Stripper in the Board Room: Winnie (“The Flaming Redhead”) Garrett and the Famous Record Company
By Allan Sutton
Winnie Garrett, a.k.a. “The Flaming Redhead,” served as vice-president and promotions manager of Famous Records, Inc., beginning in 1947.
To all appearances, the Famous Record Company was a rather dodgy operation. Its first label was copied from Brunswick’s 1920 design (although there was no connection to that company), suggesting a much earlier operation than was actually the case. Even the company name was copied; it had been used several years earlier by an unrelated New York venture that marketed cheap picture discs containing sound track excerpts by Hollywood stars before disappearing. Famous received little coverage in the trade papers, and early labels gave its location only as “U.S.A.” (its mailing address was Room 303 of the RKO Theater Building at 6 Market Street, in Newark, New Jersey).
The original Famous label was copied from Brunswick’s long-abandoned 1920 design, although there was no connection to that company. It was later redesigned.
To date, no reliable contemporary account of the Famous Record Company’s launch has been found, but its initial releases on the Famous label — four sides by Phil Napoleon’s Orchestra, accompanying singers Ross Leonard and Roma Lynn — were reviewed in late November 1944. Billboard critic M. H. Orodenker rendered a mixed verdict:
“Still another disk label enters the fold, this one springing from Newark, N. J. For its bow, [it] brings back Phil Napoleon for the music making… Napoleon provides a highly attractive setting for the romantic baritoning of Ross Leonard. Warbler goes all out in dramatic style for “I Dream of You,” dragging it out no end and negating much of the disk appeal of one of the better ballads of the moment. However, Leonard listens to better advantage when keeping within rhythmic confines for two new ballads… Remaining side, an innocuous rhythm ditty in ‘Rhythm Has Got You Too,” provides the hot hymnaling of Roma Lynn. However, none in the company can distinguish themselves with the song.”
Famous’ artist roster, drawn largely from New York and New Jersey nightclubs, was soon expanded to include Jerry Delmar’s Orchestra, Margie Hudson, Jim Messner, and Tommy Ryan. But the Famous Record Company did virtually no advertising, and little more was heard of the venture until early 1947, when it resurfaced in Billboard‘s manufacturers’ directory as Famous Records, Inc.
Operating at the same Newark address, the reorganized company launched a new series of Famous records late that autumn. Several new distributors were secured, and the company began advertising on a modest scale, primarily to jukebox operators. It was not an opportune time to re-enter the record business, with the second American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban looming. The trade papers were filled with accounts of record companies stockpiling masters in advance of the ban, but Famous was not among them.
The initial release in Famous’ new FA-600 series (“The Stars Were Mine” / “Are You Havin’ Any Fun,” by Freddy Miller’s Orchestra) earned faint praise from a Cash Box reviewer in November 1947 as a “pair of sides that [jukebox] ops may use to fair advantage.”
The redesigned Famous label and a November 1947 ad for the new FA-600 series, launched around the time of Winnie Garrett’s buy-in. Freddy Miller and Janet Parker were among the Famous artists that Garrett took to Connecticut, for an appearance on behalf of the Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund, in March 1948.
One of the reorganized company’s investors was Winnie Garrett, a twenty-five year-old burlesque strip-tease star billed as “The Flaming Redhead.” News reports suggest that she had invested around November 1947, corresponding with the label’s relaunch. Garrett was given with the title of vice-president and promotions manager. Billboard reported that Garrett made so little money from the company, she could not afford to retire from the stage. Instead, she maintained two careers, representing Famous Records by day while continuing to strip at night.
Initially, Garrett’s main duty was to secure plugs for Famous records from local disc jockeys, but by 1948 she was taking a more active role in the operation. In March of that year, she and several Famous artists traveled to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an appearance on behalf of the Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund. In June, she sued 20th Century Fox for $150,000 over its portrayal of a fictitious Famous Records company (which goes bankrupt) in the film, “You Were Meant for Me,” alleging damage to her company’s financial reputation. By then, newspapers were referring to Garrett as the “head” of Famous Records. However, new releases stalled as the AFM ban dragged on.
Garrett appears to have undertaken an image makeover at that time, offering a toned-down version of her act with mixed results. In November 1948, she was arrested at New York’s Club Ha-Ha for presenting a “lewd and indecent performance.” The incident was widely covered by the local papers:
“[Garrett] told reporters the performance that led to her arrest early today was an ‘interpretive dance.’ At first she wasn’t sure just what it interpreted, but finally decided it has ‘a little African in it’… She explains that she begins the dance wearing an evening dress, gloves, three brassieres, an under-skirt, and peace-net panties. She ends, she said, with one brassiere and g-string panties.”
The charges were dropped after the arresting officer admitted that Garrett had not been totally nude, as he had originally thought. After noting that the same performance had failed to raise any objections in staid Boston, Garrett promised to clean up her act and invited the officer to visit the Club Ha-Ha every night to make sure her dance was “more conservative.” We don’t know if he took her up on the offer.
In May 1950, Garrett sued photographer Murray Korman for mental anguish and distress after he placed photographs of her on penny peep-machines. By then, Famous Records appears to have been inactive for some time, having failed to garner much attention for anything other than Garrett’s presence. She continued to perform into the mid-1950s.
