The Mitchell Brothers (John & Bill Mitchell) Newspaper Highlights (1915–1939)
Although remembered primarily as members of Carson Robison’s synthetic-cowboy band in the 1930s, that was John and Bill Mitchell’s second act. Their first show-business career had begun much earlier, as a novelty banjo-and-vocal act. They were performing professionally by the time they were in prep school, honed their skills with the University of Washington’s “Pain Killer” Banjo Band in the late ’teens, and by the early 1920s were traveling the vaudeville circuits. By the time Robison tapped the brothers for his Bucakroos in 1932, they had retired from the stage and were running an oil-burner business, but Robison finally persuaded them to join his new band by dangling a trip to England as an incentive.
The Mitchells’ first recording session was brokered by California Ramblers manager Ed Kirkeby, who at that time was still managing other artists as well as his own band. It was held for Pathé on April 26, 1923, according to Kirkeby’s files, and the resulting sides — “Blue Hoosier Blues” and “Banjo Blues” (issued simultaneously on Pathé 021002 and Perfect 11123) — were inexplicably issued under the alias, “McGavock & Tillman” (and later, disguised as “Harper & Coralie” for a Cameo reissue).
In late 1924, the Mitchells signed with Victor and recorded several sides acoustically over a couple of months. Unfortunately, the records were released in February 1925, just as the company was upgrading to electrical recording, and they were deleted when much of the acoustic catalog was purged in 1926. They returned to Victor in October of that year for a final side.
Capsule biography of the Mitchell Brothers (Kenosha [WI] Evening News, January 26, 1927)
One of the earliest ads for the Mitchell Brothers (Hot Springs, Arkansas, April 1915), while they were still prep-school students.
John and Bill Mitchell (left) as members of the University of Washington “Pain Killer” Banjo Band, Decemeber 1919.
Playing the Liberty in Spokane, Washington, May 1921 (top) and September 1922.
Seattle, June 1921
Announcement of the Mitchell Brothers’ first record to be issued under their own name (Victor 19531), January 1925. The recordings were made in New York on November 26, 1924.
Nashville, July 1926
The Mitchell Brothers with Carson Robison’s make-believe cowboy band (variously billed as the Pioneers or the Buckaroos), March 1934. Pearl Pickens, who had attended Julliard, and was Bill Mitchell’s wife.
A 1939 Screen and Radio Weekly account of the Buckaroos’ formation. Note the reference to college graduates John and Bill Mitchell as “a couple of cowhands,” typical of the shtick that went along with synthetic country-and-western groups like Robison’s.
MITCHELL BROTHERS: Nobody Knows What a Redhead Mama Can Do
New York: January 9, 1925
Victor 19561 (mx. B 31599 – 2)
New York: January 9, 1925
Victor 19561 (mx. B 31598 – 4)
John Mitchell (tenor vocal, banjo); Bill Mitchell (baritone vocal, banjo)
We still have some copies of American Record Labels & Producers 1888-1950 (winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence), but stocks are running low on this special limited edition. Order soon to ensure delivery in time for Christmas!
Some surprising luck this week — both of the Matson’s Creole Serenaders Edisons found a new home here within a few days of each other (one in lovely shape, the other having led a little harder life, but still perfectly serviceable).
Both copies use the scarcer takes. “I Just Want a Daddy” is the rarer issue of the two, having been “red-starred” — Edison’s signal to dealers that the record was not expected to sell very well and therefore should be ordered only sparingly. A sales genius, Edison was not.
CHARLES A. MATSON’S CREOLE SERENADERS: I Just Want a Daddy (I Can Call My Own) (V++)
New York: July 30, 1923
Edison 51224 (mx. 9105 – C)
CHARLES A. MATSON’S CREOLE SERENADERS: ’T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do (intro: Aching Hearted Blues) (EE–)
New York: July 30, 1923
Edison 51222 (mx. 9104 – A)
This group has flummoxed collectors and discographers for decades. Various writers have suggested Freddie Keppard as the cornetist, or Armand Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra in disguise, along with more far-fetched guesses. Now, thanks to some first-class sleuthing reported on the grammophon-platten.de website, we have a credible answer as to who actually plays on these sides — and it sure isn’t Keppard, or anyone else you’re likely to have heard of, with one exception.
Based on newspaper clippings from April and June 1923, as displayed on the grammophon-platten site, this group consists of:
Thomas E. Hillery (cornet); Levi Bush (trombone); Carlos Daugherty (clarinet, saxophone); Charles O. Moseley (saxophone); William Escoffery (banjo); William (Bill) Benford (tuba); Curtis Moseley (percussion). (Julian Arthur was listed as a violinist, but a violin isn’t audible on these recordings.)
Of course, these clipping don’t tell us who actually was present in the Edison studio. But given the consistency between the April and June reports, and the proximity of the latter to the July session, they’re probably the best evidence we’re going to get — and certainly more to be trusted than the guesswork that’s surrounded this band for so many years.
Hillery — the principal person of interest in this band — was born in Baltimore, where he trained and apparently spent much of his time. Until this discovery, he was a cipher to historians and discographers, although he seems to have been highly regarded in his hometown. Bush and Daugherty were also active in Baltimore in the 1920s, and Escoffery was a native of nearby Washington, DC.
