Every Monday night, Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera has been gathering the Hot Club of New York for a Zoom session from 7-10 PM, playing wonderful 78 rpm jazz records with great flair and great sound. You can become a member here. And there’s more information here.
Last Monday night, one of the sides was Clarence Williams’ MISTER, WILL YOU SERENADE? — whose composer credits read Clarence Williams, (Banjo) Ikey Robinson, and Alex Hill. My money is on Mister Hill. Matthew, who knows things, has suggested wisely that Mister Robinson would have been responsible for the jivey lyrics. I wish I could trace the story I once read that Clarence, late in life, told someone that none of the compositions under his name had been his. Amazing if so.
But this post is about MISTER, WILL YOU SERENADE? — a song of great melodic simplicity, with two-note phrases that have burned themselves into my brain, and lyrics that are unforgettable because they are so much a part of their time that they have a majestic silliness. And we could all use a Serenade. Please join me in Incid. Singing.
Here’s the first version, with Eva Taylor singing first (her voice is catnip) and Cecil Scott, clarinet; Herman Chittison AND Willie “The Lion” Smith, piano; Ikey Robinson, banjo, tenor-guitar; Clarence Williams, jug; Willie Williams, washboard; Clarence Todd, vocal. New York, August 7, 1933:
That recording has so many delights: the almost staid way it begins with Eva’s demure yet emotive delivery, and the underrated Cecil Scott, Chittison’s very “modern” piano — remember, this is 1933 . . . then the short pause while the band has to get it together for the key change into Clarence Todd’s much more exuberant Calloway-inflected vocal AND the rollicking duo-piano background. It may be a Silly Symphony, but it is a symphony nonetheless.
Here’s the second Williams version, brighter, with the leader’s potato-ey vocal: Ed Allen, cornet; Cecil Scott, clarinet; James P. Johnson, piano; Roy Smeck, guitar, steel guitar; Cyrus St. Clair, tuba; Floyd Casey, washboard. New York, January 17, 1934:
Notable for me is the emphasis on steady rocking ensemble playing — and the sound of Clarence’s closing inquiry: he means it.
But wait! there’s more! — a frolicsome big band version from the little-known Tiny Bradshaw band: Lincoln Mills, Shad Collins, Max Maddox, trumpet; George Matthews, Eugene Green, trombone; Russell Procope, Bobby Holmes, alto saxophone; Edgar Courance, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Clarence Johnson, piano; Bob Lessey, guitar; Ernest Williamson, string bass; Harold Bolden, drums; Tiny Bradshaw, vocal. New York, September 19. 1934:
The Williams recording looks backwards to chugging leisurely ways (it feels rural in its approach) where the Bradshaw band is aerodynamic, speeding down the Swing highway — beautiful solos (Maddox, Procope, Courance, Matthews?) and an uncredited effective arrangement. That band’s eight Decca sides (autumn ’34) deserve more attention.
Here’s a more recent version, at a lovely tempo, with the verse, the group led by Ted des Plantes with some of my friends : Leon Oakley, cornet; Larry Wright, clarinet, saxophones, ocarina; John Otto, clarinet, alto saxophone; Ted des Plantes, piano; John Gill, banjo; Ray Cadd, tuba, jug; Hal Smith, washboard. Berkeley, California, August 15-17, 1997:
The most contemporary version — reminiscent of a Teddy Wilson session! — by Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers: Marc Caparone, cornet; Alan Adams, trombone; Bobby Gordon, clarinet; John Otto, alto saxophone, clarinet; Chris Dawson, piano; Rebecca Kilgore, vocal, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. San Diego, California, November 29 & 30, 1999.
See if you can go through the next few days without humming a phrase from this song. I dare you.
I love the arc of this chronology — even though I couldn’t produce versions by Mike Durham and Bent Persson — that starts with a rare record from 1933 and ends up with performances by some of my most respected friends.
I’ll Serenade. Won’t you?
May your happiness increase!