the FBI (he would be dead within a month of the presentation) he did not have the same support as he had in the past concerning such matters. He was not really even a factor in Charlie's return. Oona fully supported and encouraged her husband to make the trip to the country that had thrown him out just less than two decades prior.
Their first stop was in New York where they visited some old friends and saw to a few other business matters. When the Chaplins arrived at the airport in California there were a number of devoted fans there to welcome them. Among them was actor Jackie Coogan who was the star of The Kid (1921) and had also been in A Day's Pleasure two years before that. Even though decades had passed, Charlie recognized him and made his way over the give Coogan a hug. He reportedly whispered to him, "I think I would rather see you than anybody else." One of the people that had hoped to honor Chaplin during his visit was trumpeter Herb Alpert, who along with Jerry Moss had founded A&M Records a decade earlier. They now occupied the old Chaplin studio on La Brea, having converted two sound stages and the pool area to recording studios. In 1984 he had added a mural to one of the large walls depicting Chaplin in a number of his films. However, Charlie wanted to avoid public appearances as much as possible,
Jack Lemmon joking with Charlie, who holds a bowler hat and cane after receiving his honorary Oscar™ in 1972.
chaplin with oscar and jack lemmon
and simply arranged to be driven to the gates on Sunday, April 9, so he could reminisce for a moment or two. This incident is also depicted, nearly unnoticed, in the 1992 biopic.
On Monday night Charlie Chaplin was escorted into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Los Angeles Music Center for the 44th Academy Awards Oscar™ ceremony, reportedly uncertain of how he would be received by his peers after such a long absence. Veteran star Betty Grable was also honored that night in her last stage appearance. She would die from cancer within the year. One of the hosts, Jack Lemmon, introduced a montage of several minutes showing some of the best moments of Charlie's work, assembled by no less than Peter Bogdonavich. Then Lemmon announced the lifetime achievement Oscar™ which was presented to Chaplin "for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century." "The 3700 fellow artists of the academy, with pride and affection, present this tribute to one of the immortals among men."
This author, who is the son of a fairly well known character actor (Sam Edwards) remembers the wave of emotion that swept through our Los Angeles home that evening when the aged little tramp slowly walked out on stage to a tumultuous ovation the likes of which had never been heard at an Oscar™ ceremony and has not been repeated since. Even in my early teens I was quite aware of many of Chaplin's films and his importance in comedy, and also was educated on his exile. But nothing could prepare us, or even Charlie, and perhaps even the crowd in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, for the reception that one of the most misunderstood and yet revered members of the early days of film would enjoy, especially in the city that he helped to build. The applause lasted more than five minutes, with nobody in particular trying to stop it so the show could go on, because at that moment, that was the show.
Charlie was duly overcome by the reception. After the applause finally subsided and he received his statue he could only utter a few words of thanks to his supporters. "An emotional moment for me, and words seem so futile; so feeble. I can only say thank you for the honor of inviting me here, and... oh, you're wonderful, sweet people. Thank you." Lemmon then handed him a cane and a bowler hat, a trademark of the tramp, and Charlie put it on his head, caused it to pop off, and gave a little impish grin. Jack and all of the honorees serenaded him with Smile as Oona came out. He was still composed enough to point at and publicly acknowledge his long time supporter and best friend, making it clear that she had also made this moment possible. Then he exited the stage, left the building, and returned to his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, never again to set foot in the United States.
And In The End...
Because of the rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which stated that a film needed to run at least a full consecutive week in a year in Los Angeles and New York to allow voting members a chance to see it,
Walter Matthau walks with Charlie and Oona
in Corsier-sur-Vevey in 1974.
charlie and oona with walter matthau
Limelight had not been eligible in its first run in 1952, pulled before it even got off the ground. However, in the swell of Chaplin nostalgia that was felt throughout the motion picture industry and by Chaplin fans, several of his older films were now being released by Rothman. Among them was Limelight, which finally got its due in the Los Angeles and New York markets. Now eligible due to that technicality (which has since disappeared), Limelight was nominated for and won the Oscar™ for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score at the 45th Academy Awards Ceremony in April 1973. Chaplin was not on hand to retrieve it, but co-writers Raymond Rasch and Larry Russell took the statue which soon found its way to Europe. This was Chaplin's third Oscar™ after several nominations through the years, and the first Oscar™ he won in a competitive category. Given that his first award in 1929 covered a number of categories, he remains the first recipient of Academy Awards honoring at least five different disciplines - directing, writing, producing, acting and composing.
Soon after the Chaplins returned to Switzerland, Bogdonavich, who had been a documentary director before his award winning The Last Picture Show, was tapped to interview Charlie for a potential documentary. He sent in a French camera crew headed by Pierre Cottrell. However, most of what was shot turned out to be unusable because Chaplin's mood would change often, and some of his stories lacked the detail or emphasis that the directors were looking for. Director Richard Patterson took over the project and decided to make a film about Charlie's life, using some of the previously shot footage as well as key sequences from Chaplin films to juxtapose with certain elements of his life. Many of the family's 16mm films were also added into the mix. With the assistance of Walter and Carol Matthau, more candid footage was shot in Vevey to fill in the ending.
The Gentleman Tramp, narrated by Walter Matthau included several quotes of Chaplin read by Laurence Olivier. When it was first viewed by Oona, she made several suggestions about scenes or points she thought should be removed from the film. Much of this included the juxtaposition of films with life events. Some of the film was re-edited, but just before the premiere Oona vociferously objected to the fact that not all of her requested alterations had been made, suggesting that the juxtaposed scenes were poor substitutes for actual events in Charlie's life. Her protestations were intended for the most part to properly protect her husband's legacy. Patterson carefully wrote her a letter defending all of his choices and the logic behind them, noting that these were intended as dream sequences of a sort, echoing but not duplicating what was happening in Charlie's life at those particular times. No further objections were lobbied and the film was approved.
Chaplin conducting a studio orchestra in 1974, recording new soundtracks for his First National films.
chaplin conducting a studio orchestra
The soundtrack used a great deal of Chaplin's own music, some newly recorded. Released initially in selected theaters, a version was also made for television that featured Matthau doing some on camera narration for transitions from commercials. The Gentleman Tramp has long been regarded as a fine and respectful testament to the life of a film genius.
During this time, Charlie had gone back in to the recording studio with new scores for his remaining First National films, including Pay Day in 1972, A Day's Pleasure in 1973, Sunnyside in 1974, and his last film scoring session for the long neglected 1923 feature A Woman of Paris in 1976. All told, Chaplin had written scores for no less than 18 of his films, most of them feature length, and out of those several enduring pieces emerged. The longest lasting of those, often played when he was received at various functions, were Eternally from Limelight, Falling Star from The Great Dictator, the main theme from City Lights, and the brilliant Smile. The latter remains his most familiar tune, having been beautifully rendered soon after the lyrics were added by artists as diverse as Nat "King" Cole and Wladziu Valentino Liberace.
That one elusive honor that so many had hoped the British film maker would receive finally was awarded forty-four years after it had first been put forward; a knighthood from the British Empire. On March 4, 1975, Charlie was wheeled into Buckingham palace, just miles from where he had been born and raised, as a subject of the British Empire. The orchestra played his beautiful theme from Limelight as he was brought into the hall. Queen Elizabeth tapped him on each shoulder and hung the KBE (Knight of the British Empire) medallion around his neck before the two briefly chatted. As he left the ceremony, the 75 year old actor who had been so supple and athletic into his early sixties asked that the cameras be stilled as he struggled to get into the limousine. He exited as Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.
His final two and a half years were spent in declining health at home with Oona and frequent visits from their children and friends. Charlie was becoming frustrated with his increasing inability to communicate, a paramount function in his life, and this may have contributed to his failing condition. Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, the wayward child of two English music hall singers who ended up leaving an indelible mark on the 20th century, finally succumbed to death, the very thing he had defied so many times during his prime years of acting in his own films, passing in his sleep at 87 years of age on Christmas Day 1977.
Charles was interred near Sydney and Henriette in Corsier-sur-Vevey Cemetery. But was not allowed to rest in peace right away. A group of Swiss Mechanics stole his casket from the grave on March 1, 1978, in an effort to extract a ransom from the grieving family. The Swiss detectives managed to thwart the plot, and by mid-May Chaplin's body had been recovered. Fearing further incidents of this type, the family had him buried in the same plot, but under six feet of concrete. Now his body would rest peacefully while his soul continually entertained all of those who had passed from this world as well.
Oona returned to New York to escape her grief and start a new life. However, her efforts did not carry her far enough, and in the mid-1980s she returned to Vevey and the Chaplin villa, rarely showing herself in public, and reportedly struggling with alcoholism. Although she gained some control over her issues with her family's help, Oona was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after it was too late to counter it. Charlie's one and only enduring love, Lady Oona O'Neill Chaplin, joined him on September 27, 1991, and is interred next to him in Corsier-sur-Vevey Cemetery.
Since before his death, there have been many layers of public perception of what Charlie Chaplin was all about. Some associated him with virtually nothing but slapstick shenanigans. Some have seen him as countering the Hollywood establishment. Many have seen him as a pathetic figure who was wronged by the American public. Others who study his stories see him as a master of juxtaposition of pathos and comedy in the same space. There is some degree of truth to all of these layers.
Robert Downey, Jr. as Charlie Chaplin's tramp in a publicity still for the 1992
Richard Attenborough film Chaplin.
robert downey jr. as charlie chaplin
On and off through the years there have been mentions of his capacity as a musician, but most of these have been obfuscated by the other more dominant story lines of the Chaplin legend.
In some ways this actually speaks very highly of Chaplin as both a film maker and a musician. The clear intention of music in relation to films for him, going back to when he first distributed cue sheets for The Kid with specific styles of pieces intended for specific scenes, was to enhance or underscore the action on the screen without getting in the way of it. The very word underscore comes from this contention, and is used to denote what some might call background music, even though a true underscore has a much more symbiotic relationship with the other elements of a scene, including sets, lighting, camera angles and, of course, acting. Knowing this, Charles wrote themes from his heart and mind that were suggested as much by the action he saw on the screen, or in some cases envisioned in advance, as much as from his own ideas of what would move an audience without detracting from the story.
Yet it was not until the 1990s that any serious study was done on his scores and compositions, and even in the second decade of the 21st century, many Chaplin fans are still unaware of the sheer volume and quality of the works he composed over a period of sixty years. There are now CDs and music downloads available of Chaplin scores and songs in their original recordings or rendered by any number of popular artists, Smile being the one that tops the list, followed by Eternally. It is hoped by this author that future generations will be more aware of this particular layer of the many talents of Charlie Chaplin, and perhaps find new ways to apply his music to his films, or even as separate entities. There have been several books written on silent films in general and Chaplin and Keaton in particular since their deaths. As might be expected, some of them focus on the visual or comic aspects of these two multi-talented individuals, but at the very least they have instilled interest in new generations of moviemakers and moviegoers, and bring new insight to those of older generations.
Seeing that the time was right, actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough, also a Knight of the British Empire (1976 - now Lord Attenborough), worked to bring his own vision of Chaplin to the screen in 1992. The lead role was played brilliantly by actor Robert Downey, Jr., who in his thirties realized his own struggles with fame and addiction that have since been put behind him and channeled into a highly successful career. Downey, with Attenborough's help, seemed to understand the struggles that often hounded Chaplin, and while it was impossible to encapsulate who he really was in the space of 144 minutes, the pair managed to cover most of the aspects of his life and career, including his musical involvement. One of the more artistic devices Attenborough used was to cast Moira Kelly in the roles of both Hetty Kelly and Oona O'Neill, Charlie's first and last loves. Bringing the story full circle, Chaplin's oldest daughter, Geraldine, was brought on board to play her own grandmother, Hannah Chaplin.
Kermit the Tramp guarding the former Chaplin Studios, now occupied by Muppets.
kermit the tramp
The film was released on Christmas Day, 1992, exactly fifteen years after Chaplin's death. Downey easily snagged a best actor nomination for that year's Academy Awards. Geraldine Chaplin, along with Downey, was nominated for a Golden Globe™. Many criticized Chaplin for the tepid use of Anthony Hopkins as a fictitious biographer of the tramp, a device which was merely included for narrative flow. But in holding Downey up to Chaplin, they could not overlook the fact that Attenborough had mixed in actual clips from Chaplin films instead of reshooting them, such was his confidence in his star's performance. Ultimately it suffered due to the sheer magnitude of Chaplin himself, further chided for trying to cover too much ground in too short a time. Some of those critiques may be authentic in their collective points, but many Chaplin fans were glad that he was being reintroduced to the world, even with some of his more troublesome flaws clearly intact. Downey also appeared in a documentary on Chaplin produced in 2003.
Film historian David Shepherd of Kino Films/Image Entertainment, among other historians, has worked tirelessly since the 1980s to find the best film elements of prints from around the world and restore the films, as often as possible, to their original exhibition length. In some cases he had access to original camera negatives, and with these and selectively intelligent scores by a handful of astute musicians around the world, has been able to offer a balanced and even fresh look at Chaplin's early work. All of his films are available on DVD, although some of the DVDs are now out of print. A few of the later films are now available on high definition Blu-Ray format, with more in the near future. One of the best sets from Image Entertainment is of the 12 Mutual Films, which also includes a documentary on Chaplin's Goliath, Eric Campbell, and both versions of The Gentleman Tramp. A great addition in late 2010 was a new restoration of all of the Keystone comedies, with only one known to be missing, and only two from inferior prints. Properly restored and timed by Shepherd, they give an entirely new perspective on Chaplin's earliest forays into film.
The Chaplin family has also made available from the vault in the villa in Vevey all of Charlie's original negatives from 1918 and later. MK2 Editions and Warner Brothers made all of these available on laser disc, then DVD from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Each package contains a number of engaging features and rare footage plus remastered soundtracks of Chaplin's music and even occasional audio tracks. They are consistently introduced by one of Chaplin's later and most respected biographers, David Robinson.
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin
sir charles spencer chaplin
Appropriately enough, Charlie's legacy also remains in his La Brea studio in Hollywood. He initially sold it in 1957, nearly five years after he left the country, to a company that leased it out for a few films. In 1959 it was purchased by another brilliant pantomime artist, Red Skelton, who used it for his shows for two seasons. In 1961 the property again changed hands, now owned by CBS who produced a few shows there. They allowed William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who had established Hanna-Barbera there in 1960, to remain at the studio, making cartoons until 1963. In 1966 CBS sold the property to musician Herb Alpert who by then was becoming a pop icon for his Tijuana Brass recordings, and his partner, Jerry Moss. A&M Records remained there for 33 years, even after Alpert and Moss were bought out by Polydor in 1987. They converted the sound stages into some of the finest recording studios in Los Angeles, and artists from The Carpenters to Styx made their earliest recordings in the former Chaplin studio.
In 1999, The Jim Henson Company, founded by the originator of the famous Muppets back in the mid 1950s and now a subsidiary of the largest entertainment company in the world, Walt Disney, bought the studio for creating new Muppet productions. They extensively remodeled the lot, taking great pains to restore much of the exterior to the appearance of the old English Village that Chaplin had worked to create in 1918. The recording studios were retained, and are still in use today by the Henson Company, Disney, and Los Angeles area musicians. Also retained are many relics from its original owners, including bathrooms designed like giant fish bowls, and even vaults in the wall, one of which was featured as a safe repository for the tramp's famous shoes in the 1918 promotional film How to Make Movies. Even though the orange groves of West Hollywood are long gone, replaced by progress and commerce (Chaplin himself pled guilty, citing the influx of oil, aeronautics and movies), the appearance of the front gate today is not much different from that of 1918. There is one obvious exception. The head Muppet, Kermit the Frog (analogous to Disney's famous mouse) is posed to the right of the gate as a 12 foot tall statue, dressed in the famous garb of Chaplin's tramp. Tours are conducted for the lucky few who can secure them, and the sense of history is kept very much alive by a new generation of comic icons who derived some of their best material from the person who built their current home.
Into the 21st century, dedicated fans will watch Chaplin films and introduce them to others, dedicated musicians will write or improvise scores to the older ones that Chaplin himself did not score, and historians will try to shed new light from a variety of angles on what made Charlie Chaplin tick and why was the public so fascinated by who he was and what he did. Was what he accomplished in the cinema and in music a logical extension of his stage experience or persona, a demonstration of his boundless creativity, a learned science when the medium of film was still in its infancy, or simply art for art's sake? The answer is clearly yes! to all of these. And as long as we can laugh, cry, sympathize with or cheer the tramp, he will continue to have an impact on the world he left behind. For all of his flaws, and there were many, we should hope that the joy and the thoughts he left behind might balance them out. In short, they made him truly human and like the rest of us.
There is no single word that can encapsulate those feelings; no one paragraph that can begin to describe him. But then again, isn't that lack of speech what made Charlie so brilliant as a shining star in the first place?
A great many sources were used in compiling this biography. The first searched were public records such as the U.S. census and U.K. census plus draft records. Federal reports made available under the Freedom of Information act some time ago were also consulted concerning the difficulties Chaplin had with the Government. Newspapers, especially the Los Angeles Times and Herald, were invaluable in conveying or refuting certain bits of information, as were periodicals such as Life Magazine, The Music Trade Review and Presto. Some of the earliest information on Chaplin with the Karno company was readily found in advertisements from newspapers around the United States from 1911 to 1913, the same being true for early exhibitions of his films. Also consulted were releases from Brunswick and various sheet music covers.
There are many fine books on Chaplin, some which need to be approached with a measure of caution to avoid bias one way or another. Usually when consulting multiple sources the most likely scenario can be averaged out, which was done here. Sources consulted (and linked) include My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin; Charlie Chaplin Interviews by Kevin J. Hayes; The Intimate Charlie Chaplin by May Reeves, Claire Goll and Constance Brown Kuriyama; Charlie Chaplin - King of Tragedy by Gerith Von Ulm with help from Kono; Charlie Chaplin and His Times by Kenneth Schuyler Lynn; and Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin by Joyce Milton.
There are also many decent web resources available on Chaplin as well with overviews of his life, discussions of his films, and photographs. Among the best of these is which is the closest entity to an official site that exists; which contains many fine photo essays; with an article on Chaplin as "the perfect composer," and which contains many of his printed materials collected over the years. For updates on anything Chaplin, you can also become part of the Official Charlie Chaplin Group on Facebook.
Perhaps the most valuable resources of all that explain his art and the progression of his work are the many DVD and Blu-Ray sets available, even if out of print. Most can be found at with a search on "Charlie Chaplin" in quotation marks, or click on the links in the filmography. Judge your purchases by the reviews, but you can trust the products from Kino/Image Entertainment and MK2/Warner Brothers to be of the best possible quality.

Zez Confrey Portrait
Edward Elzear "Zez" Confrey
(April 3, 1895 to November 22, 1971)
c.Late 1910s
On the Banks of Dear Old Illinois
Over the Top
Twaify's Piano [unpublished]
My Pet
Kitten On The Keys
You Tell 'Em Ivories
Greenwich Witch
Poor Buttermilk
Stumbling (Paraphrase)
Coaxing The Piano
Dizzy Fingers
Kitten On The Keys Song [w/Sam
Three Little Oddities
   I. Impromptu
   II. Romanza
   III. Novelette
Nickel In The Slot
Zez Confrey's Modern Course in
    Novelty Piano Playing
African Suite
   I. Hi Hattin'
   II. Kinda Careless
   III. Mississippi Shivers
Who Do You Suppose?
Charleston Chuckles
Träumerei [Schumann]
Spring Song
Melody In F [Mendelsohnn]
Flower Song [Lange]
Home Sweet Home
There's No One Can Love Me Like You
Zez Confrey's Conception of Six Old
    Masterpieces for Piano
Fantasy (Classical)
Fantasy (Jazz)
Jack In The Box
Jay Walk
Valse Mirage
Sparkling Waters
Concert Etude
Heaven's Garden
Moods of a New Yorker (Suite)
   I. At Dusk
   II. Movie Ballet
   III. Relaxation
   IV. After Theater (Tango)
Indian Prayer
Desert Dance
In The South Of France
Phantom Cadets
Grandfather's Clock
Smart Alec
Sittin' On a Log, Pettin' My Dog
    [w/Byron Gay]
Arabian Maid
Blue Tornado
Giddy Ditty
Lullaby From Mars
Mouse's Hooves
Rag Doll Dimples
Rhythm Venture
A Heart Like The Ocean
Tin Pan Symphony
Motif Du Concert
Midsummer's Nightmare
Tap Dance Of The Chimes
Wise Cracker Suite
   I. Yokel Opus
   II. Mighty Lackawana
   III. The Sheriff's Lament
Home-Run On The Keys
Sugar Dance
Sunshine From The Fingers
Sport Model Encore
The Hobble De Hoy
Forgive Me, Silent Soldier
Dancing Shadow
Parade Of The Jumping Beans
Pickle Peppper Polka
Elihu's Harmonica
Tune For Mademoiselle
Flutter By Butterfly
Rag Doll Carnival
Four Candy Pieces
   (A Suite for Children)
   I. Captain Butterscotch
   II. Chocolate Bunny
   III. Marshmellow Minstrels
   IV. Peppermint Drum Major
Thanksgiving: A Miniature Opera
   Song Of Thanksgiving
Piano Sketch Of A Symphony Orchestra
    (based on Tschaikovsky themes)
Fourth Dimension
Four Circus Pieces
   I. The Cannon Ball Man
   II. Parade Of The Bears
   III. Trapeze Lady
   IV. Barnaby The Clown
Jap-a-lac-ee [w/Alex Gerber]
Piano Concerto No. 1
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major
Selected Discography    
Kitten on the Keys
My Pet
Poor Buttermilk
You Tell 'Em Ivories
Kitten on the Keys
Poor Buttermilk
Kitten on the Keys
Greenwich Witch
Coaxing the Piano
Greenwich Witch
You Tell 'Em Ivories
Kitten on the Keys [1]
I Love Her, She Loves Me
    (I'm Her He, She's My She) [1]
Are You Playing Fair? [1]
Struttin' at the Strutter's Ball [1]
Zenda [1]
I'm Going to Plant Myself in My Old
    Plantation Home [1]
Cowbells [1]
True Blue Sam (The Traveling Man) [1]
All Muddled Up [1]
Open Your Arms, My Alabamy [1]
Fuzzy Wuzzy Bird [1]
Dumbell [1]
When All Your Castles Come
    Tumbling Down [1]
Some Little Someone [1]
Sunny Jim [1]
Liza [1]
New Hampshire [1]
Wet Yo' Thumb [1]
Morning will Come [1]
Oh Harold [1]
Rosetime and You [1]
Nickel in the Slot [1]
Mississippi Shivers [1]
Humorestless [1]
Charleston Chuckles [1]
Prudy [2]

1. w/The Zez Confrey Orchestra
2. w/The Victor Orchestra
Matrix and Date
[Brunswick 5061] 02/??/1921
[Brunswick 5092] 02/??/1921
[Brunswick 5601] 07/??/1921
[Brunswick 5813] 07/??/1921
[Emerson 41996] 09/??/1921
[Emerson 41997] 09/??/1921
[Edison DD 50898-L] 12/31/1921
[Brunswick 6719] 01/??/1922
[Brunswick 6742] 01/??/1922
[Emerson 42202] 02/??/1922
[Emerson 42203] 02/??/1922
[Victor 26259] 04/21/1922
[Victor 26322] 05/04/1922
[Victor 26656] 06/29/1922
[Victor 26657] 06/29/1922
[Victor 26742] 08/30/1922
[Victor 26743] 08/30/1922
[Victor 26791] 10/02/1922
[Victor 26792] 10/13/1922
[Victor 26955] 10/13/1922
[Victor 27133] 11/10/1922
[Victor 27134] 11/10/1922
[Victor 27259] 12/26/1922
[Victor 27260] 01/14/1923
[Victor 27447] 02/01/1923
[Victor 27448] 02/01/1923
[Victor 27563] 03/21/1923
[Victor 27564] 03/21/1923
[Victor 27820] 04/12/1923
[Victor 27821] 04/12/1923
[Victor 28007] 06/04/1923
[Victor 28008] 06/04/1923
[Victor 28211] 07/01/1923
[Victor 30355] 07/03/1924
[Victor 31437] 11/21/1924
[Victor 31438] 11/21/1924
[Victor 37523] 01/07/1927 Unissued
"Zez" Confrey has long been known as one of the most popular progenitors of the Novelty Piano style that was born out of the desire for piano roll arrangers to give their works more bite. He was born to railroad clerk Thomas J. Confrey and his wife Margaret (Brown) Confrey in rural Peru, Illinois at the dawn of the ragtime era. Edward (who may have just as often been called Elzear as he was shown on some official records) was the second youngest of five surviving children of nine born to the couple, including James (3/1885), Frank (11/1886), William (11/1893) and Margaret (5/1897). He displayed his propensity for music at the age of four. Just after his talented older brother Jim had completed a piece during a piano lesson, the youngest Confrey stood at the piano and picked out the melody of the same piece he had been listening to Jim play. So lessons for Elzear started quite early.
In the 1910 census the family was shown living in La Salle, Illinois (near Peru) with Thomas still working for the railroad, joined by his son Frank. Oldest son Jim was working as an orchestra musician that year, which was around the time Edward was in high school, and already conducting his own orchestra. "Zez" (as he was now known) had progressed well beyond what most local teachers could offer him. So he soon attended the fairly close by Chicago Musical College (run by Florenz Ziegfeld Sr., kitten on the keys coverfather of the famous Ziegfeld Follies founder) for better grounding in all musical forms ranging from classical music to contemporary composers Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and others. It was the influence of the French impressionist composers that showed up in his later compositions.
One of his earliest pieces that might be considered a precursor to novelty piano was titled Twaify's Piano. Composed in the late 1910s but never published, it was based on a broken-down player piano at Twaify's on Eighth Street in La Salle. He imitated as much as many of the instrument's characteristics as he could, including "its wheezing performance, wrong and missing notes, the asthmatic pedal, the flapping roll," all on a fully working instrument.
In an effort to support himself during college, Zez logically chose performance, and his older brother Jim stepped in to help him out. They formed an orchestra, then even opened their own venue, The Kaskasia Hotel, to feature it, as well as engaging in occasional short performance tours. This was interrupted by The Great War (World War I). His 1917 draft card lists him as a music teacher living in La Salle. Zez ultimately joined the Navy, where he ended up entertaining the sailors more than serving with them. One of his performing partners during his stint in the show Leave It To Sailors was a talented violinist from Waukegan, Illinois named Benjamin Kubelsky. He later started telling jokes between tunes and soon changed his stage name to Jack Benny.
When Zez was fresh out of the Navy he sought to expand his exposure by successfully auditioning for the QRS Piano Roll Company, making it clear that he felt his arranging skills would help their rolls sell better. During his six-plus years there he proved that contention to be accurate. In all he made at least one hundred twenty five rolls for QRS, and perhaps several more that have not been positively identified as they were released under pseudonyms. Zez secured a job as a manager with publisher G. Schirmer in Chicago in 1919, a branch dealing mostly with vaudeville singers. From there, it was a natural progression that his next step would be composition.
After a few interesting pieces, Zez pulled My Pet out of his hat in 1921 (possibly a couple of years earlier). Where Felix Arndt's Nola had broken some new ground six years earlier in the use of seemingly complex sounding patterns, My Pet threw in a impressionistic harmonic progressions and previously implausible syncopated patterns to define his own brilliant take on the novelty piano genre. It was followed almost immediately by his wildly popular mega-hit Kitten on the Keys, and both were quickly packaged on a Brunswick record, as well as arranged for piano roll.
In the midst of a barrage of interesting solos that would follow, he penned Stumbling, an instrumental that became his most popular vocal song. It came about when Zez watched a postman doing his duty amidst snowdrifts during a winter storm. The piece was used gratuitously throughout the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. Some of the sides he did for Brunswick were repeated in 1921 and 1922 for the Emerson label, and he performed Kitten on the Keys on a celebrated Edison Diamond Disc as well on the last day of 1921.
Publisher Jack Mills was thrilled to have Confrey as one of his prime composers. Confrey had experienced rejection by many publishers who thought his pieces were outlandishly difficult for the average pianist, and was reluctant to even present them to the adventurous entrepreneur. poor buttermilk recordHowever, Mills saw the sales potential by promoting their musicality as well as making sure they were available on phonograph records. This created a successful paradox where even hack amateurs were so sure they could play what they heard on those recordings that they bought Confrey tunes by the thousands, only to discover their own limitations as represented by the apparent complexity. In truth, Zez Confrey novelties mostly consisted of simple patterns, and had they taken the time to master those patterns the learning curve would have been greatly lowered. A very successful folio of Zez Confrey's Modern Course in Novelty Piano Playing was created in 1923 to address this issue, and indeed remained in print for four decades. A ringing endorsement of this was the adoption of this book by the dominant Christensen School of Music with branches throughout the country. Still, in the end, it was the complexity of novelty piano that soured sheet music sales for Mills and other companies in the genre, but money was still to be made in the record business.
Perhaps the highlight of Confrey's performance career, and indeed a benchmark for jazz music that announced it was here to stay, was the legendary concert that bandleader Paul Whiteman arranged at Aeolian Hall in New York City on February 12, 1924. While most may remember that event as the premiere of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue as arranged by Ferdé Grofé, it should also be noted that some of Confrey's compositions were featured as well, and the composer himself rolled out his newest piece, the classically structured Three Little Oddities, along with the bombastic Dizzy Fingers and famous Kitten on the Keys. In fact, the official billing for the concert read, "Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra will offer An Experiment in Modern Music, assisted by Zez Confrey and George Gershwin." After the event he accepted a position creating rolls exclusively for Ampico reproducing pianos, and turned out forty-four over the next three years. In addition, Whiteman had sponsored Confrey's own orchestra as part of his band empire as early as 1922, a dance orchestra which recorded several sides for Victor as well as performed live at many events. Some of these made it overseas on the HMV (His Master's Voice) label as well
For all of his performance duties, it appears that Zez took the creation of piano rolls more seriously than anything. It is difficult to get a full estimate of the number of rolls he recorded for QRS, Aeolian and other concerns buffoon cover(the number 223 has been suggested), but each of them clearly has his stamp on them. Confrey could take a semi-popular song, as he did with Titina in 1925, and turn it into a novelty masterpiece, sometimes by adding an original section or altering the format of the song. They were also carefully edited after he made the mark-up copies for a very refined performance. His acoustic recordings were more throwaways in some regards, even though some of them indicated as many as 12 takes for a piece, sometimes across two sessions. In on instance, fellow pianist Phil Ohman sat in for Confrey both playing and leading his orchestra. After two years of constant recording with Victor his output appears to have simply dropped off in 1924, perhaps so he could focus on other concerns like composition and traveling with the orchestra. A series of recuts of Confrey pieces was done in 1927 after the advent of electronic recording, but with the exception of one tracks, this time it was Victor's musical director Nat Shilkret at the piano with the "Confrey Orchestra," which was actually the Victor house band.
As he became more popular, Confrey became a spokesperson in some ways for the advancement of music forms, which is natural since he was part of the transition of ragtime into jazz and novelty tunes. An article from The Music Trade Review of February 25, 1928, read as follows:
WATERTOWN, N. Y., February 21.- During his concert here at the armory this week, Zez Confrey, composer of "Kitten on the Keys" and other piano novelties, gave a short talk on the development of jazz music in recent years. Standing by his piano, after playing some of his compositions, Mr. Confrey said: "Radio is largely responsible for the change brought about in American dance music. The old-time so-called 'jazz' could not be broadcast with success. Since the introduction of radio several years ago, I have watched this evolution of the small dance orchestra to the present day concert dance orchestra, playing symphonic jazz with its intricate harmonies and pulsating rhythms. The radio has also served to instruct the small town orchestra, and as a result this type of orchestra is better than its prototype of several years ago.
However, as the 1930s approached, Zez turned more to composition than to performance. An announcement in the October 6, 1928 edition of The Music Trade Review noted the following:
Zez Confrey, pianist-composer and for many years leader of his own dance orchestra, has just signed an exclusive contract with the Irving Berlin Standard Music Corp., New York, and will place all his compositions with that organization in the future. Mr. Confrey will concentrate on novelty orchestra numbers similar to his famous "Kitten on the Keys," which proved one of the biggest novelty hits ever published. His first release on the order of "Jumping Jack," the firm's present hit, will be introduced shortly both as a novelty piano solo and in orchestra form. The number will be exploited by the organization in a country-wide campaign.
Mr. Confrey is also working on modern piano instruction books, both for beginners and advanced students. This news should be of real interest to music dealers throughout the country, who have enjoyed a substantial sale of Mr. Confrey's compositions in the past. His novelties all bear the individuality of his style of playing, and he belongs in a class by himself among modern American composers.
Zez at the piano with composer Byron Gay (L) and slugger Babe Ruth (R)
zez with byron gay and babe ruth
The onset of the Great Depression may have hit Confrey hard as it did much of the music business not directly involved with radio, as the 1930 census shows him living once again with his parents and his brothers Jim and Frank back in La Salle, although this may have also simply coincided with a visit there. Still, he did fall on some hard times over the next few years. On March 5, 1932, Zez married showgirl Wilhelmina Matthes (11/1903), and their son Paul Beaumont Confrey was born in April of 1933.
In the mid 1930s Zez participated in a few short subject films in New York. One of those, Home Run on the Keys from 1937, featured his Kitten on the Keys played live, and included fellow composer Byron Gay who had recently returned from a trip to the South Pole. The star of the film was the one who garnered the most attention at that time, New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth. Ruth and Confrey had been friends for several years as Wilhelmina, who had appeared with Ethel Merman in Girl Crazy and The Ziegfeld Follies was a friend of Ruth's current wife who had also worked as a showgirl. Zez's signature piece, Kitten on the Keys, was also prominently featured in a 1935 Disney Silly Symphony, Three Orphan Kittens, through the emulation of a piano roll that was actually played live. Beyond incidentals like these, occasional radio appearances were largely his mid to late 1930s exposure to the general public.
In the 1940 Federal census, Edward was shown living in Queens with Wilhelmina and their two sons, Paul (1934) and Thomas (1939). He listed his occupation as a hotel musician. Confrey's 1942 draft card shows him listed as a "free lance composer" still living in Queens, NY, a decade after his unfortunate downslide. He was now perhaps well enough off from his royalties in addition to any playing appearances he might have made during this time that things had been looking up. Zez sought out ways to expand genres within his repertoire of pieces. This ambition was mostly realized, but hindered by the onset of Parkinson's Disease in the mid to late 1940s. While this did not inhibit his compositional abilities, it made performance difficult, and he retired from public appearances.
During the honky-tonk piano craze of the 1950s there was a definitive revival of Confrey's pieces, including Kitten on the Keys and Dizzy Fingers among others, thanks to artists like Lou Busch, Ray Turner and Dick Hyman. He composed a small suite of tunes at the end of the decade, but many of his efforts remained in manuscript form until after his death. Confrey's older works were only infrequently heard or performed during the 1960s. Jim Confrey died in November 1968. Zez finally succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson's disease, dying of a stroke in November 1971. It was right at the beginning of the big ragtime revival that would culminate in a book of his [nearly] complete works published in 1982. His son Paul cooperated with the project, and ultimately survived his father through August 2008. Wilhelmina survived her husband until September 1991. Zez Confrey left behind a staggering variety of memorable pieces that are still continually rediscovered by a new generation and are actively performed in the 21st century.

Seger Ellis Portrait
Seger Pillot Ellis
(July 4, 1904 to September 29, 1995)
Lonesome and Blue
You'll Want Me Back Someday
Prairie Blues
Sleepy Blues
Sentimental Blues
Ash Can Blues
Discarded Blues
Black and Blue Blues
Bally Hoo Blues
Freight Yard Blues
Mamma (Won't You Come and Ma-Ma Me)
Sweet Lovable You
High Valued Mamma, Papa's Gonna Low Rate
    You Blues
Texas Wail Blues
Poppin' 'Em Out
I Hurts Me More Thant It Hurts You [4]
Drizzle, Drizzle, the Party's a Fizzle, But O!
    What a Night to Love
The Shivery Stomp
I'm Never the Lover (I'm Always the Friend)
Please Forgive and Forget
Too Lazy for Love [2]
My Beloved is Rugged
He's Got a Way with the Women
Southern Music
Which of the Great 48 Do You Hail From?
No Baby, Nobody But You
You Be You but Let Me Be Me
Eleven Sixty P.M. [1]
Moon after Moon
Let's Drive Out to Joe's Drive In
Little Jack Frost Get Lost [2]
I Walked on a Rainbow [9]
Gene's Boogie (for Gene Krupa) [8]
It's All Over But the Cryin' [10]
What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You [10]
Child's Play [12]
You're All I Want for Christmas [3]
It Hurts Me More Than it Hurts You [4]
I Don't Wanna Miss Mississippi Anymore
If You've Got Someplace to Go, Go Ahead
I Want Gold in My Pockets [2]
Daddy's Little Ranger
The Old Time Fiddler
If I Can't Wear the Pants
Before You Know It Christmas Will be Here
Butterfly Kisses (And Fly By Night Love) [7]
Goin' Steady Anniversary
Unless You're Free
Promises, Promises
You Don't Have to Be a Santa Claus (When
    Christmas Comes Around)
Who in the Sam Hill is Sam Hill
Bull Frog
I've Got to Find Someone New
I Wish I Could Tell You I Have Someone New
The Oilers: Football Musical
After You (Trumpet Quartet) [5]
As You Go Dancing By
I Left Myself Wide Open
I Wish I Had My Old Time Sweetheart
    Back Again
Till You Remember
I Need You Like a Hole in the Head [2]

1. w/Harry James & Don George
2. w/Al Stillman
3. w/Glen Moore
4. w/Craig Francis
5. w/Lennie Niehaus
6. w/Irving Taylor
7. w/Jimmy Eaton
8. w/George Williams
9. w/Eddie Oliver
10. w/Morgan Russ
11. w/Mitchell Parish
12. w/Clyde McCoy
Selected Discography    
You'll Want Me Back Someday [1]
Mysterious Blues [1]
Fiddlin' Blues [1]
Mamma (Won't You Come and Ma-Ma Me) [1]
Praire Blues †
Sweet Lovable You †
Praire Blues
Sentimental Blues
Freight Yard Blues †
Ash Can Blues †
Sleepy Blues †
Discarded Blues †
Black and Blue Blues †
High Valued mama, Papa's Gonna Low Rate
    You Blues †
Bally Hoo Blues †
Poke Along Blues †
You'll Want Me Back Someday †
Mamma! Won't You Come and Ma-Ma Me †
Ain't That Too Bad
My Baby Knows How
It Made You Happy When You Made Me Cry
Have You Forgotten
Kiss Your Little Baby, Good-Night?
If All the Stars were Pretty Babies
Who'll Be the One?
My Regular Girl
Don't Ask Foolish Questions
There's a Cradle in Caroline [2]
Dawning [3]
Kiss and Make Up
Broken Hearted
There's One Little Girl Who Loves Me [4]
Are You Thinking of Me To-Night? [4]
Did You Mean It? [4]
Together, We Two [4]
What'll You Do? [4]
My Blue Heaven [4]
Poppin 'Em Out
It Was Only a Sun Shower [4]
Among My Souvenirs [4]
I'll Think of You
Among My Souvenirs
To-Morrow [5]
After We Kiss [5]
Everywhere You Go [6]
Girl of My Dreams
Where in the World
Without You Sweetheart
You'd Rather Forget Than Forgive
I Can't Do Without You [7]
Auf Wiedersehn [7]
If I Can't Have You [8]
Coquette [5]
I Must Be Dreaming [5]
The Voice of the Southland
If I Lost You
Rosette [9]
Sweet Sue - Just You [5]
Chloe (Song of the Swamp) [5]
Beloved [5]
Was It a Dream?
Last Night I Dreamed You Kissed Me
I Still Love You
I Can't Give You Anything But Love [5]
Don't Keep Me in the Dark, Bright Eyes [5]
When You Said Good Night
Memories of France
I Never Thought
When You're Smiling
Out of the Dawn [5]
Chiquita [5]
Sentimental Baby [5]
Beggars of Life [5]
Dream House [5]
I Loved You Then As I Love You Now [5]
Someday, Somewhere [10]
Don't Be Like That [5]
The Song I Love [5]
Where the Shy Little Violets Grow [11]
My Inspiration is You [5]
Blue Shadows [5]
Sweethearts on Parade [12]
Coquette [13]
Louise [13]
Mean to Me [5]
Lover, Come Back to Me! [5]
As Long As You Believe in Me [5]
One Moment More with You [13]
You, Just You [5]
Only For You [13]
S'Posin' [14]
To Be in Love [13]
Singin' in the Rain [5]
Your Mother and Mine [5]
Orange Blossom Time [5]
Nobody But You [5]
Ain't Misbehavin' [5]
There Was Nothing Else to Do [5]
True Blue Lou [5]
My Song of the Nile [5]
I'm a Dreamer [5]
If I Had a Talking Picture of You [5]
A Little Kiss Each Morning [5]
Have a Little Faith in Me [5]
Shine On Harvest Moon [5]
Under a Texas Moon [8]
St. James Infirmary [5]
The Perfect Song [5]
Love is Like That
When the Sun Goes Down Like That
Blue Lover [5]
The Moon is Low [5]
Should I [5]
There's Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie! [5]
What Is This Thing Called Love [5]
Montana Call [5]
Prairie Blues
Sentimental Blues
Shivery Stomp
St. Louis Blues
I Never Dreamt [5]
Exactly Like You [5]
Swingin' in a Hammock [5]
Old New England Moon [5]
Good Evenin' [5]
I Wonder How it Feels [5]
Little White Lies [5]
Confessin' [5]
What's the Use? [5]
If I Could Be With You [5]
Body and Soul [5]
Sweet Jennie Lee [5]
Three Little Words [5]
You're Driving Me Crazy [5]
Tears [5]
You're the One I Care For [5]
Cheerful Little Earful
I Miss a Little Miss
My Love For You
It's a Lonesome Old Town
Tie a Little String Around Your Finger
Loveless Love
Teardrops and Kisses
I've Found What I Wanted in You
One Little Raindrop
Nevertheless (I'm In Love with You) [5]
As Long As You're There [5]
It's No Fun [15]
Moonrise on the Lowlands [15]
Three Little Words [5]
Bees Knees [5]
A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody [5]
I Know That You Know [5]
Sometimes I'm Happy [5]
Shivery Stomp [5]
What Do You Know 'Bout Love? [16]
I Wish I Had You [16]
Pied Piper of Hamlin [5]
Please Come Out Of Your Dream [5]
Room with a View [16]
Your Eyes are Bigger Than [16]
Like a Ghost From the Blue [16]
We Speak of You Often [16]
Some Rainy Day [5]
Kiss Me With Your Eyes [5]
The Moon is a Silver Dollar [16]
If a Heart Was in the Right Place [5]
Me and My Candid Camera [5]
My Heart Ran Away With My Head [5]
I'm a Lucky Devil [5]
Too Lazy for Love [5]
Happy Traveling [5]
Cuddle Up a Little Closer [5]
Bye Bye Blues [5]
Mellow Stuff [5]
When It's Sleepy Time Down South [5]
No Jug, No Jazz [5]
Jitterbug's Jump [5]
With Wind and Rain in Your Hair [5]
Way Down [5]
Chop Chop Charlie Chan [5]
Peg O' My Heart [5]
Little Jack Frost, Get Lost [17]
You're All I Want For Christmas [17]
Let's Drive Out to Joe's Drive In [17]
Moon After Moon [17]
The Old Time Fiddler
Daddy's Little Ranger

† = Unissued
1. w/Lloyd Finlay Orchestra
2. w/Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra
3. w/New York Syncopators
4. w/Justin Ring Trio
5. as Seger Ellis and His Orchestra
6. w/Paul Ash and His Orchestra
7. w/The Royal Music Makers
8. w/S.E. Okeh Novelty Orchestra
9. w/Eddie Thomas Collegians
Matrix and Date
[Victor B-32100] 03/17/1925
[Victor B-32101] 03/17/1925
[Victor B-32104] 03/17/1925
[Victor B-32105] 03/17/1925
[Victor B-32106] 03/17/1925
[Victor B-32107] 03/17/1925
[Victor BVE-32106] 08/10/1925
[Victor BVE-33214] 08/10/1925
[Victor BVE-33215] 08/10/1925
[Victor BVE-33216] 08/10/1925
[Victor BVE-33217] 08/11/1925
[Victor BVE-33218] 08/11/1925
[Victor BVE-33219] 08/11/1925
[Victor BVE-33220] 08/11/1925

[Victor BVE-33221] 08/11/1925
[Victor BVE-33222] 08/12/1925
[Victor BVE-34550] 08/12/1925
[Victor BVE-Unnumbered] 08/10/1925
[Columbia W-142910] 11/04/1926
[Columbia W-142926] 11/10/1926
[Okeh 80228] 11/30/1926
[Okeh 80229] 11/30/1926
[Okeh 80231] 11/30/1926
[Okeh 80234] 11/30/1926
[Pathe 107269] 11/??/1926
[Pathe 107270] 11/??/1926
[Pathe 32242A] 01/??/1927
[Pathe 32242B] 01/??/1927
[Okeh 81275] 08/25/1927
[Okeh 81284] 08/29/1927
[Columbia W-144654] 09/09/1927
[Columbia W-144655] 09/09/1927
[Okeh 81459] 09/20/1927
[Okeh 81460] 09/20/1927
[Okeh 81547] 10/17/1927
[Okeh 81548] 10/17/1927
[Okeh 81549] 10/17/1927
[Okeh 81591] 10/31/1927
[Okeh 81840] 11/18/1927
[Okeh 81902] 12/07/1927
[Okeh 81903] 12/07/1927
[Columbia W-145414] 12/15/1927
[Okeh 81945] 12/19/1927
[Okeh 81947] 12/19/1927
[Okeh 81948] 12/19/1927
[Columbia W-145436] 12/20/1927
[Columbia W-145439] 12/20/1927
[Columbia W-145441] 12/21/1927
[Columbia W-145442] 12/21/1927
[Columbia W-145691] 02/28/1928
[Okeh 400131] 03/06/1928
[Okeh 400132] 03/06/1928
[Okeh 400186] 03/30/1928
[Okeh 400187] 03/30/1928
[Okeh 400605] 04/11/1928
[Okeh 400606] 04/11/1928
[Okeh 400607] 04/11/1928
[Columbia W-146270] 04/20/1928
[Columbia W-146287] 05/01/1928
[Columbia W-146360] 05/08/1928
[Okeh 400670] 05/15/1928
[Okeh 400671] 05/15/1928
[Okeh 400672] 05/15/1928
[Columbia W-146392] 06/04/1928
[Columbia W-146393] 06/04/1928
[Columbia W-146394] 06/04/1928
[Okeh 400769] 06/08/1928
[Okeh 400770] 06/08/1928
[Columbia W-146569] 06/21/1928
[Columbia W-146570] 06/21/1928
[Columbia W-146571] 06/21/1928
[Columbia W-146581] 06/26/1928
[Okeh 401067] 08/17/1928
[Okeh 401068] 08/17/1928
[Okeh 401143] 09/25/1928
[Okeh 401144] 09/25/1928
[Okeh 401228] 10/16/1928
[Okeh 401229] 10/16/1928
[Okeh 401300] 11/8/1928
[Okeh 401414] 11/28/1928
[Okeh 401433] 12/06/1928
[Okeh 401432] 12/06/1928
[Okeh 401434] 12/06/1928
[Okeh 401443] 12/10/1928
[Okeh 401464] 12/17/1928
[Okeh 401764] 04/01/1929
[Okeh 401765] 04/01/1929
[Okeh 401794] 04/05/1929
[Okeh 401795] 04/05/1929
[Okeh 401796] 04/05/1929
[Okeh 401799] 04/09/1929
[Okeh 401800] 04/09/1929
[Okeh 401801] 04/09/1929
[Okeh 402416] 06/04/1929
[Okeh 402417] 06/04/1929
[Okeh 402463] 07/05/1929
[Okeh 402464] 07/05/1929
[Okeh 402861] 08/16/1929
[Okeh 402862] 08/16/1929
[Okeh 402881] 08/26/1929
[Okeh 402882] 08/26/1929
[Okeh 402883] 08/26/1929
[Okeh 402884] 08/26/1929
[Okeh 403057] 10/11/1929
[Okeh 403058] 10/11/1929
[Okeh 403497] 12/13/1929
[Okeh 403498] 12/13/1929
[Okeh 403618] 01/13/1930
[Okeh 403619] 01/13/1930
[Okeh 403658] 01/21/1930
[Okeh 403757] 02/14/1930
[Okeh 403758] 02/14/1930
[Okeh 403759] 02/14/1930
[Okeh 403760] 02/14/1930
[Okeh 403789] 02/28/1930
[Okeh 403790] 02/28/1930
[Okeh 403793] 03/03/1930
[Okeh 403794] 03/03/1930
[Okeh 403795] 03/03/1930
[Okeh 403871] 03/21/1930
[Okeh 403872] 03/21/1930
[Okeh 403873] 03/21/1930
[Okeh 403874] 03/21/1930
[Okeh 403885] 03/28/1930
[Okeh 403886] 03/28/1930
[Okeh 404235] 06/26/1930
[Okeh 404236] 06/26/1930
[Okeh 404270] 07/23/1930
[Okeh 404271] 07/23/1930
[Okeh 404272] 07/23/1930
[Okeh 404273] 07/23/1930
[Okeh 404452] 09/16/1930
[Okeh 404453] 09/16/1930
[Okeh 404516] 10/30/1930
[Okeh 404518] 10/30/1930
[Okeh 404562] 11/23/1930
[Okeh 404563] 11/23/1930
[Okeh 404582] 12/20/1930
[Okeh 404583] 12/20/1930
[Columbia W-151185] 12/15/1930
[Columbia W-151186] 12/15/1930
[Brunswick E35761] 12/??/1930
[Brunswick E35773] 12/??/1930
[Brunswick E36034] 02/??/1931
[Brunswick E36085] 02/??/1931
[Brunswick E36190] 02/??/1931
[Brunswick E36191] 02/??/1931
[Brunswick E36192] 02/??/1931
[Brunswick E36220] 03/??/1931
[Brunswick E36872] 06/??/1931
[Brunswick E36873] 06/??/1931
[Decca DLA334] 04/04/1936
[Decca DLA342] 04/04/1936
[Decca DLA749] 03/11/1937
[Decca DLA751] 03/11/1937
[Decca DLA751] 03/11/1937
[Decca DLA752] 03/11/1937
[Decca DLA753] 03/11/1937
[Decca DLA754] 03/11/1937
[Brunswick 23653] 11/02/1938
[Brunswick 23654] 11/02/1938
[Brunswick 23655] 11/02/1938
[Brunswick 23656/7] 11/02/1938
[Brunswick 23824] 12/09/1938
[Brunswick 23825] 12/09/1938
[Brunswick 23826] 12/09/1938
[Brunswick 24079] 02/06/1939
[Brunswick 24080] 02/06/1939
[Brunswick 24081] 02/06/1939
[Brunswick 24082] 02/06/1939
[Brunswick 24325] 04/04/1939
[Brunswick 24326] 04/04/1939
[Brunswick 24327] 04/04/1939
[Brunswick 24328] 04/04/1939
[Vocalion 25885] 01/29/1940
[Okeh/CBS 25886] 01/29/1940
[Okeh/CBS 25887] 01/29/1940
[Vocalion 25888] 01/29/1940
[Okeh/CBS 26439] 03/24/1940
[Okeh/CBS 26440] 03/24/1940
[Okeh/CBS 26441] 03/24/1940
[Okeh/CBS 26442] 03/24/1940
[Ammor AM610] 10/??/1940
[Ammor AM611] 10/??/1940
[Ammor AM612] 10/??/1940
[Ammor AM613] 10/??/1940
[Bullet 1011A] 08/??/1948
[Bullet 1011B] 08/??/1948
[Bullet 1014A] 08/??/1948
[Bullet 1014B] 08/??/1948
[MGM 48S675] ??/??/1948
[MGM 48S676] ??/??/1948