Hillery’s obituary (he died in 1928, at age 28), biographical material on the other band members, and all the other supporting evidence can be viewed on the Charles Matson bio page at grammophon-platten — a beautiful piece of research, and highly recommended, as is the entire site.
North Carolina native Samantha Bumgarner inspired Pete Seeger to take up the banjo, performed for British royalty, and (with Eva Davis) was the first female country music performer to make records.
The team of Bumgarner and Davis cut five titles in Columbia’s New York studio on April 22, 1924, three of which were released. Bumgarner returned to the studio the following day, without Davis, to record seven more titles, five of which were released.
Bumgarner’s records appear to have sold reasonably well throughout the Appalachian region; we’ve found copies as far north as the South Mountain area in Pennsylvania, and as far west as the Alleghenies in West Virginia. But Bumgarner failed to attract a national following, and Columbia did not invite her or Davis back.
However, Bumgarner would remain active in the Asheville, North Carolina, area for several decades. Beginning in 1928 she was a star attraction at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, an annual Asheville event founded and managed by folklorist/performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Pete Seeger, who heard Bumgarner perform there in the mid-1930s, claimed her as his inspiration for taking up the five-string string banjo.
In June 1939, Lunsford took Bumgarner to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a White House concert staged by the WPA, which featured such diverse talent as Marian Anderson, Kate Smith, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, and the Coon Creek Girls. Bumgarner continued to perform into the late 1950s.
Asheville, North Carolina (July 1924). The caption is reversed; Bumgarner is on the right.
.Bumgarner (with Bill McCanlass, top) performing at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (August 1942)
At the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (Asheville,
Asheville (March 1960)
December 25, 1960
April 23, 1924, was a busy date at the Columbia studio, with Bumgarner recording in the morning, followed that afternoon by Bessie and Clara Smith. Here are two historic sides from that day:
SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss
New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 146-D (mx. 81716 – 1)
SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Georgia Blues
New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 166-D (mx. 81719 – 1)
Murray K. Hill: Newspaper Highlights (1901 – 1942)
Joseph T. Pope got his start in show business performing “blackface” routines in small-time minstrel shows. By the early 1900s, he had set out on his own, under the name of Murray K. Hill. (The spelling varied between “Murry” and “Murray” on record labels and in ads and newspaper stories; “Murray” appears to have been the more common spelling, and it was used in his obituaries.)
Although Hill continued to occasionally appear in blackface into the early 1900s, he was much better-known for his topical songs and rapid-fire comic monologues. Attired in tails and an old-fashioned top hat, he specialized in satirizing current events and mangling American history. He wrote his own material, boasting that he operated a “song and story factory.” “The Last Survivor,” a popular vaudeville act introduced in 1908, was based on his early minstrel-show experiences.
Hill traveled widely on the Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit in the U.S. and Canada, but his style became increasingly outdated in the ‘teens and early ‘twenties. After making his last nationally advertised tour in 1922, he settled down with his family in Chicago, but still occasionally performed in the Midwest into the 1930s.
Dayton, Ohio (August 1901)
Hill recalls his experiences during the Evansville race riots
“The Last Survivor,” August 1908: Los Angeles (top), and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (bottom)
Butte, Montana (July 1908)
Los Angeles (August 1910)
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (June 1910)
Wichita, Kansas (October 1911)
The San Francisco Call (January 27, 1913)
Fort Wayne, Indiana (January 1915)
Wichita, Kansas (January 1915)
Chicago (October 23, 1942)
Hill recorded prolifically from the spring of 1907 through the spring of 1911, for Columbia, Edison, Indestructible, U-S Everlasting, Victor, and Zonophone (a final Edison cylinder release, in 1914, probably was from an earlier, previously withheld master). Here’s a small sampling:
MURRAY K. HILL: A Bunch of Nonsense
Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 16446 (mx. B 8320 – ) Introducing “The Last Survivor” and “In the Good Old Steamboat Days”
MURRAY K. HILL: The Tale of the Cheese
Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 35093 (mx. C8356 – 3)
MURRAY K. HILL: A String of Laughs
New York: Listed April 1909
Edison Amberol 101 (cylinder) Introducing “Don’t” and “Four-Hundred Nursery Rhymes Brought Up to Date”
MURRAY K. HILL: Don’t Go Up in That Big Balloon, Dad
New York: Listed April 1910
Edison Gold Moulded 10375 (cylinder)
Advertisement for Clarence Williams’ first record, on the C&S label (1922). The C&S Phonograph Record Company was a short-lived venture of Thomas Chappelle and Juanita Stinnette Chappelle, who encouraged Williams to marry singer Eva Taylor.
With Sara Martin, one of Okeh’s early race-series stars
With wife Eva Taylor (July 1923)
“Papa De-Da-Da” was among the Blue Five sides featuring
Louis Armstrong. (July 1925)
A vocal release by Williams and Clarence Todd, here misspelled “Dood.” Todd, along with Eva Taylor, was a member of the Clarence Williams Trio, which broadcast regularly for several years. (July 1925)
Williams was Okeh’s New York studio workhorse in the mid-1920s. Here, his Blue Five accompany a young Sippie Wallace. (August 1925)
New York (June 1926)
Williams’ ill-fated Bottomland opened on June 27, 1927, and closed after only nineteen performances.
New York Age (January 3, 1953). Member of the Clarence Williams Trio pictured above are (left to right) are Williams, Eva Taylor, and Clarence Todd.
