ASKING THE MUSICAL QUESTION: “BABY, ARE YOU SATISFIED?”

Some questions are too deep for simple answers. And for me, the complete absence of punctuation only adds to the plaintive nature of the inquiry.  Commas and question marks are for those easily distracted from the emotional depths.  This inquiry was recorded on June 27, 1933.

Here is another sound source to muse on.

This recording is a remarkable oddity — left out of the most current expansive online jazz discography.  It was recorded in three takes, the last one being the master, and it was the only side issued, everything else being rejected — they attempted SMOKE RINGS, ANGELINE, THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN with different vocalists including “Detroit Red,” Heywood and Eddie Jackson, unheard washboard by Sammy Page.  At a later session, December 21, 1933, a similar band attempted BABY, ARE YOU SATISFIED? (the discography by Brian Rust adds the comma and question mark) and RED, WHITE, AND BLUES.  I know that Columbia Records (or the American Record Corporation) was nearly bankrupt, which may account for the typographical errors: the first session was, I believe, credited to “DICKEY WELLS’ SHIM SHAMMERS,” and the second to “DICKIE WELLS and KENNY’S KELLOWATTS.”

Dicky Wells (or Dickie Wells) was not the extravagantly creative trombonist, but a dancer who ran the Shim Sham Club in New York’s Harlem, where this group appeared. Pianist Kenny Watts led Kenny Watts and his Kilowatts; drummer Eddie Dougherty is not well-known but is marvelous (catch his work with Bennie Morton, James P. Johnson, and Mildred Bailey).  My late dear friend Mike Burgevin asked bassist Johnny Williams about Eddie and was told that he pronounced his name “Dockerty.”

The personnel provided to us by collector-scholar Steve Abrams (his YouTube channel, a cornucopia of marvels, is SMARBA100) is this: Heywood Jackson, Eddie Johnson, Milton Lane, kazoo; Fred Voorhees, guitar; Watts; Dougherty; Carroll Waldron, string bass.  What they do with the simplest melodic and lyric material is fascinating.

To me, it is a study in timbres: the textures of the singer, who may or may not be the avian whistler, the riffing kazoos, the guitarist’s tone (contrapuntally or in solo), the plunk of the string bass, and the quiet drumming.

The three kazoo virtuosi, who create an odd melancholy haunting reverie that makes me think of 1933 Ellington — the trombones? — and looks forward to Basie.  And the record ends with an engineer’s fade-out, not usual for 1933.  Yes, it runs parallel to the Mills Brothers, the Spirits of Rhythm, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, Red McKenzie’s groups, perhaps the Tramp Band and other skiffle combinations . . . but its very elusiveness makes it memorable.  If we had twenty-four sides, perhaps the magic would grow predictable, but this one three-minute tone poem is precious.  And strange, which increases the magic.  Thanks to Steve Abrams for bringing this one back into our consciousness.

However, an online search for any information turned up this excerpt from dancer Howard “Stretch” Johnson’s unpublished memoir, in a book I immediately bought:

One of the most popular after-hours clubs was Dickey Wells’s Shim Sham Club, which also catered to white customers.  Today, in keeping with the parlance of the recording industry, the Shim-Sham would be called a crossover club.  The Shim-Sham or Shimmy was a dance invented by homosexuals from the chorus line of the 101 Ranch [which Johnson identifies as having a “bizarre transvestite and homosexual chorus line” in the preceding paragraph].  “Shim” was a contraction of the term she-him, and the “sham” was a word serving the dual purpose of denoting the female role as played by males, as well as the shambling nature of the steps, particularly the first eight bars.  The Shimmy combined a hip and shoulder wiggle that was part of the opening movements.  

Dickey Wells was a former Cotton Club dancer who later became a pimp and an entrepreneur.  He ran his club as economically as possible, employing a “jug” band called the Shim Shammers or Kenny Watts and his Kilowatts, instead of regular musicians.  Watts played the piano, Eddie Dougherty drums, Fletch Jahon, Eddie “Hawk” Johnson, Heywood Jackson, and Milton Lane played kazoos [another source mentions that the band had one or several baritone kazoos],  with Carol Walrond, the brother of Harlem Renaissance poet and author Eric Walrond, on bass.  The sound they created was somewhere between Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers and Duke Ellington, if you can imagine that.  Fletch and Sammy Page did vocals and whistled, and the group was fronted by an extraordinary “hoofer” whose percussive rhythms afforded an unusually inspirational jazz motif.  His name was Baby Lawrence, a master of  technique, rhythmic flow, and continuous improvisation.  Later, during the bebop phase, he was recognized as the preeminent jazz hoofer.  [Source:  Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It, edited by Herb Boyd.]

That is intensely revealing; it conjures up a scene, and it suggests to me that there is much more to the apparently simple question of the title than we might have naively assumed.  Satisfaction is nothing to take lightly.

May your happiness increase!

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