The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 1

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering the Brunswick years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen recalls his equally remarkable career in radio.

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Some radio historians credit you with pairing Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, and also for putting together The Revelers and making them popular nationally. [1] What do you recall of them, and your role in their popularity on radio?

Where do these stories get started? I had almost nothing to do with the radio success of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, nor with The Revelers’ success. At Brunswick I had directed a lot of recordings of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, but as separate performers. In fact, one of our early Brunswick recordings of a male duet was with Ernie Hare and Al Bernard, not Billy Jones. [2]  If you look at the Brunswick files, you’ll see that I had put a lot of male duos together—Frank Bessinger and Frank Wright, Ed Smalle and Billy Hillpot, for example.

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Al Bernard (left) and Ernest Hare, c. 1920.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Ernie Hare was with [Brunswick] almost from the start. We used him mainly for popular ballads. I don’t think we signed Billy Jones until a year or so after we had Ernie [Hare] under contract. Billy was a light baritone [sic; tenor], and we had him record ballads and novelty songs for us. I can only remember two recordings we did of Jones and Hare together. [3] One was some novelty song, nothing memorable, but it didn’t sound anything like the Jones and Hare of network radio. A little later, we wrote an arrangement of a novelty song, one of many that sprang up after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, a ditty called “Old King Tut.” These were acoustical recordings, as I recall, and of the two only “Old King Tut” sold very well for [Brunswick].

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Billy Jones (left) and Ernest Hare, in the early days of radio
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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While we’re talking about record sales, you may remember when Gene Austin made a comeback in the 1950s. He was a guest on Red Skelton’s television show, and Skelton told viewers that he had done research on Austin’s career and that he had sold over 80,000,000 recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. Is that figure even remotely possible?

That’s nonsense—absolute nonsense! When you interviewed Ben Selvin and me, you’ll remember that we had a big laugh about how many of Ben’s recordings of “Dardanella” were sold. Some so-called researcher claimed that that recording sold 6,000,000 copies. As he and I said when we laughed about it, during the 1920s if a record sold 100,000 copies it was considered a big money-maker. In the early-1930s, as I said before, the record market almost dried up because of the Depression. And let me tell you, Gene Austin probably got a big laugh out of Red Skelton’s “research.” [4]

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Gene Austin, c. 1927 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Thanks for clarifying that. Going back to the subject of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, did they work for you at all on radio?

Not that I recall. They got into radio early, and they attracted very good sponsors. You probably know their radio theme songs: “We two boys, Jones and Hare / Entertain you folks out there / That’s our hap-hap-happiness,” when they were sponsored by the Happiness Candy Company, and “We’re Billy Jones and Ernie Hare / We’re the Interwoven Pair,” when Interwoven Hosiery sponsored their show. They became one of the most popular duos on radio, but I didn’t have anything to do with it and I certainly didn’t “put them together.”

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Jones and Hare, as caricatured by Gaspano Ricca in 1929. The caption refers to their split with the Happiness Candy Company, and subsequent loss of their “Happiness Boys” billing.

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Did you play any role in The Revelers and their radio popularity?

Frank Black gets the credit for The Revelers. It was Frank’s up-tempo arrangements and the hours and hours he spent rehearsing them that made The Revelers one of the most popular groups on radio. [5] Until he began working with them, they were just another male quartet—the Shannon Quartet, or the “Shannon Four” as we billed them at Brunswick. I’m not sure about this but as I remember it, the original group, the Shannon Quartet, had Charles Harrison, Wilfred Glenn, Elliot Shaw, and Lewis James. Ed Smalle was their pianist, and sometimes he sang with them while he was at the piano.

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The Revelers in the late 1920s: Frank Black, Elliott Shaw, Lewis James (back row, left to right); James Melton, Wilfred Glenn (front row, left to right)

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When Frank [Black] took over as accompanist and arranger, he changed the Shannon Four to a quintet by adding Franklyn Baur as the lead tenor. Between Frank Black’s innovative, tight-harmony arrangements and Franklyn Baur’s voice as the new lead tenor, plus the name change from “Shannon Four” to “The Revelers,” the quintet really took off on radio. Frank [Black] and I did feature them on our first radio program after I left Brunswick, “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” I wrote the introductory theme song for the show, which I titled “March of the Champions,” and we called our studio orchestra “The Champion Sparkers.”

