Saturday, December 31, 2016

Jerry Springer sings: "Save the Terminal" (1973)



In 1973, long before he became a schlocky television talk-show host and shortly before he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, Jerry Springer recorded a charming little protest record called "Save the Terminal." (The title is often mistakenly listed as "Save the Union Terminal.") 

The song was written and recorded as part of an effort to raise money to save the Cincinnati Union Terminal, an Art Deco railroad terminal that opened in 1933 and was the model for the great hall of the Justice League in the animated series Super Friends. (The effort to save the terminal continues to this day.)

Train service at the terminal ended in 1973, and the train concourse was demolished in 1974, but the fundraising efforts enabled most of the artistic mosaic panels from the structure to be moved to various locations around Cincinnati.

This single wasn't the end of Springer's recording career. In 1995 he recorded an album, Dr. Talk, which contains his renditions of country, pop, and folk songs in addition to the title track, a Springer original.

Here's "Save the Terminal" and its flip side, "Faded Photos Just Won't Do":



Friday, September 30, 2016

Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) sings



The actress Elizabeth Montgomery, who is most famous for playing Samantha Stephens on the television series Bewitched, didn't believe that she could sing very well. Nevertheless, she sang occasionally, and even sang on a couple episodes of Bewitched. 

She danced to a vocal version (!) of the theme of Bewitched on the ABC television show The Hollywood Palace (below), and appeared on the cover of the Now Hear This! compilation (above).



Scroll down for more examples of Montgomery singing with Vic Damone and on Bewitched.



Sunday, August 7, 2016

101 Strings CDs on Alshire: variations in early pressings

Same disc, different cover

I previously posted a discography of 101 Strings CDs on Alshire Records, but that discography doesn't tell the whole story. The earliest 101 Strings CDs were pressed and repressed over the years with different covers and other variations. If you collect these CDs, here are some things to look out for:

Made in Japan/Made in USA

Alshire's early 101 Strings CDs were manufactured in Japan. Later, Alshire started manufacturing all of its CDs in the United States, so when these early titles were repressed, the discs said "Made in U.S.A." instead of "Made in Japan." I haven't figured out yet when Alshire stopped manufacturing in Japan. 

Sometimes the discs were identical except for the "Made in Japan" or "Made in U.S.A." statements: 


ALCD 19 with "Made in U.S.A."
ALCD 19 with "Made in Japan"

Other times, although the discs were otherwise identical, the compact disc logo changed with the "Made in Wherever" statement:


ALCD 3 with different compact disc logos

Note: Discrepancies sometimes occurred between the discs and packaging. These discrepancies weren't variations from pressing to pressing—they were mistakes. For example, the ALCD 3 disc, pictured above, gives the title as Best of the '101 Strings', but the covers and tray cards for both pressings say The Best of the Best of 101 Strings. Also, the covers and tray cards for both pressings give the catalog number as ALCD 3, but the discs for both pressings say ALSCD-3. Alshire had trouble maintaining consistency with its catalog numbers. The catalog number that is printed on many of the Alshire discs includes a hyphen, even though the covers and tray cards do not include the hyphen. The Alshire catalog didn't include hyphens in the catalog numbers, so I omitted the hyphens when I wrote the discography.

With barcode/without barcode

Many of the early 101 Strings CDs were issued without barcodes on the tray card. When these titles were repressed, barcodes were added.

Sometimes the tray cards were identical except for the absence or presence of the barcode. In these cases, the front cover remained the same: 


ALCD 23 with and without barcode; both versions had "Made in U.S.A." discs

Other times the design changed when the barcode was added. In these cases, the cover art also changed. 


ALCD 3 with first- and second-edition tray cards
ALCD 10 with first- and second-edition tray cards

Cover changes

Alshire sometimes changed the covers of the 101 Strings CDs. Later pressings might have a completely different cover from the early pressings, even though the disc and tray card remain mostly the same. 
 
