Sunday, June 30, 2019

1953's "tot tempest": The brief craze for child singers

Child singers were all the rage in 1953. So many new records that year featured adorable kiddies warbling their way through novelty songs that Billboard named the craze the "tot tempest."

It all started at Christmas 1952 when 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" became a major novelty hit.

Unlike some of the kids who would soon contribute to the tot tempest, Boyd was a legitimately talented child performer. He was born in Mississippi but grew up in California, where he began singing and playing guitar on local television shows from an early age. From there he moved to national television programs and then to Columbia Records. He recorded a few singles for Columbia in 1952, all of which were kiddie fare and some of which were released on Columbia's children's series. None was very successful until Boyd released his final single of 1952, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

This song is still widely known today, and most people probably consider it to be an innocuous bit of Christmas fluff, but in its day, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was controversial. Kid-oriented Christmas novelty songs weren't new ("My Two Front Teeth (All I Want for Christmas)" had been a #1 hit for Spike Jones and His City Slickers in 1948, with Georgie Rock on childlike lead vocals), but some people believed that Boyd's record inappropriately mixed a sacred holiday with sexy kissing, and the song was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Nevertheless—and much to everyone's surprise—the song became a smash hit, eventually reaching #1 on the Billboard and Cash Box charts. Boyd's record was covered by Spike Jones and His City Slickers for RCA Victor, again with Georgie Rock on lead vocals doing his kid voice, and also by teenaged performer Molly Bee for Capitol Records.

Boyd had three more hits in the next several months, all of which were duets that paired him with well-known adult singers. He sang with Frankie Laine on "Tell Me a Story" and "The Little Boy and the Old Man" and with Rosemary Clooney on "Dennis the Menace."

Ever at the ready to cash-in on a possible trend, record labels and ambitious parents alike conscripted tykes into the music biz, seemingly without regard for minor details such as whether or not the kids had any particular musical ability.

The flood of records by child performers in 1953 was unique in that the songs themselves were often juvenile, thematically speaking, but were marketed to the mainstream pop audience rather than just to children. Billboard noted that the records that appeared after Boyd's breakthrough hit "appear to have created an entirely new area of sales activity. These records can not be considered average kiddie items nor average pop items." (Marketing juvenile thematic content to a broad audience would become even more common in the early years of the rock 'n' roll era.) 

Easter 1953 provided the next obvious opportunity for new holiday-themed novelty records. Boyd, leading the charge, delivered several: "Jimmy Roll Me Gentle (On Easter Day)," "Little Bonnie Bunny," "My Bunny and My Sister Sue," and "Two Easter Sunday Sweethearts."

Eight-year-old Baby Pamela Rich, AKA Baby Pam, recorded "Easter Bunny Song" (b/w "Goody Goody Gumdrop") for Mercury Records. "Easter Bunny Song" has been played on the Dr. Demento Show several times over the years.

Ten-year-old Gayla Peevey cut "Wish I Wuz a Whisker (On the Easter Bunny's Chin)" b/w "Three Little Bunnies."

In the summer of 1953, Brucie Weil, the recent topic of a Music Weird article, made some noise with "God Bless Us All," a semi-religious novelty record that provoked a cover-version pile-on by everyone you'd expect: Spike Jones (again with Georgie Rock on lead), Jimmy Boyd, Baby Pam, and Molly Bee.

Billboard's review of Baby Pam's version of "God Bless Us All" said it was "about as effective as those [kids that are heard on] other versions." The reviewer described the B-side, "I Wanna Go to School," as "strictly for the kids." Mercury intended to release "I Wanna Go to School" separately as catalog number BR-25 on its children's label, Blue Ribbon, but that release was canceled.

Molly Bee
Capitol Records' Molly Bee, who was 13-14 years old and had enjoyed moderate success with her cover of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" the previous year, recorded less juvenile fare than her peers in 1953. Unlike some of the flash-in-the-pan tots mentioned here, she had a more mature-sounding voice and went on to enjoy a decades-long career in country music. Some of her singles in 1953 included a rendition of Hank Williams' "Nobody's Lonesome for Me" and a duet with Tennessee Ernie Ford on "Don't Start Courtin' in a Hot Rod."

Abbot Records got into the act in 1953 with 15-year-old singer Billie Jo Moore, who recorded Mel Blanc's "I Dess I Dotta Doe" b/w "Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys." In adulthood, Moore would go onto great success as Billie Jo Spears, scoring a #1 country hit with the grown-up song "Blanket on the Ground."