Working the New York clubs (1951 and 1955)
. New York (November 9, 1965)
And a sampling from Williams’ tremendous recorded output:
CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Jingles
New York: October 1927
Paramount 12587 (mx. 2882 – 2) Featuring Coleman Hawkins, on loan from Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra
CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS BOTTOMLAND ORCHESTRA:
Slow River (export version)
New York: June 7, 1927
Brunswick (German) A-457 (mx. E 23502) The standard version (mx. E 23500) includes vocal chorus by Evelyn Thompson (Preer).
CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ WASHBOARD FIVE (Williams, vocal):
Walk That Broad
New York: September 26, 1928
Okeh 8629 (mx. W 40115 – A)
CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ JAZZ KINGS: The Keyboard Express
New York: August 1, 1928
Columbia 14348-D (mx. W 146825 – 3)
CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Memphis Jazzers): Close Fit Blues
New York: March 1929
Van Dyke 7801 (Grey Gull mx. 3394 – B)
Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers: Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)
Among the first superstars of real country music (as opposed to the synthetic stuff cranked out by the likes of Vernon Dalhart), Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner worked their way up from humble beginnings in Georgia — Puckett performing for spare change on the streets of Atlanta, and Tanner competing at the “old-time fiddlers’ conventions” that were so popular at the time. Here’s a glimpse of their stories, from newspaper clippings of the period:
Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)
One of the earliest mentions of Gid Tanner, getting ready to perform at the spring convention of the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association
(January 17, 1915)
Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)
Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)
Gainesville, Georgia (July 1924). The Skillet Lickers had yet to be formed at this point, leaving the makeup of Tanner’s Famous Orchestra an intriguing mystery.
Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers
Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)
Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)
Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)
Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.
At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)
Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)
And a few favorites from their vast output:
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie
Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)
CLAYTON McMICHEN, RILEY PUCKETT, GID TANNER, LOWE STOKES, FATE NORRIS, BOB NICHOLS & BILL BROWN: A Corn Licker Still in Georgia — Part 4
Atlanta: April 12, 1928
Columbia 15258-D (mx. W 140322 – 2) Bill Brown (playing the hapless visitor on this side) was a manager in Columbia’s Atlanta office. This was not a pseudonym for Harry C. Browne, as columnist Jim Walsh once claimed.
GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine
Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)
The Rhythm Aces records were a musical triumph, but a
sales bust (Chicago Defender, August 1929)
A battle of the bands in Lansing, Michigan, August 1929. Particularly interesting is the note in the newspaper story concerning Smith’s full eleven-piece orchestra, which is not known to have recorded. The “famous quintet known as ‘Four Aces and a Joker'” mentioned in the article was the small unit that made the Brunswick recordings.
Jabbo Smith after his move to the Midwest, playing in Racine, Wisconsin
(top, May 1932) and Sheboygan, Wisconsin (bottom, May 1933).
Jabbo Smith performs to save to home (January 1977). The benefit raised only $700 of the $10,000 he needed, but the concert marked the beginning of a remarkable comeback.
Hobnobbing with Benny Goodman (February 1980) and
Dizzy Gillespie (November 1979)
Jabbo in California: Los Angeles (top, December 1980)
and San Francisco (August 1981)
New York (January 19, 1991)
And a couple of masterpieces from the Rhythm Aces series — Personnel, as given by Jabbo Smith to researcher Dick Spottswood in 1966 (and bearing little resemblance to the undocumented, apparently fabricated listings in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works), are: Smith (trumpet), Willard Brown (reeds), Earl Frazer (piano), Ikey Robinson (banjo), Lawson Buford (brass bass):
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”
(Jabbo Smith, vocal): Decatur Street Tutti
Chicago: April 4, 1929
Brunswick 7078 (mx. C 3233 – A)
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”:
Band Box Stomp
Chicago: August 22, 1929
Brunswick 7111 (mx. C 4100 – A)
One aspect of Fletcher Henderson’s career that’s been generally overlooked by most of his biographers is his use of “satellite” bands — those second-string groups that busy bandleaders dispatched under their names to tour the boondocks or play low-prestige events like college and civic-group dances. This was a common practice in the 1920s, known to have been engaged in by Harry A. Yerkes*, Ed Kirkeby, and other popular band leaders and managers.
The first mention of a suspected Henderson satellite band appeared in March 1925. Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra, it was reported, was a new unit that would “bid for popular favor against Mr. Henderson’s original Roseland Orchestra.”
An early mention of Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra (March 1925)
Whether Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra was a separate unit, as the article suggests, or perhaps just a small group drawn from the main band, remains unclear. No recordings credited to Fletcher Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra are known. The name (sometimes spelled “Rainbo”) appeared in newspaper ads off-and-on for a few months, mostly in connection with a touring band that played the smaller cities in Pennsylvania and central New York state.
There is far more certainty surrounding Fletcher Henderson’s Collegians. This appears to have been a group of younger musicians who were employed primarily as a touring band. The name first appeared in the autumn of 1925, with one advertisement describing the group as “A Fletcher Henderson unit of young colored boys full of ‘pep.’”