10. w/Sam Lanin's Famous Players
11. w/Tampa Blue Trio
12. w/Dorsey Brothers Orchestra
13. w/Justin Ring Orchestra
14. w/S.E. Orchestra, Louis Armstrong,
   Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey
15. w/Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra
16. w/His Choir of Brass
17. w/Owen Bradley Orchestra
Seger Ellis was a born and bred Texan, the son of bank clerk George Ellis, Jr. and Millien Pillot of Houston. He arrived in the Lone Star State on a hot Fourth of July in 1904. As of the 1910 census the family, including Seger's younger brother Hampton Ellis (1906) were living with Mildred's parents, Nicholas and Pauline Pillot, in Houston. At the time of the 1920 census nothing had changed with the extended family's situation, and George was now listed as an assistant cashier in the bank. Hampton would eventually follow in his father's footsteps, but Seger had a different direction in mind.
Little has been relayed about Seger's musical training, but given his musical capabilities he may have had some light harmony and theory in high school. He also had professional help. He later recalled that there were three piano players in town, Jack Sharpe, Charley Dickson and Peck Kelley. They played at all the parties and made a good living. He would watch them carefully, and finally asked Jack Sharpe for lessons. Sharpe resisted, and tried to thwart the teen by charging five dollars per lesson, a lot of money at that time. But Seger came up with the funds somehow. The lessons consisted of Seger watching Jack play slowly, supplemented by lessons in reading music from another more traditional lady piano teacher.
Seger's musical education also came from The University of Virginia, and he worked his way through school performing in local venues. Ellis was also obviously immersed in popular music forms, and not just those heard in Texas or Virginia. Since his musical upbringing predated radio, his influences likely came from phonograph records and live performances, perhaps even some vaudeville. Just the same, there was some Texas ragtime style present in his blues performances as well, some of it perhaps from Sharpe.
In the early 1920s, with the ragtime era rapidly fading and the decade of novelty piano and the jazz age underway, Ellis entered the field of professional music in Houston. He self-published two of his first songs in 1923 and 1924, and formed his own instrumental group playing popular dance music and some early jazz works and blues.
As radio started to take hold on the American landscape after 1922, station operators first had to establish a stable signal and audience in their respective regions, then look to providing content in order to keep their audience and attract advertisers.
A early publicity portrait of Seger Ellis.
early portrait of seger ellis
Playing records over the air was not viable in the early days, so the few hours they were on the air every day were filled with live entertainment. In Houston, the station that became KPRC was set up by the Houston Post-Dispatch in a hurry in April 1925 in order to use some equipment they already owned in storage, and to have the exclusive broadcast rights to a speech to be given by commerce secretary (future president) Herbert Hoover. When they signed on for good in May, Seger Ellis as a solo pianist, with his own small group, and with the Lloyd Finlay Orchestra were among the first acts to appear on a semi-regular basis, along with musicians and other artists from around the region. It is probable that Ellis had been on one of the other pioneer Houston stations before 1925, but confirmation of this was difficult to pin down.
However, prior to his radio debut, Ellis was "discovered," even though that discovery took a few months. Victor Records, which along with Columbia was one of the predominant record companies in the United States, had been experimenting with electronic recording in early 1925. In order to quickly build up their repertoire and stable of artists to keep their market share and appeal to regional artists, they sent some of their first electronic field units around various parts of the country to find and record new talent. In mid-march they came to Houston where Victor engineers spent a few days auditioning and recording various acts.
Among those were the Lloyd Finlay Orchestra with Seger at the piano, and on March 17th and 18th, 1925, they recorded several sides, four of the takes which were released, two of them Ellis compositions. As Ellis recalled it in a February 1962 Jazz Journal International article, "The Victor A&R man came to town to record Lloyd Finlay's pit band at the Majestic Theater. He wanted to do eight sides, but Finlay was only ready with four numbers and the A&R man, that was Eddied King, had only two with him. Then they heard me playing on the radio... and he came around and asked me for two original numbers."
The Victor managers in New York were impressed enough with what their engineers returned with that they asked Seger, now a rising star in his native Houston, to come to Camden, New Jersey to record more sides for the label. The performances he laid down were fine, but there were technical issues with the recordings themselves. He ventured back there over the summer, and on August 10th through 12th recorded as many as 45 to 50 takes of several of his own compositions, and a couple of others that he knew. However, the difficulties of early electronic recording and lack of experience on what microphones to use for piano solos and how to use them got in the way, and in the end only three of those sides, Prairie Blues and Sentimental Blues, were deemed usable. Several other takes were put on hold or destroyed. Still, he was among the first Victor artists, perhaps the first pianist to record commercial solo jazz and blues piano sides electronically to disc during the nationwide crossover to this technology between 1925 and 1927.
These first two released tracks do tell us a bit about the evolving style of the 21-year-old pianist. Prairie Blues is a laid back piece with elements of a strong barrelhouse left hand - more of a left hand vamp that is chord based rather than the traditional ragtime bass.
Seger Ellis' first vocal side
on Columbia Records.
Seger Ellis first side on Columbia Records
Each chorus is unique and original, and some phrases of the performance could be characterized as boogie-woogie. Sentimental Blues has both a verse and chorus, and is an eighteen bar blues. His performance plays with both major and minor modes, with a prominent and consistent rolling left hand. Ellis himself noted that "I had a weird left hand. It puzzled everybody... They were all playing one note and a chord then, like Fats Waller... My stuff, it was gutbucket but I deviated slightly from the standard blues changes, put in a few extra chords."
His style was indicative of the early East Texas barrelhouse style as performed by other blues and boogie-woogie figures such as Will Ezell and George and Hersal Thomas. This enhances the chance that Seger actually heard, and possibly knew these other players as they roamed throughout the south in the early 1920s. His Ash Can Blues, one of the original Victors that survives in spite of not being issued, is further proof of this, as it has been compared to 31 Blues played by Bob Call, another fine Texas blues pianist. It was backed by one of his first songs, You'll Want Me Back Some Day, recorded in early 1926.
In spite of his potential as a dynamic boogie pianist bordering on stride piano, a different path would eventually be chosen for Seger by public acclaim. It started during his radio days or performing in the vaudeville houses in Houston and surrounding areas. Ellis had a relatively high but smooth tenor voice, yet he was reportedly uncomfortable with the prospect of his singing. Given that radio was such an important medium for audio, and that during that period most radio sets had better sound potential than the average acoustic phonograph player, it was a given that his employers at KPRC would want Seger to go with the growing trend of bands with singers. They felt that it was difficult to sustain 90 minutes of piano solos at that time, so they asked him to vocalize. Seger felt his voice was too high to be accepted by the public, but their reaction was quite the opposite, and it was his vocalizing that made him more of a star than his dynamic piano playing did.
Ellis was again invited back east, this time by Columbia Records, and in November 1926 his career as a handsome and charismatic tenor on the national stage began with the piano and vocal recording of Sunday. Over the next 20 months he would lay down several vocal tracks for Columbia, and these in turn put his picture on a number of sheet music covers, a silent promotion that still worked well for artists and composers in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost simutaneously Ellis began an even longer career playing for Okeh Records after Columbia purchased them. Seger moved to New York around this time.
A 1927 San Antonio window display of the
Seger Ellis QRS roll of Texas Wail Blues.
window display of texas wail blues
He recorded both on his own as a pianist/vocalist, with pickup groups of his own choosing labeled as the Seger Ellis and His Orchestra, and with a variety of other artists. Among these were Russell Douglas, The New York Syncopators, the Justin Ring Trio, The Royal Music Makers and The Tampa Blue Trio. He became prominent enough that he warranted his own picture label, something reserved only for the real Okeh stars including Paul Whiteman and Ted Lewis. Between 1926 and 1929 he was the third best selling record artist in the United States.
One pair of recordings in particular put him in with the top musicians of that period. On June 4, 1929, Ellis provided vocals for S'Posin' and To Be In Love, joined by no less than Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey and drummer Stan King, along with his orchestra leader pal Justin Ring on piano. This was rare in that Louis had rarely worked outside of his own band during this period. That the black Armstrong's first track as an independent was on a date for the white Seger Ellis is of some historical significance. It is also probable that Armstrong played trumpet against Seger's vocal on the recently penned Ain't Misbehavin' in August, 1929. Ellis further wrote arrangements for Armstrong, cornetist Muggsy Spanier, trumpeter Manny Klein, the legendary but troubled Bix Beiderbecke, guitarist Eddie Lang and jazz violinist Joe Venuti, all Okeh artists in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Early in 1927 Ellis was invited to the U.S. Music studio to record one of his characteristic pieces. The end result was Texas Wail Blues, also released with minor changes on the QRS label, and which was heavily promoted in Texas. In March 1927 he was back in the Houston area performing it on stage and at music stores both in Houston and San Antonio, later in the Dallas Fort Worth area.
Seger's record of Ain't Misbehavin', possibly featuring trumpet by Louis Armstrong.
ain't misbehavin' disc label
It is also a moderate tempo blues in which his left hand style challenges the player mechanism to keep up with his dynamic pseudo-stride pulse. In early 1928 Seger was taken in by the Robbins publishing firm. According to the Music Trade Review of March 3, 1928: "A contract with the Robbins Music Corp., New York, was signed this week by Seger Ellis, popular recording pianist, who is preparing a series of piano solos for publication by this house. Mr. Ellis, a native of Houston, Tex., started working out his own ideas in piano playing and drifted to the jazz and blues style."
In all, Seger appeared on at least 95 Okeh sides between November 1926 and December 1930, followed by a small quantity of just ten Brunswick recordings through June 1931, primarily as a vocalist, but on rare occasions as a pianist. Four Okeh instrumental sides in particular stand out, as does another interesting vocal. In March 1930 Seger recut his first two blues, Prairie Blues and Sentimental Blues, for Okeh. There is only a slight evolution noticeable in this higher fidelity tracks, but they remain fairly true to his Victor takes. Then he took on the by now ubiquitous St. Louis Blues to great effect. But the A side of that record was his Shivery Stomp, a romp that is a standout among the Seger Ellis piano tracks and his admitted favorite as well. While not overly inventive harmonically, it is a showcase for his heavily chorded left hand barrelhouse style, which includes a couple of cleanly executed scales rising up to the right hand melody. Rhythmically it pulses throughout, but with such a fascinating effect that it borders between music that encourages dance movement and that which encourages concentrated listening. Shivery Stomp was also covered by Bix Beiderbecke, and by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra ten months before Ellis' own, recording, also on the Okeh label. This time line indicates that Trumbauer may have had an ongoing musical relationship with the pianist (Seger had added vocal to one Trumbauer side), and also that it and other pieces obviously predated their composer's recording dates by quite a bit.
One more interesting track was a vocal with orchestra and piano backing. St. James Infirmary, a venerable New Orleans lament. It was recorded on January 21, 1930. It has elements of boogie bass as well as the persistent funerial pulse throughout.
An Ellis picture disc of Shivery Stomp
on the Okeh label.
Shivery Stomp picture disc
It also includes a rarely-heard verse that would be controversial even today: "I want sixteen roll-the-dice shooters for my pall bearers; want nineteen women [to] sing my funeral song; sprinkle mari-juana in my coffin, and let those [muter?] hands forget all as they go slowly 'long." It is hard to find this verse elsewhere, and authenticity as to a New Orleans origin is also difficult to establish. But this inclusion does show some early connection between jazz musicians and marijuana, which became more prominent in the coming decades, particularly with a future friend of Ellis, drummer Gene Krupa. As for Ellis himself, the author found no reports of known reefer use.
While many artists often performed or composed using a pseudonym, Ellis was not known to do this except on an occasion where it was called for. In this case it was Okeh who had a floating band name backing one of their novelty minstrel and country yodeling vocalists, Emmett Miller. On at least a couple of sides, Seger filled in as Bud Blue, a.k.a. Buddy Blue, Buddy Blue and his Texans, and various other contrivances. Other Okeh artists of that period also stepped into the Bud Blue shoes, usually pianist Fred Rich. The group also backed singer Smith Ballew although it appears Ellis had no part in his sessions. Being from Texas, Seger probably took these requests in stride.
Ellis had toured England in 1928 as a soloist, and was once again out of the country for the 1930 census, so some points of his life at that time are hard to confirm. He was married at that time to Vivian Masterson from Angleton, Texas. They arrived in England from New York on April 3, 1930, and returned on May 28 from Cherbourg, France. Whether this was for a music tour or simply a trip (honeymoon?) with his wife is not clear. However, other known band members were not found on either of the ship rosters. It also indicates that the couple was living at that time at 8267 Austria Street in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood in Queens, New York.
And then it seemed to just end. It is unclear whether Ellis fell out of favor with the public, or with Okeh Records, or just wanted to lay back for a while. His last tracks for a while were recorded in June 1931. The Great Depression was taking hold of the country and the globe, and record sales dropped as much as 85% between 1929 and 1931, given that a radio was cheaper to maintain and was always current. While there has been a lot of speculation on what Ellis was up to during this period, some scant listings have been found for him as a vocalist, mostly in the Houston area. However, he also worked as a booking agent for talent for several years in the mid-1930s. let's go out in the open air coverAn article in the Pittsburgh Press of March 28, 1934, confirms that Ellis was living or staying in Cincinnati, Ohio at that time, and had previously won first place in one of their national radio talent contests. There are also mentions of him performing on WLW in Cincinnati where he made a discovery of his own. One of the groups he heard there, and then promoted to fame were The Mills Brothers, who went on to a fairly lucrative career in the 1940s and 1950s, initially under the management of Seger. Ellis contributed songs to their catalog for nearly two decades. He also was partly responsible for the rise of Sammy Cahn (Cohen), who had a stellar career as a songwriter and musician, and his early partner Saul Chaplin. There is otherwise very little mention of Ellis between mid-1931 and mid-1936.
But he was still to be seen, as well as heard, during this period. His picture still surfaced infrequently on sheet music covers throughout the 1930s. Seger's voice had also been heard in a couple of early sound films for Warner Brothers. Then things started to pick up a bit. In addition to his booking agent duties, there was a short-term gig as a vocalist in the mid-1930s at station KFPG/KMTR (now KLAC) in Los Angeles, California (KMTR is now in Eugene, Oregon). Other indicators show that he stayed in Los Angeles from 1935 to at least 1937, also appearing frequently on KHJ with his orchestra, and performing with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. He also appeared on screen in 1936 in One Rainy Afternoon, singing Secret Rendevous with Margaret Warner.
In 1935 Ellis started to form a big band, his Choir of Brass. The original consist of the group was four trumpets, four trombones, a clarinet, drums, bass and two pianos. Seger spent more than a year picking personnel and developing unique jazz arrangements for the group with the help of Spud Murphy who had also worked with Benny Goodman's arranger Fletcher Henderson. Out of some 80 arrangements they cut several sides in 1937 which were later released on a long-playing record. This group performed and recorded until 1941, but Ellis' role was mostly as the leader and arranger, as he rarely played piano with them. The Choir of Brass was ahead of its time, and perhaps too early to trend, given their advanced approach to jazz and swing, so the group did not fare well overall. One of their more complex tracks was a brass arrangement of Shivery Stomp.
During this period Seger started appearing both as a soloist and with his groups at venues in the larger cities, including Los Angeles and New York.
The Seger Ellis Choir of Brass c.1937.
the choir of brass c.1937
He cut several sides with a more traditional instrumental makeup for the up and coming Decca label in 1937, billed as an orchestra once again (which may have been the Choir of Brass in disguise at times), and was back in business with Brunswick Records the following year into 1939 as Seger Ellis and His "Choir of Brass" on some cuts, and the orchestra on others. On the choir, Seger later told the Jazz Journal International, "The things that band did... if we'd have done them four years later we'd have made a hell of a lot of money. But the public wasn't ready for it then. Goodman was just breaking the ice with something that he was swinging and loud and he hadn't broken enough to let everybody in."
By 1939 Ellis and his orchestra were steadily engaged in the east and got plenty of exposure on national radio broadcasts, mostly with him singing and rarely featured on the piano. Another singer featured with him, starting as early as mid-1938, was his (presumably) second wife, Irene Taylor. (Attempts to find dates of his first divorce and second marriage came up empty.) By 1940 the Brunswick and Vocalion company, which had also issued some Ellis records in 1940, was purchased and consolidated along with most of their contracts. So Seger briefly went back to work once again for a reorganized Okeh label under CBS, largely covering swing music arrangements.
As of the 1940 census, taken in at the Hotel Belvedere on West 48th Street in Manhattan, Seger and Irene were listed respectively as an orchestra leader in a night club and a singer in (likely the same) night club. Working in this capacity and with CBS through the summer of 1942, Ellis enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September. His role in the military is unclear, but there are no mentions of him in the Stars and Stripes magazine of the war years, so it may have been more as a soldier than as an entertainer. His stay there was short-lived, and followed by a "defense job." Ellis' marriage to Taylor ended around this time, as did two subsequent marriages over the next few years.
It is hard to find much of mention of Seger in the press after 1942, except for when his compositions were performed by other artists. There was a short-term arrangement with the Harry James Orchestra in the period after Frank Sinatra left, but Ellis was not a crooner, so no recordings came out of it. Seger ran a bar in the Houston area from the late 1940s through perhaps the 1950s. He struck a bit of songwriting gold in 1948 with You're All I Want for Christmas, which was quickly covered by the ultimate Christmas songster of the time, Bing Crosby. Recordings by Frankie Laine and Al Martino help to make it an instant classic.
Seger Ellis in late 1961.
seger ellis in late 1961
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Ellis cut some sides for the Bullet label in Nashville, as well as two sides for MGM records. A few tracks also appeared on the independent Kapp label in the 1950s. During this period Seger wrote a few tunes for Gene Krupa, who had gained fame with Benny Goodman's band and was now recording and touring with his own group. Seger also married a fifth time to Pamela Ellis who remained with him through his death. There is a copyrighted score for a musical called The Oilers about the Houston football team that was registered in 1960, but it was evidently never sold or staged. His pirmary income came from nightclub appearances and some fair-sized checks from ASCAP, of which he was a member.
As of late 1961, when he was interviewed by John Bryan of the Jazz Journal International published in London, England, Ellis had settled into a "comfortable brick house directly behind the storied Shamrock Hilton Hotel in Houston." He was still writing the occasional song, and even produced one for the article, I Wish I Had My Old-Time Sweetheart Back Again. In his laments about the old days Ellis noted the tragedy of the talented Bob Zurke, who he feels never got his proper due with the Bob Crosby band. On the current state of jazz, he stated that "Most guys today don't play much left hand. They play both together, block hands. Today when a guy cuts a piano solo he makes it with bass, a drummer, maybe a guitar. In the old days we worked alone on the solos and we had to carry it ourselves." Given the number of cuts Seger made with ensembles as opposed to solos, this seems contradictory, but there were a few other variances in his memory as well that found their way into the story.
After 1962 the trail goes mostly cold for a while. Local Houston PBS station KUHT produced an hour-long documentary about the composer in the 1970s. Both a mention of Ellis and a 1989 picture are found on the BlueTone Piano Roll site on the Memorials page. Ellis was interviewed on June 15, 1991 by Clay Shorkey and Rudy Martinez, a recording which is preserved at the Texas Music Museum. He finally passed away in September 1995 in his native Houston at age 91, and was buried at the Everglade Meadow in the Hollywood Cemetery in Houston as an Army veteran.
Historically there were many who were and are fans of Seger's singing voice, and many who are also detractors that regard his vocals as "nightmarish" at the very least. Most late 1920s and 1930s collectors have all but forgotten about his dynamic and driving piano style. However, there are still recordings of his solos available in the digital domain that remain as a reminder of how this Texas boy got his start so long ago.
Thanks to historian Dave Lewis for inciting this article, and Nick Artega who contributed a little bit of information on Ellis' early recordings.

Will Ezell Portrait
William Ezell
(December 23, 1892 to August 2, 1963)
Sawmill Blues [as composer only]
Stormy Hailing Blues [1]
Sweet Petunia [2]
Levee Blues [2]
Jailhouse Moan [3]
Restless Blues [3]
Whiskey Blues [4]
Black Bordered Letter Blues [5]
Six Thirty Blues [5]
Bunker Hill Blues [6]
Barrel House Moan [4]
West Coast Rag [7]
Tick Tock Blues [4]
Hour Behind the Gun [4]
Old Mill Blues
Mixed Up Rag
Ezell's Precious Five
Crawlin' Spider Blues
Barrel House Woman
Bucket of Blood
Heifer Dust
Playing the Dozen
This Is Your Last Night With Me [4]
Cheatin' Daddy [4]
My Pullman Porter Man [4]
Just Can't Stay Here [8]
Pitchin' Boogie [8]
Freakish Mistreater Blues
Hot Spot Stuff
Hometown Skiffle Part One:
    Mixed Up Rag [9]
Try Some of That [10]
Alabama Hustler [10]

1. w/Marie Bradley
2. w/Lucille Bogan
3. w/Ora Brown
4. w/Elzadie Robinson
5. w/Bertha Henderson
6. w/Sally Duffie [possibly Ezell]
7. w/Arthur "Blind" Blake
8. "Blind" Roosevelt Graves/Baby James
9. Contribution to Paramount All Stars
10. w/Sam Tarpley
Matrix and Date
[Paramount P4219] 02/??/1927
[Paramount P4309] 03/??/1927
[Paramount P4324] 03/??/1927
[Paramount P4563] 06/??/1927
[Paramount P4564] 06/??/1927
[Paramount P4667] 07/??/1927
[Paramount P4680] 07/??/1927
[Paramount P4681] 07/??/1927
[Paramount P4728] 08/??/1927
[Paramount P4786] 09/??/1927
[Paramount P4787] 09/??/1927
[Paramount 20067] 10/??/1927
[Paramount 20068] 10/??/1927
[Paramount 20823] 08/??/1928
[Paramount 20824] 08/??/1928
[Paramount 21065] 12/??/1928
[Paramount 21066] 12/??/1928
[Paramount 21143] 02/??/1929
[Paramount 21144] 02/??/1929
[Paramount 21145] 02/??/1929
[Paramount 21146] 02/??/1929
[Paramount 21186] 03/??/1929
[Paramount 21187] 03/??/1929
[Paramount 21190] 03/??/1929
[Paramount G15649] 09/20/1929
[Paramount G15650] 09/20/1929
[Paramount G15654] 09/20/1929
[Paramount G15655] 09/20/1929
[Paramount 21453] 10/??/1929
[Paramount L0733] 01/??/1931
[Paramount L0734] 01/??/1931
There are a lot of mysteries surrounding the origins and fate of African-American blues pianist Will Ezell. Some will be addressed here, but some unfortunately will still remain either questionable or simply lost to history.
The first of these has to do with his birthplace, something that would better explain his earlier musical influences. While Fullerton, Louisiana has been cited, this singular reference comes from a 1972 conversation with blues guitarist Jesse Thomas, who included that information in a sentence about Ezell. Thomas was at least 15 years younger, and did not meet Ezell until late in Will's career. There is another reference to him being from East Texas in the same published source. Such conflicting information has to logically lean more towards concrete findings than word of mouth, so any origin of Ezell that suggests a Louisiana birthplace and upbringing is very suspect. Both a 1917 and 1942 draft record appear to provide the most correct information and initial lead on Ezell, citations of which were not found in any other source while researching this article. However, the author's findings were directly in line with research done by Alex van der Tuuk in 2003.
Will Ezell was born in Brenham, Texas, around 70 miles northwest of Houston, on December 23, 1892 (not 1896 as is often reported). This puts him in East Texas within range of Louisiana, and in the heart of the early barrelhouse blues culture. He was one of six children born to day laborer Lorenza Ezell and his wife Rachel (Pinchback) Ezell, including Lula (2/1883), Coy (2/1885), Joseph (3/1888), Lorenza Jr. (7/1894) and Rachel (6/1898). The family was shown living in Brenham in the 1900 census. Little else is known about Ezell's upbringing. Rachel died at some point between 1901 and 1910 as Lorenza showed as widowed and working in the Oklahoma oil fields in the 1910 census. Will started playing in barrelhouses as an itinerant pianist in the early to mid-1910s. This lifestyle may be the most likely reason for not being to accurately locate him in the 1910 or 1920 Federal census records.
His June 1917 draft record places Ezell in New Orleans, Louisiana, living at 212 Erato Street near Lafayette Square, a mile from the French Quarter. He was working as a self-employed musician, and indicated a wife and child, although claimed no exemption from possible service. There is no record of him being inducted for service. Will was described as short and slender. There are many mentions of Ezell being in Louisiana at this time, which when aligned with his known death date and the death certificate information in Chicago, make this an absolute match.
Over the next few years he continued to work at gin mills, rent parties and various labor venues, most notably the river sawmill camps of Louisiana and East Texas. These camps contained the origin of the barrelhouses, usually a shack made from a railroad box car that used barrels for tables. Such places also functioned as brothels and gambling dens, and the presence of a pianist also made it into a dance hall of sorts. The hard left hand playing style quickly developed out of ragtime bass into something much more dynamic, necessary to overcome poorly maintained pianos and the high noise levels that were often found in such quarters. Many of the pieces were blues-based, making it easier to simply create new melodic lines over an otherwise boilerplate left hand pattern. At the time it was still called ragtime, but would eventually become known as boogie-woogie.
It was during these wanderings in the early 1920s that Ezell reportedly teamed up on occasion with blues singer Elzadie Robinson. She came originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, and had performed through Eastern Texas and Louisiana, even up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Missouri. Performer Knocky Parker also remembers hearing Ezell at the Lone Star Saloon in Dallas sometime around 1922 to 1925, Robinson was known to have also performed in that town. The two of them would build up both a rapport and repertoire that would serve them well later in the decade.
More than one source puts Will's arrival in Chicago, Illinois, from Louisiana as around 1925, which predates his recording career by just a little bit. Many southern musicians had migrated to Chicago over the past seven years, including Joseph "King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Ezell's better known peers Hersal Thomas and James Hemingway. He played in both Chicago and Detroit, Michigan, and became friends with pianists Arthur "Blind" Blake and Charlie Spand. They often gathered early in the week at Blake's apartment to exchange ideas and just play for fun before running off to their respective gigs through the weekend.
Late in 1926 Ezell started working at Paramount Records. The company was founded nearly a decade prior in Grafton, Wisconsin, as part of the Wisconsin Chair Company to supplement their phonograph cabinet business, which developed from supplying Edison with cabinets to making their own phonographs. Most of their early output suffered from bland content and poor quality pressings. However, they had been providing Midwest pressing for Black Swan Records of New York, and when that African-American owned company went under, Paramount purchased it, giving them an instant entry into the limited by lucrative business of "race records." Between 1922 and 1926 their reputation in this regard had grown, as had complaints about their uneven quality pressings, which had some effect on the unique content.
Still, Paramount provided good opportunities for negro blues players in Chicago that were not readily available elsewhere, and musicians like Ezell quickly signed up to record for them.
One of Ezell's many Paramount solos.
one of ezells paramount solos
In spite of their Wisconsin headquarters, they had a studio in Chicago as well, which is how many of the early blues and boogie players were able to lay down tracks for posterity. Ezell was, therefore, among the first, but not the first, pianist to record boogie-woogie styled sides. After his Sawmill Blues was recorded in 1926 by singer Bernice Duke in October, 1926 (it is questionable whether Will was at the piano for this track) he started to lay down backing tracks and some solo efforts that were among the core of Paramount's best products of the late 1920s.
Ezell was soon considered the flexible go-to guy at Paramount, as he could quickly adapt to accompanying nearly anybody, his initial role with the label. Among the first he worked with was Lucille Bogan, who rechristened herself as Bessie Jackson within a few years. Bogan, whose songs bordered on raunchy at times, and were inherently about sex, prostitution, alcohol or drugs, had already been recorded in 1923, but was now in a slump. She moved to Chicago and took an apartment near Ezell and Paramount. Will accompanied her on Sweet Petunia, a song by Harry Charles that was full of double-entendres and would became a short-term hit. But their association soon went well beyond just a couple of recorded sides and outside dates, as the pair reportedly became involved for a short time. As later relayed by Charles, Bogan's husband Nazareth brought divorce proceedings against her for the affair, but they ultimately reconciled and remained married at least into the early 1940s.
During 1927 Will backed other singers on a total of four additional dates (perhaps more, but written records are sketchy). He gained the trust of Aletha Dickerson who became the self-appointed recording manager of the Chicago branch of Paramount in 1928 following the departure of J. Mayo Williams. Will worked as an on-the-spot arranger and pseudo-producer for many dates between 1928 and 1931, likely with her blessing. He also likely recommended some of his colleagues, particularly Charlie Spand, who recorded for Paramount between 1929 and 1931. However, in late 1927 Will was also allowed to "go solo" on the label, cutting several boogie and blues-tinged piano tracks into early 1929. Among those that remain as standouts were the Mixed Up Rag and Heifer Dust.
While many of Ezell's pieces are at least somewhat original, others were clearly assembled from components of other compositions and recordings. This includes Bucket of Blood and West Coast Rag. The latter was literally comprised of strains from the West Coast, most notably Jay Roberts' The Entertainer's Rag. Even in his boogie pieces he quoted from performers like Jimmy Blythe, who had proceeded him to record with that particular style. He was still regarded as original and versatile by other Chicago pianists, and remembered fondly by Eurreal "Little Brother" Montgomery who had also come up through the lumber camp barrelhouses.
Quality was still a continuing issue with Paramount releases, be it from uneven recordings or poorly maintained equipment, or just noisy surfaces. During a refitting of the Chicago studios, Paramount artists co-opted the fabled Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana.
A Paramount advertisement for
a Will Ezell release.
a paramount ad for an ezell release
The sessions cut here by Charlie Spand, Baby James, "Blind" Roosevelt Graves and Ezell are among the highest quality released by Paramount, and the studio itself may have lent a different energy to the recordings. These were nearly the last that Ezell would be involved in, other than a compilation by the "Paramount All Stars" late in the year, featuring snippets of pieces by different artists on the label.
Among the duties evidently either handed to or taken on by Ezell was handling of special needs of some of the artists and management at Paramount. Indeed, it has been reported that when Paramount blues guitarist and singer "Blind Lemon" Jefferson died in December 1929, Ezell personally escorted the body back to their native Texas where he was buried on January 1 or 2, 1930. Texas also played into another aspect of Ezell's livelihood. Some studios, including Paramount, often allowed for travel expenses incurred to make it to a recording date. It was not uncommon for some artists to exaggerate their travel just a bit. Ezell was no exception, and reportedly claimed travel from Texas on more than one occasion, even though he lived just blocks from the Paramount office. There seemed to have been little complaint, however, given his talents and contributions.
Will was still performing in Chicago in the early 1930s, and was known to have been present at some sessions in 1930 and 1931 at Paramount, but is apparently only heard on two cuts accompanying Sam Tarpley. The company was in trouble, and in 1931 had closed the Chicago studio, choosing to record in Grafton, Wisconsin instead. The Great Depression hit the record industry hard, and given that race records targeted the statistically most impoverished demographic of the United States, their audiences eroded even sooner than those who bought more mainstream popular tunes. Dickerson bailed from the sinking ship, and this appears to have shown her to be the best point of contact between Paramount and its black performers, as most of them seem to have literally disappeared from view and hearing range for a while.
After the Paramount deal collapsed, Ezell went back on the road, including to his old stomping grounds Louisiana where performer Clarence Hall remembers playing with him in 1931. Otherwise, reports of his wanderings, even though he was likely still based in Chicago, are scant at best. While he was mostly invisible for the remainder of the 1930s, researcher John Steiner wrote that Cripple Clarence Lofton, who owned the Big Apple Tavern on South State Street near 47th, reportedly hosted Ezell, Charlie Spand, Leroy Garnett and other former Paramount blues performers over the years on his stage. However, given the context of his statement it might have also been during the years of World War II.
The 1940 census showed Will living at 359 W. Oak Street in Chicago, lodging with a Pauline Rogers. He was working as a watchman for the Chicago street repair project, which at that time was run by the WPA (Work Projects Administration) formed as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal legislation of the mid-1930s. Ezell's 1942 draft record showed him working at the Crane Technical School, also run by the WPA. His role there was unclear, but he was likely an either a watchman or perhaps part of the maintenance staff. Will was now living across the street at 368 W. Oak in Chicago, and gave the widowed Mrs. Rodgers as his reference. They were around the same age, but their relationship was not revealed in searches on either party. The next confirmable information that appears on Will Ezell is that of his death in Chicago in 1963 at age 70. He was living just a few blocks from the Delmark Records office, another label that has continued to support jazz and blues since 1953, and around the corner from Delmark founder Bob Koester's important niche store, the Jazz Record Mart (since moved to a newer location). Sadly, there were no notices in the newspaper obituaries or the trades.
Will Ezell's musical legacy is relatively small but not insignificant, and there are a couple of nice collections of his Paramount recordings available on CD. Any further information on the life and activities or whereabouts of Will Ezell is welcome, as always, and anything verifiable will be credited.

Byron Gay Portrait
Byron Sturges Gay
(August 28, 1886 to December 23, 1945)
The Little Ford Rambled Right Along [1]
Happy Tom O'Day
Shoot Me Back to California-Land
Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus [2]
Funny Moon
The Dragon's Eye (Chinese Waddle)
Somewhere on the Rio Grande
My Sweet Dream and You
I'm Always Happy Sunday [3]
It's a Rambling Flivver
When the Fields are White with Daisies I'll
    Come Back To You
Sons of Liberty
A Soldier's Dream
My Angel of the Flaming Cross
The Vamp
Sand Dunes (My Desert Rose)
Oh! (or O!)
Fast Asleep in Poppyland
Western Land
There's Everything Waiting For You [4]
Wonderful Night With You [4]
Cleopatra Had a Little Song (Or-Ya-da-da-
    da-pum-pum) [4]
Snuggle, Snuggle, Snuggle [4]
My Buddy [5]
Sunshine [5,6]
Waiting in Vain [7]
Susan Doozan [8]
To Love in Vain
I Like to Do It
Near to Your Heart
The Navy Goat (A Song of the Navy)
Fate (It Was Fate When I First Met You)
Vamp Me
Two Little Eyes
Catalina [9]
The Soul of a Rose [9]
I Lost My Pal
Keep A-Goin'
1924 (Cont)
The Song of My Dream
The World is Mine (For I Have You)
Just a Little Drink (A Song with a Kick)
Horses (Crazy over Horses) [10]
No! [10]
Fire! (an Alarming Novelty Song) [10]
Westward! [10]
Someday You'll Be Sorry (Pal O' Mine) [10,11]
The First Time You Kissed Me (I Belonged
    to You)
Rose of Monterey [5]
Moonlight on the Danube
Wide Open Spaces [10,12]
Four or Five Times [13]
When Shadows Creep [14]
Your Good-bye Kiss
Chicago Butterfly
Who in the 'L' are You (Shriner's
    Convention Song)
To Make a Long Story Short (I Love You)
Sittin on a Log Pettin' My Dog [15]
Somebody's Birthday [16]
Swaying [17]
Navigator's Holiday (contributions)

1. w/C.R. Forster
2. w/Charley Brown
3. w/Al Dubin
4. w/Will Hough
5. w/Charles N. Daniels aka Neil Morét
6. w/Louis Weslyn
7. w/Herbert B. Marple
8. w/L. Frank Baum
9. w/Marian Gillespie
10. w/Richard Whiting
11. w/W.C. Polla
12. w/Paul Whiteman
13. w/Marco H. Hellman
14. w/Bertram Hargrave
15. w/Zez Confrey
16. w/Cliff Gordon & Jimmie Grier
17. w/Chick Johnson & Ole Olson
Byron Gay was a multi-faceted individual who was a composer, lyricist, performing musician, author, and even an explorer at one point. Born in Chicago, Illinois, to Charles Mathewson Gay and Julia J. Fessenden, his large family had moved to Winfield, Kansas in the 1890s, with his father following the factory mill work.the little ford rambled right along cover Byron had at least six siblings, including brothers Norman Henry (3/10/1888), Ira (4/1890) and Charles Mathewson Jr. (7/18/1898), and sisters Edith (2/1892), Bertha (12/1893) and Julia (5/1897). In 1907 he went to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, for his post-secondary education, graduating in 1909. This left him well-suited for a specific adventure later in his life.
After the academy Gay moved to Los Angeles where he started his musical career working as a piano salesman. In the mid 1910s he began getting his works published, the first pieces focusing largely on comic transportation. The Little Ford Rambled Right Along was pretty much an instant hit, covered by many artists on stage and recordings, including the inimitable Bill Murray. It was a sensation that got his name noticed. Byron was then married to Mildred L. Ashley, ten years his junior. By 1917 he is listed as a professional songwriter and musician on his draft card, something that would be echoed on the 1920 and 1930 census records. Late in 1917, the couple moved to New York for a time so he could concentrate on a potential Broadway writing career.
Byron's first contribution to the Great White Way was for Furs and Frills. While in Manhattan Gay helped form the Sunshine Publishing Company, and became its initial director. They had an exclusive deal with the Hearst papers for promotion and distribution. He also turned out two of his biggest hits in 1919, The Vamp and Oh!, a song which held the distinction of having the shortest title of any popular song to date. The Vamp, which was intended to be an Oriental number, turned into a big hit in the vaudeville houses as a dance number after its introduction in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1919. That same year, Gay composed what was purported to be a potential hit song with publisher/composer Charles Daniels, My Buddy. While it got some attention, particularly in the trad papers, it was a different tune with the same title composed by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn in 1922 that would be the bigger hit. Also in 1919, Byron turned out one musical with Will Hough entitled Honeymoon Town with at least four tunes contributed. Another set of tunes had been composed with Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum for the whimsical stage musical The 1916 Uplifters' Minstrels, written for the Los Angeles group of the same name. Of those, Susan Doozan was the only known to have made it into print in 1920, a year after Baum's death.
the vamp cover
Gay actually clued in his peers on the source of inspiration for his songs to some degree. In a September 25, 1920 article , The Music Trade Review he revealed that the great outdoors was often his muse. It stated that "Byron Gay, who does unusual things in the composing line, finds a lot of his inspiration in touring the country with his specially equipped camping car. Recently he toured through the State of Maine and spend some time along the Penobscot River." It was on these trips that he reportedly took the time to compose new original songs. Gay joined ASCAP in 1922, the same year that Fate became a hit through performances by Ted Lewis in the Greenwich Village Follies on Broadway. One of his last acts while living in Manhattan was curiously forming Byron Gay Publishing Incorporated. Soon after, tired of New York and traveling back and forth from what he felt was his home base, Byron and Mildred moved back to California full time in 1923. For a while, both of them were heard as working pianists on the fairly new radio medium which was quickly coming of age in Los Angeles and New York.
Out west once again, Byron continued his writing with such West Coast notables as Richard Whiting and Charles N. Daniels (aka Neil Morét) and he also worked as a musician, although in what capacity is not clear. Gay did some work on occasion with studios writing a theme song or two for movies, and sometimes recording in bands, often unaccredited. In 1924 he became a vocal advocate for enforcing the 1909 Copyright Law section that imposed a 2 cent royalty on mechanical reproduction of music. In doing so, he wanted the law to cover exclusive recordings of the piece by a selected artist, and insisted that this did not create a monopoly of any kind since others could access the rights once the first recordings had been done. This contention was later applied to radio, and led to two major work stoppage actions by the Musician's Union and the formation of BMI over the next two decades.
Also in 1924, Gay organized a Symphonic Dance Orchestra in Los Angeles, in part to record and perform some of his latest numbers. Among those working with him were arranger Arthur Lange who came up with some of the orchestrations. Another runaway hit for Gay came in 1926 with Horses (Crazy over Horses), which was as good as a dance number on stage as it was a comic song on records.
By the 1930 census, when the depression was getting underway, Byron was still living in Los Angeles in the Lido Apartment Hotel, but even though he was listed as married, his wife Mildred was residing elsewhere in Los Angeles with her parents and the Gays' daughter Carol at that time. The couple was divorced in March, 1931, following a somewhat public and embarrassing trial that was covered in the press. Mildred put out allegations of "wild parties" and "other women" in her suit against her husband. He was believed to be in New York at the time of the final hearing, which was more or less uncontested. Full custody of Carol was given to Mildred, and Byron put the episode behind him quickly.
Byron had been a fan of Admiral Richard E. Byrd (USN Ret) who he may have known during his time at Annapolis, and followed Byrd's first expedition in the late 1920s down to Antarctica.
Byron Gay (L) and slugger Babe Ruth (R) listen to Zez Confrey play.
zez with byron gay and babe ruth
When the opportunity arose to participate in the second expedition in 1933, as it was a volunteer mission scantly funded during the depression, he jumped on one of the ships that left Boston in October 1933, waited out a repair stop in Newport News after some hurricane damage, then through the Panama Canal to New Zealand where the group proceeded to the Ross Ice Shelf. This was an expedition with many firsts, including custom automotive transportation provided by Edsel Ford and the Citroen corporation, voice radio broadcasts, self-contained electrical generators (one of which contributed to serious carbon monoxide poisoning of Byrd), an autogyro (early helicopter), and seismic investigation of the shelf. Gay likely went as far as the Mile 155 outpost and stayed through the Antarctic summer, finally leaving for Auckland, New Zealand, then home on the Mariposa ocean liner, arriving back in Los Angeles on April 21, 1934.
Gay went back and forth between California and New York during the decade for various enterprises. He was heard on radio programs broadcast on both coasts, and occasionally in Chicago, Illinois as well. One unusual project filmed in late 1936 was a 1937 Vitaphone short titled Home Run on the Keys It also featured fellow composer Zez Confrey who played Kitten on the Keys in the film. The star of the picture was the one who garnered the most attention at that time, Yankee slugger Babe Ruth. The two composers and the larger than life baseball player concoct a new routine while staying in a hunting lodge. If not for the great playing by Confrey, it could have fallen more flat then it actually did in the end. From this point on there is little found on Gay until 1939 when he wrote the music Swaying with lyrics by the vaudeville comedy team of Olsen and Johnson who had been fairly successful in films throughout the decade.
In the early 1940s Gay contributed to a wartime musical score for Navigator's Holiday for the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, which ran throughout much of World War II. His brother, Norman Henry Gay, who had also moved to California in the 1930s, died in August 1945. Byron Gay followed him a few months later. He died at Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles just before Christmas 1945 following a brief illness. He left behind a widow, Ethel Gay, and his daughter. In 1953, Pee Wee Hunt would revive popularity in Gay and his song Oh!, which was a fairly good seller for Capitol throughout the 1950s.

