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The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Conclusion) and her 1920 Victor Test Recording

NINA MORGANA
Part 3 (Conclusion)
By James A. Drake.

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Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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On the subject of broadcasts, you sang with Gigli in one of the earliest Saturday matinee broadcasts, am I correct?

Yes.  Radio became more and more important in the early and middle-1930s.  I remember singing Inès in of one of the first radio broadcasts from the Met [on March 19, 1933], with Gigli as Vasco and Rethberg as Selika.  But the most memorable broadcast I can recall was the silver-anniversary gala for Gatti-Casazza [on February 26, 1933].  Lily Pons sang the Lucia Sextet with Lauri-Volpi, Tancredi Pasero—what a voice!—and Armando Borgioli, and dear old Angelo Badà.  The broadcast was quite special because Alma Gluck spoke on the air, and [Marcella] Sembrich and [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink were present for the gala.

Gigli also had a very memorable appearance in a broadcast that was billed as a “surprise party” in 1932.  Certain parts of the playbill were titled after dishes that one would find on a restaurant menu—one scene was called “Russian Caviar,” another was “Wiener Schnitzel,” and “French Champaign.”  I sang in the one called “Italian Minestrone” on the playbill.   In the “French Champaign” segment, Gigli came onstage in the costume of Carmen and sang the “Habanera.”  Not in falsetto, but in his real voice.

 

You mentioned Lily Pons singing in the Lucia Sextet at Gatti-Casazza’s silver-anniversary gala.  I believe you sang in the Sextet at his farewell gala in March 1935.

The Lucia Sextet was the opening selection of the farewell for Gatti, but the most talked-about performance of that Gala was Melchior singing the last act of Otello with Elisabeth Rethberg. [5]  Five days after that farewell gala, I sang my last performance at the Met.  It was in Bohème—I sang Musetta, and Rethberg sang Mimì.  It was a Saturday matinee broadcast, and a fragment of it was recorded.  I have heard it, but the sound quality is so poor that I can barely make out my own voice.  So the only sound recordings I have of my voice are the tests I made for Victor, which Caruso had made possible.

 

Were you present for any of Caruso’s recording sessions?

Just once, when he recorded “Rachel! Quand du Seigneur,” in September 1920.  He invited me to come to the Victor studios with Bruno.  [Caruso] recorded something else that day—a song, but I can’t recall its title now.  Of course, Bruno was at all of Caruso’s recording sessions from 1917 until 1920.  The first one he was present for was the recording of the Rigoletto Quartet and the Lucia Sextet in January 1917.

 

Do you recall seeing a test recording of the opening tenor measures of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” which Caruso sang?  The test recording was cut off when the others in the ensemble began to sing.

Yes, we had a copy of it.  Caruso inscribed the label to himself—either “To Enrico from Enrico,” or “To Caruso from Caruso,” something of that sort.

 

Do you still have that test pressing?

No.  My husband managed not only to lose that one, but he also misplaced the private recording Caruso made of the “Coat Song” from Bohème.

 

When did you make your test recordings for Victor?

 In 1920.  On Thursday afternoon, April 29, 1920.

 

Were you intimidated at all by the conical recording “horn”?

Well, it wasn’t “conical,” it was octagonal.  It was suspended by an adjustable chain, and there were two large mahogany doors below it.  I wasn’t intimidated by it not only because I had watched Caruso make the Juive recording, but also because the director at Victor, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, who accompanied me at the piano, explained the recording process to me in detail.

 

How many test recordings did you make that day?

Just two.  I sang Chadwick’s “He Loves Me,” and then “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula.

 

Were you able to hear the test recordings played back to you soon after you finished making the recordings?

No.  I was invited to the Victor studios in Manhattan to hear the recordings played, and was given both of the discs after they were played for me.

 

Were you pleased with what you heard?

With “Come per me sereno,” yes.  But my voice sounded too distant in “He Loves Me.”

 

Do you recall what type of piano, a grand or an upright, was used in your recordings, and where the piano was located?

It was a grand piano with the lid raised to its maximum, pointed toward the horn.  I stood on a stool in front of the horn, with the bend of the piano immediately behind me.
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__________________________________________________________________________________

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NINA MORGANA (Josef Pasternack, piano): Come per me sereno

Victor test: April 29, 1920
(A busy day at Victor; others who cut tests on this date, ahead of Nina Morgana, included Lew Brown, William Robyn, Fred Whitehouse, and the Finnish Mixed Quartette. Data from the Discography of American Historical Recordings.)
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__________________________________________________________________________________

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Do you know why your recordings were never released commercially?

There were two reasons, really.  The first was that Caruso died unexpectedly.  As soon as he recovered from his illness, he was to have recorded “É il sol dell’anima” with me.  After he died, of course, that became a moot point.  The other reason had to do with my husband.  Bruno wanted only one “star” in our home, and being a traditional Italian man, he had to be the center of attention.

 

You were a classically-trained soprano who was taught through the solfeggio method by a legendary soprano.  Mr. Zirato had no musical education at all, and yet he spent his career in the operatic and symphonic worlds.  To what extent did he really “know” music?

 He knew [opera] libretti as well as any conductor or coach.  He knew them so thoroughly that he had an annoying habit of speaking the lines while a singer was singing them.  He did that throughout every performance I attended with him, and no matter how many times I stuck my elbow into his arm to shut him up, he couldn’t stop reciting the lines.  It annoyed everyone around us because his voice was so deep.  I felt that he did it [i.e., reciting lines in his box seat while they were being sung onstage] to show off, to impress everyone around us with his vast knowledge of the repertoire.

 

But he could not read music, correct?

No, not at all.  Nor did he have a very good sense of pitch.  Unless a singer or an instrumental soloist was flat or sharp by at least a half-tone, his ear couldn’t detect it.

 

Did you sing at home, and did he give you any opinions about your singing?

Occasionally, I would go to the piano and accompany myself in arias that I loved but which were not a part of my repertoire.  As I said earlier, I loved singing tenor arias such as “M’appari,” “Che gelida manina,” and “Come un bel dí di Maggio.”  Once, I remember accompanying myself and seeing Bruno come to the piano, put his hands on the raised lid, and listen to me singing—or so I thought.  As soon as I finished, he said to me, “My podiatrist says I have beautiful feet.”

 

Would you have continued to sing under the Johnson administration if you had been given more performances and more opportunities to sing the major coloratura roles?

It wouldn’t have been possible under the circumstances, for several reasons.  Caruso had been my entré to the Met, and when he died I knew that my chances for the major coloratura roles would be limited.  Galli-Curci came [to the Met], and then Lily Pons.  They were Gatti-Cassazza’s and then Johnson’s coloraturas, and I was limited mainly to Amina in Sonnambula, an occasional Gilda, and more often than not, Musetta in Bohème.   And as I said, my husband wanted to be the only celebrity in our home.  So that was that.

 

Some twenty-five years after Caruso’s passing, you and your husband became very close to Arturo Toscanini.  From some interviews that Toscanini gave, we know that although he admired and respected both Caruso and Gigli, he was not at all shy about criticizing them for taking on roles that were inappropriate for their young voices.

He repeated to Bruno and me many times his exclamation upon hearing Caruso in Italy for the first time:  “Per Dio!  If this young Neapolitan tenor keeps singing like this, he will have the whole word talking about him!”  When Caruso began to take on gradually heavier roles, Toscanini was prone to lecture him—and later Gigli, and all of the rest of us—about the danger of impairing the voice by imposing the requirements of dramatic parts upon an essentially lyrical voice and technique.

Toscanini thought that Gigli was superb in Bohème, Elisir d’amore, and Rigoletto, but that Africana, Trovatore, and Aida were too weighty for his voice.  Just as Toscanini had been critical of Caruso for taking on heavier roles too early in his career, he was critical of all of the other tenors who came after Caruso.  But Toscanini, musical genius that he was, could be susceptible to irresistible personalities.

Two that come to mind were Giovanni Martinelli, who could do no wrong in Maestro’s eyes, and Geraldine Farrar, with whom he [Toscanini] had a prolonged love affair. Perhaps you know the story of the clashes between Toscanini and Farrar—especially his remark that she was not a “star” because the only stars are in the night sky, and her retort that audiences came to see her on the stage, not to stare at the back of Toscanini’s head in the orchestra pit.

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Geraldine Farrar selling Liberty Bonds, 1918 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Because of my husband’s close association with Toscanini through the New York Philharmonic, Bruno and I were often invited to the relatively few social events that Toscanini would attend.  One of the most memorable of these events was a dinner that Farrar gave for Toscanini at her home in Connecticut in the early 1950s.

We rode there with Toscanini in his chauffeured car, and unlike other invitations that he initially accepted and almost immediately regretted, the invitation from Farrar put him in a very good mood.  That mood changed abruptly when the main course was served.  From then until we left, which was as soon as we politely could, Toscanini sat at her dinner table, glaring at his plate.

When we got into the car, he exploded!  “I slept with that woman for seven years,” he shouted, “and she knows I hate fish!”

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You sang under Toscanini.  Do you recall how many times?

 The only performance I remember distinctly was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Richard Crooks, Sophie Braslau, and Ezio Pinza, and the Schola Cantorum in 1928.

 

How was the Maestro’s temperament during the rehearsals? 

“Vesuvian” is the word that comes to my mind.  He broke at least one, maybe two batons, and he threw his pocket watch on the floor and crushed it with his heel!  He pointed out poor Crooks and told him that he sang like a sick pig.  Then he used a very crude Italian expression for Pinza.  It would embarrass me to repeat it [but] he told Pinza that his singing had the same worth that the pig’s food has after the pig has digested and eliminated it.

 

Were you spared his wrath, since you knew him personally?

Definitely not!  He told me that Madame Arkel, whom he had known very well in Italy, should have forbade me ever to mention her name in public because my singing was a disgrace to her name!

 

Did he finish the rehearsal?

 Yes, but he rushed through it.  He was still enraged at the end [of the rehearsal], and shouted at us to get out of his sight and not come back until we were prepared to give our very best.  At the next rehearsal, I can assure you that Morgana, Braslau, Crooks, and Pinza and everyone else associated with the performance sang better than we ever knew we could!

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Arturo Toscanini, c. 1921 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Returning to Enrico Caruso, you sang a number of concerts with him.  Do you recall how many you sang with him?

