IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

Conducted by telephone on May 8, 1978
First publication February 2022

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Irving Berlin, 1944 (Samuel Johnson Woolf,
National Portrait Gallery)

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I can’t find the words to thank you enough, Mr. Berlin, for taking your valuable time to talk with me today. 

You know, kid, you wrote me so many letters that you made me feel guilty! And Izzy [Irving] Caesar put this together, so here you are and here I am. Your letters have a lot of things in them about my songs, so what can I tell you that you don’t already know?

 

I was always hoping that you received the letters, and Mr. [Helmy] Kresa assured me that you did see them. Years ago, I received a very nice reply from Mr. [Abraham L.] Berman about one of your early songs. 

What did Abe say?

 

Well, I wrote to ask for permission to quote part of the chorus of “Blue Skies” in an article I was writing for my college magazine. Mr. Berman explained very tactfully the policy of your publishing company. I really treasure that letter from him. 

I’m not going to tell him that or he’ll raise his rates. Abe has been with me a long time, you know.

 

May I ask you some questions about your parents and any memories you may have of Russia and emigrating to this country?

I’m going to give you a little test first. I want to see how much you know about my early songs. Here’s my test for you: Tell me the lyrics of “Fiddle Up” [i.e., “The Ragtime Violin”].

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“Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin…”

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I think I can do that. “Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin / Lay right on it, rest your fingers on it / Doggone you better begin / To play an overture upon your violin.”

You’re close, but you made a couple mistakes. It’s “rest your chin upon it,” not “rest your fingers on it,” and it’s “Doggone you’d better begin,” not “Doggone you better begin.” But you do know the song. Here’s another test for you: give me the lyrics of both melodies in “Play a Simple Melody.” Can you do that?

 

I’ll do my best. I learned your song from the Victor record that Billy Murray and Elsie Baker made soon after you had published the song. Her part, the “simple” part, goes “Won’t you play a simple melody / Like my mother sang to me / One with good old-fashioned harmony / Play a simple melody!” His part of the duet goes, “Musical demon / Set your honey a-dreamin’ / Won’t you play me some rag / Just change that classical nag / To some sweet musical drag / If you will play from a copy / Of a tune that is choppy / You’ll get all my applause / And that is simply because / I want to listen to rag!”

Very good. Now do you know the verse to the “rag” part?

 

I think it’s “I don’t care for your long-haired musicians/ with their classic melodies / They’re all full of high-toned ambitions / but their music doesn’t please / Give me something snappy and popular / The kind that darkies play / Lots of rhythm and like all rhythm / And that’s why I say.”

You’re pretty good, kid! Of course, today you can’t use “darkies,” so when someone asks for permission to perform it, I have them use my revised lyric, which is “the kind that jazz boys play.” Now let me ask you a question. Is Izzy [Irving Caesar] on the line, or are we talking privately here?

 

I’m in his office, but he’s not here at the moment, so we’re talking privately. 

I hope to hell you don’t share his politics! Izzy is a goddamned Socialist, you know. [Eugene V.] Debs would have been President if Izzy had had his way. I like him and I talk to him about ASCAP business, but never about politics! Now, what were you asking me about coming to this country?

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Irving Caesar (right) with Gus Haenschen in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

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I’m interested to know whether you have any memories of Russia and of crossing the Atlantic in steerage. 

I was only about five years old when we came here, so I don’t really remember anything about Russia. And the only thing I remember about the ocean crossing is that it took forever. And there was a guy who was in the bunk above me who was carrying a pocket knife. It fell out of his pocket when he was asleep, and it hit me on my forehead. The blade wasn’t open, but that knife left a little scar that I still have. 

 

Do you remember anything about the town in which you were born in Russia?

No. I was too young, and all I wanted to do was to get to America. Well, I can’t really say that because I was just doing what my father had our family doing, which was to get out of Russia.

 

Do you remember anything about Ellis Island and the processing your family was put through?

Not really, except that there were long lines and that they changed the spelling of our family’s name. They spelled it “Baline,” but my father always spelled it “Beilin.”

 

When did “Baline” become “Berlin”?

I did that—I changed it when I started working for [music publisher] Ted Snyder. If you look at the cover of “Marie from Sunny Italy,” my first published song, the cover says “I. Berlin.” I still went by my real name, which is Isidore, in those early days. I changed it to “Irving” because of Washington Irving. I loved his stories.

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“I.” Berlin’s first published song (1907)

 

If I may ask you about “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” did you write it specifically for Emma Carus?

No, I didn’t write it for anybody in particular, but I plugged it to her and she put it over in vaudeville. But any of those big-voiced singers, ones like Nora Bayes or Sophie Tucker, could have put it over. You know, it still amazes me how fast that song went coast-to-coast.

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Emma Carus, from The Columbia Record for April 1904
(Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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In those years, Sophie Tucker was billed as a “coon shouter.” Was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” a “coon song,” as many songs were then called?

No. Those “coon songs” were dead before I wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It isn’t a ragtime song either. It’s a song about ragtime, or a ragtime band, but it’s not a ragtime song like “Maple Leaf Rag” or one of those other [Scott] Joplin rags.

 

I’m sure you know that music historians have analyzed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the point of exhaustion, trying to show that it’s a coon song. 

These so-called “historians” don’t know a goddamned thing about my music, or anybody else’s for that matter. They’re like that fucking “tune detective” [Sigmund Spaeth] who was always trying to prove that Jerry Kern, or Cole Porter, or me or whoever, were stealing from classical composers. Some of them even said that about Stephen Foster! They can all go to hell!

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Although use of the term “coon song” was declining by the time “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published, Edison appended it to its version. Victor and Columbia did not.

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No one can dispute that the greatest American songwriter is Irving Berlin. After all, when Mr. [Jerome] Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music, Irving Berlin is American music,” that said everything.

He was a great songwriter, a great friend, and a great man. You know that Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein talked me into doing “Annie Get Your Gun” after Jerry died. He was supposed to write it.

 

Recently, Robert Russell Bennett was asked to name the greatest American songwriter of this century, and he promptly answered “Irving Berlin.” He said that no other composer has written so many totally different songs, over such a lengthy period of time, and with no musical training.

He’s a hell of an arranger, Robert Russell Bennett. And his Victory at Sea is a masterpiece.

 

I know this is a difficult question, but are there songwriters whom you especially admire?

Of the ones before the First World War, Victor Herbert was the one I would put at the top. After the Second World War, Dick Rodgers belongs at the top. Between the wars, I would put Cole Porter at the top.

 

Is it true that you personally persuaded Cole Porter to come to New York so that you would finally have some “competition,” so to speak,” from a songwriter who wrote both the words and the music of his songs?

No, no—I would never have done that. I couldn’t have done that because he was very independent. He could afford to be because he came from a rich family. He came to New York because his family, I think it was his mother, encouraged him to become a songwriter because that’s what he wanted to do.

 

So there’s nothing true at all about you wanting him to come to New York because you wanted a “competitor”?

That’s such crap! Who told you that stuff?

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Cole Porter, Audrey Hepburn, and Irving Berlin

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Kitty Carlisle is the one who told me that you not only wanted but relished the competition with Cole Porter.

Well, I don’t know where she got that but it’s just plain crap. She’s another rich kid, you know. Her father, whose name was Kahn but changed it to “Conn,” was a big-shot doctor or lawyer or something, and she wanted to be an opera singer. She’s a pretty girl—a pretty face and a nice figure, and a pretty tall girl too—and she was in the same circles that Cole was, but I’m sure he never told her anything about me wanting some “competition.” I had all I could handle from all the songwriters that were around back then.

 

She said that you and Cole Porter did kid each other about each other’s songs. Is that true?

Well, yes, but it was all in fun because Cole and I were good friends. I will say that I used to ride him about settling for a word that just didn’t seem right for a line.

 

Can you give me an example?

The one I really rode him about was in the lyrics of “Night and Day,” which is a great, great song, a very sophisticated song. If you know [the song], you’ll know that the bridge goes “Night and day, under the hide of me / There’s an oh so yearning burning inside of me.” Well, “under the hide of me” just doesn’t fit that song and I rode him about it because I thought he just got lazy and threw in “hide” because he needed a rhyme for “inside.” People don’t have “hide,” cows have hide.

I did ride him another time about that same word when his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” got to be a big hit. I called him and said, “Cole, there’s a mistake in the sheet music for that song. Shouldn’t it be ‘I’ve Got You Under My Hide?'” He got a laugh out of that. Now, that too is a very sophisticated song. It doesn’t follow the pattern of most popular songs, any more than “Night and Day” does. Of course, Cole also wrote what I’d call “lighter” songs, ones like “You’re the Top” and “Anything Goes.” It’s sad to think about what happened to him—that terrible horse-riding accident, and how it crippled him for the rest of his life.

 

Robert Russell Bennett points out that Cole Porter was a Yale graduate and a formally trained pianist but that you graduated from Hester Street, and you taught yourself to play the piano. Did you teach yourself when you were a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in the Bowery?

Basically, yes. And I say “basically” because Mike Salter, who owned the Pelham, played by ear on the black keys. After-hours, around 4:00 in the morning, I started picking out notes on the black keys too, first with one finger and then one hand and then I picked up some basic chords with the left hand. But I can only play in the key of F-sharp unless I use a transposing piano. Do you what a transposing piano is?