Altoona, Pennsylvania (October 2, 1925)
Based on strong circumstantial and aural evidence, it seems virtually certain that the Collegians were a Henderson satellite band. There are confirmed instances of the group appearing in far-flung locations on the same dates that Henderson’s main band is known to have been performing, recording, or broadcasting in New York city. The Plaza Music Company released three very un-Hendersonlike sides credited to Fletcher Henderson’s Collegians, and they can come as a bitter disappointment to unwary collectors. The mundane stock arrangements and total absence of Henderson’s own readily recognizable soloists strongly suggest that these recordings were the work of a band that was his in name only:
FLETCHER HENDERSON’S COLLEGIANS (Andy Razaf, vocal):
Dear, On a Night Like This
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): November 26, 1927 Regal 8441 (mx. 7622 – 3)
Ads for Henderson’s Collegians vanished in early 1928. In the meantime, another apparent satellite band had surfaced — Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers (not to be confused with The Dixie Stompers, an alias that Columbia used to mask the actual Henderson band, or a small unit derived from it, on its low-priced Harmony and Velvet Tone labels). Ads for the Stompers began appearing in the autumn of 1927. An article from October of that year reported that Henderson’s brother Horace was directing the group:
Horace Henderson as director of Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers (Pittsburgh, October 1927)
The Stompers’ itinerary is well documented in newspapers of the period. Like the Collegians, they are known to have been traveling on some dates when the main Henderson band was performing or recording in New York or Chicago. Occasional ads declaring that “Fletcher Henderson himself” would appear suggest that his presence with the group might have been something out of the ordinary. The Stompers spent the autumn of 1927 and early winter of 1928 crisscrossing Pennsylvania and parts of New York state. Aside from Pittsburgh, the band played mostly smaller cities and college towns.
Benny Carter as director of Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers (Mansfield, Ohio, September 1928). Several months later, Horace Henderson took over the Stompers name for his own band.
One Bennett Carter took over direction of the Stompers in the summer of 1928. Better known to modern listeners as saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter, he began working with Fletcher Henderson’s main band later that year, playing a key role in reshaping what had become a rather slipshod outfit following Henderson’s late-August auto accident.
Horace Henderson subsequently appropriated the Stompers name for his own band, ads for which began running in early 1929. Occasional ads for Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers continued to appear into mid-1930, intermixed with a larger number for Horace Henderson’s Stompers, mostly involving one- or two-night stands in Pittsburgh and some smaller Pennsylvania cities.
* Not the same individual as Hulbert A. Yerkes, a Columbia records executive who went by the initials “H. A,” causing some writers to conflate the two.
Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
On the subject of broadcasts, you sang with Gigli in one of the earliest Saturday matinee broadcasts, am I correct?
Yes. Radio became more and more important in the early and middle-1930s. I remember singing Inès in of one of the first radio broadcasts from the Met [on March 19, 1933], with Gigli as Vasco and Rethberg as Selika. But the most memorable broadcast I can recall was the silver-anniversary gala for Gatti-Casazza [on February 26, 1933]. Lily Pons sang the Lucia Sextet with Lauri-Volpi, Tancredi Pasero—what a voice!—and Armando Borgioli, and dear old Angelo Badà. The broadcast was quite special because Alma Gluck spoke on the air, and [Marcella] Sembrich and [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink were present for the gala.
Gigli also had a very memorable appearance in a broadcast that was billed as a “surprise party” in 1932. Certain parts of the playbill were titled after dishes that one would find on a restaurant menu—one scene was called “Russian Caviar,” another was “Wiener Schnitzel,” and “French Champaign.” I sang in the one called “Italian Minestrone” on the playbill. In the “French Champaign” segment, Gigli came onstage in the costume of Carmen and sang the “Habanera.” Not in falsetto, but in his real voice.
You mentioned Lily Pons singing in the Lucia Sextet at Gatti-Casazza’s silver-anniversary gala. I believe you sang in the Sextet at his farewell gala in March 1935.
The Lucia Sextet was the opening selection of the farewell for Gatti, but the most talked-about performance of that Gala was Melchior singing the last act of Otello with Elisabeth Rethberg.  Five days after that farewell gala, I sang my last performance at the Met. It was in Bohème—I sang Musetta, and Rethberg sang Mimì. It was a Saturday matinee broadcast, and a fragment of it was recorded. I have heard it, but the sound quality is so poor that I can barely make out my own voice. So the only sound recordings I have of my voice are the tests I made for Victor, which Caruso had made possible.
Were you present for any of Caruso’s recording sessions?
Just once, when he recorded “Rachel! Quand du Seigneur,” in September 1920. He invited me to come to the Victor studios with Bruno. [Caruso] recorded something else that day—a song, but I can’t recall its title now. Of course, Bruno was at all of Caruso’s recording sessions from 1917 until 1920. The first one he was present for was the recording of the Rigoletto Quartet and the Lucia Sextet in January 1917.
Do you recall seeing a test recording of the opening tenor measures of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” which Caruso sang? The test recording was cut off when the others in the ensemble began to sing.
Yes, we had a copy of it. Caruso inscribed the label to himself—either “To Enrico from Enrico,” or “To Caruso from Caruso,” something of that sort.
Do you still have that test pressing?
No. My husband managed not only to lose that one, but he also misplaced the private recording Caruso made of the “Coat Song” from Bohème.
When did you make your test recordings for Victor?
In 1920. On Thursday afternoon, April 29, 1920.
Were you intimidated at all by the conical recording “horn”?
