Tag Archives: Billy Rose

ARTIFICE TRANSFORMED: CLIFF EDWARDS and DICK McDONOUGH, 1933

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to find in tangible shape what I could hear in my mind’s ear — a complete recording of what was a new song in 1933 — lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and perhaps Billy Rose, music by Harold Arlen — IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, sung and played by Cliff Edwards with accompaniment by Dick McDonough, guitar. Yes, it’s on YouTube, but because reissues removed the verse, those video postings are unsatisfying.


Since the Forties, the song has been performed without the verse, as above, and in the most famous recordings by Sinatra / Nat Cole / Ella / Goodman, at a swinging medium-up tempo, which to me undermines its sweet flavor.  The version I present here is a tender love ballad, hopeful rather than swaggering.

The Wikipedia entry notes, “It was written originally for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island. It was subsequently used in the movie Take a Chance in 1933.”  Wikipedia doesn’t add that there seem to have been two films released that year with that title; the other one with James Dunn and Buddy Rogers, the one song in the film by Vincent Youmans.  In his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder notes that in its first incarnation it was called IF YOU BELIEVE IN ME, a much less lively title than the one we know.

The composer credits intrigue me: Arlen’s melody, of course, souunds so simple but that simplicity has made it memorable (thus the appeal of the song to instrumentalists).  He didn’t write dull songs.

As to the lyrics, I wonder what, if anything, Billy Rose contributed to the song. Did he say to a stagehand, “Don’t drop that!  Yeah, it’s only a paper moon, but it costs more than your salary!”  Or is it a quiet reference to the wonderful prop in photo studios of the preceding century, where couples could snuggle in the crescent curve, pretending to be miles aloft because of love?

Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a marvel, bridging contemporary and eternal in the most moving yet casual way.  Leave aside “bubble” and “rainbow,” which were cliches even then, but savor “a temporary parking place,” “a canvas sky,” — and the entire bridge, which is beautiful, affecting and sharp, ” “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade.  Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” Urban folk poetry at the highest level.  (Wilder calls the lyrics “innocent,” which is puzzling, but he admires Arlen’s bridge . . . .)  In Harburg, I hear his sense of a whole world no more grounded than a series of stage props, created to fool an audience but clearly unreal.  His words are Manhattan-tough but the toughness is there only to convey great wistful feeling.  You’d have to live in the city to understand the resonance of a temporary parking place; not only might it disappear, but you might be punished by the authorities.

A few sentences about Cliff Edwards, who seems a sculpture with so many surprising facets that when he is looked at from different angles, he is unrecognizable each time.

There’s Jiminy Cricket. There’s the goofily appealing Twenties vocalist, ukulele player, and scat singer — “eefin'” his way through one “novelty” chorus after another, often on dim-sounding Pathe 78s.  (I suspect that if Edwards had come to prominence ten years later and had had no ukulele, he would be much better known and regarded today.)  A comic film actor. There are the party records: I LOVE MOUNTAIN WOMEN comes to mind, and, yes, you can imagine the lyrics.  Later, there’s the unstable older man capering around with the Mouseketeers, and what we know of as the terrible husband and self-destructive alcoholic who dies in poverty.

But what I’ve consciously left off of that ungenerous list is Edwards the truly convincing ballad singer, someone whose wistful voice and sweet delivery stays in my ear.  He never got the attention or opportunities to woo audiences, perhaps because he had natural comic talents, but more, I think, because he wasn’t perceived as sufficiently handsome.  He could not rival Bing or Russ in erotic power, so in films and on records he was rather a light-hearted comic foil instead of the leading man.  Alas, audiences in the  Twenties and Thirties — as they do today — tend to listen to singers with their eyes rather than their ears.  I suppose that becoming Jiminy Cricket was a great thing for Edwards’ career, but being invisible and an animated insect did not help him as a romantic singing star.

But back to IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON.

Thanks to the generosity of Laurie Kanner and Jonathan Alexiuk, I can offer both takes, complete, to be accessed at https://archive.org/details/CliffEdwardsCollection1927-1933/ItsOnlyAPaperMoon1933CliffEdwards-Take1.mp3 — a collection of mp3’s of his complete 1927-1935 recordings.

I’ve left the whole ungainly web address visible so that if the link doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to go to the archive.org site for Edwards and hear IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON and more.

I think this performance is a model of the most endearing singing — he means every word, and it’s not by rote. It’s also the gentle tempo that I hear PAPER MOON at.  I haven’t analyzed these records nuance by nuance because they work their way into the heart instantly.  Or, if they don’t for you, listen intently, without distractions or preconceptions, from the rubato verse to the hip little ending.