The tot tempest wasn't confined to pop and country acts. Jubilee Records, a label that specialized in R&B, released a single by 12-year-old Andrew Wideman, "Mama's Little Boy Got the Blues" b/w "I'm Not a Child Anymore." He reportedly was signed to a long-term contract with Jubilee, but "Mama's Little Boy" was his only single.

Coral Records debuted a number of child performers in 1953. The label's Jill Whitney covered Bonnie Lou's "Tennessee Wig Walk" in addition to cutting a Christmas novelty, "Little Johnny Jingle Bells." Six-year-old Little Barbara recorded a Hank Williams-themed weeper, "(I Would Like to Have Been) Hank's Little Flower Girl," which Billboard described as "another dirge occasioned by the death of Hank Williams." Jeanie Dell, billed as "8 Year Old Jeanie Dell," waxed "Dixie Danny" b/w "Who in the World Are You? (Hippity-Hoppity Song)." In December of 1953, Coral released a non-holiday novelty by kid performer Ricky Vera, "Dragnet Goes to Kindergarten," which was a recitation in the style of Stan Freberg's 1953 Dragnet parodies "St. George and the Dragonet" and "Little Blue Riding Hood." Dell and Vera appear to have recorded only one record each in their short careers.

When Christmastime rolled around, Columbia tried to repeat the Boyd formula with Gayla Peevey by having her cut "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" for Christmas 1953, but it wasn't nearly as successful. Over 60 years later, though, the song found a new audience when the United States Post Office used it in an advertising campaign.

MGM Records' nine-year-old Little Rita Faye, who had bowed in early 1953 with "I'm a Problem Child," released the Christmas novelty "I Fell Out of a Christmas Tree."

RCA Victor had its new child country star Sunshine Ruby record a double-sided holiday single for Christmas 1953: "I Wanna Do Something for Santa Claus" b/w "Too Fat for the Chimney." Sunshine Ruby had debuted earlier in 1953 with "Too Young to Tango," which had been a good seller.
Sunshine Ruby

Record buyers must have finally grown weary of the tot tempest, because many of these performers soon stopped recording altogether or were dropped by their labels after their subsequent singles met with no success. Several new recordings of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" appeared around Christmas 1953, but all were by adult performers such as Perry Como, Teresa Brewer, and Guy Lombardo.

That wasn't the end of the child singer, of course. Brenda Lee, Frankie Lymon, Little Stevie Wonder, Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson, LeAnn Rimes, and many more were yet to come. But perhaps no other period in music ever saw as many record labels try to develop as many child performers in such a short period of time as occurred during the tot tempest of 1953.

Andrew Wideman signs a contract with Jubilee Records

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Brucie Weil – "God Bless Us All" (1953)

WNEW disk jockey Martin Block called it 1953's "biggest turkey of the year," but many people still fondly remember this unusual record today. It is "God Bless Us All," a semi-religious novelty song by six-year-old Brucie Weil that sparked a media frenzy and led to a brief recording and acting career for the young performer.

A star is born

Brucie's parents listen to him sing
It seems pretty clear, judging from a 1953 profile in LIFE Magazine, that Brucie's parents orchestrated his recording career as a money-making enterprise after seeing other child performers succeed with novelty songs like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

Wanting to exploit their own child's talent, Brucie's parents contacted the songwriters Tom Murray and Tony Burrello (Anthony Tamburello), who came up with the song "God Bless Us All." These were the guys who started the Horrible Records label to release bizarre novelties like the 1953 tune "There's a New Sound," (listen here), a record worthy of David Seville.

The parents then hired a press agent, a tax advisor, and a lawyer, and labels allegedly scrambled to sign the suddenly up-and-coming Brucie to a recording contract. 

But when "God Bless Us All" was released, it appeared on the independent Barbour Records label, with some copies pressed on red vinyl. This single seems to be the label's only release, although Billboard reported in 1953 that a Barbour Records signed singer Dick Duane to a recording contract and, in 1954, signed Al Bernie to release a "Sparky the Spaceman" single. Whether or not it was the same Barbour Records, nothing appears to have come of either deal. In England, the single was released by London Records.

Music publishers vied to acquire the publishing rights to "God Bless Us All," which was published by the independent Brewster Music. It was called "the bitterest scramble for a tune within the memory of many music publishers"—"virtually all publishers of standing were after the tune," Billboard reported. The negotiations resulted in Chappell & Company striking a deal with Brewster.