ALCD 3 with first- and second-edition covers

ALCD 10 with first- and second-edition covers

Eventually, I'll update the discography to show the variations that occurred within each catalog number. It's possible that examples exist in which three or more variations occurred for a single catalog number. For example, there could be a version that was made in Japan, an identical version that was made in the US, and then an updated made-in-the-US version that had different cover art, but I haven't found anything like that yet. So far, two variations per title appears to be the maximum.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Scictler's Manikins and the ostrich that laid a snake egg



Vaudeville manikins

Quality entertainment used to mean watching a fake ostrich lay an egg and then a fake snake hatch out of that egg. This would have been in the late 1800s or early 1900s. 

I've been reading Joe Laurie Jr.'s 1953 book Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, which is less of a history of vaudeville than a 561-page catalog of vaudeville performers. It's a weird book that has never been reprinted since its original run.

In the chapter "Freaks and Odd Acts," Laurie writes: 
We loved Scictler's Manikins; [Scictler] had a juggler, three hobos, and an ostrich which laid an egg and a snake hatched out of it. One of the manikins made a quick change on the stage from a man into a woman. 
As I read the book, this act seemed particularly interesting and unusual to me. I wasn't the only one who thought so, because later in the book, someone had summarized the act in pencil on a blank page:




Feeling a kinship with this anonymous decades-old defiler of library books, I decided to look for more information about Scictler, for both of our sakes.

Unfortunately, Laurie must have misspelled the name, because "Scictler" isn't a real surname. The actual name of the act must have been something like Sichler or Schicter or Schickler. It's clear that Laurie—who was an old vaudevillian himself—wrote a number of names and titles from memory, sometimes phonetically. I've run across many misspelled names and titles in the book.

Vaudeville's mannequin acts ("manikin" was the preferred spelling in vaudeville) were jointed dolls that were manipulated with wires, kind of like marionettes. The manner of manipulation was a secret, so audiences enjoyed speculating about how the figures were made to move so realistically. 

Because of Laurie's misspelling, I couldn't find any images of, or even references to, Scictler's Manikins, but I've included a couple of photos of competing manikin acts. The photo at the top of this page shows Hunt's Manikins, and the photo below shows Jewell's Manikins. Sadly, neither of these competing manikin acts had an ostrich that laid a snake egg. 

The only new information I have to pass along is that Laurie misspelled Scictler's name. If you've come here because you read Laurie's 60+ year old, out-of-print book and were intrigued by Scictler's act and Googled his/her name, like I did, then this post is for you. 



Sunday, July 17, 2016

Judith "Judy" Reisman: From folksinger to anti-sex crusader


Judy Reisman and Friend

In 1990 when Cincinnati charged photographer Robert Mapplethorpe with obscenity over his art exhibit "The Perfect Moment," the prosecution called only one expert witness: the anti-Alfred Kinsey and anti-porn polemicist Judith Reisman. The defense objected, arguing that Reisman's only qualification for evaluating art was her early work as a songwriter. 

A songwriter?

Yes, Judith "Judy" Reisman—who has made a career of crusading against sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and, more recently, has served as a conservative commentator on WorldNetDaily—began as a "Kumbaya" folksinger in the overwhelmingly liberal urban-folk scene of the early-to-mid 1960s. 

In her post-music career, Reisman became laser focused on Kinsey, writing books with overheated titles such as Sexual Sabotage: How One Mad Scientist Unleashed a Plague of Corruption and Contagion on AmericaStolen Honor, Stolen Innocence: How America Was Betrayed by the Lies and Sexual Crimes of a Mad "Scientist"Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences; and Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People. She became active in abstinence-only programs, and Ronald Reagan's Justice Department gave Reisman $734,000 to study pornography (even though her credentials, critics say, are "practically cosmetic").

But her early folk songs and musical programs were much milder and less sex obsessed than her later work, celebrating things like art, ethnic and cultural diversity, and the Civil Rights Movement. Many articles about the Mapplethorpe obscenity case trivialize Reisman's songwriting career, but it actually was much more substantial than you might think. She collaborated with well-known folk artists, released a number of records, contributed to a number of children's television shows (mostly local ones), and was featured in the influential folk magazine Broadside

Her first record, An Appeal to Conscience, was released in 1965 and was dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. It contained two songs, "For the Dignity of Man" (a salute to LBJ) and "Where Freedom Ends" (a salute to MLK). Reisman wrote "Where Freedom Ends" by herself, but on "For the Dignity of Man," she collaborated with folk veterans Stu Jamieson and Bill Cunningham. The record was the only release of CRM (presumably "Civil Rights Movement") Records.