George Gershwin Portrait George Gershwin Picture George Gershwin Caricature by Al Hirschfeld
George Gershwin (George Bruskin Gershvin)
(September 26, 1898 to July 11, 1937)
Instrumental Compositions    
Ragging the Traumeri
Rialto Ripples [1]
Lullaby (A String Quartet)
Novelette in Fourths
c. mid-1920s
Three Quarter Blues (Irish Waltz)
Rubato (Novelette-Prelude)
Rhapsody in Blue
Short Story (Novelette)
Sleepless Night
Concerto in F
    1. Allegro
    2. Adagio - Andante con moto
    3. Allegro Agitato
Three Preludes for Piano
   1. Bbm - Allegro
   2. C#m - Andante (Blue Lullaby)
   3. Ebm - Allegro (Spanish Prelude)
An American in Paris
Merry Andrew
Impromptu in Two Keys (Yellow Blues)
Second Rhapsody
Cuban Overture (a.k.a. Rumba)
Piano Transcriptions of Eighteen Songs
    1. Swanee
    2. Somebody Loves Me
    3. My One and Only
    4. Who Cares
    5. I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
    6. The Man I Love
    7. Strike Up the Band
    8. Sweet and Low Down
    9. Do It Again
   10. Fascinatin' Rhythm
   11. 'S Wonderful
   12. Oh, Lady Be Good
   13. Do-Do-Do
   14. Nobody But You
   15. That Ceratin Feeling
   16. Clap Yo' Hands
   17. Liza
   18. I Got Rhythm
Two Waltzes in C
Variations on "I Got Rhythm"
Catfish Row Suite from Porgy and Bess
    1. Catfish Row
    2. Porgy Sings
    3. Fugue
    4. Hurrican
    5. Good Morning, Brother
Promenade (a.k.a. Walking the Dog)
Popular Songs/Broadway Shows    
When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em
      (When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want
The Passing Show of 1916: Revue
   The Making of a Girl [3,4]
   My Runaway Girl [2]
Gush-Gush-Gushing [5]
When There's a Chance to Dance [5]
When the Armies Disband [6]
A Good Little Tune [6]
Beautiful Bird [7]
We're Six Little Nieces of our Uncle Sam [7]
Hitchy-Koo of 1918
   You-oo, Just You [6]
Ladies First: Musical
   The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag [5]
   Some Wonderful Sort of Someone [8]
Half Past Eight: Musical
   There's Magic in The Air [5]
   The Ten Commandments of Love [9]
   Cupid [9]
   Hong Kong [9]
Oh Land of Mine, America [12]
Good Morning Judge: Musical
   I Was So Young (You Were So
      Beautiful) [6,13]
Lady in Red: Musical
   Something About Love [7]
Capitol Revue: Musical
   Swanee [6]
   Come to the Moon [7,14]
La, La, Lucille 1919: Musical [10,11]
   Kindly Pay Us
   When You Live in a Furnished Flat
   The Best of Everything
   From Now On
   Money, Money, Money!
   Nobody But You
   Hotel Life
   (Oo, How) I Love to Be Loved By You [7]
   It's Great to Be in Love
   There's More to the Kiss than the
      Sound [X-X-X] [6]
   Somehow It Seldom Comes True
   The Ten Commandments of Love
   Our Little Kitchenette †
   The Love of a Wife †
   Kisses †
Morris Gest's Midnight Whirl: Revue [10,15]
   I'll Show You a Wonderful World
   The League of Nations (Depends on Beautiful
   Limehouse Nights
   Aphronightie (Parody on Fokine's Bacchanal
      from Aphrodite)
   Let Cutie Cut your Cuticle
   Baby Dolls
   East Indian Maid
Dere Mabel: Musical [6]
   We're Pals
   Back Home
   I Don't Know Why (When I Dance with You)
Yan-Kee [6]
George White's Scandals of 1920: Revue [11]
   My Lady
   Everybody Swat the Profiteer
   On My Mind the Whole Night long
   Scandal Walk
   Tum On and Tiss Me
   The Songs of Long Ago
   Idle Dreams
   The Lattice Room Number
   My Old Love is My New Love
The Sweetheart Shop: Musical
   Waiting for the Sun to Come Out [5]
Broadway Brevities of 1920: Musical
   Spanish Love [6]
   Love Me While the Snowflakes Fall [11]
   I'm a Dancing Fool [11]
   Lu-Lu [11]
Ed Wynn's Carnival: Musical
   Oo, How I Love You to be Loved by You [7]
Molly on the Shore [5]
Phoebe [5,7] [Unpublished]
Swanee Rose (a.k.a. Dixie Rose) [6,10]
Tomalé (I'm Hot for You) [10]
In the Heart of a Geisha (Nippo San of
    Japan) [16]
Blue Eyes: Musical
   Wanting You [6]
From Piccadilly to Broadway: Revue
   Something Peculiar [5,7]
Snapshots of 1921: Revue
   On the Brim of Her Old-Fashioned
      Bonnet [17]
   Baby Blues [17]
   Futuristic Melody [17]
The Broadway Whirl: Musical [10,15,18,19,20]
   From the Plaza to Madison Square
   Button Me Up the Back
   Three Little Maids
   Poppy Land [10,15]
   Lime House Nights [10,15]
   Stars of Broadway
   The Husband, The Wife and Lover
A Dangerous Maid
   Boy Wanted [5]
   Just to Know You are Mine [5]
   Some Rain Must Fall [5]
   The Simple Life [5]
   The Sirens †
George White's Scandals of 1921: Revue [11]
   I Love You
   South Sea Isles (Sunny South Sea Islands)
   Mother Eve
   Where East Meets West
   Drifting Along with the Tide
   (She's) Just a Baby
The Perfect Fool: Musical
   No One Else But that Girl of Mine [6]
   My Log Cabin Home [6,10]
For Goodness Sake: Musical
   Someone [21]
   Tra-La-La [21]
The Flapper [10,22]
The French Doll: Musical
   Do it Again [10]
For Goodness Sake: Musical
   Someone [21]
   Tra-La-La [21]
   All To Myself [21]
George White's Scandals of 1922: Revue [10,17]
   Little Cinderlatives
   (Oh, See What) She Hangs Out in Our Alley
   (My Heart Will Sail) Across the Seas
   I Found a Four Leaf Clover
   I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
   Little Cinderlatives
   I Can't Tell Where They're From When They
   Just a Tiny Cup of Tea
   Where is the Man of My Dreams?
   You Can Tell Who We Are by the Things
      That We Have Done
Blue Monday (Miniature Opera) [10]
   Prologue: Ladies and Gentlemen
   Blue Monday Blues (a.k.a. 135th Street
   Has Anyone Seen My Joe?
   Monday's the Day That All the Earthquakes
   I'll Tell the World I Did
   I'm Gonna See My Mother
Spice of 1922: Revue
   The Yankee Doodle Blues [6,10]
Our Nell: Musical [22,23,24]
   Innocent Ingenue Baby
   Old New England Home
   The Cooney County Fair
   Names I Love to Hear
   By and By
   We Go to Church on Sunday
   Walking Home with Angeline
   Oh, You Lady!
   (All the) Little Villages
   The Custody of the Child †
The Dancing Girl: Musical
   That American Boy of Mine [6]
   Why Am I So Sad [3]
   Cuddle Up [3]
   Pango Pango [3]
The Rainbow: Musical [25]
   Sweetheart (I'm So Glad I Met You)
   Good-Night, My Dear
   Any Little Tune
   Moonlight in Versailles
   In the Rain
   Innocent Lonesome Blue Baby [22,24,25]
   Beneath the Eastern Moon
   Oh! Nina
   Strut Lady with Me
   Sunday in London Town
George White's Scandals of 1923: Revue [10]
   Little Scandal Dolls
   You and I [26]
   There is Nothing Too Good for You [10,17]
   Throw Her in High [10,17]
   Let's Be Lonesome Together [10,17]
   The Life of a Rose
   Look in the Looking Glass
   Where is She?
   (On the Beach) How've You Been?
   Laugh Your Cares Away
Little Miss Bluebeard: Musical
   I Won't Say I Will (But I Won't Say I
      Won't) [5,10]
The Sunshine Trail: Musical
   The Sunshine Trail [5]
Nifties of 1923: Musical
   Nashville Nightingale [6]
   At Half-Past Seven [10]
Sweet Little Devil: Musical [10]
   Strike, Strike, Strike
   Virginia, (Don't Go Too Far)
   Someone Who Believes in You
   The Jijibo
   Quite a Party
   Under a One-Man Top
   The Matrimonial Handicap
   Just Supposing
   Hey! Hey! (Let 'Er Go!)
   The Same Old Story
   Mah Jongg
   Hooray for the U.S.A.
   Be the Life of the Crowd †
   You're Might Lucky, My Little Ducky †
   Sweet Little Devil †
George White's Scandals of 1924: Revue [10,27]
   Just Missed the Opening Chorus
   I'm Going Back
   (I Need) A Garden
   (Night Time in) Araby
   Somebody Loves Me
   Year After Year We're Together
   Tune in (to Station J.O.Y.)
   Rose of Madrid
   I Love You My Darling
   Kong Kate
   Lovers of Art
Primrose [28]
   Leaving Town While We May
   The Countryside
   Boy Wanted [5,28]
   This Is the Life for a Man
   When Toby is Out of Town
   Some Far-Away Someone [5,10]
   The Mophams
   I'll Have a House in Berkely Square
   (Isn't It Terrible What they Did to) Mary
      Queen of Scots
   Wait a Bit, Susie [5,28]
   Naughty Baby [5,28]
   Primrose Ballet
   Till I Meet Someone Like You
   That New Fangled Mother of Mine
   I Make Hay when the Moon Shines
   Isn't it Wonderful! [5,28]
   Roses of France
   Berkely Square and Kew
   Can We Do Anything? [5,28]
   Four Little Sirens
   Beau Brummel
Lady Be Good: Musical [5]
   Seeing Dickie Home
   Hang on to Me
   A Wonderful Party
   The End of a String
   We're Here Because
   Fascinating Rhythm
   The Robinson Hotel
   So Am I
   Oh, Lady Be Good
   The Half of it Dearie Blues
   Leave It to Love
   Little Jazz Bird
   Carnival Time
   Swiss Miss [5,11]
   The Man I Love †
   Evening Star †
   Will You Remember Me? †
   The Bad, Bad Men †
   Weatherman/Rainy Afternoon Girls †
   Singin' Pete †
   Laddie Daddie †
Tell Me More: Musical [5,10]
   Tell Me More!
   Mr. and Mrs. Sipkin
   When the Debbies Go By
   Three Times a Day
   Why Do I Love You?
   How Can I Win You Now?
   Kickin' the Clouds Away
   Love Is in the Air
   My Fair Lady
   In Sardinia
   The Poetry of Motion
   Ukulele Lorelei
   Oh, So 'La' Mi
   Murderous Monty (and Light-Fingered
      Jane) [28] [London production only]
   Love, I Never Knew [28]
      [London production only]
   Shop Girls and Mannikins [sic] [Unusued]
   I'm Something on Avenue A [Unusued]
   The He-Man [Unusued]
Tip-Toes: Musical [5]
   Waiting for the Train
   Nice Baby! (Come to Papa!)
   Looking for a Boy
   Lady Luck
   When Do We Dance?
   These Charming People
   That Certain Feeling
   Sweet and Low Down
   Our Little Captain
   Harbor of Dreams
   It's a Great Little World
   Harlem River Chanty †
   Gather Ye Rosebuds †
   We †
   Dancing Hour †
   Life's Too Short to Be Blue †
Song of the Flame: Musical [29,30,31]
   Far Away
   Song of the Flame (Don't Forget Me)
   A Woman's Work is Never Done
   Great Big Bear
   The Signal
   Cossack Love Song (Don't Forget Me)
   (You May) Wander Away
   I Want Two Husbands
   You Are You
   Midnight Bells
   The First Blossom Ballet
   Going Home on New Year's Morning
   Finale Ultimo
Oh, Kay!: Musical [5]
   The Woman's Touch
   Don't Ask!
   Dear Little Girl (I Hope You've Missed Me)
   Clap Yo' Hands
   Do, Do, Do
   Bride and Groom
   Someone to Watch Over Me
   Fidgety Feet
   Heaven on Earth
   Oh, Kay!
   What's the Use †
   When Our Ship Comes Sailng In †
   Bring on the DIng Dong Bell †
   Guess Who †
   Isn't It Romantic †
   The Moon is on the Sea †
   The Sun is on the Sea †
Americana: Revue
   That Lost Barber Shop Chord [5]
Lady Be Good: Musical
   [London production only]
   I'd Rather Charleston [28]
   Buy a Little Button from Us [28]
Strike Up the Band: Musical (Original) [5]
   * Denotes numbers cut or revised in 1930
   Fletcher's American Cheese Choral Society *
   Seventeen and Twenty-One *
   A Typical Self-Made American
   Meadow Serenade *
   A Man of High Degree
   The Unofficial Spokesman
   Patriotic Rally *
   Three Cheers for the Union
   This Could Go On for Years
   The Man (Girl) I Love *
   Yankee Doodle Rhythm *
   Finaletto Act 1
1927 (Cont)
   Strike Up the Band
   Oh, This is Such a Lovely War *
   Hoping That Someday You'd Care *
   Military Dancing Drill
   How About A Boy? How About A Man
      Like Me? *
   Finaletto Act 2
   Homeward Bound
   The Girl I Love *
   The War That Ended the War *
Funny Face: Musical [5]
   We're All A-Worry, All Agog
   When You're Single
   Those Eyes
   Birthday Party
   Funny Face
   High Hat
   'S Wonderful
   Let's Kiss and Make Up
   Come Along, Let's Gamble
   If You Will Take Our Tip
   He Loves and She Loves
   Tell the Doc
   My One and Only (What Am I Gonna Do?)
   Sing a Little Song
   In the Swim
   The World Is Mine
   The Babbitt and the Bromide
   Dance Alone With You
   Acrobats †
   When You Smile †
   Aviator †
   Blue Hullabaloo †
Rosalie: Musical [4,5,32]
   Show Me the Town
   Here They Are
   Entrace of the Hussars
   Hussar March
   Say So!
   Let Me Be a Friend to You
   West Point Bugle
   Oh Gee!-Oh Joy!
   Kingdom of Dreams
   New York Serenade
   The King Can Do No Wrong
   Ev'rybody Knows I Love Somebody [5]
   How Long Has This Been Going On?
   Setting-Up Exercises
   At the Ex-Kings' Club
   The Goddesses of Crystal
   The Ballet of the Flowers
   Rosalie †
   Beautiful Gypsy †
   When Cadets Parade †
   Follow the Dream †
   I Forgot What I Wanted to Say †
   You Know How it Is †
Treasure Girl: Musical [5]
   Skull and Bones
   (I've Got a) Crush on You
   I Don't Think I'll Fall in Love Today
   Oh, So Nice
   According to Mr. Grimes
   Got a Rainbow
   Feeling I'm Falling
   Place in the Country
   K-ra-zy for You
   What Are We Here For?
   Where's the Boy? Here's the Girl!
   I Want to Marry a Marionette †
   This Particular Party †
   What Causes That? †
   Treasure Island †
   Dead Me Tell No Tales †
   Good-Bye to the Old Love, Hello to the
      New †
   A-Hunting We Will Go †
Show Girl [5,33]
   Happy Birthday
   My Sunday Fella
   How Could I Forget Lolita?
   Lolita (My Love)
   Do What You Do!
   One Man
   So Are You!
   I Must Be Home by Twelve O'Clock
   Black and White
   Harlem Serenade
   An American in Paris (Blues Ballet)
   Home Blues
   Follow the Minstrel Band
   Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)
   Feeling Sentimental †
   Home Lovin' Gal/Man †
   Adored One †
   Tonight's the Night! †
   I'm Just a Bundle of Sunshine †
   At Mrs. Simpkin's Finishing School †
   Someone's Always Calling a Rehearsal †
   I Just Looked at You †
   I'm Out For No Good Reason Tonight †
   Minstrel Show †
   Somebody Stole My Heart Away †
   In the Mandarin's Orchid Garden [5]
Strike Up the Band: Musical (Revised) [5]
   * Denotes numbers added or revised from 1927
   Fletcher's American Chocolate Choral
      Society Workers *
   Seventeen and Twenty-One (I Mean to Say) *
   A Typical Self-Made American
   Soon *
   A Typical Self-Made American
   A Man of High Degree
   The Unofficial Spokesman
   Three Cheers for the Union!
   This Could Go On for Years
   If I Became President *
   (What's the Use) Hangin' Around with You?*
   He Knows Milk *
   Strike Up the Band
   In the Rattle of the Battle *
   Military Dancing Drill
   Mademoiselle from New Rochelle *
   I've Got a Crush on You *
   (How About a Boy) Like Me? *
   I Want to Be a War Bride *
   The Unofficial March of General Holmes *
   Official Resume: First There Was Fletcher *
   Ring a Ding Dong Bell (Ding Dong) *
Girl Crazy: Musical [5]
   Bidin' My Time
   The Lonesome Cowboy
   Could You Use Me?
   Broncho Busters
   Barbary Coast
   Embraceable You
   Goldfarb, That's I'm!
   Sam and Delilah
   I Got Rhythm
   Land of the Gay Caballero
   But Not for Me
   Treat Me Rough
   Boy! What Love Has Done to Me
   (When It's) Cactus Time in Arizona
   The Gambler of the West †
   And I Have You †
   You Can't Unscramble Scrambled Eggs †
Nine-Fifteen Revue: Revue
   Toddlin' Along [5]
Delicious: Musical Film [5]
   Welcome to the Melting Pot
   Somebody from Somewhere
   You Started It
   Dream Sequence
   Blah, Blah, Blah
   Rhapsody in Rivets (Manhattan Rhapsody)
   Thanks to You †
   Mischa, Yascha, Toscha, Sascha [21]
Of Thee I Sing: Musical [5]
   Wintergreen for President
   Who is the Lucky Girl to Be?
   The Dimple on My Knee
   Because, Because
   As the Chairman of the Committee
   How Beautiful
   Never Was There a Girl So Fair
   Some Girls Can Bake a Pie
   Love is Sweeping the Country
   Of Thee I Sing
   (Here's) A Kiss for Cinderella
   I Was the Most Beautiful Blossom
   Hello, Good Morning
   Who Cares? (So Long as You Care for Me)
   Garcon, S'il vous plait
   The Illegitimate Daughter
   The Senatorial Roll Call
   We'll Impeach Him
   I'm About to Be a Mother
      (Who Could Ask for Anything More?)
   Posterity is Just Around the Corner
   Trumpter, Blow Your Golden Horn
   On That Matter No One Budges
   Call Me Whate'er You Will †
Girl Crazy: Musical Film (Added Song)
   You've Got What Gets Me [5]
Till Then [5]
Pardon My English: Musical [5]
   In Three Quarter Time
   Pardon My English
   Dancing in the Streets
   So What?
   Isn't It a Pity
   Drink, Drink, Drink
   My Cousin in Milwaukee
   Hail the Happy Couple
   The Dresden Northwest Mounted
   Luckiest Man in the World
   What Wort of Wedding is This?
   Where You Go, I Go
   I've Got to Be There
   He's Not Himself
   Fatherland, Mother of the Band †
   Freud and Jung and Adler †
   Together at Last †
   Bauer's House †
   Poor Michael, Poor Golo †
Let 'Em Eat Cake: Musical [5]
   Wintergreen for President
   Tweedledee for President
   Union Square
   Down With Everyone That's Up
   Shirts by the Millions
   Comes the Revolution
   Climb Up the Social Ladder
   Cloistered from the Noisy City
   What More Can a General Do
   On and On and On
   Double Dummy Drill
   I've Brushed My Teeth
   The General's Gone to a Party
   All the Mothers of the Nation
   Yes, He's a Bachelor
   There's Something We're Worried About
   What's the Proletariat
   Let 'Em Eat Cake
   Blue, Blue, Blue
   Who's the Greatest
   No Comprenez, No Capish, No Versteh!
   Why Speak of Money?
   No Better Way to Start a Case
   Up and At 'Em! On to Victory
   Oyez, Oyez, Oyez
   Play Ball
   When the Judges Doff the Ermine
   That's What He Did
   I Know a Foul Ball
   Throttle Throttlebottom
   A Hell of a Hole (A Hell of a Fix)
   Down With Everyone Who's Up
   It Isn't What You Did
   Let 'Em Eat Caviar
   Hang Throttlebottom in the Morning
   First Lady and First Gent †
Porgy and Bess: Musical/Opera [5,34]
   Prelude - Catfish Row
   A Woman is a Sometime Thing
   Street Cry (Honey Man)
   They Pass By Singing
   Crap Game Fugue (Oh Little Stars)
   Crown and Robbins' Fight
   Gone, Gone, Gone
   My Man's Gone Now
   Leavin' 'fo' de Promis' Lan'
   It Takes a Long Pull to Get There
   I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'
   Woman to Lady
   Bess, You Is My Woman Now
   Oh I Can't Sit Down
   It Ain't Necessarily So
   What You Want With Bess?
   Time and Time Again
   Street Cries (Strawberry Woman, Crab Man)
   I Loves You, Porgy
   Oh de Lawd Shake de Heaven
   A Red Headed Woman
   Oh, Doctor Jesus
   Clara, Don't You Be Downhearted
   There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for
      New York
   Oh Bess, Where's My Bess
   I'm On My Way
   Buzzard Song †
   Lonesome Boy †
   I Ain't Got No Shame †
   Jazzbo Brown Blues †
   I Hate's Yo' Struttin' Style †
   Oh, Heavn'ly Father (Six Prayers) †
   Occupational Humoresque †
The King of Swing [35]
Doubting Thomas [35]
Strike Up the Band for UCLA [5]
The Show is On: Musical
   By Strauss [5]
Shall We Dance: Musical Film [5]
   Shall We Dance?
   (I've Got) Beginner's Luck
   Watch Your Step
   Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
   Walking the Dog (a.k.a. Promenade)
   They Can't Take That Away From Me
   Slap That Bass
   They All Laughed
   Wake Up, Brother, and Dance †
   Hi-Ho! At Last †
A Damsel in Distress: Musical Film [5]
   A Foggy Day (In London Town)
   I Can't Be Bothered Now
   Put Me to the Test
   Stiff Upper Lip
   Nice Work if You Can Get It
   Things Are Looking Up
   The Jolly Tar and the Milkmaid
   Sing of Spring
   Pay Some Attention to Me †
1938 (Posth)
Dawn of a New Day [5] (Song of the 1939
    New York World's Fair)
The Goldwyn Follies: Musical Film [5]
   Love Is Here to Stay
   I Was Doing All Right
   Spring Again
   Love Walked In
   I Love to Rhyme
   Just Another Rhumba †
   Exposition: Idea for a Ballet † [5,36]
1946 (Posth)
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: Musical Film [5]
   Changing My Tune
   Stand Up and Fight
   Aren't You Kind of Glad We Did?
   The Back Bay Polka
   One, Two, Three
   Waltzing is Better Sitting Down
   Demon Rum
   For You, For Me, For Evermore
   Sweet Packard
   Welcome Song
   Tour of the Town †
1964 (Posth)
Kiss Me Stupid: Musical Film [5]
   I'm a Poached Egg
   All the Livelong Day (and the Long,
      Long Night)

1. w/Will Donaldson
2. w/Murray Roth
3. w/Harold Atteridge
4. w/Sigmund Romberg
5. w/Ira Gershwin
6. w/Irving Caesar
7. w/Lou Paley
8. w/Schuyler Greene
9. w/Edward B. Perkins
10. w/Buddy Gard (B.G.) DeSylva
11. w/Arthur J. Jackson
12. w/Michael E. Rourke
13. w/Alfred Bryan
14. w/Ned Wayburn
15. w/John Henry Mears
16. w/Fred Fischer
17. w/E. Ray Goetz
18. w/Harry Tierney
19. w/Joseph McCarthy
20. w/Richard Carle
21. w/Ira Gershwin as Arthur Francis
22. w/William Daly
23. w/A.E. Thomas
24. w/Brian Hooker
25. w/Clifford Grey
26. w/Jack Green
27. w/Ballard Macdonald
28. w/Desmond Carter
29. w/Herbert P. Stothart
30. w/Otto Harbach
31. w/Oscar Hammerstein II
32. w/Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse
33. w/Gus Kahn
34. w/DuBose Heyward
35. w/Al Stillman
36. w/George Balanchine

† Dropped from or Unused in a Show
Few composers of any century, much less the 20th century, were as productive or creative as George Gershwin, a true American treasure. While his semi-meteoric rise was not quite an overnight success, it was well deserved and was achieved with determination, talent, and little hesitation. Within a life span only a little longer than that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gershwin revolutionized and even codified the relationship between popular songs and the Broadway stage, carrying along with him his friends Irving Berlin and Cole Porter in the process. In fact, given the spread of styles he covered, it is hard to pigeonhole Gershwin's music into any predefined genre, suggesting in some cases that his style was a genre unto itself. His was also a similar story to some of his composer peers who came out of the immigrant neighborhoods to rise to the pinnacle of fame in the growing entertainment industry.
Early Years
George was the second of four children born to Russian immigrants Morris Gershovitz (arrived 1891) and Rose (Bruskin) Gershovitz (arrived 1892), who were married on July 21, 1895.
Morris and Rose Gershovitz
in the mid-1890s
morris and rose gershovitz
Also in the family were his older brother and eventual lyricist Isadore (12/6/1896), younger brother Arthur (3/14/1900), and younger sister Frances (12/6/1906), born exactly a decade after her oldest brother. Morris' brother Aaron had also immigrated around the same time and was living nearby. Most available sources claim that George was born as Jacob Gershovitz on September 26, 1898. There are a couple of official documents that challenge those points and explanations to support the likely circumstances.
Gershwin's birth certificate (#14691) has a date of September 26 and the name Jacob Bruskin Gershwine, but with the correct parents listed so it is his. George's 1917 draft record claims a birth date of September 25, which is written in his own hand. Was he misinformed as a child or did the attending doctor write the wrong date as well as a misspelled last name? It could also be due to the Jewish tradition of not recognizing the new day until sunset, and George was born mid-day. What seems less of an error is that on the 1900 Census taken June 7, 1900, when he was less than 21 months old, he is clearly listed as George Gershvin (could be Gershwin), not Jacob Gershovitz or Gershwine. The same goes for his older brother Ira, shown as Israel Gershovitz on his birth certificate (#53973), but who was consistently referred to after his birth variously as Ysidore, Isidore or Isadore.
One possible explanation of the variance goes to poor communication between the doctor or staff and the parents when the birth certificate was filled out. Another more viable explanation is that many American immigrant Jewish families had two different names for their children - one in Yiddish, and the other an Anglicized version. This may be the case with George whose Yiddish name may well have been Jacob, as much as Isadore's was Israel. However, it appears that George is the only name he ever knew or went by. On the family name: Isadore was born with the name Gershovitz. Therefore Morris or his brother Aaron simplified or Anglicized the family name sometime between the births of their first two boys. On most available sources it appears variously as Gershvin or Gershwin throughout the early 1900s. In any case, he was never George Gershovitz.
The Gershwin household was a mobile one, sometimes moving as many as three times in a year, as Morris evidently liked to live near his constantly changing place of business. When George was born he was said to have been in leather. By 1900 he was listed as a shoemaker, which may have been an offshoot of the leather business. He dabbled in other areas of clothing, retail, bookmaking, and even running a Turkish bath, as more of his immigrant peers were flooding the lower East Side of Manhattan and over into Brooklyn, the family bouncing back and forth between each borough. This instability may have affected George, even more so than his brother Izzy, as the youth did not fare well in school. While capable, he was distracted and showed little interest in sitting in class much less learning. In spite of his slight build, George was athletic and preferred to be out roller skating or playing at some other sport. It was clear that Izzy would be the studious one who would achieve the American dream. That is, if not for Max Rosenzweig.
Maxie was one of George's younger school friends and at ten years old becoming a fine violinist as well (he had a fine career with the instrument as virtuoso Max Rosen).
A 1910 Knabe similar to what the Gershwin family purchased from George Hochman.
1910 knabe
The family also had a piano (some sources report it was a player piano, but this is hard to verify), for which George quickly discovered his aptitude and learned to play a few popular ragtime melodies over a period of perhaps two years from 1909 to 1910. Then one day at the Gershwin household, it was decided that Izzy was to receive a piano and lessons for his 12th birthday, given the potential for his musical talent from the perspective of Rose. His parents bought a new Knabe upright piano from dealer George Hochman on time payments. After it was lifted up several floors and through a window into their flat, it is possible that Izzy reluctantly picked at it a bit, and then George sat down and amazed the family at what he already knew on the instrument. (In fact, it is likely that Rose had already heard him play at Max's house.) While both took lessons for a while, it was George who continued with the lessons while a relieved Izzy looked in other directions for something to fit his talents. Frances also received some musical training in voice at an early age. In general, Frances and Arthur were in many ways removed from their older siblings, and shared only a passing relationship according to some biographies. As of the 1910 Census the family is shown living in Manhattan with Morris running an unspecified business. The family also had a live-in servant, Ida Beckowitz, so business must have been good.
School was tough enough on George. Being surrounded by ragtime and popular songs while taking lessons in classical music was even more frustrating. His first two teachers were Miss Green and an unnamed Hungarian band director. However, after more than two years George had outgrown their patience and skills, and needed something more. Having been playing in a few public locations, he was befriended by pianist Jack Miller who in turn introduced George to Charles Hambitzer. The instructor would become George's mentor over the next four or so years (he died in 1918), and would go beyond technique, giving Gershwin a new perspective on European composers including contemporaries such as Ravel and Debussy. He also encouraged George to attend symphonic concerts featuring piano, which must have given the boy a taste for the stage as well as some excitement about the scope of such works. Hambitzer further directed George to Edward Kilenyi for additional lessons in theory and composition as time and money permitted. Around the same time, determined to pursue a music career, George quit high school with his mother's blessing and understanding, and tried to find work either playing or working for a publisher. Sister Frances was also becoming adept at singing and dance, and actually may have preceded her older brother in earning money through music. However, she married very young and gave up music and dance for painting and motherhood.
From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway
After searching around a bit, George managed to get hired by Mose Gumble as a song plugger at the publishing house of Jerome H. Remick for $15.00 per week. when you want 'em you can't get 'em coverThis meant that he would play new songs for potential customers, often producers or stage singers, in poorly insulated cubicles amidst a sea of other pianos. However, it did earn him some income, and it inspired George to write some as well. He also found some work arranging and playing piano rolls of ragtime and popular songs for Standard Music Rolls at Perfection Studios in East Orange, New Jersey. With another friend, Murray Roth, George composed When You Want ’Em, You Can’t Get ’Em (When You’ve Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em), a clever ragtime tune with an unwieldy title. Gumble and others at Remick showed no interest, with Gumble having to admonish Gershwin, saying "You're here as a pianist, not a writer. We've got plenty of writers under contract." The pair ended up selling it to Harry Von Tilzer based on some urging by singer Sophie Tucker, with Roth accepting $15 up front, but George holding out for royalties. He eventually received a mere $5 from Von Tilzer after asking for at least something. George also committed to piano roll for Standard at one of his Saturday recording sessions, becoming only a moderate seller. But George Gershwin was now a song writer at only seventeen.
In spite of the setbacks, Gershwin penned another tune with Roth, My Runaway Girl. It somehow caught the interest of composer Sigmund Romberg as it made the rounds, and was interpolated into the Passing Show of 1916, the first Gershwin tune to make it to the Broadway stage. As it turns out, Romberg had more interest in the composer and player than he did for the song, which more or less ended Roth's career, but started George's. Even better, Gershwin was employed as a rehearsal pianist for the show, and wrote the music for another tune, The Making of a Girl, with lyrics by Romberg and seasoned writer Harold Atteridge. He also made a step up in the piano roll business, working for Aeolian by late 1916. Over the next several years George would record over 100 piano rolls of popular tunes, including some of his own compositions. He was known to have worked under pseudonyms as well, including Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn.
Hoping to make his way as a composer of any genre, perhaps even improving on that genre or successfully merging popular forms with the classical ones he had been learning from Hambitzer and Kilenyi, rialto ripples coverGershwin teamed up with Will Donaldson, a somewhat older peer at Remick, for the rag Rialto Ripples. In reality, Donaldson may have applied his name to the piece, perhaps lightly arranging it, to give it more of a shot at publication. In fact, composer Felix Arndt, another mentor to George, may have had more influence on Rialto Ripples than anyone else. It was not immediately accepted, but by the time George got frustrated and either quit or was discharged from Remick in mid-March of 1917, it became the only Gershwin tune that the publisher took in. Ironically, Rialto Ripples was, in the short term, quite a sensation for Remick, but it was too late for them to capitalize on it and request more from George, who was now working as a rehearsal and performance pianist. One of the shows he worked for starting in July was Miss 1917 by Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert.
By late 1917 George had worked out a few more tunes with another lyricist he met while making the rounds, Irving Caesar. Three years his senior, Irving already had some connections in the theater world which would soon pay off. But George found another writing partner as well, one Arthur Francis. They gave the partnership a try, and eventually found their stride, working together for the next 20 years. In truth, the name was a pseudonym from Ira Gershwin derived from the names of their younger siblings. It was supposedly to keep Ira's own identity and not capitalize on George's growing reputation, but in 1917 that was not fully realized yet. After Miss 1917 opened in November, George remained at the Century Theater as an organizer of and accompanist for a series of popular concerts they had each Sunday evening. nobody but you coverThrough this gig word of his talents both as a pianist and composer spread, and very soon in early 1918 he was offered a regular position as a staff pianist and composer by Max Dreyfus, a manager at T.B. Harms Publishing Company. This included a fairly decent weekly salary in exchange for rights on any future compositions he would produce, a forward looking move on the part of Dreyfus.
On his 1918 draft record George is listed as an actor composer for the Nora Bayes Theatrical Company, and as being employed by the T.B. Harmes [sic] Publishing Company. For a short while he worked on the vaudeville stage as an accompanist for the more famous Bayes, as well as singer Louise Dresser. The listed address on the draft record is different than that of his parents. On Ira's draft record he is listed under the name Isidore, not as a lyricist however, but rather as an employee of his fathers at the St. Nicholas Bath. George lists his mother Rose as a reference and Ira lists his father Morris. There is a bittersweet irony in this as a few years later, around the time that George was receiving great acclaim for his symphonic works, Rose credited Ira for their overall success, a contention she held to the end of her life, and a frustration for the composing half of the Gershwin team. Indeed, one of their first songs written together, The Real American Folk Song is a Rag, was getting some notice in the music Ladies First, and There's Magic in the Air would find its way into Half Past Eight later in the year. But George was working with other lyricists as well, mostly in short term relationships. By the end of 1918 his songs would be in three Broadway shows. Still a fresh talent, even as a veteran at age 19, George Gershwin would not see his first real hit until the following year.
The Rise to Fame
From this point on nearly every song that came from Gershwin would either find its way into a Broadway show, or be specifically composed as part of one. (Note that this does not include his famous instrumental works.)original swanee cover In 1919 various Gershwin songs found their way into three Broadway musicals, and he would write the scores for two others. La, La, Lucille, a show composed with prolific lyricist Buddy G. DeSylva and associate Arthur J. Jackson, would be his first full-fledged assignment. It ran for 104 performances, not bad for a first attempt. He was also charged with Morris Gest's Midnight Whirl, a revue comprised of Gershwin music to lyrics by DeSylva and John Henry Mears. It ran for a less impressive 68 performances before closing. But in the interim, George and Irving Caesar had dashed off a little ragtime song, supposedly in a mere 15 minutes, that was interpolated into the unimpressive Capitol Revue. A three part song titled Swanee, it did not go far until Caesar asked an acquaintance to give it a try. That acquaintance heard Gershwin's dynamic performance of it at a party and decided to give it a new home. Thus it was that Swanee was interpolated into the decidedly non-Southern show Sinbad by singer Al Jolson who ran with it and never stopped. To think that Jolie made George famous, and that at some point Gershwin's fame would handily eclipse that of the bombastic stage star. It was further a hit in London when injected into Jig Saw, and within a year George , also establishing a fan base for the composer in England. By the end of 1920, both Irving and George would be overwhelmed by a reported $10,000 each in performance and sales royalties. As it turned out, this would be his biggest song hit during his lifetime, and one of his biggest breaks. It was also featured in the first audio recording with Gershwin at the piano, albeit with the trio of famed banjoist Fred Van Eps. Given the nature of acoustic recording, the banjo dominated this track so Gershwin is difficult to hear, but glimpses of his genius are still present.
Fortunately for fans with reproducing pianos and for future preservation, Gershwin also recorded some reproducing rolls starting in 1919 for both the Welte-Mignon and Duo-Art formats. His most celebrated series of rolls were still a few years off, but these demonstrated his forward thinking as a pianist brought up on ragtime and popular song, and advancing it through complex rhythms and chord progressions. Where Swanee was a fine example of a contemporary tune, George was already looking to advancing his classical training into new forms of music that in some cases forecast what was to com. Having lost Hambitzer as an instructor, George soon moved on to classical Rubin Goldmark, and for an alternate point of view, composer and music theory teacher Henry Cowell, known for some rather avant garde material.where is the man of my dreams cover Even in advance of Zez Confrey's series of novelties of the 1920s, in 1919 George managed his Novelette in Fourths, which actually has some kinship with Confrey's Kitten on the Keys and My Pet, pieces that would emerge within two years. In pursuit of advancing the classical form, he also composed Lullaby for a string quartet, part of his training with Kilenyi.
But in spite of his ambition to be the great American classical or jazz composer, Broadway was calling, literally. It was another George who would keep Gershwin busy for the next several years. George White hoped to compete with Florenz Ziegfeld by putting on his own revue, giving it the salacious and enticing title of George White's Scandals. The first edition was in 1920, running for 134 performances, featuring songs composed by Gershwin and Arthur Jackson. There were no big hits, but a lot of notice of this new force on the great white way. They would repeat the feat in 1921, with the memorable Drifting Along with the Tide outlasting most of the rest of the songs. Meanwhile in 1920, George had another nine tunes interpolated into four more musicals, which got him even more work in 1921. The 1920 Census showed that he was once again living with his parents, as was Ira. George was listed as a composer and Isadore as a lyric writer. Morris was in the restaurant business at that time.
With Caesar and DeSylva he tried to recreate the success of Swanee with Swanee Rose (a.k.a.) Dixie Rose, but nothing happened with it. Slightly discouraged but moving forward, he teamed up with a cadre of young composers for The Broadway Whirl, and had pieces interpolated into or commissioned for no less than six other musicals. Among those requesting Gershwin's services was lyricist and producer E. Ray Goetz, who had high regard for the composer, and would work with him on a number of shows. Goetz and DeSylva replaced Jackson as the lyricists for 1922 edition of George White's Scandals, which ran 89 performances and yielded I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise. Another ambitious effort from that show ran only the first night before it was dropped. Titled Blue Monday it was a miniature opera co-composed with DeSylva, running around 25 minutes, with a format and plot that bears some similarity to the later Slaughter on Tenth Avenue by Richard Rodgers. There may be a variety of reasons why it was dropped, such as slowing down the second act of the show, or perhaps being too cerebral for the it again cover It generally demonstrates Gershwin's ambitions to move beyond mere popular music, but also shows that he needed a little more fine tuning in the execution of this form. The Blue Monday Blues from the work remained in the show. Another DeSylva/Gershwin piece included in The French Doll, Do It Again, would become another Gershwin standard over the next few years. Gershwin was also tapped for Our Nell with another trio of lyricist composers, which fell flat at 40 performances and yielded nothing memorable.
The year 1923 was only a bit slower for the young composer, who may have taken pause after a few misfires in order to recharge and turn out better material. Fulfilling his agreement with White, Gershwin and DeSylva, with some help from Goetz, created a score for George White's Scandals of 1923, which improved over the previous year for a total of 168 performances. He also made contributions to The Dancing Girl and Little Miss Bluebird, both relatively successful productions. Earlier in the year Gershwin had met British lyricist Clifford Grey who asked him to collaborate on a new work for the London stage. George ended up visiting London and Paris for a while, becoming known to many there while he finished work on The Rainbow. Not a raging success, it still established his presence in the United Kingdom. At the end of the year, George and Buddy finished off Sweet Little Devil which played in 1924. In the meantime, the sometimes overworked Gershwin may have forgotten a meeting with one of his admirers, bandleader Paul Whiteman, who was impressed with much of what he had heard of Gershwin, particularly at a November 1, 1923 recital at Aeolian Hall where he performed with Canadian mezzo-soprano Eva Gauthier which featured some of his songs and those by contemporaries Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Walter Donaldson. Whiteman was planning on a concert in the same venue for early 1924 that would feature some of the best available jazz music of that time in a formal setting, and asked George if he might contribute a symphonic work of some kind to be featured in the program. The understanding was that George agreed to do so, but it may have been a handshake commitment because it was evidently forgotten.
The Rhapsody and The Reaction
Just after the New Year started in 1924, Ira pointed out a blurb in a New York newspaper to George, claiming he had agreed to write a Jazz Concerto for Whiteman's orchestra. With just five weeks left before the concert, it was clear to Ira that George hadn't even started on it yet, and given that the piece was already generating buzz in the press it became paramount that work get underway. whiteman concert posterThe next day George was on his way to Boston and heard the rhythm of the train wheels, inspiring him towards at least one of the melodies in the concerto. Soon after this he improvised a placid and lush melody while playing at a party, and realized it was the main theme he had hoped for. So Gershwin quickly dashed off a two-piano score for the concerto, leaving some of the pages for his part of the piece blank. Whiteman handed it off to composer and arranger Ferde Grofé, who turned it into a score for the Whiteman orchestra.
Thus it was that on February 12th, in a concert titled An Experiment in Modern Music, that featured works by Victor Herbert, Edward Elgar and Zez Confrey, a less than confident Gershwin took his seat at the piano near the end of the concert. The clarinet started on what would become a famous slide up to a high Bb, and the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue was underway. Gershwin himself ended up improvising in some sections of the score that he had not yet filled in, but the orchestra managed to stay in synch with him. At one point, by his own account, he started crying he was so moved by the experience - or perhaps intimidated - and came to his senses several pages later, not knowing how he had conducted that far. The final chords brought a standing ovation and noisy acclaim from an audience that included violinists Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifitz, conductor Leopold Stokowski, and composers Serge Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky. This was the moment that set in stone George Gershwin's place in American and world music history and development, and redefined him as a musician as well as composer. The critics weren't sure how to categorize the piece in their reviews, either as classical or jazz, or even a hybrid. But they could not ignore that it was popular with the general public, as well as with his peers.
That was just the beginning of 1924. Soon after the concert Gershwin recorded an abridged version of the work with Whiteman's orchestra on an acoustic recording. He also embarked on his most ambitious Broadway shows to date. With DeSylva and Goetz, the trio wrote the annual score for George White's Scandals, lasting 196 performances. It would the last Scandals he would be directly involved in. Following that, George turned to Ira, with whom he had already composed several songs, for a purely Gershwin show. Lady Be Good was immensely successful, playing for 330 performances in its original run. Among the memorable tunes were the title song, Oh, Lady Be Good, and Fascinatin' Rhythm. The show opened in December and featured the brother/sister dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire, who had also been making a splash in London around that time. It also served as some evidence that perhaps Ira was the best possible fit as a lyricist for George's music. Even before Lady Be Good, the brothers had also co-composed the score for Primrose with British lyricist Desmond Carter, a show which like The Rainbow was produced exclusively for the London stage, and not performed in the United States until sixty-three years after its British debut.
Broadway, Carnegie Hall, London and Paris
At some point in 1925, now flush with money and fame, George was able to move uptown to the upper West Side of Manhattan, providing a much more fashionable and comfortable home for his parents there as well. He also put his money to use engaging more in art, attempting to paint to a degree (Ira turned out to be a fairly accomplished oil canvas artist), original rhapsody in blue coverand collecting a number of pieces of art as well. Being that Gershwin was in vogue, he was frequently invited to parties given within the theatrical or literary circles of New York, and was implored to play at virtually all of them. It has been said that sometimes it was a little hard to push George towards the piano, but once there he dominated the evening with his repertoire and repartee. George was also traveling a bit more in 1925, overseeing productions in England as well as visits to Paris. Among those that he developed a close social relationship with was Fred Astaire, with whom George would remain friends to the end of his life.
While Gershwin had recorded countless rolls from the late 1910s on, most of them to date had been standard non-expression piano rolls with a few reproducing rolls done along the way. Duo-Art managed to get him exclusively in 1925, as announced in the February 7 edition of The Music Trade Review: "George Gershwin, the young American composer who leaped into sudden fame with his jazz-classic, the 'Rhapsody in Blue,' has recorded that composition for the Duo-Art. Gershwin has been known on Broadway for several years as a writer of popular song hits, and as a pianist of much ability. It was but a year ago, however, that his 'Rhapsody in Blue,' first performed by Paul Whiteman's Orchestra in Aeolian Hall, stamped him as something more than a jazz composer. He is now hailed as the one composer capable of translating the true spirit of American jazz into classic composition. In future he will record exclusively for the Duo-Art... The 'Rhapsody' is written for augmented jazz orchestra with solo piano. For the Duo-Art Gershwin has recorded his own arrangement of the work for piano alone, a clever combination of the brilliant and difficult solo part and the rich orchestration. The composition will be published in two rolls." Indeed, it required two passes at the very least to create the arranged rolls of the large-scope work. In recent times, many fine recordings of Rhapsody in Blue with Gershwin at the piano have been achieved by using edited versions of this fine roll set.
The first musical of that year was Tell Me More co-written with Ira and Bud DeSylva. It fared moderately well on Broadway at 100 performances, but was also taken to London with three additional tunes composed with Desmond Carter, and did a little better there. gershwin on the cover of time magazine 7/20/1925Tip-Toes was next, lasting for an admirable 192 performances over half the year. Among the great tunes that came from it were Looking for a Boy, That Certain Feeling and Sweet and Low Down. With the unusual combination of Herbert Stothart, Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein Jr., Gershwin stepped a bit closer to classic theater with Song of the Flame. Even though it lasted into 1926 at 219 performances, he would not team with them again.
George also had a lot on his plate, having been commissioned to write another symphonic work by conductor Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra, who had attended the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue. He spent most of the summer and early fall of 1925 focusing on the work. Still lacking some of the necessary theory and orchestration skills he needed, Gershwin hit the books to become self-taught in these to a degree. The experience also prompted to later seek out training from Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell to help fill out his musical knowledge base. Originally titled New York Concerto, it emerged in November as Concerto in F. Unlike Rhapsody in Blue, this was a full-fledged three section concerto, and it was orchestrated completely by Gershwin with a little advice from Damrosch dispensed during early run-throughs. Premiering at Carnegie Hall on December 3rd, it was well attended and well received by most. Stravinsky was there once again and thought the difficult work to be brilliant. Sergei Prokofiev had no use for it, making it clear that he did not like Gershwin's work at all. Some thought it to be too classical in the same vein as French impressionist Claude Debussy, and not more closely associated with American jazz. Just the same, it further cemented George's reputation as a contemporary American classicist at age 27, a worthy accomplishment. A lasting impression has been left by this piece, with one of the most ambitious and eclectic performances by Gershwin's admirer and slightly younger peer Oscar Levant, who performed the third movement (with himself shown on screen as all of the members of the orchestra) in the all-Gershwin MGM film An American in Paris.
One happy event in Gershwin's life was an ongoing relationship with composer Kay Swift, who had met in 1925. This made Swift's husband Jimmy Warburg rather unhappy, but he tolerated it for a time trying to compete with Gershwin for her attention. In the end, their marriage collapsed. Kay was involved with Gershwin nearly to the end of his life. One rather blatant show of affection on George's part was naming his next show, Oh, Kay!, for her. With lyrics by Ira it opened in 1926 and turned out to be a very inspired and romantic turn for the brothers, running an impressive 256 performances, and yielding the lasting hit Someone to Watch Over Me. Surprisingly, in its original form that song was not the slow ballad we know today, but more of lilting swinging tune, performed on piano roll by George the same year in that manner. He would also contribute a couple of pieces to the London production of Lady Be Good, including the memorable I'd Rather Charleston.
While in London, George met again up with Fred and Adele Astaire. Taking advantage of the advanced electronic recording technology in studios there, the trio recorded some tracks together. They represent some of the finest audio recordings of Gershwin's playing, as well as some of Fred's dancing. Yet George still pursued his desire to compose classically infused jazz pieces, still somewhat influenced by the French impressionists. three preludes coverNow taking some instruction in advanced composition, he penned a set of preludes that year, and by some reports was planning a series of etudes as well. Even though there may have been as many as six composed, George performed his Three Preludes for Piano in December of 1926 as part of a recital where he also accompanied contralto Marguerite d'Alvarez. Historians have further extrapolated that the unpublished pieces found in the archives titled Sleepless Nights and Novelette (restructured as Short Story may have also been intended as part of the prelude set.
The next Gershwin musical would leave a sour taste in the mouth of many, including the Gershwin brothers. Teaming up with playwright George S. Kaufman, who had recently scored with the Marx Brothers' musicals The Cocoanuts (with Irving Berlin), he teamed with the Gershwins to write and produce the political satire Strike up the Band in early 1927. In spite of a fine score in which Ira took Kaufman's libretto and turned it into workable lyrics, the show did not make it to Broadway, closing in Philadelphia after only a few performances. While this somewhat expensive proposition was not too much of a burden for the brothers, the loss to them musically after the effort put into it was disheartening. One of the pieces included had already been dropped from a show in 1924. The Man I Love ended up being dropped once again, as was the entire show soon after. However, it has become one of the most enduring ballads composed in the 20th century, and sold very well on its own once it was heard on recordings. The show was simply set aside and they moved on to other projects. Among those was Funny Face, which at 244 performances was far from a disappointment for the brothers. Among the memorable pieces from that production was the enduring 'S Wonderful and the clever The Babbitt and the Bromide.
While George had recorded Rhapsody in Blue with the Whiteman orchestra in 1924, it was an acoustic recording of only moderate quality. So in 1927 he joined the orchestra again for another take at an abbreviated version of the piece recorded electronically by Victor. However, even with the composer present and at the piano, Paul Whiteman had some issues with how the piece was to be interpreted and ended up leaving the session. In order to get a take while the musicians were still present, Nathan Shilkret, a staff conductor who was on hand that day, took over to finish the recording. In spite of this, Whiteman would still long be associated with the piece in two different guises. The original orchestration by Grofé was for jazz band, but a later orchestration had many string elements added, making the piece more symphonic in presentation. This later version would be included in the 1930 Whiteman movie, King of Jazz, with the piano in that interpretation played by the very capable novelty pianist Roy Bargy. While Gershwin did not perform in the film, he still performed at the premiere of the picture on May 2, 1930. Whiteman was not the only who capitalized on the work. It was incorporated into George White's Scandals of 1926 even though Gershwin was no longer composing for the leader, in Americana also in 1926, the musical Lucky in 1927, and George White's Musical Hall Varieties of 1932). It would eventually be utilized in a number of other movies as well, the most iconic being Woody Allen's Manhattan, and one of the finest renditions featured in the Disney Studio's Fantasia 2000, both of which starred New York City as their logical background, and even as the star. So it was that even by the late 1920s Rhapsody in Blue was deeply associated with Gershwin, New York, and Whiteman.
The following year was quite eventful for the Gershwins as well. The brothers debuted two ambitious musicals that year - one a hit and one a near-miss. Rosalie was first, including some input from Sigmund Romberg and writer P.G. Wodehouse. george gershwin self-portraitWhile it did not yield any lasting hits, it ran for nearly a year at 335 performances, a worthy run even in those pre-Depression times. They followed this up with Treasure Girl, which lasted for a mere 68 performances before the final curtain. One nice piece came out of this, albeit as more of a jaunty dance tune than the ballad most are familiar with today. (I've Got a) Crush on You rose above the rest, and has been frequently recorded over the decades since. But after all this writing for Broadway, George needed a break, and had a desire to explore more of the fusion of jazz and classical forms, hoping to fuse them into something that would eclipse even his Rhapsody in Blue
Part of 1928 found George Gershwin in Paris, France, where he sought new musical direction and training in composition. Among those that he approached were Nadia Boulanger and composer Maurice Ravel, both of who informed Gershwin that there was little they could do to assist him, in part because they respected the work he already had done and did not want to remove the jazz elements by infusing him with too many classical tenets. Ravel in particular was a big fan of George and found his symphonic jazz works intriguing. He was also clear on the point that George was much better paid for his works, and when asked to give Gershwin lessons, he evidently replied "How about you give me some lessons?" This was further reinforced with the quote, "Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?" In any case, while on this sojourn, George soaked in as much French influence as he could, and in the spring started on what would be perhaps his finest and second most famous orchestral work. Intended to musically portray the impressions of a visitor to Paris, it turned into a one movement symphonic poem, one of the first which Gershwin also worked to orchestrate with mixed results. At some point during the year Gershwin ended up frustrated with the music scene in Paris and returned home to finish the work. An American in Paris debuted in Carnegie Hall on December 13th with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Damrosch. Containing representations of many emotions as well as tangible elements such as taxi horns, and a very wistful blues suggesting homesickness, it was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece and has remained very popular since.
Early in 1929 RCA Victor asked George to help with a recording of An American in Paris with their resident Victor Symphony Orchestra under Nathaniel Shilkret, who had previously conducted Rhapsody in Blue. Ultimately Gershwin had less influence on the outcome of the interpretation than Shilkret did, so his role in the process was minimized. He likely would not have been in the recording at all if not for the fact that nobody had seen to hiring a celesta player. So on that recording George is heard briefly on the short celesta solo. That summer, Gershwin made his debut as a conductor in an unusual outdoor concert at Lewisohn Stadium in New York where conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in both An American in Paris and both conducted and played the piano for the now familiar Rhapsody in Blue, for an audience of more than fifteen thousand people. An American in Paris would ultimately be interpreted in many ways, one of the most memorable being dancer Gene Kelly's ballet set to the piece in the 1952 film of the same name. That same movie would also feature the Levant performance of Concerto in F and a number of other Gershwin songs performed by the cast, closing with the vivacious and wistful tone poem from France.
Given how much time the trip to France had taken, along with the work necessary to complete An American in Paris and attend the many early performances of it, there is no wonder that George and Ira only got one musical to Broadway in 1929. Show Girl got a relatively tepid response, making the best of 111 performances overall before the economic reality of the Wall Street crash started to settle in. It incorporated the blues section of An American in Paris for a short ballet. The finale of the show became a near-instant hit, and a song quickly adopted by singer and Gershwin fan Al Jolson. Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away) caught on quickly of its own accord, but it was not enough to keep the entire show alive beyond four months. The Great Depression was looming ahead and about to settle in. At this point in his life, it has been determined historically that George Gershwin was likely the wealthiest composer in the world, based on how many of his songs were generating royalties on a regular basis through performances and sheet music sales, in addition to his personal appearances. The Gershwin brothers would manage to hold on to that wealth during the lean years ahead, but they had to continue work for it, which they ultimately did to great acclaim.
As of the 1930 Census George was shown still living in Manhattan along with his personal cook, Frank Diudl. Even though he was pretty much a confirmed bachelor by now, he still had some ongoing relationships, not just the one with Kay Swift, and was known for being the life of the party, something he at times reluctantly enjoyed, along with a good cigar. strike up the band coverHis exquisite playing, which was occasionally heard on radio by now, spoke volumes. There were many times when he was limited by the time capacity and sound quality of 78 rpm discs, so they don't always represent the dynamic or temporal nuances of his performances as well as the live radio or concert performances. But he was still in demand for other works. One of those, contracted in 1929, was a Jewish-themed opera that was given the working title of The Dybbuk. Although a contract was signed with the Metropolitan Opera, work on his other serious compositions, travel to Europe, and ultimately time spend in Hollywood superseded this obligation, and the opera, though allegedly started, was never completed.
One of the projects was a resurrection of Strike Up the Band in 1930, this time with a revised libretto by Morrie Ryskind. In light of changes in the political climate in the previous three years as well as the subtle changes in the plot and song, this Band struck a chord with the public, and it survived 191 performances, pretty good considering the weakened economy. This was followed by finely crafted Girl Crazy, a smash in both New York and London, which ran for 272 performances and yielded a number of classic Gershwin/Gershwin hits. These included Bidin' My Time, Embraceable You, and the poignant But Not for Me. Adding to the workload, the Gershwin brothers were commissioned to compose their first film score for Delicious, and spent November 1930 to February 1931 in Hollywood, California. The film featured eight Gershwin songs, with two other pieces that didn't make the cut. One of those, Mischa, Yascha, Toscha, Sascha, was the only true ethnic comic song written by the brothers. During their occasional down time, George started on his second piano rhapsody, and the brothers also started on their next stellar work for Broadway.
Of Thee I Sing was the best received Gershwin product since Rhapsody in Blue. It surpassed all others by running an amazing 441 performances from 1931 to 1932, deep into the Great Depression. A much needed parody of the presidency in advance of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaign and election, the musical generated more than just good buzz and reviews. Other than the title tune and Love is Sweeping the Country, many would be hard-pressed to name any tunes from this work, which was successful as a complete entity. In addition to the accolades, it was the first piece of American Theater Musical Comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a significant achievement. A less impressive reception was given to his Second Rhapsody, which while completed in 1931 was not debuted until January 29th, 1932. Gershwin played for the event in Boston's Symphony Hall with the orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, but the overall reception was tepid, as many were comparing it to his original Rhapsody in Blue. The new work was more classical and cerebral in content, which may have been part of the reason it was much less popular.
In need of a break from the grind of composing musicals, Gershwin would take much of 1932 off to pursue other interests. Ira had already taken up painting like his younger sister, and George would follow in a fashion, but not with the same focus. Just after the Second Rhapsody premiere, George and some buddies took off for a vacation in Havana, Cuba. While there he heard many of the dance orchestras playing the indigenous island music and was most captivated by their rhythms and the use of percussion instruments. This gave him the inspiration for his Cuban Overture, which would be completed and orchestrated over the next several months. Another project released that year was a challenging set of eighteen song choruses transcribed by Gershwin in the way he typically played them at parties, one of the few direct insights into his performance style committed to paper.
It was during this period George sought out more musical training. Still captivated by contemporary classical composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg, he reportedly encountered Schoenberg who had a similar response to that of Ravel, stating "I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you're such a good Gershwin already." One teacher who did take him on over the next three or more years was Russian composer and music theorist Joseph Schillinger. He was able to provide George with new tools to use in his approach to serious composition. That influence would appear over the next few years. Schillinger ultimately claimed to have been a large influence of the style of Porgy and Bess, but this was after Gershwin's death, so no support was available for this claim from the composer himself.
After completing a new song for the film version of Girl Crazy, George set his sights on the first All-Gershwin Concert, which would debut his Cuban Overture completed a week before the event. Held on August 9th, 1932 at Lewisohn Stadium in New York with and attendance of around 18,000, it was, in his own words, "...the most exciting night I have ever had." Cuban Overture was well received, as were the arrangements of many of his most popular pieces to date. But he had already planted a seed in his head for something even greater in the near future. For moment, George was ready to get back into the swing of things with Ira, and they set their sights on 1933.
Two musicals came from the Gershwin boys in 1933, but neither of them did particularly well, likely in part because of the continuing financial depression. The first was Pardon My English which ran for 43 performances and yielded no recognizable hits. Let 'Em Eat Cake, a cousin to Of Thee I Sing, did marginally better at 90 performances, but again with no standout tunes amongst the substantial amount of pieces within the production. George also made some appearances on radio shows, including one hosted by Rudy Vallee on which he performed the third movement of his Concerto in F and accompanied Vallee singing Gershwin tunes. As it turned out, radio would be of great assistance to George and Ira in their next grand endeavor.
Porgy and Bess
In 1926 George had read a novel by DuBose Heyward titled Porgy. It concerned the life of black residents of the real life "Catfish Row" in Charleston, South Carolina, and planted a seed for what would become a full-length opera. Late in 1933, George and Ira, along with Heyward, signed a contract the Theater Guild of New York to write and produce the opera for the stage. gershwin at work in the mid-1930sGeorge had started composing the work in February of 1934 with several ideas based on authentic black music forms he had studied. In spite of the details in the book, on site research was required by the Gershwins as a matter of inspiration from the environment in which the story transpired. Money was also required to finance the composition and staging. So for a time, George hosted a radio program on CBS called Music by Gershwin on which he played not only his own works, but stellar arrangements of pieces by his peers. Over the summer, George and Ira stayed with Heyward near Charleston at Folly Beach absorbing local influences, particularly at gospel services in local black churches. They also studied a group called the Gullahs on nearby James Island, and they became influential in the development of the characters in their songs and their staging. DuBose and Ira both contributed lyrics which Gershwin set to a wide variety of musical styles, some of them intertwined with each other. By fall the brothers were back in New York City and George was back on the radio performing many of his more challenging works for the sponsors and the listening audience. Among his more interesting acquisitions at that time was the very first commercially available Hammond organ, making him the first owner of the instrument that would soon become a staple of everything from radio organists to rock and roll bands.
The sheer volume of work required to refine what would become the self-described "folk opera" Porgy and Bess into the masterpiece that George strived for took up most of the fall and winter, with the task of orchestration progressing into early summer of 1935. It was beyond a labor of love for Gershwin, and he thoroughly believed in the quality of the end product, having at times said to be in wonder of how it turned out and how fortunate he was to have been the composer. The stage production was directed by Rouben Mamoulian with the rural stage sets by Sergei Soudeikine. The process of staging the elaborate show in Boston was fraught with problems that made for long running times in an already long opera. It opened on September 30, 1935, and in spite of critical acclaim following opening night it did not resound with an already depressed public. The production moved to New York for another premiere in the Avalon Theater, a Broadway venue and not an opera house, the latter of which may have served the show better. Gershwin supervised and played on recordings of arranged highlights of the work for RCA with the original cast members in mid-October, including Lawrence Tibbitt as Porgy. They show that the opera would even undergo some more minor editing following this session.
In context of the time, what was essentially a non-Broadway show with a nearly all-African-American cast written and produced by white composers that featured a somewhat depressing story about a crippled protagonist and his search for love, summer time coverparticularly depicting an environment that most who could afford to see the show had virtually no familiarity with, was a difficult sell for the public. Given the Schillinger influence and large scope, it was potentially overwhelming for many theater patrons, either in spite of or because of how advanced it was. It contained elements of classic opera mixed with dances and spirituals, plus advanced harmonic progressions and complex rhythms. Also present were tone rows, fugues, polytonal passages, the standard opera elements of recitatives and leitmotif choruses, and the intertwining of recurring musical themes. In terms of the story and staging, some saw it as casting a negative view on Black life in the South. Still, it yielded several memorable melodies including I Loves You Porgy, Bess You Is My Woman Now, and the effusive Summertime.
Porgy and Bess ultimately closed in early 1936 after only 124 performances, having not earned the amount of money invested into it. While it was considered a marvel and a success for Gershwin, it was overall considered a financial failure. In the decades since, the collective efforts of Heyward and the Gershwins have been vindicated several times over. Porgy and Bess remains as a fine template of American Theater that would be later echoed in the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe in terms of story telling integrated with musical styles and content. It is both interesting and sad to note that George and DuBose discussed plans to write another opera which would be a sequel, Porgy in New York, but both men died before anything could be done on it. George did follow up the magnum opera with a suite of pieces from it, a work which Ira rediscovered in the late 1950s and released as Catfish Row.
After some recovery time following Porgy and Bess, George and Ira signed with RKO Film Studios (perhaps at the insistence of George's friend Fred Astaire) in June to write the songs for the upcoming films Shall We Dance?, A Damsel in Distress and The Goldwyn Follies. This facilitated a move from their native New York, so in August the brothers and Ira's wife moved to Beverly Hills for the duration. Shall We Dance was the first of the released films, yielding the title song and They Can't Take That Away from Me as bona-fide hits for George and Fred. Even as the film was in production, George and Ira managed to write more songs for the other two films, as well as other tunes which would be used for a later production. They also were commissioned for a theme song to accompany the upcoming 1939 World's Fair in New York. In January of 1937, Gershwin performed in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by the French maestro Pierre Monteux, then returned to Los Angeles to continue his work.
Death and Postlude
Early in the same year, George started to complain about blinding headaches which had likely started late in the previous year. He also noted that he smelled burning rubber on a regular basis. By late spring the recurrences were chronic, and even while he was still working on his final tunes, including Our Love Is Here to Stay, George collapsed while still at work on July 9 and fell into a coma. The diagnosis was that he had developed a type of cystic malignant brain tumor known as glioblastoma multiforme.
Promotional Poster for Shall We Dance, the film which earned Gershwin his posthumous Oscar.
shall we dance poster
To date the cause of this type of cancer is still unknown, yet some have insisted it was from a injury caused by a golf ball. In any case, the diagnosis came too late as this form of cancer is always fatal. Efforts to remove the tumor at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital could not stave off his death hours later on July 11. There is a persistent story that he briefly came out of the coma before dying, and according to a letter of Fred Astaire's revealed by Adele, Fred's name was one of the last things he said before he passed on. The 38-year-old musical prodigy that had led the direction of American theatrical and classical music for two decades was gone. The entire world from London's West End and Broadway's theater district to small town America was grief stricken from the premature loss. On July 15, after memorial services in New York and Hollywood, he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
One of the first public gestures was a memorial concert at the Hollywood Bowl on September 8 conducted by Otto Klemperer. Ira continued to finish polishing the remaining songs the brothers had worked on for The Goldwyn Follies. His former long-time love, Kay Swift, transcribed many of George's recordings and helped Ira with the completion and arrangement of some of the pieces. All of his estate was passed to his mother Rose, who benefited from his copyright income for the remainder of her life. Gershwin was awarded a posthumous 1937 Oscar for Best Song for They Can't Take That Away from Me. Some of the late songs that Ira and George had composed while in Beverly Hills were finally incorporated into the film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim in 1946. Even more songs from the archives were incorporated into the film Kiss Me Stupid in 1964, 27 years after his death.
Ira survived George until 1983, composing many more fine works with the best of American music composers. The honors and accolades for both Gershwins have continued to pour in for decades, and many fine performances of Gershwin works have found their way into recorded media every time the technology advanced. While less appreciated in the United States for his classical and operatic works during his lifetime, George was well recognized by his European peers as a genius in these genres. As time has gone on, even his most eclectic works have become assimilated into the greater bodies of both musical theater and advanced American musical forms. In 2006 he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, one of a number of such organizations in which he has been recognized. There is a theater on Broadway named for him. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, named a new prize for popular song after the composer and his brother in 2007. The first recipient of the George and Ira Gershwin award was another American treasure, Paul Simon. The amazing Stevie Wonder was also given the prize by President Barack Obama in February of 2009. The most recent recipient was Sir Paul McCartney in 2010, for his inestimable contributions to the world of popular song.
The continually popular and instantly recognizable Rhapsody in Blue has lived on as one of the only Gershwin pieces licensed for advertising with United Airlines as of the late 1980s. This move in part, along with involvement of the Walt Disney Organization, helped spur long time popular musician and California congressman Sonny Bono to champion a copyright extension act in 1998, significantly increasing copyright protections for the works all American composers dating back to 1923. The elements of this were linked in the inclusion of total Americana elements such as illustrator Al Hirschfeld and the music Rhapsody in Blue in the 1999 Disney film Fantasia 2000 The word "Gershwinesque" has found its way into the musical vocabulary, which reinforces George's place in history as having created his own unique genre as well as the influence it has wielded since. The boy who started playing and writing ragtime as a basis for developing his own style ended up, in a lifetime about as long as the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, creating a new language American music that has since spread around the entire planet, and will outlive him by hundreds of lifetimes. We should be thankful we had him at all, even if it was not for long enough.
In addition to the author's own research of historical archives and conjectural input, a number of corroborating texts on Gershwin's life were used as a basis for this shortened biography. Two in particular are recommended as the most complete work on the composer: George Gershwin by Howard Pollack (2007) and George Gershwin by William Hyland (2003). The former provides a deep analysis of his music plus a number of great anecdotes concerning his personal life. The latter provides a different balance and a slightly different chronological formation. Both provide a rather exhaustive look at who George was and what drove him, as well as how he dealt with setbacks and successes.