 In all, there were eleven.  The first one was in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in February 1919, and the last was in New Orleans on June 26, 1920.  He had asked me to sing some upcoming concerts that fall [1920], two in Canada and three in the Midwest, but I was already scheduled to make my debut at the Metropolitan, so I had rehearsals and other obligations to attend to.

 

Did you sing most of the joint concerts that Caruso gave during World War One?

No, but I attended most of the ones he gave with other singers.  He did concerts with Louise Homer, Claudia Muzio, Frances Alda, and Galli-Curci.  I think he did one with Mary Garden, too.  One concert I remember particularly well was with De Luca, Alda, and Martinelli.  Can you imagine one of these tenors today inviting another famous tenor to appear with him?  But Caruso invited Martinelli to sing with him.  He was very fond of Martinelli, as I’ve told you.

Before Caruso invited me to appear with him, Carolina White and Mabel Garrison had sung [concerts] with him.  And Ganna Walska sang at least one [concert] with him.  But those were not really “joint concerts,” because Carolina White, Garrison, Ganna Walska and I were billed as “assisting artists” to Caruso.  The [concerts] he did with Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, Alda, Muzio, and Homer were truly joint concerts because they were first-rank artists.

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This program from October 1918 appears to contradict Morgana’s recollection that she toured with Caruso only during 1919–1920; however, another copy, in the Ann Arbor District Library, has the notation, “Postponed to Spring.” (William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press)

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What did Caruso typically sing, and what did you sing—not only on the printed program, but as encores?

The violinist Elias Breeskin toured with us, so he would open the program.  He had his own accompanist—ours was Salvatore Fucito—and [Breeskin] would usually play [the Dvorak] “Humoresque” or something similar.  Then I would sing either “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula or “Ombra leggiera” from Dinorah, Those were the two arias I sang in all of our concerts.

Caruso would then sing “Celeste Aida,” which was always his first aria on the program.  Breeskin would then return to the platform and play two, sometimes three selections.  After that, I would sing an aria—again, either the Sonnambula or Dinorah aria, whichever one I hadn’t opened with—and Caruso would sing “Vesti la giubba,” which would always earn him a standing ovation.

After the ovation, he would motion for me to join him at the center of the stage, and we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” together.  Always—always—at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he would take me by the hands, and swing me around him.  That delighted him to no end, and the audience loved it!  Then he would motion for Breeskin and his accompanist, and also Fucito, to stand with us and take our bows.

After all of us left the stage, the applause would go on and on, and in the midst of it Caruso would walk back onto the stage from the wings—just two or three feet from the wings—and he would arch his eyebrows and turn the palms of his hands upward with a big smile, as if to say, “Would you like to hear more?”  That’s when the fun would begin!

He would point to me, and then point to himself, as if to say, “Go ahead and sing something of mine!”  This was all rehearsed, of course, and I would proceed to sing “M’appari” from Marta,  Next, he would motion for Breeskin to join him for the Massenet “Elégie.”  Then Caruso would sing three Tosti songs—and always the final one would be “’A vucchella.”

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You also sang a joint concert with Gigli, am I correct?

Yes, it was in Boston during a two-concert appearance in which his assisting artist was scheduled to be Anna Fitziu, but she was indisposed and he asked me to take her place.  I had sung a number of times in Philadelphia—in fact, I was in one of Gigli’s last performances there, a performance of L’Africana with Rethberg as Sélika  [on April 12, 1932].   When I replaced Anna Fitziu as his assisting artist, Gigli told me to sing whatever I wanted to sing, so I chose my two tried-and-true arias, the Dinorah and Sonnambula, and both were well received.

Gigli opened that concert, as he did many others that he gave, with the two Elisir arias:  he sang “Quanto è bella” and followed it with “Una furtiva lagrima.”    After I sang “Come per me sereno,” he sang three Italian songs.  He sang “Amarilli,” then “Primavera,” and before he sang the third one—“Tre giorni son che Nina”—he extended his hand to me, and he sang it to me.  Then I sang “Ombra leggiera,” after which he sang “O paradiso,” which earned him another standing ovation.

After “O paradiso,” he left the stage for a few minutes, and when he returned he sang three French selections—two songs whose titles I don’t recall at the moment, and then the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys.  That was the last selection on the printed program.  As the applause continued, I came onstage and sang “Caro nome” as an encore.  Then Gigli sang five encores, mind you!  He began with “Santa Lucia,” then he sang three Tosti songs—“L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” “Serenata,” and “Marechiare”—and he ended with “’O sole mio.”

If that isn’t a tour de force, what is?  I can assure you that his voice was just as fresh, just as dolcissima, in “’O sole mio” as it was in “Quanto è bella” and “Una furtiva lagrima” at the start of the concert.   Gigli’s entire career was that way:  fresh and sweet and beautiful from beginning to end.

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Nina Morgana with the author (Ithaca, New York, 1980)

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[5] Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune:  “After a spirited curtain-raiser extracted from the immortal opus of Donizetti with Mme. Nina Morgana lending her gifts and skill and feeling and intensity as the unhappy heroine, the novelty of the evening was disclosed to us. This was a performance of the last Act of Verdi’s Otello with Mr. Melchior embodying the Moor of Venice for the first time in New York and Mme. Rethberg playing Desdemona. It is twenty-two years since the music of Otello was heard at the Metropolitan.”

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

The Jame A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 2)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 2 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Returning to Elisir d’amore when you sang it with Gigli, what do you recall of those performances?

My first Elisir with Gigli was in March 1930.  I sang Adina with Gigli, De Luca, and Pinza, with Serafin conducting.  I wasn’t cast for that performance—Editha Fleischer was supposed to sing it—but I got the last-minute call from Gatti-Casazza, and I went on in her place.  I did it well enough that he kept me with the same cast for several more performances.  I also sang Elisir with Tito Schipa as Nemorino.

 

How did Gigli and Schipa compare in Elisir?

Both of them were excellent as Nemorino, and both received ample applause for “Quanto è bella,” which is a better indicator than “Una furtiva lagrima” of the fit between the voice and the characterization of Nemorino.  In that role, Beniamino Gigli was the perfect Nemorino.

 

Even more so than Caruso, whom you saw and heard in Elisir?

I saw five performances of Elisir with Caruso as Nemorino, and I heard him sing “Una furtiva lagrima,” either as a published selection or as an encore, during the concerts I did with him.  As my late husband, Bruno Zirato, wrote in his book and said in radio interviews, Caruso never received more than cursory applause after “Quanto è bella.”  As soon as he made his exit, he would exclaim to Bruno, “Pigs!  They are pigs, these people in the audience!  I give everything I have to ‘Quanto è bella,’ and they do not applaud!”  Yet every time Gigli sang “Quanto è bella,” the audience would erupt in applause.

 

To what do you attribute the difference in the audiences’ reactions to Caruso and Gigli in that aria?

There were two factors, in my opinion, and I will try to explain them as precisely as I can.  The main factor of the two was Caruso’s splendid recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima,” of which he made two versions for the Victor Talking Machine Company—the first one with piano accompaniment [in 1904], and a subsequent one with an orchestra [in 1908].  Both versions were staples of the Victor Company catalogs in their day, and those recordings sold by the thousands.

Consequently, Metropolitan Opera audiences came to Elisir d’amore to hear Caruso sing “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Had he recorded “Quanto è bella,” the audiences probably would have applauded him as ardently as they did after he sang “Una furtiva lagrima.”  But other than that aria and “Venti scudi,” which he made with De Luca, Caruso never recorded anything else from Elisir d’amore.

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.Benimino Gigli (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You were present at the ill-fated performance of Elisir d’amore at the Brooklyn Academy, when the performance had to be halted at the end of the first act because a blood vessel burst in Caruso’s throat.  Weren’t you to have sung Adina in that performance?

That happened on Saturday, December 11, 1920, and yes, I was to have sung Adina.  The day before the performance, however, Gatti-Casazza told me that for a variety of reasons—none of which he explained—he would have to give that performance to Evelyn Scotney.  I didn’t object, nor could I have objected to “the boss,” and I assumed that there would be many future performances in which I could sing with Caruso.

 

What do you remember about the trauma of that event? 

Early in the first act, before “Quanto è bella,” a small vein hemorrhaged in Caruso’s throat.  He was still able to sing, but a trickle of blood formed on his lower lip, and in order to wipe it away, he used the neckerchief of his costume.  Between phrases, he would dab his lips on the kerchief to blot the blood.  In the wings, when Gatti realized what was happening, he motioned to Bruno to rush to get more kerchiefs.  One by one, those were passed from the wings to Caruso, and as each became saturated with his blood, he put it in the circular well that was part of the scenery.

At the close of the act, Caruso was examined by a doctor.  Before the performance began, Gatti-Casazza had called for a doctor after Caruso noticed a small amount of blood when he was gargling in his dressing room.  I don’t know what the doctor did—I was not near him when he was treating Caruso—but there was an air of gloom backstage.

As I was standing near an elevator, Gatti-Casazza saw me, and he pointed to his nose and said to me, “Che naso!”—in other words, in English, “What a nose I have,” meaning that he had had a sort of premonition, and for that reason had not wanted me to sing Adina that day.  I didn’t believe him, although I nodded politely when he said it.  I think that when he saw me, he just felt that he should say something because he knew that I was disappointed by his decision to replace me with Evelyn Scotney.

 

On the topic of Caruso and Gigli, you mentioned that there were two factors in the difference in audiences’ receptions of Gigli and Caruso as Nemorino.  The first, as you explained, was attributable to Caruso’s recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima.”  What was the second factor?

Although Caruso could portray a bumpkin onstage, and even in a movie [3], his persona was inherently unlike the character of Nemorino.  Gigli, who was sweet, kind, and generous, was basically a simple man who had an extraordinarily beautiful voice.  Caruso, by contrast, was a complex man who, over the years, had acquired a level of sophistication which was reflected in every aspect of his daily life.

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Would you give us some examples of how that sophistication was manifested in Caruso’s lifestyle?

With his extraordinary success came, of course, an ever-expanding personal wealth, which enabled him to acquire the finest of everything—the finest clothing, the finest automobiles, the finest homes, the finest objets d’art, and even the finest cigarettes, which were made exclusively for him from a special Egyptian tobacco.  Every fabric, whether it was the material of his shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs, or the sheets and pillowcases on his bed, was the most luxurious that money could buy, or else he would not have acquired them.