Well, it wasn’t “conical,” it was octagonal. It was suspended by an adjustable chain, and there were two large mahogany doors below it. I wasn’t intimidated by it not only because I had watched Caruso make the Juive recording, but also because the director at Victor, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, who accompanied me at the piano, explained the recording process to me in detail.
How many test recordings did you make that day?
Just two. I sang Chadwick’s “He Loves Me,” and then “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula.
Were you able to hear the test recordings played back to you soon after you finished making the recordings?
No. I was invited to the Victor studios in Manhattan to hear the recordings played, and was given both of the discs after they were played for me.
Were you pleased with what you heard?
With “Come per me sereno,” yes. But my voice sounded too distant in “He Loves Me.”
Do you recall what type of piano, a grand or an upright, was used in your recordings, and where the piano was located?
It was a grand piano with the lid raised to its maximum, pointed toward the horn. I stood on a stool in front of the horn, with the bend of the piano immediately behind me. .
NINA MORGANA (Josef Pasternack, piano): Come per me sereno
Victor test: April 29, 1920
(A busy day at Victor; others who cut tests on this date, ahead of Nina Morgana, included Lew Brown, William Robyn, Fred Whitehouse, and the Finnish Mixed Quartette. Data from the Discography of American Historical Recordings.) .
Do you know why your recordings were never released commercially?
There were two reasons, really. The first was that Caruso died unexpectedly. As soon as he recovered from his illness, he was to have recorded “É il sol dell’anima” with me. After he died, of course, that became a moot point. The other reason had to do with my husband. Bruno wanted only one “star” in our home, and being a traditional Italian man, he had to be the center of attention.
You were a classically-trained soprano who was taught through the solfeggio method by a legendary soprano. Mr. Zirato had no musical education at all, and yet he spent his career in the operatic and symphonic worlds. To what extent did he really “know” music?
He knew [opera] libretti as well as any conductor or coach. He knew them so thoroughly that he had an annoying habit of speaking the lines while a singer was singing them. He did that throughout every performance I attended with him, and no matter how many times I stuck my elbow into his arm to shut him up, he couldn’t stop reciting the lines. It annoyed everyone around us because his voice was so deep. I felt that he did it [i.e., reciting lines in his box seat while they were being sung onstage] to show off, to impress everyone around us with his vast knowledge of the repertoire.
But he could not read music, correct?
No, not at all. Nor did he have a very good sense of pitch. Unless a singer or an instrumental soloist was flat or sharp by at least a half-tone, his ear couldn’t detect it.
Did you sing at home, and did he give you any opinions about your singing?
Occasionally, I would go to the piano and accompany myself in arias that I loved but which were not a part of my repertoire. As I said earlier, I loved singing tenor arias such as “M’appari,” “Che gelida manina,” and “Come un bel dí di Maggio.” Once, I remember accompanying myself and seeing Bruno come to the piano, put his hands on the raised lid, and listen to me singing—or so I thought. As soon as I finished, he said to me, “My podiatrist says I have beautiful feet.”
Would you have continued to sing under the Johnson administration if you had been given more performances and more opportunities to sing the major coloratura roles?
It wouldn’t have been possible under the circumstances, for several reasons. Caruso had been my entré to the Met, and when he died I knew that my chances for the major coloratura roles would be limited. Galli-Curci came [to the Met], and then Lily Pons. They were Gatti-Cassazza’s and then Johnson’s coloraturas, and I was limited mainly to Amina in Sonnambula, an occasional Gilda, and more often than not, Musetta in Bohème. And as I said, my husband wanted to be the only celebrity in our home. So that was that.
Some twenty-five years after Caruso’s passing, you and your husband became very close to Arturo Toscanini. From some interviews that Toscanini gave, we know that although he admired and respected both Caruso and Gigli, he was not at all shy about criticizing them for taking on roles that were inappropriate for their young voices.
He repeated to Bruno and me many times his exclamation upon hearing Caruso in Italy for the first time: “Per Dio! If this young Neapolitan tenor keeps singing like this, he will have the whole word talking about him!” When Caruso began to take on gradually heavier roles, Toscanini was prone to lecture him—and later Gigli, and all of the rest of us—about the danger of impairing the voice by imposing the requirements of dramatic parts upon an essentially lyrical voice and technique.
Toscanini thought that Gigli was superb in Bohème, Elisir d’amore, and Rigoletto, but that Africana, Trovatore, and Aida were too weighty for his voice. Just as Toscanini had been critical of Caruso for taking on heavier roles too early in his career, he was critical of all of the other tenors who came after Caruso. But Toscanini, musical genius that he was, could be susceptible to irresistible personalities.
Two that come to mind were Giovanni Martinelli, who could do no wrong in Maestro’s eyes, and Geraldine Farrar, with whom he [Toscanini] had a prolonged love affair. Perhaps you know the story of the clashes between Toscanini and Farrar—especially his remark that she was not a “star” because the only stars are in the night sky, and her retort that audiences came to see her on the stage, not to stare at the back of Toscanini’s head in the orchestra pit.
Geraldine Farrar selling Liberty Bonds, 1918 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Because of my husband’s close association with Toscanini through the New York Philharmonic, Bruno and I were often invited to the relatively few social events that Toscanini would attend. One of the most memorable of these events was a dinner that Farrar gave for Toscanini at her home in Connecticut in the early 1950s.
