We have so much to thank Fats Waller for. He could be the subject of a thousand posts, and the joy he spreads won’t ever diminish. But, like Louis Armstrong, who he was and what he did were perceived immediately as marketable commodities. In the early Thirties, with the coin-operated automatic phonograph a new and exciting phenomenon, Waller’s popularity was immense. But he was under contract to Victor Records, so the other labels looked for their own “Fats” to compete for public attention.
Thus, piano-playing entertainers who could put over a song in a jocular way were valuable. Swinging pop songs of the day — songs often from films — was the thing. The very talented women Lil Hardin Armstrong and Cleo Brown recorded for Decca, as did Bob Howard. Willie the Lion Smith did his own recordings for that label. Tempo King, Stew Pletcher, Adrian Rollini, and Louis “King” Garcia recorded for Bluebird; Taft Jordan for Melotone, Stuff Smith for Vocalion. Henry “Red” Allen, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey existed in their own aesthetic worlds, but it’s clear they ran parallel to the Waller phenomenon, with a substantial bow to Louis.
Our subject for today, though, is Putney Dandridge, who made a series of recordings in 1935-36 for Brunswick Records. He is well-known to only a few, I believe, and so I am doing something atypical for JAZZ LIVES and reprinting the detailed Wikipedia entry — more detailed than the Blessed John Chilton’s paragraph:
Louis “Putney” Dandridge (January 13, 1902 – February 15, 1946) was an African American bandleader, jazz pianist and vocalist.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Dandridge began performing in 1918 as a pianist in the a revue entitled the Drake and Walker Show. In 1930, he worked for a time as accompanist for tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, including appearances in the important black musical Brown Buddies. In February 1931, Dandridge appeared in the cast of the musical revue Heatin’ Up Harlem, starring Adelaide Hall at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. After touring in Illinois and the Great Lakes region, Dandridge settled in Cleveland, Ohio, forming his own band, which included guitarist Lonnie Johnson. This period lasted until 1934, when he attempted to perform as a solo act. He took his show to New York City, beginning a series of long residences at the Hickory House on 52nd Street and other local clubs. From 1935 to 1936, he recorded numerous sides under his own name, many of which highlighted some major jazz talents of the period, including Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Henry “Red” Allen, Buster Bailey, John Kirby, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole and more. Appearing to vanish from the music scene in the late thirties, it is speculated that Dandridge may have been forced to retire due to ill health. Dandridge died in Wall Township, New Jersey at the age of 44.
Here he is, appearing as “the Stage Manager,” in the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN, starring Bill Robinson and James Baskette. Putney appears about ten minutes into the film, and you can see him speaking, chewing gum, scatting, at the piano:
Now, I am not making a case for Dandridge as Waller’s equal. He was a serviceable swing / cocktail pianist at best, and he plays on five of the first six sides of the series. But something spectacular can come from a liability, and the result of Putney’s piano playing — say that quickly if you dare — was that Teddy Wilson was called in for the remaining sessions. As a singer, he was an enthusiastic amateur with a wide uncontrolled vibrato, a limited range, and a scat-singing tendency that was, I think, anachronistic even for 1935. But in the great vaudeville tradition, he knew the songs, he put them over with verve, and even when his vocals are most difficult to listen to, one focuses on the gem-like accompaniment.
I have no record of John Hammond’s involving himself in these sessions. I believe the Brunswick supervisor for these dates was Harry Gray. Perhaps Wilson acted as contractor and went to the Rhythm Club the night before a date and said, “Are you free at noon tomorrow? It’s fifty dollars?” and selected the best musicians he could from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Willie Bryant, Chick Webb, Stuff Smith, Goodman, Ellington, Henderson, Calloway, Redman.
It intrigues me that often the splendid playing on these discs is done by musicians who were less in the public eye, thus giving us opportunities to hear people who played beautifully and were not given the opportunities that the stars were. The players include Roy Eldridge, Henry “Red” Allen, Doc Cheatham, Shirley Clay, Richard Clarke, Bobby Stark, Wallace Jones, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Johnny Russell, Tommy Mace, Teddy McRae, Charles Frazier, Joe Marsala, Carmen Mastren, Arnold Adams, Nappy Lamare, Clarence Holiday, Lawrence Lucie, Dave Barbour, John Trueheart, Eddie Condon, Allan Reuss, John Kirby, Grachan Moncur, Mack Walker, Wilson Myers, Ernest Hill, Artie Bernstein, Bill Beason, Walter Johnson, Cozy Cole, Slick Jones, Sidney Catlett. When Wilson was out of town with the Goodman orchestra, Clyde Hart, Ram Ramirez, or James Sherman took his place. I’d suggest that students of Thirties rhythmic practice have a two-semester intensive study seminar in front of them in these discs. Without fanfare, these were racially mixed sessions.
Here’s a sample — goofy, exuberant, and delightfully swinging. Don’t take your eyes off the screen, for the great jazz scholar Franz Hoffmann has inserted a (silent) clip of Putney performing in 1933 from the film SCANDAL, and he looks exactly as he sounds:
I wrote before that Dandridge is little-known, and that might be true, but his SKELETON IN THE CLOSET was part of the soundtrack for a video game, BIOSHOCK 2, so it pleases me to imagine some Youngblood listening to the complete Putney through his earbuds on his way to school. Stranger things have happened.
The Dandridge anthology I knew in the Seventies was three records on the Rarities label; there are two CDs on the Chronological Classics series, and (the best — sound by John R.T. Davies) is a two-CD set on the Timeless label, issued in 1995. YouTube — or “Orchard Enterprises” — has made all 44 sides available here. I don’t recommend listening to all of them in a row, because Putney’s vocal approach might pall — but they are priceless reminders of a time when great songs and great musicians were in the air in a way that would be unusual today. Here’s the YouTube collection. (Please, I can’t vouch for its correctness, and if it doesn’t play in your country I can’t fix it . . . but consider the price of admission).
Thanks to Marc Caparone, the great Inspirer.
May your happiness increase!