Tag Archives: Ruth Etting

EVERYONE’S LOOKING OUT FOR YOU, SAY MESSRS. BURKE and SPINA

Imagine a community where people are concerned about your happiness in the most affectionate ways.  Today, with smartphone-induced isolation the norm, that world full of solicitous people seems like a dream.  I don’t know if it was truly possible in the middle Thirties, although I think of Wilder’s OUR TOWN, but a charming pop song came out of that vision: one of those simple but memorable melodies with witty sweet lyrics (“who prints / blueprints” is very clever).  As you see below, music by Harold Spina and words by Johnny Burke.

I would have liked to hear Miss Etting sing this.  But we have, instead, a sweet version with the verse (as sung by Kay Weber, Ray Eberle, and the Dorsey Trio — backed by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, the emphatically swinging Ray McKinley — echoing Stan King’s accents — moving it all along):

And here’s the masterful version I heard some decades ago and still love.  This song obviously appealed to Fats, who keeps referring to the bridal march, and the last sixteen bars are a model of great delicate swing:

Here is the only “modern” version that — to me — can follow Fats (Rebecca Kilgore, Chris Dawson, Hal Smith, and Bobby Gordon):

Some readers may wish to point out more recent versions by McCartney and Clapton.  Thanks, but no thanks.  But if you want to muse on the vagaries of pop music, listen — if you can — to the versions by Johnny Angel and Joy and Dave, found on YouTube.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And thank the milkman if you’re up early.

May your happiness increase!

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THE SKIES WILL CLEAR UP: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW

Barbara Rosene EhudBarbara Rosene is a great, subtly emotive singer.  Her warm voice caresses the melody and lyrics, and her deep feeling takes us inside each song, making each composition its own small drama or comedy.  New Yorkers like myself have known this for more than a decade; if you’ve heard Barbara with the Harry James Orchestra, you know it as well.

Barbara and the splendid pianist Ehud Asherie performed two sets at Mezzrow (West Tenth Street, New York City) a week ago, on May 17, 2016.  Early in the evening, Barbara and Ehud offered one of my favorite songs, LAUGHING AT LIFE.  As she points out, most people know the song from Billie Holiday’s rollicking version — with elating assistance from Lester Young and Roy Eldridge — but it goes back to 1930, with recordings by Ruth Etting and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.  (My guess is that John Hammond, who loved the older songs, suggested it to Billie, although the Goodman band was playing it on broadcasts a few years earlier.)

Laughing_at_Life_FilmPoster

A sidelight: I had not known about this 1933 pre-Code film, which might not even have the song included, but who can pass up a poster like this?

To get back to our subject: I was instantly moved by Barbara’s rendition of the song — which could be sweetly maudlin in less subtle hands or sped up to “swing it.”  The tempo is perfect, and her delivery is sweetly, endearingly convincingly.  The rich textures of her voice are marvelous in themselves.

I don’t think anyone will be guffawing or chortling in empathy once the video has left its mark, but I know that Barbara and Ehud add to our collective happiness, as they always do.  (Ehud’s medium tempos are a wonderful education in themselves.)

And Barbara always has my permission to sit down.

Here’s the relevant evidence.  And there will be more music from this delightful evening at Mezzrow.  (A word about that club: it is comfortable in every possible way, and the music is lovingly the center of attention, as it should be.)

May your happiness increase!

A LEE WILEY PORTRAIT

Thank you, eBay.

Thank you, Culver Service.

Lee Wiley back

Lee is rounder-faced than perhaps we are used to seeing her, posing with her cigarette held over the piano keys, “going through new songs” for the photographer, I assume.  She was born on October 8, 1908, so she would be at most in her very early twenties when this photograph was taken, already a known recording artist and radio star.  Was the setting a photographer’s studio or was it, perhaps, Victor Young’s apartment — with a large portrait, lit from above?

Lee Wiley front

On the piano, visible, is the sheet music for NO MORE LOVE — which Joe Venuti recorded on November 3, 1933, suggesting that this portrait is of that vintage. It was a Harry Warren – Al Dubin song from the Eddie Cantor film, ROMAN SCANDALS, where it was performed by Ruth Etting.

Lee did not record NO MORE LOVE, but Etting did — so those who can hear Lee’s voice can imagine her version of this song:

To the right of Miss Wiley’s pencil and manuscript paper is the sheet music for the 1932 LOVE ME TONIGHT, with Mister Crosby on the cover.

The photograph is five inches by seven inches — far too small to contain all that we know, imagine, and love about Miss Wiley.

P.S.  At close to 7 PM on February 28, a truly eager Wileyphile outbid everyone on eBay and won the photograph . . . $229.59.  That’s what I call keen!

May your happiness increase!

A DIME A THROW: HILARY GARDNER and EHUD ASHERIE HONOR RODGERS AND HART at MEZZROW (March 17, 2015)

In my recollection, organized oppression is rarely the subject of American popular song.  Of course, it is a deep subject in folk song, but in popular music I can think of only OL’  MAN RIVER, BLACK AND BLUE, and BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?  (STRANGE FRUIT is in its own class.)

Most of the songs beloved in the canon are personal and smaller in scale, depicting the joy of new love, the sorrows of love disintegrating, the emptiness when it has gone.

A deeply moving exception is the 1930 TEN CENTS A DANCE, by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers (I am reversing the order intentionally) — to me, is a poem about the debilitating and demeaning labor of lower-class women who cannot escape their fate in any dreamy romantic way.  Much of its intensity comes from the first-person narrative, unlike the later SHOE SHINE BOY, where the victim of economic circumstances is both optimistic and viewed tenderly by someone else.