In 1965 she also copyrighted several other original songs: "The Inconstant Lover," "Fishin'," "The Last Supper," "Warmth," "The Brazilian Fruit Vender," and "The German Psyche."

Reisman told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle that her song "The Ballad of Annie Hayes" was named one of the best of 1965 by Les Claypool (the L.A. disc jockey, not the Primus bass player). The sheet music for the song appeared in the folk magazine Broadside, and although the article provided an address where readers could write for information about Reisman's album, New Sounds By Judy Reisman, no other information about this album appears online. "The Ballad of Annie Hayes" expressed Reisman's outrage over the real-life story of a 16-year-old Georgia girl who was raped and killed.


In 1966 Reisman performed 12 original folk songs on KPFK in Los Angeles, but thereafter, she moved to Milwaukee when her husband was offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

She continued to compose folk songs, and in 1967 copyrighted a song called "Judah Maccabee" and one called "Hazy Day," the latter of which featured music by Dick Hieronymus. (Her collaboration with Hieronymus is interesting. Hieronymus did quite a bit of session work with big-name artists in his career and participated in the 1973 session for John Lennon's "Since My Baby Left Me." He recorded a children's album, Songs of Meter Park, in 1976 with Jimmy Vann, and ironically—in the context of this blog post—cowrote the themes of the 1978 adult films I Am Always Ready and Love Airlines.)

While in Wisconsin, Reisman created musical segments for the children's television programs Children's Fair (a PBS show on channel 10 in Milwaukee) and Merry-Go-Round (an Ohio program).

In 1968, Reisman wrote The Great Adventure, a musical play for television. The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle described it as a "history of American minorities: the Jew, the Indian, and Negro." She also performed a program for the Milwaukee Public Museum, Strange But True, which concerned "problems with conservation." She continued to be featured on KPFK in Los Angeles, where she performed an original musical story that year, A History of the Jewish People

1969 saw the release of Reisman's Daytime Nighttime, a filmstrip with a 7" EP that was released by Scholastic Records to encourage art appreciation among children. The songs highlighted works of art with daytime or nighttime imagery by artists such as Henri Matisse, Joan MirĂ³, and Henri Rousseau. 

In the 1970s, on the strength of her work on Children's Fair and Merry-Go-Round, Reisman got a job writing musical segments for Captain Kangaroo. The gig came to an end, Reisman claims, when her "thoughtful tunes" proved to be no match for cartoon violence in capturing the attention of children. With seemingly nowhere else to go in her musical career, she went back to school to study communications and started on her path to becoming an anti-sex crusader with weird views such as blaming the Holocaust on homosexuals.

As for the Mapplethorpe case, Mapplethorpe won, and a 25-year retrospective on the obscenity trial in the Washington Post called the court battle "a PR disaster" for Cincinnati. David Mann, one of the City Council members at the time, said, "It kind of made us the laughing stock of sophisticated communities."





Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why didn't Van Johnson serve in World War II?


Van Johnson in Battleground (MGM, 1949)

A reader recently asked me why Van Johnson didn't serve in World War II, presumably because I previously wrote about Roy Rogers' and John Wayne's military service (or lack thereof). Van Johnson was mainly an actor but sang and danced in some musicals, most notably Brigadoon (1954) and The Music Man (the 1961 London cast—not the 1957 Broadway cast or the 1962 film). Johnson's studio, MGM, never attempted to turn him into a recording star, so he appeared on a few soundtrack albums and compilations of show tunes but no singles.


One of the reasons that Johnson didn't serve in World War II was that he was in a serious car accident in 1943 during the production of the film A Guy Named Joe. In the crash, Johnson was ejected from the car and thrown head first into a curb, receiving such severe injuries that he had to have a metal plate put in his head.

Afterward, he suffered from severe headaches and had to do exercises to strengthen his right arm. Thereafter, he wore heavy makeup to hide the scars on his face. 

As a result of the accident, Johnson was classified 4-F, which was a classification that usually was given for physical disorders like muscular and bone malformations and hearing problems. (Other actors who were classified 4-F for various physical conditions were Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Jackie Gleason, and Gary Cooper.)