I cannot think of another artist who appreciated luxury more than Caruso.  Well, let me amend that because I can think of one:  Feodor Chaliapin.  But I can’t think of another tenor who appreciated luxury more than Caruso did.  He had risen from near-poverty in Naples, and when he became famous and wealthy, he indulged in luxury—almost boyishly so, in certain ways.

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.Caruso with Bruno Zirato (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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For instance, when he retired to bed at night, Caruso wanted to be surrounded by goose-down pillows from head to foot.  So at his bedtime, my husband Bruno, who was his secretary, would delicately place one large pillow under Caruso’s head, and would systematically place six identical pillows around his body—two on each side for his arms and legs, and two at his feet.  Bruno said that the expression on Caruso’s face, as he closed his eyes and then spread his fingers on the pillows, was as tender and serene as a little boy’s.

 

Did Caruso ever speak of Gigli in your presence?

Indeed!  Not only did he speak of Gigli, he discreetly attended a performance of Cavalleria rusticana in which Gigli sang Turiddu.  Caruso didn’t attend the performance expressly to hear Gigli, but rather to be present for a triple bill that included the American premiere of a ballet called Il carillon magico.  The star of the ballet was Rosina Galli, who was Gatti-Casazza’s paramour at the time.

Caruso also came to see L’Oracolo with his old friend Antonio Scotti.  L’Oracolo was part of the triple bill, as was Cavalleria with Gigli and Emmy Destinn.   Backstage afterward, Caruso not only congratulated Gigli but embraced him as well.  A day or so later, he drew a wonderful caricature of Gigli, which he had Bruno hand-deliver to the Ansonia Hotel, where Gigli was living.

 

Caruso is quoted as having said, “He could have waited until I died,” or words to that effect.  Did he say that in your presence?

To the best of my knowledge, he never made any such comment.  First of all, it was entirely out of character for Caruso to make any negative remark about another singer.  Being a public figure, a “celebrity” as we would say today, Caruso was acutely aware that anything he said would be repeated, if not quoted, in one of the newspapers.  So he weighed his words very carefully when he was in the presence of others—which was most of the time.

What Caruso said in my presence after the triple-bill with Gigli in Cavalleria was, “I used to sound like that when I was young.”  He said that matter-of-factly, not ruefully, and certainly not enviously.  The way he said it was not that Gigli literally had the same voice that Caruso did when he was young.  Rather, he meant that one would expect a young, very gifted tenor to have the lyric sound that Gigli had.

 

Caruso would have had no reason to envy Gigli’s success in Chénier, in other words?

Of course not!  And that alleged comment about “waiting until I died” implies that Caruso was somehow preoccupied with death.  But the fact was that he had a new wife and a new daughter, and he seemed to us, and certainly to his doctors, to be recovering from the illness he had suffered.  He had empyema, which as my doctor-brother Dante explained to me, was an abscess that had formed in Caruso’s pleural cavity.  When he and Dorothy and their daughter Gloria sailed for Italy, where he could relax and regain his stamina, he looked well, although he had lost twenty pounds or more.

 

To be clear, then, you place no stock in the often-repeated statement, “At least they could have waited until I died,” which Caruso is alleged to have said when Gigli was given the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier

I don’t put any stock in it because it is contradicted by Caruso’s regard for Gigli when he heard him as Turiddu—and the caricature he drew of Gigli is the evidence I would point to.  Caruso never caricatured anyone he didn’t like or didn’t admire. [4]   But suppose, for the sake of the allegation, that Caruso did say it.  If so, he would have been referring to Gatti-Casazza, not Gigli, because it was Gatti who assigned and approved every cast.  Beniamino Gigli didn’t cast Beniamino Gigli, Giulio Gatti-Casazza was the one who cast Beniamino Gigli—and every other artist at the Metropolitan Opera.

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.Giulio Gatti-Casazza and his wife, Frances Alda, October 19, 1915 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you describe your relationship with Gigli as friendly, or merely collegial?

We weren’t social friends by any means—he was a shy man offstage—but I had a lot of affection for him, and I think he felt the same way toward me.  There are two special memories I have of him, and both occurred in connection with Elisir d’amore.  There was one passage that I had a slight problem with—and Gigli sensed it during our first performance together.  In every Elisir after that, when that passage was coming, he would turn toward me and say, “Andiam’, Cara, andiam’”—in English, “Go ahead, my dear, come on, you can do it!”  His encouragement made such a difference to me!

The second memory I have of Gigli was at the end of Act One of Elisir d’amore.  I was so taken by his singing of “Quanto è bella” that I said to him in the wings, “I have never heard that aria sung more beautifully than you have just sung it!”  I couldn’t come right out and say, “You sang just ‘Quanto è bella’ more beautifully than even Caruso sang it.”  That would have been improper.  But he knew what I meant, what I was actually saying, without making any mention of Caruso.

When I said it, his eyes told me that he wanted to be sure that he had heard me correctly.  An instant or two later, the look in his eyes showed that he realized what I had said.  He answered by saying, “Thank you—oh, thank you!”  Many years later, when he gave a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, I went to see him after the performance.  Bruno and I told him that the beauty of his tones were the same as they had been when we first heard him.  He said to me, “You were not only my Adina, but you lifted the weight”—meaning the weight of Caruso’s legacy—“from my little shoulders.”

 

Do you remember the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier?

Yes, very clearly.  I was in the Caruso box with Dorothy [Caruso] for the first in-house performance of Andrea Chénier on March 7, 1921.  The premiere was supposed to be on February 26, but Gigli was ill and it had to be postponed.  He sang a performance in Philadelphia a few days before the in-house premiere [March 1], but I wasn’t there [in Philadelphia] so I can’t speak about it.  But the first in-house performance of Chénier was superb!

When Gigli sang “Un dì all’azzurro spazio,” it almost had to be repeated because of the prolonged applause.  I have heard many performances of Andrea Chénier since then, but no tenor I have ever heard could match Gigli for vocal beauty in that role.  But he was not the only “star of the show”:  Claudia Muzio was Maddalena, and she too was unmatched in that role.  That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of Rosa Raisa and Rosa Ponselle.  Both of them said in my presence, at different times, that Muzio had no equal as Maddalena.

 

What was Caruso’s reaction, if you know, to the premiere of Andrea Chénier with Gigli?

A few days after the premiere, Bruno and I were having supper with Caruso in his apartment, and he asked me how Gigli had done.  I said that I thought he had done very well, and that the audience had reacted very favorably.  I was never less than honest with Caruso—even at his expense.  One time, I asked him why he sang two and three phrases in one breath when it would be more artistic to take breaths in the appropriate spots.  Although Bruno probably wanted to strangle me for being so brazen, Caruso answered me by saying, “That’s emotion”—meaning, that’s how he felt when he was singing, and that’s how he conveyed in his voice what he felt emotionally.

As far as Andrea Chénier is concerned, keep in mind that Caruso had sung it in London at an earlier point in his career.  He was more than familiar with [the opera], and he was pleased that Gigli had done well at the premiere.  As I said before, Caruso liked Gigli, and had no reason whatsoever to envy him.

 

Do you have any idea how Gigli regarded Caruso?

Yes, he regarded Caruso as we all did—as the King.  In deference to him, we addressed him as “The Master” [Maestro] when conversing with him.

 

What do you recall of Gigli’s Met debut?

What I remember the most was how exciting it was to hear such an exquisite tenor voice!  The beauty of Gigli’s voice was almost beyond description.  I have heard most of the great tenors, the tenor “stars,” for nearly seventy years, and not one of them had a voice more beautiful than Beniamino Gigli’s.  Now, at that time he had a tendency to turn toward the audience in “Dai campi, dai prati” and other solo moments, which was acceptable in many Italian [opera] houses.  But Gigli’s voice was so inherently beautiful that his tendency to sing to the audience was not that objectionable, at least not to me.

 

Was Faust in Mefistofele his best role during his debut season?

No, not compared to his Nemorino, nor to his Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana.  His Turiddu was better than his Faust, in my opinion.  It wasn’t the “Siciliana” [in Cavalleria] so much as the “Brindisi” and “Mamma! quel vino,” which he sang with complete abandon, yet without ever forcing his voice.

 

In what other roles do you recall hearing Gigli during the early years of his Met career?

I heard him in Tosca with Emmy Destinn [on December 10, 1920] but I would have to say that he was not up to her standards as an actor-singer.  He sang the music beautifully, of course—but unlike, say, Turiddu, he couldn’t convey the proper emotion for Cavaradossi during that early part of his Met career.  It wasn’t just that he was not an actor, and was not conventionally handsome.  I don’t know how to say it except that the role was “above” Gigli at that point in his career.  He didn’t have the demeanor of a painter, an artist, in that role.  By comparison, Lauri-Volpi had it in abundance.

I remember Gigli’s first Edgardo in Lucia during his debut season, and it was excellent in every way.  Edgardo is a vocal role, not really a dramatic role, although the last act requires at least a modicum of acting.  But one listens to Lucia, not watches it, because the roles are static and most of the music, especially the Sextet and the Mad Scene, is so familiar to audiences through recordings and radio broadcasts.

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[3] The film to which Morgana is referring is My Cousin, a 1918 comedy produced by Jesse Lasky, of Famous Players—Lasky, in which Caruso portrayed a world-renowned opera singer as well as a simple, peasant-like cousin. Although the film was not as commercially successful as Lasky and his partners had hoped, its special effects (in particular, a scene in which Caruso shakes hands with himself as the “cousin”) were commended in the press at the time, and in subsequent histories of silent film.  See Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (Secker & Warburg, 1968), an oral history of the silent era, and Martin M. Marks, Music and the Silent Film:  Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4]  Letter from Enrico Caruso to Leo Slezak, 1910:  “You should know that I make caricatures of great men or friends….”

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 3 (Conclusion): Caruso and Morgana on tour, more recollections of the Met, and Morgana’s 1920 Victor test recording (MP3)

The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 1)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 1 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Born of Italian parents who had emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to Buffalo, New York in 1890, Nina Morgana (1891-1984) first sang in public performances in her native city’s Italian district in 1900. [1]  After studying in Italy with Teresa Arkel from 1909-1913, she made well-received debuts in Alessandria and in Milan.  When she returned to America, she was chosen by Enrico Caruso as one of his assisting artists in a highly-publicized series of concerts in the United States.  Morgana made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1920-21 season, having previously sung with the Chicago Opera Association under the management of Mary Garden.