Younger David Guion Portrait  Older David Guion Portrait
David Wendel Guion
(December 15, 1892 to October 17, 1981)
Texas Fox Trot
Hopi Indian Cradle Song [w/Louis
Old Maid Blues [w/Web Maddox]
Embers [1]
The Ghostly Galley [2]
Prayer [w/Hermann Hagedorn]
Little Pickaninny Kid [2]
Return [1]
Resurrection [2]
Mary Alone: Mother of Christ [w/ Lucile Isbell
Southern Nights Waltzes
Pickaninny Dance for Piano
Waltz of Sorrow
Li'l' Black Rose [2]
Minuet for Pianoforte
Crucifixion: At the Cry of the First Bird
Howdy Do, Mis' Springtime [w/Ben
Rag Crazy (Jazz Scherzo)
Sail Away for the Rio Grande
Alley Tunes: Three Scenes from
    the South

   Brudder Sinkiller and his Flock
    of Sheep
   The Lonesome Whistler
   The Harmonica Player
Valse Arabesque
Five Imaginary Early Louisiana Songs
    of Slavery [2]
Cowboy's Meditation [w/Charle J.
Lonesome Song of the Plains [3]
Shingandi (Ballet Primitive)
Suzanne: Folk Opera [2]
   In Galam
   Mam'selle Marie
   De Massus and' de Missus
   To the Sun
   De Voodo Man
   De Voodo Gal
The Scissors Grinder
Please Shake Dem 'Simmons Down
Negro Lament
When You Go [1]
The Bell Buoy [1]
Wild Geese [3]
Barcarolle Espanol
Prairie Dusk
Little Joe, the Wrangler
Creole Juanita [2]
Waltzing with You in My Arms [2]
Mistah Jay-Bird
Cavalcade of Texas
My Cowboy Love Song [2]
Texas, May I Never Wander [w/C.C.
Country Jig
Prairie Night Song [2]
Sea Demons [w/Mars]
This Night Can Never Come Again
Spanish Boat
One Day
I Talked to God Last Night [4]
Dark Rivers [2]
At Close of Day
Go Then
Song of the Wind
Nocturne in Blue
The Voice of America [4]
Song of Mexico [5] [w/Dave
All of a Sudden [5]
Too Deep for Tears
God's Golden West
And God Was There
Patoral for the Piano
Pinto [2]
My Eternity [1]
Unveil Your Eyes [w/Clark Harrington]
Texas Suite
The Hawk [w/Eric von der Goltz]
Mary [2]
As We, O Lord, Have Joined Our Hands:
    Wedding Song [w/Arthur V. Boand]
Unknown or Uncertain
A Heartbreak
Life and Love
Love is Lord of All
Mother Goose Suite
My Own Laddie
Praise God and I'm Satisfied
Prayer During Battle
Rabbit's Foot (Gettin' Over the Blues)
Stacatto Concert Etude
Wrong Livin'

1. w/Jessie B. Rittenhouse
2. w/Marie Wardall/Lussi
3. w/Grace Noll Crowell
4. w/John W. Bratton
5. w/Rusk Smith
Folk/Americana Arrangements    
Two Darkey Songs (1918)
   De Ol' Ark's a-Moverin
   Greatest Miracle of All
Darkey Spirituals (1918)
   Some O' These Days
   Poor Sinner
   My Little Soul's Gwine A-Shine
   Nobody Knows de Trouble I Sess
   Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
   Sinner, Don't Let Dis Harves' Pass
   I Sees Lawd Jesus A-Comin'
   Holy Bible
   Little David
   John de Bap-a-tist
   You Jest Well Git Ready, You Gwine
   Satan's a Liar an' a Conjur Too
   Hark, From de Tombs
   Run, Mary, Run
   Ol' Marse Adam
Turkey in the Straw Concert
Shout Yo' Glory (1919)
The Bold Vaquero (1920)
Sheep and Goat Walkin' to the Pasture
Oh My Lawd, What Shall I Do? (1924)
Arkansas Traveler: Old Fiddler's
    Breakdown (1929)
Home on the Range (1908/1930)
Texas Tunes (1930)
   Roy Bean
   All Day on the Prairie
   McCaffie's Confession
When the Work's All Done This Fall
O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie
Ol' Paint (1933)
What Shall We Do with a Drunken
    Sailor? (1933)
The Cowboy's Dream (1933)
Ride, Cowboy, Ride (1934)
Yellow Rose of Texas (1936)
Chloe (Negro Wail) (1936)
The Brazos Boat Song (1936)
Carry Me Home to the Lone Prairie
    [For Will Rogers] (1937)
Lef' Away (Negro Wail) (1939)
My Son (1940)
Short'nin Bread (1941)
Cross-Bearer (1942)
Hand in Hand, Beloved (1944)
Roll Along, Little Dogies (1947)
David Guion (commonly pronounced guy-on) was born into a very large Texas family (five older siblings, two younger, and one deceased) when Texas was still very much the domain of cowboys, and not yet for oil and other commerce. His exposure to music early on came in part from African American servants employed by the family, and included a great body of spiritual works as well as American folk songs and cowboy tunes of Texas that were brought to him via the cowboys who worked for his father. John Isaac Guion II was listed as a lawyer in 1900 (John's father was a governor of Mississippi at one point), but was later a judge, and a long-time rancher as well. David's mother, Matilda Armour Fentress (some sources cite "Wendel Fentress" as Guion's middle names), was an accomplished singer and pianist.
With a piano and pianist in the home, it did not take long for the parents to discover young David's musical propensity at age five. So they saw to it that he received an extensive musical education. In his teens, and perhaps before, David studied in San Angelo, Texas, with future musical and literary author Charles Finger. Starting at 14 he attended the Whipple Academy in Jacksonville, Illinois, then back to Texas at the Polytechnic College (now Texas Wesleyan University) in Fort Worth. After the 1912 death of his primary instructor at TPC, Wilbur MacDonald, texas fox trot coverGuion departed at age 19 to study in Vienna with Leopold Godowsky at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Vienna, Austria. After a mere two years there, the political climate brought on by the beginning of The Great War (WWI) forced him to return home to Texas, where he started his musical career.
Guion's first position was teaching piano and music at the Daniel Baker College (now Howard Payne University) in Brownwood, Texas. He also worked on composition as a sideline. In spite of his classical training, he knew that selling a viable composition at that time meant working in one of the popular idioms of the time. One of David's first publications was also one of the only ones in the ragtime idiom, although many of his later arrangements had the same roots that also gave birth to ragtime. Texas Fox Trot was radically different and more advanced than virtually any Texas ragtime for 1915 when it was composed, and actually most commercial ragtime from that time. With gentle yet percussive melodies it has stood on its own for a long time, and been the subject of many recorded interpretations, including a fine piano roll by artist Muriel Pollock the year after the piece was published in 1917.
Texas Fox Trot gave David relatively quick notoriety in the music world. The Music Trade Review featured Guion and the piece in an article from November 23, 1918. "Mr. Guion is a young man who allows his music to speak for him, and that it does well. Recently Mr. Guion became inspired with the remarkable strains of what he very properly named 'The Texas Fox-Trot,' a composition published by M. Witmark & Sons that is meeting with very substantial success. 'The Texas Fox-Trot' is obviously the work of a musician, and yet it bubbles over with melody and action. It is unlike anything of its kind on the market. It shows clearly to what extent the fox-trot may be musically developed. Mr. Guion is an accomplished concert pianist as well as a graceful and original composer. His vocal numbers include some very striking songs, notably 'Embers' and 'The Ghostly Galley,' as well as an unusually interesting series of fourteen 'Darkey Spirituals,' collected and arranged by Mr. Guion with great patience and admirable results."
His next composition was a fine song. Old Maid Blues, which saw proper service with singer Nora Bayes. It was also in 1918 that Guion turned to arrangements of tunes he had learned from the servants as a boy, but now in a studied and very musical manner. The introduction to a series of Darkey Spirituals for voice and piano, as noted above, reads in part: "Darkey 'spirituals' are plantation-songs which had their origin for the most part in the camp-meetings and revivals of other days. turkey in the straw concert arrangment coverSpontaneous in their birth, they were never conceived with any direct plan or form, and not until lately have they been perpetuated in a way that enables them to appeal directly to lovers of folk-songs." It goes on to explain Guion's qualifications as having grown up with these tunes and the folklore around them. Published by the respected G. Schirmer Company, these soon became the standard baseline arrangements by which the tunes were known. Guion added to this library with many fine religious and spiritual tunes of his own, starting a long song-writing collaboration with Marie Wardall, who married in the 1920s becoming Marie Lussi.
Perhaps the most important early adaptation of all for Guion came in 1919 when he penned a challenging concert arrangement of the Zip Coon tune, known by fiddlers as Turkey in the Straw. In spite of a long-known ragtime arrangement by Otto Bonnell, Guion's arrangement made the tune quite popular again, and set a new standard for revitalizing older material. In a 1925 notice for a concert of his Negro spiritual arrangements in the San Antonio Express, fellow composer Percy Grainger was quoted as saying that: "David Guion is one of the greatest living composers in any country... His transcription of the popular folk song, 'Turkey in the Straw' is a kind of national anthem. His setting of it is a great cosmopolitan masterpiece worthy of rank with the Chopin Mazurkas and the Liszt Rhapsodies. Guion's work is close to the greatest classics of all time." Another quote from Musical America stated: "What Percy Grainger has done for some British and Irish folk tunes, Guion has done for this American 'Cowboys' and old fiddlers' breakdown, 'Turkey in the Straw.' David Guion is one of the cleverest composers in America today. His arrangements of Negro spirituals prove that."
In 1920 Judge John Guion died. Having been on the board of directors at A&M College (now Texas A&M University) a hall was built and named in his honor. David was still listed as living in his parent's home in Ballinger, Texas. With the freedom of the income from his composing and arranging, he started pursuing broader interests, soon teaching at Southern University and other Dallas schools. By 1922 he was the dean of the Fairmount Conservatory of Music in Wichita, Kansas. He later taught at Chicago Musical College and in Estes Park, Colorado at a school there. While in Dallas he was married for a short period to Marian Ayers of Dallas in the 1920s. Among his more interesting but logical side interests was the rodeo. He was a fine rider, winning prizes at rodeos in Colorado and at the home of rodeo and frontier celebrations, Cheyenne, Wyoming. This may have worked as a two-way enhancement with his study and release of arrangements of cowboy songs as well. Another prize was first place in a piano composition contest stage in San Antonio in 1924.
Guion rarely compromised on his arrangements. In an article in the January 2, 1926 edition of The Music Trade Review, which made note of a rare simplification of one of his piano scores, it was said first that, "Seldom does a publisher make such an important change in a song after it is achieving importance." As for the composer, they went on with his point of view: "David Guion, himself a prominent composer and masterly pianist, admits that he cannot write 'easy' things, and that he delights in finger twisting combination. So when he set Ben Gordon's dainty little 'Mis' Springtime' poem to music, he proceeded to give it a characteristically difficult piano part. It was a splendid setting, however, and the accompaniment appealed to professional pianists and accompanists as one of the chief artistic merits of the song. But when the song began to take real hold, as it did very soon after its publication, the publishers found that the accompaniment was much too difficult for the ordinary musician to manage, and that many singers who liked the number rejected it for that reason." In the end, this and a few other assorted Guion arrangements were released with a four stave accompaniment - the top two staves consisting of the original score and the bottom two with a simplified reduction.
In 1929 Guion decided to move to the center of the publishing world, New York, where he formed a stronger association with the Schirmer organization. home on the range arrangement coverHe soon found himself on stage at the Roxy Theater starring (as pianist) in a cowboy music show of his own concoction titled Prairie Echoes. In this show he was able to (re)introduce the public to an old cowboy piece he had first arranged in 1908 when he was but 15. Home on the Range quickly presented itself as a different kind of "standard" tune, easily sung and highly recognizable. It became the ultimate cowboy song almost instantly, spurring composers like George Gershwin (Bidin' My Time) and Cole Porter (Don't Fence Me In) to come up with their own cowboy songs to cash in on the vogue. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, later President of the U.S., proclaimed it as a favorite of his. This led to a series of radio shows in the early 1930s featuring Guion and his orchestra playing some of his fine adaptations (including an orchestration of Texas Fox Trot) across the U.S. via network hookups. This set in motion the era of the singing cowboys, paving the way for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in the popular media, and providing a clearer path for groups like Sons of the Pioneers to get radio airplay.
During his New York period Guion was writing material of his own as well, including cowboy songs, his own spirituals, and even a folk-opera with Wardall called Suzanne, incorporating a theme of Voodoo, some elements of which were reminiscent of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. Another important piece was Shingandi, considered to be American primitivism, and successfully performed in 1931 by Paul Whiteman with orchestrations by the esteemed Ferdé Grofe. In 1933 it got its first performance as a full ballet, choreographed by Theodore Kosloff. While in Manhattan Guion also wrote a series of clever and poignant pieces with lyricist Jessie B. Rittenhouse who had worked with years before. The stay in the Empire State was short-lived, as he moved back to Dallas in 1932.
The next productive period of the mid 1930s led to a commissioned show in 1936 called Cavalcade of Texas, part of the state's centennial, and parent of a hit tune (in Texas), My Cowboy Love Song. Later in the year Guion's beloved mother died. He was left dispirited to a degree, and did not produce a large volume work after 1936. Income from Home on the Range and other endeavors allowed him to purchase an estate in Towamensing in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, which he named after the song. It was here that Guion and his house servant were found for the 1940 Census, with David listing his career simply as "composer." Among his most significant works during this time was the Texas Suite, an orchestrated collection of famous Texan tunes and some new entries, commissioned in 1950 for the Houston Symphony Orchestra and completed in 1952. Guion also maintained an active membership in ASCAP (which he had joined in 1927), the Texas Teacher's Association, and the Texas Teacher's Guild. In 1950, during a declaration in Texas of David Guion Week, Howard Payne University, where he had learned early on at its predecessor, gave him an honorary Doctorate of Music given his significant influence on young musicians in Texas colleges. Similar honors came from Southern Methodist University. In 1955 he received the honor of being named one of America's most significant folk music composers by the National Federation of Music Clubs. Pending construction of a dam near his house which condemned the property forced him to abandon his Home on the Range in 1965. He lived out his life in Dallas in his mother's home, highly regarded once again on his death in 1981.
For ragtime musicians and fans David Guion's contribution should certainly extend beyond Texas Fox Trot, as he carried on the influence of pre-ragtime music forms by keeping them alive for future study. His link to these pieces, their rhythms, and their meanings, was almost direct given the environment he grew up with. His musical education allowed us a fairly accurate and scholarly look at these tunes as well. Some of the cowboy music also emerged from forms that shaped ragtime and musical forms of the 1920s and beyond. There is a permanent exhibit dedicated to Guion at the International Festival-Institute in Round Top, Texas for which a virtual web tour is available on their site.

W.C. Handy Portrait
William Christopher Handy
(November 16, 1873 - March 28, 1958)
In the Cotton Fields of Dixie [1]
Mr. Crump
Memphis Blues
Memphis Blues: Song [2]
Jogo Blues
Pattona Rag
The Girl You Never Have Met [1]
St. Louis Blues
Yellow Dog [Rag] Blues
Joe Turner Blues
Hail to the Spirit of Freedom: March
The Hesitating Blues
Shoeboot's Seranade
Aframerican Hymn
In the Land Where Cotton is King [1]
Ole Miss Rag [3]
Beale Street [Blues]
Thinking of Thee [1]
The Hooking Cow Blues [4]
Keep the Love Ties Binding [5]
Ole Miss: Song [6]
The Kaiser's Got The Blues [7]
No Name Waltz [8]
Though We're Miles Apart [6,8]
Long Gone (from Bowling Green) [9]
The Rough Rocky Road
Loveless Love
Aunt Hagar's Children Blues
John Henry Blues
Ape Mister Eddie
Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbals
Aunt Hagar's Blues: Song [10]
Darktown Reveille [9,11]
Harlem Blues
Sundown Blues
The Basement Blues
The Chicago Gouge
The Gouge of Armour Avenue
Atlanta Blues (Make Me One Pallet on Your
    Floor) [12]
When the Black Man Has a Nation of His
    Own [13]
Bright Star of Hope [14,15]
Blue Gummed Blues [12]
Friendless Blues [16]
Goin' to See My Sarah
The Birth of Jazz [9,18]
1927 (Cont)
The White Man Said 'Twas So, So It Must Be
    So [9]
Golden Brown Blues [17]
Who's That Man? [19,20]
Wall Street Blues [21]
Way Down South Where the Blues Began
Opportunity [22]
Annie Love
Mozambique [23]
Vesuvius (There's a Red Glow in the Sky
    Above Vesuvius) [24]
Negrita [25]
The Good Lord Sent Me You [26]
East St. Louis
I'm Tellin' You In Front (So You Won't Feel
    Hurt Behind) [24,27]
Beale Street Serenade [28,29]
Black Patti [9,18]
Finis [24]
Remembered [30,31]
The Temple of Music [31]
The Memphis Blues: Song [6]
The Big Stick Blues: March [6]

1. w/Harry Pace
2. w/George A. Norton
3. w/Scott Joplin?
4. w/Douglass Williams
5. w/J.P. Schofield
6. w/J. Russel Robinson
7. w/Dorner Browne
8. w/Charles Hillman
9. w/Chris Smith
10. w/J. Tim Brymn
11. w/Walter Hirsch
12. w/Dave Elman
13. w/J.M. Miller
14. w/Lillian A. Thorsten
15. w/Martha E. Koenig
16. w/Mercedes Gilbert
17. w/Langston Hughes
18. w/Henry Troy
19. w/Agnes Castleton
20. w/Spencer Williams
21. w/Margaret Gregory
22. w/Walter Malone
23. w/Arthur Porter
24. w/Andy Razaf
25. w/D'Artega
26. w/Elsie & Stella Francis
27. w/Russell Wooding
28. w/Gene Van Ormer
29. w/Porter Grainger
30. w/Olive Lewis Handy
31. w/Joe Jordan
32. w/Charles L. Cooke
Growing up in post-Civil War Alabama, the music of Black America and African heritage surrounded young William Handy. He was born in a log cabin in Florence, Alabama, the first of at least two surviving children of Charles Bernard Handy and Elizabeth Bewer, the other one being Charles B., Jr. (9/1890). Charles, Sr., was the pastor of a small church near Florence, but also worked as a cobbler or shoemaker. He had his son apprenticed in carpentry, shoemaking and plastering. After earning a little bit of money on the side, young Will brought home a guitar he had purchased, and his father immediately banned the "sinful thing" from the home.
W.C. Handy at around 19 years
of age with his cornet.
handy with his cornet at age 19
However, his parents were well enough off to get him music instruction, and after some failed organ lessons his first real instrument became the cornet. Much of his true musical desire and even his performance activities remained hidden from his parents. The 1880 census showed the family living near Florence in Lauderdale County, with Charles working as a shoe maker.
In his late teens Handy chose music as his avocation, somewhat against his father's wishes. He started touring the South with various troupes and shows. According to him in his autobiography, it was in 1892 in Mississippi that he had his first exposure to what we know now as Delta Blues as sung by local musicians. Many of the themes he heard, one in particular, would be revisited in later years and incorporated into his works. Handy also obtained a rudimentary teaching certificate in Birmingham, Alabama in 1892, and a teaching job in the same place. Poor wages, however, soon chased him off from this career track. His performance travels allowed him to play in one or more groups at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Continuing his itinerant life after the event, Handy eventually took over one of the groups he traveled with in 1896, and over the next couple of years built up a repertoire of light classics, cakewalks, and early rags. Now and then he would run out of funds and remained stranded in one or another locale, working at any job to earn money to get to a place where he could start up again. He was married as well on July 19, 1896, to Elizabeth V. Price. (The 1900 census suggested an 1898 marriage year, so 1896 may possibly be questioned as the original year.)
Most of the travels for Handy and his musicians were in the Mississippi Delta area through the early part of the new century. In 1900 Will and Liz (or Lizzie) were shown in the census in Florence, Alabama, boarding with a relative and Will's young brother. He listed his profession as musician. He had been traveling throughout the Midwest and South, and even to Cuba, but finally decided to stop the tiresome traveling for a while, settling with back in Florence. This allowed him to teach music for a couple of years at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. The family eventually migrated from Alabama to Mississippi where he taught for another six years, finally finding themselves in Memphis, Tennessee late in the decade. He and Elizabeth eventually had several children, including Lucille M. (6/29/1900), Katherine E. (1903), William Christopher, Jr. (1905 - sometimes cited as William P.), Elizabeth (1909) and Wyer Owens (1/12/1915).
Over the next decade Handy worked sometimes as a teacher but largely as a musician or music director, building up his repertoire. Around 1902 he moved his family to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he had more exposure to blues as played by a slide guitarist in a railroad station in nearby Tutwiler. In his autobiography he described the player as "a lean, loose-jointed negro [sic] who had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept... His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages... As he played he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in the manner [later] popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars." (In coming years a glass bottle neck would become the more popular sliding tool.)the memphis blues cover To Handy it was "His song, too, struck me instantly.. The singer repeated the line ['Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog'] three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard... [but] The tune did stay in my mind. He also was exposed to a plucked string band in Mississippi that during a performance was clearly more popular than his own group, so he started arranging some of their older folk tunes for his own group.
Before 1905 the family moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where William, Jr., was born. Then by 1908 or so they relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where Will would see his earliest fame and cut his teeth as a composer, while learning many lessons about the music business and a Negro's plight in that business. The most active music scene in that town was along Beale Street near the Mississippi River, where the stevedores and riverboat workers would congregate and exchange ideas. While ragtime was enjoying great popularity throughout the country, and it became a part of his regular repertoire, Handy was ultimately more interested in the indigenous blues forms he had been hearing throughout the South in his early travels, and after studying and playing them for many years sought to get them down on paper with his own ideas incorporated.
Although Handy called himself "the Father of the Blues," he did not invent the blues form. He was at least the third o fourth composer to use the term "blues" in a song title that had some relation to that form of music, famously preceded three weeks by Artie Matthews' arrangement of Baby Seals Blues and potentially by Hart A. Wand's more to the point Dallas Blues. Handy's first blues piece was actually first put down in 1909 when he was commissioned to write the music for a campaign song for the mayor of Memphis, Edward H. Crump. The song, which was a combination of sixteen-bar ragtime sections with hints of blues strains, was published as Mr. Crump and went over relatively well, but had no further distribution beyond the campaign. The 1910 census showed the Handy family in Memphis with Will listed as both a band master and a public service employee, evidently working in some capacity for the city to help support his growing family.
When the blues form was finally acknowledged as a publishable genre in 1912, Handy retooled the piece and had it self-published under the name Memphis Blues. This time it included "blue notes" (flatted thirds and sevenths) and a more definitive 12 bar blues section. One day when established composer and publisher Theron C. Bennett was visiting his Memphis representative L.Z. Phillips at Bry's Department Store, he learned that Phillips had agreed to print Memphis Blues for Handy on speculation based on the clear potential of good sales, and was waiting for the first 1000 copies for distribution in Memphis. Based on Phillips' recommendation, Bennett told Handy he would act as a distribution agent offering him national exposure, a deal hard to turn down. Phillips and Bennett were both present with Handy when the initial delivery of 1000 copies was made. When Handy came to check on sales a week or so after the delivery, Phillips and Bennett showed him a stack of nearly the full 1000 copies, noting that sales were slow. They encouraged him to simply sell the piece outright, which a confused Handy, who knew the piece had been popular, but still agreed to for a mere $50 for the plates and copyright. What the white pair did not tell the black Handy was that this was the second stack of 1000 as the first 1000 copies had sold out very quickly. A few weeks later, another 10,000 copies were ordered with Bennett's imprint on the cover, and Zimmerman was offered a job as a wholesale manager. Within months, Bennett sold the Memphis Blues to publisher Joe Morris for a rather substantial amount.the yellow dog blues cover To make matters worse, Bennett's frequent lyricist George Norton was hired by Morris to add words to a song version of Memphis Blues which were only fair at best, and which Handy clearly objected to.
This whole episode gave Handy a bad taste for the business, and a wary eye toward white publishers. As the song became more of a hit in the East, particularly through performances by James Reese Europe and his Clef Club bands, Handy's reputation grew in that area, with even the famed dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle crediting him with inventing the musical form of the Fox Trot. Although he kept writing, he was cautious in protecting his work. After writing a bit with local Memphis lyricist and business Harry H. Pace, who had provided the lyrics for his first song, he decided to form his own music company, which would soon be known as Handy and Pace Music. This firm, which published more than Handy's own material, was successful on its own merits for many years. Among the works they put in print were his already self-published Jogo Blues and their song The Girl You Never Have Met, both from 1913. Some of his pieces would soon find their way into the growing piano roll medium. But 1914 would turn out to be the real break-out year for Handy
In 1913, black Chicago composer Shelton Brooks wrote an iconic piece made famous by one his biggest musical supporters, the white singer Sophie Tucker. I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone Today told the story of a young lady who put her trust into a horse race jockey, betting all she had based on his tips. On that particular day "Jockey Lee" did not race a horse, but instead raced off into the sunset with her money, begging the question asked in the title. Handy, seeing an opportunity to latch on to its popularity, and perhaps following the model of the Bill Bailey series of songs, answered the question in his own 1914 piece Yellow Dog Rag, based on a previous tunes called the Pattona Rag, stating that Lee had gone down to "where the Southern cross' the Yellow Dog," the "Southern" being the Southern Railway and the "Yellow Dog" being the much smaller Yazoo Delta Railroad. It ultimately eclipsed the popularity of Brooks' original piece, and started a veritable flood of blues-styled compositions. But the best was still on the way.
His new firm still struggling, Handy felt he still needed to write something of lasting substance, and create a hit at that time.saint louis blues cover He had often remembered a true blue strain he had heard a woman sing some twenty years prior while he was down on his luck in and stranded in St. Louis. She was truly in pain, possibly abandoned by her man, and kept repeating the same strain, "I hate to see de evenin' sun go down." Bothered by distractions in a home with three young children, Handy rented a room down on Beale Street for one night. Filling out the mournful lament into a blues strain, he also utilized the opening strain from The Jogo Blues as a basis for the chorus, and added a tango interlude, the latter being a popular form emerging from New Orleans at that time. During that evening (as per his account), W.C. Handy produced this first true blues hit, music and lyrics complete, by the following morning, and soon Saint Louis Blues was in print as an instrumental and as a song. Unlike Memphis Blues, it took a bit longer to gain ground. Ultimately, the flexibility with which the work could be interpreted, including varying tempos, orchestrations, and moods, made it the most recorded blues piece ever, and one of the top five pieces of music ever covered in history. As noted by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck in a conversation with the author in the 1980s, his take on the popularity of the piece was due to early "jazz fusion", since it combined traditional major blues with a minor tango, or more properly, habanera. A rhythm that likely originated in Africa, the habanera and its distinct melody are probably what made St. Louis Blues instantly recognizable. Played as a fast one-step or a slow lament, it still resonates a century and more later.
Handy's new fame put him in the forefront of blues presenters. His band made many recordings of his and other composers' compositions, and he even ran his own blues record label for a while. Even so, he occasionally criticized the format as being a "primitive music" that suffered from "disturbing monotony". But as long as the dollars kept rolling in, he kept on championing the genre. Handy's St. Louis Blues quickly became the standard by which other blues were measured.
By mid-1915, Handy was starting to frequent Manhattan, New York, where he would eventually relocate and set up an office for his publishing firm. It was during his early time there that one of his more curious associations was created, although the full circumstances are still not known.ole miss rag cover Handy's reputation quickly helped him to forge new relationships with James Reese Europe and other New York City musicians who had been playing his works. On the periphery of this group was the aging and increasingly ill classic ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who by this time was teaching piano, and ostensibly no longer writing anything that would be published. In the spring of 1916, Joplin recorded a series of piano rolls, most of them for the Connorized label. Among them was the tune Ole Miss Rag. As all of the other pieces had been by Joplin himself, this very recording brings up a number of suggestions. First, that his name was applied to a Connorized arrangement (albeit one that sounds hand-played) to increase sales. Secondly, that Joplin was doing some kind of favor for Handy. Or, thirdly, that Joplin had a hand in this work, either as a silent collaborator or arranger. There is some merit to the third argument given that Handy's post-1912 pieces were all blues, not rags, but even with forensic investigation into the piece itself, such postulation remains speculative. Joplin would die within the year, so further association between the two was minimal at best.
For the next several years, Handy would not only continue composing, often with a variety of other lyricists and composers, but arranging for bands, orchestras, and print, particularly reviving old Negro spirituals and field songs. His next hit was Beale Street Blues with mildly questionable lyrics concerning life on that Memphis strand, even suggesting the possibility of the upcoming Volstead Act and National Prohibition with the line "the river's wet, but Beale Street's done gone dry." It was recorded by many early blues singers and bands, as well as on a few piano roll renditions. On his WWI draft card Handy referred to himself as a music publisher, still in business with Harry.
Now regarded highly for his perseverance in making published and performed blues into a legitimate music form, and having great success with his own Pace & Handy Orchestra, Will had become somewhat of a distinguished spokesman for the genre, and was called upon by the Music Trade Review to write an article on "The Origin and Evolution of the Blues" for their December 14, 1918, edition. It was one of the first steps for what would eventually become a well-known published tome on the topic, and is excerpted here:
As I am more often than not given credit for being the "creator of blues," many people in the trade, including historians, publishers and teachers, etc., have requested me at different times to state how I was led to write such compositions.
As a boy I worked very hard, but like all my people, I felt the need of melodies and took part in many musical entertainments, later becoming a member of a not too successful Glee Club. There was, of course, no financial remuneration in these affairs, and there were times when I was hard pressed for funds.w c handy in 1918 At one of these periods, for they came often, a friend of mine encouraged me to follow out my desires along musical lines. I had intended to purchase a cornet, but he said, "Son, you go get yourself a banjo. That's the colored man's instrument." I, however, bought a cornet with the money I had been saving for quite a long while. I progressed very nicely and at the age of twenty years I became the leading band-master in a minstrel show.
I had quite a taste at this time for classical music and I was much given to reading, including the history and lives of master musicians. This included, of course, folk songs, and I found these master composers had built their greatest work on the lives of the people of which they were a part. Primitive melodies of the Southern negro [sic] appealed to me as having qualities worth while writing into a distinct line of music. I quit the show business, went South, and stayed three years in Mississippi studying the plantation melodies. I then organized an orchestra in Memphis, Tenn., and featured these melodies at dances and other public affairs. It was not long before they became popular, and I had ten such organizations.
These melodies were such successes that I then decided to publish at least a few of them. Being the originator of the blue idea, I wish to give to those interested this bit of information:
The name Blues is not derived from the blue notes contained therein, as is erroneously stated by imitators of this style.
Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave and statesman, in his autobiography, has this to say: "It is not inconsistent with the constitution of human mind that avails itself of one and the same method of expressing opposite emotions."
The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to an aching heart. The sorrow songs of the slaves we call jubilee melodies. The happy-go-lucky songs of the Southern Negro we call "blues."
The tendency to avoid the seventh tone of the scale in these melodies and to overdraw the minor third gives to this form of composition a weird effect when heard, and although the imagination is drawn on to connect these blues with their African origin, it is a fact that most primitive peoples carefully avoided the seventh tone of the scale...
For the January, 1920, census, taken in Manhattan, he had changed this to music conductor, with his daughter Lucille working as a stenographer for his publishing firm. Around 1920, Harry Pace left the Pace and Handy firm to form Black Swan Records in an effort to facilitate black artists recording black-composed pieces.aunt hagar's children blues cover Now living in a very nice New York city home and riding high on the growing success of Saint Louis Blues, Handy focused much of his effort on trying to tell the story of the origins of the blues in addition to writing more of them. His next hit of substances was Aunt Hagar's Children Blues in 1921, which was morphed into the song Aunt Hagar's Blues in 1921 with veteran black lyricist Chris Smith. Very little in the way of best sellers came until 1924 when he revived the old song Make Me a Pallet on the Floor with reshaped lyrics by Dave Elman. (Note that Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton recorded a version of this piece for the Library of Congress in 1938 with lyrics that were sexually profane at best, so if they were the original strains, Elman had quite a job in cleaning them up.)
In 1924 Handy joined ASCAP, formed a decade before to help further the cause of music composers and artists. Then in 1926 he published his first book, Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs. This is considered the first analytical look at the genre, and a groundbreaking effort. The next few years saw diminishing releases of new material mixed with revived spirituals. One breakthrough, following bandleader Paul Whiteman's historic jazz concert in the established music venue of Aeolian Hall in 1924, was an invitation for Handy to play with an orchestra and a group of Jubilee Singers at no less than Carnegie Hall in May of 1928. Also participating in the program were composer James P. Johnson who was represented by his "Negro Rhapsody" Yamecraw, and the soon-to-be-established pianist and composer Thomas "Fats" Waller who performed the solos of the work in Johnson's absence. Among the vocalists were singers J. Rosamond Johnson and Taylor Gordon. The overall affair was well reviewed, but the particular highlights of the evening were performances of Handy's now-established blues hits of the prior decade. In 1930, still residing in Manhattan, Handy listed himself as the manager of a music office for the census, which could imply either publishing or theatrical, if not both. Catherine was now working for his firm as well. Handy had been involved with recording and consulting with early movie shorts that featured blues music, including his now famous Saint Louis Blues starring hard-living dynamic black singer Bessie Smith.
st. louis blues movie poster
In the 1930's when the playing jobs for bands, and even older pianists, started to disappear, Handy wrote his autobiography, Father of the Blues. [The author is unclear as to whether Handy or his publisher chose the title, but feels that a more accurate description might be "Stenographer of the Blues," with no deference intended.] Three other books also appeared, including a collection of Negro spirituals, Unsung Americans Sing (1944) including sketches of selected race musicians, and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States. On a 1938 Ripley's Believe It Or Not radio program, Handy's role was lauded as not only the father, but the inventor of the blues. This incensed one of it's listeners, no less than "Jelly Roll" Morton, who felt that he knew better who had done what. In a letter that was sent to Ripley and later read on the air, Morton made it clear that it was more likely HE who had introduced the blues, not to mention, jazz, to the world, but stopped short of claiming actual invention rights. In truth, no one musician invented the genre, but both certainly spread it throughout the world. While also not the originator of the blues, Handy was certainly its most effective spokesperson, and continued to promote the music form and push for its inclusion in the early 1900s American music vernacular.
By the late 1930s the Handys had moved to a fine home Harlem. William had been widowed by the time of the 1940 census taken in Harlem, living with his son-in-law and daughter Katherine, her husband Homer Lewis, and their young son Homer, Jr. Handy was listed as a musical publisher in that enumeration, but this was more of an indirect role that he played by that time. In 1943, Will suffered a fall from a subway platform which resulted in blindness, all but incapacitating him, and stopping his output and public appearances. William eventually remarried in 1954 to Irma Louis Logan who had been his personal secretary, and who had personally helped him through many of the issues of blindness. In his 80th year in 1955 Handy suffered a debilitating stroke that confined him to a wheelchair. He finally died of acute bronchial pneumonia at 84 years old. That same year a movie of his life, St. Louis Blues, was released starring Nat King Cole as Handy, as well as many other prominent black musicians of the time. His legacy will forever remain with us on a daily basis, as the influence of his blues can be felt and heard in Gospel, Country, Rhythm &Blues, and Rock and Roll music, all truly American music forms originating from the time of ragtime and blues.

Alex Hill Portrait
Alexander Hill
(April 19, 1906 to February 1, 1937)
Crying the Blues Away
Beau-Koo Jack [1,2]
Mississippi Waddle [3]
Fan It [4]
Stompin' 'em Down
Tack Head Blues
Dyin' With The Blues
Toogaloo Shout
Quality Shout
Don't Cry, Honey [6]
Smoke Shop Drag [6]
Boot That Thing [6]
I'm Havin' My Fun
(You Were Only) Passing Time with Me
Draggin' My Heart Around
He Wouldn't Stop Doing It [7]
You're Bound to Look Like a Monkey [7]
See If I'll Care [7]
Papa Ain't No Santa Claus (and Mama Ain't No
    Christmas Tree) [8]
Be Modern (There's Happiness in Store for
    You) [9]
A Glutton for Love
When Hannah Plays Piano
I Wish I Had Somebody to Call Me "Baby"
Shout, Sister, Shout! [7]
Children Walk With Me [8]
Keep a Song in Your Soul [9]
Little Brown Betty [9]
Heart of Stone [9]
Sophomore [10]
Shake Your Ashes
I Would Do Anything for You [11,12]
Delta Bound
Dixie Lee
Tennessee Twilight
Madam Dynamite
On Sunday When We Gathered 'Round the
    Organ [8,9]
Answer My Heart [13]
Song of the Plow
Armful O' Sweetness
1934 (Cont.)
Baby Brown
A Song (How the First Song was Born)
Let's Have a Jubilee [14]
Ain't It Nice? [14]
Long About Midnight [14]
My Sweet Harmony Man
Rhythm Lullaby [8]
My Right Hand Man [8]
I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby [9]
If I Can't Sell It, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down
    On It [8]
Back Beats [14]
House Rent Party Blues [14]
There Must Have Been a Devil in
    the Moon [14,15]
To-day is Saturday [14,15]
Take This Little Rose [14,15]
A Rainbow Filled with Music [14,15]
Let Me Explain [16,17]
There'll Be a Great Day in the Mornin' [14]
1937 [Posth]
Ol' Balboa
Our Love was Meant to Be [9,18]
Rhythm Excursion
Lumber Jack [8]
My Only One [8]

1. w/Louis Armstrong
2. w/Walter Melrose
3. w/Jimmy Wade
4. w/Frankie Jaxon
5. w/Tom Delaney
6. w/Junie Cobb
7. w/Clarence Williams
8. w/Andy Razaf
9. w/Thomas "Fats" Waller
10. w/Bob Causer
11. w/Roberto Williams
12. w/Claude Hopkins
13. w/Ernest Holst
14. w/Irving Mills
15. w/Manny Kurtz
16. w/Peter Tinturin
17. w/Buddy Feyne
18. w/Joe Davis
Selected Discography    
Stompin' Em Down
Tack Head Blues
Toogaloo Shout [19]
Southbound [19]
St. James Infirmary [19]
Dyin' With The Blues [19]
Ain't It Nice? [20]
Functionizin' [19]
Song of the Plow [19]
Let's Have a Jubilee [20]

19. Alex Hill and His Orchestra
Matrix and Date
[Vocalion C3210] 03/30/1929
[Vocalion C3211] 03/30/1929
[Vocalion C5036] 02/20/1929
[Vocalion C5275] 12/20/1929
[Vocalion C5273/C5274] 02/08/1930
[Vocalion C5276] 02/08/1930
[Vocalion 15879] 09/10/1934
[Vocalion 15880] 09/10/1934
[Vocalion 16141] 10/19/1934
[Vocalion 16142] 10/19/1934

20. Alex Hill and His Hollywood Sepians
Alex Hill was born near Little Rock, Arkansas, not far from the cradle of classic ragtime and St. Louis, Missouri. He was born to Andrew Henry Hill and his wife Augusta Hill, and was the oldest of three brothers, including Andrew Dixon (11/1908) and Henry Solomon (12/1909). It was Andrew's second marriage and Augusta's first. Andrew (he later used Henry) was a pianist and music teacher with a degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio. In the 1910 Census was listed as the president of a college that may have been a seminary. The family was living in Pulaski, Arkansas at that time, a suburb of Little Rock. At some point in the 1910s he became a Methodist-Episcopalian minister. As of the 1920 Census the family was residing in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, around 25 miles southeast of Little Rock, with Henry listed as a minister, and Augusta as a school teacher. There is little doubt that Alex and his brothers grew up in a fairly well-regimented and spiritual environment.
In his youth Alex was instructed in piano by his parents and probably another local teacher, reportedly mostly in classical and liturgical styles. However, he had trouble resisting the lure of syncopation as the jazz age approached, and took a different musical direction than his parents had hoped for. Before he was even sixteen, Alex knew much of the popular music of the time and had played wherever he could find in the area for dances or other events. At sixteen he decided to make a career of it and sought a professional band with which he could work. He ended up with several "territory bands," groups that traveled on a circuit within a specified region of the United States playing at small to medium sized dance venues. Among those were the groups of trumpeter Terrence Holder from Kansas City and saxophonist Alvin Waller (possibly Walker) for which virtually no information has been located.
Alex's best early experience was likely with another pianist and band leader, Alphonso Trent, only a few months older and also from Little Rock. His leadership and arranging skills with the Trent Orchestra made him a substantially influential figure for other Negro musicians. With Trent's help, Alex was leading his own band by the time he was 18 in 1924, and may have traveled briefly with Trent to Texas in 1925. Hill soon became the musical director of a traveling revue and worked with them for two seasons, left behind in Los Angeles in 1927 when the troupe disbanded.
This was actually a good place for the young pianist as it helped him get a better foothold in the music business through recording. He worked live and in the studio with Louisiana trumpeter Mutt Carey's and his Jeffersonians, and wrote and arranged for other bands on the West Coast. This encouraged him to relocate to the center of the hot jazz universe at that time, Chicago, Illinois.
A reissue of Stompin' 'Em Down on Brunswick.
stompin' 'em down later release
Relocating there in 1928, Hill went to work right away with artists such as trumpeter Jimmy Wade and his Dixielanders, violinist and bandleader Carroll Dickerson, clarinetist Jerome Pasquall and top notch clarinetist Jimmy Noone and his Apex Club Orchestra.
Alex put his musical training to good use, and secured a job with Walter Melrose's publishing house, where Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton had done some work. He ended up writing arrangements for groups, and even some original compositions. One of those was heard by trumpeter Louis Armstrong who was in New York City by that time, and he ended co-writing and recording Beau-Koo Jack with his Savoy Ballroom Five in 1928. While Melrose got composer credit, it was likely a courtesy to get Hill started, a common practice in the business.
Having already played for a few sessions in 1928 and 1929, Hill got the chance to front his own group for a couple of sessions for the Vocalion label, the "race" branch of Brunswick Records, on March 30, 1929 in Chicago. Of the two tunes recorded that day, the most notable is Stompin' 'em Down, which is evocative of the style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Coincidentally, Waller had just completed his first piano solos for Victor Records around that same time. His Handful of Keys has the same momentum and energy as Stompin' 'em Down, and both can be considered to be late piano rags. Hill's piece actually starts with a minor blues riff before morphing into the 16-bar B section and 32-bar trio. At the end of the year he was offered another session with Vocalion with his orchestra, and they followed up with another set of sides in February, 1930.
It is unclear exactly when Hill moved to New York, given that the last set of recordings was completed in Chicago. Some sources have him there in 1929, and he may have commuted between the two cities for a while. He and his group were also was booked into the top jazz venue at that time, the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, during the spring. At the end of their engagement some of band returned to Chicago, but Alex and his saxophonist Chu Berry remained in Manhattan. He was fully settled there by mid-1930 and secured a job playing with the band of Sammy Stewart. At the same time, he signed up with publisher Joe Davis in August, 1930, who would exclusively release his compositions until he started writing with Irving Mills.
It was inevitable that Alex would meet up with Waller, and the two teamed up with a forceful duo piano act for the revue Hello 1931 in December 1930 at the Alhambra Theatre.ain't it nice cover The pair actually wrote some tunes together over the next few years, including the perennially popular I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby (and My Baby's Crazy 'Bout Me). Alex's skill at crafting lyrics as well as melodies was clearly demonstrated in his songs. It is likely that Waller introduced Hill to lyricist Andy Razaf, and as a team they also turned out a number of fine pieces over the next few years. Hill's talent also got him heard on the radio in New York as a soloist or with his orchestra and rhythm ensemble starting in 1930, with many solo performances on WPCH and WMCA in 1930, plus several evening appearances with his groups on WINS in 1932.
In 1933 Hill participated in a well-documented sessions with guitarist Eddie Condon in which he supported saxophonist Bud Freeman and his legendary track, The Eel. He was also responsible for many of the arrangements recorded, and even some of the compositions. In 1934 Hill was admitted into ASCAP, and found work as a staff arranger with publisher Irving Mills. Working for Mills he provided band charts for most of the big names of that time, ranging from Paul Whiteman and Eddie Condon to Duke Ellington and Benny Carter. His reputation as an arranger, which rivaled that of Fletcher Henderson, who did many of the famous Benny Goodman charts, helped to keep him employed during the Great Depression. The prestige of the Ellington and Whiteman organizations were certainly helpful in maintaining his profile as a first rate instrumental arranger. On at least one occasion in 1935 Alex was asked to step in for Duke to lead the orchestra while Ellington was ill.
The Alex Hill Orchestra eventually grew into a big band as the swing era was underway in 1936, thanks in part to the enormous success of Benny Goodman. He managed to snag a run with his new group at the Savoy, which had long been the domain of diminutive but dynamic drummer Chick Webb. However, within a week Alex found himself unable to stand the rigors of nightly performances and had to disband the group to look after his health. Within a few months, the increasingly infirmed Hill returned home to his family in Arkansas where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While an earlier newspaper article from the Baltimore Afro-American of July 21, 1934, noted that Alex was a "perfect figure of physical fitness," and that he believed in "taking full advantage of home comfort by indulging in some of the habits of the Nudist Cult," it also noted that he was smoking "fifty or sixty cigarettes a day." At the time there was little to directly link this habit with lung cancer, but it was evidently a contributing factor to Hill's demise. He also had liver complications from possible excessive drinking during his stay in New York. Alex Hill succumbed to the disease a few weeks before his 31st birthday.
While the legacy he left behind is not enormous, it clearly demonstrates the potential Hill had to become one of the driving forces of the swing era through the mid-1940s. While he may not have possessed the same skill set as the most extraordinary of pianists like Art Tatum, his overall composition and arranging skills made him stand out. That talent was able to break down many barriers, as what we do have of Hill's legacy was fortunately not so severely limited by his race, an issue that so many other promising artists of his time had to endure.
There are two CDs available of Alex Hill's work. The first is of recordings on which he is heard, and the second of his various songs performed by other artists. Both can be found at Timeless Records. Some of the tracks can also be heard at the Red Hot Jazz web site. Some of the information here is presented for the first time, and most was compiled from session information, sheet music lists, newspapers and periodicals, and other public records on Hill.