It pained Johnson that he wasn't able to serve. In the book Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy, author Ronald L. Davis writes: 
Even though he was legitimately disqualified from the draft after his automobile accident, Van was sensitive about not serving in the armed forces, particularly since Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, Gene Autry, Robert Taylor, and so many others were in uniform. Johnson tried to stay out of nightclubs, feeling that the guys overseas would resent his having fun while they were fighting and facing death in far off war zones. He also kept away from the Hollywood Canteen, sensing that servicemen there would not understand a big fellow like him not being in some branch of the military. To compensate, Van made frequent visits to military hospitals but invariably came away from them shaken. Seeing the injured boys there "makes you feel so helpless," he told friends.
Johnson's accident exempted him from service after 1943 but not from 1940-1943, during which many other stars began their service. Jimmy Stewart enlisted in 1941 (after trying to get in for a year but being turned away for not meeting the weight requirement), and Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, and Gene Autry enlisted in 1942. Why didn't Johnson enlist before his accident? 

I can only speculate. A possible reason is that his film career was just starting to take off in the early 1940s and he didn't want to jeopardize it. Johnson made his film debut in 1940; between his debut and A Guy Named Joe in 1943, when he suffered the injuries that kept him out of the war, he made about a dozen films and signed with MGM, making the leap from unnamed extra to an actor with prominent billing (although not yet star billing) and a contract with a major studio. By the time he was reasonably established in Hollywood and might have felt that he could step away from it and have something to return to, he was debilitated by the car crash.

In 1949 Johnson finally served in World War II—virtually speaking— when he appeared in the film Battleground, the first major World War II film to be made after the end of the war. 

Van Johnson as the Minstrel in Batman

Monday, May 30, 2016

Songs about S&H Green Stamps




A number of songs about green stamps were released around the same time in the late 1950s to mid 1960s for some reason, even though the S&H Green Stamps rewards program ran from the 1930s-1980s in the US. 

Customers collected green stamps at department stores, supermarkets, and gas stations and then redeemed them for items in the Sperry & Hutchinson catalog. A number of competing stamp programs existed from other companies, some of which had their own signature colors, such as Blue Chip Stamps and Gold Bond Stamps.

Here are a number of songs about—or songs that mention—green stamps, mostly from the early 1960s. The Wikipedia article on S&H Green Stamps has a section on green stamps in music, but it lists only the Allan Sherman and Pat Boone songs as examples. 


Allan Sherman – "Green Stamps" (Warner Bros. 1964)

Included on the album Allan in Wonderland.




The Goldcoast Singers – "Green Stamps" (World Pacific 1962)

Included on the album Here They Are!





Ben White & the Darchees – "Nation Wide Stamps" (Algon 1246, 1962)

This is the song that inspired this blog post. I heard it on the 1996 compilation CD Brooklyn's Doo-Wop Sound (Dee Jay Jamboree Records).




Freddie Flynn & The Flashes – "Green Stamps" (Lyric 107, 1959)




Jimmy Norman – "Green Stamps" (Josan 711, 1959)

This record was picked up by Dot Records and released nationally as Dot 16016.




T-Birds – "Green Stamps" (Chess U-10567, 1961)




Pat Boone – "Speedy Gonzales" (Dot 45-16368, 1962)

Mel Blanc, the voice of Speedy, mentions green stamps at the end.




Kingston Trio – "Them Poems" (Capitol 1964)

From the album Back in Town. The middle song in the medley, "Stamp Lickers," is about "lickin' them green stamps."




Archie Campbell – "Green Stamps" (Starday 1962)

This song is included in the 1962 album Make Friends with Archie Campbell and the 1966 various-artists album Stars of the Grand Ole Opry. The song begins at 18:00 in this video. 




Magnetic Fields – "The Desperate Things You Made Me Do" (Merge 1995)

From the album Get Lost, this song includes a line about "pilfered love and green stamps."




Unknown Artist – "S & H Green Stamps"

A radio ad for Sperry Huthison's S&H Green Stamps that was cut for WPTR in Albany New York. 