In June 1921, scarcely two months before Caruso’s sudden death, Morgana married the tenor’s full-time secretary, Bruno Zirato (1886-1972), who later became the general manager of the New York Philharmonic and also served as Arturo Toscanini’s representative in North and South America.  Essentially self-educated and invariably self-assured, Morgana was well-acquainted with Beniamino Gigli, as she discussed in a number of interviews conducted by the author from 1973-1979. 

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Bruno Zirato with Dorothy and Enrico Caruso on their wedding day, August 20, 1918. The location is the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, New York.
(G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You and Beniamino Gigli made your Metropolitan Opera debuts during the same season, is that correct?

In the same season, yes, and less than twenty-four hours apart:  Gigli made his as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele on November 26, 1920, and I made mine as Gilda in Rigoletto on Saturday, November 27.  But strictly speaking, my debut was not my first performance at the Met.  Several months earlier, on March 28, I sang three arias at a Sunday Night Concert, with Pasquale Amato and [violinist] Albert Spalding also on the program. 

 

Was Caruso [was] to have sung the Duke in your debut in Rigoletto?

Yes, but he was ill, so Mario Chamlee sang the Duke at my debut. [2]  Giuseppe De Luca sang Rigoletto.  Chamlee and De Luca were also my partners in Barber of Seville during that same season.  I also sang Nedda in Pagliacci with Edward Johnson as Canio and Antonio Scotti as Tonio in my debut season.  I was to have sung Pagliacci with Caruso originally.

 

In operatic circles, it is widely known that you were “discovered” by Caruso.  When and where did this “discovery” take place?

I can tell you precisely:  it was on Saturday, May 9, 1908, at 3:00 p.m., in Buffalo, New York, in one of the four suites on the top floor of the Iroquois Hotel.   I can be more specific by telling you that Caruso’s suite was the one atop the front of the hotel, which faced Eagle Street.  The hotel, which had one-thousand rooms, was still new at that time; it had opened for business in conjunction with the Pan-American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901.

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

Yes, I sang there in an exhibition called Venice in America, on the midway.  I was nine years old, and was billed as “Baby Patti” or “Child Patti” in the [Buffalo] newspapers.

 

It was at the Pan-American Exposition, on June 13, 1901, that President William McKinley was assassinated.  Do you recall anything about that tragic day?

The only memory I have is hearing adults around me saying very agitatedly, “The President has been shot!  The President has been shot!”  I was too young to know what “being shot” meant—and I also didn’t know what “president” meant, much less who the president was.  When I asked my parents about it, they tried to explain to me that in the United States, the president was “the king.”  Well, I didn’t know what a “king” was, so I just accepted the fact that someone important had been hurt in some way.

 

When you auditioned for Caruso, do you recall what you sang?

Yes, I sang “Caro nome.”  Just the “Caro nome,” without the recitative.  When I finished, Caruso patted me on the cheek and told my father, who came with me, that I had a very promising voice.  He told us that I would have to study in Italy, and he said he would write a letter on my behalf to the great Teresa Arkel, asking her to accept me as a pupil.  He did so, and about a year later, my father and I sailed to Italy.  During the day, while I was at Mme. Arkel’s having my lessons, my father worked as a laborer.

 

Obviously, Caruso detected the youthful promise in your voice, just as he did several years later with the young Rosa Ponselle.  Looking back, what do you think he heard in your voice that prompted him to refer you to Teresa Arkel?

Well, whatever he heard was not what Mme. Arkel heard!  In his letter to her, Caruso had written that he believed my voice would become a mezzo-sopranone, or in English, “a great big mezzo-soprano.”  When I sang for Mme. Arkel, however, she said that my voice would be fine for roles like Lucia, Amina in Sonnambula, and Adina in Elisir d’amore, which require an exceptional top.  And I had one, too.  By the time I left Mme. Arkel, I could sing the G above high-C effortlessly.  But vocally, I was certainly not going to be singing Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana.

 

When you were studying in Italy, was Caruso as famous there as he was in the U.S.?

Actually, no.  His recordings were well-known, of course, and hence his name was well-known, but since 1903 he had been at the Metropolitan Opera, not La Scala or one of the other houses in Italy.  The tenor who was admired when I was studying in Italy—not just admired, but adored—was Giuseppe Anselmi.  He was as famous there as Caruso was in the United States.  

Anselmi, whom I heard several times, had a gorgeous voice and a perfect technique, and was also extraordinarily handsome.  Anselmi was “all the rage,” so to say, as was Maria Galvany among sopranos.  It was Galvany, not Melba, who was adored in Italy, yet in America she was almost unknown other than on recordings.

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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A great tenor who sang during Anselmi’s time, and whom some historians claim was the equal of Caruso in certain roles, was Alessandro Bonci.  Did you see Bonci, and if so, what was your assessment of him?

The distance between Caruso and Bonci as tenors was about the size of the Grand Canyon.  They had nothing at all in common, either vocally or as men.  In Italy, it was rumored that Bonci was an unethical person.  He had played some part in obtaining a forged letter from Verdi, giving Bonci supposed permission to sing the “È scherzo od è follia” in a unique way.  I heard a recording of it, and Bonci’s performance was different yet acceptable.  But he was still in disrepute because he had paid someone to forge the letter from Verdi.

Personally, I saw Bonci as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele, in which he was wearing an over-stated costume topped by a large hat with an even larger feather protruding from it.  Frankly, he looked silly on the stage.  Vocally, his singing was pleasant enough, and it reminded me somewhat of Lauri-Volpi because both of them had exceptional high ranges.  But Lauri-Volpi was handsome onstage, whereas Bonci was a feather-bearing little man in an overdone costume with high-heeled boots.

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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Earlier, you mentioned having sung with Edward Johnson in Pagliacci at the MetWhen Johnson’s name is mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Opera, it is usually in reference to his tenure as General Manager, not as one of its significant tenors.  Do you recall the first time you heard him sing?

Yes, in Italy in 1910.  I sang with him there in Elisir d’amore.  At the time, he was singing under the Italianized name “Edoardo di Giovanni.”

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

My very first performance on an opera stage was as the hidden “forest bird” in Siegfried, at the Teatro Dal Verme.   Tullio Serafin, who was young and handsome—his hair was brown and thick in those days—had come to Mme. Arkel to ask if she had a pupil who could sing the part.  She told him that I could do it, and I did—I sang it hidden in a papier-maché “tree.”  Giuseppe Borgatti was the star of the performance.

I was also in the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala on March 1, 1911, which was led by Serafin.  The cast included Lucrezia Bori in the breeches role of Octavian, Ines Maria Ferraris as Sophie, and Pavel Ludikar as Baron Ochs.  During one of the curtain calls with the full cast, I held Strauss’s hand.

 

At the Met, Lucrezia Bori and Edward Johnson were famously paired as Romeo and Juliet.  But you knew both singers in Italy a decade before you made your Met debut?

Bori and Johnson were perfect for each other in Roméo et Juliette.  And, yes, I sang a number of performances with Johnson at the Met.  But his best partner among sopranos was Lucrezia Bori, not Nina Morgana.  I’m sure you have heard recordings of Bori, but have you seen photographs of her?

 

Yes, mostly studio portraits but a few candid ones, in various books about the history of the Met.

Most of her publicity photos were taken [of her] in profile, or else at an angle, rather than facing the camera lens.  She had an ocular condition called strabismus, which lay people refer to as having a “lazy eye” or, less kindly, as “cross-eyed.”  When she was relaxed, Bori’s right eye would tend to drift toward her nose.  My brother, Dante Morgana, a premiere ophthalmologist and surgeon, gave her exercises to train the muscles of her right eye to keep the eyeball centered.

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Lucrezia Bori (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

 

Although fate deprived you of the opportunity to sing Pagliacci with Caruso, you sang not only Nedda but other major roles with almost all of the legendary tenors who inherited Caruso’s repertoire.

My best roles were Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaela in Carmen, and Musetta in Bohème.  Although I also sang Mimì in Bohème, [General Manager Giulio] Gatti-Casazza said that I was not only better as Musetta, but that I was the best Musetta of the several sopranos who sang the role under his management.  

 

Do you recall some of the casts in your performances of those operas?

I sang my first Micaela in Carmen with Giovanni Martinelli and Miguel Fleta alternating as Don José, and with José Mardones as Escamillo.  I know of no other basso profondo who could sing Escamillo—later, Pinza sang it, but his voice was a less powerful lyric sound compared to José Mardones.  But Mardones’ range was so marvelous that he could sing Escamillo easily and convincingly.  In some of my performance in Pagliacci, Antonio Scotti sang Tonio and the “new boy,” Lawrence Tibbett, was Silvio. 

In the 1924-1925 season, in a new production of Tales of Hoffmann, I sang the part of the mechanical doll Olympia, with Miguel Fleta as Hoffmann.  In that production, Bori sang the roles of Giulietta and Antonia, and she did them with great distinction.  Later, Queena Mario sang Antonia, but with no distinction at all.

Perhaps you know that Queena Mario’s birth name was Helen Tillotson, a perfectly fine name.  She claimed that [conductor and coach Wilfrid] Pelletier, to whom she was married, had suggested the ridiculous name “Queena,” but I think she made it up herself.  I used to make her mad by asking, “If you have a brother, is his name Kinga?”

 

You sang several times with Giovanni Martinelli, who, perhaps with the sole exception of Caruso, seems to have been beloved by everyone, even by the other great tenors of that era.

I sang Eudoxie in the revival of La Juive with Martinelli as Eléazar, Leon Rothier as the Cardinal, and Rosa Ponselle as Rachel, the role she had created [at the Met] with Caruso in 1919.  In fact, other than Martinelli singing Eléazar in place of Caruso, the revival had almost the same cast as the [Met] premiere.  Ponselle sang most of the performances, but not all of them.  Florence Easton sang several Rachels, as did Elisabeth Rethberg later.

Among the other great tenors of that period, I sang with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi for the first time in Rigoletto in 1926, with De Luca and Mardones.  For that performance, with Gatti-Casazza’s consent, I made a change in Gilda’s costume:  I wore a pink gown in the first scene.  I also sang with Lauri-Volpi in Africana, with Ponselle as Selika, and I sang with him again in Pagliacci in the 1929-1930 season.  In Africana, Gigli was cast instead of Lauri-Volpi in several of the performances I was in, and Florence Easton replaced Ponselle in some of them.  Most were conducted by Serafin.

