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." 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Junior Brown's "Better Call Saul" 5-inch flexi disc

I used to think that Bob Odenkirk was an underdog who didn't get his due, back when his Mr. Show partner, David Cross, was enjoying a surge of popularity from his first standup comedy album and his role in Arrested Development. That has changed dramatically in the last couple of years as Odenkirk has rocketed to fame for his part in the television series Breaking Bad and his starring role in the spinoff Better Call Saul, which had the highest-rated debut in cable television history.

The nonplaying side of the flexi-disc
What does all this have to do with music, you ask? The first season of Better Call Saul was released November 10, 2015, in a Blu-ray collector's edition that features a lenticular cover and a 5" card-backed flexi disc. The flexi disc, pictured above, is one-sided and contains Junior Brown's recording of the song "Better Call Saul." The flip side has an image of a bowl of red gelatin (at right). 

This card-backed single plays at 33 1/3 RPM in order to fit the nearly three minutes of music onto a 5" disc. A black-vinyl 7" version was released as a Record Store Day exclusive, and a limited edition 7" version on yellow and red splatter vinyl was produced in an edition of 100 as a promotional item but later sold exclusively at New York Comic Con 2015, according to a commenter on (A 6" Saul Goodman figure was also sold as a NYCC exclusive, so that's plausible.) The B-side of the 7" release has a second version of "Better Call Saul" that isn't included on the flexi disc.

The "Better Call Saul" flexi has the Madison Gate Records logo but no catalog number. (The 7" is numbered SL9-2014.) Madison Gate is Sony Pictures' label for soundtracks and other film- and television-related recordings. 

The flexi also has the logo of Spacelab9, which released the 7" vinyl of "Better Call Saul" as well as picture disc and vinyl LPs related to Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, My Little Pony, Adventure Time, etc., many of which are sold exclusively through specific retailers. The Adventure Time picture disc, for example, was sold only through Hot Topic.

The 5" card-backed "Better Call Saul" flexi is a pretty cool retro artifact that recalls the old Mad Magazine and cereal box records from the '50s and '60s. I'm sure that I'll never play my copy, because the song is readily available elsewhere and the flexi is probably pretty noisy, but I enjoyed looking at it.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Gene Autry's X-rated songs

Singing cowboy Gene Autry was a children's hero and a patriot (he figures in the story of why Roy Rogers and John Wayne didn't serve in World War II), but many of his fans don't know that he also recorded a couple of very uncharacteristic X-rated songs early in his career. 

These two songs, which are sexually explicit versions of the folk standards "Frankie and Johnny" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" (retitled "Bye Bye Boyfriend") can be found in a few collections. Both recordings are on the 1984 Stash Records LP Copulatin' Blues Volume Two, but they are credited to "unknown cowboy." The 9-CD Bear Family box set That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, which collects all of Autry's recordings from 1929-1933, also includes both recordings. "Frankie and Johnny" by itself is included on the Grammercy Records anthology Those Dirty Blues Volume 3.

Of the two recordings, "Bye Bye Boyfriend" is the most explicit. If you're familiar with Autry's clean-cut image from his films and television shows of the 1940s and '50s, then listening to that song in particular is a bit surreal. 

Holly George-Warren, in her book Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, talks about the origin of these recordings: 
At some point in the New York ARC studio, maybe as early as the November 1931 sessions, as a private joke, Gene and Roy Smeck (whom Gene nicknamed "Prick Smack") recorded an explicit version of "Frankie and Johnny" and the X-rated "Bye-Bye Boyfriend" (to the tune of "Bye-Bye Blackbird") ... Gene's saucy recordings, which ran completely contrary to his admonition against risqué tunes in his songwriting booklet, were never released during his lifetime.
George-Warren also points out that Art Satherly, Autry's producer, sometimes had his artists record risqué material that would be released under pseudonyms. The most famous example is the Prairie Ramblers, whose performances of songs such as "I Love My Fruit" and "We're the Sweet Violet Boys" (an early version of the mind-rhyme song "Sweet Violets") were commercially released under the name Sweet Violet Boys.

You can hear* both of Autry's X-rated songs and view the lyrics below.

*Not anymore. I took the links down because Google has flagged 4Shared as a malware site. 

"Frankie and Johnny"

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts
They had a quarrel one day
Frankie accused her Johnny
Of giving his peter away
To a gal, and he was doing her wrong

So Frankie went down to the whorehouse
She went in rangin' a bell
She said, "Stand back, all you whores and pimps
Or I'll blow you all into hell.
You've got my man, and he's doing me wrong."

Well, one whore said to Frankie
Said, "Looky here, young gal. 
We've got your lovin' Johnny
And he's back here giving us tail
He is your man, and he's doing me wrong." 

So Frankie went down to that sayloon
She took with her a gun
She said, "Stand back, you red-headed whore,
'Cause I'm gonna blow you in one.
You got my man, and he's doing me wrong."

