Tag Archives: Rudy Vallee

FATS NEEDS MONEY, BILLIE, RUDY, TOOTS

Sometimes a fellow needs a little help before the next paycheck:

Perhaps Fats was hungry?  The possible soundtrack:

A moderately familiar picture of the Lady, but a large bold signature:

Rudy Vallee was notoriously frugal, so this check is possibly more than usually rare, and since it is made out to Toots Mondello, we have the pleasure of two signatures:

and the reverse:

Those of you who know my habits will say, “Oh, Michael’s been at the eBay again.”  I could do worse.

Welcome to 2018 —

May your happiness increase!

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PRETTY LIVELY: EXILED SWEETHEARTS, CAGED BIRDS, SAD DOLLS, RUINED MAIDS

GLAD RAG DOLL 1929Members of repressive societies are forbidden to write about the forbidden; censorship blossoms in the name of morality.  But ingenious writers and artists make their way around prohibitions. Even in the most conservative environment, sin can be explored in popular culture if the writer is lamenting the horrid effects of such behavior.  Lost virginity and illicit drugs could be the titillating subjects of early films — if they were deplored rather than celebrated.

We could go back to 1900 for A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE, by Arthur J. Lamb (lyrics) and Harry Von Tilzer (music), a huge popular hit that depicted a young woman in a loveless marriage who has chosen money over affection. The story goes that Lamb approached Von Tilzer with the lyrics, which Von Tilzer liked — but he wanted Lamb’s lyrics to make it clear that the young woman was not someone’s mistress.  The famous refrain is: “She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, / A beautiful sight to see, / You may think she’s happy and free from care, / She’s not, though she seems to be, / ‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life, / For youth cannot mate with age, / And her beauty was sold, / For an old man’s gold, / She’s a bird in a gilded cage.”

Girls, don’t sell your beauty and be sure not to mate with age!

Here’s a 1904 version, sung by Harry Anthony:

Forward to two late-Twenties songs, music that motivated my meditations on bad girls who wear cosmetics.

The 1928 GLAD RAG DOLL (music by Milton Ager / Dan Dougherty; lyrics by Jack Yellen) assertively states that money and flashy clothing and jewelry bring only the most shallow happiness, even asking us where and how that finery was acquired.   The verse is almost accusatory: Hester Prynne has just gotten off the train in a small town, and everyone notices the way she’s dressed: “Little painted lady with your lovely clothes / Where are you bound for may I ask? / What your diamonds cost you everybody knows / All the world can see behind your mask.”

Here is Ruth Etting’s wistful version:

“Glad rags” become “sad rags” in a day; the brightly dressed young woman will never find a proper husband “to grow old and grey with,” and her many admirers will desert her — although she can always “amend” her flashy ways.  Presumably the speaker is sedately dressed and long married — neither a boy who “plays” nor a “pretty little toy the boys like to play with” any longer.  Respectable for sure, not aimed for disgrace or disappointment, but the painted woman seems to be having more fun, even if it is transitory.

I couldn’t leave GLAD RAG DOLL without offering Earl Hines’ wordless solo — rollicking without caring for the morals expressed in the stern lyrics:

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Another song in the same moral mode is NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, which most of us know as a Chicago hot number.  But its initial versions had the same warning coloration: the young woman, in this case, has left all her loyal small-town admirers behind for a shady life of glamor in the big city. Music by Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics by Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman.

Here’s the sad verse: “You were ev’rybody’s sweetheart / Not so long ago / And in our home town, each boy around / Longed to be your beau / But things are diff’rent today / I’m mighty sorry to say.” Urban fashion seems to require a loss of purity, in a dichotomy. Either small-town sweetheart or Painted Woman Wearing A Bird of Paradise.

Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900

Hat with bird of paradise feathers circa 1900

“You’re nobody’s sweetheart now, / There’s no place for you somehow, / With your fancy clothes, silken gowns, / You’ll be out of place in the middle of your own hometown, / When you walk down the avenue, / All the folks just can’t believe that it’s you. / With painted lips and painted eyes, / Wearing a bird of paradise, / It all seems wrong somehow, / You’re nobody’s sweetheart now!”  

It echoes Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser: the young woman who leaves her home for the big city will be changed irrevocably — exiled, outcast.  Neither GLAD RAG DOLL nor NOBODY’S SWEETHEART suggests that the young woman has earned her clothing and jewelry through prostitution, but there seems no moral way for a single woman to earn her keep without a husband, so the worst suspicions are never contradicted.  But she is beautifully and glamorously dressed.  Vice doesn’t endure but it certainly looks good in the short run.

Nobody's Sweetheart 1924

Here is Marion Harris’ sympathetic version from 1929:

A few years earlier, Billy Murray and a tough-talking Aileen Stanley deflated the song’s moral stance from the start:

And for those who might not have seen this 1929 short film, it contains a very swinging vocal by a young man from the heartland who would later say that his singing had always been an error.  He sounds pretty good here!