 

Do you recall the tenors with whom you sang in Bohème?

As I said earlier, Musetta was one of my best and most frequent roles, and I was especially fortunate to sing several performances with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo [in 1932].  A few times, Rodolfo was sung by Martinelli.  It’s not a role that one would immediately associate with him, but the color of Martinelli’s voice was light enough for it, and he restrained the volume of his clarion voice.  I also sang some performances with Armand Tokatyan, who was a very fine tenor and deserves to be remembered better today.

I was also fortunate to be in the opera house on the opening night of the 1921-22 season, when Gigli sang Alfredo to Galli-Curci’s Violetta at her debut.  I knew Galli-Curci before then.  Both of us had sung in Chicago when Mary Garden was the general manager.

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Mary Garden (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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If one-half of the stories that have been told and written about Mary Garden are true, she must have been a formidable person.

Indeed, she was, but probably no more so than Melba or Patti before her.  They ruled their kingdoms—and they made those kingdoms.  No woman who achieved what Patti, or Melba, or Geraldine Farrar, or Mary Garden achieved, could have done so without enormous self-confidence.  Mary Garden, at least as I knew her, was not imperious at all, but she knew very well what her value was. 

She could talk about herself in a way that may sound conceited in the retelling, but from her standpoint it was simply a matter of fact.  I remember walking to the Chicago Opera house with my sister Angie, who traveled with me, and seeing Mary Garden coming toward us.  She stopped us and said, “Did you see my Carmen last night?” Not “How are you,” or “Wonderful to see you today,” but “Did you see my Carmen last night?” 

We hadn’t seen it, so we said so.  “You must see my next one,” she replied.  “There is nothing like it, and there never will be.”  She said that without a trace of haughtiness.  It was as if she had said, “You should carry an umbrella tomorrow because it’s likely to rain.”    

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[1]  The family of Nina Morgana, which comprised seven children, is remarkable not only for her success, but also her siblings’ successes. In addition to her brother Dante Morgana (who, as she mentions in the interview, became a nationally-known eye surgeon), her brother Emilio Morgana entered the priesthood and became a close friend of the friar-author Thomas Merton.  Another brother, Charles Morgana (Giuseppe Carlo Morgana), was an automotive inventor and a close associate of Henry Ford.  His older sister, Angelina Morgana, followed their brother Dante into medical school, where she became the only female in her class in the Medical Department (as it was then known) of the University of Buffalo.   She withdrew because of the harassment she experienced from the all-male faculty.

[2]  Here Morgana’s normally precise memory has failed her: on the day of her Metropolitan Opera debut (Saturday, November 27, 1920) Caruso sang a matinee performance of La forza del destino, and hence was not “ill.”
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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 2: Nina Morgana’s personal recollections of Caruso; Gigli’s premier at the Met; comparing the great tenors

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Audio Rarities • “I Can Smell It Now” – Col. Barney Oldfield & Associates in Korea

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The famed Variety reporter, Ripley’s Believe It or Not commentator, and paratrooping World War II correspondent gives his uncensored take on Korea in this rare, privately issued send-up of Edward R. Murrow’s I Can Hear It Now.

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COL. BARNEY AND ASSOCIATES IN KOREA: I Can Smell It Now

RCA custom pressing (mx. E0-LQB-13611), c. 1951
Note: The final portion of the record, consisting of repeated musical numbers, has been deleted from this transfer.

The James A. Drake Interviews • Ted Lewis (Conclusion)

INTERVIEW WITH TED LEWIS
Part 3 (Conclusion)
 James A. Drake

 

This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.

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(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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I’d like to ask you more about the unique way you perform the lyrics of your songs.  On your Columbia recordings, your early acoustic ones, you seem to sing more than you did when you made your electrical Columbias, and your Decca recordings several years later. 

Well, that had to do more with the way recording was done back then, and also the way that records were promoted.  All of the record companies put out annual catalogs that [listed] their records according to categories.  So there would be a section for dance records, a section for symphonic records, a section for popular music—ballads, waltzes, and what-not—and a section for humorous records, monologs and such, and always a special section for records of opera arias and an overture or section from a symphony.  There may have been one or two others [i.e., categories], but that was the idea, the way these catalogs were put together.

When I made my first records for Columbia with my own band, around 1919, if the label of the record had the words “vocal refrain” or “vocal chorus,” the people who bought the record expected to hear singing.  Not necessarily ballad-singing, but you couldn’t just talk the lyrics, you had to sing them.

When I recorded “When My Baby Smiles at Me” the first time, I was singing into a metal horn, and my band was on bleachers that were in a circle, or semi-circle, right behind me.  If you listen to that [Columbia] record, I sing the line “when my baby smiles at me” just like it’s written.  On any of the later [recordings], I did it like this:  “When my baby”—and I say “baby,” I don’t sing it—“smiles at me”—I sing the words “smiles at,” but on “me,” I speak it.  On the first record, I sang the next line, “My thoughts go roaming to paradise,” all on pitch, singing it “straight,” in other words.  The recording director wanted to hear that “g” in “roaming” on the recording.  Later, I would do it like this:  “My thoughts to roamin’—roamin’—way up there to paradise, yessir,” and I’d “talk” the line.

 

Do you remember where did you make your first recordings for Columbia?

In New York.  The very first ones were [recorded] in space they rented on an upper floor of a building on Sixth Avenue.  Then they built a new set of studios on the top floor of the Gotham Building when it was finished.  Those were nice studios because the building had, I think, twenty-three stories, and the studios were on the top floor, so none of the sounds of the traffic way down below could be heard.  There were big windows on three sides of each studio—there were two separate studios, back to back—and in good weather, the windows would be open and it would be very comfortable in there.

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Were you offered a contract by Victor when you were at Columbia?

 No.  They had other bands by the late-1920’s—[Jean] Goldkette, [George] Olsen, and of course Whiteman—and I was happy at Columbia.  I did well for them, and they did well for me.  They designed a special silver label for my records.  That was the first time any of the record companies designed a special label for a performer.  That became my trademark at Columbia.

 

Another trademark of yours is your white-tipped cane, which you seem to be able to do anything with.  You twirl it so fast that if it had lights on it, they would be a blur.  How long has that been a part of your show, your act?

The baton-twirling?  I had learned it as a kid, and I got to lead a very big medicine show when it came into Circleville.

 

Do you remember the name of the medicine show?  I understand that there were a lot of them in the Midwest at the turn of the century.

It was called Hamlin’s Medicine Show.  It was quite a production—like a circus coming to town.  There would be posters put up everywhere weeks ahead, and the show would come into town led by a marching band.  [Oscar] Ameringer used many of us in the cadet band, along with others, especially brass players, to lead the parade of the Hamlin wagons into town.

I used to practice almost day and night twirling that brass baton.  It wasn’t like the white-tipped walking sticks I use in my act, not like what I use in “Me and My Shadow.”  This one was longer, and it had a kind of bulb on one end.  It was a tapered tube with the other end rounded off.  I got so I could throw it in the air, catch it behind my back, do all sorts of tricks with it.  I wasn’t the only bandleader who could “twirl,” you know.  George Olsen used a baton in his floor shows.  I think he had been a drum major.

 

As you hardly need me to say, there is an ongoing debate about who was first “jazz king,” Ted Lewis or Paul Whiteman.  Would you comment on that debate?

To start with, look at the dates.  When I was playing with Earl Fuller in 1916-1917, Paul was playing viola in a symphony orchestra.  That was his background and training.  His father was the conductor, or maybe director, of the Denver Symphony, which is where Paul got his start.  Then listen to his first records, and compare them to mine.  He didn’t make any recordings till at least two or maybe three years after I was recording with the Fuller band.  Where he was lucky is that he was signed by Victor, and two of the songs his band recorded in one of their first sessions, “Whispering” and “The Japanese Sandman,” were big hits.

Frankly, I never thought of Paul as a jazzman.  He loved that “King of Jazz” title, and that “talkie” [of the same title] definitely put him over with the public more than his first records ever did, but if you listen to his radio shows and read some of the interviews he gave, what he talks about is not jazz in the New Orleans style, but what he liked to call “symphonic jazz.”  Of course, he got that from being the one who introduced “Rhapsody in Blue,” and the one who recorded it with George [Gershwin] at the piano.  But he didn’t have as much to do with that premiere as he claims he did.  Ferde Grofé and Gershwin were the ones who wrote the arrangement.

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Sharing the limelight with Paul Whiteman (October 1928)

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Paul was a solid musician—no question about that.  He had that symphonic training, and he was taught by his father.  But as any of the fellows who were in his bands will tell you, he was not a very good player, and just a so-so conductor.  If you talk to Joe Venuti and ask him about Paul as a violist and violinist, Joe will tell you that [Whiteman’s] playing could be almost embarrassing.  Yet he’d insist on playing a violin solo from the podium, always with a spotlight trained on him, and he’d be sharp or flat throughout the solo.

 

Did you get to know each other when you were both with Columbia in the late-1920’s?

Not really, no.  The reason he left Victor and came to Columbia was because the head man at Victor, Nat Shilkret, had an ego like Paul did, and he wanted to decide what Paul would record.  Paul thought he had made so much money for Victor that nobody there should be trying to tell him what to do.  And there was another fellow [at Victor], Eddie King, who didn’t like jazz at all, and he was a “yes man” to Shilkret.

Now, Ben Selvin, who got the A&R job at Columbia around 1925 or 1926, knew Paul and knew how much interference he was getting from Shilkret, so Ben talked Columbia into giving Whiteman a much better contract.  Not so much better money-wise, but better because Paul could pick all of his players and arrangers, and could record whatever he wanted.  And as they had done for me, the [Columbia] management designed a special label for Paul’s records.

 

As you know, there are music historians who maintain that jazz and blues began with a black players in New Orleans, and that white musicians, especially Whiteman, “stole” the music from its black originators and commercialized it.  To the best of my knowledge, no one ever said that about you.  Do you have any thoughts about that?

Everybody who started playing jazz around the time I did, knew that this was New Orleans music and that the players who brought it to the north, whether we’re talking about the Midwest or New York, were blacks and Creoles.  Louis Armstrong was the giant of all of them, and everybody knew where Satchmo was from.  He was King Oliver’s star player.  Same with Sidney Bechet.  Practically every one of those early jazz and blues players you can name, whether it’s Jelly Roll Morton, or Lucky Roberts, or James P. Johnson, or the blues singers like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters, they were all from the South.

