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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