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Mike Salter’s Pelham Café in the early 1900s
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I didn’t until I watched you demonstrate how one of those pianos work on the Tony Martin television show. You showed the audience how it worked, and you sang “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon.”

You saw that, did you? That wasn’t my own piano but it was similar to the ones I had. My first one had a wheel instead of a lever to shift the keys.

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Irving Berlin at his Weser transposing piano

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Is it true that you named your reproducing piano “the Buick”?

Yes. I drove a Buick at that time. The lever that shifted the keyboard was like the gearshift in that Buick. 

 

When you opened the Music Box Theater, there was a lot of skepticism in the newspapers about whether it would succeed. Is it fair to say that you had a lot at risk when you built the theater?

I had a hell of a lot at risk! The newspaper men said there were already too many theaters on Broadway, and that the Music Box would never attract much of an audience. But I put on four revues there, a new one each year, and they were all big hits. I also had the confidence of George [M.] Cohan, and I always trusted his opinions. George knew Broadway like nobody else.

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The Music Box in the 1950s

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Where would you place George M. Cohan among songwriters?

He wasn’t just a songwriter, he was a Broadway star, so you have to take that into consideration. He did everything—he was a dancer, a singer, and a songwriter. He didn’t write that many songs, all in all, but the ones he wrote were hits. Who doesn’t know “Give My Regards to Broadway”? Who doesn’t know “Over There?” That song helped us win the First World War!

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George M. Cohan, from the September 1910 Victor catalog
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

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There are some singers to whom you have given songs that are among the best-loved songs in all of American music. I’d like to ask you about the songs and the singers. Kate Smith will be forever associated with “God Bless America.” Did you write it expressly for her?

No, I didn’t write it for her, but I picked her to introduce it because she was just right for it. She has a big, gorgeous voice, and she sings songs—my songs, anyway—exactly as they’re written. She doesn’t take liberties with the music like so many singers tend to do. Anything that Kate sings, everybody in the balcony is going to hear every word because she has the best diction, and the most natural voice.

 

You wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” expressly for Ethel Merman, isn’t that correct?

Well, yes, the whole part of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun was [written] for Ethel. She was a veteran by then, of course—she had done Girl Crazy, among other shows, and I had known her for a long time. Like Kate [Smith], when you give Ethel a song, everybody in the theater is going to hear every word. She’s always been one of the hardest working performers in show business..

 
Original cast album of Annie Get Your Gun

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People don’t know this about Ethel, but she’s very, very organized. Ethel is a compulsive “lister.” She used to be a secretary, I think, or did some kind of office work where she learned how to write in that special code that secretaries write. I can’t think of the word for it right now.

 

Perhaps you’re thinking of “shorthand”?

Yes, that’s it, shorthand. She makes lists of everything she needs to do every day, and she crosses them off one at a time until she’s done. She learns lyrics that same way—she writes them out, over and over, until she learns them.

 

Just as “God Bless America” will always be associated with Kate Smith, “White Christmas” will be forever associated with Bing Crosby.

Yes, but with Rosemary Clooney too, since they sang it together in that movie [Holiday Inn].

 

Do you think that the fact “White Christmas” is not a traditional carol—that is, not a religious but a secular song—is one of the reasons why it’s so popular?

I can’t say. To me, being Jewish, I never thought of Christmas in religious terms. I think of it as an American holiday, and I wrote “White Christmas” as a holiday song. The same with Easter. Of course, Easter is a very important time for Christians, just as Passover is for Jews. But when I wrote “Easter Parade,” I was writing about an American holiday, just like I wrote “White Christmas” about a holiday.

 

Is Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” your personal favorite?

Well, it’s the one most everybody knows. What I don’t like about it is that he didn’t sing my verse. I worked goddamned hard on that verse. Judy Garland always did [the verse] when she sang “White Christmas.” But Crosby certainly did well by me with “White Christmas.”

 

Is it true that you didn’t think “White Christmas” would be the hit that it became?

I had another song in that same revue that I thought would be the hit: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” I really thought that would be the bigger hit.

 

Which brings me to the next singer I want to ask you about: Fred Astaire.

A lot of people don’t think of Fred as a singer because it’s his dancing that he’s famous for. He has always been kidded about his voice being too light, not big enough and such. When he and his sister [Adele] were in vaudeville—and they were in big-time vaudeville—nobody had any trouble hearing Fred. What I like the most about him is that he sings a song exactly the way it’s written, and he has great diction. You hear every word of the verse and the refrain when Fred sings one of your songs.

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Irving Berlin with Fred Astaire, 1948

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If I may ask, there are said to be singers—not just singers but instrumental performers too—whom you have had trouble with because unlike Fred Astaire they didn’t stay with the song as you wrote it and added some “flourishes” of their own. Is that true at all?

Why don’t you tell me if I had trouble with any singers or any other performers? Which ones did I have trouble with supposedly?

 

One was the theater organist Jesse Crawford. From what I’ve heard, you were very displeased with his recording of “Remember” because he made a change to a song that was very personal to you because you wrote it for Mrs. [Ellin] Berlin.

That’s half-true. The part that’s true is that he changed a chord in the song—the chord for the word “said” in “the night you said ‘remember.'” He played the wrong chord, and he did it because he preferred the chord he played rather than the chord I wrote. I called the guy who was running Victor at that time—his name was Shilkret, Nat Shilkret—and I raised hell about that change but Victor didn’t make Crawford do the record over again with the right chord. But I have to say, though, that Crawford made some fine records of my songs. I remember “At Peace with the World” in particular. I like the way he played it.

 

You said the story was only half-true. What was the half the wasn’t true, if I may ask?

Oh—yes, I forgot to finish what I was saying. The part that isn’t true is that I wrote “Remember” for Ellin. I wrote some waltzes for her that I’m very proud of, but “Remember” wasn’t one of them. I mean, I didn’t write it for her personally.

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Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay c. 1929

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Another performer whom you’re said to have had trouble with is Rudy Vallée over “Say It Isn’t So,” which you gave him to introduce on radio.

Yeah, I did, because when he sang it the first time he made a change in the melody. Instead of singing the line “say it isn’t so” the way I had written it, he sang the word “isn’t” two notes higher, which ruined the effect of the song. After that, I had a little talk with him and he never did that again. He did well by me, especially in the score for the movie “Second Fiddle,” and except for that one incident with “Say It Isn’t So,” he sang my songs exactly the way I wrote them.

 

On his [Columbia] recording of “Say It Isn’t So,” he sings the verse you wrote, which to me gives the refrain its full meaning in my opinion.

Let me hear you do the verse.

 

Well, I can’t sing it, but I can recite it: “You can’t stop people from talking / And they’re talking, I hear / And the things they’re saying / Fill my heart with fear / Now, I could never believe them / When they say you’re untrue / I know that they’re mistaken / But I want to hear it from you.”

You know why I gave it to him? He had just gone through a very bad divorce from his first wife [Faye Webb], who had left him for somebody else. So it was a perfect fit for the situation he was in—and he made it a hit.

 

Do you have a favorite version of “How Deep Is the Ocean”?

There have been so many, but the one I like the most is the one Kate Smith did in her [1963] concert at Carnegie Hall.

 

There have been hit recordings of many of your songs in which the singer or the bandleader turned the song into something very different, I suspect, from what you had in mind. I’m thinking of the recording of “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey.

I hate that goddamned record, and I told off that stupid fucking Dorsey about it! I put that in the same trash can with that son of a bitch Presley ruining “White Christmas”! Oh, don’t get me started on Presley and that rock-and-roll shit!

 

Did you write “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” especially for John Steel? And was his performance like the one Dennis Morgan sang in The Great Ziegfeld?

That song was interpolated in the Follies, and John Steel was the one who sang it, but I didn’t write it for him. In the actual Follies, the song was set on a large staircase—staircases were a Ziegfeld trademark—but it wasn’t on the scale of the [staircase] in that movie. But Dennis Morgan did the song very well in that film. I take that back—he mimed the song that Allan Jones did for the soundtrack. Dennis Morgan was a baritone, not a tenor, so he couldn’t sing it like John Steel did.

 

Eddie Cantor sang several of your songs. Were you pleased with the way he performed them?

He didn’t do that many of my songs. Well, some in the Follies, but not that many. He was a good showman, and he learned it from the best: Gus Edwards. Do you know who he was?

 

Yes, because of his children’s revues and his eye for budding talent like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Price and Georgie Jessel for his “newboys” shows.

Gus and Will [D.] Cobb wrote some great songs for those kids. You never know how a youngster will turn out as a performer when they get older, but Cantor and Georgie Price and some of the girls in Gus’s shows did well when they got older.

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Georgie Price (left) and Eddie Cantor (right) were among the headliners who got their start in Gus Edwards’ “kid” shows. (Photos from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you include Georgie Jessel among the Gus Edwards “newsboys” who did well as an adult performer?

I don’t like to say bad things about anybody in this business but I don’t know—and I’m not the only one who will say this—I don’t know how Jessel has kept his name before the public. He was in Yiddish theater as a comedian but he was never a big name. All he did were those routines with the telephone calling his mother, but that had been done long before he was doing it. He only had one song that made money—”My Mother’s Eyes”—but it’s such a corny song. It was corny when it first came out.