Eddy Hanson Portrait
Ethwell Idair (Eddy) Hanson
(August 1, 1893 to February 22, 1986)
When the Evening Shades are Falling
Home Coming Song
Moon Maid
Rattlesnake Rag
Rattlesnake Rag Song
Desertland: Oriental Fox Trot
Oh Come With Me [1]
My Love for You
Sweet Southern Dream
There'll Come a Time (When You'll Want
    to Come Back to Me)
Karma (Oh I Know You're Waiting)
Golden Glow
At the End of the Sunset Trail [2]
Only a Weaver of Dreams
Just Like the Dawn
The Golden Melody (Love is a Golden
    Melody That the Whole World Sings)
My Dream of Love
Will You Always Call Me Sweetheart?
California Moon
Make a Dream Come True for Me
Dream Sweetheart of Mine
In the Heart of the Rockies
My Song of Love [3]
That Little Shack by the Railroad Track
Blue Lily, Mountain Belle
If You Don't Want Me, Then Set Me Free [4]
Only One Love
Clark Street Rose
The Windy City Polka
Just One More Waltz (For Old Times Sake)
The Wisconsin Waltz (State Song 2001)
Rattlesnake Rag (Redone) [5]
Wisconsin Wonderland
You are My Only Only
The Thunderbird: March
Far Away Beyond the Sunset
I Never Think of You (Oh, No)
Angels with Broken Wings
Unknown or Unpublished
The Polish Piano Polka
The Joy and the Pain of Love †
True Love is Forever †
American Love Song to Mary Margaret
    McBride ††
Chain O' Lakes Waltzes ††
Untitled Concert Waltz ††
Reason's "Out of Work" Song ††
The World Needs a Heart Full of Love ††

1. w/O.P. McFerren
2. w/Ralph Waldo Emerson
3. w/Mabel Morefield McAssey
4. w/Ruth Frank
5. w/Louis F. Busch
†. ASCAP Listing
††. Unpublished Manuscript
Selected Rollography    
Nobody Knows what a Red Head Mama Can Do [Capitol 1182/Supertone 5561]
Who Takes Care of the Caretaker's Daughter [Capitol 1179/Supertone 5591]
Ukulele Lady [Capitol 1184/Supertone 5593]
Don't Bring Lulu [Capitol 1188/Supertone 5592]
That Soothing Melody [Supertone 5556]
My Kid [Supertone 5582]
Stars are the Windows of Heaven: Marimba Waltz [Capitol 1580/Supertone 5778]
Beside a Garden Wall [Capitol 1619/Supertone 5842]
For My Sweetheart [Capitol 1620/Supertone 5829]
Blame it on the Waltz [Capitol 1654/Supertone 5833]
My Girl Has Eye Trouble [Capitol 1693/Supertone 5865]
I Don't Mind Being Alone [Capitol 1695/Supertone 5871]
How Could Red Riding Hood [Capitol 1696/Supertone 5870]
When I First Met Mary [Capitol 1697/Supertone 5888]
In a case of delayed but realized expectations, Eddy Hanson did not become known as a ragtime composer until 35 years after his first real rag. In the interim, he did pretty well for himself and cut a nice-sized swath through the Midwest via the airwaves. He was born Ethwell Hanson to August and Henrietta Hanson in New London, Wisconsin, right around the time that the 1893 Chicago Exposition was featuring some of the first ragtime heard publicly. August was a mechanical engineer whose family had immigrated from Denmark when he was eight years old, and Henrietta was a Wisconsin native. Over the next few years Ethwell would gain three sisters and brother, Nioleta (1897), Arleen (1899), Charlotte (1907) and Loyal (1903) respectively. At an early age the boy became entranced with the music that spewed forth from a neighbor's Edison Amberola, and after listening to a selection or two would run home and try to emulate the rhythms on pots and pans. It was obvious that a piano would help keep the kitchen ware in better working order, so one was obtained. August had some good sense of music, perhaps even some training from his youth, and was insistent that Ethwell learn the elements of proper rhythm and harmony, plus the exacting discipline to play cleanly. The family appears in the 1900 census in Farmington, Wisconsin, with August listed as a stationery engineer.
When Ethwell was eight, August arranged for a year of piano lessons for Eddy, paying 50 cents per week. He admitted later that he was a poor student, too busy composing his own music on the side to bother with the music the teacher was giving him. However, he kept at it even after the lessons ended. Obviously interested in playing the latest possible music, Eddy, as he preferred to be called, started learning rags and two steps. At twelve he was playing two steps and waltzes with a local orchestra in Farmington. He also found another love around this time, the organ. Eddy was fascinated with the workings of these multi-keyboard instruments and the number of sounds that could be coaxed from it. Even as a very talented and competent pianist, he would eventually be cherished for his work on theater organs. In the school band Eddy also took up the saxophone, which he would become quite adept at.
Around the time his youngest sister was born, Eddy's mother Henrietta died. By early 1910 August had remarried to Katherine M. Hanson, who was only five years older than Eddy. In the 1910 census the reconfigured family is still in Farmington with August as an engineer in the Wisconsin Veteran's Home. (The couple would divorce in the mid-1910s.) Eddy was attending Waupaca High School and was listed as a member of the high school paper, The Criterian. He also played more frequently at local dances, and was starting to perform for movies as well in local theaters several nights a week. Late in the year the family moved to Neenah, Wisconsin where they spent the next few years, then to Waupaca around 1915. Still composing, Eddy managed to get a song in print at age 17, and another one the following year. The second composition was the Home Coming Song, written for his senior class. Following high school he continued to play both piano and organ at various functions, most often in the Waupaca area movie houses. Hanson continued his education at the American Conservatory with Frank Van Dusen, and at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) with Mason Slade. rattlesnake rag coverHowever, Eddy took on other work as well, perhaps to support his schooling. On his 1917 draft card, he shows as a self employed and his occupation as [looks like] farming for the town of Waupaca. (August Hanson also appears as a farmer in the 1920 census in Waupaca.) But 1917 would be a breakout year for the 20 year old composer.
Hanson had his first major publication with Rattlesnake Rag in song format through Forster Music Publishers in Chicago. He had also completed a piano rag version of the piece which currently resides as a manuscript in the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but it is unclear whether this instrumental was actually published at that time. Some version of it must have been in print since it ended up on a medley O-type roll before the year was out. In addition, Eddy's input was useful in the invention of the Bartola, a compact theater organ designed to fit in a theater pit. The keyboards and pedal boar were integrated within the access area of a piano, allowing a smaller footprint while accommodating many ranks of pipes and percussion, using newer electronic solenoids instead of the traditional pneumatics. It was produced by the newly formed Bartola Musical Instrument Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, founded by Dan Barton. The firm was later reformed into the Barton Organ Company, with Eddy playing their instruments off and on for many years.
Eddy's talents accompanying movies got him a plum gig in the Navy, where he spent the remainder of World War One. He toured the country the help promote the sale of war bonds, but this time he was accompanying the actual stars of the movies, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. His saxophone playing was also noted, and late in the war Eddy was picked to be a saxophone soloist in one of the premiere 100 member bands of the veteran band master John Philip Sousa. The band toured the United States and Europe following the war, including some keyboard performances for British royalty. After his tour of duty with the Navy and the Sousa band were up, Hanson continued his music education in Chicago in 1919 at the Chicago College of Music, taking courses from Clarence Eddy among others. At some point he studied composition privately with the noted instructor Adolph Weidig. Chicago would become Eddy's home base for the next few decades, but he still stayed connected with Waupaca.
Hanson's next break came in 1920. According to an article in the New York Clipper on March 31, Eddy was one of five hundred applicants picked in a search for a new song writing talent held by the Riviera Music Company in Chicago. The first piece of his they published became a bona-fide hit, even if it was typical of the fare at that time. Titled Desertland: An Oriental Fox Trot, it established him as a Chicago song writer. His contract assured that Riviera would publish at least four pieces a year from Hanson's pen, which they did for at least the first two years. Later in the year Eddy was a guest back in Waupaca for the opening of the grand $100,000 Palace Opera House on October 6, 1920. According to the Waupaca newspaper, "The music was furnished by a Waupaca orchestra, including Ethwell Hanson, who presided at the pipe organ, one of the best that may be obtained... Too much can not be said in praise of the music by the local orchestra and by Ethwell Hanson on the grand pipe organ." To top that off, he became the manager of the composing staff of Riviera.
While working his way through his extended education course, Hanson became very adept at the pipe organ, of which there were many beautiful and varied examples in 1920s Chicago. A new child of the now viable entertainment industry emerged at this same time, at the end of the sunset trail coverand looking for content, they turned to Eddy for everything from popular ragtime tunes to poignant ballads. As it turns out, pipe organs registered very well on early microphones, so in 1923 the theory that this would draw in listeners was put to the test on one of the earliest radio stations in the country. Thus Eddy Hanson launched his career as a radio organist on station clear channel WDAP (now WGN) in Chicago. He achieved new notoriety, even though at that time most radios consisted of crystal sets, and few had speakers. New stations started popping up like Iowa popcorn, and Eddy was also invited to play on WBBM and WLS. He found a long term home in 1924 on WCFL, an NBC affiliate, working there on and off from 1924 through 1948. That same year he wrote what would become a great radio hit for cowboy singer Gene Autry. At the End of the Sunset Trail, composed on a poetic passage by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a best seller on both records and in sheet music, and spread the name of Eddy Hanson across the country. But this was only part time work in the beginning, as Chicago movie goers still wanted accompaniments to the otherwise silent movies.
In 1925 the famous organist Jess Crawford was lured to the center of film production to play for the movie palaces in Los Angeles. Organs run on compressed air and abhor a vacuum, so Hanson readily stepped in to continue where Crawford left off. For the next three years he reigned at both the Uptown Theater and Tivoli Theater in Chicago for both films and live shows. On the side he was working as an arranger for publisher Harold Rossiter in Chicago, with many credited arrangements in his name. Then Al Jolson and the "talkies" came along to spoil things for theater musicians all over the country. As for Eddy, he simply put his energies back into radio, being very much in demand for his talents throughout the Midwest. In 1930 he adopted a recent song composed by Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II and Herbert Stothart for his own them. If A Wish Could Make It So was frequently heard at the beginning of his fifteen to thirty minute broadcasts. During his years on the air he accompanied such stars as Gene Autry, Grace Wilson, Lulu Belle and Scotty, Kate Smith, Red Skelton and megaphone crooner Rudy Vallee. He also was the first organist to play the Amos 'n Andy Theme Song, Perfect Song, on the radio, and provided theme and background music at times for Myrt and Marge, Helen Trent and the wildly popular Fibber McGee and Molly. Eddy was quoted as saying, "I worked on them five hours each day, and sometimes had four 15-minute programs a day dedicated to organ music."
From late 1924 to 1927, Eddy also did some piano roll recordings for the Capitol Roll label (not affiliated with Capitol Records which was founded in 1942), most of which were re-released a few years later under the Sears and Roebuck Supertone label. These performances helped to reestablish his skills as a pianist and arranger as well, and some can still be heard via YouTube videos with a little searching. He is said to have also recorded 88-note rolls for QRS, U.S. Rolls, and Imperial, although some of these may also be re-releases of the Capitol sessions.
Other than those lasting examples of his early performances, Hanson was so busy with radio that he did little recording to disc. It should be considered that early electronic recording was not entirely up to the demands of the massive theater pipe organs with forty or more ranks of timbres and percussion instruments.
Eddy Hanson seated at a magnificent four manual theater organ.
hanson at a theater organ
With less work available at the movies, Eddy branched out into supper clubs, often seen playing the piano with one hand and the organ with the other, using the organ pedals as well. Many remember his personality as being quite "dapper and colorful," and his general demeanor as very engaging. As for his own attitude, he wrote in his later years, "I never count the years or talk about death or disease. I never have had a headache in my entire life - can eat anything, drink anything, any time of the day, and sleep nine or ten hours a night. `As a man thinketh so he is.' I'm the healthiest man in the world!" Even with all that sleep he was busy. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Midwest listings are found for Eddy's shows on the new medium of television.
The 1950s also bore some healthy fruit for Hanson. At the beginning of the decade he joined ASCAP. Then in 1951 Eddy composed The Wisconsin Waltz. While quickly taken up by his home state, it took fifty years for them to officially adopt it as the state waltz in 2001. The piece achieved a fond notoriety in the interim. Then in 1952, one of Eddie's musical peers, Capitol Records A&R man Lou Busch, who had been recording for two years as Joe "Fingers" Carr, approached Eddy about reconfiguring his Rattlesnake Rag for a Honky-Tonk piano recording. The arrangement was strong enough to earn a co-composing credit for Busch, and the single containing Rattlesnake Rag became instant popular fodder for jukeboxes all around the country. Busch's arrangement was also released in sheet music form, racking up fairly decent sales considering the dated genre it represented. Eddy even played it again from time to time in his live performances. Rattlesnake Rag enjoyed another short surge when the 1917 piano roll version was featured in a party scene in the movie Reds under the direction of star Warren Beatty.
After spending much of the 1950s in a variety of performance venues in Chicago and Midwest, Hanson retired to Waupaca in the early 1960s, playing locally on and off throughout the 1960s, and recording a few albums on Rollo Records based in Appleton, Wisconsin and run by his friend Al Rollow. Eddy also performed and recorded with Appleton bandleader Lawrence Duchow. Around 1969 he started his own record label, Kobar, and set forth on a series of vinyl discs featuring his performances of old and new favorites on majestic theater pipe organs. Hanson was also seen performing weekend evenings as Simpson's Supper Club in Waupaca. In his role as master organist he became master teacher as well, taking on advanced students for lessons. In the 1970s he was regarded as the oldest master organist still alive, and still active giving concerts and seminars on organ performance. After another decade of successes and accolades, Eddy was honored as a special member of 1980 AMICA (Automatic Musical Instrument Collector's Association) for his earlier piano roll work.
In April of 1984 Eddy moved into the Wisconsin Veteran's Home in King, Wisconsin, the very organization for which his father had worked more than 70 years earlier. The master organist died there at the age of 92 in 1986. He was fondly remembered by many from the Midwest at the services that followed. Hanson was buried in the Lakeside Memorial Cemetery in his beloved Waupaca, marking the end of an era of popular organists.
Some of the information on Hanson was retrieved from Wisconsin State Archives, and from an article by Alf E. Werolin in the June, 1980 AMICA newsletter. The rest was researched from music archives, radio archives, newspaper listings and public records by the author.

younger james p. johnson portrait standard james p. johnson portrait older james p. johnson portrait
James Price Johnson
(February 1, 1894 - November 17, 1955)
c.1914 to 1916
Carolina Shout (c.1914/1918/1921)
Steeplechase Rag (as Over The Bars in 1924)
Twilight Rag
The Mule Walk
Daintiness Rag
Caprice Rag
Fascination: Fox Trot
Innovation: One Step
Monkey Hunch
Mama's Blues (aka Mama and Poppa Blues) [1]
Stop It (aka Stop It, Joe) [1]
Boys of Uncle Sam [1]
Eccentricity: Waltz
Harlem Strut
It Takes Love to Cure the Heart's Disease
Keep Off The Grass
Ivy, Cling to Me [w/Jones & Rogers]
Liza [2]
Toddlin' (Toddlin' Home)
Scouting Around
Don't Never Tell Nobody
After Hours
Weeping Blues
You Can't Do What My Last Man Did
Runnin' Wild: Musical [3]
   Open Your Heart
   Red Caps Cappers
   Old Fashioned Love
   Keep Movin'
   Charleston (The Original)
   Worried and Lonesome Blues
   Log Cabin Days
   Ghost Recitative
   Pay Day on the Levee
   Swanee River
   Song Birds Quartette
   Ghost Ensemble
   Love Bug
   Juba Dance
   Jazz Your Troubles Away
Jungle Nymphs
You Just Can't Have No One Man By
    Yourself [w/Mercedes Gilbert]
Mistah Jim [3]
Everybody's Doin' the Charleston Now [3]
    [w/Elmore White]
If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight [4]
Lock and Key [4]
I Need Lovin' [4]
Sweet Mistreater [4]
Harlem Choc'late Babies on Parade [4]
Alabama Stomp [4]
She's the Hottest Gal in Tennessee [4]
Scalin' the Blues
You for Me, Me for You [3]
Snowy Morning Blues
Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody
Ebony Dreams
All That I Had is Gone
Oh Georgia! Look What You've Done to Me [4]
You've Lost Your Lovin' Babe Now [4]
Mounful Tho'ts
Dixieland Echoes: Folio [2]
   Cotton Pickin'
   Echoes of Ole Dixieland
   Liza Jane's Wedding
   Mississippi River Flood
Keep Shufflin': Musical
   Give Me the Sunshine [4,5]
   'Sippi [4,5]
   On the Levee [4]
   Brothers - A Negro Exhortation [4]
Don't Cry Baby [w/Stella Unger & Saul Bernie]
Feeling Blue
(You've Got to Be) Modernistic
You Don't Understand [w/Clarence Williams &
    Spencer Williams]
Messin' Around: Musical [2]
   Harlem Town
   Get Away from My Window
   Your Love is All That I Crave
   Shout On
   I Don't Love Nobody but You
   Circus Days
   Sorry (That I Strayed Away from You)
   I Need You
   Put Your Mind Right On It
   Messin' Around
Slippery Hips [6]
A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid [6]
Sugar Hill: Musical [7]
   Noisy Neighbors
   Yes, I Love You, Honey
   Hanging Around Yo' Dore
   Hot Harlem
   Fate Misunderstood Me
   What Have I Done?
   Hot Rhythm
   Fooling Around With Love
1931 (Cont)
   Somethings Going to Happen to Me and You
   Moving Day
Harlem Symphony
   April in Harlem
Harlem Hotcha: Folio [6]
   Ain't-cha Got Music (A Rhythmic Spiritual)
   I Was So Weak, Love Was So Strong
   Stop That Dog
   Summer Was Made for Lovers (Why Let
      it Go Rolling By?)
   There Goes My Headache
   Yours, All Yours
High Brown
Spanish in My Eyes [w/Enric Madriguera]
Whisper Sweet [6] (from Sugar Hill?)
Who Loves You Now? [4]
Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Your Cares Away
    [w/Nelson Coogan & Mike Riley]
Concerto Jazz-a-mine
Symphony in Brown
Spirit of America (String quartet)
De Organizer (A One Act Opera)
    [w/Langston Hughes]
   Hungry Blues
The Dreamy Kid (A One Act Opera)
    [completed by James Dapogny c.2002]
A-Flat Dream
Lonesome Reverie
Policy Kings: Musical [w/Louis Douglass]
   Court House Scene
   Deed I Do Blues
   Dewey Blues
   Harlem Number Man
   Harlem Woogie
   Havin' a Ball
   I'm Gonna Hit the Number Today
   To Do What We Like
   Walking My Baby Back Home
   You, You, You
Blueberry Rhyme
Swinga-Dilla Street [6] [w/Abner Silver]
Uncle Sammy, Here I Am [8]
    [w/Clarence Williams]
Boogie Woogie Stride
Gut Stomp [w/Willie "The Lion" Smith]
Carolina Balmoral
Jersey Sweet
There's No Two Ways About Love
    [w/Ted Koehler & Irving Mills]
J.P. Boogie
Jimmy Johnson's Boogie Woogie
   Boogie Dreams
   Boogie Woogie Runaway
   Thinkin' About Home
   Twelfth Avenue
   Walkin' the Bass (aka J.P. Boogie)
Blues for Fats
Theme in Two Voices
Just Before Daybreak
April in Harlem [arr. Domenico Savino]
Reflections (< 1945)
Poem of Love (< 1945)
Blues for Jimmy
Jungle Drums
The Toy Piper
Improvization on Deep River
How Could You Put Me Down [w/Willie
    "The Lion" Smith & Mitchell Parrish]
Meet Miss Jones: Musical [8]
   Don't Lose Your Head (And Lose Your Gal)
   I've Got to be Lovely Tonight
   You're My Rose
Sugar Hill: Musical Revival [8]
   Apple Jack
   Love Don't Need a Referee
   You're My Rose
   I've Got to Be Lovely for Harry
   Yes, I Love You, Honey
   You Can't Lose a Broken Heart
   Until You Are Caught
   Far-Away Love
   My Sweet Hunk o' Trash
   What Kind of Tune Did Nero Play
   Bad Bill Jones
   I Don't Want Any Labor in My Job
   That Was Then
   Mister Dumbell and Mr. Tough
   Sepia Fashion Plate
   Busy Body
   Keep 'em Gussing
   Peace, Sister, Peace
   Smiln' Through My Tears
   We're Going to Blitz the Ritzes

1. w/William H. Farrell
2. w/Perry Bradford
3. w/Cecil Mack
4. w/Henry Creamer
5. w/Con Conrad
6. w/Andy Razaf
7. w/Jo Trent
8. w/Flournoy E. Miller
Selected Discography    
The Harlem Strut
Ukulele Blues [1,2]
You've Got What I've Been Looking For [1,2]
You Missed A Good Woman (When You Picked All
    Over Me) [1,3]
Long Lost Weary Blues [1,3]
Carolina Shout [4]
Keep Off the Grass
Carolina Shout
Dear Old Southland [1]
Bandana Days Intro/Love Will Find a Way [1]
Weeping Blues
Worried and Lonesome Blues
You Can't Do What My Last Man Did
Bleeding Heart Blues
Scouting Around
All That I Had Is Gone
Snowy Morning Blues
Can I Get It Now? [5]
Skiddle-De-Scow [5]
Chicago Blues [6]
Mournful Tho'ts [6]
Riffs [6]
Feeling Blue [6]
Put Your Mind Right On It [7]
Fare Thee Well Honey Blues [7]
You Don't Understand [6, 8]
You've Got to Be Modernistic [6, 8]
Crying for the Carolines [6]
What Is This Thing Called Love?
You've Got to Be Modernistic
How Could I Be Blue? [9]
I've Found a New Baby [9]
Go Harlem [6]
A Porter's Love Song to a Chamber Maid [6]
Just a Crazy Song [6]
Carolina Shout
Mule Walk
A Flat Dream
Blueberry Rhyme
If Dreams Come True
Lonesome Reverie
Mule Walk
Boogie Woogie Stride
Snowy Morning Blues
Daintiness Rag
Snowy Morning Blues
Snowy Morning Blue (Alternate)
J.P. Boogie
Backwater Blues (in Memory of Bessie Smith)
Carolina Balmoral
Gut Stomp
Mule Walk (Stomp)
Arkansas Blues
Caprice Rag
Improvisations on Pine Top's Boogie Woogie
Blueberry Rhyme
Blues for Fats
Blue Moods (Take One)
Blue Moods (Take Two)
Blue Moods (Take Three)
Blue Mizz [10]
Victory Stride [10]
Joy Mentin' [10]
After You've Gone [10]
A Porter's Love Song to a Chamber Maid
Carolina Shout
Blues for Jimmy
Keep Movin'
Jersey Sweet (Take One)
Jersey Sweet (Take Two)
Twilight Rag
Jungle Drums
Aunt Hager's Blues
St. Louis Blues
Sweet Lorraine (Take One)
Sweet Lorraine (Take Two)
The Dream (Take Two)
The Dream (Take Four)
Maple Leaf Rag
Caprice Rag
Back Water Blues
Chocolate Bar
Ain't Cha Got Music
Daintiness Rag
I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby
Mama and Papa Blues
Old Fashioned Love
Snowy Morning Blues
Steeplechase Rag
You Can't Lose a Broken Heart

1. w/James P. Johnson's Harmony Eight
2. w/Eddie Gray
3. w/Trixie Smith
4. w/Jimmy Johnson's Jazz Boys
5. w/Johnson's Jazzers
6. w/Jimmy Johnson and His Orchestra
7. w/Jimmy Johnson and His Band
8. w/Vocals by Keep Shufflin' Trio
9. w/Clarence Williams
10. w/Johnson's Blue Note Jazz Men
Matrix and Date
[Black Swan P151] 08/01/1921
[Black Swan P159] 08/??/1921
[Black Swan P160] 08/??/1921
[Black Swan P282] ??/??/1921
[Black Swan P283] ??/??/1921
[Arto 9096] 10/??/1921
[OKeh S70259] 10/18/1921
[OKeh S70260] 10/18/1921
[OKeh S70350] 12/05/1921
[OKeh S70351] 12/05/1921
[Columbia 81099] 06/28/1923
[Columbia 81100] 06/28/1923
[Victor 28196] 07/17/1923
[Victor 28197] 07/17/1923
[OKeh S71741] 08/08/1923
[OKeh S71742] 08/08/1923
[Columbia W143531] 02/25/1927
[Columbia W143532] 02/25/1927
[Columbia 14247] 06/18/1928
[Columbia 14247] 06/18/1928
[Columbia W146539] 06/18/1928
[Columbia W146540] 06/18/1928
[OKeh 401565] 01/29/1929
[OKeh 401566] 01/29/1929
[Columbia W148015] 03/05/1929
[Columbia W148108] 03/05/1929
[Victor 57701] 11/18/1929
[Victor 57702] 11/18/1929
[Brunswick E31956] 01/21/1930
[Brunswick E31957] 01/21/1930
[Brunswick E31958] 01/21/1930
[Brunswick E31959] 01/21/1930
[Columbia W149951] 01/31/1930
[Columbia W149952] 01/31/1930
[Columbia W151457] 03/25/1931
[Columbia W151459] 03/25/1931
[Columbia W151460] 03/25/1931
[Columbia W24759] 06/04/1939
[Columbia CL-1780 LP] 06/14/1939
[Columbia CL-1780 LP] 06/14/1939
[Columbia CL-1780 LP] 06/14/1939
[Columbia CL-1780 LP] 06/14/1939
[Columbia CL-1780 LP] 06/14/1939
[Asch A300] 07/02/1942
[Asch A301] 07/02/1942
[Asch A322] 07/02/1942
[Blue Note BN777] 11/17/1943
[Blue Note BN778] 11/17/1943
[Blue Note BN779] 11/17/1943
[Blue Note BN780] 11/17/1943
[Blue Note BN781] 12/15/1943
[Blue Note BN782] 12/15/1943
[Blue Note BN783] 12/15/1943
[Blue Note BN784] 12/15/1943
[Signature T1914] 12/18/1943
[Signature T1915] 12/18/1943
[XTRA 1024 LP] ??/??/1944 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] ??/??/1944 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] ??/??/1944 (UK)
[Blue Note BN950] 03/04/1944
[Blue Note BN951] 03/04/1944
[Blue Note BN952] 03/04/1944
[Blue Note BN953] 03/04/1944
[Decca 24884] 08/15/1944
[Decca 24885] 08/15/1944
[XTRA 1024 LP] 04/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 04/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 04/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 04/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 04/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 04/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[XTRA 1024 LP] 05/??/1945 (UK)
[Wax LP 201] 02/15/1947
[Rarities 33 LP] 03/01/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 05/24/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 05/24/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 06/05/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 05/24/1947
[Circle 3005 LP] 06/05/1947
[Riverside 1056 LP] 06/05/1947
[Riverside 1056 LP] 06/05/1947
[Riverside 1056 LP] 06/05/1947
[Manhatten 503] 06/05/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 05/24/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 05/24/1947
[Pumpkin 117 LP] 05/24/1947
Often referred to as the "Father of Stride Piano," James P. Johnson was the dominant figure who in the late 1910s and 1920s helped to evolve ragtime into a more ambitious form of composition and performance combined with elements of jazz. Some sources, even those from his own lifetime, show an 1891 birth date. However, virtually all census and draft records are consistent in stating 1894 as his year of birth, as are his birth and death certificates. Jimmy was born at 6 City Alley in New Brunswick, New Jersey to mechanic William H. Johnson (or so it has been reported) and Virginia native Josephine (Harrison) Johnson who was working as a house maid. Familial circumstances and cryptic census records make it difficult to sort out his direct siblings, and even the identity and status of William H. Johnson can be called into question. One positive verification, however, is the listing of that name as his father on a 1921 passport application. It appears James had five older step-siblings, as noted below.
Around late 1896 to early 1897, Josephine had remarried to Harry (or Perry) Thompson, who was (depending on which information is trusted) between nine and more likely fifteen years her junior. In 1898 she managed to obtain a piano for their home. Jimmy's earliest musical training was given to him by his mother when he was barely able to reach the keyboard. She was able to show him melodies and simple chords of the current music that she knew of, mostly ragtime and early blues pieces, which he quickly memorized. James also had the dual blessing and curse of perfect pitch, which allowed him to instantly reproduce anything he heard in its original key, or quickly transpose it through relativity.
As of the 1900 census they were living in New Brunswick in a house full of collective offspring. The relationships are hard to sort out, but four siblings with the last name of Nevins ranging from 14 to 21 show as stepchildren to Thompson, then there are two with the last name of Collins aged 4 and 7 that, like Jimmy, are shown as boarders, likely an enumeration error. According to that enumeration Josephine would have been reportedly 10 when the oldest step-child was born. As it turns out, she had deflated her age just a bit by thirteen years. Josephine had been married to farmer Richard Nevins, shown to be eighteen years her senior, around 1872. Jimmy's older half-siblings were Diana Nevins (1873), William H. Nevins (8/1879), Richard Frank Nevins (6/1882), Clifford Nevins (9/1883), and Isabella Nevins (10/1886). Diana appears to have died before 1900. To further confuse the issue, the record also included Evangeline Collins (10/1892) and Susan Collins (11/1895), with the different last name and boarder status making them harder to identify.
Josephine appears to have been widowed in the early 1890s. Given that William H. matches both her oldest son and Jimmy's alleged father, and that she claimed her marriage to Thompson to be her second, the circumstances of James P.'s conception and true identification of his father can logically be called into question. No official record of marriage or positive identification of William H. Johnson was found in the author's research. However, there was one likely candidate who was born in Maryland, and in the 1900 census serving time in a prison in Trenton, New Jersey. While it would explain some of the story, there is no confirmation that this is the case. There is also a possibility Jimmy was adopted, but in such cases the last name is usually changed, so this seems unlikely.
Among the early pieces Jimmy learned while growing up were AME or Methodist Hymns and the song Little Brown Jug, which he simply copied from his mother's rendition. The family was devoted to the church and were involved in the social life that came with it. So James observed everything from musical melees to authentic ring shouts and cotillion dances in his home. The experience instilled in him the joys of music as well as the complexities of some of the rhythmic patterns and dance steps that had been passed down, perhaps only a little less than two generations away from the time of slavery in Virginia.
In 1902 the family moved to Jersey City where Jimmy frequently heard early ragtime strains coming from venues throughout the town, including saloons and brothels. He set about trying to duplicate that music at home with some success.
A street scene in the San Juan Hill neighborhood, midtown Manhattan, West Side, around 1910.
a street scene from san juan hill in new york city around 1910
Johnson related that his debut as a paid pianist came about at age eight or so [word of mouth is hard to confirm] when a neighbor woman, who was also involved with a "business," heard him play and asked if he would like to earn a quarter just to perform. He obviously was interested in payment, so she led him into a "business" and told to just start playing, but not to turn around for any reason. That was how he says he was introduced to playing in a brothel. By the age of nine Jimmy had surpassed his mother's ability to teach him and he was sent to at least one local instructor in addition to learning more about music at school.
The family moved to New York around 1908, which thrilled Jimmy since he had been going to symphony concerts there for a little while thanks to a friend of his older brother, a pianist named Charlie Cherry. They lived on the west side near Columbus Circle in a questionable neighborhood referred to as "San Juan Hill" because of the battle-like conditions wrought from racial tensions. But the teenager found escape through the piano, and through Charlie's mentoring he was introduced to the more authentic strains of classic ragtime, including that of Scott Joplin. Jimmy soon found musical employment when not in school, working his way up the musician's food chain from brothels and bars to respectable restaurants and private parties. He continued his passion for ragtime, learning in particular the works of Joplin, who was living in New York by then. The 1910 census found the family living at 152 West 62nd Street. Jimmy was grouped in with his older step-siblings and enumerated as James Nevins. Harry was working as a porter in a theater and Josephine as a laundress, while William and Richard were contracted delivery drivers. Isabella was a hotel maid, but Jimmy, shown as 16, did not have a fixed occupation.
The family moved again around 1911 up to 99th Street, about two miles south of Harlem, which was not yet the center of black culture that it would soon become. He kept on working in restaurants, for society dances, at cabarets, and of course in various whore houses. Jimmy's first outside professional engagement other than a brothel or dive was reportedly at Coney Island when he was around 18. There was another possible professional debut playing at the Nickellete Theater in lower Manhattan, an early movie house. In 1913, now 19-years-old, Jimmy got a much more sophisticated gig working at Drake's Dancing Class at 61st Street and 10th Avenue on the west side, a block from his former residence. It was actually more of a nightclub which was also known as The Jungles Casino. It was in this venue that he was once again exposed to the dances he had seen in his mother's parlor, and also started to experiment more in composition to accompany the very specific rhythms requested by the instructors. He also learned about style and content for stage presentation and the relationship between music and dance.
One evening there was a "rent party" held just down the block from Drake's, and he was invited. Such parties were organized not just for the entertainment and social aspects, but for the admission charged which served to help pay the rent of the host or a beneficiary. A fairly new concept in the 1910s, they expanded to be great social events by the end of the decade, and the piano was the omnipresent entertainment center at these parties, which often lasted into the night and even until dawn. There was no formal pecking order - just show up and play, which Johnson did. Many times there were spontaneous cutting contests to determine who the best player in the area was. While he did earn a bit for his efforts, reportedly a $1.50, it was not enough for sustenance at that time. However, he soon dominated these parties and his take went up considerably.
As it happened, Jimmy's reputation started to grow, and by 1914 it prompted certain introductions to other established performers. Among these were James Hubert "Eubie" Blake, Willie Smith (later Willie "The Lion" Smith), and Charles "Luckey" Roberts. A friend of Roberts, Ernest Green, saw to it that Johnson got some classical training to improve his skills, some of it gratis or greatly discounted. He ended up training with Bruto Giannini [the author was not able to definitively locate a teacher by this name, so it is considered approximate], who Green's mother cleaned house for, for four years. Bruto instilled a great deal of musical discipline in the youth through the insistence that a regiment of scales and performance certain classical pieces be followed. This also gave Johnson a further appreciation for classical themes that would surface in his later compositions.
To his great credit, Bruto did not discourage Jimmy's propensities to play ragtime and blues, but did make sure that his fingerings and technique were correct. The experience left Jimmy well versed in not only technique but harmony and theory, all necessary for good composition and arranging. His fingering technique dazzled all who watched, including many competitors who simply ceded to his quiet dominance. Some of that was applied to his early compositions, reportedly originally conceived during his time with Bruto, including the stride piano template Carolina Shout, the bouncy Mule Walk based on a dance of the same name, and the dynamic show-off piece Steeplechase Rag. As his earliest recorded performances would attest, these were still in the rhythmically squared ragtime vein at that time, but by 1920 would evolve into a different feel altogether.
In short order Johnson was working in vaudeville, which gave him a wider audience and an early following that allowed him the luxury of a reputation. What he lacked in stage presence he had plenty in terms of playing ability. With that, he was able to collect a band of talented peers to improve the quality of the music he played. Around the time of The Great War (World War I),carolina shout cover Jimmy and his colleagues were hired for a couple of touring shows which went to England and Europe (although no passport application for him has been found so the status of that travel is unclear). Still, most people who heard hi play appreciated him largely for his innovative techniques when performing the latest ragtime hits of the day.
Johnson stood out during the cutting contests that were still common in the mid-1910s by employing unusual tricks, many picked up by listening carefully to other pianists and improving on what they did. One of the more important developments in this technique came when he started recording piano rolls in 1917 for Aeolian, soon to be one of the dominant producers of that media. Arrangers of rolls did whatever they could to make their work stand out, which often meant trying to create more sound than the notes on the printed page would produce. This included adding tenths or tenths with fifths in the left hand, using lower octaves and higher chords, and developing tricky patterned runs in the right hand. One offshoot of this enhancement was novelty piano, of which Zez Confrey would eventually shine along with Arthur Schutt and Roy Bargy. But Jimmy took a different direction from that same basis. In his playing, Jimmy stuck to more basic expanded techniques that were grounded in rhythm rather than tricks. Among his unique signatures are the backwards tenth, where the higher note of the left hand tenth is sounded before the beat, and the lower note on the beat. In total he cut around fifty-four rolls for Aeolian on their Metro-Art and Universal labels, and later for QRS, more than any other stride pianist.
With lyricist Will Farrell Jimmy composed some songs for a group known as the Smart Set, which at that time was heavily supported by Luckey Roberts. They managed to get some of their pieces into that touring show. Three of these pieces, Stop It, Boys of Uncle Sam and the popular and often recorded Mama's Blues, were soon sold to publisher F.B. Haviland for $25 each. Johnson used his share of this sale, for which there were no subsequent royalties, to secure a better piano. He further shared the vaudeville stage with one of the first names associated with ragtime, now struggling to maintain a career, Ben Harney. One of their tricks was straddling a bench with a piano on each side, both players using one hand on each piano.
Jimmy's 1917 draft card shows him simply as a piano player working for a (the writing is difficult to decipher) Mr. Pearson at Douglaston on Long Island. It also shows him as married. Jimmy had known singer Lillie Mae Hughes (4/1889), who was five years older than he was, since around 1914. By Johnson's own admission he did what he could to avoid being drafted, as many of his fellow musicians temporarily disappeared from the scene. One of those things was the indication that he was married when the card was filled out on June 5. However, the official record of marriage was dated August 6, 1917, just over two months later. Jimmy ended continued working as a pianist in the evenings, but also as a worker in a Quartermaster Corps warehouse in order to skirt being sent over the Europe. This way he was in the presence of military officers and could carry his draft card, as required at that time, but be less concerned about suddenly joining his friends in the fighting 369th U.S. Infantry. Ultimately, this group saw few casualties and were among the very first honored in New York City upon their return after the war.
The identity of Mr. Pearson is difficult to reconcile, but he may have been associated with or recommended by The Clef Club which was started by James Reese Europe and Ford Dabney (who were both now overseas), as they appeared to be his primary booking agent. For these gigs, which were frequent in 1917 and 1918, Jimmy would gather the best players he could find that could follow his arrangements and his lead, and formed small ensembles that started to garner attention. They would play everything from house parties to extended gigs in off-Broadway shows. Through these groups his reputation among his peers, and even outside of that circle, continued to grow.
During and after the war James continued to record the occasional set of piano rolls for Universal, Artemp and Metro-Art between traveling in vaudeville troupes with Lillie.ivy, cling to me cover The couple was shown lodging in Toledo, Ohio in the January 1920 enumeration, there on tour with a vaudeville troupe. Jimmy was listed as a cabaret musician and Lillie as a theater performer. That life would not last much longer as James P. Johnson would become a working pianist in New York City, and celebrity to boot.
It was through some piano rolls cut in 1921 and 1922 on the QRS label that Johnson established himself as a stride pianist and composer. He signed on exclusively with the company in 1921 and cut a number of rolls for them over the next five years. These included the ambitious Harlem Strut and the benchmark Carolina Shout, which was considered a test piece for lesser pianists to prove their abilities. Even though he had done an earlier take of Carolina Shout in 1918, which was reportedly around even earlier, the 1921 release clearly shed off much of the square ragtime feel and had much of the stride swing, forecasting the coming piano style. A young disciple of Johnson, Thomas "Fats" Waller, was among those (including Edward "Duke" Ellington) who would sit in front of a player piano pumping Carolina Shout at a very slow tempo, learning the piece note by note.
A 1921 Passport application states his purpose for travel to England and France as the "study of music." Whether this was intended through observation or direct instruction is unclear. His address, however, as at 252 West 139th Street, in the heart of Harlem. Of interest is the witness to his identity, pioneering black stage composer Will Marion Cook. He was scheduled to leave on the Imperator on July 4. Although confirmation from a passenger list was difficult to confirm, it is assumed he made this trip, but was back much sooner than the six months he indicated.
While Johnson had also done an acoustic phonograph recording during that busy year 1917 for what would become the OKeh label, it was ultimately not released. In 1921 he cut one side of Carolina Shout with a small jazz ensemble on Arto Records, a subsidiary of Standard Music Rolls for which he had also worked. There were also some sides recorded for the Black Swan/Paramount company accompanying singers Eddie Gray and Trixie Smith. Finally, Johnson went back into the OKeh studio to cut some solo tracks, of which a solo piano version of Carolina Shout would see the biggest reception immediately upon its release. As Harlem was growing into a solid African-American community in the 1920s, Johnson was one of the musical leaders giving that area northward from 125th Street its musical identity. For his new home town he added The Harlem Strut which had also been recorded on Black Swan. Soon every pianist in the area was trying to outdo each other showing off their renditions of Johnson's two big hits, while Johnson himself was moving on to other things.
The young Mr. Waller soon caught Jimmy's attention and fairly soon would become the heir apparent to the Stride Piano throne. Waller had done most of his early learning on church organs, so even though he was somewhat versed in Johnson's style when they met, he had a relatively weak left hand by virtue of the fact he had learned to use pedals for the bass notes. Jimmy mentored the seventeen-year-old Waller who was spending long periods of time camped out in the master's home.old fashioned love cover Soon the youth was emerging as a result of his own talent. The two of them reigned at Harlem rent parties as well. It is said that George Gershwin showed up at some of these events just to take in and study their dynamic style. Even Willie Smith, who had been over in the battlefields of France where he allegedly earned his name of "The Lion," was spending a lot of time watching and learning from Johnson.
Johnson's influence turned into deeds as he helped Waller secure a recording job with QRS. In 1922, Waller recorded his first two piano sides on OKeh, Muscle Shoals Blues and Birmingham Blues, in which Johnson's influence was clear in the mature renditions of both tunes. The two became life-long friends, but it was clear over the next few years that Waller, with the more dynamic personality and fearless bravado, would be the performer who caught the public's eye, while Jimmy often remained the technician who caught the musician's ear.
Johnson made a number of new recordings with ensembles from 1921 on, some using the name of Jimmy Johnson, although his good friends evidently called him James. The audio recordings of his piano solos are often as good as or better than the piano rolls, largely because they convey dynamics that rolls don't capture. As historian Dave Jasen conjectured, for his solo instrumental pieces Johnson was still writing piano rags, but was performing them as jazz pieces. The band work was less structured but still arranged. However, the natural swing in Johnson's playing, when it could be heard, was a stark contrast to many of the "straight-playing" musicians sometimes thrust upon him by the studio who was looking to produce more jazz band recordings. In 1923 Johnson would have another shiny jewel added to his crown.
While he had been increasingly busy with piano rolls and records, in April and May Johnson was listed on passenger lists returning from what appears to be trips to London, touring with a subset of the show Plantation Days which had been incorporated into a British show. However, inspired in part on the Broadway success of Shufflin' Along by Eubie Blake and his lyricists partner Noble Sissle, Jimmy teamed with F.E. Miller, Aubrey L. Lyles and lyricist Cecil Mack for a George White produced show. Runnin' Wild toured in the early fall of 1923, and debuted at the Colonial Theater on October 29. In the original incarnation and a re-tooled edition it ran for 228 performances through June 28, 1924, a great achievement during a time when Broadway was at time cluttered with weekly openings. The show yielded several hits but none bigger than the famous Charleston, a piece that defined the sound of the 1920s and spawned countless imitations.
original charleston cover
When he wasn't writing, recording or playing on Broadway, Jimmy was playing for rent parties, and even ad hoc gatherings. As recounted in Black Bottom Stomp by Jasen and Jones, he had an unofficial agent, Raymond "Lippy" Boyette, who would make sure that Jimmy hit all the best rent parties and got his share of time before moving on to the next one. Duke Ellington remembered those times, and recalled that when there wasn't any party going on, "Lippy would walk up to any man's house at any time of night. He'd ring the doorbell. Finally somebody would wake up and holler out the window about who was it making all the disturbance. Lippy would answer, 'It's Lippy and James P. is here with me.' These magic words opened anybody's door, and we would sit and play all night long."
Then again, it was through performance more than anything that Jimmy made his living. While his few songs were selling fairly well, the stride style was not only difficult for many pianists to approach, but even harder to notate given the knowledge of that time. Without a frame of reference, such as constant exposure to the feel of stride, translating the notes on the page into the correct swing rhythm was a challenge unto itself. In the end, all but a few earnest followers of Jimmy preferred to pay to hear him play rather than try to do it themselves. Still, some of his works were published, including Jingles, Snow Morning Blues, Keep Off the Grass, Scoutin' Around and Carolina Shout. As a result of his published work, Johnson was able to gain admission to ASCAP in 1926, twelve years after it was founded. That was also the year of the release and piano roll of one of his biggest hits composed with Henry Creamer, If I Could Be With One (One Hour Tonight), still frequently performed over eight decades later.
Some of his best non-solo work was as an accompanist for blues maven Bessie Smith. Johnson ultimately cut fourteen sides with her starting in February 1927. She later mentioned that he was her favorite pianist to work with. He also worked and sometimes recorded with the bands of Perry Bradford, Louis Armstrong, Jabbo Smith, and Joseph "King" Oliver, often uncredited but aurally recognizable.
After several years in jazz, Johnson felt he needed to expand his horizons. Inspired by the works of composers George Gershwin and Ferdé Grofé, he started combining jazz and classical music, also calling on Negro folk music and spirituals at times for effect. Among his best known symphonic works were Yamekraw - A Negro Rhapsody, a mix of spirituals and folk pieces compiled/composed in 1927 and named after a black community in Savannah, Georgia, and Harlem Symphony from 1932. In April 1928, W.C. Handy hosted a concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan which included Johnson and his new work. According to The Music Trade Review of May 12, 1928: "W.C. Handy, pioneer composer of many varieties of 'blues' and author of several books on the subject, gave a successful concert in Carnegie Hall, New York, recently, assisted by an orchestra and a group of Jubilee Singers. if i could be with you coverThe program included a negro [sic] rhapsody entitled 'Yamecraw,' [sic] composed by James P. Johnson, in which Thomas Waller played the piano solos." A two piano presentation had been planned, but Johnson had a contractual obligation elsewhere that evening, so Waller had to wing it on his own.
Returning to the stage in 1928, he contributed some songs to and helped to direct Keep Shufflin', largely a collaborative effort of many Harlem musicians trying to follow the success of the earlier Shuffle Along. It ran for a fairly respectable 104 performances, including over a month at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre. Another less successful show the following year was Messin' Around composed with Perry Bradford, which in spite of the novelty of a women's boxing match each night with different results each time, did not do very well in two short runs, the first closing after 33 performances. Johnson was involved in one more musical launched nearly two years into the Great Depression, Sugar Hill composed with Jo Trent. This one barely made it through a week of 11 performances at the end of 1931, but few shows were seeing any appreciable attendance at that time. Sadly, many of these works were truly unappreciated during his lifetime, having seen their first serious recordings or new productions in the 1990s four decades after his death.
The 1930 census lists James as a pianist employed in "private musicals," still married to his wife Lillie. Along the way they had added son James Jr. and daughter Arceola to the family in 1926 and 1928 respectively. Lillie had retired from the stage to be a mom, and showed no profession. They would also add a daughter by adoption in the 1930s, Lillie Mae Jr.. During the 1930 to 1933 period Johnson was also listed in some articles and at least on advertisement as a staff composer for Connie Immerman's organization. Along with his brother Immerman ran the somewhat notorious gangster's hangout Connie's Inn where Fats Waller and Andy Razaf also made their name. However, he contributed substantially less of Connie's revues and shows than Waller and Razaf.
Piano rolls and records were difficult commodities to sell in the early to mid-1930s as much of the public simply did not have the funds to purchase them. His hit songs Charleston and If I Could Be With You helped to sustain the family with performance royalties, but Jimmy also continued to contribute to the stage and direct musicals for income. One was The Policy Kings at the tail end of 1938 which collapsed after three performances, even before the copyrights were secure. Johnson even experimented with light blues opera in 1938 composing De Organizer, a socially relevant opera about labor organization with a libretto by Langston Hughes. It had one performance in 1940, then disappeared for nearly 60 years until some of the parts were unearthed and reconstructed with the help of researcher/performer James Dapogny in the early 2000s. He also appeared in two films.
In 1938 and 1939, the tenacious jazz promoter John Hammond staged two Spirituals to Swing concert events at Carnegie Hall. As Hammond had been facilitating more recordings by Johnson, some of them unissued until after his death, he also included Jimmy and his music in these epic events. The second one was not nearly so easy, however. It was also in the late 1930s through 1940 that Johnson suffered a series of partial strokes that set him back for a short time. He and his family, Lillie Mae, James P. Jr. and Arceola, were shown as living in Queens in the 1940 enumeration, with James listed as a composer with his "own practice."
Johnson was recording again by 1942 and did some works on V-Discs which were used to entertain the troops overseas.
Johnson as part of an all-star band at Town Hall, New York, 1945.
L to R: Cozy Cole, James P. Johnson (at piano), Miff Mole, Benny Moten, Bobby Hackett, Bill Coleman, Max Kaminsky, Muggsy Spanier, Ed Hall, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon (conducting) and Kansas Fields.
johnson with an all star band at town hall 1945
However, his playing was clearly not as clean as it had been before, partly from the effects of the stroke (said by some experts to have been TIA or transient ischemic attacks). Jimmy's 1942 draft record shows him as self-employed and living at 171-38 108th Avenue, Jamaica, Queens, New York, the same address they had been at since at least the mid-1930s.
From the time he acted as a mentor until the 1940s, Jimmy had remained close with his star pupil, Thomas Waller. However, Fats had taken a different direction not only stylistically but in his lifestyle. In November 1943, while working a club in Los Angeles during an unusual heat wave, the overweight and over-indulgent Waller spent a great deal of time sweating next to an air conditioning unit which was chilling his constant perspiration and weakening his immune system. On December 15, while on his way back to the East Coast, Waller succumbed to pneumonia brought on by the chill, dying on the train as it approached Kansas City. Johnson was greatly affected by the death of his longtime friend, and recorded a blues for his late friend three days later.
Although he remained musically active through the rest of the decade, it was largely as an ambassador of sorts and no major works came from that time. There were a few recordings done with assembled studio bands, but he was usually not a feature in these. However, Johnson and his music were featured in a Carnegie Hall concert in 1945, including a performance of his Harlem Symphony conducted by Joseph Chemiavsky. Another event was held at Town Hall that same year with an integrated band that included Johnson and many other musical luminaries. Turning back to the stage, his last major works involved a musical called Meet Miss Jones at an experimental theater in the Harlem Elks Lodge in 1947, followed a newly rewritten production of Sugar Hill in Los Angeles in 1949, 18 years after the first one had debuted, both with librettos and some additional music by Flournoy Miller. Neither production was met with much enthusiasm or success by the public or the critics. Recordings continued, the last of them captured on early renditions of magnetic tape, but many would remain unheard by the public until the 1970s or later.
In 1951, Johnson suffered a debilitating full stroke that ostensibly ended his musical career as it left him bedridden throughout the next four years. He passed on in 1955 while residing at a convalescent home in Jamaica, New York. Left behind were his wife Lillie, who survived him by 11 years, three children, several grandchildren, and a small contingent of grieving fans who had fortunately not forgotten the father of stride piano. James P. Johnson was laid to rest in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, New York, with a mere 75 people in attendance. As he died with his funds nearly depleted, the grave remained unmarked for nearly six decades, but efforts have been underway to put a proper headstone in place by the end of 2010. By the time of his death, as incredible as it seems, few outside of the music world knew who Johnson was. Fortunately has fame has grown slowly in the decades since.
Thanks to Bill's friend historian/performer Dr. Robert Pinsker, who has done extensive research on Johnson as well as created many great transcriptions of his pieces, for forwarding corrected information on a few pieces, plus other titles not found in most lists or libraries. The list here is not complete, but with Bob's help it is fairly comprehensive. As of this writing Bob is in the final stages of preparing a book of Johnson transcriptions of recordings and piano rolls for public release.
Some of the text was derived from the book Black Bottom Stomp by David Jasen and Gene Jones, then enhanced with further information. Black Bottom Stomp is highly recommended for any music lover interested in stride and jazz piano. The bulk of the remaining information, including a number of necessary corrections and enhancements to the Jasen and Jones text, was gathered from Johnson's own recollections, detailed looks at public records, periodicals, newspapers, piano roll and record listings, and sheet music.