"Bye Bye Boyfriend" (AKA "Bye Bye Blackbird")

You put your hand beneath my dress
There you found a blackbird's nest
Bye bye, boyfriend

Throw your ass against the wall
Here I come, balls and all
Bye bye, cherry

I ain't got a hell of a lot
But what I've got will tickle your tw*t
Bye bye, cherry

Throw your legs around me little honey
This thing of mine is feeling kind of funny
Shake your ass and wiggle your t*ts
'Til your little snapper splits
Bye bye, cherry

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Music Weird's best albums of 2015

This must have been a good year for music, because I easily could have made a Top 50. 

These rankings don't mean much past the top 3. On any given day, I'd rank them differently. I wanted to say more about the albums, but I realized that this post would never happen if I put it off any longer. 

1. Parks, Squares and Alleys – Against Illusions and Reality

A band from Moscow that has that Captured Tracks sound that Captured Tracks bands don't have anymore. It's 100% good, so check out any track.

2. Tall Tales and the Silver Lining – Tightropes

If you had told me at the beginning of the year that one of my favorite albums would come from a Tom Petty-worshipping band from L.A., I probably wouldn't have believed it. This is one of the rare albums that everyone in my household could agree on. Check out "Let It Go." 

3. Petite League – Slugger

The new band by the guy from Spark Alaska. Spark Alaska made acoustic bedroom pop, but Petite League is scrappy, kinda like Cloud Nothings back when they still wrote lo-fi pop songs. Check out "Not Always Happy." 

4. The Sweet Serenades – Animals

Their previous album, Help Me, was one of my faves of 2012.
5. Boyscott – Goose Bumps

Check out "Blonde Blood."

6. Rima Kato – Faintly Lit

Faintly Lit is delicate Japanese twee pop that got an undeserved 6.9 review in Pitchfork. The Pitchfork reviewer complained of "groan-worthy" songs and songs that "meander," and concluded that "Kato's world is ... a little too intimate for extended stays," none of which is true. 

7. Ashtray Boy – Painted with the Mouth

I loved the first three Ashtray Boy albums and saw the band live at a house party years ago, but I had fallen out of touch with them after their albums stopped being domestically released. This new one is just as good as any of their albums. Funny lyrics.

8. Shoreline Is – Watch It All Go

The second album by German dream-pop band Shoreline Is. It even has a great instrumental cut, "Till You Run Off."

9. The Future Dead – Feelings

A second great album from Belgium's the Future Dead on Gnar Tapes. Reminds me of the old Flying Nun sound. Really short songs.

10. The Memories – Home Style

The prolific and dependable Memories deliver another winner. Some of these songs have appeared elsewhere, but many were new to me, including the excellent and funny "See Me Through."

11. Jay Som – Untitled

Check out "Peach Boy."

12. Drug Cabin – Wiggle Room

I appreciate their craftsmanship. Listen to "Handsome," for example.

13. Funeral Advantage – Body Is Dead

Reminds me a bit of fellow Brooklynites Neighbors (now defunct, sadly) but with more guitars. Sample "Cemetery Kiss."

14. Soda Shop – Soda Shop

Dreamy, minimalist pop, like Confetti or a less metronomic Young Marble Giants. Here's "Melancholia." 

15. The Go! Team – The Scene Between

This might be as good as their debut. Listen to "What d'You Say?"

16. Brothertiger – Out of Touch

The best Brothertiger album yet. Here's "Beyond the Infinite." 

17. MyKey – Oh Rabbit Heart

Acoustic Swedish pop a bit like last year's faves Featherweights but with occasionally sexually explicit lyrics, like fellow Swedes Strip Squad. This album was released on Dec. 30, 2014, so I counted it as a 2015 release. I like "The Nipple Song."

The Coneheads make me proud to be from Indiana. Their version of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" really smokes. They're like Devo if Devo had been more into hardcore than New Wave and were fronted by one of the Coneheads from the SNL skit. 

19. Part Time – Virgo's Maze

Odds-and-ends double album from Part Time on Burger Records. Contains one of my favorite songs of the year: "Honey Lips." 

20. Giorgio Moroder – Déjà Vu

The first new album in years from the Italian bubblegum-turned-disco maestro. The poor reviews that this album received are inexplicable. The only really questionable move on the album is Britney Spears' unnecessary remake of "Tom's Diner." I was happy to see Spears on the album, but I wish she had been given a different song. The title track features Sia and went to #1 on Billboard's US dance chart. "La Disco" is cool, as is "Wildstar" (featuring Foxes). 

Honorable Mentions

Justin Bieber's Purpose is surprisingly similar, in my mind, to a Heavenly Beat album. His singing is great but he needs to lose the lame raps. I liked the Legends' It's Love, which is airy and slick, like latter-day Acid House Kings. South Korea's Say Sue Me (We've Sobered Up) is worth watching. La Futur Pompiste awesomely recreated Stereolab's sound on their self-titled album. Summer Heart's Thinkin of U EP is as good as their debut, which was great. I could go on and on with runner-ups, but that's enough for now.