(Incidentally, there were popular hits depicting small-town women, loyal and true, who would never think of wearing jewelry or painting their faces — MY GAL SAL is just one example.  And thousands of songs, it seems, that celebrate impending matrimony — “when we two are one and someday there’ll be three”.)

Thinking about all those songs that both deplore and secretly celebrate young women who have wandered from the orthodox path of marriage, prudence, and dependence, I remembered a poem (from 1901) by Thomas Hardy, called THE RUINED MAID: 

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!

Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?

And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —

“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

 

“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,

Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;

And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”

“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

 

“At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’

And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now

Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —

“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

 

“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak

But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,

And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —

“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

 

“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,

And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem

To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —

“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

 

“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,

And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —

“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,

Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

In theory, Hardy was writing about the hard life of the country maiden, but it seems difficult to take that as the message of THE RUINED MAID, which makes being ruined a delightful version of upward social mobility.  A Moral?  Live fast, paint your face, leave home for the city, and you’ll be the subject of popular art.

And just in case this socio-literary survey has left you melancholy, here’s a modern version of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW by Hal Smith’s International Sextet at Sacramento in 2011.  You can sing along with Kim Cusack by now:

That’s Hal Smith, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano; Anita Thomas, clarinet; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal. Uncredited appearance of a Recalcitrant Microphone Stand courtesy of the local Musicians’ Union.

May your happiness increase!

WITH A STROKE OF THE PEN

More eBay autographs . . . some surprises! Of course, Louis signed his name how many thousand times from the middle Twenties to 1971 . . . but each one is its own treasure.  Lucky Bill! The seller describes this as signed in green ink (a mark of authenticity) even though it reproduces as blue. Here’s something much more unusual.  At first, it looks only like an antique check (1936) but then you see it’s made out to trombone legend Miff Mole, and the person handing over the thirty-two dollars is Rudy Vallee.  Not to be mean-spirited, but Rudy had a reputation for being reluctant to let money out of his possession, so this is doubly or triply rare — and thirty-two 1936 dollars are a substantial sum. And the reverse, where Miff endorsed the check over to one Louis Mussi.  The story?: Here are the signatures of one version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: Narvin Kimball (banjo); Willie Humphrey (clarinet); “Sing” Miller (piano, in a rebus); Percy Humphrey (trumpet); Allan Jaffe (tuba); Josiah “Cie” Frazier (drums); Frank Demond (trombone): That in itself would be pretty good — as satisfying as a half-pint of Mrs. Circe’s gin . . . but the “unidentified” signatures on the back of this page are also intriguing: Some of those might remain mysterious — I have trouble turning my head to the required angle . . . but top left (March 15, 1978) is Arnett Cobb and long-time Lionel Hampton guitarist Billy Mackel; to the left is Andy McKee, and in the middle I am certain that Robert Sage Wilber — otherwise known as Bob — signed in.  My intuition tells me that this page comes from a Nice Jazz Festival . . .

May your happiness increase.

THE SPIRITS OF RHYTHM

Spirits Alabamy

Spirits

Up until a few weeks ago, I would have sworn that the entire output of the Spirits of Rhythm — that gloriously hot (and sometimes silly) group — could have been contained on one CD of their 1933-41 recordings, including sessions with Ella Logan and Red McKenzie.

spirits 1Of course, there were other extras — Leo Watson’s one session for Decca, a later one for Signature (with Vic Dickenson), and a mid-Forties reunion of the group on the West Coast which resulted in four sides for the Black and White label.  Tangentially, Leo Watson appeared on a few Jubilee shows and once on a Rudy Vallee radio program, as well as recording with Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw, but I thought the musical material was unbearably finite.

Spirits SWEETHEART

That was until I found “TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY” on YouTube and got to see the Spirits in action (the clip came from the otherwise-forgotten 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS).

And some more online research has just turned up that they appeared in two other films that year: ALABAMY BOUND and YES, INDEED!  Both musicals were directed by Dudley Murphy, the second with Josef Byrne (it seems to be a short subject with Dorothy Dandridge).  Something tells me that these weren’t big-budget mass-market productions, but perhaps productions aimed at the Black market, done in a hurry and on a minimal budget.  In fact, I have no assurance that the three films have different musical numbers.  And in 1942, the Spirits appeared in PANAMA HATTIE.

Spirits DeccaBut did you know that the 6 Spirits of Rhythm (including Teddy Bunn, Wilbur and Douglas Daniels, Leo Watson, Virgil Scoggins, and Ernest “Serious” Myers) appeared on Broadway from September 1935 to March 1936 — alongside Bea Lillie, Eleanor Powell, Ethel Waters, and Eddie Foy, Jr. in the Dietz-Schwartz musical AT HOME ABROAD?  Do I have any Broadway archivists among my readers?

At the top of the page is a still of Leo Watson from ALABAMY BOUND.  The world needs more film footage of Leo and Teddy Bunn.  Or, if you think that statement’s too sweeping, I do.

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises.