The Playlist • More Forgotten Vaudevillians: Bert Williams’ Imitators (1921–1924)

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SHELTON BROOKS: Murder in the First Degree

New York: c. April 1921 — Released: July 1921
Okeh 4340 (mx. S 7878 – A)
With “Rega Orchestra” (Okeh studio orchestra conducted by Fred Hager)

Neither F. Wallace Rega nor Milo Rega were actual recording artists or conductors, contrary to some discographies.“F. Wallace Rega” was a pseudonym for Fred Hager, as confirmed in the federal Catalog of Copyright Entries. “Milo Rega” was a composite alias (“Justin Milo” being a pseudonym for Justin Ring, which in turn was the professional name of Justus Ringleben), as disclosed in the same source.

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HAM TREE HARRINGTON: Nobody Never Let Me In on Nothin’

New York: March 11, 1924 — Released: June 1924
Brunswick 2588 (mx. 12674, 12675, or 12676*)
With uncredited orchestra (conductor unlisted in files)

*The selected take is not shown on the pressings or in the Brunswick files.

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EDDIE HUNTER (piano by C. LUCKEYTH “LUCKEY” ROBERTS): Hard Times

Camden, NJ: November 16, 1923 — Released: July 18, 1924; Deleted: 1926
Victor 19359 (mx. B 28897 – 2)

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Capsule Biographies from the Mainspring Press Website:

Shelton Brooks
Shelton Brooks, with his prodigious skill as a songwriter and two successful decades on stage, is an undeservedly forgotten pioneer in black entertainment. Born in Amherstburg, Ontario (not Amesburg, as cited in Rust’s Complete Entertainment Discography) in 1886, Brooks left school in the early 1900s to play piano in Detroit cafes. His first break as a songwriter came when Sophie Tucker introduced his composition, “Some of these Days,” which she recorded in 1911 (Amberol 691). Over the next decade, Brooks wrote a string of hits that included “There’ll Come a Time” (1911), “Ruff Johnson’s Harmony Band” (1914), “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” (1916), “Walkin’ the Dog” (1917), and “Saturday” (1921). By 1915, Brooks was touring successfully on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits as a Williams mimic.

In 1922 Brooks was featured as the master of ceremonies in Plantation Revue with Florence Mills (opened July 17, 1922). A European tour with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds — including a royal command performance before George V — followed in 1923, but in November of that year Brooks returned to the United States. He co-starred with Ham Tree Harrington and Florence Mills in the Broadway production of Dixie to Broadway (opened October 29, 1924). A review of the show in The Messenger for January 1925 predicted that Brooks was “in a fair way to surpass the late Bert Williams, if he can find a producer who can keep him at work and give him his head.”

Apparently, Brooks didn’t find that producer, and he began to fade from public notice after his Okeh recording contract ended in late 1926. There were more vaudeville appearances, including a 1928 tour with band leader Ollie Powers, but in 1931 Brooks made his final appearance in a Broadway musical, a long-running production of Brown Buddies (opened October 7, 1930), with Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall, and Ada Brown. He died in 1975.

Okeh released 27 sides by Brooks from early 1921 through late 1926 that ran the gamut from comic routines to Williams-style recitations of his own songs and included one race-series release (Okeh 8062) with blues singer Sara Martin. In March 1922, the Chicago Defender announced that Brooks and several other popular black stars would make Echo records as soon as their current contracts expired. But no Echo records, by Brooks or anyone else, have ever surfaced.

Ham Tree Harrington
A diminutive and sometimes cantankerous individual, Ham Tree Harrington developed a following in the Harlem nightclubs, billing himself as “The Pint-Sized Bert Williams.” Louis Hooper, pianist and mainstay of the Elmer Snowden and Bob Fuller bands in the 1920s, recalled Harrington’s ongoing feud with cornet star Johnny Dunn in a 1966 Record Research interview: “Now Johnny was no trouble maker…but there was something on his mind he didn’t like about Ham Tree, and Harrington knew it. Dunn got up and…said something to Harrington. Ham Tree stood up and WHAM! He hit him! The next day they were still ribbing each other.”

After several years in vaudeville, Harrington got a major break with a starring role in the 1922 Broadway productions of Strut Miss Lizzie. Another feature role followed in 1924’s Dixie to Broadway with Shelton Brooks and Florence Mills, about which the New York Post commented, “Harrington pulls off one of his most original pantomimes of ghost-fright seen in a long day…it is effective beyond words.” Despite good reviews, Harrington returned to club and vaudeville work and didn’t appear in another Broadway musical until the ill-fated 1930 production of J.C. Johnson’s Change Your Luck, in which he co-starred with Alberta Hunter for all 17 performances.