 

I was thinking more about why Paul Whiteman, but not Ted Lewis, has come to be seen as the one who “stole” black music, commercialized it, and made a fortune from it without ever acknowledging its real origins.

I can only give you my opinion, and it’s that Paul promoted himself was the “King of Jazz.”  If you’re going to advertise yourself as the King of Jazz, and you make a movie called “King of Jazz” and you’re the star of it, then you’re almost saying that this is your music, your invention, and that you’re the best one who can play it.

I never did any of that.  And I never pretended to play “symphonic jazz,” or anything like it.  And I didn’t lead a band, let alone try to be a conductor.  My band was the backdrop for my act, which has always been a stage act.  I’ve never promoted myself as a bandleader because I’m not one.  I came out of vaudeville, and my place is the stage, not a podium in front of a big band.

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Ted Lewis at the Columbia pressing plant, late 1920s
(CBS archives)

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You have been so generous with your time this afternoon, and I don’t want to take any more advantage of it than you have allowed me to.  But I would like to end this interview on the same topic we began, which is the clarinet.  I can’t think of a well-known clarinetist of the 1930’s and 1940’s who didn’t play in one of your bands.  In fact, I can’t think of any big-band member who didn’t play in one of your bands!  If you won’t mind giving me your thoughts about these clarinetists, I’ll really appreciate it.  Let me begin with the two best-known ones, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.  You hired both of them for your studio sessions, am I correct?

Yes, both of them played with me at different times when they were studio players.  I had Benny play my some of my solos in my Columbia [electrical] records.  Both are great players, but if you’re asking me which one I consider the best, it’s Shaw.  I haven’t heard high-register playing like Shaw’s since Al Nunez.  I’m not taking anything away from Benny, who’s a terrific improviser.  But Shaw was tops in my book.  I just wish he hadn’t walked away from it when he did.

 

Four other names, if I may:  Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Lytell, Pee Wee Russell, and Lawrence Welk’s discovery, Pete Fountain. 

Johnny Dodds was the real thing, one hell of a clarinetist!  You know, he replaced Al Nunez when Al had some medical [dental] problems.  To me, he wasn’t anywhere near the player that Al Nunez was.  You know, Pee Wee [Russell], who was probably the closest thing to the old New Orleans players, said that Al Nunez was the greatest jazz clarinetist who ever lived.  That tells you a lot about both of them, because if they held one of those old “carving contests” like they had in New Orleans, Pee Wee could outplay just about anybody you’d put up next to him.

You mentioned Jimmy Lytell, who’s a favorite of mine.  Jim can play anything you put in front of him—a hell of a studio clarinetist—and he can improvise with the best of them.  And Jim is an Albert [system] player.  Did you know that?  Of course, that makes him special to me because he didn’t switch like the others did.

Now, about Pete Fountain, there’s no question that he’s a first-rate clarinetist.  I don’t see how he can last with Welk, any more than he could have years ago with, and I’m just picking names, Guy Lombardo or Shep Fields or Kay Kyser or Wayne King.  Those fellows got where they were by sticking to a formula, and it’s not a formula that leaves much room for a “hot” soloist.  Welk doesn’t pay anybody either—he pays scale, or just a little over scale.  He’s lucky to have Pete Fountain because Pete draws people who wouldn’t tune in Welk.

But Welk’s show is really a musical variety show, sort of a cross between the “Hit Parade” and a vaudeville bill—a pop song by the whole band, then an Irish tenor, and the Lennon Sisters, and a violinist, then the kid with the electric guitar, and then Pete Fountain.  For a New Orleans jazzman, that’s not much of an opportunity to play.  So we’ll see how long that lasts with Pete.

 

On a talk show recently, Artie Shaw and Beverly Sills were asked how they manage criticism, whether from music critics or gossip columnists like Dorothy Kilgallen.  In so many words, they said you must have, or else you must develop, thick skin and then consider the source.  You have had a few critics during your long career, and one of them seems to be Eddie Condon.  As you may have heard, he said in his recent book that “Ted Lewis could really make the clarinet talk, and when it did, it said, ‘Please put me back in my case.’”

If he really wrote that, if those were his own words and not his ghostwriter’s, he can’t take any credit for being original.  That line has been around as far back as I can remember, and it applies to any instrument that comes in a case, whether it’s a violin or a trombone or a clarinet.  But, look, he’s trying to make some money to pay the rent, so he thinks he has to put down other people in the business.  It doesn’t bother me not only because it’s not original, but because you have to consider the source.  Eddie Condon is no Eddie Lang.  Eddie Condon plays a four-string guitar.  A four-string guitar?  Please!  That’s nothing but an oversized ukulele.  And maybe I shouldn’t have given Eddie all the work I gave him!

 

I can’t thank you enough for the time you have given me for this interview.  I’m a proud Ted Lewis fan, and will never forget how kind you were to me ten years ago when I asked for your autograph.  And I assure you that I’ll never forget how generous you have been to me today.  Thank you again and again and again.

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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Additional content from Mainspring Press

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SOPHIE TUCKER with TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Some of these Days

Chicago: November 23, 1926
Columbia 1826-D (mx. W 142955 – 2)

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RUTH ETTING with TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon

New York: December 23, 1927
Columbia 1242-D (mx. W 145395 – 2)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Milenberg Joys

New York: June 22, 1925
Columbia 439-D (mx. W 140709 – 2)

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Ted Lewis (Part 2)

INTERVIEW WITH TED LEWIS
Part 2 of 3
 James A. Drake

 

This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.
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(October 1925)

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Going back to the very beginning of your career, who was “Cricket”?

Cricket Smith was his name.  He had a band that he and several other Negro barbers had put together.  Not that all of the players were barbers.  They were black musicians who happened, some of them, to be barbers.

 

In interviews I’ve read, you have given a lot of credit to “Cricket” and his influence on your playing style.  How would you describe what you learned from him?

Syncopation.  I learned that from [Cricket Smith’s] band.  What they played was totally different from what we thought of as a “band,” which was a marching band, a military band, in those days.  Very oom-pah-pah.  The black band players were playing in a syncopated style.

 

Were they trained musicians, any of them?

They didn’t read music.  They played by ear, and they would play a melody to suit themselves.  The sheet music might have, say, eight bars of half-notes and quarter notes, and a rest here and there.  But since these fellows couldn’t read music, they held onto a note if they wanted to, or added what you call “grace notes” here and there, which made their playing swing.

 

How did you come to know Cricket Smith?

I used to sweep out his shop.  I was good at sweeping out stores.  My father had a dry-goods store, and one of my “jobs” was to sweep the inside of our store, and sweep the walkway outside it.

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From “The Jazz ‘King’s’ Climb: He Blew His Own Horn” (Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph, January 9, 1920)

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What was the name of his store?

The name?  You mean my father’s name, or the name of the store?

 

Both, if you please.

My father’s name was Ben, or Benny as he was called, Benjamin Friedman.  Benjamin and Paulina Friedman—they were my parents. The store was Friedman’s Bazaar.  It was on West Main Street in Circleville.  It was about, maybe, seven or eight blocks from the house I grew up in.  It was a two-story home, or three-story if you count the attic, which we also used, on West Mound Street in Circleville, at 158 West Mound.

 

How many were in your immediate family?

I’m the second oldest of five kids; my brother Edgar was the first, then me, then my brother Milt (or Milton), Leon, and Max.  We also had a clerk at my father’s shop living with us, and at times we also had a laundress living with us.

 

You began in a municipal band in your hometown, am I right?

It was what used to be called a “cadet band,” and it was formed by a German bandmaster.  In Circleville, in fact in the big Ohio cities, it was the Germans who were usually the bandmasters.  And were the teachers, too.

 

That would have been Oscar Ameringer who formed and led that band? 

Yes, Oscar Ameringer.  He called himself “Professor” Ameringer.  Just like I call myself “Professor Lewis” when I do “Medicine Man for the Blues.”

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Oscar Ameringer, 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress
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Was he the Oscar Ameringer who became a prominent Socialist, and either founded or wrote for labor-union newspapers?

Yes, indeed.  He came to Circleville from Cincinnati, and I think he lived in Columbus for a while, too.  He was very friendly with John L. Lewis, the mine-worker leader.  Oscar was our bandmaster in Circleville.  And he kicked me out of that band.  Do you know that story?

 

I’ve heard a version of it, but I’d much rather hear it from Ted Lewis personally!

Well, we were playing a concert in the park, and one of the pieces was the “Poet and Peasant Overture.”  Being German, Oscar Ameringer liked the Suppé overtures, especially “Poet and Peasant” and the “Light Cavalry” one.  They were popular back then.   Our band had played [“Poet and Peasant”] so many times that frankly, I was sick of it.

In the middle, and again toward the end of the overture, there’s a passage in ¾ time and the woodwinds, especially the clarinets, are more prominent in those parts.  The brass section “rules the roost” in the opening of the overture, then the strings and brass, then the woodwinds.  Anyway, I think I played the first [section] the way it’s written.  But in the second [section], I stood up and “noodled” my way all the way through that passage.  I was all over the place, improvising in the upper register.  Well, as soon as that concert was over, I got fired!

 

Did Ameringer re-hire you after he calmed down?

No, and it wasn’t long after that when I went to Columbus and started playing there.   Later on, after I got well known in New York, he apologized to me about ten times.

 

What took you to Columbus from Circleville?

Well, my father wanted me to go to college, to learn how to run a business and maybe become part of the family business.  So he paid my tuition to go to a business college in Columbus.

 

Was that Bliss College?

I think it was called Columbus Business College back then, but it’s still going, I think.  I was only there one term, one semester, and it wasn’t for me.  The classes mere mostly in the morning, and I’m not a morning type of fellow.  Show-business folks are night-time folks, you know.  So I didn’t stay in business college.  But if I do say so myself, I don’t pretty well in business.  Not the kind my father had in mind, but in show business.

 

Do you recall where you lived in Columbus?

A boarding house on East Town Street, about two blocks from Town and High Street.  I think it’s still there.

 

Do you recall the name of the store you worked in?

Yes, Goldsmith’s Music Store, on South High Street near where the Capitol building is.  At that time, it was a very large operation.  They sold all kinds of musical instruments, and phonographs, and player pianos, and they also sold and demonstrated sheet music for customers.  I did odd jobs there—sweeping up, and raising and lowering the awnings, and doing deliveries, mainly.  I did learn how to adjust keys and springs on the clarinet, and how to shave reeds, and how to put in pads.  But I was just an errand boy.