Younger Max Kortlander Portrait Older Max Kortlander Portrait
Maximilian J. (Max) Kortlander
(September 1, 1890 to October 11, 1961)
The Ragtime Sailor Man [1]
Chicken Pranks [2]
Shimmie Shoes †
Look Out for the Melody Moon
Drop Me Down in Dixieland [1]
Blue Moon [2]
Why Shouldn’t Old King Solomon Get the
Along the Moonlit Way
Bigamous Blues
Some Day You’ll Know
Tell Me (Tell Me Why) [1]
As We Live and Love We Learn
Blue Clover Man
Sweet Bells of San Jose [1]
Anytime, Any Day, Anywhere [3]
Hot Tamale Mollie [3]
Like We Used to Be [4]
Sleepy Eyes
All the Time [1]
In Santa Barbara [5]
I’ve Lost My Heart to the Meanest Gal in
    Town [6]
Bebe-D (Sing Love's Alphabet with
    Me) [7,8,9]
The Sun Will Soon Be Shining [10]
The Thrill (Fox Trot)
Eeny Meeny Chinee Mo †
Hunting the Ball (Rag) †
Bygones [6,11]
Whose Heart Are You Breaking
    To-Night? [12]
Pleasant Dreams [12]
Mama's Blues (Papa's Blues) [12]
Whenever You’re Lonesome (Just Telephone
    Me) [12]
The Flirt [12]
Arithmetic Blues [12,13]
Too Many Kisses Mean Too Many
    Tears [12,14,15]
Red Moon: Waltz [16]
Red Moon: Waltz Song [16,17,18]
Deuces Wild †
Let’s Try It †
Red Clover
Some Winter’s Night
Gee, I’ll Miss You When You’re Gone [1]
Tantalizin’ Mamma [19,20]
Keeps On a Rainin' (Papa, He Can't Make No
    Time) [21]
Hottentot Trot
Rose of Old Madrid
I Hate to Think What Would Happen to Me [12]
Silver Screen: Waltz [12]
Rain Drops: Novelette [12]
Steps: A Modern Progression [12]
New Orleans Fizz: Diminished Syncopation [12]
Buck Shots [12]
Flower of Spain: A Gold Medal Tango [12]
Black'n Blue: A Finger Confusion [12]
Home! For the Rest of My Life [12]
Tosti's Good Bye [12]
Butter Fingers: A Soft Spread [12]
I’m a Good Gal, But I’m a Thousand Miles
    From Home [21]
Lover’s Waltz [18,22]
Trying to Keep Away From You [4]
To Be With You [5,22]
Scatter Your Smiles [12]
Ain’t I Got Rosie [12,23]
Whatever You Say [Uncertain]
I’m Longing for My Old Gal Sal [24]
What Are We Waiting For? [25]
Felix the Cat [12,14]
Always in My Dreams, Never in My Arms [26]
She’s My Girl (Oh What a Difference That
Why Do You Give Your Smiles to Someone
    Else (And All Your Tears to Me?) [12,27]
Lullaby Lady (From Lullaby Lane) [28,29]
Moonlight Down in Lover’s Lane [30,31]
Underneath the Stars in Waikiki [30,31]
If You Love Me, Say So [32]
I’m the One Who Loves You [33]
Something to Live For [24]
Unknown or Unpublished
Funeral Rag †
Jazzamine †
Li’l Joe †
Honey Lu Lu (Honolulu Girl) †
Land of Nod [Uncertain] †
Let’s Try It

1. w/J. Will Callahan
2. w/Lee S. Roberts
3. w/Louis Weslyn
4. w/J. Russel Robinson
5. w/William Jones
6. w/Darl Mac Boyle
7. w/A.S. Brooks
8. w/Billy James
9. w/A.V. Hendrick
10. w/? Squire
11. w/Harry Alpert
12. w/Pete Wendling
13. w/Edgar Leslie
14. w/Alfred Bryan
15. w/W.H. Sandefur
16. w/Henri de Martini
17. w/Lew Brown
18. w/John Traver
19. w/Alex Gerber
20. w/Preston Johnson
21. w/Spencer Williams
22. w/Jack Yellen
23. w/Harold Potter
24. w/Joseph M. Davis
25. w/Ray Klages
26. w/Lou Herscher
27. w/Irving Bibo
28. w/Howard Johnson
29. w/James S. Rule
30. w/George B. Pitman
31. w/Bartley Costello
32. w/Paul Denniker
33. w/Lanny Grey
†. Piano Roll
Anytime, Any Day, Anywhere [34]
Twelfth Street Rag [34]
   34. w/Victor Arden
Matrix and Date
[Pathe 68769] 11/??/1920
[Pathe 68770] 11/??/1920
Max Kortlander was a composer on a roll. In fact, on several rolls. His role with rolls was truly instrumental in the history of automated and hand-played music of the 1920s to 1950s. Due to his association and career with QRS, any biography of Max Kortlander necessarily needs to include a history of QRS during his tenure, as well as the remarkable work and legacy of his prime arranger, J. (Jean) Lawrence Cook.
Max was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Joseph Kortlander and Elizabeth M. Boxheimer. He was one of seven children, including older sisters Marguerite (7/1887) and Lois (3/1889), younger sister Dorothy (1/1892), and brother Herman Rudolph (5/21/1900). Two more of his siblings died at an early age, including John (2/1895), who was listed in the 1900 census, but not in subsequent records. Note that on the cover of Tell Me his middle initial is shown as D., but on the 1920 census and two other historical records it is clearly J., very possibly for Joseph or John.
Joseph Kortlander was a wholesale liquor merchant, in business with his brothers William, Theodore and George, all part of a well regarded family in Grand Rapids. From an early age it was clear that Max had a degree of natural music talent.tell me original cover In a house where there had always been a piano, and there were reportedly four grand pianos in the 1910s, as his mother and her sisters were also musically inclined and even taught piano, music was hard to avoid. According to Herman, they were all Mason and Hamlin pianos, and were in the family for many decades. Elizabeth was more than just Max's first piano teacher, adding composition to the home curriculum once he had gained some playing skill. Max was encouraged to write at least two simple songs every day. He reportedly did not enjoy the technical aspects of learning piano, but relished the compositional part.
Even though his mother and sisters were trained in the classical music styles of the 18th and 19th centuries, Max preferred to look ahead, listening to and trying to emulate the latest popular song and ragtime styles. By the time he was in his early teens, his skills were considerable enough that he was able to play around Grand Rapids in select venues to earn some cash as well as hone his performance skills.
Once Max left high school he attended Oberlin College Conservatory in north-central Ohio during the 1908-1909 school year. He then switched to the American Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois for the remainder of his higher education in advanced piano studies. In the April 1910 enumeration he was shown still living with his parents and siblings, in Grand Rapids, perhaps during a transition between school and career. While Max listed no profession, his sister Marguerite was listed as a musician and music teacher. Back in Chicago by 1911, Kortlander earned money for his schooling by performing all types of music from classical to popular at posh supper clubs, dance venues, and even as an accompanist on occasion. It was most likely in Chicago that he made the connections that would define his future performing career.
After having continued to play for a while upon completion of his schooling, Max was approached by somebody from the player piano roll division of the Melville Clark piano company, most likely arranger Lee S. Roberts or sales director, later company president, Thomas M. Pletcher.tell me remick cover They asked him to join QRS as a performer in 1914, two years after they started making "hand-played" piano rolls, with their famous marking piano and around the time they had improved their mass perforators for higher volume. Max quickly became one of the QRS playing stars, and he would spend the rest of his life associated with that label in an important capacity. He very soon became the manager of the recording department as well, and a top arranger.
In 1911, perhaps just before moving to Chicago, Max married Jean Jones of Grand Rapids, Michigan, nearly four years his senior, and the daughter of the co-owner of Berkey and Jones furniture factory. Their adopted son Stephen C. Kortlander was born on January 16, 1917 and came into their lives shortly after that. (That date is according to Social Security records - a 1934 passenger manifest shows January 20, 1918, which would be incorrect given the following information:). On his June 1917 draft record, which incorrectly shows 1891 as his birth year, Kortlander lists himself as employed by the Melville Clark Piano Company in Chicago, and as the sole support for his wife and child. He further listed physical unfitness of an unknown nature as a potential reason for not serving in the military.
Working with music as he did, and given his playing talent, it was natural that Max would be tapped either by himself or his peers as a composer. Starting in 1917 he started releasing compositions both on rolls and in printed form. A few of his early songs were written with prolific blind lyricist J. Will Callahan. His first big hit was Tell Me, published initially in Chicago in 1919 by his boss Lee Roberts, and quickly adopted by New York's most popular performer, Al Jolson. Jolson's recording of the work and subsequent sales were responsible for much of Max's early prosperity, especially when he sold the tune to publisher Jerome H. Remick that same year for a princely sum (over $70,000 and perhaps up to a reported $100,000). In September, both Roberts and Kortlander packed up their families and moved to New York City to expand the QRS empire.
Max continued writing in addition to his arranging and performing duties, although it would be a while before he saw another hit the size of Tell Me. his songs Like We Used To Be and Anytime, Any Day, Anywhere did fairly well for him in 1920, as did Bygones in 1922. His early efforts readily gained him a membership in ASCAP in late 1920. In the January, 1920, enumeration Max and his family were shown living in the prosperous area of White Plains, Westchester County, New York, and he listed himself as a musician and a manufacturer of player piano rolls. The Kortlander's only other child, adopted daughter Jean Elizabeth Kortlander, was possibly born on January 20th, 1920 (the previously mentioned ship manifest shows February 20, 1923, at odds with the official Social Security record, but could be an adoption date). That same year QRS opened a new production facility in the Bronx borough of New York City, as highlighted in the Music Trade Review of October 2, 1920. Most of the article is reproduced here for a better idea of the environment in which Kortlander was working, and would eventually take over:
Big Factory in the Bronx Most Modern in Every Particular, With Plenty of Daylight, Latest Machine Equipment, Direct Shipping Facilities and Other Important Features to Stimulate Production — New York Now Made the Headquarters for the Company's Recording Work
A view of the new QRS plant in 1920.
view of qrs plant in 1920
The new modern plant of the Q R S Music Co., located at 135th street and Locust avenue, New York, is now operating under practically full capacity. It is under the personal management of Lee S. Roberts, vice-president of the Q R S Music Co., whose experience in the manufacturing of music rolls has been of long duration and whose authority on proper merchandising is generally acknowledged.
...This plant, which is of the most modern construction, is a five-story fireproof structure, with daylight pouring in on all four sides, giving the entire interior enough light so that artificial illumination is practically unnecessary in any part of the building. In order that this daylight plant will never be obstructed by nearby buildings and also in order to allow for future expansion, the Q R S people purchased the entire block, bounded by 134th street, 135th street and by Locust avenue and Walnut street.
The plans of the building have been so arranged as to allow the construction of a duplicate plant on the block, whenever the demand for Q R S music rolls becomes sufficient to demand such an expansion. The new building has a floor space of approximately one hundred thousand square feet.
The executive offices are located on the top floor, access to which is gained by the passenger elevator just inside the main entrance. Besides the executive offices there are also the recording rooms, the cafeteria and rest rooms on the fifth floor. The recording rooms are built in the most modern style, with heavy partitions separating them, in order to make them absolutely sound-proof. In this way recording can be going on in any or all of the rooms at the same time without interference.
The recording is in charge of Max Kortlander, who has transferred practically all of the recording work from the Chicago factory to New York. Among those who may be found using these recording rooms are such popular pianists as Victor Arden, Russell Robinson, Phil Ohman and Pete Wendling. Another nationally known pianiste who is often present is Mme. Sturkow-Ryder, of Chicago, who assists in playing and editing Q R S story rolls. Mme. Marguerite Volavy, widely known as a concert pianiste, and whose splendidly edited reproducing rolls have made her name and musicianship well known to thousands of instrument owners, has charge of the reproducing roll department. This department is one of distinct importance in the Q R S organization and is housed in handsome offices especially constructed for its particular requirements.
The cafeteria is one of the finest examples of modern lunch-rooms for employes [sic]. It is capable of taking care of the entire factory force, which now numbers over five hundred, during the noon hour. The meals are sold at cost, and an idea of the popularity of the place may be gained from statistics which show that 95 per cent of the employes [sic] take advantage of this delightful place to sojourn during the noon-hour.
The second, third and fourth floors are devoted to the manufacture of music rolls. On these floors twenty or more of the most modern double perforating machines have been installed. For the handling of the cut sheets, and for the boxing of same, the most up-to-date labor-saving devices have been introduced. An idea of efficiency in this plant can be gained from its capacity output, which is thirty-five thousand rolls per day. All of the machinery is electrically operated and is practically noiseless in operation.
The ground floor is used for storage and shipping. The rolls are stored on racks especially designed for the purpose, which have a capacity of more than eight hundred thousand rolls. The shipping room is designed so that as orders are filled the factory trucks can be pushed directly into freight cars on the company's double-track siding, or upon motor trucks which back inside of the building to the loading platform.
There, is no doubt but this factory will be able to take care of and give prompt attention to the increasing demand for Q R S rolls. It is a splendid addition to the Q R S chain of factories, extending from coast to coast, the other factories being in Chicago and San Francisco.
hot tamale mollie cover
Another fine performer and songwriter, Pete Wendling, had joined QRS a couple of years after Max, but had already been living in New York City. The pair got together after Max relocated, and soon started writing tunes together, creating a bounty of them both on rolls and in printed form. Max and Pete were two of the bigger stars of QRS in the 1920s, arguably even more popular than their boss, Lee S. Roberts. Another star of both piano rolls and recordings, soon to conquer radio, was former Imperial and Ampico employee Lewis J. Fuiks, now working as Victor Arden. Max and Victor, who did several rolls together, recorded a pair of duets in 1920 on the Pathé label, the only commercial audio recordings completed by Kortlander.
Pete was working for composer/publisher Irving Berlin at that time, so most of the co-written works went through Berlin. However, Max signed on with a different publisher for his own works, as announced in the Music Trade Review of April 28, 1923: "Max Kortlander, general manager of the recording department of the Q R S Music Co., has closed a contract with Jack Mills, Inc., whereby that firm will publish all his piano compositions for a period of two years. The first of these new releases has been added to the Mills 'Pianolog Series' and are entitled 'Deuces Wild' and 'Red Clover.'"
Other stars in the QRS universe included Lee S. Roberts, stride pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller, and novelty composer Zez Confrey. However, one additional primary roll artist, more of a prominent background figure in a sense, would join QRS, and would not only help to keep the company alive in future years, but would take on multiple performer's personalities in the process of doing so. In 1923, Max helped facilitate the signing of J. Lawrence Cook to QSR. Cook and Kortlander would become the core of QRS by the end of the decade. While Max was good at playing and editing the markups he created, Cook became expert at his own marking piano, which allowed him to punch the rolls in step time rather than real time, even four-handed rolls. Cook also had a gift of being able to imitate the style of pretty much any pianist from a recording or live performance. While this has caused some confusion and speculation among historians about what was a Cook edit of somebody else's performance and what was entirely Cook's work, including on rolls with Kortlander's name, it helped QRS to steadily grow in popularity and consistency, eventually dominating the piano roll industry by the late 1920s.
QRS under Pletcher and, and often either with the assistance of or against the advice given by Kortlander, branched into other areas of music production as well in the 1920s, including a sponsored involvement in radio programming which went over well with fans, and likely sold additional rolls, although in spurts. One such venture was reported on in the Music Trade Review of August 2, 1924, when radio broadcasting was still fairly new:
qrs fot trot medley roll label
Applause letters from radio fans in all sections of the country are pouring into the office of WGR, broadcasting station of the Federal Telephone & Telegraph Co. here [Buffalo, New York], expressing delight over the recent Q R S musical program arranged by Bob Hollinshead, local manager of the roll company's distributing warerooms. The program was sent through the ether Monday night, July 21 [1924]. Q R S artists, composers and singers of international note took part in the program, which is proclaimed by scores of fans, and by the vast audience in the ballroom of the Statler Hotel from where the program was broadcasted, to be one of the most artistic and entertaining programs ever heard outside of New York City.
It was announced at the beginning and close of the program that selections being heard were obtained on Q R S rolls.
Special invitations were issued by Mr. Hollinshead to scores of persons in Buffalo who owned player pianos, but who did not own a radio, to attend the concert given in the ballroom of the hotel. An invitation was also extended the New Thought Alliance convention which was being held in the hotel, thereby filling the ballroom to capacity with an appreciative representative audience. Sales persons from roll departments of music stores of the city were also present.
Peter Wendling, Max Kortlander and Victor Arden, well-known songwriters and makers of Q R S rolls, were sent by the company to Buffalo to head the program. Their piano selections were followed by deafening applause from the audience and hundreds of letters from fans expressed particular interest in these three artists...
The three composers and artists sent from New York by the Q R S Co., Messrs. Kortlander, Arden and Wendling, visited the trade following the concert and witnessed hundreds of sales of their rolls and autographed many rolls for purchasers. Mr. Hollinshead said that success of the concert greatly exceeded his expectations and sales in Q R S rolls took a spurt on the day immediately following the concert. Fan letters were replete with such expressions as "Come again, Bob Hollinshead," "Give us a little more of this sort of thing," "I have just heard one of the most professional concerts ever received by my radio."
Kortlander and Cook worked diligently during the second half of the 1920s to make QRS the clear leader in the industry. The company was able to buy up faltering concerns from time to time, including Connorized, Vocalstyle, U.S. Music and Imperial.
Jean Lawrence Cook in the late 1920s.
j. lawrence cook in the late 1920s
They then reissued many of the better rolls they acquired in the QRS catalog, some after minor tweaking by one of the editors. But in order to stay current, Max and his gang also had to keep pace with the publishers and do what they could to speed up the process of roll production. While it was hardly the rule, there was at least one exceptional instance in which they absolutely steamrolled a roll into production, as noted in the Music Trade Review of October 9, 1926:
Twenty-four hours after Max Kortlander, recording manager for the Q R S Music Co., received the big Triangle Music Co.'s song hit, "The Miami Storm," he had word rolls all made and ready for shipment. This is said to be the first time that anything like this has been accomplished in the music roll industry and it shows the confidence the Q R S Music Co. has in this new waltz song. Joe Davis, head of the Triangle Music Co., feels sure he will have a sensational sheet music, record and roll seller in this new publication.
In spite of his successes both as a composer and arranger, Max's responsibilities in running the roll department at QRS and also participating in public relations for the firm started to overtake his other musical pursuits. He and Wendling had composed infrequently starting in 1922, but their two pieces from 1926 comprised half of Kortlander's dwindling output. Between 1916 and 1926, Max had recorded and/or edited approximately one thousand rolls. Many were released under the pseudonyms of Ted Baxter and Jeff Watters. Max also used these additional names when he did extra passes to record four-hand arrangement and needed to infer that there was a second performer playing with him. Also, sensitive to the impact of race on sales, he used names that the white public of the 1920s would deem more acceptable when they were less sure about pieces recorded or written by black artists. However, Kortlander's steady output also started to drop. The exact time line is uncertain, but it is likely that most of the rolls from 1927 and all of them from 1931 forward with Max's name on them were actually arranged by Cook. Max was still composing, however, and in 1928 with Pete and their friend Alfred Bryan, they released a musical tribute to the most famous feline of the silent cartoons, Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat.
In addition to the difficult task of acquiring other companies and assimilating their products into the QRS line, Max also helped manage QRS operations in San Francisco, California; Toronto, Canada; and Sydney, Australia. There were external headaches to deal with as well, including one case of an imposter reported on in the Music Trade Review of May 26, 1928:
The Q R S Co., Chicago, reports that last week a party representing himself to be Max Kortlander, of the Q R S Co., and claiming to be checking up on royalties, was working in Cincinnati. This party is of light complexion, about five feet seven and a half inches, weighs about 160 pounds and has a cheap printed card with just "Max Kortlander" printed on it.
The real Max Kortlander is recording manager of the Q R S roll department, makes his headquarters at the company's New York plant and has not been in Cincinnati for over a year. He is about six feet tall, dark complexion and weighs about 190 pounds.
The Q R S Co. is unable to ascertain what this person's object is, and has wired Cincinnati to try and locate him. The company also would appreciate a wire at the Chicago office sent collect notifying if this party visits any music store on this mission.
Max (C) in the late 1920s with the talented team
of Phil Ohman (L) and Victor Arden (R).
phil ohman, max kortlander and victor arden
At some point in the mid to late 1920s, Kortlander's marriage was also a casualty of work. Max and Jean separated at some point between 1928 and 1929. In the 1930 census he was shown still living in Westchester as a composer of music. His status indicated that he was still married, but Jean and the children seemed to have evaded the 1930 enumeration. They surfaced soon after in Santa Barbara, California, and all three resided more or less in Southern California for the rest of their lives in homes bought for them by Max. It appears that Jean never remarried, having died in November 1975 down the coast in Pacific Palisades as Jean Kortlander, according to her Social Security record.
The Great Depression could easily have dealt a fatal blow to QRS in 1930 or 1931. They were already coping with dropping sales. After a sales peak year of around 200,000 player pianos in 1923, the saturation of automated instruments in the home was able to sustain increases in QRS sales for around four years, peaking at around ten million units in 1927. But other media were competing with piano rolls and making them less viable to an increasingly sophisticated musical consumer.
The first of these was radio, which made great advances between 1922 and 1927 in both the quality of the instruments and the broadcast content. Radio led directly to the advent of electrical recordings around 1925, which represented a leap in audio quality over the previous acoustically recorded discs. By 1927, the sales of electric radio-phonograph units was far outpacing that of player pianos. After an earlier merge with the Z-Nith Electronics Company, QRS put forward their superior line of "Red Top" radio tubes. However, the tube business did not work out as well as Pletcher hoped, brought down in part by patent suits from Raytheon. The radio and tube business was spun off into what became the Zenith Corporation with Pletcher as a vice president, but QRS had no licensing stake in it and therefore reaped none of the rising Zenith profits. Another effort was made by Pletcher to keep pace with the trend to diversify, and in early 1929 he merged QRS Music with the DeVry Company, a camera manufacturer. The combined concern now was involved in the production of neon signs, DeVry still cameras, home movie cameras and projectors, and even a short-lived record label with three different lines from 1928 to 1930.
Sound films had entered the picture, overtaking the film industry between 1927 and 1929. Given the price of piano rolls, which were often a dollar or more, and comparing that with other entertainments, including cheaper records that did not require manual pumping to play, movies for ten cents that were changed often at the local theater, and radio which was ostensibly free once the radio had been acquired, piano roll and sheet music sales had started to suffer even before the Wall Street crash of October 1929.
A late 1920s ad for QRS Rolls and their
high quality Redtop Radio Tubes
late 1920s ad for qrs rolls and tubes
Pletcher found himself in increasing difficulties in the business, and Max found himself stepping up to the plate more often to help with the decisions. Then he made the biggest decision of his professional life.
QRS-DeVry was heading into bankruptcy in 1931. Pletcher's heavy investment in Zenith stock took it's toll after the crash, and he had to sell off all of the remaining QRS-DeVry divisions or let them go into receivership. Max took advantage of this situation because he knew QRS was the only viable piano roll company still alive, and he truly believed in his product. So Kortlander mortgaged his Westchester home, combined it with much of his earned fortune, and leveraged a buyout for the roll division of the company. Then he put it into a reorganization mode, as reported in two notices in the August, 1931, Music Trade Review:
Max Kortlander, of the QRS-DeVry Corp., New York, is the head of a new company recently organized to take over the music roll business of that organization. The new concern began functioning on July 1 and already there has been a gratifying response from dealers and others in the trade to the company's initial campaign.
Mr. Kortlander, who has been connected with the QRS Co. division for the past fifteen years, has a thorough understanding of all departments of the business and is firm in the belief that there is an opportunity for a substantial increase in music roll sales provided both manufacturers and dealers show a proper amount of interest in player pianos and their servicing. As a matter of fact, he holds there is a big roll market lying at the dealer's door right now among people who own player pianos but have stopped buying rolls because no attempts have been made to sell them. The manufacture of rolls will be conducted in the QRS factories both in Chicago and New York, Mr. Kortlander making his headquarters in [New York] city.
A number of changes in executives have recently been made in the Q R S-DeVry Co. The general offices are now located at the factory, 4829 South Kedzie avenue, Chicago. Thomas M. Pletcher resigned as president, but not as director; Treasurer Barclay was succeeded by J. V. Kleckner, who becomes vice president and general manager. Chas. Kunzer is general sales manager.
The music roll business of the QRS Co. including the equipment, master rolls, etc., has been sold to the Imperial Industrial Co., of New York City, Max Kortlander, president. Mr. Kortlander is well known as a veteran of the music roll business, and for years was the technical head of the QRS roll plant. It is understood that he made this purchase for himself and business associates and has already announced his intention to increase the interest of the public and the trade in player-piano rolls. The QRS catalog contains many thousand selections, embracing all classes of music.
The Imperial Industrial Corporation was named that because if the roll business did fail, Max would be able to change their product without changing the name.felix the cat cover The business model for QRS under Kortlander and Imperial Industrial changed nearly overnight. There were no more hand-played rolls, such as those made popular by artists such as "Fats" Waller. From that point on for over three decades, the rolls were hand arranged by J. Lawrence Cook, often augmented by at least one other staff arranger. With fewer arrangers and no players, perforators, which were sometimes expensive to maintain, were sold off.
In addition to making their own piano rolls and the new Imperial label, Imperial Industrial produced rolls for the few smaller concerns that were still around, with the exception of Aeolian who still used their own plants. They also used some of the same equipment to make rolls for automated office printers. Also in 1931, Max recruited his younger brother Herman, who had lost his job at a Grand Rapids newspaper, to help him manage the new concern through a variety of front office responsibilities. Most of the support staff was let go, but a few of the perforator specialists, all men, were retained, as was a minimal staff of around 25 low-paid women who helped with packaging and secretarial duties. The staff was beefed up only in the fall anticipation of increased holiday volume.
Max also realized that the promotion of the largest remaining roll company and the value of their product had not been well handled. He also realized there was probably only enough business during the financial crisis to keep just one roll company alive, and without current product that would never happen. J. Lawrence Cook was literally instrumental in keeping the product line current and vital, with the help of a few other selected arrangers throughout the next three decades. But to sell the product, now that he had cut costs, Max started wholesaling piano rolls at 25 cents each. This allowed the dealers to sell rolls from 33 to 50 cents each, which brought in customers who still wanted to enjoy old classics or the latest hits on their home piano. At a time when a good meal was a necessary commodity at 25 cents, a piano roll that sold for any more than that was considered a luxury, but it was one that many customers continued to enjoy. Kortlander was able to pay back on his mortgaged home in less than two years.
While the market for the more elaborate reproducing pianos, such as Duo-Arts and Ampicos, was only a small piece of the automated music pie, Max still saw an opportunity in that market for the third major reproducing system, the first one on the market, and bought it, as announced in the Music Trade Review of December, 1932:
The Imperial Industrial Corp. of New York and Chicago, which was organized a year or more ago with Max Kortlander as president, has taken over the manufacture and distribution of the Welte-Mignon (Licensee) reproducing rolls and since December first has been taking care of dealer demands for that product. The corporation has, for some time past, been manufacturing QRS and Imperial rolls, having taken over that department from the QRS-DeVry Corp. The Chicago offices are at 4829 Kedzie avenue and the New York headquarters, where the cutting is done, in the modern plant at Walnut avenue and 136 East 135th street.
In a 1985 interview with Bill Burkhardt, Herman was asked about the Welte-Mignon acquisition. "Max bought the Welte rolls and machines and that was it. These companies were failing. We bought a lot of different companies, junked the machines and used the stock. That's all you could do. We couldn't carry on because they were losing money.
The Kortlander home at the Westchester Country Club, pictured in the late 1930s.
kortlander's westchester home in the 1930s
"It was a good machine, and they had a lot of good expensive, classical masters. Good ones. They were different masters. You couldn't play them on a regular standard player piano. The notes would sound at the top and bottom. They indented in farther in the roll, you know. Although, QRS made the Recordo [a very basic expression system developed by Wurlitzer], the expression wasn't as elaborate as Welte or the AMPICO or the Duo-Art."
While he had buckled down during the Depression, Herman said his brother still enjoyed the fruits of his arduous labors. After the hectic holiday season they often retreated to Florida for a month at a time. Appreciative of his opportunities and his life, Max was also a social host who enjoyed giving parties complete with good entertainment, sometimes in conjunction with promotional events. He avoided anything ostentatious, perhaps aware that publicity focusing on lavish expenditures might alienate consumers and dealers alike. He simply invested well and treated his employees well. Having divorced in 1931, Max remarried in 1933 to Gertrude (Williams) Begoon, acquiring a stepson, Jackson Begoon in the deal. Gertrude was also well-liked by most QRS personnel. They, along with Max's own adopted teenage children, took a two week cruise to Europe in the winter of 1934 aboard the Mauretania.
The most important and fruitful relationship that Max had was also perhaps the trickiest one to maintain. J. Lawrence Cook loved his work, and without it QRS clearly would not have survived the Great Depression. Given that he was black, and being cognizant of the climate of race relations in the United States in the 1930s, theirs seemed to more a relationship of respect than anything else. Cook did pretty much whatever was asked of him, including rush jobs, rearrangements of older pieces, or direct imitations of audio recordings. Yet based in part on recollections of some personnel, and a CBS television show in which they appeared, it also appeared that their roles were defined as Lawrence and Mr. Kortlander.
Although the exact figures and the context of when they apply are hard to pinpoint, Herman talked about Cook's pay and a couple of other aspects of his tenure with QRS: "Well, [he was not paid] a great deal. Maybe $50 or $60 a week [in the early 1950s]. I mean, he was satisfied, so that was it. It was a good salary. The factory girls only got $20 a week. He worked at the Post Office. He was working for the pension, and he was doing all right. That was after hours, too, in the evening. He worked for us all day." Cook recalled something similar, but noted that in later years he was making around $200 per week. Given the number of people that Max had laid off, Cook long considered himself to be one of the lucky few who was spared.
The famous QRS marking piano, responsible for most of the
company's product from the mid 1920s through the 1970s,
as pictured in the late 1970s.
the qrs roll arranging piano
Concerning his particular talents at his specialized roll markup piano, particularly after the abandonment of "hand-played" rolls, Herman remembered: "There were no hand-played rolls. They had to cut corners all the way. Cook marked them out on paper in the beginning, pen and pencil, then he had another machine that could cut them out. We had another fellow to do that. But they gave that up later." Cook's talent with a pencil, or in creating his arrangements in incremental step time should not regarded lightly, and same goes for his extraordinary marking piano. On this device Cook recorded more piano rolls than any other single artist in the history of automated music. The piano is still kept at QRS in Buffalo, New York, and was reportedly used by staff arrangers until the end of the 1980s.
By the same token, Max, whose name was still appearing on rolls thanks to Cook's emulation of his style, did not totally abandon his musical acumen in exchange for micromanaging a struggling business. He had a hand in choosing the content that QRS put out, whether they were re-arrangements of older tunes or current pieces being pushed by publishers. His experience and intuition were well enough developed that he could see how a piece was being promoted by a publisher or how the public might respond to it on radio and record, and was therefore selective enough to have Cook and other arrangers produce rolls that were also usually popular and sold well. Speed was also paramount, as they wanted to get rolls on the market while a hit song was still on the Billboard charts.
There were a few other primary arrangers that worked for QRS along with or under Cook. From 1940 to 1947 there was Frank Milne (pronounced Mil-nee), who had record for Rythmodik and Aeolian. He did a particularly fine job with ballads, and in reimaging many older tunes in new styles. Living in Belmar, New Jersey, Milne had a commute of around two hours each way, but was dedicated to his work nearly until his death from smoking-induced lung cancer. Another veteran was Rudy Erlebach, who had enjoyed over two decades of experience when he succeeded Milne at QRS in 1947. He worked for them sporadically until his death around 1955. Dick Watson was hired 1961 to arrange current popular tunes, and worked through the end of the decade. Herman Babich (a.k.a. Hi Babit) was hired almost simultaneously with Dick, and continued the QRS arranging legacy after Max's death, working from 1960 to around 1967. Another musician who paralleled Babit's tenure was Rudy Martin, starting there in 1964 to help run machinery, and continuing from the late 1960 into the 1990s as an arranger. There was only the one punching piano, so all of the arrangers had to do some time sharing.
Kortlander continued to write and publish compositions sporadically until around 1940. His last known published work, Something to Live For, was a dynamic ballad that was recorded by a number of artists over the next two decades, including Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. At fifty-years-old Max decided to focus entirely on business, and the next business at hand was the shot in the arm that both QRS and the United States needed. For the 1940 enumeration, Max, Gertrude and Jackson were living with two servants in Rye, Westchester County, New York, with Max appropriately lists as the President and manufacturer of "Piano Player Rolls."
The economic recovery was already underway in 1940 and 1941 as America looked towards Europe and the ongoing war there. As the U.S. started gearing up for what seemed to be inevitable, the increase in the defense industry activity put more money into the economy, and luxury items again were less out of reach. On the other side of the coin, many player pianos were 25 to 35 years old at that point and in need of repair, while new ones were not being built, the Depression having shut down that part of the industry. Still, the majority of automated pianos built in the bustling 1920s were operational, and Kortlander saw the opportunity to not only continue as they had over the past decade, but even expand a bit by playing to the current world situation.
Max looks over the shoulder of his star
arranger, J. Lawrence Cook, from a 1956
ABC show, You Asked For It.
max kortlander and j. lawrence cook in 1956
During World War II, QRS kept the country supplied in new arrangements of stirring patriotic songs and marches, the latest big band swing pieces, and other popular works. Some sacrifices had to be made to get product out there since there were metal and rubber shortages. So rolls needed to be taped with a special rig, and steel eyelets were temporarily replaced by cardboard. The boxes were made of a cheaper cardboard as well, and without the colorful printed paper covering. But according to Herman Kortlander: "We could get paper, but we couldn't get the manufacturer to do the work. They didn't have help. Men had gone to war or were working in war factories. So we did have difficulties, and it was the busiest time, too. We sold more rolls! It was like the old days. We sold something like 5,000 rolls a day, and we had all 3 perforators running all day long, and overtime pay, and extra girls to assemble the rolls and fill the orders."
Directly after the war there was another lull in sales as the country settled down. There were more cutbacks in the late 1940s. Then nostalgia in music became the rage. Post-war America was in a bit of a musical identity crisis, since there was no particular popular form that dominated. Swing had become be-bop, rhythm and blues were not yet rock and roll or culturally accessible to much of the white population, and the crooners were less inspiring during this period. Then came the phenomenal success of the 1948 recording of Pee Wee Hunt's band playing 12th Street Rag, and the subsequent resurrection of ragtime in general thanks to Lou Busch and Capitol Records. He was joined by Johnny Maddox, Frankie Carle, Marvin Ash, and other fine pianists, in making the new generation of Americans, made up in part by WWII veterans, yearn for and enjoy the happy music of their youth.
Max saw and seized on this opportunity, and was helped out musically as well. In 1949 composer Cy Coben composed The Old Piano Roll Blues. Whether this was spontaneous or commissioned by Aeolian, Wurlitzer or QRS has been hard to lock down. However, it was around this same time that Aeolian and Wurlitzer introduced new electrically driven and more compact player pianos. QRS was right there with more software for those pianos, which included The Old Piano Roll Blues brilliantly interpreted by Cook,
A late 1950s Hardman Duo console player piano.
a late 1950s hardman duo
and Music! Music! Music!, another automated instrument piece by Stephen Weiss and Bernie Baum. America was on a (piano) roll again, and a new love affair started with automated music.
Imperial Industrial, in conjunction with Hardman, Peck & Company, also got in on the act by developing an even smaller console [some histories have erroneously claimed it was a spinet] player piano that allowed the user to either flip a switch or pull out the pedals and pump, just as they had three decades prior. While it came out in the spring of 1957 after the nostalgia surge had died down, the Hardman DUO (a nod to the older Duo-Art name, whose rolls it could accommodate) nonetheless did fairly well. In their advertising, Hardman and Imperial Industrial aimed at the modern suburban family of the space age, yet called on nostalgia for sales as well:
The DUO is an ideal family piano, one that every member can play even those who have never had a lesson. Lyrics are printed right on the music rolls, so everyone can sing along as well. This adds greatly to the fun of family gatherings and parties. The young student in the family will find he learns faster on the DUO. He can play it manually for practice lessons, and as a player-piano to observe the technique of more advanced arrangements.
Herman had also contributed to an increase in sales from QRS through his Personality Series of rolls. Given Cook's extraordinary ability, and either the cooperation or tolerance of a number of piano artists, the series was comprised of rolls "played as arranged" by well-known artists. This often meant a paraphrase or nearly exact replication of an artists' recording or at least his style for some well-known works. Herman later admitted that the practice may not have been entirely ethical, but the labels were worded in such a way as to be open to interpretation.
As the 1960s started, things were looking bright for QRS. Even after Aeolian's secondary reintroduction into the roll market in the 1950s, QRS was still the dominant leader of popular piano rolls, many featuring the latest top forty hits.
Max Kortlander in the late 1950s.
max kortlander in the late 1950s
While the future of company was fairly secure, Max would not be around to help shape it. Working literally to the end, he died in the Bronx office of Imperial Industrial on October 11, 1961 from heart failure along with diabetic complications. His obituary in the New York Times listed many of the fine clubs that he was a member of, including the Westchester Country Club where he resided, the Metropolitan Club in New York City, the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Peninsula Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was survived by his brother, his second wife Gertrude, his two adopted children and stepson, and his sisters Louise, Dorothy and Marguerite.
Herman continued to run the company under Gertrude's direction, taking care of the front office responsibilities and royalties. Cook ran the rest of the factory, making most of the decisions concerning what songs to arrange and release, but left by late 1961 due to strained relations with Mrs. Kortlander. Around 1967 Gertrude sold the firm to player piano restorer and enthusiast Ramsi Tick, and QRS Music, including all the stock and the machines and its original corporate name, was relocated to Buffalo, New York. Herman followed J. Lawrence Cook to Aeolian on 57th Street in New York City. Both of them eventually became frustrated with the slow and disorganized way in which they felt Aeolian was operating, with no central office or facility, and left the company in the 1970s. He remained in New York until 1984 when he retired back to Michigan, dying in July 1987. Stephen Kortlander never got involved in his dad's business, and died in June 1973 in Santa Monica, California. His mother Jean, Max's first wife, followed in 1975. Their adopted daughter is still assumed to be alive in 2010. Gertrude Kortlander, who had lived off of royalties and the sale of QRS, passed on in Rye, New York on March 11, 1981.
QRS Music is still an independent company, although they have been involved with the Story and Clark Piano Company for over two decades. The famous marking piano that was used by Cook and his peers is now part of the factory tour, which thousands of curious tourists and aficionados take every year. Piano rolls are still selling at a rate of over 200,000 per year, although software-driven music and downloads have clearly overtaken the paper market.
Today the legacy of Max Kortlander and QRS are very much alive, albeit in altered form. The company still makes paper rolls, albeit after a temporary shutdown in late 2009, but concentrate more on digital media. The early performances by Max and his staff can now be played back from MIDI, a special Compact Disc, or even a wireless internet connection on a QRS Pianomation System and PNOScan attached to nearly any piano, and even accompanied by instruments or vocals played through an integrated speaker. But the intent is still the same as the pioneers of the industry, including Max Kortlander and Melville Clark, had hoped for. They wanted to bring well-played music into the average household on a device that allowed for the upgrading of the music simply by obtaining new software, or piano rolls. The piano roll is every bit as digital as MIDI on CD is, and in that regard, QRS Music continues to keep Max's long term goals of musical entertainment in the home both current and exciting.
Some of the information on Kortlander was retrieved from the exceptional Billings Rollography, which includes the first authentic history of QRS. Another very useful source was the 1985 interview of Herman Kortlander by Bill Burkhardt, which can be found in its entirety on the AMICA website at information on Max was presented by author and Michigan historian Lee Barnett, formerly with the Michigan State Archives, in an article published on the remarkable Doctor Jazz site run by Mike Meddings. The rest was researched from music archives, radio archives, newspaper listings and public records by the author. Be sure to visit QRS Music for more information on the company.