Green Shield Stamps were a thing in the UK, and a number of UK artists performed songs about them.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

Robots of vaudeville: the "automatic" and mechanical minstrels of the 1900s


A Variety ad for Byron Monzello's Mechanical Minstrels

Vaudeville's so-called "automatic" or "mechanical" minstrels were dummy acts. The minstrel part of the dummies' act—the singing and joke telling—was provided by phonograph recordings. These automatic or mechanical minstrels, which appeared in vaudeville in the 1900s and possibly even earlier, were kind of like a low-tech precursor to the animatronic characters that later featured in places like Chuck E. Cheese, Showbiz Pizza, and Disneyland.

I first read about the automatic minstrels in the books of Joe Laurie Jr., a former vaudevillian who wrote or cowrote two histories of vaudeville in the mid-20th century: Show Biz: From Vaude to Video (1951) and Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace (1953).
Gane's Manhattan Theatre

In these books, Laurie mentions a couple of automatic minstrel acts. In Show Biz: From Vaude to Video, he says that "William Gane introduced the first (and last) All-Automatic Minstrels at the Manhattan Theatre in 1908." Laurie describes the act thusly: "Outside of one live interlocutor, all the minstrels were dummies with gramophones concealed inside, telling jokes and singing songs upon cue."

In Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, Laurie elaborates a bit further on Gane's act: 
"The Automatic Minstrels ... played at Gane's Manhattan Theatre (where Macy's is now). This one had a live interlocutor; the rest were dummies, whose jokes and songs were done via phonographs. Didn't do so good."
In the same book, Laurie describes an additional automatic minstrel act, despite his previous book's claim that Gane's minstrels were the only one of their kind. This other act is identified as Monzello, "a minstrel show with dummies on the stage and the gags done via phonograph." Laurie added, "Kinda crude but a novelty."

Monzello was actually Byron Monzello. The 1908 ad for Monzello's Mechanichal [sic] Minstrels at the top of this page describes the act as "ten life size mechanical figures; three live principals and two assistants." The ad also describes the dummies: "They have false teeth, false hair, the mouth opens, and closes, they get up, sit down, bow, the heads turn, shake hands, make gestures." The ad claims that the dummies "talk any language." A photo of the minstrels is included, but it's too dark to reveal many details.


Also in 1908, Variety printed a letter from Byron (misspelled as "Bryon"), who wrote in reply to a review of Gane's act that Variety had published in a previous issue. Monzello's letter read:
I see in Variety (August 22) under "New Acts" a review on "William Gane's Automatic Minstrels'" at the Manhattan Theatre, New York. This is a direct steal of my act. I will furnish affidavits I originated "The Mechanical Minstrels" in September, 1904, at Indianapolis. Not then satisfied with results, I continued experimenting until September, 1906, when my act was completed, but other business matters prevented me placing it in vaudeville. 
Enclosed you will find correspondence from prominent managers showing the act has been played at Riverview Park, and in existence over one year.
Despite Monzello's claim of being the first to create a mechanical minstrel act, earlier mentions of similar acts can be found in late-19th century newspapers. The phonograph was invented in 1877, so it's possible that these early mechanical minstrel acts incorporated phonograph recordings too.

Even if it's true that Gane stole Monzello's act, vaudevillians stole each others acts, jokes, catchphrases, skits, and gimmicks constantly. In those days, a performer could steal another performer's act wholesale and take it to another part of the country without anyone easily finding out. In Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, Laurie gives a number of examples of well-know television and movie personalities of the post-vaudeville era who "borrowed" from earlier vaudeville performers. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Meat Puppets: Two unpublished drawings




I was obsessed with the Meat Puppets in high school. For five years, I listened to Meat Puppets II daily. It became a ritual. To this day, it's an album that I know inside out like no other. I even submitted a proposal to the 33 1/3 series to write a book about Meat Puppets II, but I was rejected. I have at least three entertaining stories that I could tell about my encounters with the Meat Puppets over the years, but today I'm only sharing a couple of Meat Puppets drawings. 

I ran across the above drawing a few weeks ago. In fact, I forgot that I even had it, but I rediscovered it while randomly perusing my vinyl. Tucked away in the sleeve of my copy of the Meat Puppets' first album was this ballpoint-pen-and-ink drawing on notebook paper. I received it long ago after writing a fan letter to the Meat Puppets. This drawing was their reply. No note—just this drawing.