We rode there with Toscanini in his chauffeured car, and unlike other invitations that he initially accepted and almost immediately regretted, the invitation from Farrar put him in a very good mood. That mood changed abruptly when the main course was served. From then until we left, which was as soon as we politely could, Toscanini sat at her dinner table, glaring at his plate.
When we got into the car, he exploded! “I slept with that woman for seven years,” he shouted, “and she knows I hate fish!”
You sang under Toscanini. Do you recall how many times?
The only performance I remember distinctly was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Richard Crooks, Sophie Braslau, and Ezio Pinza, and the Schola Cantorum in 1928.
How was the Maestro’s temperament during the rehearsals?
“Vesuvian” is the word that comes to my mind. He broke at least one, maybe two batons, and he threw his pocket watch on the floor and crushed it with his heel! He pointed out poor Crooks and told him that he sang like a sick pig. Then he used a very crude Italian expression for Pinza. It would embarrass me to repeat it [but] he told Pinza that his singing had the same worth that the pig’s food has after the pig has digested and eliminated it.
Were you spared his wrath, since you knew him personally?
Definitely not! He told me that Madame Arkel, whom he had known very well in Italy, should have forbade me ever to mention her name in public because my singing was a disgrace to her name!
Did he finish the rehearsal?
Yes, but he rushed through it. He was still enraged at the end [of the rehearsal], and shouted at us to get out of his sight and not come back until we were prepared to give our very best. At the next rehearsal, I can assure you that Morgana, Braslau, Crooks, and Pinza and everyone else associated with the performance sang better than we ever knew we could!
Arturo Toscanini, c. 1921 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Returning to Enrico Caruso, you sang a number of concerts with him. Do you recall how many you sang with him?
In all, there were eleven. The first one was in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in February 1919, and the last was in New Orleans on June 26, 1920. He had asked me to sing some upcoming concerts that fall , two in Canada and three in the Midwest, but I was already scheduled to make my debut at the Metropolitan, so I had rehearsals and other obligations to attend to.
Did you sing most of the joint concerts that Caruso gave during World War One?
No, but I attended most of the ones he gave with other singers. He did concerts with Louise Homer, Claudia Muzio, Frances Alda, and Galli-Curci. I think he did one with Mary Garden, too. One concert I remember particularly well was with De Luca, Alda, and Martinelli. Can you imagine one of these tenors today inviting another famous tenor to appear with him? But Caruso invited Martinelli to sing with him. He was very fond of Martinelli, as I’ve told you.
Before Caruso invited me to appear with him, Carolina White and Mabel Garrison had sung [concerts] with him. And Ganna Walska sang at least one [concert] with him. But those were not really “joint concerts,” because Carolina White, Garrison, Ganna Walska and I were billed as “assisting artists” to Caruso. The [concerts] he did with Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, Alda, Muzio, and Homer were truly joint concerts because they were first-rank artists.
This program from October 1918 appears to contradict Morgana’s recollection that she toured with Caruso only during 1919–1920; however, another copy, in the Ann Arbor District Library, has the notation, “Postponed to Spring.” (William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press)
What did Caruso typically sing, and what did you sing—not only on the printed program, but as encores?
The violinist Elias Breeskin toured with us, so he would open the program. He had his own accompanist—ours was Salvatore Fucito—and [Breeskin] would usually play [the Dvorak] “Humoresque” or something similar. Then I would sing either “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula or “Ombra leggiera” from Dinorah, Those were the two arias I sang in all of our concerts.
Caruso would then sing “Celeste Aida,” which was always his first aria on the program. Breeskin would then return to the platform and play two, sometimes three selections. After that, I would sing an aria—again, either the Sonnambula or Dinorah aria, whichever one I hadn’t opened with—and Caruso would sing “Vesti la giubba,” which would always earn him a standing ovation.
After the ovation, he would motion for me to join him at the center of the stage, and we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” together. Always—always—at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he would take me by the hands, and swing me around him. That delighted him to no end, and the audience loved it! Then he would motion for Breeskin and his accompanist, and also Fucito, to stand with us and take our bows.
After all of us left the stage, the applause would go on and on, and in the midst of it Caruso would walk back onto the stage from the wings—just two or three feet from the wings—and he would arch his eyebrows and turn the palms of his hands upward with a big smile, as if to say, “Would you like to hear more?” That’s when the fun would begin!
He would point to me, and then point to himself, as if to say, “Go ahead and sing something of mine!” This was all rehearsed, of course, and I would proceed to sing “M’appari” from Marta, Next, he would motion for Breeskin to join him for the Massenet “Elégie.” Then Caruso would sing three Tosti songs—and always the final one would be “’A vucchella.”
You also sang a joint concert with Gigli, am I correct?
Yes, it was in Boston during a two-concert appearance in which his assisting artist was scheduled to be Anna Fitziu, but she was indisposed and he asked me to take her place. I had sung a number of times in Philadelphia—in fact, I was in one of Gigli’s last performances there, a performance of L’Africana with Rethberg as Sélika [on April 12, 1932]. When I replaced Anna Fitziu as his assisting artist, Gigli told me to sing whatever I wanted to sing, so I chose my two tried-and-true arias, the Dinorah and Sonnambula, and both were well received.