 

I notice that whenever he’s on television on one of the “talk shows,” he talks about show business as if he was there at the start of it. Mr. Caesar says of him that Jessel trades on nostalgia and that he was nostalgic when he was four years old.

That’s a pretty good line. And I have to say I agree.

 

I have a favorite recording of your great songs, and I believe you personally authorized it. The album is called “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy: The Best of Irving Berlin,” by Jay Blackton’s orchestra and chorus.

I didn’t “authorize” it, but Jay conducted the orchestra for “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” and “Miss Liberty,” so he knows what I listen for when I hear my songs performed. So I like that album very much. It’s also the first recording of my song “Colors,” which I wrote a couple years before that album came out.

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Jay Blackton’s “Best of Irving Berlin” LP

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If I may ask you about another of your contemporaries, George Gershwin, there’s a story that he applied for a job at your publishing company, to work as a transcriber and a song plugger. Is that true?

I don’t have any memory of it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but if it did, I don’t remember it. Years later, of course, George and I were very close friends. We were in Hollywood together only a couple of years before he died. Of course, I knew about him when he was working under Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, when he wrote “Swanee” with Izzy [Irving Caesar]. Buddy DeSilva, you know, got [Al] Jolson to listen to “Swanee,” and as soon as Al started singing it, George had a big hit on his hands.

 

You have been quoted as saying that George Gershwin is the only songwriter who became a composer.

Yes, and I meant it. It’s a long way from “Swanee” to “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Who knows how far he would have gone as a serious composer if he had lived?

 

One question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times is whether the melody or the lyrics come to you first.

There’s really no answer to that. Sometimes I get the melody, and at other times I get a phrase and then the phrase becomes the lyric, and the lyric inspires the melody.

 

Do you ever use what I’ve heard other songwriters refer to as “dummy lyrics” to serve as place-holders until you work out the melody?

I’ve never used “dummy lyrics.” Some songwriters do, and occasionally they become the permanent lyric. Victor Herbert wrote a “dummy lyric” for “Kiss Me Again,” and when he looked at it again, he decided to keep it: “Sweet summer breeze / Whispering trees”—that was a “dummy lyric.” Izzy [Irving Caesar] probably has the most famous of all “dummy lyrics” in “Tea For Two” to Vincent Youmans’ melody—“Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two, and two for tea.”

 

Do many songs come to you fully formed?

No—none of them. I’ve sweated my way through all of them. That’s just the way I work. Some songwriters work from noodling on the piano until they get something. Gershwin did that because he was a hell of a pianist, and he was an educated musician. But I don’t have any training, and I can’t always play what I hear in my head.

 

Mr. [Robert Russell] Bennett told us that you hear the chords in your mind, and that he would play variations on a chord until you told him that he had played the one you were hearing in your mind.

That’s right. That’s especially true of “Remember.” In my mind, I could hear the chords I wanted for the melody, but I couldn’t play them myself, so he played variations on the chords until I heard the ones that were in my mind. That’s why the change that [Jesse] Crawford made on that record bothered me so much.

 

So much has been written about you, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s biography of you in 1925. Do you regard his book, The Story of Irving Berlin, as the definite account of your life?

Up to that year, yes, but there are parts of it that are a little exaggerated.

 

You have never considered an autobiography?

Every publisher in New York has offered me big money, really big money, to write an account of my life, but I wouldn’t do it then or now for any amount of money. I like to let my music speak for my life.

 

If you were to choose a biographer today, who would be among the top contenders from your standpoint?

The only one I would count on is Ed Jablonski. Ed is one of my long-time “telephone friends.” Miles Krueger says he wants to write a book about me, and so do others, but they’ll want to psychoanalyze me, and I can’t stand that kind of a book.

 

Do you recall the feature article called “Blue Skies to You, Irving Berlin,” by Tom Prideaux in Life Magazine?

Yes—that was a very nice article. Tom is another one of my “telephone friends.”

 

That article was published a week before your 80th birthday, which was celebrated on television on the Ed Sullivan show. Were you pleased with that telecast?

That was quite a night, and Ellin [Berlin] and I and our daughters and their families were very happy with the cast and the songs that were performed on the show.

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Ed Sullivan celebrates Irving Berlin’s 80th birthday

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The story of your courtship of the lovely lady who became Mrs. Irving Berlin has been told and re-told, and there are parts of the re-telling that I’d like to ask you about but I’m very reluctant to intrude into that part of the past. But may I ask one question that concerns your music?

If it’s about my music, go ahead and ask me.

 

The great waltzes that you wrote during that period—“All By Myself,” All Alone,” “Remember,” “What’ll I Do?” and of course “Always”—are interpreted as musical reflections of what was going through your mind and heart while the two of you were being kept apart. Is that true?

[Author’s note: Regarding “All By Myself,” I was waiting for him to say, “Kid, it’s a fox trot, not a waltz!” or something harsher after I realized I had made a mistake—yet he let it pass.]

You already asked me about “Remember,” and I told you I didn’t write that one for her. The others you mentioned I would say are yes and no. “All By Myself” was before Ellin—I wrote it for one of the Music Box Revues. In that one, as I’ve had to do with one or two other songs, I had to update the lyrics. Originally, I wrote “I sit alone in my cozy Morris chair / So lonely there, playing solitaire.” But when Morris chairs went out of fashion, I changed that line to “I sit alone with a table and a chair / so lonely there, playing solitaire.”

 

Am I correct that you also updated some of the lyrics of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?

Yeah, that’s another one. It was set in Harlem, so I wrote, “Have you seen the well to do / Up on Lennox Avenue,” but when Fred Astaire did it I changed “Lennox Avenue” to “Park Avenue.”

 

Returning to the songs you wrote when you were courting Mrs. Berlin, was “What’ll I Do” one of them?

No, “What’ll I Do” was before I met her. In fact, when I did meet her, which was at a party that a woman named Frances Wellman, a friend of mine who happened to be a friend of hers, [Ellin] said to me that she loved my song “What Shall I Do.” I had to tell her that the name of the song was really “What’ll I Do.” You see, she’s very educated—she went to all the best private schools—so to her the title of the song had to be “What Shall I Do.”

But all the others you mentioned, and especially “Always,” which was my wedding gift to her, were written about her. But I wasn’t in some kind of love-sick depression during that time. Between 1922 and 1925, I wrote a lot of songs that did well and they had nothing to do with my life. They were for revues, for shows.

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Marriage certificate for Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay,
January 1926

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Back to the Ed Sullivan telecast of your 80th birthday, did you have any input in the musical selections he chose for the program?

Ed asked me for my opinion about the songs and some of the arrangements that [orchestra conductor] Ray Bloch used. And Ed asked me what I would like to have as a finale, so I chose “God Bless America” and I sang it myself, with a chorus of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They get the royalties from that song, you know.

 

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but at the very end of the show, when you were in a close-up with Mr. Sullivan and he was paying tribute to you on your birthday, you made a wonderful comment.

Yeah? What did I say?

 

When that huge birthday cake was wheeled onto the stage, Mr. Sullivan said that the entire program was one of the most memorable in all his years on the air. You said, “Well, Ed, you’ve got to admit that I’ve given you some pretty good material to work with.” That was a priceless understatement! And speaking of birthdays, today is May 8, and three days from now will be your birthday. May we close with wishing you a very, very happy birthday!

I wish I had written “Happy Birthday.” Can you imagine the royalties I’d have? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve done pretty well.

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Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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Some New Favorite Additions to the Collection • December 2021 (Free MP3 Downloads)

Some New Favorite Additions to the Collection for November–December 2021 (Free MP3 Downloads)

 

A few new favorites who’ve come to roost here in the past month, for your listening pleasure.

Be sure to check out the previous post about i78s.org, where you can now explore and stream more than 41,000 vintage discs and cylinders. Neat features: Transfers have been made at the correct playing speeds (which often is not 78 rpm), and you can switch between flat (unaltered) transfers, for purists; or judiciously processed audio for more pleasurable listening, with the worst noise removed but the original sound quality preserved. Registration is quick-and-easy, and it’s free.

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JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES: Band Box Stomp (V++)

Chicago: August 22, 1929
Brunswick 7111 (mx. C 4101 – )

Personnel given for the Rhythm Aces sessions in various accounts are often at odds and don’t cite a credible documentary source (because there isn’t one; the Brunswick ledgers for this period don’t list personnel). So we’ll go with the personnel that Jabbo himself recalled for this side, as reported to the ever-reliable Dick Spottswood, to wit: Jabbo Smith (trumpet), Willard Brown (saxophones), Earl Frazer (piano), Ikey Robinson (banjo), Lawson Buford (brass bass). Memories get fuzzy, of course, but we’re much more inclined to trust someone who was actually there than folks from the “I hear so-and-so” school of research.

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WALTER BARNES & HIS ROYAL CREOLIANS: If You’re Thinking of Me (EE+)

Chicago: July 25, 1929
Brunswick 4480 (mx. C 3941 – )

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WALTER BARNES & HIS ROYAL CREOLIANS: Birmingham Bertha  (E)

Chicago: July 25, 1929
Brunswick 4480 (mx. C 3942 – )

The vocalist is uncredited in the Brunswick ledger and on the labels (May Alix has been widely cited, based on aural evidence). An alternate take of “Birmingham Bertha,” without vocal, was recorded at the same session, for release in Germany.