La Rocca and Shields Portrait Henry Ragas Portrait
Dominic James "Nick" La Rocca
(April 11, 1889 to February 22, 1961)
Lawrence James "Larry" Shields
(September 13, 1893 to November 21, 1953)
Henry Walter Ragas
(November 2, 1890 to February 18, 1919)
LaRocca and Shields Compositions    
Basin Street Stomp [w/Bunny Franks]
Tiger Rag [1]
Tiger Rag (Song) [1] [w/Harry De Costa]
The Original Dixieland One Step [1]
    [w/Joe Jordan]
Ostrich Walk
Reisenweber Rag [1]
At the Jass Band Ball
Barnyard Blues
Skeleton Jangle
Clarinet Marmalade Blues
Fidgety Feet
Lazy Daddy [1]
Satanic Blues [w/Emile Christian]
Toreador Humoresque
'Lasses Candy: One Step
War Cloud
Bluin' the Blues [1]
Toddlin' Blues
Float Me Down the River
    [w/Armand Hug]
Old Joe Blade

1. by or w/Henry Ragas
Selected Discography Through 1923    
Livery Stable Blues
Dixie Jass Band One Step
At the Darktown Strutter's Ball
(Back Home Again in) Indiana
Barnyard Blues
Tiger Rag
Ostrich Walk
At the Jass Band Ball
Look At 'Em Doing It Now
Reisenweber Rag
Oriental Jazz
At the Jazz Band Ball
Ostrich Walk
Skeleton Jangle
Tiger Rag
Bluin' the Blues
Fidgety Feet
Sensation Rag
Mournin' Blues
Clarinet Marmalade Blues
Lazy Daddy
Barnyard Blues
At the Jazz Band Ball
Ostrich Walk
Sensation Rag
Look At 'Em Doing It Now
Tiger Rag
Satanic Blues
'Lasses Candy
My Baby's Arms
Tell Me
I've Got My Captain Working for
    Me Now
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles
Mammy O' Mine
I've Lost My Heart in Dixieland
Alice Blue Gown
Margie (w/Singin' the Blues)
(Lena from) Palesteena
Broadway Rose (w/Dolly)
Sweet Mamma - Papa's Getting Mad
Home Again Blues
Crazy Blues (w/It's Right Here for You)
Jazz Me Blues
St. Louis Blues [1]
Royal Garden Blues [1]
Dangerous Blues [1]
Bow Wow Blues (My Mama Treats
    Me Like a Dog)
Toddlin' Blues
Some of These Days
Tiger Rag
Baryard Blues

1. vocal by Al Bernard
Matrix and Date
[Victor 19331] 02/26/1917
[Victor 19332] 02/26/1917
[Columbia 77086] 05/31/1917
[Columbia 77087] 05/31/1917
[Vocalion 1205] 08/07/1917
[Vocalion 1206] 08/07/1917
[Vocalion 1206] 08/07/1917
[Vocalion A-247] 09/03/1917
[Vocalion A-435] 11/21/1917
[Vocalion A-442] 11/24/1917
[Vocalion A-444] 11/24/1917
[Victor 21583] 03/18/1918
[Victor 21584] 03/18/1918
[Victor 21700] 03/25/1918
[Victor 21701] 03/25/1918
[Victor 22041] 06/25/1918
[Victor 22042] 06/25/1918
[Victor 22044] 06/25/1918
[Victor 22043] 07/17/1918
[Victor 22066] 07/17/1918
[Victor 22067] 07/17/1918
[Columbia 76418] 04/16/1919
[Columbia 76419] 04/16/1919
[Columbia 76458] 05/12/1919
[Columbia 76459] 05/12/1919
[Columbia 76467] 05/19/1919
[Columbia 76468] 05/19/1919
[Columbia 76566] 08/13/1919
[Columbia 76567] 08/13/1919
[Columbia 76751] 01/08/1920
[Columbia 76752] 01/08/1920
[Columbia 76753] 01/08/1920
[Columbia 76754] 01/10/1920
[Columbia 76755] 01/10/1920
[Columbia 76756] 01/10/1920
[Columbia 74103] 05/14/1920
[Columbia 74104] 05/14/1920
[Columbia 74105] 05/14/1920
[Victor 24581] 12/01/1920
[Victor 24590] 12/04/1920
[Victor 24809] 12/30/1920
[Victor 24810] 12/30/1920
[Victor 24825] 01/28/1921
[Victor 24826] 01/28/1921
[Victor 25072] 05/03/1921
[Victor 25412] 05/25/1921
[Victor 25413] 05/25/1921
[Victor 25432] 06/07/1921
[Victor 25836] 12/01/1921
[OKeh 71044] 11/23/1922
[OKeh 71043] 01/03/1923
[OKeh 71429] 04/20/1923
[OKeh 71430] 04/20/1923
If there isn't already enough in the way of spurious claims about who invented jazz, trumpeter Nick La Rocca and clarinetist Larry Shields certainly added to the fray with a string of hits that came out almost simultaneously with the newly coined term. And La Rocca's direct claim of the invention of jazz by white people made in later was also controversial for its blunt racist overtones.
Dominic [Domenici] James La Rocca (often shown as LaRocca) was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Sicilian immigrants Giarolomo "James" La Rocca and Vita "Victoria" De Nina. He was the fourth of six siblings including Rosario (12/1882), Antonia (9/1884), Marie (6/1887), Bartholomew (8/1891) and Leonardo (10/1893). Nick's father was a manufacturer and retailer of shoes, and his older brother had followed suit by the time of the 1900 enumeration. Nick was keen on listening to and participating in one of the many second-line brass bands of New Orleans, but his father discouraged such notions. As a result, he had to learn to play the cornet covertly. As of the 1910 enumeration Victoria had been widowed, but was still running the shoe store. Rosario was listed as a street car conductor, but Nick showed no occupation, even at the age of 21, although he was doing part time work as an electrician when he wasn't moonlighting with local bands. In that regard he was still experimenting with playing music, but not for a living at that point.
Lawrence Shields was born over four years after La Rocca, also in New Orleans, to James Shields, a professional painter, and Emma Puneky Ruth. He had three older siblings by a different father and was the second of four boys from his natural father. tiger rag coverThe large family included John Ruth (7/1876), Maggie Ruth (2/1879), Mary Ruth (6/1881), James Ruth (10/1884), Patrick (2/1888), Edward (9/1896) and Harris (7/1899). As of the 1910 census Lawrence and some of his brothers are shown as apprentice painters working with their (step)father.
Henry Ragas was one of seven children born in Point A La Hache, Louisiana, to Eusebe Adrian Ragas and Bertha Louisa Masson, the others being William J. (5/5/1884), Eusebe Adrian, Jr. (12/14/1886), Wilfred Masson (12/8/1888), Bertha Louisa (2/2/1893), Ernest Louis (3/14/1897 - Algiers, LA), and Claude James (8/25/1899 - New Orleans, LA). Bertha died in May of 1900, so for the June census, Henry and his siblings were found residing with Eusebe's childless brother Hypolite and his wife Emlie. They may have stayed there for some time until Eusebe could regroup. Hypolite worked as a motorman for the New Orleans trolley system, but it is unclear what Eusebe had done for a living. Henry was difficult to locate in the 1910 census. Growing up, Henry had received adequate training on the piano, and may have been working or on the road performing at that time.
All three boys grew up in an environment in New Orleans that was fostering a musical identity for that area, and where before 1900 around which time certain laws were enacted, the Creole and white musicians were able to perform together. New Orleans was also a busy town in part because of the creation of Alfred Story's cleverly legislated district of 1897 outside of which prostitution was illegal, making it tacitly not unlawful within the boundaries of what became known as Storyville. Even within the distance of a few blocks from one ward to another, the mix of races was evident, and downtown New Orleans was teeming with musical activity, particularly south of Storyville in the Treme and the French Quarter. Even standing outside many of the establishments there, it was not hard to get a basic music education of improvisation and rhythm. So even though music may not have been an established profession for the trio by 1910, it does not mean that they weren't soaking it all in and playing it.
As early as 1914 Nick, Larry and Henry may have been working together in a band that La Rocca had formed from the remnants of Papa Jack Laine's bands in New Orleans, which Nick had been playing with since around 1910. The new group then picked up their cases in 1916 and went up north to Chicago where opportunities to play jazz for real money were increasing weekly. Nick was called in as a replacement for trumpeter Frank Christian at the Booster Club for Stein's Dixie Jass Band under the leadership of drummer Johnny Stein. At the end of their first season, La Rocca had creative or personal conflicts with the group's clarinetist Alcide Nunez. They agreed to a trade with another band, and La Rocca and Stein acquired Shields as a permanent member. By late 1916, some members of the group had departed from Stein's band and moved to New York City where they were now billed as The Original Dixieland Jass Band, "Creators of Jass." The new group was comprised of leader La Rocca on cornet, Shields on clarinet, Ragas at the piano, Eddie Edwards on trombone, and Tony Sbarbaro on the drums.
A steady gig was obtained for them by an enthusiastic Al Jolson, one of their early fans, at Reisenweber's Cafe on Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan. They were known for wild stage antics and general musical unruliness, which made them an instant hit in the jazz deprived city. It didn't hurt that they got press coverage, and LaRocca always had something provocative to say. "Jazz is the assassination of the melody, it's the slaying of syncopation." While playing they would dance, assume awkward positions, or play their instruments in an unusual manner, such trombonist Edwards sliding the trombone with his foot
After a successful start at Reisenweber's, the group secured an opportunity to be the first jazz band to record for Columbia Records in early 1917 While that recording session turned out to be a bust, a subsequent session with Victor Records on February 26, 1917, begat two of their first recorded compositions, the Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One Step (later the Original Dixieland Jazz Band One Step). bluin' the blues coverSince La Rocca had used the trio of Joe Jordan's That Teasin' Rag for the trio their one step, he was soon ordered by a court to add Jordan's name to the piece and have the records recalled and relabeled with "Introducing That Teasin' Rag by Joe Jordan." This record was followed by one of their most enduring efforts, the wildly popular Tiger Rag. Both La Rocca and Shields' respective June 1917 draft records show them as an "actor (theatrical)", and Henry's as a "vaudeville actor." La Rocca now showed as married (to Victoria Eleanore Wattigny on 12/8/1915), as did Henry (to Bertha Hickey in 1914) and while Henry gave a Manhattan address, the other two both appeared to still have been situated in New Orleans based on their addresses. All of them declared that they were employed by Reisenwebber's in New York City.
The controversy behind the origin of jazz was long spurred on by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's leader, Nick La Rocca, who blatantly insisted that not only was it he who had coined the name jass/jazz, but that he and his group had all but invented the music as well. He further stated that not only was it a white music form since the negro was not inherently capable of such complex compositions, but that negroes were merely copying the white musicians as they had in so many other musical forms. This arrogant and ignorant statement understandably incensed a large sector of both races of the music community, who rightly considered the O.D.J.B. as "a bunch of white guys playing colored music." Still, their recordings sold well thanks to good distribution and advertising.
As for the genre name - jass was a black euphemism long associated with the act of sexual intercourse, and somewhat commonly as the male by-product of the act. Some believe that the word had earlier origins in France, and that the meaning actually translates into "somewhat disorganized" or "loose". The term Jasper, a disparaging name used by field bosses to refer to field hands by other than their name, is also cited as a possible origin. The word "jass" first appeared in late 1916, but quickly was rechristened "jazz" because of problems the band was having with vandals blotting out the "J" on their advertising posters. Early jazz music, now known as traditional jazz, was essentially ragtime music with a section that allowed for improvisation of the solo instruments.
Tiger Rag was little more than themes that La Rocca and Shields, with help from Ragas, assembled from known French quadrilles that were popular in New Orleans. It was the style of playing that set it apart from other music of the time, and made La Rocca and Shields so successful. Ragas also contributed pieces to the band's repertoire, not always getting due credit. His playing was often lost in the cacophony of the horns in the front line, in part because of the limited recording scope of the acoustic horns used at that time, but also because he was providing the bass line and chords in the absence of a tuba and banjo. In the format that the band used for a typical three minute recording, Henry usually did not take any solos. His contribution to Tiger Rag and other O.D.J.B. pieces, however, may have been very useful in condensing what the band played into a printable format for sheet music.
The question of ownership of tunes of an improvised nature became an issue for the courts to have to deal with in October 1917,
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band around 1918.
Left to right: Tony Sbarbaro, Eddie Edwards,
Nick La Rocca, Larry Shields,
Henry Ragas.
the original dixieland jazz band around 1918
when a dispute between Nunez and La Rocca over authorship of Livery Stable Blues (a.k.a. Barnyard Blues) landed the pair in court. According to the October 27, 1917 issue of The Music Trade Review, "in order to determine whether Dominick La Rocca or Alcide Nunez wrote 'The Livery Stable Blues,' a court in Chicago had a jazz band play the number." La Rocca ultimately carried the day, but the process simply underscored how difficult it was to determine how to set a benchmark beyond the chord structure of a piece rife with improvisational performances in order to establish authorship.
There were many recording sessions that followed the Victor sessions in 1917 and 1918, including some more for Columbia and Aeolian-Vocalion, a number of which were never issued. In spite of their jazz fame, the band was equally well known for their stage performances that featured novelty and comedy numbers. It was on stage that they found success both in the United States and Europe. La Rocca tried to keep their name in the public eye with constant interviews containing even more outrageous claims and phrases. Following their run at Reisenweber's they went a few miles north to the Alamo Cafe on 148th Street, then out to bustling Coney Island at the famous College Inn. Near the end of 1918 trombonist Eddie Edwards left the group and was replaced by Frank Christian's brother, Emile Christian.
In spite of their success, or because of it, La Rocca became mildly paranoid about the other similar bands that were popping up all over the country, particularly in New York. Competition from bands such as the hot Coney Island group led by Jimmy Durante created a headache for Nick. He even reportedly offered Frank Christian $200 and a ticket back to New Orleans just to clear the path a little more for his own success. (The offer was refused, of course.)publicity shot of the odjb After a battle of the bands between the O.D.J.B. and other groups resulted in a win for a band fronted by Nunez and drummer Joe "Ragbaby" Stevens (possible Stephens), Ragbaby found that his drumheads had all been slashed following the decision.
As jazz music started to mature into the styles of the roaring twenties, the band became a thing of the past. The first tragedy for the band came in 1919 when Ragas died as a result of the Spanish Flu pandemic, just two weeks after he had applied for a passport so the group could travel to England to perform at the London Hippodrome. He was replaced in short order by J. Russel Robinson, one of a number of contenders for the spot which included pioneer champion ragtime pianist Mike Bernard. La Rocca retreated with the band to the Hippodrome that March to renewed acclaim, recording a number of sides for Columbia there. Of those tracks, Soudan became a major hit. They returned to the U.S. in mid-1920, having missed the 1920 census. Then the group made a few more recordings for Victor before starting out on four years of arduous touring, undergoing personnel changes throughout that time. After a few tumultuous trips, La Rocca had a mental breakdown in 1925 and the original band was finally dissolved.
While the other band members went on to continue their careers in jazz performance, replacing Nick with trumpeter Henry Levine, La Rocca ended returning to New Orleans to work as a building contractor. He was shown as residing in the 1930 census in New Orleans with his wife Victoria, and employed as a "house carpenter." Nick did live to see a great rediscovery and revival of his early works from the late 1940s through the 1950s.
Either LaRocca or Shields reformed the group in the mid-1930s in Chicago (stories vary as to who initiated the move). They played in New York and New Orleans and recorded some more sides for Victor with La Rocca, Shields and Robinson in the lineup, even staging their comeback in a somewhat fictionalized March of Time newsreel in early 1937. In late 1939 Larry tried one more short stint with surviving members and his brother Harry, recording six sides for the secondary Victor label Bluebird Records. The O.D.J.B. was defunct by early 1940. They were probably not helped in that regard by statements that Nick had made in the late 1930s, when his mental state was questionable, that only white people could have invented jazz because Negroes were not capable of that level of original thinking. This was in spite of the fact that he had clearly highly regarded the band of Joe Oliver while still living in New Orleans in the 1910s.
For the 1940 enumeration Nick and Victoria were back in New Orleans, showing that they had both been living in Manhattan in 1935. Nick was back in the construction business working as a carpenter. Larry and Harry Shields were both located in New Orleans for the 1940 record, living with their widowed mother Emma and sister Margaret. Both were listed as orchestra musicians. Larry retired to California in the early 1940s. He died within a few years in Los Angeles at age 60.
The early performances of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, even though they often sound a bit stilted or stage in comparison to those of King Oliver or Louis Armstrong's groups, still informed and influenced many musicians to follow. Larry's early playing was cited as an inspiration by a number of swing era players, including Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Ragas set some standards for jazz arrangements and laying down a good solid foundation at the piano, even though his career was cut tragically short. La Rocca died in 1961 in Louisiana just short of age 74, but not before having contributed by way of interview to a book on his band written by H.O. Brunn. In it, he not only derided the ability of the allegedly imitative Negro bands, but claimed to have started his group in 1908, and was unkind to most of his fellow band members as well, save for Shields. To this day, there is little evidence that the O.D.J.B. founders invented jazz, but there is more than enough to verify that they contributed greatly to its early and continuing success, and taking it from a regional genre to a world-wide sensation. Their legacy is continued today by La Rocca's son Jimmy LaRocca with a reincarnation of the O.D.J.B. featuring music composed by both father and son.

Meade Lux Lewis Portrait alternate Meade Lux Lewis Portrait
Meade Anderson "Lux" Lewis
(September 4(?), 1905 - June 7, 1964)
Honky Tonk Train Blues
Yancey Special
Six Wheel Chaser
Bass on Top
Tell Your Story
Rising Tide Blues
Chicago Flyer
Blues Whistle
Meade's Blues
Glendale Glide
Doll House Boogie
Denapa's Parade
Tidal Boogie
Celeste Blues
Randini's Boogie
Yancey's Pride
Medium Blues
Unknown or Uncertain
Whistlin' Blues
Number 1 Boogie
Rockin' the Clock
Closing Hour Blues
Jumpin' for Pete
Deep Fives
Albert's Blues
Slow Boogie
Medium Boogie
Fast Boogie
Fast and Blues
Far Ago Blues
Two and Fews
Bear Cat Crawl
Rising Tide Blues
Meade's Boogie
Lux's Boogie
The son of George Anderson Lewis and Hattie Johnson, Meade Lewis grew up in the hotbed of hot jazz and showy piano playing, Chicago, Illinois. While reportedly born in Chicago, which he stated on most documents from the 1920s forward, his obituary noted that he might have been born in Louisville, Kentucky, his father's native area. Meade was the oldest of five boys, including Joseph (1908), George (1911), Lee (1913) and Julius (1919). honky tonk train blues coverOnce the family settled in Chicago, George Lewis worked for the postal system there. For the 1920 census Meade was shown working as a door boy for a shoe store, and not in school. He acquired the nickname "Lux" because as a child he liked to imitate the excessively polite comic strip characters Alphonse and Gaston, and ended up calling himself the "Duke of Luxembourg."
In spite of his desire to play piano, Meade's father insisted he learn the more refined violin. George Lewis died when Meade was 16, and he went right back into the piano. Influenced by Chicago pianist and eventual mentor Jimmy Yancey, he would never turn back to the violin. In his early twenties, Lewis met Albert Ammons, a fellow starving pianist and taxi driver by trade. They soon shared an apartment together that was coincidentally in the same building where another pianist, "Pine Top" Smith, resided. The trio became inseparable pianistic sparring partners, sharing ideas and jamming together for rent parties. In fact, Lewis' Honky Tonk Train Blues is close in structure and sound to Smith's Pine Top's Boogie-Woogie.
His first major recording, Honky Tonk Train Blues, was first cut in 1927 on Paramount Records, but not released until 1929. Although his earliest style of the mid-1920's is considered boogie, which is the Boogie rhythm with a non-moving bass line, Lewis and his companions soon developed their own style of boogie-woogie, a hard-driving "eight to the bar" blues that had originated in the deep South, particularly New Orleans. The players had added a moving bass line to the boogie pattern, often with blue notes in the left hand. The recordings of Lewis helped establish boogie-woogie as a major blues piano style in the late l920's and early 1930s. In 1929, "Pine Top" was accidently killed at the age of 25. With his demise and the onset of the world-wide depression, interest in his music started to fade as people turned to swing music and movie musicals for entertainment. Lewis was again working at non-playing jobs to help supplement what little he made from performing. he eventually worked as a studio musician.
Lewis at the piano with Jimmy Yancey watching, from a Life magazine article of the mid-1940s.
lewis and yancey
There was a rediscovery of boogie-woogie in the late 1930's, and Lewis again cut sides with Ammons and another talented Boogie pianist, Pete Johnson. Thanks to the interest of jazz promoter John Hammond who had been listening to Meade's recordings, Lewis was located after concerted a two year search. Hammond found him working in a car wash in 1936. He first appeared in a Chicago concert noted in the Chicago Tribune of December 18 and December 20, 1936, appearing with singer Mildred Bailey and the dance orchestra of Red Norvo. Appearances slowly increased from that time. Even though he was now performing recording again, Lewis continued as a car washer as a matter of security until Hammond prevailed and pulled him out of that life back into the musical limelight.
Lewis, Ammons and Johnson followed Benny Goodman's historic 1938 swing concert at Carnegie Hall with two of their own arranged by Hammond, one in December 1938 and another by popular demand in 1939. It sparked a whole new interest in the genre and cultivated the boogie woogie craze of the 1940s. The three pianists worked for at least two years at Cafe Society, a Greenwich Village nightclub in Lower Manhattan. In the middle of the 1940s, Lewis moved to Los Angeles and spent the remainder of his life based there doing occasional recording sessions and club gigs in both California and Illinois. Meade was also involved in the successful Piano Parade tour of 1952 with Pete Johnson, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum.
Meade's weight of 290-plus pounds became a serious issue near the end of his life, forcing him to give up alcohol and restrict his diet just to maintain his health. Lewis continued to perform his signature piece, although at increasingly faster tempos, live and on recordings to the end of his life. He was killed after an evening performance at the end of a three week engagement in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when his car was struck from the rear at 80 miles per hour, pinning Lewis between his car and a tree. Although he was still living in Los Angeles at 629 East 116th Street, the pianist had been pondering a move back to the Midwest, where he sadly met his demise. His music still lives on with us, however, through countless performances either of his work or influenced by his driving dynamic style.

Gil Lieby Portrait
Gil Lieby (Gilbert Lieberknecht)
(November 7, 1931 - April 27, 2008)
Deer Park Rag
South Omaha Rag
Spring Lake Rag
Waterloo Rag
Glenwood Rag
Rainbow Rag
Water Ski Rag
South 16th Street Rag
Happy Chic Rag
Bowler's Rag
Market Street Rag
Silver Hawks Rag
Hopping Rag
The Trophy Rag
Little Guys
The Kite
Cable Car Rag
The Carter Laker
Goldenrod Rag
Shoes 'n' Rice
Nebraska Centennial Rag
White and Green Rag
Yosemite Rag
Gas Lamp Rag
The Gate
Raggin' Up Fremont Street
Aksarben Downs Rag
Katrina Rag
Traintown Blues
Carondalet Rag
Treasure Island Rag
Li'l' White Fuzzy Rag
Swingbridge Blues
A Ragtime Oddity
Lost Music Rag
Li'l' Ruthie Waltz
Frustration Rag
Ski-daddler's March
Tom-Tom Rag
Florentine Heritage
Anathema Blues
Suntime Frolics
Pine Needles
Rug Rags on Parade
Chaddy Pat
March of the Mini Rats
Perris Wheels
Hendy's Stairs
Goodbye MaMa
Lost Fuzzies
Umpquight Moments
Good News on Zero Street
Silicon Flame
Three Sisters
Fresno Frolics [1,2]
Moods in Heiding
Washboard Blues
Sutter Creek Strut

1. w/Kathi Backus
2. w/Henry Lieberknecht
   (aka Don Henry)
Born in San Mateo, California in 1931 to first generation American Henry G. Lieberknecht and his Austrian born second wife Roberta, Gilbert Lieberknecht was destined to be a musician and composer. His parents played the zither and were performing artists in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1930s. Gil's father, a printer by trade, performed and composed under the professional name of "Don Henry." He had a son, George W. Lieberknecht, from a previous marriage to Ada Mary Krave, but George does not appear to have lived in the same household as his half-brother. Henry met Roberta in 1925 in Berkeley, with the zither as their main common interest. In 1927 she had to return to her current home of Switzerland as her visa was expiring. Henry was about to take on another job in Reno, Nevada, but instead sold his car so he could get to New York and intercept Roberta before she sailed. Once he found her there, Henry surprised her with a proposal and she accepted. She still had to go back to Europe, but three months later came to the United States for good as Henry's wife. They married in New York Ciy on December 16, 1927. After four years they had their only child.
The family moved several times in Gil's first two years, staying mostly around the San Francisco Bay area. Roberta decided to take on piano teaching to supplement the family income during the Great Depression, and had a piano shipped from Switzerland for that purpose. Given the mix of musical interests between his parents Gilbert spent his childhood immersed in traditional Austrian folk music and American jazz, and studied classical piano for a number of years, initially with his mother. He was born with gift of perfect pitch, which could sometimes be a curse as well, but also suffered from bronchitis. After a move north to San Anselmo in Marin County, California to improve his health, Gil took lessons with Leslie Covey. Since he felt he worked better on Mr. Covey's grand piano, his parents somehow found a way to bring a McPhail grand into their house in 1940. During the next several years he took lessons from Mr. Covey, as well as a Mr. Siefort and Mr. Bauer. Even though there was much in the way of popular music available, Roberta and Henry insisted he remain embedded in classical works, of which Frederic Chopin was one of his favorites. In the 1940 census taken in San Anselmo, 61-year-old Henry was shown working as a printing typesetter.
In June 1946, Roberta died at 54 after a long battle with cancer. After the tragic and untimely death of his mother, Gil and his father took an extended vacation, which included a visit to relatives in Henry's native Omaha. When they returned to California, they moved first to Los Angeles where Henry married the private nurse that had cared for Roberta to the end. The marriage lasted only a short time, and father and son then moved briefly to San Antonio, Texas. In late 1947, they finally settled in Omaha, Nebraska where Henry had been born in 1879, a city rich in Bohemian culture and tradition. Henry settled back in to the printing business. goldenrod rag coverWhile Gil's lessons had ceased before Roberta's death, he continued to play, particularly at special programs at school, but was not a part of standard musical activities like orchestra, band or choir. After high school he held a couple of jobs until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952 during the Korean conflict. It was over before he was out of basic training, so Gil ended up staying in the U.S. until he was discharged in 1954 after his standard two years of service. At that time he became part of the door to door Fuller Brush work force in Omaha, and within two years had become the top company salesman in the city. But another force had already started to creep in to his life.
While still playing the piano, the classics were getting less attention. Henry referred to his late wife in chastising Gil on this point - "What would your mother say?" But he persisted on following this direction. According to Gil, at the age of 23, " 1955, I got caught up in the Crazy Otto craze." [Whether this refers to American Johnny Maddox or German Fritz Schulz-Reichel is unclear.] He also listened to Del Wood and Lou Busch a.k.a. Joe "Fingers" Carr. "I started playing ragtime in 1959, after hearing [the late] Bob Darch [who was performing nightly at the classic Fontanelle Hotel opened in 1915]. By 1960, I was composing my own ragtime". The first rag he presented to Bob, Deer Park Rag, was reportedly based on Wood's hit recording of Down Yonder. It fell with a thud to Bob's ears, who said it wasn't terrible, "It's Horrible." Darch still encouraged him to continue to try, even giving him a copy of Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag to learn, the final blow that hooked him on the genre. Gil's following composition was South Omaha Rag in 1960.
From that point on, Lieby ultimately composed more than 60 ragtime, novelty and stride piano pieces. One of his first moves towards a more musically structured life in 1960 was to obtain a job in a music store selling pianos and organs. Through the advice of his employer, Roger Critchett, Gil learned more about the art of composition and was able to correct many of his shortcomings in short order. His dedication to ragtime performance and writing increased. When Darch returned to Omaha in 1964 he heard Gil's Spring Lake Rag and Trophy Rag, which prompted Bob, who thought they were good works, to instill in Gil the need to copyright his works, which he did so from that point on. Most of his compositions document an important event or location in his life. Katrina Rag, composed in 1965 and copyrighted a few years later, had its origins at an early rendition of the St. Louis Ragtime Festival. It is a commemoration of his meeting life-long friend and sometimes co-composer, Kathi Backus of Santa Barbara, California. Another piece from the following year was the Goldenrod Rag, which referred to the Goldenrod Showboat, built in 1909 and restored in the early 1960s through the efforts of Dave Jasen and Trebor Tichenor,
Gil poses in front a sign with his name at the Sutter Creek festival early in the 2000s
gil lieby at sutter creek
and which plied the waters of the Mississippi River in the St. Louis area for three decades. This was the very boat that helped to inspire Edna Furber to write her book Showboat. Many ragtime festivals were also hosted on this celebrated ship, a registered National Historic Landmark, which in spite of another restoration sadly became a relic and was partially dismantled by 2006. By the late 1960s, Gil was making his living as a truck driver, but still delighting many with his ragtime renditions, particularly of his own compositions.
In 1971 Gil was driving a Star Route mail truck when a briefcase containing all of his music manuscripts to that time was stolen from the truck. There were no other copies, so he learned a painful lesson in that loss, reflected in Lost Music Rag. Continuing to compose, he came out with pieces like Lil White Fuzzy Rag, which exemplified his love for cats. His pure devotion to his pets is also found in Little Guys. Lost Fuzzies was written as a memorial to his beloved pets when all were tragically lost in a house fire in January of 1985. He also lost family pictures, ragtime records and two pianos. Surprisingly, his manuscripts survived the fire even though they were in a cardboard suitcase over the center of the blaze. A contrasting work, Good News On Zero Street was a joyous account of the building of a new church he was associated with. Composed in tribute to his dear mother Roberta, Goodbye Mama, lamented her untimely death and the deep and the indescribable sadness felt in the heart of a fourteen year old boy, a pain which remained for decades. One of his more interesting works was Anathema Blues. Gil was staying at a lodge with a piano of questionable integrity that had several non-functioning notes, particularly in the bass, and rose to the challenge by writing an unusual low-bass driven work that utilized the notes that actually did work. Fresno Frolics was based on a theme by Gil's father Henry, which is used as the final section of the piece. The most popular of his compositions was the Carter Laker, recorded and performed by many ragtime artists.
Then came a miracle. In May 1985, four months after he had lost almost everything, Gil received a telephone call. The briefcase with the music stolen in 1971 had been found. A man hired in 1983 to clean out the rental house of a prison-bound criminal had located it in the basement, taken it home, and forgotten about it for two years. In perspective, had the man returned the music any earlier, it potentially could have been lost in the fire. Gil felt that there was some special reason that his music survived several potential catastrophes. As an implementation of a better backup system, from that point on he mailed a copy of each new composition to Kathi Backus. Kathi has preserved copies of everything Gil has composed. Another friend, Burns Davis of Nebraska, also was frequently sent back-up copies of Gil’s compositions.
More than just a ragtime-playing truck-driving cat-loving kind of guy, Gil also enjoyed water skiing, often serving as a boat driver for competitions or exhibitions. He was a member of the board of the Carter Lake Water Ski Club in Iowa for nearly a decade, part of the time as Vice President and one year as President, for which he composed the Carter Laker. Among his supporters were David and Jeannie Wright, co-founders of the Cascade Ragtime Society in Oregon. He met them in 1983 at one of the first annual incarnations of the modern day Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival held in Sedalia, Missouri. David took quickly to Gil's music, playing and promoting it wherever he could. In 1987 Gil played for the Cascade Ragtime Society during which his performances were recorded. Gil composed Umpquight Moments that year in honor of the couple.
In 1995, Iowa native ragtime performer Marty Mincer recorded an album of many of Gil's works at the composer's behest, featuring the Goldenrod Rag as the title cut, the only such complete album that exists to date. Others who have since recorded some of his pieces include Brian Keenan, Keith Taylor, Bill Edwards, the inimitable West Coast ragtimer Tom Brier, and Sister Jean and Paul Huling (a.k.a. Laundry Fat). Within a decade, Gil would be retired from truck driving and still living in Omaha, attending local ragtime events whenever he could. He also managed to travel out to the Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival for many years, and wrote a number of pieces commemorating the festival, including the popular Sutter Creek Strut. His final public performance outside of Omaha was at Sutter Creek in August of 2005. Gil Lieby spent his last year in poor health due to Parkinson's disease, but still had a healthy sense of humor and his passion for ragtime remained. He died peacefully in his father's home town of Omaha. The collection of works he left behind also speak to his passions and his life in a biographical manner, and through artists like Kathi Backus, Marty Mincer and Tom Brier will remain so for many years.
I would like to add a personal note of thanks to my friend and ragtime performer Nan Bostick who provided some of the details found in this biography in addition to my research and conversations with Gil, and to playing partner and performer Marty Mincer who provided some of the dates and a couple of anecdotes.

Paul Lingle Portrait
Paul Curtis Lingle
(December 3, 1902 - October 30, 1962)
Known Compositions    
Dance of the Witch Hazels (c.1947)
Black and Blue Rag (c.1948)
Collective Discography
Studio Recordings
Maple Leaf Rag
[Good Time Jazz unknown] (1952)
Louisiana Rag/Sister Kate
[Good Time Jazz 88 7"] (1953)
Paul Lingle at the Piano
[Good Time Jazz GTJ-13 10"] (1953)
They Tore My Playhouse Down
[Good Time Jazz L-12025 12"] (1956)
    (This is repackaged from the first album adding Burt Bales cuts)
Live Recordings on LP
Dance of the Witch Hazels at the Jug Club
[Euphonic ESR-1217] (1951)
The Legend of Lingle
[Euphonic ESR-1219] (1951)
Final Curtain: Encore Coda & Rest
[Euphonic ESR-1227] (1947-1951)
Paul Lingle was one of the benchmark performers of ragtime on the Barbary Coast (Northern California) during the first revival of traditional jazz and ragtime in the 1940s and 1950s, yet he left surprisingly little behind in terms of legacy, all of it of the best possible quality and pianistic passion. He was born in Denver, Colorado, at the beginning of the ragtime era, to Ohio native and cigar maker Curtis R. Lingle, and his wife, Michigan native Cora M. (Harrison). Paul was the youngest of four out of five surviving children, including his older brother Roy, born in Nebraska in September, 1887, and sister Della, born in Michigan in March, 1890. At the time of Paul's birth the Lingle family lived at 5046 W. 36th Avenue in Denver.
Taking to the piano at around five or six years of age, Paul actually had the benefit of listening and learning from great pianists of the ragtime era who passed through Denver when his dad, a fine cornetist, played with them. Much of his training was classical, of course, and he kept some of those pieces, such as the works of Chopin and Liszt, under his fingers throughout his life.
Paul Lingle at the piano in 1915, age 12.
lingle at the piano in the 1915
As of the 1910 census Curtis had gone into music full time, listing himself as an orchestra musician. Four years later, Paul started traveling with his father at age 12, largely on the Chautauqua Vaudeville circuit, a program designed to bring all types of culture to small town America, from 1915 to 1917. Paul later noted that this was the time in which he took a great interest in the rags of the famous composers of that era, including Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy.
However, the composer/performer that influenced Paul the most was "Jelly Roll" Morton, who was making a name for himself on the west coast during that period. Lingle also attended the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco with his father, where the New York dynamo Mike Bernard and local Oakland whiz kid Jay Roberts performed. Near the end of the fair he encountered Morton's live performances for the first time and was hooked. Something Paul also learned while on the road was that musicians without a familiar name only get paid for playing what's in style, so he made sure to always adapt. He continued on his own after World War One, and in spite of his love for ragtime, quickly learned that jazz was taking over, so simply shifted his style a bit.
By 1919 Lingle had moved to California where he would spend the next three decades. He started working in some of the mining areas of Central and Southern California. In 1920, Paul is shown in San Bernardino in Southern California as a pianist/musician, at the slightly inflated age of 19, and on his own. That same year found him at the Del Mar club up in San Francisco. During that stint he availed himself of the opportunity as often as he could to hear Joseph "King" Oliver and his New Orleans jazz band playing at the Pagoda Ballroom on Market Street. After drifting around several venues in California, Paul settled in Los Angeles for a while, playing with the Oaks Tavern Players, a small orchestra managed by Oaks Tavern owner Frank Relter. Paul finally worked started his own group in 1925 at Mike Lyman's Tent Café in Los Angeles that featured Larry Shields of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band on clarinet. The following year found him at Balboa Island with the orchestra of Jimmy Grier, a clarinetist who had recently left Gus Arnheim's orchestra, in a group that included trombonist Glenn Miller. In 1928 Paul was back in San Francisco fronting his own small band at Fior D'Italia, but he also worked on some ocean cruise lines from time to time over the next decade as indicated by ship's manifests, preferring cruises to the Orient and back.
Paul's propensity for ragtime rhythms and his work in both Southern and Northern California got Lingle an invitation to come to Warner Brothers Studios to perform behind none other than Al Jolson in a couple of his early films, including The Singing Fool (sometimes referred to as Sonny Boy) in 1928 and Mammy in 1930. There are rumors that he had also played for the single live dialog scene in The Jazz Singer but that was actually his colleague Bert Fisk. Lingle seems to have favored the Barbary Coast over Los Angeles, and commented later that he felt that Hollywood was becoming too commercial and wasn't fun anymore." By mid-1930 he was a Bay Area resident. Paul was living in San Francisco with his singer wife of around three years, Bertha "Betty" Lingle (of Russian parentage), listed as a musician who was employed "anywhere." This was essentially true as Lingle was seen virtually everywhere in the Bay Area for the next 22 years.
During the 1930s Lingle became a regular with trumpeter Al Zohn's jazz band, and was soon frequently employed by many radio stations either for background or foreground piano, primarily as a staff pianist at KPO. Most of what he played was contemporary to the time, but he would break out in a rag or two with his heavy left-hand keeping a steady thumping rhythm, one of the few players who continued to do so during the largely ragtime-deficit decade. In order to supplement the playing work during the lean years of the Great Depression, Paul also took up piano tuning as a trade, some weeks preferring that to the rigors of late night performance. Just the same, associates say that he could drink with the best of them and still play flawlessly. One story concerns when he was rooming with another musician in an apartment with Murphy-bed variations that stored under a nook in the wall. lingle at the piano in the 1940sHe evidently came home plastered, so a couple of the guys there pushed his bed into its nook and locked it up for the night. When he woke with a hangover to find solid wood only a couple of inches from his face, he evidently shouted out "Oh my God! They've buried me alive!"
Another fine Lingle story that could be about any number of pianists, including his associate Burt Bales, was about an odd noise. When he was doing one of his regular shows at KPO a disturbing noise kept coming over the speakers in addition to the piano. The engineers apparently took apart and reassembled much of the electronic pathway to find the offending noise, in the end someone discovered it by standing in the studio as Lingle performed. It was Paul who was humming - somewhat out of tune - as he played. This comes across clearly in some of the rare recordings left behind. Paul was also known to be moody with effervescent highs and depressive lows, often taking visible offense if the listening audience simply didn't seem to appreciate what he was playing. Lingle was, perhaps (unsubstantiated but representative), a victim of mild bi-polar disorder.
In the 1940 census, taken in San Francisco, Paul was listed as a musician in a dance orchestra, and Betty (as Bertha) working as a cashier in a theater. By the early 1940s Lingle was actually tuning much more than playing, having moved down south from the Bay Area to Santa Cruz. He felt that tuning was a much more profitable and respectable profession. This was the time when trumpeter Lu Watters, who had worked with Lingle several times in the 1930s, and fellow ragtime pianist Wally Rose were building up a head of steam for what would become the great traditional jazz revival of the 1940s. They formed the Yerba Buena Jazz Band in 1939 or 1940, and Paul had been part of the original core of that group until Watters chose Rose to replace him. The group started making recordings in late 1941 and early 1942.
World War II interrupted any normalcy that was to be had, and they would not fully reassemble until 1946. During the war when Rose was off in the United States Navy, as much of the group as possible was performing locally using Burt Bales and Forrest Brown as fill-in pianists. Lingle and Watters, both very strong-headed and uncompromising, were often at odds, and ended up not speaking for several years. Bob Helm postulated that it was because Paul, being primarily a solo pianist, might have tried to control the tempo and dynamics of a tune from his position at the keyboard. Otherwise there would have potentially been recordings of Lingle with the group. Moving back to the Bay Area from Santa Cruz in late 1943, he worked for a while at a 24 hour bar in Richmond, California, near the Kaiser ship yards. In 1943 and 1944 jazz historian Rudi Blesh held a series of concerts and seminars at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Lingle played in ensembles for several of those concerts. According to trombonist Bill Bardin, Paul had a method of accenting chords that involved a brief rise from the bench so he could throw most of his body weight behind the crashing chord. It was not used often, but made its point when exercised.
War time gigs were not always plentiful, but musicians were necessary for both civilian and military morale, especially in Oakland and San Francisco were both the Navy and Marines had bases. One of the places where Paul fronted small ensembles to orchestras was the Broadway Dancing Academy in Oakland. One of the dances frequently practiced there was the so-called grind, often used when tired couples just held on to each other and moved slowly in a grinding motion. The job was literally a grind, and often referred to either as a "dime jig" or a "grind." The work was tedious and grueling, where the band played 90 to 120 second tunes for the dime-a-dance crowd, sometimes playing as many as 200 a night. His core ensemble consisted of himself, Bill Bardin on trombone, Al Zohn on trumpet, and Ellis Horne on clarinet. Paul had to pick the repertoire, set the tempo, and play almost the entire time, certainly more than anybody else. However, Bardin was of the opinion that Paul held the position because he could play however he wanted with dictation from the management. He was always there with his trusty tuning hammer and a case full of lead sheets. After a long time on the gig, Paul had a falling out with Ellis and the ensemble started to crumble from that time. He eventually left the grueling dance work for a new gig Oakland's Jug Club.
That Lingle truly loved the material of the ragtime era and just beyond was quite clear. On V-J Day in 1945, Lingle told his wife Betty, "I'm glad the war is over." She was a little surprised he even knew of the event since Paul was often in his own world. "Why, Paul?" she asked. "Because now I can play 'Japanese Sandman' again."
As the post-war traditional jazz revival grew, so did Lingle's reputation for his highly original ragtime and Jelly Roll Morton interpretations. He again became a fixture in San Francisco and a hot ticket in the clubs, usually as a solo performer. Evidently he was in demand based on his reputation, as blues guitarist Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) had asked him to be his accompanist while performing in town, and cornetist Bunk Johnson befriended Lingle, teaching him many of the old New Orleans tunes he had been playing for so many years. Paul's range was also extraordinary, as he could play at a whisper one moment then break strings or hammers the next (it's a good thing he was a piano technician!). While he had often been hard to find by his fans, Paul found steady gigs for fairly long periods at the Jug Club in Oakland and, in 1949, the Paper Doll club on Union Street in San Francisco, a place that he said catered to "all three sexes." At some point in the early 1950s Paul and Betty were divorced.
The one thing his fans were not able to find were recordings of the legendary Lingle at their local record store. While he felt all right live and in a radio studio, Paul shied away from the traditional recording studios for a long time. He told people that he just did not feel he was ready to record anything for posterity. paul lingle's good time jazz album coverHowever, in addition to a few surviving radio show transcriptions, some friends and fans managed to make some wire recordings and early magnetic tape recordings of Lingle in action from 1947 to 1951. While hardly under the best of conditions, and with dropouts and background noise limiting the fidelity, they still captured his range well. The best of these were made by an associate, Charles Campbell, in 1951 at the Jug Club. In order to get past Lingle's paranoia of recording equipment, Campbell let Lingle know simply that he would be recording, but did not say when. On the night he got the bulk of his tapes, Campbell and recordist Stan Page made sure the equipment was fairly well hidden so as to not throw Paul off. The fare from that session was mostly ragtime, which had recently come back into national vogue through the widespread popularity of Lou Busch at Capitol Records, and includes pieces not likely recorded in years, such as Good Gravy Rag and Pastime Rag #3. Also included were two of his own compositions, Black and Blue Rag and Dance of the Witch Hazels, the latter which incorporates elements of another Barbary Coast pianist's work, Jay Robert's Entertainer's Rag. Through the diligence of Paul Affeldt and his Euphonic label, most of these tracks were released from the 1970s to the 1990s on three albums, and many are still available on CD, even if out of print.
The person who first brought the Yerba Buena Jazz Band to the public through recordings on Watter's West Coast Jazz label, Lester Koenig, now had his own record company in 1951, Good Time Jazz. Koenig had hoped for over a decade to get Lingle into a studio just so something more "professional" could be released of his work. He was offered the Jug Club tapes but preferred to have the studio recordings. After some persistence on Lester's part, Lingle finally relented and came down to Hollywood in February of 1952. He recorded at least eleven cuts during three sessions at Radio Recorders, essentially the primary studio of Capitol Records, from February 11-13. Eight of these tracks were released on Good Time Jazz GTJ-13 in 1953 and two on a single. The remaining cut, Maple Leaf Rag, would surface many years later. By 1953, however, Lingle, who had long held the theory that as one gets older they simply should go to a warmer climate, had picked up his belongings and escaped the mainland to Hawaii where he would spend his remaining years.
Although Paul's original intent was to resume life as a piano tuner, he soon remarried, opened a small piano instruction studio, and eventually worked with bands entertaining tourists in Honolulu throughout the rest of the 1950s. Years of alcohol consumption, reportedly heavy at times, finally caught up with the dynamic pianist. Paul Lingle died just short of his 60th birthday in 1962. Thanks to Koenig, and following his initial efforts, others who have released the various nightclub recordings, transcriptions and private acetates, his legacy remains with us. Virtually any ragtime pianist who got their start in the 1950s and 1960s, including the author, will cite Paul Lingle as one of their primary influences; if not for style, at least for content and passion - all that from a few stories and ten storied cuts on vinyl.

If you want to hear Paul Lingle's dynamic playing, please consider the following two fine CD Recordings:
Some of the information contained within this biography came from liner notes by Robert Helm, Charles Campbell, Paul Affeldt and Lester Koenig, and a couple of stories related by historian Richard Zimmerman. The remaining information was researched by the author from accounts found in periodicals of the time and other public records.

Younger Billy Mayerl Portrait Older Billy Mayerl Portrait
William Joseph Mayerl
(May 31, 1902 to March 25, 1959)
Egyptian Suite
  Song of the Desert
  Patrol of the Camels
Georgie Porgie [1]
Southern Rose [2]
Pianolettes - Book 1:
  The Jazz Master
  Eskimo Shivers
Pianolettes - Book 2:
  The Jazz Mistress
  Virginia Creeper
Four Piano Exaggerations:
  Loose Elbows
  Sleepy Piano
100 Syncopated Breaks
Puppets Suite:
Honky Tonk
Three Miniatures:
  The Muffin Man
Pastoral Sketches:
  A Legend
  Lovers' Lane
  A Village Festival
What Care I [3]
Pastorale Exotique
Legends of King Arthur:
  Merlin, the Wizard
  The Sword Excalibur
  Lady of the Lake
  The Passing of King Arthur
Three Contrasts
  The Ladybird
  Fiddle Dance
Ev'ry Hour of the Day [3]
It Must Be You [3]
Three Dances in Syncopation
  English Dance
  Cricket Dance
  Harmonica Dance
Three Japanese Pictures
  Almond Blossom
  A Temple in Kyoto
  Cherry Dance
Six Studies in Syncopation
  (Book 1)
  (Book 2)
  (Book 3)
Autumn Crocus
White Heather
Penny Whistle
Weeping Willow
Canaries' Serenade
Musical Moments:
  Beside a Rustic Bridge
  Little Lady from Spain
  May Morning
  Many Years Ago
  My Party Frock
  Air de Ballet
Four Aces Suite
  Ace of Clubs
  Ace of Diamonds
  Ace of Hearts
  Ace of Spades
Three Syncopated Rambles
  The Junior Apprentice
  Printer's Devil
  6 a.m. - The Milkman
Nimble-Fingered Gentleman
Siberian Lament
The Joker
Stepping Tones
  Fascinating Ditty
Orange Blossom
Bats in the Belfry
Green Tulips
Twenty to One - Musical:
  I'm At Your Service
  I'm Going To Be Good
  How Do You Like Your Eggs Fried?
Shallow Waters
I Breathe on Windows [3,4]
Over She Goes [5]
Aquarium Suite
  Willow Moss
  Moorish Idol
From a Spanish Lattice
Song of the Fir Tree
Railroad Rhythm
Song of the Fir-Tree
Parade of the Sandwich-Board Men
Sweet William
The Harp of the Winds
Leprechaun's Leap
Insect Oddities
  Wedding of an Ant
  Ladybird Lullaby
  Praying Mantis
  Beetle in the Bottle
Fireside Fusiliers
April's Fool
Minuet for Pamela
Evening Primrose
In My Garden: Autumntime
  Misty Lawn
  Amber Leaves
In My Garden - Wintertime
  Christmas Rose
  The First Snowdrop
In My Garden - Springtime
  Cherry Blossom
  Carpet of Yellow
  April Showers
In My Garden: Summertime
  Alpine Bluebell
These Precious Things [6]
The Big Top:
  Entry of the Trick Cyclists
  Dancing Horse
Postman's Knock
Capvinella (for Violin and Piano)
Beguine Impromptu
Look Lively
Crystal Clear
Jill All Alone
Minuet by Candlelight
Waltz for a Lonely Heart
Funny Peculiar
Maids of Honour
Sussex Downs
Vienna Story
Theme from Majestic Interlude

1. w/Gee Paul
2. w/Dorothy Terriss
3. w/Frank Eyton
4. w/Desmond Carter
5. w/Stanley Lupino
6. w/Howard Alexander
England's crown jewel of novelty and syncopated piano compositions, Billy Mayerl, was born in 1902 on London's West End. Many sources cite his birth name as Joseph William, but the birth registry for Greater London April through June 1902 clearly shows William Joseph. In his early years, the Mayerl family was living on Tottenham Court Road near London's fabled theater district.georgie porgie coverHe took to the piano at a very early age, and by the time he was seven he was advanced enough to be studying at the Trinity College of Music. For all of the tenets of theory and harmony they taught him, his added ingredients of syncopation and musical wit surpassed those studies in short order.
His earliest paying gigs, which helped pay for his schooling, included playing piano at the usual dances of the 1910s as well as accompanying silent movies in London and beyond. His wit translated particularly well to the movies, in which even with the piano, certain aspects of the scenario can be enhanced with the proper background. In his early teens the youth publicly performed the difficult Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg at the Queen's Hall in London. Not performing in structured ensembles or groups when he was outside of the traditional schooling allowed Billy the chance to play around with his own ideas and get audience reaction and feedback at the same time. In 1919 when he was age 17 the first of many Mayerl compositions, the three part Egyptian Suite, was published.
By the time Mayerl was 20 he was the resident pianist for a Southampton hotel and as part of the band. It was there that British bandleader and saxophonist Bert Ralton first heard him, and instantly sought to hire him for his Havana Band (Cuban music had been gaining in popularity throughout the late 1910s) at London's Savoy Hotel. Allowed to more or less be himself within the bounds of the music, Mayerl instantly brought a new level of musicianship and whimsy to the band. Even though he had been classically trained, Billy was quickly gaining a grasp on the popular music repertoire as well as the novelties that were coming out of new school of composition in the U.S., making him an audience favorite. Mayerl recorded a reported 37 piano rolls for the Echo label in London between 1921 and 1923.
marigold cover
In the in the spring of 1923 Billy married pianist Ermenegilda (Jill) Bernini (sometimes seen as Gilda), who had been a childhood sweetheart of his, and who would later help inspire him to work out duet arrangements. From 1923 to 1926 he was a featured soloist with the Havana Band during the earliest years of the BBC, a time when most people were listening with crystal sets or early ether-tube radios. Having steady work made it easier for him to start composing his own tunes, and subsequently record them as well.
When the talented George Gershwin first visited England in 1923, it has been reported that he possibly met with Mayerl. It was with the Savoy Havana Band that Mayerl tipped his hat to Gershwin, who along with Fred and Adele Astaire was becoming a frequent American fixture in London, by playing for the first British performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on October 28, 1925. Around the same time his hands with the "lightning" were filmed in performance by a slow-motion camera for study. Mayerl had nothing but the utmost respect for his American counterpart, "weeping copiously" when George died in 1938.
In 1926 Mayerl left the Havana Band to pursue a solo career in recording and composition, as well as an attempt to teach his style to other pianists. His Correspondence Course in Modern Syncopation was the beginning of what would become a teaching enterprise that would have a wide reach. While maintaining a schedule with the BBC, he also toured the UK performing in venues of all sizes, taking time off to create increasingly complex syncopations for publication. Among these were his signature tune, Marigold, and the fascinating Chopsticks (not the kiddies' waltz by any stretch). From the late 1920s into the 1930s, working with a couple librettists, Billy also helped write a few musical comedies combining clever musical riffs with often less than clever lyrics. Many of them were centered around the popular British sport of horse racing. More importantly, he started publishing not just his own works, but some transcriptions of other composer's pieces he had recorded, helping set new standards for interpretation and performance, much as Fats Waller and Art Tatum were doing in the 1930s. One interesting publication consisted of nothing but 100 syncopated breaks, the patterns used during non-melodic portions of a performance, giving out some major secrets of performance while making some money off of other pianists as well.
billy mayerl correspondence piano school advertisement
Mayerl's correspondence course for instruction in piano and composition became a virtual college of sorts, which did very well in the early 1930s in spite of the world-wide depression. It required a fairly large support staff which would number around 100 by mid-decade, and ultimately grew to 117 branches in several countries, including the United States and Australia, and claiming as many as 30,000 students. As for his mainstream work, an increasing number of his compositions were in the form of suites, related pastiches that formed an overall picture of something. The most famous of these was his Four Aces Suite, which was published for both two and four hands. In response to one of the titles bestowed upon him by admiring music critics, he also composed The Nimble Fingered Gentleman, which would be associated with him throughout his career.
Billy's teaching career received somewhat of a royal boost in 1930 when King Alfonso and Queen Victoria of Spain visited London. According to a June 15, 1930 article reprinted in several newspapers, "They will stay as usual with Queen Victoria's mother, the Princess Beatrice, at Kensington palace. The visit is purely an informal one, although many well-known hostesses are arranging a series of small parties for the Spanish sovereigns. The two infantas, Beatrice and Marie Cristina, are very keen dancers, favoring American melodies. They often take lessons from Billy Mayerl, who is one of the foremost jazz pianists, and they are making excellent progress, much to the despair of their Spanish music master."
To support the correspondence course as well as his viability as a performer, Billy spent increasing amounts of time doing radio appearances both on the BBC and for Radio Luxembourg. As most pianists did not have any means of recording these broadcasts at home, they had to make do with recordings of his work, some by other artists, and some opted to pay for the courses so they could unravel the intricacies of Mayerl's style. He also recorded interpreted works, such as a 1932 medley released in time for Christmas, Say It with Carols. Many of his pieces were inspired, both in name and composition, by Billy's growing hobby of horticulture, dating back to Marigold. In addition to the card suites he also took a side trip with an aquarium-themed group of pieces, and another one around insects commonly found in a garden. While Mayerl had a reputation for his incredibly facile playing and busy composition, many of these works were quite sanguine in contrast.
In the late 1930s Billy formed a group consisting of keyboardists named the Claviers, and they briefly toured the U.K. and Western Europe. According to a review in the Glasgow [Scotland] Herald of July 5, 1938: "The tones of many musical instruments were deftly conveyed across the footlights in the Concert Hall when Billy Mayerl and his Claviers got going on five multi-tone pianos. One imagined the harpsichord, claviechord [sic], drum, guitar, mandoline [sic], and spinet were being played, so skilful was [sic] the imitations provided by Mayerl and his companions. A piano solo, 'Marigold,' was very cordially received by the audience..." Among the members of that group were soon to be famous jazz pianist Marian (Page) McPartland. Later that year he toured with the Stanley Lupino musical Crazy Days as the music director and primary performer.
The run of good fortune ended in 1940 as the UK became a victim of Nazi aggression, limiting opportunities for Mayerl's line of work. In 1940 Billy did one of his last tours with a stage musical, this one a comedy called Happy Birthday.aquarium suite cover Later that year He took part in a Royal Command Performance, and subsequently led his own band in a popular BBC program "Music While You Work", which was conceived to entertain and provide morale for factory workers during the war. The program actually lasted long beyond the war and Billy's lifetime. His music school quickly collapsed with most of the branches closing by the early 1940s. He spent the war primarily in London, although publishing very little during this time, and mostly recording or playing on radio when conditions allowed. His primary group was the Grosvenor House Orchestra formed in 1941 for the broadcasts.
Once peace had been reestablished, Billy renewed his ties with radio, a medium that had gained a larger following just before and throughout the war. His orchestra continued to perform in the UK through the early 1950s. He also jumped hemispheres bringing his music briefly to the US, then on to Australia and New Zealand. Advertisements in the Sydney Herald during April 1949 announce his April 23 appearance with musical star Stanley Holloway (later known for his work in My Fair Lady) and the New Sydney Concert Orchestra. This was followed by appearances in New Zealand, then a full tour of Australia in June and July.
One of his most interesting later works comes from after the war, four suites of three pieces each titled In My Garden, again centered around a horticultural theme, It stands as his contribution to the legacy of pieces about the four seasons. During the 1950s he made limited appearances on radio or in live venues, but still put out new publications from time to time. Attempts to revive his music school and correspondence course were met with deference in a time when rock and roll was ruling the roost, and his last school closed in 1957.
In May 1958, after years of steady performance, Mayerl made his last BBC broadcast on the show Desert Island Discs hosted by Roy Plomly, signing off as always with "Goodbye chaps and chapesses." This time it was really for good, and he retired from radio and recording. One more publication did appear in early 1959. Billy Mayerl (a heavy smoker for many years) finally met his demise from a heart attack and stroke in March 1959. His novelties remain popular into the 21st century, being rediscovered by a new generation of ragtime and stride pianists. Among his most notable exponents in the 21st century are Virginia pianist Alex Hassan, Eastman School of Music professor and historian Tony Caramia, and British pianist Philip Dyson, all of who have fine recorded examples of the work of the "Nimble-Fingered Gentleman."