Eddie Hunter
Thanks to his association with Alex Rogers (Williams’ collaborator as far back as 1900), Eddie Hunter is more closely linked to Bert Williams than the other performers listed here.

Hunter seems to have appeared on the scene suddenly, first attracting notice in 1923 for his starring role in the Broadway production of How Come? He also wrote the show’s libretto, which was criticized at the time for borrowing too liberally from Sissle & Blake’s Shuffle Along. The show opened on April 16, 1923 to generally poor reviews and ran for only 32 performances. The New York Sun huffed, “It’s getting dark on Broadway. But not very dark, as the young people who make up the personnel of How Come? have hardly the shade of darkness.”

Hunter’s next Broadway appearance came with newcomer Adelaide Hall in My Magnolia during the summer of 1925. Reviewers liked Hunter and Hall but weren’t enthusiastic about the show itself, which closed after only four performances. Hunter did not make another Broadway appearance until Blackbirds of 1933, in which he starred with Edith Wilson and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. The show opened on December 2, 1933 but survived for only 25 performances.  More Eddie Hunter recordings…

The Playlist • Some Forgotten Vaudevillians (1921–1925)

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MR. O’CONNELL (as BILLY REYNOLDS): I Got It (The Fidg-e-ty Fidge)

New York (master shipment date): March 17, 1923
Gennett 5111 (mx. 8282 – A)
With uncredited orchestra

A mystery artist — We’re going out on a limb here by lumping whoever this is in with the vaudevillians, but his style certainly suggests some stage experience. The Gennett log sheet attributes this only to a “Mr. O’Connell” (not M. J. O’Connell, based on the aural evidence), and the record was issued under the equally obscure name of “Billy Reynolds.” Anyone know anything about him?

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EDDIE NELSON: I’ve Got the Joys

New York — Released October 1921
Emerson 10426 (mx. 41919 – 3)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Arthur Bergh

 

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Eddie Nelson (1894–1940; not to be confused with song-writer Ed G. Nelson) was a California native who toured in vaudeville with a succession of partners. His first major role in a musical comedy was in the 1921 production of “Sun-Kist” (Globe Theater, New York), from which he took his nickname. Nelson was a hit in London in 1927, where a reviewer opined, “He is starring at a very big salary…and evidently jusitifies it.” He made one Vitaphone short in 1928, and additional single-reelers in the 1930s as “Sun-Kist Nelson.”

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JANE GREEN: Somebody Like You

New York: January 30, 1925 — Released April 24, 1925; Deleted 1926
Victor 19604 (mx. B 31451 – 6)
With studio orchestra directed by Nathaniel Shilkret

green-jane-2Another California native, Jane Green got her start as a child actress in Los Angeles, toured in vaudeville as a teenager, then headlined at the major New York houses from 1918 into the late 1920s. Her Broadway credits include “The Century Revue” and “The Midnight Rounders” (1920), “Nifites of 1923,” and various editions of the “Grenwich Village Follies.” She began broadcasting over station WOR (Newark, NJ) in 1925.

Photo from the G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress

 

The Playlist • More Billy Murray Favorites (1910–1915)

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AMERICAN QUARTET (BILLY MURRAY, lead tenor): That Fellow with the Cello Rag

Camden, NJ: April 4, 1911
Victor 5844 (mx. B 9946 – 5)
Released: June 1911
With studio orchestra (conductor unlisted in files)

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BILLY MURRAY: Shaky Eyes

Camden, NJ: May 16, 1910
Victor 16504 (mx. B 8959 – 2)
Released: August 1910 — Deleted: May 1913
With studio orchestra (conductor unlisted in files)

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BILLY MURRAY: Eskimo Rag

Camden, NJ: June 17, 1912
Victor 17166 (mx. B 12112 – 2)
Released: November 1912 — Deleted: November 1914
With studio orchestra (conductor unlisted in files)

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BILLY MURRAY: The Magic Melody

Camden, NJ: May 7, 1915
Victor 17790 (mx. B 16004 -2)
Released: July 1915 — Deleted: January 1920
With studio orchestra (Ted Levy, conductor)

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Discographical data from the original Victor files, courtesy of John Bolig. The Billy Murray photos below (c. 1919–1920) from the G. G. Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

 

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The Playlist • Bob Roberts Favorites (1904–1909)

MSP_victor-mon_2832_B1412Robert A. “Bob” Roberts came from theatrical stock (his father was Nicholas “Nick” Roberts, one of the crustier characters in nineteenth-century popular theater). He was a well-traveled headliner, and as the early 1900s progressed he spent an increasing amount of time touring, including long stays on the West Coast. As a result, his recorded output diminished markedly after 1909. Roberts’ family background, and his recording and performing careers (which began in vaudeville and ended three decades later on radio), are covered in  “American Recording Pioneers: Bob Roberts” on the Mainspring Press website.