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FESS WILLIAMS & HIS ROYAL FLUSH ORCHESTRA: Number Ten  (E+)

New York: June 24, 1927
Brunswick 3596  (mx. E 23747)

Fess Williams, arranger (per the Brunswick ledger).

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NEW ORLEANS WANDERERS: Perdido Street Blues  (EE–)

Chicago: July 13, 1926
Columbia 698-D (mx. W 142426 – 1)
..

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Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, with George Mitchell substituting for Armstrong (who was under exclusive contract to Okeh at the time). Columbia originally logged this session as “Armstrong’s Band,” then changed it to “Johnny Dodds and the New Orleans Wanderers,” although Dodds’ name was omitted from the labels. (“Trans. to 5008-S” refers to a late-1940s reissue on the Special Editions label.)

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ANONYMOUS: Chevrolet One Minute Dramatization [selections]  (E)

Sound Studios of New York: c. Late 1933
Unnumbered  (mxs. 6048 – 6 / 6050 – )

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Three of the (unintentionally) funnier tracks from a six-track disc plugging the new 1934 Chevrolet with “knee-action” front wheels. Sound Studios of New York was a custom-recording operation associated with the World Broadcasting System.

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PEERLESS QUARTET: That Fussy Rag  (E)

Probably Camden NJ: June 20, 1910
Victor 5787  (mx. B 9128 -2 or -3)

This is the scarce original version (takes 2 and 3 were mastered; the take used is not indicated in the pressing). It was quickly replaced by the more commonly encountered remake of August 31, 1910. The arranger added an awkwardly positioned repeat at the 1:38 mark to stretch the playing time of Victor Smalley’s little gem.

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The Playlist • Some August – September Additions to the Collection

The Playlist (Free MP3s)
Some August – September Additions to the Collection

 

Some favorite recent additions to the collection, for your enjoyment. August and September have been very good months.

If you have similar material for disposal (strong E– or better, except for true rarities) lists are always welcome. Please include your asking price, and be brutally honest with the grading: E+ should look and sound like the day the record came off the press, with E just a touch less fine, and no more than a whisper of needle wear on E–. Be sure to note all defects, including any audible scratches, stressed grooves, cracks, needle drops or gouges, warping, surface graininess or dulling, and label damage. Click here for e-mail contact info.

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THOMAS A. DORSEY & MOZELLE ALDERSON (as Georgia Tom & Jane Lucas): Terrible Operation Blues  (EE–)

Richmond, IN: November 11, 1930
Champion 16171  (mx. GN 17276 – B)

Acc: Dorsey (piano), Big Bill Broonzy (guitar).

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SYLVESTER WEAVER: Penitentiary Bound Blues  (E+)

New York: August 31, 1927
Okeh 8504  (mx. W 81402 – B)

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TOMMY McCLENNAN: Bottle It Up and Go  (E+)

Chicago (Victor Studio A): November 22, 1939
Bluebird B-8373  (mx. BS 044241 – 1)

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Lazy Mama  (E+)

New York: June 3, 1928
Okeh 8592  (mx. W  400818 – A)

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JELLY ROLL MORTON’S RED HOT PEPPERS: Tank Town Bump  (E)

Camden, NJ: July 12, 1929
Victor V-38075  (mx. BVE 49459 – 2)

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DICK JUSTICE: Cocaine  (E)

Chicago: May 20, 1929
Brunswick 395  (mx. C 3156 – )

Two takes were recorded. The take used is not shown in the Brunswick files or on the pressing.

 

CHRIS BOUCHILLON: Speed Maniac  (EE+)

Atlanta: October 30, 1928
Columbia 15373-D  (mx. W 147339 – 2)

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HARRY RESER & MAURICE ATEN (as Len & Joe Higgins): Slippery Elm Tree  (E–)

New York: October 17, 1928
Columbia 15354-D  (mx. W 147124 – 1)

Artist identities are confirmed on the Columbia matrix card. Reser self-published this composition as “Slippery Elm” in 1928; someone at Columbia added “Tree” to the title, per the matrix card.

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Collector’s Corner • Some New Record Arrivals for October – November (Will Ezell, George H. Tremer, Savoy Bearcats, Fess Williams, George E. Lee, Jimmie Noone)

Collector’s Corner • Some New Record Arrivals for October – November

A few favorite new additions to the jazz collection, for your listening pleasure. (Opera fans, we’ve not forgotten about you. In a few weeks, we’ll be posting some interesting Fonotipia and Russian Amour recordings that were recently added to the collection.)

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WILL EZELL: West Coast Rag  (V++)

Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. September 1927
Paramount 12549 (mx. 4787 – 2)

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GEORGE H. TREMER: Spirit of ’49 Rag   (EE–)

Birmingham (Starr Piano Co. store): August , 1927
Gennett 6242 (mx. GEX 779 – A)
Take A was received at the Richmond, Indiana, plant on August 6, 1927 (the rejected plain take followed on August 8).

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SAVOY BEARCATS: Bearcat Stomp  (E)

New York: August 23, 1926
Victor 20307 (mx. BVE 36060 – 3)
January 1927 Race release, deleted in 1928. Don Redman’s name is misspelled “Radman” on the labels and in the Victor files.

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FESS WILLIAMS’ ROYAL FLUSH ORCHESTRA: Alligator Crawl  (EE+)

New York: June 15, 1927
Brunswick 3589 (mx. E 23633)
Originally marked as a Race release in the recording ledger, which was subsequently crossed-out.

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JIMMIE NOONE’S APEX CLUB ORCHESTRA: Apex Blues  (E–)

Chicago: August 23, 1928
Vocalion 1207 (mx. C 2258 – B)

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GEORGE E. LEE & HIS ORCHESTRA: Ruff Scufflin’  (EE+)

Kansas City: November 6, 1929
Brunswick 4684 (mx. KC 585 -A or B)
The selected take is not indicated in the Brunswick files or on the pressing.

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Why don’t we list personnel?

Simple. The 1920s band personnel listed in works like Brian Rust’s or Tom Lords’  discographies generally are not from the original company recording files or other reliable primary-source documentation. Just where they are from is a question to which we rarely get an answer. When we do, all too often it turns out to be anecdotal or speculative (or just plain bat-shit crazy).

Most record companies didn’t start regularly documenting personnel until the later 1930s, when new union regulations made that necessary. Exactly where most of those 1920s and early 1930s personnel listings in the discographies came from — who knows? They rarely cite sources (which, according to Rust associate Malcolm Shaw, was sometimes just friends getting together over pints and playing “I hear so-and-so.”) That’s a shame, because some of the information in those books probably is from reliable sources; but without citations, there’s no way to separate the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, even when Rust had access to reliable primary-source materials, like Ed Kirkeby’s California Ramblers ledgers, he couldn’t resist meddling with the facts — for example, stating that Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller were present on sessions for which Kirkeby’s files clearly show they were not. So, take it all with the proverbial gain of salt. We certainly do.

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Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 2 • The James A. Drake Interviews

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 2
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> Read  The St. Louis Years — Part 1

 

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Scott Joplin

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There’s so much to ask you about Scott Joplin, so may I begin by noting that you are one of the few major figures in the music industry who can speak authoritatively about Scott Joplin because you worked with him.

I think your word choice, “worked with him,” makes my association with him sound more important than it was. I went several times to the Maple Leaf Club to pay him to help me learn to play ragtime the way he wrote and played it, and when he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, which was around 1900, [1] I did a lot more work with him. But I was just one of several pianists who were studying with him in St. Louis, so I don’t want to give the impression that we became colleagues or friends or anything that would suggest a close relationship.

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This St. Louis Dispatch article from February 28, 1901, pre-dates Joplin’s move to St. Louis, still referring to him as a “Sedalian.” The European trip never materialized.

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Even if you had wanted to do that, would it have been possible with segregation? Wasn’t St. Louis as segregated as the rest of the South and much of the Midwest?

There were what you might call “black areas” and “white areas” of St. Louis, but I have to say that being a river town there was more interaction between blacks and whites in St. Louis than in many other cities. [2]  I’ll give you what I think it was one of the reasons why the races got along better in and around St. Louis: Mark Twain’s novels. I can still remember so many passages from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

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About Scott Joplin, there are at least two photos of him—one as a young man about the time that his first ragtime pieces were published, and another when he was probably middle-aged. How would you describe his appearance when you were working with him?

 We were about the same height—I was six feet tall, and he may have been an inch shorter than I, if that much. He was stocky—he had put on a few pounds over the years, and his hair was rather thin. His speaking voice was in the baritone range, but it’s hard to describe how he spoke. The way I would put it is that he spoke with authority. He knew who he was, and how important he and his music were. [3]

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Joplin’s first St. Louis residence was an apartment at 2658A Morgan (since renamed Delmar Boulevard), which is now maintained as a Missouri state historic site. He and Belle later moved to a large house at 2117 Lucas, which has since been demolished.

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Did he live well? By that I mean, did he seem to enjoy his success?