To promote "God Bless Us All," Brucie's parents sent the tyke out on the road, and within 10 days he had appeared on 10 disk jockey shows. The marketing blitz paid off, because the single registered at #18 on Billboard's national Disk Jockey chart for one week. The song was especially popular in St. Louis, Boston, and Detroit, Billboard noted, but sales were merely fair in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

Brucie was scheduled to perform "God Bless Us All" on Ed Sullivan's CBS-TV show Toast of the Town, but CBS canceled the appearance so that Jimmy Boyd, another child star who had a competing version of "God Bless Us All" on CBS's Columbia Records label, could perform the song on the show instead. Brucie's dad threatened to sue the network, so as a compromise, CBS invited both Boyd and Brucie to appear on the show to sing their respective renditions of the song. Elsewhere, child performer Gayle Peevey gave the first performance of "God Bless Us All" on NBC-TV for its Saturday Night Review program hosted by Hoagy Carmichael.

Inevitably, the song's publicity prompted other cover versions in addition to Boyd's. Fellow child singer Baby Pam (eight years old) recorded the song for Mercury Records, Molly Bee waxed it for Capitol Records, and Spike Jones cut a parodic version for RCA Victor in which vocalist George Rock sang in a silly childlike voice. Rumor had it that Dinah Shore was going to record a version with her daughter for RCA Victor.

I described this song in the first paragraph as a "semi-religious" novelty, because, although the song evokes a child's bedtime prayer and is performed straight-faced, it also pokes fun at children's naiveté as the child extends blessings to circus acrobats and "every spaceman on the TV set." Billboard described the tune at the time as "semi-sacred." Because of the song's novelty character, Spike Jones was able to lampoon it without being seen as tasteless and insensitive to religious sensibilities.

Why did Martin Block declare it the "biggest turkey of the year"?

Although "God Bless Us All" received a lot of hype in the trade publications and quickly attracted cover versions and a bit of publicity for Brucie, it wasn't a big seller. 

Its brief chart appearance was based on airplay, not sales, and even at that, the song wasn't picked up by radio programmers in many markets. Of all the cover versions, only Boyd's got any attention, and it didn't make much of a splash either.

Billboard wondered whether "the Weil disk [would] really happen..." and whether "any action" would "turn up on the song." It didn't. Despite the bidding war for publishing rights, the spate of cover versions, the fight over television performances, and the feverish media coverage, not one recording of "God Bless Us All" registered on a best-seller chart.

Brucie's subsequent career

On the strength of "God Bless Us All," RCA Victor Records signed Brucie to a recording contract in 1953, and he cut three records for them over the next year.

First was his recording of "Bimbo," a song that was widely recorded at the time, especially in the country and western field. Brucie's version wasn't a hit but ranked at #10 in Billboard's 1954 Disk Jockey Poll in the children's record category. He was beaten by Gene Autry, whose rendition of "Bimbo" was ranked at #9. Billboard's review of Brucie's version remarked that "the backing makes the record." (Brucie always recorded with well-known orchestras directed by Don Costa, Joe Reisman, Henri René, and Mitch Ayres.)

In 1954, Brucie was back with "Watch Over Daddy" b/w "When the Red, White and Blue Goes Marching By." This one had a stock release but didn't click with listeners.

His final single was released toward the end of 1954: "Be Kind to Your Parents" from the musical Fanny. Stock copies of this single do not appear to exist, only radio promos, and again, the single didn't attract much attention. Three strikes and you're out, so RCA Victor dropped him.

His recording career was finished, but that wasn't the last of Brucie. In 1955-56, he appeared in two episodes of the ABC-TV television series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin before, presumably, returning to the life of a regular kid.

Brucie Weil's Discography

"God Bless Them All" b/w "Little Boy Blues" (Barbour 451, 1953)

"Bimbo" b/w "Poppa Piccolino" (RCA Victor 47-5554, 1953)

"Watch Over Daddy" b/w "When the Red, White and Blue Goes Marching By" (RCA Victor 47-5657, 1954)

"Be Kind to Your Parents" b/w "The World That We Live In" (RCA Victor 47-5884, 1954)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Gerald Chapman: Two songs for a killer (1926)

Muncie journalists Keith Roysdon and Douglas Walker have written a couple of entertaining books about true crime in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana: Wicked Muncie and Muncie Murder & Mayhem. The first book contains a chapter about Gerald Chapman, the "Gentleman Bandit," a celebrity gangster who for a time was regarded as Public Enemy Number One and inspired two popular songs, one of which was recorded within weeks of his execution.

The crimes

Chapman's 1921 robbery of a Manhattan mail truck took in about $2.5 million worth of loot, which at the time made it the biggest heist in US history. He escaped from prison twice, shot a policeman during a robbery in Connecticut, and hid out for a time on a farm in Eaton, Indiana.