In preparing this post, I shared these two sides with the fine guitarist and scholar Nick Rossi, a solid sender from San Francisco, who admires Dick McDonough as I do, and he wrote, “What a masterclass it is in sensitive guitar accompaniment to a vocal.”  And — we might add — in McDonough’s staying out of the way yet never upstaging Cliff’s ukulele.

But I keep coming back to the affectionate hopeful totality of Edwards, Arlen, Harburg, and even Billy Rose, who in these recordings say — no, sing — to us, “Love miraculously transfigures artifice,” which is a wondrous thought.  Cherish its power to create new realities.

May your happiness increase!

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A MENU WITH ONLY THREE ITEMS

If I end up in a restaurant with a six-page menu, I can be sure that I will stare helplessly, dither, and then order something that I will regret three ways: instantly, while I am eating it, and while I am paying for it.  Alas.  Too much choice induces a kind of paralysis in me.

COFFEE SANDWICH

So that’s one reason this bouncy Twenties romance-song (mixing love and food, always a pleasing idea) has always appealed to me.  I like all three items on this musical menu!

Did someone think of modernizing Omar Khayyam’s jug and loaf — because of Prohibition or modesty?

Of course I wonder about the depth of Billy Rose’s contribution to the lyrics and would credit to the always-clever Al Dubin, who — as his daughter’s reminiscences of him describe — was so devoted to food that it shortened his life.

I am amused by the sheet music cover, where He has the coffee (one cup only) and She sits demurely, hands folded, in front of what looks like one-half of the most chaste sandwich imaginable.  (Finally, my proofreading self yearns to put a comma after SANDWICH, but one cannot edit the untidy universe. On the Roger Wolfe Kahn label below, there isn’t a serial comma in the Spanish title, either.)

Here’s a rather sedate version by Jack Buchanan and Gertrude Lawrence which is intriguing — although not jazz-tinged at all — because it has both Boy and Girl choruses and the verse:

Now, something more heated: the Roger Wolfe Kahn version from December 1925 — with beautiful playing throughout: the trumpets on the verse, the reed section on the first and last sixteen (with a sweet interlude on the bridge). And, yes, that’s Venuti swinging out, followed by the pride of Roosevelt, Long Island, Miff Mole — noble support from Schutt and Berton as well.  New York’s finest.

Tommy Gott, Leo McConville, trumpet; Chuck Campbell, Miff Mole, trombone; Arnold Brilhart, Owen A. Bartlett, Harold Sturr, reeds; Arthur Schutt, piano; Domenic Romeo, banjo / guitar; Arthur Campbell, tuba;  Joe Venuti, Joe Raymond, violin; Vic Berton, drums; Roger Wolfe Kahn, leader.

If you couldn’t dance to that record, something was wrong.

Something quite different, possibly from the mid-Fifties, a recording that mixes big-band conventions and hipster cool, making me wonder what was in the coffee Matt Dennis was offering the fair maiden, what flavoring:

Incidentally, attentive viewers will see that the executives at RCA Victor (I assume) thought it clever wordplay to call this record WELCOME MATT and have the star apparently arriving with one under his arm.  No one thought, “Hmmm.  You stand on the WELCOME mat, you wipe your shoes on it. Does this work for all of you?”

And this delicious oddity on the Starck label, in 1926, when the song was new, a performance by the seriously energetic pianist Vera Guilaroff and singer Herbert S. Berliner — son of Emile Berliner, who invented the flat disc record.  I love the dissonance between her rollicking playing and his stiff “singing”:

Now, some of you might be getting impatient.  “Where’s the Hot Jazz, Michael?”  Calm yourselves.  All things come to he, she, it, who wait.

YouTube is like eBay.  I cannot predict what I am going to find there at any moment, but it teems with surprises.  I went looking for versions of COFFEE yesterday morning to play for a friend who had never heard it, and I nearly leaped out of my chair when I saw that someone had posted Jeff Healey’s 2001 version from AMONG FRIENDS, one of my favorite recordings.  Ever.  Healey (much-missed) is on vocal and guitar, and then there’s the Anglo-American Alliance contingent, Dick Sudhalter, trumpet; John R.T. Davies, alto saxophone; Jim Shepherd, trombone . . . and Reide Kaiser, piano; Colin Bray, string bass.  From the opening wink at YOU’RE THE CREAM IN MY COFFEE, this record soars:

And when you’ve listened to it once, go back and savor all the other pleasures and in-jokes.  What a fine singer Healey was.  Sudhalter’s ANYTHING GOES. Healey’s Fats-like asides about hot coffee and smooth butter.  Shepherd’s individual approach and fine sound.  Ristic’s HUCKLEBUCK.  Sudhalter and Shepherd humming behind the bridge.  Bray’s slap-bass; Kaiser’s relentless stride push.  Healey’s guitar solo — Django meets Lang — and then the riotous ensemble, bass break, and out.  I wish this band had made a hundred recordings. I never tire of this, a delicious, satisfying Fats Waller ebullience without imitation.