Oh, yes—definitely. As I said, he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, and he and his wife, whose name was Belle, had a sizable home with well-kept grounds. [4]  You have to remember that at that time, he was one of the most famous men in popular music in this country. He had written several of those great ragtime pieces by then and had also written one opera [A Guest of Honor] and was writing another one [Treemonisha]. So he was well-known, not just in Missouri but everywhere that ragtime, which he essentially “invented,” was being played.

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Joplin and company rehearse “A Guest of Honor.”
(The Sedalia Weekly Conservator, August 22, 1903).

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What was a typical session with him like? How much time did he allot for each of your “lessons” with him?

Usually each session was about an hour, sometimes more, but I’d say an hour on average. He would have me sit at the keyboard, and he would sit to my left on a piano stool.

 

Am I correct in assuming that you only played his music?

Sure, of course. That’s why I did everything to persuade to let me pay him to teach me how to refine my playing of his rags. I spent practically a whole year with him, usually once a week.

 

Was he a stickler about tempo?

Most definitely! He hated hearing his music played too fast. He told me, and I think everyone else he talked to about tempo, that ragtime must never be played fast. I think he may have even had that printed on the sheet music of his songs.

 

I don’t believe that Scott Joplin ever made a phonograph recording, but I’m told that he did make piano rolls, so at least we have some idea how he sounded.

No, you can’t say that because those piano rolls are not reliable. I know because I’ve heard a piano roll of him playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” and it’s definitely not the way he played it. Many piano rolls were embellished—notes and chords were added to them—and the Joplin roll of “Maple Leaf Rag” has a bunch of bass notes that he never played.

Those bass notes were added to the roll—maybe with his permission, and maybe not, I don’t know. But what I do know is that there are far more bass notes in that roll than he ever played. Now, the style I had developed as a pianist had a lot of bass, and Joplin noticed that right away when I started [studying] with him. He said to me, “You’re pretty heavy with that left hand, and I’m going to need you to cut out a lot of that when you’re playing my music.”

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Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” as originally published by John Stark in Sedalia (top), and a later, far more common printing made after Stark moved to St. Louis (center). A long-forgotten song version was published in 1903, with the addition of trite lyrics by Stark office-boy Sydney Brown (bottom). Joplin biographer Edward Berlin notes that the arrangement, which uses only the rag’s opening strain, “is uncharacteristic of Joplin and was probably made by someone else.”

 

You made piano rolls too, am I correct?

Yes, I made about a half-dozen of them when I brought my band to New York City to make recordings that I could sell in St. Louis. I went over to Newark, which was then the capital of the piano-roll industry. There were several labels that each company had. The biggest company was QRS, which is still in business. I made my rolls for a smaller label called “Artempo.”

 

Was there a special piano you had to play to make piano rolls?

Well, there were two methods—maybe more, I don’t know—but there were two methods that I learned about in Newark and each one had a specially made keyboard. [5] One method required the pianist to play at about half the tempo he’d use if he were playing it for an audience, for patrons of a club or some other public place. That particular method had the piano keyboard rigged up to a series of individual “blocks”—small rectangular blocks that were made of oak and were slightly rounded on each end.

The actual “roll” was two layers of brown paper that were separated by carbon paper. When the pianist struck a key, one of those “blocks” would strike the top layer of paper, which simultaneously made an imprint on the bottom layer. The carbon paper that was sandwiched between the two rolls is what made the imprint [on the bottom roll]. After the pianist had finished playing whatever tune it was, a technician would use a razor tool that looked like a scalpel to cut out those impressions that the blocks had made on the bottom layer of paper. That would become the “master roll,” the template for making identical rolls to sell to the public.

The other method was much better because the piano keyboard was rigged to a series of hole-punches that were air-powered. These small, round, sharp-pointed punches would keep poking holes in the roll of paper until the pianist lifted his finger and the tone stopped. Afterward, that vertical string of tiny holes would have a border drawn around them, and a worker would use a scalpel to cut a rectangular strip exactly the length of that string of tiny holes. When that missing strip passed over the pneumatic bar in the player piano, it would cause the appropriate piano key to be depressed. The advantage of that method was that the pianist could play at the tempo he was accustomed to using—not half-speed like that other method required.

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An excerpt from Scott Joplin’s School of Ragtime advising  pianists to “catch the swing, and never play ragtime fast at any time.” The advertisement is from February 1908.

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What sort of “tips” would Scott Joplin give you when you were playing his music and he was sitting there near you?

He would tap out the correct tempo, and would get me to augment chords and say slightly ahead of the beat in some measures, or slightly behind it in others. He like to use the metaphor of a swing—like a swing on a playground or a swing suspended by ropes from a tree limb. He’d say, for instance, that to get a swing moving you have to push it. So in a passage, or on a particular note, he’d say to me, “Now push it here,” which meant to play it more forte or to play it a little faster. If I was playing a passage a little too fast, he’d say to me, “Lay back now.” He would tell me to picture the swing when it reaches the peak of its arc—that moment where it’s just suspended in the air, right before gravity takes over and the swing begins a downward arc. He’d say, “Swing it now”—meaning to hold the chord, to pause before playing the next notes.

 

When Joplin died in 1917, it was reported that he had contracted syphilis when he was young. Medical journals of that period listed three stages of the disease—primary, secondary, and tertiary—and in the secondary stage, the gradual loss of muscle control in the hands and legs would be evident. Did you see any hint of that when you were with him?

None at all. Not only his playing, but everything about him—his concentration, his hearing, his walking, everything—was normal.

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From The New York Age: March 29 (top) and April 5, 1917

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I’m interested to know what you think of the ragtime revival today, and how accurate the playing of those who are making LPs of the Joplin repertoire is compared to his own playing.

This young man [Joshua] Rifkin plays “The Entertainer” the way Joplin played it, and he does a good job with “Maple Leaf Rag” too. He is careful not to play ragtime fast, which is the mistake most of these “revivers” make.

 

In the 1950s, there was also a “ragtime revival” on recordings by Crazy Otto, and on television by Big Tiny Little, Jr., and Joanne Castle on Lawrence Welk’s weekly program. What was your opinion of their “ragtime”?

Some of that got started by the popularity of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Piano Roll Blues,” but then it turned into a pop-music trend with Crazy Otto’s records. Tiny Little was just one of several Crazy Otto imitators, but of course he had the advantage of being seen and heard on television ever week thanks to Welk. Tiny Little was [Little] Jack Little’s son, and although he was probably as good or better a pianist than Jack was, his so-called “ragtime” playing on the Welk show was just “showy.”

Neither he nor Crazy Otto or any of those other imitators of the Crazy Otto style had anything to do with real ragtime. They were playing on uprights that were deliberately out of tune, and their fingering amounted to nothing more than playing the same note an octave apart by playing the higher note with the “pinky” and the lower one with the thumb. Most of them used rolling chords in the bass, which was all wrong. That’s the kind of playing that belongs in a saloon, and it has nothing at all to do with the ragtime of Scott Joplin.

— J.A.D.

 

Editor’s Notes

[1]  Joplin biographer Edward Berlin has Joplin moving to St. Louis in the spring of 1901 (Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era, pp. 97–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), which is consistent with the February 1901 St. Louis Dispatch article showing Joplin still in Sedalia.

[2]  Berlin identifies the area in which Joplin resided as St. Louis’ “red-light” district, bounded roughly by 12th Street on the east, Beaumont on the west, Clark on the south, and Morgan on the north (Berlin, op. cit., p. 90).

[3]  Haenschen’s recollections are in agreement with those of other Joplin acquaintances and associates, who described him as “not much socially,” “quiet, serious,” “unassuming,” and “always studying.” (Berlin, op. cit., p. 97).

[4]  In the previous installment, Haenschen recalled having first seen Joplin at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition; but based upon his recollection of Belle Joplin and the large house, the lessons probably took place during 1902–1903. Those were the only years in which Joplin is known to have occupied a house in St. Louis (a thirteen-room structure at 2117 Lucas, a portion of which the Joplins rented to boarders). The Joplins separated in 1903, and Scott Joplin’s only other confirmed St. Louis addresses were apartments.

[5]  Haenschen is referring here to methods used to produce “hand-played” piano rolls, an innovation that first appeared c. 1912–1913, as distinct from the more common practice of having technicians mechanically perforate the rolls.

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For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

Gus Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 1 (The James A. Drake Interviews)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis 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 and The Radio Years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen backtracks to recall his formative years in and around St. Louis..

 

As you mentioned, Frank Hummert* was also from St. Louis. Do you recall when you met him, and what he was doing in St. Louis at the time?

Frank got into the exporting business with a partner named Hatfield and their company, Hummert Hatfield, did very well. Being a river city, St. Louis was a natural for importing and exporting. Around the time of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, when the city was growing rapidly, Frank got a real-estate license and soon had his own company. That’s how I met him.

My family was looking for a home, and my sister Alice, who was a telephone operator at the time, saw one of Frank’s ads in the newspaper. He arranged for us to rent a house on Russell Avenue until we could buy one. We had been living in a house my father had bought in Fenton, one of the suburbs, but we had a crisis in our family and had to sell that house and go into a rental until we could get back on our feet.

 

Is it difficult for you to talk about that period in your life?

No, not at all. The problem was my father. I never got along with him. He was a drinker—which is the main reason I don’t drink—and drunk or sober he was a womanizer, so he was rarely home. When he did show up, he was drinking most of the time, and he was disrespectful not only to my mother but to also my grandmother, who was living with us.

