The inspiration for this blogpost is the fine guitarist and thoughtful modernist Nick Rossi — and our online discussion this afternoon is yet another refutation to the general scorn that nothing good comes out of Facebook. Nick had been exulting about the pleasure of playing rhythm guitar in a jam session on LADY BE GOOD — a jam that went on for twenty minutes, like the fabled communal joys we read about.
And I pointed him towards one of my favorite recordings of the song. Not Lester’s (in two takes) but something perhaps less famous — a recording (either from December 1933 or January 1934) by “Buck and Bubbles.”
Buck was the fine Hines / stride pianist who accompanied Louis on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND and Hawkins on other sides (so his jazz credentials are stellar); John W. “Bubbles” Sublett went on to play Sportin’ Life in PORGY AND BESS — and together they were an extraordinary team.
For me, this recording summons up a whole era of theatrical performance — where two men could swing as winsomely and effectively as any large group. You can certainly see them in your mind’s eye as the performance moves from swinging piano introduction to sweet / sad narrative over piano, then to a key change and a solo piano romp, then a hilarious dialogue (anticipating Fats or moving alongside him?) with Buck taking the lead — which seems to have cheered Bubbles up considerably. It’s a model of how to create a duet, to hand off lead and accompaniment, to “sell” a song without ever appearing to do so:
Bubbles’s slightly hoarse, worn voice, creates a half-amused, half-despairing plea (who could resist such a plaintive entreaty?) and if one cares, on a later listening, to concentrate solely on Buck’s piano, it’s quite remarkable.
And here’s a later British version (!) with clarinet and rhythm section — new to me and delightful:
Wouldn’t it be nice if Buck and Bubbles had appeared on film in their prime?
Your wish is our command. 1937 VARIETY SHOW, much more elaborate, but with good material:
And this improvisation on RHYTHM FOR SALE from 1944, introduced by a most august personage:
For a genial overview of Bubbles — as the “father of rhythm tap” as well as a singer alongside Buck, here’s Part One of a documentary that starts slowly but then presents the team alongside Dick Powell, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington:
The second part is primarily about Bubbles’s protege, Chuck Green, but contains some astounding footage — and it closes with audio of Buck and Bubbles performing ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET:
A small speculative footnote. For years, I have been teaching Toni Morrison’s mournful, vengeful THE BLUEST EYE, whose victimized center, Pecola, suffers completely because of her misguided desire (stimulated by members of her own community) to embody a white, blue-eyed standard of beauty. And when I teach it, I mention the sad spectacle of African-Americans deprived of handsome and beautiful and noble models of their own race on the screen. But watching the first video from VARIETY SHOW, I wonder if I should tell my students that there were some exceptions, a few African-Americans in the movies who weren’t comic stereotypes, who weren’t afraid of ghosts, and point them to beautifully dressed and casually commanding Buck and Bubbles.
But, for the moment, I would send readers and listeners back to the first version of OH, LADY BE GOOD — a little sweet monument of swing and theatre. No wonder George Gershwin wrote Bubbles a substantial part in PORGY AND BESS.
Postscript: if you can hear Nick Rossi play, you will be satisfied, gratified, and highly delighted.
May your happiness increase!