Gigli opened that concert, as he did many others that he gave, with the two Elisir arias: he sang “Quanto è bella” and followed it with “Una furtiva lagrima.” After I sang “Come per me sereno,” he sang three Italian songs. He sang “Amarilli,” then “Primavera,” and before he sang the third one—“Tre giorni son che Nina”—he extended his hand to me, and he sang it to me. Then I sang “Ombra leggiera,” after which he sang “O paradiso,” which earned him another standing ovation.
After “O paradiso,” he left the stage for a few minutes, and when he returned he sang three French selections—two songs whose titles I don’t recall at the moment, and then the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys. That was the last selection on the printed program. As the applause continued, I came onstage and sang “Caro nome” as an encore. Then Gigli sang five encores, mind you! He began with “Santa Lucia,” then he sang three Tosti songs—“L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” “Serenata,” and “Marechiare”—and he ended with “’O sole mio.”
If that isn’t a tour de force, what is? I can assure you that his voice was just as fresh, just as dolcissima, in “’O sole mio” as it was in “Quanto è bella” and “Una furtiva lagrima” at the start of the concert. Gigli’s entire career was that way: fresh and sweet and beautiful from beginning to end.
Nina Morgana with the author (Ithaca, New York, 1980)
 Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune: “After a spirited curtain-raiser extracted from the immortal opus of Donizetti with Mme. Nina Morgana lending her gifts and skill and feeling and intensity as the unhappy heroine, the novelty of the evening was disclosed to us. This was a performance of the last Act of Verdi’s Otello with Mr. Melchior embodying the Moor of Venice for the first time in New York and Mme. Rethberg playing Desdemona. It is twenty-two years since the music of Otello was heard at the Metropolitan.”
The famed Variety reporter, Ripley’s Believe It or Not commentator, and paratrooping World War II correspondent gives his uncensored take on Korea in this rare, privately issued send-up of Edward R. Murrow’s I Can Hear It Now.
COL. BARNEY AND ASSOCIATES IN KOREA: I Can Smell It Now
RCA custom pressing (mx. E0-LQB-13611), c. 1951 Note: The final portion of the record, consisting of repeated musical numbers, has been deleted from this transfer.
KID ORY’S CREOLE JAZZ BAND (as Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra): Society Blues
Santa Monica, CA: c. Late May, 1922
Sunshine 3003 (label pasted over Nordskog 3009)
Kid Ory’s Nordskog / Sunshine title are important as the first issued recordings by a black New Orleans band. For decades, they have been listed in the standard discographies as the product of a single June 1922 session (others list 1921, which will be ruled out below). However, evidence in The Chicago Defender suggests that there were actually two dates involved: One session, c. early April 1922, for singers Ruth Lee and Roberta Dudley, accompanied by Ory’s band; and a second session, c. late May 1922, for the two Ory band sides.
There have been many conflicting anecdotal accounts of the business arrangement between the Spikes brothers and Nordskog. What is known for certain is that the records were pressed a continent away, at the Arto Company plant on Orange, New Jersey. A portion of the pressing run was allocated to the Nordskog label; the balance (5,000 copies, according to Reb Spikes’ recollections) were to have Sunshine labels pasted over the Nordskog originals, for sale by the Spikes Brothers’ music shop in Los Angeles. All three Sunshine releases also appeared in the Nordskog catalog, using Nordskog’s own catalog numbers and artist credits (Ory’s band became “Spikes Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra” on Nordskog) — rebutting the assertion in at least one classic-jazz history that all of the Nordskog specimens are simply Sunshine issues from which the Sunshine label have fallen off. (The Sunshine labels often do peel away to varying degrees, particularly at the edges, but not very cleanly.)
Several published accounts have claimed that Andrae Nordskog made the Ory recordings during a single session in his living room in 1921 — a colorful tale, but nothing more. The 1921 date has long-since been debunked, with 1922 now well-established, and Nordskog’s storefront Santa Monica studio was operating by that time. Reb Spikes recalled in a 1951 interview that the Ory recordings were made in that studio.
Local cabaret-blues singers Ruth Lee and Roberta Dudley appeared on the first Sunshine releases, backed by members of Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band from the Creole Cafe in Oakland, California. The Chicago Defender for May 22, 1922, confirmed that Lee and Dudley had already recorded “Maybe Someday” and “Krooked Blues,” respectively, which the paper reported were expected to release on or about June 1.  We know from comparing confirmed Arto recording dates (listed in Ed Kirkeby’s logs) to those records’ release dates that the Arto pressing plant’s usual production cycle was six to eight weeks from receipt of masters to release (about average for the period). Add another five or six days for master shipment by rail from LA to New Jersey, and five or six more days for return of the finished pressings, and early April 1922 becomes the most likely recording date.
The projected June 1 release turned out to have been an accurate prediction. The Defender reported that on June 2, the Spikes Brothers hosted a gala event at the Gaumet Auditorium in Los Angeles to celebrate the first two Sunshine releases. After a lengthy program, the Sunshine artists finally took the stage. Ragtime Billy Tucker, the Defender’s California correspondent, reported:
“Hon. Frederick M. Roberts, member of the California legislature, thanked the audience on behalf of the Spikes Bros. while the stage was being set for Kid Ory’s famous Creole band, which made the first records for the Spikes Bros. The band offered a number from the pen of Mr. Ory, entitled, “Ory’s Creole Trombone.” Then they played “Maybe Some Day,” which was successfully featured by Miss Ruth Lee, who is after the laurels of Mamie Smith… Dainty little Roberta Dudley was the next little “mite” of personality to grace the boards. She rendered the “Krooked Blues”… She started a panic with her number, and it was a long time before she could break into the song, the applause came so fast.” 
