If you were in school before Google, you know what reference books look like. Dark cloth bindings fraying at top and bottom, thin yellowed pages, tiny type, a dusty smell, heavy in the hand. Useful to find an errant fact but not in the least entertaining.
Mark Cantor’s two-volume book —
THE SOUNDIES: A HISTORY AND CATALOG OF JUKEBOX FILM SHORTS OF THE 1940s (forewords by Leonard Maltin and Will Friedwald) published by McFarland, is a vibrant contradiction of the stereotype. It’s full of lively information, photographs, and vibrant stories. And its cover is a bright orange.
Here’s an eleven-minute film interlude: a tour through Soundies themselves, with Mark as guide:
The publisher writes:
The 1940s saw a brief audacious experiment in mass entertainment: a jukebox with a screen. Patrons could insert a dime, then listen to and watch such popular entertainers as Nat “King” Cole, Gene Krupa, Cab Calloway or Les Paul. A number of companies offered these tuneful delights, but the most successful was the Mills Novelty Company and its three-minute musical shorts called Soundies.
This book is a complete filmography of over 2,500 Soundies: the musicians heard and seen on screen, recording and filming dates, arrangers, soloists, dancers, entertainment trade reviews and more. Additional filmographies cover more than 80 subjects produced by other companies. There are 125 photos taken on film sets, along with advertising images and production documents. More than 75 interviews narrate the firsthand experiences and recollections of Soundies directors and participants. Forty years before MTV, the Soundies were there for those who loved the popular music of the 1940s. This was truly “music for the eyes.”
I first encountered the Soundies through the famous ones by Duke Ellington (with Ben Webster, Ray Nance, Rex Stewart, and Sonny Greer) and Louis Armstrong (with precious glimpses of Sidney Catlett driving the orchestra) — then I found Mark Cantor’s invaluable website, https://www.jazz-on-film.com/. (He also calls it “Celluloid Improvisations.”)
Now, I can hear some of you saying, “I like jazz, and I like to see my heroes on film. I can see these Soundies on YouTube. Whatever do I need this book, these books, for?”
It’s true that the bulk of the book is, as its title states, a catalog of these film shorts. But what a deeply researched catalog! To explain the book’s many virtues, let us imagine someone seeing this Soundie for the first time:
Certain things are obvious: the title, director, and producer. Ellington announces Ben Webster, and it’s clear the band and he are playing COTTON TAIL. But who are the dancers? And when was this filmed?
THE SOUNDIES has the answers and more. On page 226 of the first volume, even a casual reader would learn that the Soundie was released on February 2, 1942, that the legendary dancers are Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, featuring Frankie Manning and Norma Miller. Cantor’s book also includes contemporary press reviews and the one-word description on the Soundies production sheet, in this case, “Colored.”
Then the book can reveal more, even to someone paging through casually.
The very first Soundie, thus the first entry in the listing, is SWEET SUE by Six Hits and A Miss, accompanied by the Lorraine Page Orchestra but the music is provided by composer Victor Young’s Orchestra and he is briefly seen on screen. In addition, the orchestra includes Andy Secrest, trumpet; Arthur Schutt, piano; Bill Rank, trombone; Spike Jones, drums.
Not all the performers listed for every Soundie are audible; Mark has dug out information from union contracts and recollections of the musicians. In one case, Dave Tough is playing drums in 1946 Soundies by Gracie Barrie, accompanied by Jerry Jerome’s Orchestra, but he’s not recognizable.
THE SOUNDIES will add information to what we know about Eddie South and Henry “Red” Allen, but the shorts were not restricted to jazz, which makes the volumes even more valuable as a cross-section of musical taste from 1940 to 1947. But for every solo by Don Stovall, there is comedy, vaudeville, war propaganda in song, mild double-entendre, calypso, and more. (A student of popular culture of the time could dive into this book and never come up for air.)
And more. The book begins with a history of the companies that made these films, the machinery that played them, and — in the process — offers priceless information about singers, dancers, and night spots. “Jaw-dropping” is not a usual phrase in my vocabulary, but it describes my reaction to page 84, where Mark has included a small advertising card from Small’s Paradise — the band then appearing was Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra. New to me, and thrilling.
And even more. One of the most delightful sections of the book is a thirty-plus-page compendium of interviews of people connected with the Soundies. Not surprisingly, the stories spring off the page. Some of the people Mark has spoken with are Van Alexander, Tony Mottola, Les Paul, Ray Anthony, David Raskin, Abe Most, Jane Harvey, Hugh Martin, Joe Wilder, Mary Osborne, Martha Tilton, Kay Starr, Liza Morrow, Tiny Grimes, Pete Candoli, and more.
Saxophonist Jay Migliori tells of making Soundies with the Gene Krupa band when Roy Eldridge was a member and the director saying that Roy could not be seen in the trumpet section. Gene’s reaction? “Pack up, boys,” and Roy stayed.
Mark himself tells the story of watching a Lucky Millinder Soundie — with a trombonist he couldn’t identify — with trombonist Benny Powell and reedman Joe Farrell:
They both watched attentively and seemed stumped. But then Joe asked Benny, “Could that be Trombonesky?” Yes, said Benny, it was a legendary Harlem trombone player everyone listened to, but who mysteriously vanished without a trace. I dutifully took notes and always told audiences about this amazing, unknown musician. “Ladies and gentlemen, please note that this is the only film, or recorded evidence, of the legendary Trombonesky, a Harlem musician briefly on the scene, influencing others, then disappearing in 1941 and not heard from since.“
It was years later that I realized I had been conned by these two wonderful gentlemen , who didn’t recognize the soloist as Floyd Brady and decided to put me on. Hats off to their superb improvisation and acting skills. Trombonesky, R.I.P.
And an expurgated comment from the exuberantly profane Henry Nemo:
“Kay Penton [who appears with Nemo in the Soundie Hip Hip Hooray (entry 907)] was really hot. She was what we used to call a real dish, had a great pair of tits. I wanted to get something going with her, but she didn’t have eyes for me.”
“Shit, man, I can’t recall hardly anything from back then. It was just something to make a little money. You don’t really carry that type of thing with you through the years. Let’s see another movie!”
Anything done carefully and with passion is in itself indelibly intriguing. For forty years, Mark Cantor has been doing the hard work that makes this book remarkable. And although his website already has space for additions and corrections, no other book will replace this one. And it’s fascinating, whether the reader starts dutifully at the begining or dips in here and there.
By the way, my title — approved by Mark — refers to a reviewer’s praise for the substantial singer, June Richmond, in a Soundie. But it surely applies to these volumes: enlightening, full of surprises, and great fun.
May your happiness increase!
P.S. As I write this, May 23, 2023, I am still exiled from Facebook because of a hacking two weeks prior. If you are on FB and know someone else who would like to read this, please pass it on. Thank you.