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Gus Haenschen at Washington University, St. Louis (from The Hatchet, 1912)

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Your birth name is Walter Gustave Haenschen. Are you named for your father?

His first name was Walter, but his middle name was Rudolf, or “Rudolph” as he anglicized it. All through my years in St. Louis, and in fact in my early years in New York, I was “Walter G. Haenschen.” My middle name, Gustave, came from my paternal grandfather, whose name was Gustavus but shortened it to “Gustav” without the “e.” He had been a very successful partner in a grain company, Haenschen & Orthwein, and that company helped make St. Louis a major player in the grain market. Before then, Chicago was the grain capital in the northern Midwest, and New Orleans was the grain capital in the south.

My grandfather and his partner, Charlie Orthwein, had become friends when they were working for a wholesale grocery company in St. Louis. The grain business was the fastest-growing part of the grocery industry, so my grandfather and Charlie Orthwein managed to get contracts with some of the big graineries in Chicago and New Orleans. So they created Haenschen & Orthwein and did very, very well. My grandfather’s territory was northern Missouri, and Orthwein’s was the southern part of the state. Eventually, my grandfather sold his share of the business to Orthwein and retired. I was very proud of my grandfather, so eventually I adopted his name, although legally I’m still Walter G. Haenschen.

 

What was your mother’s maiden name?

Freida Gessler—she was named after her mother, who lived with us in the Fenton house. My father left her for another woman when I was nine years old, and he divorced her a year later [in 1899]. That’s why we had to sell the house in Fenton and find a rental until we could get back on our feet as a family.

 

You and your sister were too young to go to work when your father left, so how did the family manage until you and she were old enough to be employed?

When we sold the house, we had enough cash to live on, so that wasn’t a problem at first. My mother was a very fine seamstress, so she became a dressmaker and that gave us some steady cash. We also took in a German girl as a boarder, so the rent she paid for her room and the use of one of our bathrooms added to the coffers. My sister Alice, who is four years younger than I, took night classes at a business college and became a bookkeeper. She got a job as a clerk with a very large bank, so she was bringing in steady money too.

By the time I turned thirteen, I was playing the piano in dime stores, demonstrating sheet music to customers, and playing in movie theaters accompanying [silent] films. In the summer months I was a lifeguard and a stunt diver at the Olympic-size pool that was built for the St. Louis Exposition. I also taught swimming and diving in the summertime, and all year long I was playing the piano anywhere I could get work.

 

How did you meet Gene Rodemich?

Gene was a year younger than I but was already well known in St. Louis as a pianist, bandleader, and the head of an orchestra exchange. We hit it off right away, and we were a good complement to one another. Gene was a good all-around pianist, but he played entirely by ear. Because I was a good sight-reader, he hired me as an arranger and also had me “sub” for him when he was over-booked. He had started writing songs, but because he couldn’t read music and couldn’t score them, he had me do them and also had me write the orchestrations for his band.

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Gene Rodemich, from a November 1916 feature
in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Actually, I knew Gene’s father before I knew Gene. When I was doing stunt-diving during the summers, I got a pretty good reputation as a high-diver. But one afternoon, I mistimed a dive and hit the edge of the diving board with my upper teeth. I lost all four upper front teeth and had to wait for the swelling to go down enough for a dentist to make me a bridge that matched my natural teeth. That dentist was Gene Rodemich’s father.

At that time, Gene was not only holding down a full-time engagement as the pianist at the Grand Central Theater in St. Louis, but was also writing songs and running this orchestra exchange which put together orchestras of freelance musicians for various events. Two of his songs were local hits—one was called “Easy Melody,” which was essentially a ragtime piece, and the other was a ballad, “Dreams Come True.” I did the arrangements for almost all of the songs his band played.

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A Rodemich-Haenschen collaboration, 1913

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Being a dentist with a very large practice, Gene’s father was very successful, so the family lived well—they had a couple servants, I remember, and Gene had a nice car. Because he came from money, he could afford to take risks, and the orchestra exchange he created would have been a big risk if he didn’t have money to pay the musicians he put together for dance bands. But the orchestra exchange became a good money-maker, and eventually I bought it from him.

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Haenschen takes over Gene Rodemich’s orchestra exchange (top, April 1914). The teaser ad (bottom) is from January 1917.

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The orchestra exchange supplied the musicians for weddings, and I played at a lot of them, including Frank Hummert’s wedding to his first wife [Adeline Woodlock Hummert]. It was through one of those wedding engagements that I got an invitation to play at a big party that the brewery owner Augustus Stroh gave at his mansion. That event, which happened when I was working for Gene Rodemich’s exchange, was a turning point in my career.

 

In what way was it a turning point?

I wanted to go to college and become an engineer, but I couldn’t afford the tuition. Augustus Busch, who was on the board of trustees and was a big donor to Washington University, took a liking to me and got me admitted to the University’s school of engineering. He was a founding member of a very wealthy country club, the Sunset [Hill] Country Club, so he made sure that I played piano at a lot of the events there.

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Haenschen at the Sunset Hill Country Club, as orchestra leader (top, June 1914) and swimming star (bottom, June 1918).

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He was also an investor in the St. Louis Cardinals, so I got the idea that if I could put together a band, I could play between innings at the games. Mr. Stroh thought it was a good idea, so he told me that if I had a band, he would help me with the management so I could play between innings. I had a friend named Tom Schiffer, who played traps [trap drums], and he and I began putting together a band from the roster in the Rodemich orchestra exchange.

 

He’s identified as “Theodore Thomas Schiffer” in most sources that I have been able to locate—but he was called “Tom”?

Those were the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who was famously known as “Teddy,” although nobody called him that to his face from what I was told. Because of “T.R.,” any boy named Theodore was bound to be called “Teddy,” which Schiffer didn’t like. So he decided to be called “Tom” instead.

 

Did it take you long to put together a band?

No, because I had the pick of the roster of the orchestra exchange. Tom [Schiffer] was my full-time partner so he played in every gig I could get, but the other guys I hired would vary according to which ones were available on any given date. But the instruments were pretty much the same: a banjo or a mandolin, a trumpet, a trombone, two saxes, one clarinet, a Sousaphone, Tom Schiffer on the trap drums, and me leading the group.

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 How did you get the band on the field between innings?

The whole band was seated on a wooden platform, a large pallet, that had four small-diameter wheels and tires, and a hitch to pull it onto the field with a Model T Ford. We might do just two numbers between innings. Naturally, we began with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and then we’d play a rag or some other up-tempo tune. Whatever we played, we played loud!

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Between your classes at Washington University, your engagements at the Sunset Country Club, and the many others you were booking in and around St. Louis, how did you manage to get where you were going on time?

On a motorcycle. I had two of them at different times. Both were used, and I bought them from the Mound City Cycle Company. The first was a one-cylinder Royal, which was okay, but then I “upgraded” to a twin-cylinder Indian cycle with what used to be called “touch tires.” These were very durable tube tires that would take fast cornering very well and were good on any road surface.

When I rode I had to wear a cap, goggles, and what was called a “rain suit,” which was sort of a jumpsuit made out of tweed that was coated to make it waterproof. You had to have it recoated about once a year. It had a big zipper around the middle of this one-piece suit, so I could get in and out of it quickly.

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Haenschen takes a motorcycle trip, July 1912

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I always slipped on rubber galoshes to keep my shoes clean, and the legs of the rain suit were bell-bottomed so they would cover the tops of the galoshes. That rain suit helped keep my dress suit and shirt and tie clean. If it wasn’t for that twin-cylinder Indian, I wouldn’t have been able to make it from the University to wherever I was playing. But I made it on time every time, so I got a reputation for being very dependable.

 

We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia, Missouri. Did you ride your motorcycle there? And what took you to Sedalia?

No, I took the interurban [train] to Sedalia. I went there because Scott Joplin, who was the “father of ragtime” and whose “Maple Leaf Rag” was a big hit, had agreed to let me meet him to talk about taking some lessons from him. I arranged to meet him at the Maple Leaf Café, where was playing. He named the rag after the café. I had seen him from a distance in St. Louis during the 1904 World’s Fair. He had written a rag called “[The] Cascades,” and during the first week of the fair [April 30–May 6, 1904], he had played it several times, and had made an arrangement for John Philip Sousa to conduct.

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Festival Hall at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Scott Joplin, who Haenschen recalled having seen at the fair, named his classic rag for the Cascade Gardens that fronted the hall.

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You were a teenager during the World’s Fair. Are there particular memories that you have of that event?

Oh, yes. I was fifteen at the time, and I have all sorts of memories of the fair. I went several times, and took my mother, grandmother, and my sister with me one of those times. One of the “wonders” we rode in was an electric streetcar, in front of the Palace of Electricity. Streetcars were pulled by horses in those days, so seeing this large, shiny electric streetcar was really something. The tracks were almost 2,000 feet long, if my memory is right, and you could ride the streetcar as often as there was an open seat in it. What seemed so amazing was that it would accelerate really fast but there was no noise, just the barely audible whine of the motor.