The drawing most likely was made by Cris Kirkwood, the Meat Puppets' bassist. It looks like his style. Both Cris and Curt Kirkwood are visual artists. Curt painted many of the Meat Puppets' album covers, and Cris has an art website now where you can buy his drawings and watercolor paintings. Original drummer Derrick Bostrom is an excellent writer who has a website called Bostworld.

When the Meat Puppets played at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago on the Huevos tour, I asked Cris to autograph my copy of the promotional 12" of "I Am a Machine." He drew a picture on the reverse of the picture sleeve, and his creation is shown at right.

The cartoon shows a piglike creature with a speech bubble that says, "Wipe!" After Cris signed my 12", he handed it to me and said, "As in 'don't forget to.'" Good advice. 


Friday, April 1, 2016

Actor/singer/songwriter Richard Harris gets a pale ale


Harris Pale Ale

I spent a couple of weeks in Ireland recently and made a point to sample some of the island's craft beers. The craft beer scene in the United States has been exploding for years now, to the extent that my hometown—Bloomington, Indiana—has five breweries, and practically every Indiana town of any size has at least one brewery of its own. Ireland hasn't reached that level of craft beer intensity yet, but Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Limerick, and some other Irish localities have joined in the fun.

Richard Harris, 1985
I spent most of my time in Limerick, which recently gained its first brewery in a long time, Treaty City Brewing Co. Only one Treaty City beer is available as of this writing: Harris Pale Ale, which is named after Limerick hell-raiser Richard Harris, the actor, singer, and songwriter. The beer's label is cool, and the brewery's mission ("Laying siege to bland tasteless beer since 2014!") is admirable.

This is a music blog, so I'll mention that Harris has a fairly extensive discography that includes the Camelot soundtrack, a rendition of "MacArthur Park," and an album—The Yard Went On Forever—that was written, arranged, and produced by Jimmy Webb. He won a Grammy for his 1973 spoken-word album Jonathan Livingston Seagull and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in Camelot. In 2008, Raven Records in Australia released an excellent Richard Harris anthology, Man of Words Man of Music: The Anthology 1968–1974.

Treaty City's Harris Pale Ale is an IPA with cascade hops and caramel malts that claims to put the hops out front but is only moderately hoppy in comparison to American IPAs. Nevertheless, it’s a good beer and a great start for a new brewery, so I’ll be interested to see what they come up with next. Many Irish pubs offer only the standards—Guinness, Smithwick’s, Carlsberg, Tiger, Budweiser, Heineken, etc.—but if you ask and they have Treaty City in bottles, it's a welcome alternative to all those watery beers. Although Treaty City markets itself as Limerick's first brewery, Limerick actually had a number of breweries in the 1700s and 1800s, as described in this article in The Old Limerick Journal.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

When was Victor Young born?


Victor Young with niece Bobbie Hill Fromberg

Wikipedia and many other sources report that Victor Young was born in 1900, and it appears that no amount of evidence to the contrary will change it. I've tried to correct the date on Wikipedia, but it always reverts to 1900.

Further adding to the misinformation is Young's grave marker, which shows his birth year as 1901.

Young was a composer, conductor, arranger, and violinist who won an Oscar in 1956 for his score of Around the World in 80 Days. Some of his well-known compositions include "When I Fall in Love," "Love Letters," "Stella By Starlight," "My Foolish Heart," "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You," "Street of Dreams," "Sweet Sue, Just You," and "Johnny Guitar." In all instances, Young composed the music and various lyricists wrote the words. He received 22 Academy Award nominations in his lifetime and even charted several pop hits, the biggest of which was his Top 10 rendition of "The High and the Mighty" in 1954.

When I worked on the 2006 Victor Young CD Cinema Rhapsodies: The Musical Genius of Victor Young, I had the opportunity to talk to Young's niece, Bobbie Hill Fromberg. Young never had children of his own, so he and Bobbie were close.

Fromberg told me that she had researched her family's history and discovered from US Census records that Young falsified his birthdate in the early days of his career. He was born August 8, 1899, but gave his birth year as 1900, presumably to avoid the perception that he had been born in an earlier century. The liner notes of Cinema Rhapsodies set the record straight: "Albert Victor Young was born to a Polish family in a tenement district of Chicago on August 8, 1899, not 1900 as widely reported."