Gerald Chapman
He was such a notorious criminal that two entire books have been devoted to him: The Count of Gramercy Park: The Story of Gerald Chapman, Gangster by Robert Hayden Alcorn and Gentleman Gerald: The Crimes and Times of Gerald Chapman by H. Paul Jeffers.

Chapman is mentioned in Wicked Muncie because he was finally captured in Muncie after local police were tipped off to his whereabouts. He was sent to Connecticut to stand trial for the murder of the policeman, James Skelly, and was quickly sentenced to death. On April 6, 1926, Chapman was executed by means of "a neck-breaking device known as the 'upright jerker'," Roysdon and Walker write.

The songs

In the months following his execution, two popular songs about Chapman appeared: "Story of Gerald Chapman," recorded by Carl Conner, and "Gerald Chapman, What a Pity," recorded by Arthur Fields. Both are what folklorists or musicologists sometimes refer to as event ballads, which are topical songs that capitalize on current news events. 

The songs are different from each other in that Conner's ballad is a fairly straightforward account of Chapman's crimes, capture, and execution, whereas Fields' song takes Chapman to task for his poor life choices and wonders what Chapman could have accomplished if he'd stayed on the straight and narrow. The lyrics and audio of both songs are provided below.

Carl Conner

Conner's song was recorded in Atlanta on April 23, 1926, less than three weeks after Chapman's execution, and was released by Columbia Records. It's a simple recording that features only voice and guitar. As far as I can tell, this single was Conner's only release, and not much is known about him. He struggles to squeeze in some of the metrically challenged lyrics.

"Story of Gerald Chapman"

Oh, come all you young people and listen while I tell
The fate of Gerald Chapman, who was hung in a prison cell
Just shortly after midnight, he was called to meet his God
And shortly after sunrise was laid beneath the sod

He was a desperate criminal from the cradle to the grave
He murdered a policeman—for it his life he gave
He spent long years in prison in Auburn and Sing Sing
He robbed the mail of over a million, got back in jail again

He was sent to Atlanta prison and tunneled out of that pen
Was shot three times and captured, escaped from the hospital again
He went up in Connecticut and, in New Britain town,
While attempting to rob a store there, he shot James Skelly down

He was captured in Indiana, was brought back to Connecticut state
The jury found him guilty, and hanging was his fate
He died with his secret in his heart and never told his name
Or where his money was hid till his last breath he was [unintelligible]

Before the pardon board in his own behalf he pled
He did not ask for mercy, only justice, he said
When told of the board's decision, he did not mourn or cry
But he only uttered, "I'm not afraid to die"

He entered the death cell and not a word he said
And then two minutes later, he was pronounced dead
Young people all take warning from Gerald Chapman's fate
And lead an honest life before it is too late

Arthur Fields

Arthur Fields' song about Chapman was recorded August 23, 1926, and issued by Boston's Grey Gull Records. Fields was a much better-known artist than Carl Connor, with an extensive discography and a career that spanned over 30 years. If he's remembered today, it's usually for having cowritten the song "Aba Daba Honeymoon," which became a Top 3 pop hit for Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter in 1950 after it was featured in the film Two Weeks with Love.

Fields' performance style on "Gerald Chapman, What a Pity" is odd. He approaches it almost as a recitation but with a sing-song cadence, and then belts out two of the lines for dramatic effect. If you listen to some of Fields' other records, like "Oh! Susanna" from 1925, you'll find that he typically sang in a more conventional manner. The instrumental arrangement of "Gerald Chapman, What a Pity" is also a bit unusual in that it prominently features the xylophone of George Hamilton Green, who was frequently heard on Grey Gull recordings.

"Gerald Chapman, What a Pity"

This is the tale of a misspent life
A life of folly and crime
Bent on plunder and murder and strife
And the improper use of his time

Gerald Chapman, the bandit king
A robber of Uncle Sam's mail
Why did you live in the underworld
And spend half of your life in jail?

You showed by your speech and your letters
That you could have done better things
Than killing a brave policemen
And leading those bandit rings

And then there was someone who loved you
Loved you as she did her life
Why didn't you walk on the level
And make this poor woman your wife?

If you had gone straight, her innocent babe 
Would bear a father's name
But let us all hope he won't grow up
And hear of his father's shame

While the going was good it was all honey
You lived in the best of style
You might have made just as much money
By living a life worthwhile

Was it worth the price? Those endless days
Watching the minutes roll by
Sitting alone back of prison bars
Awaiting the hour to die

You paid the price for taking a life
You might be alive today
If when you stood at the crossroads
You'd chosen the proper way

Gerald Chapman, what a pity
You wasted your life, to be sure
But maybe t'will serve as a lesson
A lesson we hope will endure