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Night-time illumination at the Palace of Electricity

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Electricity was a major draw at the fair. There was a Palace of Electricity, and Edison had helped raise a lot of funds for that exhibit. Westinghouse had his own building, and he had donated funds for the construction of an observation tower that was actually a radio tower. [Alexander Graham] Bell had invented a wireless telephone, and the generator for the wireless signal was inside the Palace of Electricity. Outside the building, there was a row of telephone receivers that didn’t have any wires. Workers from the Bell Company acted as guides, handing people a receiver so they could hear music or conversations that were being transmitted without wires.

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The fair’s pipe organ

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Another memory I have is the enormous pipe organ that was built specially for the fair. It was built in Los Angeles, and had six manuals, twenty-two rows of stops, and the largest and most numerous pipes of any organ in the nation at that time. The fair was supposed to open with a concert on that organ played by Charles Galloway, a famous Missouri organist. Unfortunately, there were problems with the organ and the concert had to be delayed for about six weeks. But when Galloway gave that concert, it was one of the great events of the fair.

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A New York-to-St. Louis auto caravan arrives at the fair.

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Weren’t automobiles and even airplanes a major attraction at the fair?

There were over one hundred cars on display—steam cars, electric cars, and gasoline cars. Most of the heads of the manufacturing companies came at different times during the fair—Henry Ford came, and I heard that [Walter] Baker, the inventor of the Baker Electric, was also there to demonstrate his cars. I don’t remember seeing but one airplane, which was on display rather than in the air. It was a Wright Brothers machine like the one they flew at Kitty Hawk.

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Haenschen recalled having seen a Wright Brothers plane at the 1904 exposition. Baldwin’s Airship was also there, as part of the St. Louis Department of Transportation’s display (bottom).

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Most of the buildings at world fairs were built to be temporary. Was that true of the ones at the St. Louis Fair?

Yes—many of them were made of plaster and hemp, but they were beautifully sculpted and painted and most of them still looked new at the end of the fair. They were constantly touched up. Now, Festival Hall, where Joplin introduced “Cascades,” was one of the permanent buildings, and it became part of the Washington University campus.

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The fair’s buildings were acquired in 1906 by the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which resold the more-permanent buildings and scrapped the remaining structures.

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.After the fair, the permanent buildings and the cascades and the pool where the Olympic swimming events were held were renamed the Exhibition Pavilion, which was later changed to the Forest Park Pavilion. It was still a draw when I was at Washington University. That pool was where I did most of my stunt diving, and it’s what got me an emergency appointment with Gene Rodemich’s dentist father.

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* Frank and Anne Hummert later founded Air Features, a broadcast production company with which Haenschen worked; see The Radio Years — Part 3.

 

For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

New Free Download: Ragtime on Records (1894 – 1950) • The Worldwide Discography of Cakewalks, Rags, and Novelties on Cylinders and 78s – New Edition

The Mainspring Online Reference Library — Free Download

Ragtime on Records (1894 – 1950) • The Worldwide Discography of Cakewalks, Rags, and Novelties
on Cylinders and 78s

New Revised and Expanded Edition by Allan Sutton

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The latest addition to the free Mainspring Online Reference Library, Ragtime on Records covers more than 900 commercially recorded compositions, from the earliest primitive cakewalks to the classic rags of the early 1900s, the decadent novelty rags of the 1920s, and the ragtime revival of the 1940s. The work is conveniently arranged by title, with original publishers and publication dates noted in each entry, and is fully searchable.

Ragtime on Records covers more than 8,000 cylinders and 78s (U.S. and foreign) in 550 pages. In addition to highly detailed discographical listings for mainstream performances, there are supplemental summary listings of recordings in other styles (jazz, country, novelty-pop, etc.) that reflect ragtime’s spread and assimilation over the decades. There is also a gallery or rare sheet-music covers, historical introduction, and user’s guide.

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~30 mb)
(Free for Personal Use — Print-Restricted)

 

This work is offered by the publisher for personal, non-commercial use only. Sale or other commercial use, as well as any other unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or alteration (including conversion to or dissemination via digital databases, e-books, or the Internet), either in printed or digital form, is prohibited. Please read and honor the conditions of use included with this file, so that we can continue to offer these free publications.

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Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 

Good Listening • “The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business” (Archeophone)

Good Listening:

The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business
(Archeophone 6011)

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If you’ve been following Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series on the blog, here’s the accompanying soundtrack, on a newly released CD. Archeophone Records has compiled a superb sampling of recordings by Haenschen and some of the bands and singers he oversaw in the studio, along with some interesting related items.

The star attraction is a complete run of Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including his Banjo Orchestra’s  impossibly rare “Maple Leaf Rag” — a wonderfully relaxed performance that stands in striking contrast to Vess Ossman’s break-neck rendition of a decade earlier. It’s interesting to compare this with recordings of the same piece by Brun Campbell, the only other confirmed Joplin pupil to have recorded it (Haenschen recalled paying Joplin “around $25 a month” for instruction). Unfortunately, the Personal Records were made at a time when Columbia’s recording and pressing quality were at their all-time worst, but Archeophone has done a remarkable job of  recovering what’s there while preserving the integrity of the original recordings.

The rest of the CD is devoted largely to jazz, pop vocal, and dance numbers of 1920–1924 by artists Haenschen recorded for Brunswick, ranging from some fine regional bands captured on their home turf, to the rather dreadful (but historically interesting) Charlie Chaplin–Abe Lyman collaboration. Brunswick’s acoustic recording technology was far superior to Victor’s or Columbia’s and comes through brilliantly through in these clean transfers. A nice bonus is an excerpt from Jim Drake’s 1975 interview with Haenschen and songwriter Irving Caesar.

Archeophone productions are notable for their accompanying booklets, and this one (at a generous thirty pages) is no exception, with an expertly researched and well-written biography and listening guide by Colin Hancock, a detailed discography, and many rare illustrations. For more details, visit Archeophone Records.

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On the Mainspring Press Blog:
James A. Drake: The Gus Haenschen Interviews

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Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights, and the World’s Biggest Banjo (1891 – 1923)

Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights,
and the World’s Biggest Banjo
(1891 – 1923)

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Vess L. Ossman (left) and Vess, Jr. (undated photo)

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Early mentions of Ossman in the New York papers: December 2, 1891 (top), at which time Harlem was an affluent new suburb; and February 12, 1899.  Ruben “Ruby” Brooks made recordings in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Bettini cylinders, but he died in 1906.

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Ossman participated in several recording demonstrations that have been documented, including this one for Berliner’s Gramophone on December 16, 1897. Three months earlier, Berliner’s New York studio had been opened rather reluctantly for a similar demonstration in which Ossman also participated, with management declaring, “We have yielded to the demand of popular and scientific interest in the process by which our indestructible Gram-o-Phone records are made.” The demonstration recordings are not known to have been released.

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New York (December 1901)

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Ossman went to England in the spring of 1900 (top), where he was a hit. He recalled his experiences in January 1918 (bottom).

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Ossman in the “talkies” (Salt Lake City, November 1908). The Cameraphone Company was launched in 1908 by Eugene E. Norton, an engineer with the American Graphophone Company (Columbia). The process employed synchronized six-inch cylinder records and Columbia Twentieth Century phonographs for the sound source. (For more on Cameraphone and other early attempts at “talking pictures,” see A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press.)

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Another Ossman appearance on-screen (Independence, Kansas, March 1913). These movies were made for Thomas Edison’s short-lived Kinetophone, which also employed synchronized cylinders.

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A December 1916 El Paso dealer ad for Columbia records by Ossman and “Howard Van Epps” (a typo for Fred Van Eps, Ossman’s only significant rival).

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Ossman and company on the road (Scranton, Pennsylvania, January 1917). The Peerless Records Makers were forerunners of the Eight Famous Victor artists, a traveling promotional troupe in which Fred Van Eps replaced Ossman.

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In 1918, with his recording career over and his style becoming increasingly outdated, Ossman moved to Dayton, Ohio. He spent the remainder of his career performing in Dayton and other Midwestern cities. The ads above are all from Dayton, published in May 1918 (top left), October 1922 (top right), and December 1921 (bottom).

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Dayton, Ohio (December 7, 1923)

Vess Ossman Jr. continued to perform in the Dayton area into the early 1930s; the ad above is from November 1931. He later moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a theater manager.

 

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Ossman’s recorded output was truly monumental. Here are just a few favorites; his “Maple Leaf Rag” was the second recording to be made of that number, preceded only the U.S. Marine Band’s 1906 version.

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome Intermezzo

Camden, NJ (Johnson factory building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3048
The pianist is uncredited but is likely Frank P. Banta (father of the novelty pianist Frank E. Banta) or C. H. H. Booth, Victor’s house accompanists at the time.

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Maple Leaf Rag

New York: Released June 1907
Columbia 3626 (M-1414)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

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VESS L. OSSMAN: The Buffalo Rag

New York: March 2, 1909
Victor 16779 (mx. B 6848 – )
The pianist is uncredited, contrary to some discographies. Ossman originally recorded this piece for Victor on January 26, 1906 (mx. B 3049).