 

May I ask you about your religious upbringing?  Although I’m a goy, I study with two rabbis at Ohio State, one Orthodox, Rabbi Marvin Fox, and one Reformed—the great man Rabbi [Jerome D.] Folkman, who has made this interview possible for me.  Not being Jewish, I don’t know if there are strict lines that separate Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Judaism, but if you had to characterize your family when you were growing up in Circleville, in which tradition would you place your family?

First of all, in Circleville there were only, I think, five families including ours that were Jewish.  My father came from what you’d call a Conservative background today.  There was no temple in Circleville, and the Jewish families that lived there, if they got together much at all for religious purposes, got together in one of their homes.  Honestly, I don’t remember much of anything about what it meant to be Jewish until I came to Columbus and saw the beautiful synagogues there.  I’m sure you know the name Lazarus, the department-store family.  The patriarch was Simon Lazarus, and he and several other wealthy Jewish families donated the money and headed the fund drives for those wonderful temples in the East end.

As for me, to be honest I’m not [an] observant Jew.  Adah and I were married by a rabbi after [our] civil ceremony because we wanted a mitzvah, a blessing, for our marriage.  But being on the road like I’ve been throughout my career, I couldn’t follow the dietary laws and say all the prayers you’re supposed to say before and after meals, and at sunrise and sunset and throughout the day.  But I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it, and I really like this temple [Temple Israel] where my brother belongs.  And everybody here loves Rabbi Folkman.  I bet he’s a good professor.

 

Indeed he is—and please tell him I said so, although he’s not going to give me any bonus points for a compliment!  Staying with the subject of Columbus and your time there, did you play any of the vaudeville houses in Columbus?

Much later, yes, but not at the time I’m talking about.  At Goldsmith’s, I met a man named Gus Sun, who had a vaudeville circuit that played the East Coast.  He hired me, and it was through him that I got to New York.  I was hired by a band that played at Rector’s, which was a very posh restaurant in Manhattan.

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(The Talking Machine World, October 1925)

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Was that your first band, meaning the first one that was called the “Ted Lewis Band?”

No, my first band was a little before that.  I had put together a band in 1915, just five pieces, two clarinets, two cornets, and a Sousaphone.  We played shows at Coney Island.  We also played a few dates at the Brighton Beach Pavilion.

 

When you formed that first band and were playing at Coney Island, were you playing in the style we hear on your first Columbia recordings?

No.  We were playing songs that were suited to that type of a small band.  We weren’t improvising.  We were playing “straight.”

 

When would you say that you first began playing jazz, then?

Well, the group that popularized jazz was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Nick LaRocca was the one who made that group what it was.  When they got the gig at Reisenweber’s in New York, and then when Victor picked them up and started promoting their records, that’s when jazz really took off.  Now, I had been playing in that style before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  I was with a band called Earl Fuller’s Novelty Orchestra.

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Earl Fuller special label. By this time this was issued in early 1920, Lewis had left to form his own band, and Fuller would soon exit the music business. The recordings were reissued on Arto 9009, a September 1920 release.  (Courtesy of Kurt Nauck)

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When and how did you become associated with the Earl Fuller band?

It was either at the end of 1915 or early in 1916.  Earl heard my little five-piece “nut band,” as I called it, and he liked my style, so he offered me a job.  It wasn’t until I got to know him that I found out he was an Ohioan, too.  He was from Warren, Ohio.

 

Did Earl Fuller just lead the band, or did he play in it too?

Earl was a pianist, what we used to call a “novelty pianist” in the style of Zez Confrey and Felix Arndt.  Do you know those names?

 

Yes, “Kitten on the Keys” and “Nola” and so many other piano pieces that I wish I could play!

Are you a musician too?

 

No, sir, except in a very liberal use of the word “musician.”  I play clarinet at a little bar on High Street, a block north of the [Ohio State University] campus.  The owner is a ragtime pianist, and three nights a week I am his clarinetist.  But I hesitate to say that I am a clarinetist in the presence of the great Ted Lewis!

If the money and the tips are helping you get your doctor’s degree, it doesn’t matter how well you play.

 

I’ll remember that, sir.  Going back to your days with Earl Fuller, were the Fuller band and the Original Dixieland band the major jazz bands in Manhattan around the time that the U.S. entered World War One?

No, there were others in and around New York that were novelty bands, although what they were playing was our [New York] version of New Orleans jazz.  Ben Selvin was there, and he had a novelty band, and Gus Haenschen had a banjo orchestra that he’d brought from St. Louis.  The Warings, Fred and Tom, had a banjo orchestra, and there was the Original New Orleans Jazz Band too.  So there were several, and all of them were copying the Original Dixieland Jazz Band—not the “live” band, but their Victor records.  Victor really promoted those records.

 

You left Earl Fuller’s band, as we were talking about earlier, to form your own band.  Was that a mutual decision?

Well, yes and no.  He was older, and doing three shows a night, every night but Monday, was wearing thin for him.  And to be honest about it, I had an act pretty much planned out, and I needed my own band to do my act the way I had conceived of it.  I was full of pep and eager to get started, and I talked to several of the guys in the [Fuller] band, and they were willing to take a chance on sticking with me, so they came along.

 

Did you and Earl Fuller become competitors, then?

Not really.  He was winding down, tired of the grind.  When I was with him, the band had done several trial recordings for Victor, but very few of them were released.  We had better luck with Columbia, and that’s how I got into Columbia and why I stayed with them after I had my own band.  Columbia, you know, was the David to Victor’s Goliath.  Columbia would try new things that Victor was reluctant to do.

Victor, as I said, promoted the Original Dixieland records pretty well, but that wasn’t what the [Victor] management wanted in 1917 and 1918.  Their biggest selling band was the [Joseph C.] Smith band, which was a “society” outfit.  Now that changed when they got [Paul] Whiteman, but that was after the Original Dixieland fellows had run their course.  Earl, you see, wanted to be like Joseph C. Smith and be a society band.  And that was exactly what I didn’t want to be.

 

Did you and Earl Fuller stay in contact after you became famous on your own?

Just incidentally.  Earl went into radio when it became big.  He stayed in radio, pretty much in the Midwest.  Somewhere around World War Two, I think, he was the musical director for a big station in Cincinnati.  So he did all right for himself—another Ohio boy who made good in the music business.

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COMING IN PART 3: Columbia records, Paul Whiteman, Lewis on jazz

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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Additional content from Mainspring Press

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Beginning in the later 1920s, Ted Lewis sometimes let younger musicians handle the clarinet work. These three examples feature Don Murray, best remembered for his work with Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra.

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Jungle Blues
New York: April 3, 1928
Columbia 1525-D (mx. W 145954 – 4)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND (Lewis, vocal): A Jazz Holiday

New York: April 3, 1928
Columbia 1525-D (mx. W 145953 – 3)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND (Lewis, vocal): Maybe – Who Knows?

Los Angeles: May 26, 1929
Columbia 1854-D (mx. 148562 – 3)

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Ted Lewis (Part 1)

INTERVIEW WITH TED LEWIS
Part 1 of 3
 James A. Drake

 

This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.

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..

I’d like to ask you several questions about the clarinet.  When I had the privilege of meeting you between your shows at the Ohio State Fair about ten years ago, the clarinet you used in your show was an Albert system.  I know of some players who started with the Albert and then switched to Boehm.  Did you ever do that?  Can you play both systems?    

The Albert [system] was popular with the ragtime fellows, but the Boehm was what many of the New York fellows were playing.  I tried to learn it, but it was so different than the Albert that I just couldn’t stick to it.  So I stayed with the Albert.

 

Do you recall the name, or brand, of your first B-flat clarinet?

Yes, it was a Lambert.  It was a good name in clarinets.  Made in Paris, and imported over here.

 

Is that the instrument you were playing when you joined the Earl Fuller band?

Well, I still had the Lambert when I went with Earl, but not too long after I settled in New York, I tried out a clarinet made by a fellow named Brancati, O. M. Brancati, who had a store on Lexington Avenue.  I heard that he had an arrangement with Vandoren in Paris to ship him barrels, pads, keys, spring, and such.  His [Brancati’s] workmen would assemble and adjust the instruments to suit the client.

 

Do you have a preference in mouthpieces?

I think I’ve tried them all at one time or another.  For a while, I was playing with a glass mouthpiece.  The one I learned on was a wood mouthpiece.  It was okay because it was well seasoned, but I was always worried that I might drop it and put a chip in the tip.  I worried about that with the glass mouthpiece too.  I used a hard-rubber mouthpiece on and off, and it was very stable.  I use Bakelite mouthpieces most of the time.

 

I wondered if you were using a plastic mouthpiece these days.

I should try one of the newer ones.  Plastic has come a long way, and I hear that some of them are pretty good.

 

You use a standard metal ligature.  Did you always use a metal one?

Yes, and I’ve had several different ones.  The one I liked the best had three screws instead of two.  Now, the old players, the ones who came up from New Orleans, they used string for a ligature.  Some of them used fishing line to hold the reed in place.

 

Of the several New Orleans clarinets who came to New York when the jazz movement started, did any of them have an influence on your playing?

Oh, yes—there were several, as you say, but Al [Alcide] Nunez was the one I really admired.  All of the New Orleans fellows he played with thought Al was the tops.  He had a nickname, “Yaller,” which was the way the fellows who played with him pronounced “yellow.”  I don’t know if you know this, but Al was with the band that became the Original Dixieland Jazz Band when they were just a five-piece band playing in Chicago.  About the time I started with Earl Fuller’s band, word was coming out of Chicago that Al Nunez was the hottest clarinetist of them all.

 

What was it about his playing that influenced your style?

In one word, everything!  If you listen to the records he made with the Louisiana Five, you hear how easily he could play in the upper register—and I mean an octave above what almost any other clarinetist could play.  You don’t hear his low register in those records, because it didn’t record very well, but his low-register playing was almost like what you’d hear from a classical clarinetist.  Oh, he could do the growling, “reedy” low notes that you hear Sidney Bechet play when he’s on clarinet.  But Al could play like a conservatory graduate when he wanted to.  Every note he played had the same quality, high to low and low to high, and his vibrato never varied from top to bottom.

 

Your own clarinet sound and your high-register playing are really distinctive.  Has your tone and your style changed a lot from when you were starting out with the Earl Fuller band?