Six years later, in 2012, Albert Haim of the Bix Beiderbecke discussion forum Bixography, posted a message about Young's birth year, which continued to be a topic of speculation. Haim referenced the US Census data as well as Young's birth certificate: 
Birth Certificate - Cook County IL. Name: Victor Young; birth date Aug 8, 1899; birth place Chicago, Cook, IL
Fromberg herself weighed in on the topic on the Bixography forum and explained the incorrect date on Young's grave marker: 
I come from a family that never told the truth about their birth years. Victor was born on August 8, 1899 (I discovered from the 1900 Chicago census) 

My Mom made herself 6 years younger than she really was and both of their plaques [her mother's and Victor's] at Hollywood Forever Cemetery where they are buried facing each other in a mausoleum have incorrect years on them. 
So there you have it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The #1 Elvis hit that Elvis hated




It was the last Top 10 pop hit that Elvis Presley had during his lifetime. Critics heralded it as Elvis's great return to rock 'n' roll. It became a #1 pop hit in Cash Box and a Top 40 country hit on the Billboard country chart. But Elvis hated it and performed it only a couple of times. The song? The 1972 hit "Burning Love." 

Producer Felton Jarvis pushed Elvis to record "Burning Love," a song that recently had appeared as an album cut on an LP by R&B great Arthur Alexander. Elvis didn't like the song and didn't want to record it but cut it anyway at Jarvis's urging.

Mark P. Bernardo, in his book Elvis Presley: Memphis, says that Presley at that time was moving away from rock toward "bittersweet, melancholy ballads" because of his breakup with Priscilla, so he wasn't inclined to record rockers such as "Burning Love." But people close to Elvis said that Elvis's dislike of the song involved more than just its rock orientation.

For example, "Memphis Mafia" member Jerry Schilling said, "Elvis—who had close to a photographic memory when it came to books, scripts, lyrics—always insisted that he needed a lyric sheet to perform 'Burning Love.'"

"Elvis didn't want to record 'Burning Love,' didn't like it when he had recorded it, and sang it as rarely as possible afterwards," wrote Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Elvis.

Why was Elvis so unenthusiastic about this song that had revived his commercial fortunes? If you watch a lyric video of the song, I think it's pretty easy to see why. I like this song, but it sounds like it was written in five minutes. The lyrics have no logical order—you could rearrange the lines randomly without significantly altering the meaning, because most of them restate the same thought in different ways. The rhyme scheme is almost nonexistent, and it's hard to tell where the singer is supposed to put the stresses. In Elvis' version, you can hear on a few lines where he struggles to fit the line to the rhythm of the song. The song also weirdly repeats the word "flaming."


"Burning Love" was written by Nashville songwriter Dennis Linde, who recorded a version of it himself. Linde's voice, on his version, reminds me a bit of Loudon Wainwright, but some people think he sounds like John Fogerty. You might expect the songwriter's version to be definitive, but even Linde seems to struggle with where to place the stresses on some lines. (Listen to the "it's hard to breathe" line, for example.)

Whatever Elvis thought about the song, it was enthusiastically hailed by fans as a return to his rock 'n' roll sound, and the "hunk o' hunk o' burnin' love" refrain recalled Elvis's 1959 hit "A Big Hunk O' Love." And in this live performance, Elvis appears to perform the song in its entirety without lyric sheets or teleprompters.



Friday, January 22, 2016

"Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes": Eddie Leonard and the song that "started the decline of vaudeville"


"Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" is the song that "started the decline of vaudeville," according to Joe Laurie Jr.'s 1953 book Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace. This song is almost completely forgotten today but used to be very well known.


The Knickerbocker
The song was the title tune of John Cort's successful 1919 musical Roly Boly Eyes. The January 31, 1920, issue of The Independent described this musical as the "fascinating, tuneful, dancingest, altogether different musical comedy success" with a "snap, tuneful score and cast of New York favorites." It opened at Broadway's Knickerbocker Theatre on September 25, 1919, and ran through the end of the year, after which Cort took it on the road. 

