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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