Note that although the title of one Ory band releases is mentioned (“Ory’s Creole Trombone”), there’s no mention of it having yet been recorded. The reason can be found in a May 27 Defender report that the Spikes Brothers a week earlier had “sent to Oakland for ‘Kid Ory’s Famous Creole Jazz Band’ to make their first records,” presumably meaning the first records in their own right, rather than in just an accompanying role. (The same article repeats that Dudley and Lee had already recorded their numbers — further proof that these could not have been June recordings).
The earliest mention we’ve found of the Ory band release (Sunshine 3003) is in the Defender for July 29, 1922.  Using the same turnaround time outlined above, that fits perfectly with a late May recording session. In addition, there was a production error on this release that did not occur with the earlier releases (the Sunshine labels were not applied at the factory, requiring the Spikes brothers to apply them by hand), suggesting the records were not pressed at the same time as the two vocal releases.
Based on the above evidence, we feel that two separate sessions were involved for the 1922 Ory recordings, for which the following are more accurate dates than the customarily cited June 1922:
Santa Monica, CA: c. Early April 1922 (released June 1, 1922)
Roberta Dudley, acc. by Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band:
Krooked Blues / When You’re Alone Blues
Nordskog 3007, Sunshine 3001
Santa Monica, CA: c. Early April 1922 (released June 1, 1922)
Ruth Lee, acc. by Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band:
Maybe Someday / That Sweet Something, Dear
Nordskog 3008, Sunshine 3002
Santa Monica, CA: c. Late May 1922 (released August, 1922) Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band:
Ory’s Creole Trombine / Society Blues
Nordskog 3009 (as Spikes Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra)
Sunshine 3003 (as Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra)
 Tucker, Ragtime Billy. “Coast Dope.” Chicago Defender (May 27, 1922), p. 8.  Tucker, Ragtime Billy. “Coast Dope.” Chicago Defender (June 24, 1922), p. 8.  Tucker, Ragtime Billy. “Coast Dope.” Chicago Defender (July 29, 1922), p. 6.
JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY: Down to Old Aunt Mary’s
(from “The Lockerbie Book of Riley’s Verse”)
Indianapolis: June 5, 1912 (?)
Harry O. Sooy, recording engineer
Victor 70078 (mx. C 11975 – 3)
The recording date of June 5, from the Victor ledger, conflicts with Harry Sooy’s recollections, below. Note Sooy’s disclosure that the recordings were released despite the company’s concerns over substandard technical quality:
.“April 29th  —I journeyed to Indianapolis, Indiana, with the instructions to make records of some poems by the author, James Whitcomb Riley (the Hoosier Poet). On my arrival at Indianapolis, I got in telephone communication with Mr. Riley at his home on Lockerbie Street, a very quaint and unassuming street just one block long. He asked me to come out to see him that we might talk over the problems of making records. Upon my arrival at Mr. Riley’s home I was very sad to see him almost an invalid, after having an attack of paralysis, affecting his entire right side, and, naturally, leaving him in a very weak condition.
“After our talk regarding the making of the records, I returned to Mr. Riley’s home the next day with the recording paraphernalia, at which time I found it necessary, and did, make the records there in his home by having him recline in an easy chair. This was accomplished by having the recording machine movable, permitting me to place the recording horn very close to his face while in a reclining position. Mr. Riley’s voice was, of course, very weak, so much so that I felt the records would not have commercial value, which proved to be quite true after I had returned and they were manufactured…
“After some discussion by the Company over these finished records of Mr. Riley’s, he was informed they did not have commercial value owing to their lack of volume. Mr. Riley then requested having me come out again to Indianapolis to try again, so I was instructed to make over the records in June. This time I took Mrs. Sooy along with me. After our arrival at Indianapolis, we secured quarters in the Claypole Hotel, and found Mr. Riley somewhat improved in health, and determined to make good.
“I, on this trip, persuaded Mr. Riley to come to the hotel to make the records. The second engagement of recording started June 7, 1912 [note: the Victor ledgers show June 5] and continued 8th, 9th and 10th—p.m. only, as Mr. Riley had his automobile ride habitually every morning for recreation. And, while we were there on the trip, he would stop regularly at the hotel and insist that Mrs. Sooy and I accompany him on these automobile trips.
“We always found Mr. Riley to be in a jovial spirit, and a real entertainer even in his broken health. I recall one morning, while riding with him, we had a blow-out, which, naturally, made quite a report, and Mr. Riley exclaimed— “My God! They pop just like pop-corn don’t they?”
“After our auto ride and luncheon, Mr. Riley came to our hotel each afternoon until we had finished our recording. I am very sorry to say he was too ill to make a good record of his voice. Although a few of Mr. Riley’s records appear in the Victor Catalog, they are not as good as we aim to have Victor products, but very few people understand just why they are not good; the foregoing is self-explanatory.”
Victor attached the text to the blank reverse sides of the original purple-label issues (a nicety that was lost when the records were later coupled in the blue-label series):