"Roly Boly" is sometimes spelled "Roley Boley" (as it is throughout Laurie's book), possibly because the actress May Boley was in the cast of the show. But the sheet music and other materials from the original run of the show spell it "Roly Boly." The song title of "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" varies from source to source too; It is variously listed as "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes," "Roll Dem Roly Boly Eyes," and "Roll Those Roly Boly Eyes."


Cort's musical was written to showcase the talents of Eddie Leonard, a blackface minstrel performer who composed the song "Roly Boly Eyes" as well as the most famous song in the show, "Ida Sweet as Apple Cider," the latter of which predated the show. "Ida" has been recorded by Eddie Cantor (who also performed in blackface in his vaudeville days), Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bill Haley, and many other big-name artists.

Leonard's blackface act was considered old fashioned even in 1919, but he was so successful that he wore a diamond-studded belt that was adorned with real diamonds and looked after by a guard.

The video at the bottom of this article contains the only audio recording of Leonard I've found. In it, he sings "Ida" in dialect with frequent interjections of "wa-wa-wa" and "oh-oh-oh" and "doodly doo." 

Leonard's oddball vocal style was frequently imitated by other performers. Al Schacht, the "Clown Prince of Baseball," did a vaudeville act with fellow baseball player Nick Altrock that is said to be the first act to feature "baseball clowning," and their grand finale was an impression of Leonard singing "Roly Boly Eyes." Billy Jones and Ernest Hare cut a record for Brunswick in 1922, "Eddie Leonard Blues," that references "Ida" and "Roly Boly Eyes" and imitates Leonard's vocal stylings. The California Ramblers recorded "Eddie Leonard Blues" for Vocalion. Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) did a brief impression of Leonard in this 1953 television performance. (The Leonard part begins at 2:06.) Bolger adds Leonard's trademark "wa-wa-wa."

Roly Boly Eyes was the apex of Leonard's career. Critics hailed it as one of his finest performances, and the songs lived on for decades. Leonard reprised "Roly Boly" and "Ida" in his starring role in the 1929 film Melody Lane, but the film was so poorly received that it ruined his prospects for a post-vaudeville life in Hollywood. Author Richard Barrios, in his book A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, described Melody Lane as "a fiasco, the first mammy picture to engender outright hostility from audiences as well as critics." Afterward, Leonard appeared in only one more film, playing himself (in blackface) in the 1940 Bing Crosby movie If I Had My Way.

Blackface minstrelsy endured, in a diminishing capacity, in Hollywood films until the early 1950s, particularly in the films of Al Jolson. In 1952, Teresa Brewer had a pop hit with a non-novelty remake of "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" that doesn't make any reference to Leonard's vocal mannerisms. By the time Brewer recorded her version of the song, things had come full circle; nostalgia for old songs and styles led to fads for honky-tonk piano albums and albums of "songs mom and dad used to sing."

I started reading about Leonard because I wanted to find out why Laurie called "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" the song that "started the decline of vaudeville," and I didn't find the answer. Very little has been written about Leonard. The Wikipedia article about him is unusually brief. Even Laurie, who mentions Leonard in passing a couple of times in his history of vaudeville, completely omits Leonard from the chapter on blackface performers. Leonard published a memoir in 1934, What a Life: I'm Telling You, that probably would be a good source of information, but it's long out of print and expensive to buy from rare-book dealers. I can speculate on why Laurie wrote what he wrote, though.

I'm guessing that Leonard was one of the last high-profile purveyors of old-style blackface minstrelsy and that his gimmicky performance of "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" was easy to imitate and mock. History, generally speaking, does not pay much respect to novelty songs. When Leonard's 1929 film Melody Lane flopped miserably, minstrelsy was already in decline, and Leonard—unlike Jolson—was strongly associated with vaudeville, not Hollywood. It's not hard to imagine that this goofy song, performed in a goofy way by a comical vaudeville performer with an antiquated style, could become a symbol of the decline of vaudeville. It's probably unfair of Laurie to say that "Roll Them Roly Boly Eyes" started the decline of vaudeville, but it was certainly a prominent emblem of vaudeville in its dying days.

An etymological note: "Roly boly" isn't a nonsense phrase. It comes from the Dutch word rollebol (roll + ball), which was absorbed into English as a name for a bowling-type ball game called "roly boly" or "roily bolly."