William “Red” McKenzie, born in 1899, had a career whose highs and lows might have made a good — and sad — film biography. Let us begin with a phenomenal hit record, the 1924 ARKANSAS BLUES — a smash for the novelty group, The Mound City Blue Blowers (McKenzie on comb and newspaper, Jack Bland on banjo, Dick Slevin on kazoo):
A word about his musical abilities, unique to him. McKenzie’s singing isn’t to everyone’s taste; he is earnest, declaratory, even tipping over into barroom sentimentality. But he could put over a hot number with style, and his straight-from-the shoulder delivery is both charming and a product of the late Twenties. As an instrumentalist — on the comb and newspaper, a homegrown kazoo with panache — he had no equal, and the remarkable thing about the records on which he appears is how strongly he stands his ground with Coleman Hawkins and Bunny Berigan, powerful figures in their own right. Both singing and playing, McKenzie reminds me greatly of Wild Bill Davison, someone who had “drama,” as Ruby Braff said.
In the late Twenties McKenzie was not only a musician but an activist for the music, bringing hot jazz players — Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmie Noone, the Spirits of Rhythm — to the attention of record companies and creating early record dates where Caucasians and African-Americans to record. Without McKenzie, Coleman Hawkins would have waited a number of years to be allowed into the recording studio to perform with mixed groups.
Here is McKenzie in 1929 — out in the open in the short film OPRY HOUSE as a delightfully unrestrained singer, with Bland, banjo; Josh Billings, whiskbrooms and suitcase:
His popularity grew — as s singer and someone whose face might sell sheet music of a new song:
McKenzie was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra — an orchestra, we should remember, that had launched the careers of Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey — with a pretty 1932 tune, THREE ON A MATCH (featured in the Warner Brothers film of the same name, starring Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis):
He continued to be someone whose presence could help sell new songs — this 1936 number, that most of us know through Billie Holiday’s recording:
At forty, McKenzie went into a temporary retirement — moving back to his hometown, St. Louis, to work at a brewery for four years. Apparently he was one of the great heavy drinkers of his time, and only the support of his great friend Eddie Condon kept him in the limelight in the Forties, where he appeared now and again at a Condon concert or a Blue Network broadcast. The latter, I think, accounts for McKenzie’s 1944 appearance on a V-Disc and a session for Commodore Records — where Milt Gabler also thought the world of him. Gabler produced record sessions simultaneously for Decca Records and the World Transcription System: here’s a 1944 version of DINAH with McKenzie, Max Kaminsky, Jack Teagarden, and Pee Wee Russell:
Here’s McKenzie as captured by William P. Gottlieb in an October 1946 photograph:
But little was heard from McKenzie for the last years of his life, except for one 1947 record date — shown in a newsprint advertisement for four sides on the National label. His obscurity is nodded at — another “comeback story” in the sad word REINTRODUCING:
By February 1948 McKenzie was dead — cirrhosis the official cause. I find IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER and HEARTACHES sad reminders of what had happened. I would hate to think that his life could be summarized as an equal devotion to hot music and hard liquor, the latter winning out over the former.
Had he been in better health, he could have been one of those apparently ancient but still vivacious stars who appeared on the ED SULLIVAN SHOW and the HOLLYWOOD PALACE alongside Crosby, Sophie Tucker, Durante, and Ted Lewis . . . but it was not to be.
May your happiness increase.