“Charges Against Strip-Tease Dancer Dismissed in Court.” St. Cloud [MN] Times (Nov 25, 1948), p. 10.
“Film Company Sued.” Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News (May 19, 1948), p. 9.
Orondenker, M. H. “Popular Record Reviews.” Billboard (Dec 9, 1944), p. 21.
“Sales Talk Louder Than Words” (ad). Cash Box (Nov 15, 1947), p. 18.
“Strip-Teaser Brings Suit as Record Company Head.” Tampa [FL] Times (Jun 1, 1948), p. 12.
“The Cash Box Record Reviews.” Cash Box (Nov 27, 1947), p. 16.
Uno. “Burlesque.” Billboard (Mar 27, 1948), p. 43.
“Winnie the Waxer.” Billboard (Mar 13, 1948), p. 16.
As part of Mainspring Press’ ongoing transition to digital data distribution, we’re happy to announce that our Leeds & Catlin discography has now been incorporated into the University of California-Santa Barbara’s free online Discography of American Historical Recordings.
The listings were expertly adapted from Leeds & Catlin Records: A History and Discography (William R. Bryant & Allan Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015) and include the latest revisions to that work. All brands are covered, from the well-known Leeds, Imperial, and Sun labels to such truly obscure items as 20th Century and Duquesne.
The American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) and International Record Company databases are currently in preparation for DAHR. Mainspring’s American Zonophone data, including the previously unpublished volume covering 7″, 9″, and 11″ issues, was transferred to DAHR last year.
SORTING OUT PARAMOUNT’S TWO “NATIONAL” LABELS
(1922 – 1924)
By Allan Sutton
During 1922–1924, the New York Recording Laboratories supplied Paramount masters to two unrelated National labels that operated under completely different business models. Unfortunately, discographers (particularly foreign ones who have access to only a small sampling of the actual discs, or who trust reports from unreliable sources) have muddled them together over the years.
Some progress has been made lately in sorting out a related situation (the two faces of Puritan, with more capable discographers now distinguishing between the United Phonographs/New York Recording Laboratories and Bridgeport Die & Machine versions of the label in their work). Hopefully, this article will spark a similar effort in regard to the two Paramount-derived National labels of the early 1920s.
The National Record Exchange Company (Iowa City, Iowa) launched its version of the National label in early 1922 and contracted production to NYRL. National Record Exchange was founded by Francis Waldemar Kracher, who filed for copyright on the slogan, “Get new records on our exchange plan,” on March 6, 1922. The company’s trademark application claimed use of the brand on phonographs (without mentioning records) since February 10, 1922. The records were used in an exchange scheme, rather than being sold outright.
National Record Exchange agents were scattered across the country. This ad appeared in the Santa Ana [California] Register on August 7, 1922.
The National Record Exchange’s 12000-series catalog numbers correspond to those on NYRL’s version of the Puritan label (which in turn were derived from the corresponding Paramount catalog numbers), plus 10000 — thus, in the example pictured below, National 12130 = Puritan (NYRL) 11130 = Paramount 20130. A lesser-known 8000 series featured a mixture of standards, light classics, and ethnic material from the Paramount catalog. Catalog numbers for that series correspond to Paramount’s, minus 25000 (for example, National 8113 = Paramount 33113).
(From Allan Sutton & Kurt Nauck’s American Record Labels & Companies:
An Encyclopedia, 1891–1943)
National Record Exchange agents were scattered across the country, but like some earlier exchange plans, the idea seems not to have caught on. The label appears to have been discontinued in 1924, and today, the records range from uncommon to rare, depending upon the issue.
The National Certificate Corporation employed a very different model for their version of the National label, which launched at approximately the same time as the National Record Exchange. In an early version of the trading-stamp scheme, National Certificate gave away coupons with purchases made from participating dealers, which could be redeemed for National records and other goods.
An August 1922 ad encouraging consumers to patronize stores that gave
National Certificate coupons.
Production was also contracted to NYRL, but in this case, manufacturing was handed off to the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut, using Paramount masters. BD&M manufactured the East Coast version of NYRL’s Puritan label, along with Broadway, Triangle, and a host of other brands originally pressed from Paramount masters. BD&M Puritans sometimes used NYRL Puritan’s couplings and catalog numbers, but quite often, the company recoupled selections and/or reassigned NYRL’s Puritan catalog numbers to different recordings. The same situation applied with National.
Two BD&M National pressings from Paramount masters, both unlisted in the Van Rijn–Van der Tuuk Paramount discography and similar works. These use the same couplings and catalog numbers as BD&M’s version of the Puritan label. Both selections were also issued by the National Record Exchange, under different catalog numbers derived from the corresponding Paramount numbers. (ARLAC)
The coupon model appears to have been little more popular than the exchange model, based upon the relative rarity of National Certificate’s records. The last confirmed releases use Paramount masters recorded during the summer of 1923, and thus far, no advertising for the records after early 1924 has been found. An unrelated National label, manufactured by Grey Gull for the possibly fictitious National Record Company (location not stated), made a brief appearance in 1925.
This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress) .
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.
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.
Sharing the limelight with Paul Whiteman (October 1928)
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.
Ted Lewis at the Columbia pressing plant, late 1920s
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.
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.