I saw Healey only once in person — at a 2006 benefit for an ailing Sudhalter, and Jeff was gone in 2008.  But with music like COFFEE, I can’t think of him as dead, merely taking a set break.

I hope that wherever you are, the menu offerings please.

May your happiness increase!

KILGORE SWINGS EMERSON

In SELF-RELIANCE, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home.” BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, written by Dave Dreyer, Billy Rose, and Al Jolson in 1928 (I would give almost all of the credit to Mr. Dreyer) makes the same claim in a different way. It proposes that home is so lovely that it makes travel unnecessary, and that those who roam find their greatest happiness when they return — nostalgia more than transcendentalism, perhaps, but the effect is the same.

Rebecca Kilgore doesn’t present herself as a philosopher, although she does hail from Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, but she makes this philosophical statement exultant in its hopefulness and its swing.

This performance was recorded at the 26th San Diego Jazz Party, on February 22, 2014.  The other philosophers on the stand are Chuck Redd, drums; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Eddie Erickson, guitar; Johnny Varro, piano; Bria Skonberg, trumpet; Antti Sarpila, clarinet.

Home is where such music is.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGING AT LE COLONIAL with ROB REICH, KALLY PRICE, DANNY BROWN, CLINT BAKER, ERIC GARLAND (August 2, 2012)

Le Colonial, hidden away on Cosmo Street in San Francisco, is known for its ambiance, drinks, cuisine . . . and intriguing music.  Last Thursday night I made my way there to hear a small group led by the inventive pianist / accordionist Rob Reich — with the soulful Kally Price on vocals — with reedman Danny Brown, drummer Eric Garland, and the reliably swinging Clint Baker on string bass.

Readers of JAZZ LIVES will know how much I admire the independent spirits Kally, Rob, and Clint — individualists each paddling their way upstream and sharing the surprises with us.  Rob continued to approach his keyboards from unexpected angles, the results energetic and full of feeling.  I distrust the accordion, having had a childhood involvement with that cumbersome instrument, but Rob has clearly left both left-hand chugging and melodrama behind him (in the case, no doubt).  And his piano work sounds like something heard in the right small club in 1946.

Clint swings the band no matter what he’s doing there — leading it on trumpet, supporting it on bass, tuba, drums, guitar, banjo . . . singing . . . and so on.  And what an eloquent soloist he is!

Kally Price is dramatic without artifice, searching for meaning, unwilling to sing any song if one phrase feels false to her, going beneath the comfortable surfaces of the familiar popular twists and turns to extract deep feeling. Hear what she does, for instance, with the verse of BORN TO LOVE or the whole of IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN.

Danny Brown and Eric Garland were new to me, but they provided musical conversion experiences.  As the evening progressed, Danny moved from a lazy late-Lester approach to a more assertive stance, suggesting that Jacquet and Dexter had returned to their California haunts.  He didn’t walk the bar or carry on, but his rough, dark energies were irresistible.  And Eric, playing wire brushes for most of the evening, just swung in his own way — not loud or overbearing, but reliably forceful with a beautiful steadiness in his time.

Here are some highlights.

STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY — not too fast but certainly compelling from the first beat:

A Latin-flavored COCKTAILS FOR TWO with just a hint of ironic amusement — a Jazz Mojito with a twenty-first century twist:

Kally’s version of BORN TO LOVE, inspired by Billie Holiday but darker, more passionately raw:

RUSSIAN LULLABY, which made no one sleepy:

GETTING SOME FUN OUT OF LIFE, again thanks to Billie but taken quite seriously:

I associated THE DUMMY SONG with a 1953 performance by Louis, but I hadn’t known that the song dated back to 1925 — by Lew Brown, Billy Rose, and Ray Henderson.  The story is told in the verses: Johnny, a returning soldier, surely from the Great War, finds his sweetheart is unfaithful to him — first with a sergeant, than a colonel — so he sings this vindictive song:

A SMOOTH ONE, homage to Charlie Christian and tenor saxophonists who glide without forgetting how to be a little rough:

An utterly impassioned reading of IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN that dwells much more on the rejection, the slight, than it blithely suggests that the romance can be saved:

May your happiness increase.