As was symptomatic of the period in which they were written, some of these songs contain racial stereotypes and demeaning language, which does not represent the views or attitude of Mainspring Press.

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BOB ROBERTS: Good Bye, Eliza Jane

Philadelphia: May 23, 1904 — Released August 1904
Monarch Record 2832 (mx. B 1412 – )
Orchestra probably directed by Arthur Pryor *

Roberts also recorded this song with piano accompaniment on the same date (mxs. A and B 1341, in 7″ and 10″ form, respectively). The orchestra-accompanied versions apparently were  made as unnumbered tests, but then were assigned mxs. A and B 1412 in early June, having been selected for issue instead of the piano-accompanied versions. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings’ entries for these recordings are scrambled, erroneously showing the orchestra-accompanied version as having been issued only in 7″ form and 10″ Monarch 2832 as being piano-accompanied only (although it is obviously orchestral, as heard here, and as correctly listed in Victor’s August 1904 supplement).

* Arthur Pryor’s likely presence is based upon recording engineer Harry Sooy’s recollection that Victor hired Pryor as its house conductor in late 1903, when the company began regular experiments with orchestral accompaniments. There was not yet a resident Victor studio orchestra when this recording was made; free-lance musicians were hired on an as-needed basis, according to Sooy. Pryor eventually found the job “too confining,” and around September 1904 the position was given to Walter B. Rogers, who built Victor’s own in-house orchestra.

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BOB ROBERTS: ’Tain’t No Disgrace to Run If You’re Skeered

New York; Released March 1904
Columbia XP cylinder 32398 (-2)
Self-announced; Studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince
Hear Bob Roberts’ Victor version of this title

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BOB ROBERTS: I’m Just Barely, Living, Dat’s All

New York; Released June 1904
Columbia 1768 (mx. 1768 – 3; “X” under label)
Self-announced; Studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

The Columbia Master Book Discography shows this take only on the Fairview label.

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BOB ROBERTS: I’ve Got a Tickling Sensation ‘Round My Heart for You

New York; Released March 1908
Harmony 3743  (Columbia mx. 3743 – 1)
Studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

The Harmony issue is unlisted in The Columbia Master Book Discography.

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BOB ROBERTS: That Was Me

New York; Released June 1909
Columbia A667 (mx. 4003 – 2)
Studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

This take is unlisted in The Columbia Master Book Discography. The speed change  in the first verse is a flaw in the original recording.

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BOB ROBERTS with FEMALE CHORUS: The Boogie Boo

Brooklyn, New York (352 Livingston St.); Released July 1909
Indestructible 1104 (two-minute cylinder)
Studio orchestra probably directed by Joseph Lacalle. The female singers are unidentified.

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The Playlist • Ragtime Accordion Classics (1915-1928)

MSP_bwy-1189A_20608-1Three ragtime pieces with some marked similarities, particularly Frank Salerno’s “Kent Street Blues,” which is a slight reworking of Pietro Deiro’s “Melody Rag.” The latter was originally titled “Philadelphia Blues”; although entered as such in the Victor files, the title never appeared on the record labels.

The third strain of “Melody Rag” has been plagiarized from time to time — as heard here on the Salerno recording, but more famously by Weiss & Baum in their 1949 hit, “Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In).”

These recordings and thousands of others (US and foreign) are detailed in The Ragtime Discography, 1894–1960: Cakewalks, Rags, and Novelties on Cylinders and 78, a multimedia CD available exclusively from Mainspring Press. In addition to the most detailed ragtime discography yet published, the CD includes 99 historic recordings in MP3 format, plus high-resolution reproductions of 50 rare ragtime sheet-music covers.

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PIETRO DEIRO: Melody Rag (a.k.a. Philadelphia Blues)

Camden NJ: October 5, 1915
Released: January 1916 — Deleted: January 1923
Victor 17895 (mx. B 16597 – 1)

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PIETRO J. FROSINI: New York Blues — Rag Classical

New York (79 Fifth Avenue): September 15 (or 16), 1916
Released: January 1917
Edison Blue Amberol cylinder 3052 (dubbed from disc mx. 4998-C)

The Edison studio cash book shows a combined payment for Frosini’s September 15 and 16 sessions; this recording appears to be from the earlier session, based on master numbers.

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FRANK SALERNO: Kent Street Blues

Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. May 1928
Broadway 1189 (NYRL mx. 20608 – 1)

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