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Haenschen (inset, and back row, third from right) and Frank Black (far left) with The Champion Sparkers (1930)

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Did you know Franklyn Baur very well? I ask because the arc of his career was rather short, and he seems to have disappeared from radio and recording for reasons that are unclear.

I knew Baur only as a performer for us, but I didn’t socialize with him or have any involvement with him other than in rehearsals and on the air. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that he made the difference in the success of The Revelers. He had a distinctive voice—a good tone quality, very good intonation, and a range that was more than adequate for the music he sang. He was a good musician with a precise sense of rhythm, which was necessary for the type of arrangements Frank [Black] wrote for The Revelers.

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From Radio Revue (March 1930)

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Do you recall anything specific about working with Franklyn Baur?

He was easy to work with for the most part, although as The Revelers got more press, he tended to want more of the limelight for himself. That created some tension with the others in the group because they were more experienced—most of them were veterans in the [recording] industry, while he was a newcomer by comparison—and, so to say, they were not as impressed with Baur as Baur was with himself.

One funny thing about Baur that used to drive Frank Black nuts was that Baur “conducted” while he was singing. He’d “conduct” with his hand and index finger, and Frank [Black] felt that he did it just to call more attention to himself. Frank had to lay down the law with him about that, but [Baur] would still do it every once in a while.

 

The conventional wisdom about Franklyn Baur’s brief career was that he wanted to become an operatic tenor and performed a recital of French and Italian arias and songs at Town Hall, but received negative reviews and abruptly retired because of those reviews.

That’s not true. His Town Hall recital [on December 4, 1933] went very well and the reviews in The New York Times and the other major newspapers were very good. He toured as a recitalist for another two years, maybe more, but as happened with other pop-music tenors before him, he sang too often—he was still on radio too—and some of the arias he chose for his recitals were wrong for his voice. [6] He developed a nodule on one of his vocal cords, and unfortunately the operation to remove the node wasn’t successful and left him with an impaired voice. That’s what shortened his career.

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Baur’s December 1933 Town Hall recital received generally positive reviews. These excerpts are from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (top left), Brooklyn Times Union (bottom left), and Hartford (CT) Courant (right).

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After Franklyn Baur left The Revelers to pursue his recital career, did James Melton replace him as the lead tenor?

Frank Luther took Baur’s place at first, if my memory is correct, and then Jim Melton succeeded Frank Luther. [7] Melton was a better tenor than Baur, and his performances with The Revelers were exceptional. At that point in Melton’s singing career—he was a tenor-sax man with us before he began singing and before he replaced Frank Luther in The Revelers—he was young and eager and very easy to work with. But he too had bigger ambitions and as time went on, his ambition got in his way. As good as Baur had been for The Revelers, Frank [Black] and I thought that Melton was even better.

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Frank Black in the NBC studio (March 1930)

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Back to your and Frank Black’s first radio programs, I had the impression that “The Palmolive Hour,” which you directed, was your and his first radio show, and that Frank Munn and Virginia Rea sang under the pseudonyms “Paul Oliver” and “Olive Palmer.”

“The Palmolive Hour” was our second show. It was better known because it was in a better time slot and was promoted a lot more than “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” And yes, Frank Munn was our tenor on the “Champion” program, just as he was on the “Palmolive” show, but he sang under his own name on the “Champion” program. Incidentally, I never asked Frank to sign any exclusive contract with us. I wanted him to be able to perform on as many programs as he was offered and could also continue recording for Brunswick and any other labels. Frank and I had become very close friends by then, and I wanted to see him have the best career he could possibly have.

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From Radio Revue (December 1929)

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I’m not sure this is the right time and place to ask to you recount the conflict between James Melton and Frank Munn, but I will ask you to repeat what happened, and what your role was during and after the incident.

Well, it happened in midtown Manhattan after a late-afternoon rehearsal for “The Palmolive Hour.” As I’ve said, Frank was very sensitive about his weight, so he only felt comfortable in certain public places. One of them was his favorite restaurant, just a small place in midtown Manhattan that served good food and treated him like the star he was. He and I had dinner there a lot, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together because Frank was such a sweet guy.

As we were leaving the restaurant and waiting for our driver, I saw Jim Melton approaching us. He was wearing a tuxedo, so he was probably going to a performance after eating a light dinner. In those days, by the way, not only the soloists and the conductor but everyone in the orchestra wore tuxedos. At NBC, the feeling was that through radio we were coming into the listener’s home, and that we should be formally attired even though no one but the studio personnel could see us.