You mean my “wah-wah” vibrato?  That’s the style I developed when I was with [the] Fuller [band].  We were a novelty act, a “clown band.”  The kind of music we played, meaning the songs we played, were called “nut songs” back then.  I developed that high-register “wah-wah” as my part of the act.  I always held the clarinet pointed upward, and moved it all around—left and right, up and down—while I was playing.  Sometimes I would do a dance while I was playing, or I’d mimic a guy marching with big, high steps.  That’s where the top hat came in, too.

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In your show, and also in your second RKO album, in the introduction you make to “Wear a Hat with a Silver Lining,” you talk about your famous hat.  “Since nineteen-six / it’s played the sticks / from Maine to Mandalay” is one of my favorite lines.  Can I induce you to talk about how you acquired your famous hat?

I tell that story in my act—I won it in a dice game.  That’s not the shabby one I wear onstage, though.  That first hat was a pretty nice, shiny top hat.  It wasn’t my exact size, so I wore it cocked to the side.  I have about a dozen of them.

 

What prompted you to make that battered hat a kind of signature, along with your clarinet and your distinctive way of delivering a song?

Well, the top hat was always associated with high society.  You know, “a top hat, a white tie, and tails,” as Irving Berlin wrote.   If you wore a top hat, people might say that your nose was up in the air, that you were stuck up.  If a fellow put on airs, somebody might say, “He’s high-hatting us,” meaning that he’s got his nose in the air.  So to take a beat-up top hat and wear it was a little like what Chaplin did with the derby.  It was taking a high-society hat and putting it on a riverboat tramp.  It was my trademark, but there were others who used a battered hat for a similar effect.  Harpo Marx was one.

 

But why a beat-up top hat, when you were always dressed in a dark suit or a tux? 

The contrast was what I was after.  I wore the hat like the Currier and Ives comic characters did.  That’s where I got that from.

 

Would that have been from the “Darktown” series of Currier & Ives?

You’ve seen those, have you?  That’s where all of the Negro acts came from.  They patterned themselves after those [Darktown] characters.  If you’re familiar with the great Bert Williams, you’ll know that a couple of his characters from his “Follies” acts were made up and dressed up like those Currier & Ives Darktown characters.

 

Back to the clarinet, do you recall the first clarinet you learned to play?

Well, the first one was the E-flat, the smallest clarinet, and then when I got big enough I went to the B-flat [clarinet].  The E-flat one was a metal Albert [system] clarinet.  That’s the one I learned on.

 

Was the clarinet your first instrument?

No, I started with a piccolo, believe it or not.  I was just a tyke and my fingers weren’t long enough to reach the keys of a clarinet.

 

In a Columbia catalog supplement from the late-1920’s, there is a photo of you playing saxophone.  Did you “double” on sax and clarinet in your band, or any of the bands you played with before you formed your own group?

Only when I had to, meaning when another sax player was necessary for an arrangement.  The sax was the electric guitar of the 1920’s, you know.  You may have heard of Rudy Wiedoeft—

 

Yes, the composer of “Saxophobia,” and the man from whom Rudy Vallée borrowed his first name.

That’s right.  Rudy Wiedoeft, and a group called the Six Brown Brothers, and also a fellow who worked for me from time to time, Benny Krueger, were the ones who were considered the top men on sax in those days.

 

Staying with Rudy Valleé for a moment—and he was just here [in Columbus] about two months ago, and I interviewed him about this—he said that when he put together his first band, the Yale Collegians, he did an impersonation of you.  His impersonation of you, along with the one he did of Maurice Chevalier, became part of his show at the Paramount Theater.  I would guess that you and Maurice Chevalier and Al Jolson have been impersonated more than any other performers.  Would you agree?

If you’re talking about performers in general, not just singers and musicians, I think you’d have to add Groucho [Marx] to that list.  But, yes, I saw Rudy’s impersonation in one of his shorts [short films], and it was pretty good because he could imitate my swaying and my “strut,” you might call it.  And he could play the clarinet in my style, too.

Of the stars you just mentioned, I think I’m the easiest to imitate because I don’t really sing, I “talk” a song.  Chevalier and Jolson “talked” lyrics too, but they were singers.  They talked a little just for an effect.  Now in my case, a fellow can get himself an old battered top hat, and a white-tipped cane, and a clarinet—even if it’s just a prop and they don’t play it.  And if they can mimic my inflections and my gestures, why, they can do me pretty easily.

 

Were you and Al Jolson friends?

I knew Al, of course, but Al was a fellow who didn’t socialize much.  I’ve belonged to the Friars Club for more years than I can remember, and I love going there and playing cards with my friends in show business.  Al wasn’t like that, you see.  Al was always “on,” even when he wasn’t onstage.  He had to be in the spotlight, no matter where he was or what he was doing.  Everybody in the business knew Al and respected him as a great performer, a big star, but Al was a loner.

 

Your delivery of a song is so distinctive that I think it’s right to say it’s unique.  How did you develop it?  Where did it stem from?

From Cohan.  George M. Cohan.  He “talked” a song, you know.  I saw every one of his hit shows, and each one was greater than the one before it.  Have you seen the movie with Jimmy Cagney?

 

Yes, several times.

Jimmy Cagney was a dancer, you know, but his style was nothing like Cohan’s.  But when you see him dancing as Cohan in that movie, you’d swear you were seeing George M. Cohan.  Now, Jimmy doesn’t sound like Cohan, but he “talks” the lyrics like Cohan did.  The only difference was that Cohan would sing more of the lyrics than Jimmy Cagney does in that film.  Jimmy’s not a singer, he’s a dancer.  Cohan could sing “straight” when he wanted to.

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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Ted Lewis (clarinet) with Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band

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EARL FULLER’S FAMOUS JAZZ BAND (Ted Lewis, clarinet):

Jazz De Luxe

New York: June 13, 1918
Edison 50541 (mx. 6224)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Barnyard Blues [Livery Stable Blues]

New York: June 5, 1924
Columbia 170-D (mx. 81808 – 2)

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COMING IN PART 2: Cricket Smith, more on Earl Fuller,
Lewis starts his own band

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Announcing the James A. Drake Interview Series

We’re proud to announce the launch of new blog series, The James A. Drake Interviews, transcribed from previously unpublished interviews with Ted Lewis, Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton), Milton Cross, and other prominent figures in the entertainment and recording industries. All offer fascinating glimpses into the subjects’ personal and professional lives. Skillfully conducted, they will make you feel as if you actually know the artists.

The series starts later today, with Part 1 of the Ted Lewis interview. Conducted in 1968, it contains a wealth of information about Lewis’ early days with the Earl Fuller band, his musical influences (including clarinetist Alcide “Yellow” Nunez and African-American trumpeter Cricket Smith, whose barbershop Lewis swept as a boy), the formation of Lewis’ own band, and his recollections of Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, and other stars.

Because the interviews are lengthy, each will be serialized over a span of several days. We’ve added graphics and sound-files to round out the experience. Enjoy!

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James A. Drake is the author of seven books and more than fifty articles. Two of his biographies, Ponselle: A Singer’s Life (Doubleday & Company), and Richard Tucker: A Biography (E. P. Dutton Company), with forewords by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, were selected as Books of the Month by the National Book Clubs of America. His other books include Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography; Teaching Critical Thinking; Popular Culture and American Life; and Lily Pons: A Centennial Portrait (with K. B. Ludecke). He was also a contributing author to the 24-volume American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999) and The International Dictionary of Opera (St. James Press, 2000) and served on the editorial board of The Opera Quarterly.

His expertise in nineteenth- and twentieth-century operatic performances led to his serving as a co-host of the radio series “Voices That Live,” created by producer-announcer Don Martin (Martin Jager). When the series was revived and syndicated in the late 1980s, Drake and his new co-host, broadcaster Charles Koelsch, received the Certificate in Arts and Culture award from the International Radio Festival Association in New York.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Drake earned his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 1973 and has had a distinguished career in academia that includes having served as administrator at the University of Tampa (1979–1984), Findlay College (1984-87), and Clemson University (as Executive Director of the University Center, Greenville, South Carolina, 1988–1994). During 1987–1988, he served as a full-time research consultant and equity partner with an Ohio-based management consulting firm, co-directing the higher-education division.

After relocating to Florida’s Space Coast in 1994, Drake served on the governing boards of various community agencies and was appointed as a layperson to the 18th Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission and the 18th District Grievance Committee of the Florida Bar Association. In March 2007, he was named President of Brevard Community College, which in July 2008 was featured on CNN and in The New York Times, Time Magazine, and other news sources for its energy-reduction initiatives under his leadership. In December 2008, Drake again received national press coverage after donating approximately $100,000 of his income to create textbook scholarships for students. He currently resides in Florida.

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The Louisville Jug Band Gets Arrested (1914), and Other Earl McDonald Snippets

The earliest known personnel listing for the Louisville Jug Band, 1914. “Colvin” presumably is a typo for Ben Calvin, who worked on-and-off with McDonald for many years; could “John Smith” be a typo for Cal Smith, a long-time McDonald associate? (Louisville Courier-Journal, October 20, 1914)

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A 1918 iteration of the Louisville Jug Band, interrupting their Chicago engagement for a week’s appearance at the Antler cabaret in Dayton, Ohio. Can anyone identify the members? (Dayton Daily News, April 14, 1918)

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McDonald and company fared far better than most race-record artists during the early Depression years, thanks to their popular “Ballard Chefs” broadcasts. Originating in Louisville, the program aired in many major cities. (What’s on the Air, April 1930)

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Earl McDonald entertains at the University Kentucky. (Louisville Courier-Journal, February 15, 1948)

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(Louisville Courier-Journal, April 29, 1949)

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SARA MARTIN & HER JUG BAND: I’m Gonna Be a Lovin’ Old Soul

New York: September 1924
Okeh 8211 (mx. S 72837-b)

Clifford Hayes, violin; Curtis Hayes, banjo; Earl McDonald, jug

 

Highlights from the Pathe Records Catalog (August 1916)

From the Bill Bryant papers at Mainspring Press. Note the issue by Rector’s New York Dance Orchestra (Leopold Kohls, director), which is missing from American Dance Bands on Records and Film. A bit of trivia for the organ fans out there, from a page not pictured: Pathé’s “exclusive” studio organ was a Mason & Hamlin (a popular line of reed organs), model not mentioned.

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