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.
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.
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.
© 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.
Ted Lewis (clarinet) with Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band
EARL FULLER’S FAMOUS JAZZ BAND (Ted Lewis, clarinet):
Jazz De Luxe
New York: June 13, 1918
Edison 50541 (mx. 6224)
TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Barnyard Blues [Livery Stable Blues]
New York: June 5, 1924
Columbia 170-D (mx. 81808 – 2)
COMING IN PART 2: Cricket Smith, more on Earl Fuller,
Lewis starts his own band