As Frank [Munn] and I were leaving the restaurant and I saw Jim Melton walking toward us with a small group around him, I could tell from his gait and from the look on his face that he was drunk. I don’t like to say this, but Jim Melton was an obnoxious drunk—I don’t know how else to describe him when had been drinking. He walked up to me and said to me, in front of Frank Munn, “Why do you let this fat pig sing on your show instead of me?” Then he turned to Frank and began calling a “pig,” “hog,” and a string of vile curse words.

Melton kept it up and kept it up, and then said sarcastically to Frank, “Oh, Mr. Munn, you’re such a big star, I want your autograph!” Frank just looked down at the sidewalk while Melton was acting out this mocking rant. It went on until suddenly Frank grabbed Melton’s arm in a vice grip—a group so hard that Melton’s knees buckled and he was writhing in pain. Calmly, Frank used his other hand to retrieve from his vest pocket his prized Duofold “Big Red” fountain pen. After uncapping it with his teeth, he wrote his signature across the starched white “bib” of Melton’s tuxedo.

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James Melton (left) and Frank Munn, c. 1930

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When he [Frank Munn] finally capped his pen with his teeth and let go of Melton’s already swelling forearm, he stared at Melton and said, “If I ever hear of you saying terrible things about me again, I will hunt you down and I will break you in half!” By then I had stepped between them, but there was no need because Melton was moaning, his forearm was swelling rapidly and he was coming out of his drunken state.

The next morning at my home, I got a frantic call from Jim [Melton], telling me that his wife told him what he had done the night before and how sorry he was for the insults he had hurled at Frank Munn. He pleaded with me to ask Frank, if he would agree to it, to come to my home so that Melton could meet him there and apologize to him face-to-face.

Jim [Melton] arrived first, his forearm wrapped in medical tape and in a sling, and soon Frank Munn arrived at my house. We sat at my dining-room table, and Melton was so distraught that he actually began to cry. He asked Frank how he could ever forgive him for what he had said the night before. Frank never took his eyes off Melton, and never said a word until he saw how genuinely sorry Melton was.

At that point, Frank extended his hand across the table and waited until Melton grasped his in a tearful handshake. “Jim,” Frank said reassuringly, “it never happened. I have always been an admirer of your singing.” Melton broke down again, but when he regained his composure he assured Frank had he also admired Frank’s voice and artistry. That whole incident was scary, believe me, because I knew Frank Munn’s raw strength. He could have easily fractured or even broken Jim Melton’s forearm. Yet from then on, the two men became each other’s biggest promoter.

James A. Drake
Merritt Island, Florida

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1929

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Editor’s Notes

[1] Victor held exclusive rights to The Revelers name on records; therefore, the group appeared on Brunswick as The Merrymakers.

[2] Bernard and Hare both began recording for Brunswick in late 1919, immediately after the company switched to the lateral-cut process. As a duet, they first appeared on Brunswick 2004, the fourth lateral-cut release in the standard Brunswick series.

[3] Jones began recording for Brunswick c. November 1920. His initial session produced one solo and one duet with Ernest Hare. The team of Jones and Hare actually made numerous recordings for Brunswick from 1920 through 1925, some with top billing, and others as vocalists with dance orchestras that included Haneschen’s own.

[4] Haenschen is correct in asserting that these figures are grossly inflated. In early 1928, for example, the Managers’ Committee of the Victor Talking Machine Company reported the following average sales per release for several of the company’s popular artists: The Revelers (71,900 copies per release); Jesse Crawford (70,000); Johnny Johnson’s Statler Pennsylvanians (47,134 copies); Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Orchestra (46,000); Irene Bordoni (32,134). The figures were significantly lower for Red Seal artists. Rosa Ponselle, one of the line’s better sellers, averaged only 10,740 copies per release for the same period.

[5] Ed Smalle was The Revelers’ original pianist and arranger. Frank Black began working with the group in late 1926, based upon evidence in the Victor files, which reveal that other pianists (including Frank Banta and Milton Rettenberg) were occasionally substituted for Black at the group’s recording sessions.

[6] Baur was also one of the most prolific recording artists of the 1920s, making countless sides (often under pseudonyms) for cheap labels like Banner and Grey Gull, in addition to his work for the more respectable brands.

[7] Luther, soon to be better known for his country-music duets with Carson Robison, replaced Baur c. September 1927 and stayed only briefly, being replaced in late November by Melton, based upon the Victor files.

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Read  Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

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