Jelly Roll Morton Portrait
Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe
"Jelly Roll" (Mouton) Morton

(October 20, 1890 - July 10, 1941)
Selected Compositions - Earliest Confirmed Year    
[Original] Jelly Roll Blues [Chicago Blues]
Superior Rag
Frog-I-More Rag [Froggie Moore]
    [Sweetheart o' Mine]
Grandpa's Spells
Wolverine Blues [The Wolverines] [1]
Kansas City Stomp[s]
The Pearls
Mr. Jelly Lord
Big Foot Ham [Big Fat Ham]
    [Ham and Eggs]
Muddy Water Blues[?]
King Porter Stomp
Shreveport Stomp
Chicago Breakdown [Stratford Hunch]
New Orleans Blues [New Orleans Joys]
    [Low Down Blues] [Monrovia]
London [Cafe] Blues [Shoe Shiner's Drag]
(My Home Is In a) Southern Town
Deuces Wild
Any Ox
Bucktown Blues
Midnight Mama [Tom Cat Blues]
Milenberg Joys [2,3]
Black Bottom Stomp [Queen of Spades]
Sidewalk Blues [Fish Tail Blues]
The Chant
Fat Meat and Greens
Dead Man Blues [4]
Cannon Ball Blues [5,6]
Stash that Cash [7]
State and Madison: A Busy Stomp [7]
Windy City Blues [7,8]
Jungle Blues
Wild Man Blues [Ted Lewis Blues]
Hyena Stomp
Billy Goat Stomp
Buffalo Blues [Mister Joe]
boo [Gold Fish Blues]
Low Gravy
Honey Babe
Georgia Swing
Red Hot Pepper
Sweet Anita Mine
Deep Creek
Seattle Hunch
Frances [Fat Francis]
Tank Town Bump
Down My Way
Burnin' the Iceberg
Pretty Lil
New Orleans Bump
Try Me Out
Turtle Twist
Smilin' the Blues Away
Mississippi Mildred
Courthouse Bump
Sweet Peter
Little Lawrence
Mint Julep
I Hate a Man Like You
Don't Tell Me Nothin' 'Bout My Man
My Little Dixie Home
That's Like it Ought to Be
Mushmouth Shuffle
Fussy Mabel
Each Day
If Someone Would Only Love Me
That'll Never Do
Croc-A-Dile Cradle
Pontchartrain [Blues] [as Ponchatrain - sic]
I'm Looking for a Little Bluebird
Oil Well
Primrose Stomp
Harmony Blues
Load of Coal
Crazy Chords
Strokin' Away
Blue Blood Blues
Dixie Knows [9]
Fickle Fay Creep [Soap Suds]
Gambling Jack
Oa We E
Jersey [Jersey Joe]
1938/c.1938 - LoC
The Finger Breaker [Finger Buster]
Sweet Substitute
If You Knew How I Love You
The Perfect Rag [Sporting House Rag]
Indian Song
Moi Pas Taimez Ga
Georgia Skin
Spanish Swat
Organ Interlude
The Naked Dance [10]
Mamie's Blues [219 Blues] [11]
Why? [11]
Don't You Leave Me Here [I'm Alabama
The Crave
Albert Carroll's Blues
Good Old New York [World's Fair Song] [12]
We Are Elks [12]
We Will Never Say Goodbye [13]
Winin' Boy Blues [Winding Boy]
Anamule Dance [Animule]
Michigan Water Blues
Big Lip Blues
Dirty, Dirty, Dirty
Get the Bucket
Shake It
Swinging the Elks
Unpublished or Uncertain
Aaron Harris (Was a Bad, Bad Man)
Alabama Nights
Benny Frenchy's Defeat
Bert Williams [The Pacific Rag]
Buddy Bertrand's Blues
Buddy Bolden's Blues
Buddy Carter Rag
Cadillac Rag [?]
C'etait N'autf' Can Can
Card Dealer's Song [?]
Crazy Chord Rag [Boogie Woogie Blues]
Creepy Feeling
Dear Ole Lonnon
Discordant Jazz
Exit Gloom
Fast Ragtime
Game Kid Blues
Gan Jam
Golden Wedding [Shreveport Stomp Waltz]
Hen House
High Brown Baby Mine [14]
Hog Function
Honky Tonk Music [Blues]
Il Trovatore (The Miserere combined
    w/the Anvil Chorus)
Jazz Jubilee
Jelly Roll Morton's Scat Song
La Paloma into Blues
Levee Man Blues [Levee Rambler Blues]
Melody with Break
Melody with Riff
My Darling is the Only One for Me
New York Town
One Straight Melody
Prologue Opening
Sammy Davis' Ragtime Style
A Slow Jazz Tune
Smart Set Stomp
Stop & Go
Stratford Rag [same as Hunch?]
Superior Rag
Sweet Jazz Music
There's a Sign on Her Window
Tom Cat Stomp
Try and Get It
Twenty Four Hours of Love Every Day

1. w/Benjamin Spikes & John Spikes
2. w/Paul Mares & Leon Roppolo
3. w/Walter Melrose
4. w/Anita Gonzalez
5. w/Charlie Rider
6. w/Marty Bloom
7. w/Bob Peary & Charles Raymond
8. w/Jimmie Hudson
9. w/Mel Stitzel
10. from Tony Jackson
11. from Mamie Desdunes
12. w/Ed Werac
13. w/Paul Watts
14. w/Karl Kramer
Selected Discography    
Big Fat Ham [1]
Muddy Water Blues [1]
Sobbin' Blues [2]
King Porter Stomp
New Orleans (Blues) Joys
Clarinet Marmalade [2]
Mr. Jelly Lord [2]
Grandpa's Spells
Kansas City Stomps
Wolevrine Blues (Joys)
The Pearls
London Blues [2]
Milenberg Joys [2]
Some Day Sweetheart [3]
London Blues [3]
Mr. Jelly Roll [4]
Mr. Jelly Lord [4]
Thirty Fifth St. Blues
Frog-I-More Rag
London Blues
Shreveport Stomps
Jelly Roll Blues
Big Foot Ham
Bucktown Blues
Tom Cat Blues
Stratford Hunch
Perfect Rag
Fish Tail Blues [5]
High Society [5]
Weary Blues [5]
Tiger Rag [5]
King Porter [Stomp] [6]
Tom Cat [Blues] [6]
My Gal [7]
Wolverine Blues [8]
Mr. Jelly Lord [9]
The Pearls
Sweetheart O' Mine
Fat Meat and Greens
King Porter Stomp
Soap Suds [10]
Georgia Grind [11]
Dead Man Blues [11]
Black Bottom Stomp [12]
Smoke House Blues [12]
The Chant [12]
Sidewalk Blues [12]
Dead Man Blues [12]
Steamboat Stomp [12]
Someday Sweetheart [12]
Grandpa's Spells [12]
Original Jelly-Roll Blues [12]
Doctor Jazz [12]
Cannon Ball Blues [12]
Hyena Stomp [12]
Billy Goat Stomp [12]
Wild Man Blues [12]
Jungle Blues [12]
Beale Street Blues [12]
The Pearls [12]
Wolverine Blues [13]
Mister Jelly Lord [13]
Midnight Mama [14]
Mr. Jelly Lord [14]
Sergeant Dunn's Bugle Call Blues [15]
Ham and Eggs [15]
Buffalo Blues [15]
You Need Some Loving [15]
Georgia Swing [12]
Kansas City Stomps [12]
Shoe Shiner's Drag [12]
Boogaboo [12]
Shreveport Stomp [12]
Mournful Serenade [12]
Red Hot Pepper [16]
Deep Creek [16]
Seattle Hunch
Burnin' the Iceberg [16]
Courthouse Bump [16]
Pretty Lil [16]
Sweet Anita Mine [16]
New Orleans Bump [Monrovia] [16]
Down My Way [16]
Try Me Out [16]
Tank Town Bump [16]
Sweet Peter [12]
Jersey Joe [12]
Mississippi Mildred [12]
Mint Julep [12]
You Oughta See My Gal [17]
Futuristic Blues [17]
Keep Your Business to Yourself [17]
She's Got What I Need [17]
I Hate a Man Like You [18]
Don't Tell Me Nothin' 'Bout My Man [18]
Smilin' the Blues Away [13]
Turtle Twist [13]
My Little Dixie Home [13]
That's Like it Ought to Be [13]
Each Day [12]
If Someone Would Only Love Me [12]
That'll Never Do [12]
I'm Looking for a Little Bluebird [12]
Little Lawrence [12]
Harmony Blues [12]
Fussy Mabel [12]
Ponchatrain [12]
When They Get Lovin' They's Gone [19]
You Done Played Out Blues [19]
Oil Well [12]
Load of Coal [12]
Crazy Chords [12]
Primrose Stomp [12]
Big Time Woman [17]
I'm Her Papa, She's My Mama [20]
New Crawley Blues [20]
She Saves Her Sweetest Smiles for Me [17]
Low Gravy [12]
Strokin' Away [12]
Blue Blood Blues [12]
Mushmouth Shuffle [12]
Gambling Jack [13]
Fickle Fay Creep [12]
Never Had No Lovin' [21]
I'm Alone Without You [21]
1938 - Baltimore Acetates
After You've Gone [22]
Trees [22]
Tiger Rag [22]
Blues [22]
My Melancholy Baby #1 [22]
My Melancholy Baby #2 [22]
I Ain't Got Nobody [22]
I Would Do Anything for You [22]
Honeysuckle Rose #1 [22]
Honeysuckle Rose #1 [22]
Honeysuckle Rose #3 [22]
Organ Interlude
King Porter Stomp
The Pearls
Honky Tonk Music #2
Finger Buster
Creepy Feeling
Winin' Boy Blues
Honky Tonk Music
Oh, Didn't He Ramble [23]
High Society [23]
I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say [23]
Winin' Boy Blues [23]
Climax Rag [23]
Don't You Leave Me Here [23]
West End Blues [23]
Ballin the Jack [23]
Sporting House Rag
Original Rags
The Crave
The Naked Dance #2
Mister Joe
King Porter Stomp
Winin' Boy Blues
The Animule Ball
Buddy Bolden's Blues
The Naked Dance
Don't You Leave Me Here
Mamie's Blues
Michigan Water Blues
Sweet Substitute [24]
Panama [24]
Good Old New York [24]
Big Lip Blues [24]
Why [25]
Get the Bucket [25]
If You Knew [25]
Shake It [25]
Dirty, Dirty, Dirty [24]
Swinging the Elks [24]
Mama's Got a Baby [24]
My Home is In a Southern Town [24]

 1. Jelly Roll Marton [sic] and his Orchestra
 2. New Orleans Rhythm Kings
 3. Jelly Roll Morton's Jazz Band
 4. Jelly Roll Morton's Steamboat Four
 5. Jelly Roll Morton's Kings of Jazz
 6. Jelly Roll Morton & Joseph "King" Oliver
 7. Jelly Roll Morton and his Jazz Trio
 8. Jelly Roll Morton & Voltaire de Faut
 9. Jelly Roll Morton's Incomparables
10. St. Louis Levee Band
11. Edmonia Henderson, Contralto,
       with Accompaniment
12. Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers
13. Jelly Roll Morton Trio
14. The Levee Serenaders
15. Johnny Dunn and His Band
Matrix and Date
[Paramount 1434] 06/??/1923
[Paramount 1435] 06/??/1923
[Gennett 11535] 07/17/1923
[Gennett 11537] 07/17/1923
[Gennett 11538] 07/17/1923
[Gennett 11540] 07/17/1923
[Gennett 11541] 07/17/1923
[Gennett 11544] 07/18/1923
[Gennett 11545] 07/18/1923
[Gennett 11546] 07/18/1923
[Gennett 11547] 07/18/1923
[Gennett 11550] 07/18/1923
[Gennett 11551] 07/18/1923
[OKeh 8498] 10/??/1923
[OKeh 8499] 10/??/1923
[Rodeheaver 8065] 04/??/1924
[Rodeheaver 8065-2] 04/??/1924
[Rodeheaver 8071] 04/??/1924
[Rodeheaver 8072] 04/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 534] 04/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 535] 04/??/1924
[Gennett 11907] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11908] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11910] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11911] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11912] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11913] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11914] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11915] 06/09/1924
[Gennett 11917] 06/09/1924
[Marsh Recording 635] 09/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 636] 09/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 637] 09/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 638] 09/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 685] 12/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 687] 12/??/1924
[Marsh Recording 791] 05/??/1925
[Marsh Recording 792] 05/??/1925
[Gennett 12467] 02/24/1926
[Vocalion C160] 04/20/1926
[Vocalion C163] 04/20/1926
[Vocalion C164] 04/20/1926
[Vocalion C166] 04/20/1926
[Okeh 9661] 05/12/1926
[Vocalion C513] 07/21/1926
[Vocalion C513] 07/21/1926
[Victor 36239] 09/15/1926
[Victor 36240] 09/15/1926
[Victor 36241] 09/15/1926
[Victor 36283] 09/21/1926
[Victor 36284] 09/21/1926
[Victor 36285] 09/21/1926
[Victor 37254] 02/16/1926
[Victor 37255] 02/16/1926
[Victor 37256] 02/16/1926
[Victor 37257] 02/16/1926
[Victor 37258] 02/16/1926
[Victor 38627] 06/04/1927
[Victor 38628] 06/04/1927
[Victor 38629] 06/04/1927
[Victor 38630] 06/04/1927
[Victor 38661] 06/10/1927
[Victor 38662] 06/10/1927
[Victor 38663] 06/10/1927
[Victor 38664] 06/10/1927
[Vocalion C1630] 01/21/1928
[Vocalion C1632] 01/21/1928
[Columbia 145759] 03/13/1928
[Columbia 145760] 03/13/1928
[Columbia 145761] 03/13/1928
[Columbia 145762] 03/13/1928
[Victor 45619] 06/11/1928
[Victor 45620] 06/11/1928
[Victor 45621] 06/11/1928
[Victor 45622] 06/11/1928
[Victor 45623] 06/11/1928
[Victor 45624] 06/11/1928
[Victor 48434] 12/06/1928
[Victor 48435] 12/06/1928
[Victor 49448] 07/08/1929
[Victor 49449] 07/08/1929
[Victor 49450] 07/08/1929
[Victor 49451] 07/08/1929
[Victor 49452] 07/09/1929
[Victor 49453] 07/09/1929
[Victor 49454] 07/09/1929
[Victor 49455] 07/10/1929
[Victor 49456] 07/10/1929
[Victor 49457] 07/12/1929
[Victor 49458] 07/12/1929
[Victor 49459] 07/12/1929
[Victor 57080] 11/13/1929
[Victor 57081] 11/13/1929
[Victor 57082] 11/13/1929
[Victor 57083] 11/13/1929
[Victor 57565] 12/02/1929
[Victor 57566] 12/02/1929
[Victor 57567] 12/02/1929
[Victor 57568] 12/02/1929
[Victor 57761] 12/11/1929
[Victor 57762] 12/11/1929
[Victor 57784] 12/17/1929
[Victor 57785] 12/17/1929
[Victor 57786] 12/17/1929
[Victor 57787] 12/17/1929
[Victor 59504] 03/05/1930
[Victor 59505] 03/05/1930
[Victor 59506] 03/05/1930
[Victor 59507] 03/05/1930
[Victor 59532] 03/19/1930
[Victor 59533] 03/19/1930
[Victor 59643] 03/20/1930
[Victor 59644] 03/20/1930
[Victor 59735] 04/03/1930
[Victor 59736] 04/03/1930
[Victor 62182] 06/02/1930
[Victor 62183] 06/02/1930
[Victor 62184] 06/02/1930
[Victor 62185] 06/02/1930
[Victor 62188] 06/03/1930
[Victor 62189] 06/03/1930
[Victor 62190] 06/03/1930
[Victor 62191] 06/03/1930
[Victor 62339] 07/14/1930
[Victor 62340] 07/14/1930
[Victor 62341] 07/14/1930
[Victor 62342] 07/14/1930
[Victor 64313] 10/09/1930
[Victor 64314] 10/09/1930
[*A.R.C. B-15631] 08/15/1934
[*A.R.C. B-15632] 08/15/1934
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 04/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 08/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 08/??/1938
[**Baltimore Acetate] 08/??/1938
[***U.S.R.C. MLB-144] 12/??/1938
[***U.S.R.C. MLB-144] 12/??/1938
[***U.S.R.C. MLB-146] 12/??/1938
[***U.S.R.C. MLB-147] 12/??/1938
[***U.S.R.C. MLB-149] 12/??/1938
[RCA 041456] 09/14/1939
[RCA 041457] 09/14/1939
[RCA 041458] 09/14/1939
[RCA 041459] 09/14/1939
[RCA 041360] 09/28/1939
[RCA 041361] 09/28/1939
[RCA 041362] 09/28/1939
[RCA 041363] 09/28/1939
[Reeves R-2560] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2561] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2562] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2563] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2564] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2565] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2566] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2567] 12/14/1939
[Reeves R-2570] 12/16/1939
[Reeves R-2571] 12/16/1939
[Reeves R-2572] 12/16/1939
[Reeves R-2573] 12/16/1939
[Reeves R-2579] 12/18/1939
[Reeves R-2582] 01/04/1940
[Reeves R-2583] 01/04/1940
[Reeves R-2584] 01/04/1940
[Reeves R-2585] 01/04/1940
[Reeves R-2621] 01/23/1940
[Reeves R-2622] 01/23/1940
[Reeves R-2623] 01/23/1940
[Reeves R-2624] 01/23/1940
[Reeves R-2632] 01/30/1940
[Reeves R-2633] 01/30/1940
[Reeves R-2634] 01/30/1940
[Reeves R-2635] 01/30/1940

16. Jelly Roll Morton and his Orchestra
17. Wilton Crawley and his Orchestra
18. Lizzie Miles & Jelly Roll Morton
19. Billie Young & Jelly Roll Morton
20. Wilton Crawley and the
       Washboard Rhythm Kings
21. Wingy [Manone] and his Orchestra
22. Jelly Roll Morton & various players
23. Jelly Roll Morton's New Orleans Jazzmen
24. Jelly Roll Morton Seven
25. Jelly Roll Morton Sextet

 * American Record Company
 ** Unknown Baltimore, MD, studio as per
     research by Prof. Lawrence Gushee
 *** United States Recording Company
Known Rollography    
Mr. Jelly Lord
Tin Roof Blues
Tom Cat Blues
Mamanita Blues
London Blues
King Portor [sic]: A Stomp
Shreveport Stomp
Stratford Huntch
Kansas City Stomp
Grandpa's Spells
The Pearls
The "Jelly Roll" Blues
New Orleans Blues
Sweet Man
Soap Suds
Dead Man Blues
Midnight Mama
Matrix and Recording Date
[Vocalstyle 12973] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 12974] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 12983] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50478] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50479] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50480] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50481] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50485] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50486] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50487] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50488] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50505] 06/??/1924
[Vocalstyle 50508] 06/??/1924
[Capitol Roll 1334] 11/??/1925
[Capitol Roll 999029] 11/??/1925
[Q.R.S. Music 3674] 08/??/1926
[Q.R.S. Music 3675] 08/??/1926
There are some musicians who come along and make waves either through their antics, their bravado, or their performance skills. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton was one of those individuals who managed to captivate fans and raise the eyebrows (and the ire) of other musicians through all three. In this instance, also, it is hard to peg him into a single genre, other than "Jelly Roll Style," given how different and distinctive both his performance and writing of rags and blues was. He left behind one of the more important looks at the origins of ragtime, at least in New Orleans and the South, through a series of remarkable conversations recorded in 1938 and 1939. However, it was his own music and unique style that propelled him to fame, pushed him into obscurity, then resurrected while ostensibly killing him at the same time. Although the most traditional source for his story was long held to be the widely regarded 1950 book by Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll, research of the 21st century by the author and a number of his distinguished peers has turned up a much more accurate look at Morton's variegated story, of which a condensed version is presented here.
Early Life in New Orleans
The self-proclaimed inventor of Jazz and Stomp music, "Jelly Roll" Morton grew up in the right environment to absorb a variety of musical influences: New Orleans, Louisiana. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, out of legal wedlock (in a common law marriage) to Edward Joseph Lamothe (or Lemott) and Louise Hermance Monette (or Monett). The often-cited date of September 20 does not align with the official baptismal registry in New Orleans, which insists on an October 20 birth, so the latter will be accepted for this essay as the potentially most accurate accounting, even though Morton himself continued to write September 20 throughout his life. When he was around three or so, Louise left her situation with Lamothe and was soon married to William Mouton on February 5, 1894. Ferd would eventually adopt a variation of his stepfather's last name as his own, morphed into Morton.
Growing up on Frenchmen Street a bit outside of the French Quarter, Ferd was just a streetcar ride away from many New Orleans musical venues located in the Quarter and the Tremé, as well as downtown. Considered a true Creole, he was a mulatto, which created its own set of difficulties, as the darker communities did not always accept light skinned blacks, yet they were still too black for the white communities.
Storyville as pictured in a postcard
from around 1910.
storyville post card c.1910
Ferdinand got past this by communicating through music. He learned guitar at age 7, and piano at 10. As of the 1900 census the family was located in New Orleans with Ferd's half-sister Eugénie Amède added to the home in late 1897. Another sister, Frances a.k.a. Mimi, arrived in mid-1900. Ferd moved out of the Mouton home the following year, residing with his godmother Laura Hunter (a.k.a. Eulalie Hécaud) for some time.
Ferd took piano lessons from local black schoolteacher Rachel D. Moment for an indeterminate period of time. Morton described her as "the biggest ham of a teacher that I've ever heard or seen..." However, with his innate talent he also likely absorbed a lot of the influence of other musicians playing in or near downtown New Orleans. Among those he later cited was Mamie Desdunes (a.k.a. Mary Celina Desdunes Dugue), who played a simple blues style due to a crippled right hand. He also mentioned Tony Jackson and Albert Carroll, and by some accounts claimed to have heard or possibly known the storied but somewhat notorious trumpeter Buddy Bolden. In his teens, Ferd became, be his own account, one of the most renowned pianists in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans set up by alderman Alfred Story in 1897. There is some evidence, or lack thereof, to counter this bodacious claim, but there is little doubt that he spent some time either playing or listening to others play in the houses there. His later description of Tony Jackson playing a Naked Dance for the girls to show off their wares to the customers provides some credence to this probability. Another place he frequented was the Frenchman's Café where many New Orleans musicians played during and after hours.
In early 1904, Morton traveled to Saint Louis, Missouri, allegedly to attempt to play at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, likely on the mile-long amusement Pike, and to absorb local musical influences. There was a contest there in late February at Tom Turpin's Rosebud Saloon that Morton claims he demurred from due to the presence of some of the high-caliber pianists playing there. They included the champion of the event, Louis Chauvin, his friend Sam Patterson, Charles Warfield and Joe Jordan among others. Perhaps the point should be made that he was not yet 14 years of age played, which likely a bigger factor in the overall situation. Still, he soaked in the influences of this environment, learning more than just the music, but also the lifestyle of these pianists.
In 1906, Ferd's mother Lizzie died from a form of heart disease, leaving him more or less on his own at age 16, save for his godmother Laura. During this period Morton also learned more about performance with ensembles while traveling with Billy Kersand's Minstrels throughout the South and Midwest. He also met many musicians that influenced his style and his attitude, which might eventually be described as appropriately confident if mildly cocky. Among them were the aforementioned Tony Jackson, future composer Spencer Williams, John and Benjamin Spikes, Sammy Davis [a pianist and entertainer who was not same as the father of entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., Samuel Davis, who was born in 1900, so too young], Arthur F. "Baby" Seals, and two gentleman that likely influenced the names of two of his important works, Porter King and Benson "Froggie" Moore. He also learned much of the reality of being a man of color away from his home town who which had been more tolerant of race, which was a hard lesson. During this time Ferd witnessed at least two disturbing lynchings of black men.
Building a Reputation - What's In a Name?
Still tethered somewhat to his godmother's home in New Orleans, it was there in 1910 that Ferd met Billy and Mary McBride, who had their own unique theatrical troupe called Mack's Merry Makers.
Morton in 1913 in blackface and baggy pants, incorporating comedy with playing, and his partner, Rosa Brown.
jelly roll morton with his partner rosa brown in 1913
He played in their shows for a while, and during the tour frequented some of the brothels along the gulf coast of Louisiana and Alabama, possibly into Florida. Another actor and writer Ferd worked with was Sandy Burns, who for some time had traveled with Sammy Davis. It was allegedly Burns who either gave, or perhaps influenced the origin of, his unique nickname, "Jelly Roll." In the colloquial of the time, the connotation of that name was clearly sexual, and commonly referred to by both heterosexual and homosexual performers, including Jackson who was openly gay. Specifically, it was a reference to the male member, and not so much to a pastry. Just the same, Morton quickly adopted the name, and before the mid-1910s, while he still used Ferd from time to time, he started to enjoy billings as "Jelly Roll" Morton.
From this point on, Morton lived the ultimate itinerant pianist's life, traveling from town to town, carousing with local women, hustling in pool halls, and taking in the culture wherever he went. Lessons, or perhaps they should be called skills, that he learned in his early travels were how to be a successful pimp, a pool sharp and card sharp, and how to charm certain people while ticking off others, skills that served him well at various times. He was also a young man of contradictions with his own sense of questionable morality, being both a Catholic and a believer in the bayou culture of voodoo. Morton quickly learned how to turn any insecurity he had into a situation into bravado and vanity, often deflecting anything he thought might be a threat to him or his ego. [Note that these are collective observations noted by many of Morton's peers as well as his original biographer, Alan Lomax, but that they ring true overall through many of his actions, even if they cannot be completely construed as "fact."]
As a result of his constant travel, Morton was difficult to locate in the 1910 enumeration. Some of his movements of this period are suggested by combining his later recollections of who he played with and where with newspaper accounts of those people and events. In 1911 he was associated for a while with William Benbow's as they traveled the south, likely as both a pianist and a singer. The following year he was, at times, working with the Spikes brothers in the Midwest, with who would later pen one of his more iconic pieces. Later in the year and into 1913, he worked with the Jenkins and Jenkins troupe, which included Baby F. Seals, who had recently had his historic early blues piece Baby Seals Blues, arranged by Artie Matthews, published and distributed. Much of 1913 was spent in Texas, and Morton was listed in the Houston, Texas, directory for that year. Ferd had also taken on a vaudeville partner and singer, Rosa Brown, who was usually booked as Rosa Morton, although there was no official record found of them having married. They worked the vaudeville circuit from 1912 into 1914.
Early in 1914, Morton had been working with McCabe's minstrels when they were disbanded during a stay in Saint Louis, Missouri. From there, he and Rosa tried to find another troupe, and ended up in Kentucky by the spring, then back to the Dayton, Ohio area.original jelly roll blues cover Ferd, now consistently billed as "Jelly Roll" or "New Orleans Jelly Roll," was receiving excellent reviews for his vivacious style, even when accompanying Rosa. He played a wide range of pieces from piano rags to classical pieces, and by this time, perhaps some of his own compositions. The couple, playing with other notable acts, also played Detroit, Michigan, and ventured down into Indianapolis, Indiana, then back east to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By late summer they were playing in Chicago, Illinois, where Ferd would later spend a considerable period of time. For 1915 he remained there through the remainder of 1914 and into 1915. There is a probability that he also did a short stint with the Memphis, Tennessee band of W.C. Handy, a composer whom he highly regarded at times, and derided in later years.
Working in Chicago with occasional travel to surrounding areas, Morton was no longer featured with Rosa, who had gone her own way, but worked with, among others, comedian and dancer William "Bojangles" Robinson. It was in Chicago that Morton's first big hit emerged in published form. His self-titled Original Jelly Roll Blues, issued in late 1915 by the well-established publisher Will Rossiter, created some issues before it was in print, in terms of arranging it in a way that was playable by the average pianist while retaining Morton's unique performance style. It would soon be made into piano rolls, recorded to disc, and even mentioned in a later song by Chicago composer Shelton Brooks, most famously as a line in his Darktown Strutter's Ball from 1917. "I'm gonna dance off both my shoes, when they play those Jelly Roll Blues, tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutter's Ball." By that time, Ferd's reputation for his playing and his vivacious personality, both good and suspect, was well established among his peers, and was gaining traction with the public.
According to some newspaper reports, as well as narrative from Barbary Coast pianist Paul Lingle, Morton made some of his first West Coast appearances during the latter part of 1915 at the Pan-American Exhibition (World's Fair) in San Francisco, California. As there was a similar event held in San Diego, California, near the Mexican border, at that time, it is possible that Morton also appeared in Southern California, but that was sketchy to confirm at best. Morton circulated around the Midwest in 1916, sticking largely to Indianapolis, Saint Louis and Chicago. However, he apparently enjoyed California, or at least found that the dearth of professional pianists of his caliber in the state provided him some golden opportunities, and eventually migrated out to Los Angeles in late 1916 or early 1917, possibly following the lead of bandleader William Manuel Johnson and his sister Anita who moved there at the same time.
Rise To Fame and Legend - The West Coast
One of the first locations where Morton set up was the Cadillac Café in Los Angeles in the spring of 1917, where he would play through most of the year. Before Morton came out, Los Angeles, California, was a rather unremarkable location during the bulk of the ragtime era. Very little published ragtime emerged from that city in the 1900s and 1910s, and most of the contemporary piano music of that period was presented on the vaudeville stage, in addition to popular songs and old favorites. The bulk of ragtime pianists and showmen were up north working the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco and the Bay Area, and even up into Seattle, Washington.
Morton (highlighted) in front of the Cadillac Cafe in October, 1917, with (l-r)
"Common Sense" Ross, Albertine Pickens,
Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Eddie Rucker
and Mabel Watts.
jelly roll morton and gang in front of the cadillac cafe
However, at the beginning of the jazz age, just before and around the time of Morton's arrival, there was surge of contemporary popular instrumental music in Southern California, which coincided to some degree with the growth of the film industry there, which was at a highly-accelerated pace from 1913 to 1920.
After several months at the Cadillac, either as a soloist or with local ensembles or singers, Morton decided to bring a taste of home to the city. In early 1918 he formed his Creole Jazz Band comprised of several fellow New Orleans musicians, including Mack Lewis on the Clarinet, Buddie Petit on trumpet, Willie Moorehead on trombone, and a pianist/clarinetist, Dink Johnson, on drums. Dink was Anita and William Johnson's brother. He had actually played the clarinet with trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory's band prior to his west coast migration. He would later play a somewhat important role in Morton's life near the end. Johnson's piano playing in particular would be audibly influenced by Morton, as later recordings and compositions would attest.
In the winter of 1918 the group played near the Mexican border in San Diego, and also may have made excursions at times into Tijuana, albeit more for recreation and to soak in the culture than anything else. At this juncture it should be noted that quite a few of Morton's pieces written throughout his career had what many called a "Spanish tinge" applied to them. This could be analyzed as mildly syncopated melody over constant habanera bass line (not "tango" as some have mislabeled it). Even though Morton clearly spent time in Tijuana and parts of Northern Mexico, that influence most likely came from his home town. From the 1880s into the early 20th century, traveling mariachi bands would work their way from Mexico through Texas and over to the Gulf Coast, so they were often heard playing their Latin-tinged pieces in New Orleans. Some have claimed that they helped influence jazz in that town simply by selling of their instruments, including trumpets and guitars, so they could afford passage back home. While this may be possible, that they influenced several Southern musicians is clear, and that "Spanish tinge" feeling was clearly embedded in Morton throughout his composition career.
By spring of 1918, the Creole Jazz Band (sometimes Orchestra) was back in Los Angeles. Among Morton's friends there was the notorious singer and nightclub entrepreneur Ada "Bricktop" Smith, who had already made waves in Chicago, and in the 1920s would forge her way to more fame in Paris, France, with her famous clubs being the talk of the continent. In May, Morton had one of his first renditions of the somewhat malleable Frog-I-More rag copyrighted. It would be one of his better-known standards for the next two decades. He also allegedly composed and became known for his thoroughly Spanish-tinged piece The Crave during this era, but whether this is factual is unclear, since Morton did not leave any clear evidence of this piece until at least 1938.
Still in Los Angeles near the end of the ongoing war in Europe, Morton, as most men born in the early-to-mid 1880s, was called on to register for the final draft call on September 12th. The information on the card raises some questions and confusion. Ferd gave his permanent address as still in Chicago, his career as Actor rather than musician, and his employer as the Levi Circuit (actually an independent vaudeville organization run by Bert Levey) in San Francisco. The birth date shown was September 13, 1884, which is also a bit perturbing. He also listed a wife living in Los Angeles, but as "Mrs. F. Morton."
The lady in question was the Johnson brothers' sister, Anita, who went by Juanita Gonzalez, but not Morton. She was a very fair-skinned mulatto creole who at times was able to pass for white. At some point Ferd claimed that he and Anita had been married as early as 1909.
Jelly Roll with Jimmy Thompson in Los Angeles, 1917.
jelly roll morton with jimmy thompson
It is possible that he had known Anita that far back while in New Orleans, but no official record of either a marriage or divorce has been located, so they were probably referring to a common-law marriage situation, much as Morton's birth parents were in. In spite of another questionably legal marriage in later years, Morton ultimately devoted much of his love to Anita, and depended on her when times were tough. She was clearly his anchor, even if at times he may have considered her his bane as well. During their early years in Los Angeles, Anita ran a hotel with some occasional help from Morton. Although she was a singer, she claimed that Ferd never let her perform with his band. But, as per what she told jazz historian Floyd Levin in 1950, he clearly cared for her, as Anita later noted that Morton did not want her to do the work required to run the hotel, instead hiring others to clean the rooms and run the front desk.
In 1919 Morton was on the move again, literally, as there were reports he had sunk some of his earnings into a large twelve-cylinder touring car, making most likely either a National or a Packard. After a stint in San Francisco for the winter and spring, he traveled up to Vancouver, Canada, playing for some of the summer and fall in a jazz band led by pianist and clarinetist Oscar Holden. They were likely playing in the Patricia Café in the hotel it was named after. Bricktop also joined them for a while. He allegedly also worked as a pimp during this period, but that is possibly more legend than fact. The band continued into 1920 and 1921, but Morton was restless and moved on near the end of 1919, back to the United States, into what would be a much different environment than he had enjoyed over the last decade and more.
The culprit was the vile (to many) Volstead Act, which was the enforcement vehicle for National prohibition of alcohol. New Orleans had already been dealt a blow in 1917 when the United States Navy, in an effort to keep their sailors safe and less distracted when in port, shut down Alfred Story's famed district, thereby partially ridding the city of a fairly good tax base supported by the lucrative business of prostitution. Now, the government, or more rightfully, a majority of the citizenry, decided to do away with the manufacture and sale of alcohol (albeit not the consumption, a major loophole), which was one of the drawing points of music establishment, in addition to the music itself. While all may have seemed lost at that point, the Volstead Act made alcohol more popular than ever, and the excitement of doing something not quite legal with a group of like-minded people to the wild sounds of a driving band or a blues group was just too irresistible to resist. So it was that Morton started playing in the Pacific Northwest in 1920 in Seattle and Portland in cabarets that more often than not added some coffee or tea in with their scotch. It could have been a moral disaster (depending on one's view of morality), but the alcohol and music business was soon booming again, and performers like Morton provided some of the "jazz age" soundtrack that went along with the grand experiment.
Ferd appears to have stayed up in the Northwest through at least the summer of 1920, one of his stops being the Entertainer's Café in Seattle, and perhaps back to the Patricia now and then. Down in Los Angeles, from which a somewhat weekly report emerged in the Chicago Defender by way of "letters" from musician "Ragtime" Billy Tucker, the Spikes Brothers were running their So Different Music House on Central Avenue, where the core of black life was located in that city. The sold sheet music, instruments and phonographs, and even did a bit of publishing of their own works. Among those released in early 1920 was Some Day Sweetheart, which would become associated with Morton within the next few years.
Morton with his oft-beloved favorite, Anita Johnson Gonzalez.
jelly roll morton in with anita johnson gonzalez
The status of Cadillac is unclear, but it appears to have closed its doors shortly after the onset of prohibition. The big venues now in Los Angeles were the Dreamland, a popular name for band venues around the country in the 1920s, and the similarly-named Paradise Gardens dance hall, another growing hot spot. Morton would make his way down there soon enough. But he was also being lured by another intriguing spot south of the border.
After bouncing around the west coast for most of 1920 and early 1921, Morton resituated himself with Anita back in Los Angeles in the late spring of 1921, and engaged his orchestra into the Paradise Gardens. They spent the summer there drawing big crowds, which according to one advertisement included some of the increasingly popular crop of "movie stars" from the Hollywood studios. For part of the summer, Jelly Roll's "Famous Creole Band" shared the venue with the Black and Tan Orchestra. The Spikes Brothers had expanded their empire as well, opening up a leisure park with amusements for "members of the Race" at Leake's Lake near the Watts neighborhood just south of downtown, calling it Wayside Amusement Park. It had become a true melting pot of African-Americans, Japanese, Asians, Mexicans, Irish, and many others, so a popular spot for boating, recreation and ja. Then in the fall came the alluring call from down south.
Tijuana (a.k.a. Tia Juana), across the U.S./Mexico border from San Diego, was enjoying new-found popularity, in part because they didn't suffer from the restrictions of the Volstead act, and actually from a number of other allegedly repressive morality laws. There was a cry for entertainers to work down there for good money in cheap living situations. Musician Eddie Rucker made his case, and in the fall a few musicians followed. Morton applied for and received one-year visas from both California and the Mexican consulate allowing him to work in Tijuana as a musician. Whether Anita went with him or remained in Los Angeles running her establishment is unclear, but she likely made a few trips at the very least. It was also a popular spot with Hollywood royalty, and many went down to see bullfights, gamble in the casinos, or simply drown their sorrows while escaping the rigors of fandom.
There is one story that soon after he started his tenure in Mexico that Morton and his orchestra were engaged to play at the prestigious U.S. Grant Hotel, named after the Civil War general and U.S. President, situated in San Diego. The gig in November, 1921, was purportedly arranged by Dink Johnson, but did not last long, albeit for unclear reasons. Johnson stated that the group was fired by management because Morton crossed his legs at the piano. The more likely story, as told by Morton, was that there was a white band playing elsewhere in the hotel and he discovered they were getting twice what his group was, so he pulled his group out and headed back across the border. Throughout the next several months Morton and his group would divide their time between Tijuana and Los Angeles, sharing the stages with a growing number of Negro jazz bands rivaling the level talent currently heard in Chicago and New York City.
By the early spring of 1922 it was announced that Morton and his band were signed for a tour on the Pantages Theater circuit, although it may have been a relatively short trip with just a few nights in each location. Within a month Tucker wrote that Morton was now managing the Wayside Amusement Park performance venue, and his six-piece band was playing there four nights a week. Near the end of April Morton's venue received a visit from no less than Chicago's current jazz champion, Joseph "King" Oliver. He reportedly set the town on fire with his brand of trumpet playing. Ferd and his band held their own reign over Wayside through the summer months, although give that it was considered a respectable establishment and a largely outdoor venue, it is unclear if alcoholic beverages were offered on a regular basis. In July, Morton's friend "Kid" Ory brought his band to Los Angeles where they made some recordings at the Spike Brother's studio, and played on the radio, reportedly the first black jazz band to do so in Southern California. They stayed there into the fall. In September, Morton took his band on a short Southern California tour outside of Los Angeles, some of it in San Diego and back to Tijuana. Then the tenure in Tijuana became tenuous.
Morton, according his interviews with Lomax, had already experienced an unfortunate incident with the law when he was briefly suspected in the slaying of a grocery store clerk in early January of 1923. In the end, arrests were made of two other black men, but it may have shaken him just enough to where he retreated back to Tijuana for a while. Then, in an unfortunate incident in early February, an American black man named Chester Carleton who was staying in Tijuana lent his car to a friend to take it to San Diego for the day. The car was in a collision with some $250 damage assessed. Carleton argued with the man, George Monteverde, and gunplay was initially diffused by a San Diego sheriff. However, they finally had a showdown just across the border on a bridge over the Tijuana River when Carleton fatally shot Monteverde, inciting a good-sized riot in the streets, and false reports of his lynching. Even though Carleton was assured he would have a fair trial, there was clear dissension against the black population, and many of them, including Morton, high-tailed it back to the North, either to San Diego or Los Angeles, not to return all that very soon.
Many of the musicians, including Ferd, sought to stage a benefit concert and dance in mid-March to raise money to buy Carleton's freedom. In spite of their best efforts to get the necessary $15,000 bond, they managed only $283.50 for that evening. This was Morton's last hurrah in Los Angeles for nearly two decades, as he would soon leave Southern California, Mexico, and his long-time love and common-law wife Anita behind, heading to where the current nexus of jazz was having a decidedly national impact - Chicago, Illinois.
Chicago, The Red Hot Peppers, and "Jelly Roll" Style
In April of 1923 Ferd found himself back in Chicago with a well-rounded résumé. It is unclear how many members of his prior orchestras and bands joined him there, but even if it was none, Morton's reputation both as a performer and composer (and a number of other disciplines) was enough to attract new talent to his side. Although only a couple of his compositions were actually in print, they had been heard by many, and would soon find their way into circulation. One of Morton's concerns was allegedly that if his style was too closely emulated in print that others might catch on to it and give him unwanted competition. But there was also the demand, and the promise of income that sheet music sales could bring. So it was that some of the early Chicago issues of Morton pieces were either simplified or simply made a bit more generic, providing a framework for his chord and melodic structure without revealing too many of his tricks.
In addition to publication, Ferd thought it was about time that he had his style heard in more than just local venues, and sought out a record company that would take him on.
A recreation of the original Gennett Records studio at the county museum in Richmond, Indiana.
gennett studio recreation
According to a later memoir by blues composer and musician Perry Bradford, Morton asked him by way of a letter sent from Fort Wayne, Indiana, if Bradford might be able to get him some recording dates in New York. Perry had a better idea, which was to go to Richmond, Indiana, to see Harry Gennett, who would probably accommodate him.
Gennett records was founded in 1917 by three brothers, Harry, Fred and Clarence Gennett, managers of the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana. Their initial studio was set up in New York City, but in 1921 they installed a rudimentary acoustic recording studio on the grounds of their Richmond factory. Even if the aural quality of their product was less than sufficient, the talent they attracted, being one of the first Midwest studios to record and distribute the work of black artists, was often stellar. This included the bands of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and, in 1923, Morton.
Although he had cut two sides for Paramount Records in a Chicago studio a month prior, his first recordings of note were laid down in Richmond in July, including several with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Some of them included his own compositions and arrangements. The sound quality was perhaps less than Morton would have wanted, but at least now his music was available to the average consumer, both black and white, and it laid the groundwork for a more lucrative future in records, especially after the advent of electrically-recorded sound. This session was followed later in the year by one at OKeh Records in Chicago.
In order to obtain legal copyright protection and provide add-on sales through sheet music, Ferd went to the Melrose Brothers publishing company in Chicago, joining their writing and arranging staff. The company was started around 1920 by Walter and Lester Melrose, both of them important white supporters of black music in Chicago.grandpa's spell cover The brothers would also take on works by Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong, calling them "staff writers" as they did with Morton. They also tended to add lyrics to tunes in an effort to collect their own royalties on the songs, but can be forgiven this for the exposure and support they gave to many black composers of jazz.
The material that the Melrose Brothers issued in 1923 and 1924 alone was comprised of some of Morton's most memorable, and over time, most played works. Morton's style was unique and emulated by many pianists, although rarely duplicated. Even in printed form it had a bounce to it, and he used many chord inversions instead of expected chord placements. His music was also more instrumental in nature, as even though he had played and recorded with many groups, he was able to imitate various instruments in his solo playing. Walter Melrose was also instrumental in making sure Morton's Gennett sessions went well, both helping to set them up as well as supporting proper rehearsal time. They routinely used the records to promote their sheet music, and vice-versa.
Grandpa's Spells, a piano rag, was one of Ferd's early favorites. He was proud of the fact that with little effort (on his part, of course) it could be played as a rag in a café, but then turned around as a lively one-step or two-step at a society party with his orchestra. Kansas City Stomps was a great demonstration of not only his bounce, but his propensity to start a trio with a slight but dramatic pause in the action. Mr. Jelly Lord made for a great salacious blues performance, while Stratford Hunch had a sense of humor embedded in its composition. The Pearls was a piece that Morton claimed was one of the most difficult jazz numbers ever written (a bodacious and suspect claim, given what has emerged since the 1940s), but with one of the more memorable trios.
There were two of these early numbers which found wide acceptance and acclaim, as well as performances on piano rolls and by bands around the United States. First was the King Porter Stomp, which was likely an homage to Porter King, whom Morton claimed was a Gulf Coast musician that he considered a dear friend and early influence. While King's identity has been challenging to historians, the piece has continued to enjoy a measure of fame in every decade since it was first published and recorded. Then there was The Wolverines, also known as the Wolverine Blues in song form.
Vocalstyle label for a piano roll
of The Pearls.
vocalstyle piano roll label of the pearls
Given the popularity of this creature as the official mascot of Michigan (embraced more so since the piece saw a measure of fame), it remains one of the most frequently played Morton pieces of that era in the guise of piano solos, duets, jazz bands, and even orchestras. Other notable works, such as Perfect Rag and the best of the Spanish-tinged pieces, The Crave, were likely composed and performed even before 1923, but did not find their way onto records or in print until the 1930s and 1940s.
Of course, being that Morton was in the jazz-crazy booze-flowing flapper-happy town that "Billy Sunday could not shut down," he and his band had little trouble finding steady engagements in and around Chicago, including regional locales such from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to South Bend, Indiana. One of the hot spots in the latter town was the Tokio Gardens dance hall, about which several advertisements concerning Morton's groups appeared in late 1923 and early 1924. Other gigs followed as far off as Ohio, including one that would have some lasting impact.
Much as they had arranged for Morton's audio recordings, the Walter Melrose also hooked Morton up with the Vocalstyle piano roll company in Cincinnati, Ohio, in mid-1924. They had been supposedly the first company that put lyrics on their piano rolls, and during the peak of the player piano craze in the early 1920s (eventually killed by the phonograph, and then radio), Vocalstyle was one of the more important roll manufacturers. They were able to capture thirteen Morton performances on mark-up rolls. According to the late historian Mike Montgomery, Vocalstyle cut the rolls more or less as Morton performed them with virtually no editing, except for perhaps some missed notes. They created alternate takes in a sense to Ferd's Gennett and OKeh records, since he tended to make each performance different.kansas city stomps cover However, after the sale of Vocalstyle to Q.R.S. in 1926, followed by the decline of the piano roll business in the 1930s, many of Morton's rolls disappeared, and only recently have collectors have been able to find nine of the thirteen performances. Over the next two years Morton would cut a handful of rolls for both Capitol and Q.R.S., expanding his legacy even further with engaging performances, but would stick to recordings from 1926 forward.
Throughout the period of 1924 into mid-1926, although based in Chicago, Morton and his band went on several tours of parts of the country, even appearing on radio from time to time in a variety of studios. They cut more sides for Gennett, and also for two other recording studios, the resulting discs which were distributed by several labels. The Walter Melrose was more or less faithful in his support of Morton's music, but as per some historians dropped the ball in one regard. Morton could have and should have become a member of ASCAP. However, it was less of a race issue and more of an administrative one that he missed that opportunity, as Melrose was not a member at that time, and he required two ASCAP sponsors and five pieces published by an ASCAP house in order to qualify. This lack of protection would haunt him near the end of his life, but for the time being he was spending his gains on fancy clothes, cars, and diamonds, the latter which he famously had embedded into one of his front teeth. Among his biggest numbers released during this period was Milenberg Joys, composed with two associates of Morton. In the spring of 1926 Morton some solo sides for Vocalion Records, many that rivaled his 1924 solos for Gennett, but recorded with much better quality.
In spite of his continuing success, one other big break that had evaded Morton was a major record label to better record and distribute his works. That was finally resolved in part by Walter Melrose, when with his assistance in mid-1926, Morton was signed to the Victor Talking Machine Company for a four-year contract. Arguably the best of the Morton records of the 1920s were those cut with his own band, the famous Red Hot Peppers. The first set of sides from the fall of 1926 were recorded using the Western Electric Orthophonic system, one of the best of that period.sidewalk blues cover They were cut in the ballroom of the Webster Hotel in Chicago, a popular spot both for recording and radio broadcasts. The Morton tracks on Victor have since become legendary, and even as they were originally released quickly became best sellers for the important Victor catalog. Many of the tracks were re-recordings of tunes he had done with Gennett, Okeh, Vocalion and other labels. However, given his propensity for playing something a bit differently every time, and that Victor was recording his work with microphones instead of acoustic horns, it was worth reprising all of these works. Extant multiple takes of some of the tracks reveal differences not only in Morton's performances but also those of his band.
Among the most memorable of the Victor recordings done by Morton in Chicago was Black Bottom Stomp, equally as engaging as a band number as it was for solo piano. Sidewalk Blues was also unique for some off the beat percussion, and an opening and closing that included some sidewalk chatter and street sound effects to boot. One of Joe Oliver's numbers was included in the mix with a substantially hot take, that being Doctor Jazz. He also covered the Spikes Brother's song Someday Sweetheart, a recording for which he would be known for some time. Even though he was sharing the spotlight with Oliver, Armstrong, and other black performers of the period, Ferd and his group held their own during the peak of the jazz age. They also found a lot of traction in England on Victor's sister label, H.M.V. (His Master's Voice), garnering good reviews in the United Kingdom and Europe. The next set of records made in June of 1927 fared equally well, with some of the standouts being Wild Man Blues and the increasingly popular Wolverine Blues.
It is curious that given his contract with Melrose to write and arrange, as they copyrighted his pieces and published many of them during his five year contract from 1923-1928, that he rarely got arrangement credits on anything, particularly on his own pieces. There has been discussion about whether some of the charts were made before or after they were recorded, as some of them appear to closely emulate what made it to disc. The general consensus seems to be that Morton was a competent arranger overall, and that many times the recordings were done directly from his charts with little variance in the instrument performance other than the piano.
A disc from 1925 featuring clarinetist Voltaire de Faut backed by Morton.
morton autograph record
However, it may have been a business decision by Walter Melrose in terms of distribution of funds that kept Morton's name from having more prominence outside of composer credits.
Morton did play with a few other musicians on Chicago recording dates from 1926 to 1928, including a few for Columbia with Johnny Dunn. However, he was usually better as a leader rather than a side man, and his best work was with his own groups. They included subsets of his band as well as the full group with the occasional shift in personnel. As the group rose in their popularity, which was publicly with black audiences and to some extent privately with white audiences who would buy the records but not always frequent the events, The Red Hot Peppers continued to tour the eastern half of the country from Buffalo, New York and Ontario, Canada, back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the latter location they famously took over