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VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle

New York: Released January 1911
D&R Record 3759 (Columbia mx. 4919 – 1)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Hoop-E-Kack

New York: Released July 1909
Indestructible 1113 (cylinder)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Joseph Lacalle

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Sam Moore: From “Laughing Rag” to “Spooning and Ballooning”

Sam Moore: From “Laughing Rag”
to “Spooning and Ballooning”
By Allan Sutton

 

Related Post: Sam Moore’s “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ”

 

Sam Moore’s 1921 Victor recording of “Laughing Rag” is an astonishing record for the period, blending Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences in a way unlike anything that had been heard on records up to that time. Music historian Dick Spottswood has praised Moore’s performance on that record for its “aggressive mainland verve…which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver.”

The Moores had already established a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore, was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor. Music, however, was only an avocation for the family, which operated a successful construction business.

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Sam Moore with his family and banjo, both circa 1895
(courtesy of  Betsy Loar)

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Proficient on the violin by age seven, Sam was later sent to Macon, Georgia, to study under Professor W. C. Kaler. After a badly healed broken arm ended his aspirations as a violinist, Moore turned to the banjo and guitar and also began to experiment with everyday objects — most notably, the ordinary hand-saw — as musical instruments.

In 1919, Moore left home to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The result was a six-moth run at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden. For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the editors of The   Musical Courier that was attended by Enrico Caruso and other luminaries. “Those eminent artists,” a New York paper reported, “were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand-saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”

Moore traveled to Chicago during the summer of 1920. There he met Harry Skinner, an employee of Lyon & Healy, the city’s leading music retailer. In September, Moore made a well-advertised appearance in Lyon & Healy’s  auditorium, at which he played his hand-saw.

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Moore’s appearance at Lyon & Healy (Chicago, September 1920)

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Skinner introduced Moore to his new invention, an eight-string steel guitar named the octo-chorda. (Although several accounts credit Moore with its invention, a 1926 news article confirms that Moore’s eight-string steel guitar was “the recent invention of Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago.”) Together, Moore and Skinner composed a showpiece for the octo-chorda, titled “Laughing Rag.”

Moore was soon traveling on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, sometimes with Horace D. Davis. A great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, who also performed under the name of John Powell, Davis was an accomplished guitarist.

During the summer of 1921, Moore recorded “Laughing Rag” as an octo-chorda solo for the Gennett, Okeh, and Victor labels. Gennett 4747 was the first to be recorded, in New York on June 11, 1921, with piano accompaniment by Frank Banta. The recording was erroneously entered in the Gennett files as a hand-saw solo, and was even advertised as such in some newspapers, but the records are correctly labeled.

Okeh 4412 was released in November, coupled with Moore’s “Chain Gang Blues,” using an uncredited accompanist. Moore recorded two more octo-chorda solos for Okeh at about the same time — “Wang Wang Blues” and  “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” (the latter with Davis, coupled on Okeh 4423).

But Moore’s most successful recording of “Laughing Rag,” musically as well as in terms of sales, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921, originally as part of a trial session. For this version,  Moore used Horace Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically.

 

SAM MOORE & HORACE DAVIS: Laughing Rag

New York: August 24, 1921  (Released March 1922)
Victor 18849 (mx. B 25543 – 1)
Recorded as a test and later accepted for commercial release, per the Victor files. Originally scheduled for release on Victor 18846, coupled with Moore & Davis’ “Cry Baby Blues,” which was canceled before release.

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Victor inexplicably delayed its release of “Laughing Rag” for seven months, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor’s version remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been commercially reissued several times, most recently on RCA’s “Classic Ragtime” CD. But of the fourteen titles Moore and Davis recorded for Victor between August 1921 and September 1922, only three were issued, the other two being straightforward “Hawaiian” numbers.

Unfortunately for modern listeners, “Laughing Rag” was an anomaly. In 1922, Moore and Davis split, and Moore teamed with Carl Freed, a ukulele- and guitar-playing comedian who also played the musical spoons. Together, they developed a novelty vaudeville act entitled “Spooning and Ballooning,” in which Moore played an inflated rubber balloon and other gadgets to Freed’s spoon accompaniment. The Columbus [Georgia] Ledger for April 9, 1924, reported that “Among the most appreciative of Sam Moore’s audiences are the negroes who go north… [they] often talk to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act ‘go big’…”

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An early review of “Spooning and Ballooning” (Altoona, Pennsylvania, October 1922)

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The long-running “Spooning and Ballooning” plays Allentown, Pennsylvania
(March 1924)

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Although Moore’s guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924 Moore’s father told the Columbus Courier, “That boy can music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork.” Moore didn’t leave any known recordings on the pitchfork, but he made a number of hand-saw records, beginning with “Mother Machree” for Gennett, on the reverse side of “Laughing Rag.”

By the time Moore recorded for Columbia in 1922, however, the musical-saw fad was fading in New York. Moore’s April 7, 1922, Columbia session yielded a single release (A3750), which appears to have sold poorly. A few Moore saw-solo releases followed during 1923–1924 on Brunswick and Vocalion, on some of  which Horace Davis made a reappearance, but again, sales appear to have been small.

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From a 1924 Vocalion supplement

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By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand-saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur’s novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand-saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. Interest in “Spooning and Ballooning” faded, and Moore and Freed eventually went their own ways.

By 1927, Moore was once again working with Horace Davis, but no issued recording resulted. Together, they recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” for Brunswick on November 8, which was to have been coupled with a remake of “Laughing Rag” on Brunswick 3713. However, there is no evidence in the Brunswick files that the latter title was recorded, and Brunswick 3713 was canceled before release. Two October 1928 Brunswick duets with ukulele player Edmund Evans were  rejected.

But “Laughing Rag” had not run its course. In 1928, Roy Smeck cut his own country-inflected version, which was issued on the Plaza-group of dime-store labels:

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ROY SMECK: Laughing Rag  (octo-chordo)

New York: March 5, 1928
Regal 8547  (mx. 7824 – 3)
Labels mistakenly show piano accompaniment by F. Henri Klickmann.

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A formal 1920s portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot taken during his stint with KFSO radio’s “Country Store” (courtesy of  Betsy Loar)

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In the 1930s, Moore left the stage for radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical “blackface” act called “Sambo & Mandy” for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.

Moore suffered from asthma, and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There he was featured in the cast of KFSO’s “Country Store.” He died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. Portions of this article previously appeared on the Mainspring Press website as “Rediscovering Sam Moore.”

Thanks to Betsy (Moore) Loar, the grand-daughter of Sam Moore, for sharing her rare photos and other source materials. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.

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Forgotten American Recording Pioneers • Joseph Moskowitz (Cymbalom Solos, 1916)

msp-vicsup_11-1916-23_mosko

Joseph Moskowitz
(b. Romania, 1879 – d. Washington DC, June 27, 1954)
From the November 1916 Victor supplement, courtesy of John Bolig

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JOSEPH MOSKOWITZ (Edward King, piano): Panama Pacific Drag

New York: February 4, 1916
Victor 17978 (mx. 17118 – 1)

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JOSEPH MOSKOWITZ (Max Yussim, piano): Chasen Senem (Turkish Medley, No. 2)

New York: July 19, 1916
Victor 67988 (mx. B 18204 – 2)

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JOSEPH MOSKOWITZ (Max Yussim, piano): Sadiguerer  Chusid — Hebrew Dance

New York: March 27, 1916
Victor 67827 (mx. B 17390 – 1)

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JOSEPH MOSKOWITZ (Max Yussim, piano): Hungarian Dance, No. 5 (Brahms)

 

New York: February 4, 1916
Victor 17973 (mx. B 17116 – 1)

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JOSEPH MOSKOWITZ (Max Yussim, piano): Argentine Dance (Tango Argentino)

New York: February 4, 1916
Victor 18155 (mx. B 17113 – 2)

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JOSEPH MOSKOWITZ (Edward King, piano): Operatic Rag

New York: February 4, 1916
Victor 17978 (mx. B 17117 – 2)

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Discographical data from Dick Spottswood’s Ethnic Music on Records
(University of Illinois Press)

A Gallery of 1898 Recording Artists

These extracts are from an August 1898 Phonoscope feature, “Gallery of Talent Employed for Making Records” (entries without photographs are not shown).

All of the artists pictured were active into the early 1900s, and far beyond in many cases, but Russell Hunting and Steve Porter had the longest and most distinguished recording-industry careers.  In addition to his prolific recording activities, Hunting was the editor of The Phonoscope (the industry’s first trade journal) in the 1890s, and he was still active in the later 1920s as American Pathé’s technical director.

Stephen Carl (Steve) Porter spent several years abroad in the early 1900s, including a stint as a recording engineer with the Nicole company, for which he made ethnic recordings in India and Burma. Upon his return to the U.S. he resumed recording (often in a stereotypical “dumb Irish” role that belied his brilliance), organized and managed the Rambler Minstrels (a popular recording and for-hire act that featured Billy Murray), and successfully filed for patents on various devices, including the Port-O-Phone, an early hearing aid. His activities are covered in detail in Steve Porter: Global Entrepreneur, on the Mainspring Press website.

 

MSP_PS-artists_aug-1898

The Photo Gallery • Victor Records – Popular Instrumental Stars (1915–1916)

From the Victor monthly supplements (1915 –1916), courtesy of John R. Bolig. Full discographical details of the artists’ recordings from this period, compiled from the original recording ledgers and production cards, can be found in John’s Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. 1 (16000 / 17000 Series), available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

MSP_victor-instr-supps_1915

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