Ten Cents A Dance

Hart’s gritty painful lyrics equal any poem about working in the sweatshops (think of “The Song of the Shirt”) or any anthropological study of human trafficking. And although the drama is intentionally narrow, with one exhausted woman telling us her story of grueling labor, dashed hopes, and no exit, it presents an excruciating to experience, Hart’s casual diction notwithstanding.

Heaven no longer cared to protect the working girl.

Here are the lyrics, taken from www.lorenzhart.com:

 

VERSE

I work at the Palace Ballroom,
but, gee that Palace is cheap;
when I get back to my chilly hall room
I’m much too tired to sleep.
I’m one of those lady teachers,
a beautiful hostess, you know,
the kind the Palace features
for only a dime a throw.

REFRAIN

Ten cents a dance
that’s what they pay me,
gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance
pansies and rough guys
tough guys who tear my gown!
Seven to midnight I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my eardrums.
Customers crush my toes.
Sometime I think
I’ve found my hero,
but it’s a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

PATTER

Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
can pay for their ticket and rent me!
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors
are sweethearts my good luck has send me.
Though I’ve a chorus of elderly beaux,
stockings are porous with holes at the toes.
I’m here till closing time.
Dance and be merry, it’s only a dime.

TAG

Sometime I think
I’ve found my hero,
but it’s a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

That’s a fully articulated dramatic statement — a novella in three minutes, worthy of Stephen Crane. And Hart’s word choice is so telling — the “gee” and “gosh” suggest a certain sweet naivete that has not yet been crushed utterly. Was our imagined “lady teacher” a young woman who came from the Midwest to the big city in search of love?  Or fame?  The patter, as well — part of a theatrical presentation — contrasts the woes of the woman drained of energy with the mad rush of the city, the headlong press of men eager to get their dime’s worth of sensation from her.

(As an aside, I worry about those later cultural analysts who crow over “queer” as evidence of homosexual code-speak.  Perhaps it was, but the beautiful meshing of sounds in “hero” and “queer ro” would have delighted Hart as well as the half-hidden surprise, I would wager.)

I’m not the only person to be captivated by this song: it became the basis for a film in 1931, and Reginald Marsh painted his version of it in 1933 — although his imagining is much more lurid than the song, whose narrator sounds like someone who remembers what it was to be innocent and hopeful. Marsh’s hostesses suggest by their dress and posture that dancing is merely the surface of their real intent and profession:

Reginald Marsh 1933

The song itself has been memorably sung and recorded by Ruth Etting, later Doris Day, Ella, and many others.

But I think the performance I witnessed just a week ago at Mezzrow — by Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie — is the equal of any more famous rendition. Ehud suggests the bounce of a dance-band (with greater harmonic ingenuity and rhythmic variety than any 1930 outfit) and Hilary shows herself a great understated dramatic actress.  Hear her reading of the lines — so rich, so quiet, so varied and convincing.

I invite you to listen to this afresh.  To me this performance is a triumph of despair, quiet resignation, and deep lyricism. Great art can make pain beautiful but it never attempts to pretend the pain is not there.

For a more cheerful evocation of Rodgers and Hart by Hilary and Ehud, listen to this.

There will be more of Hilary and Ehud doing honor to Dick and Larry — something I delight in.

May your happiness increase!

“AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU”: JAZZ VALENTINES, CONTINUED

Readers of JAZZ LIVES will have noticed that it is that rare thing — a Romantic Jazz Blog.  This morning, while I was sitting alongside the Beloved, having breakfast, discussing a bit of mundane difficulty which was causing discomfort even though I knew it wouldn’t be permanent, I said to her, “Well, I’ll get by — as long as I have you.” Thank you, Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, for giving us another way to express these sentiments — that the worst things in life are made more easy by the presence of a Beloved, that love helps us to endure. “Getting by” often seems like the minimum, “just getting by,” but this song gives it substance and dignity.

I'LL GET BY

I know that isn’t the original sheet music (which has only a floral design) and I think that the Beloved leaves Irene Dunne in the dust, although I am no Spencer Tracy . . . but the vision of a couple finding comfort in each other’s presence is a sustaining ideal.

As is the song itself.  There are many other versions, among them by Bing and Ruth Etting, but these two by Lady Day do it for me.  (She was often annoyed by John Hammond’s pushing “old songs” on her — this one from 1928 — but his instincts were fine here.) The first version begins with the much-belittled Buster Bailey (if he was so unimaginative, why did all the major bands fight for him?), then moves into a rapturous Johnny Hodges chorus, and then Miss Holiday, curling around the melody with the help of Buck Clayton and that rhythm section (Artie Bernstein, Allan Reuss, Cozy Cole):

Seven years later, with an even more emphatic Sidney Catlett driving things along, and Billie finding new curlicues with which to be soulfully expressive: 

1944: with Eddie Heywood, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Lem Davis, Teddy Walters, John Simmons, Sidney Catlett.

I’ll get by.  You will, too.

May your happiness increase!

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:

nosweet1b

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!

THE ODDS ARE ON OBJECTS

Brendan Gill told the story in his book HERE AT THE NEW YORKER of handing a Roman coin to his fellow writer William Maxwell, whose response I have taken as my title.  The objects I’m referring to are also round and ancient, with a different pedigree.

This most recent manifestation of The Quest began in June 2013 in a Novato, California antiques shop.  The Beloved had noted that they had 78s and even checked one to see — it was a Ray Noble Victor — that the pile might have some interest to me.

After assuming the traditional position — somewhere between all-fours and an unsteady squatting balance — I found this one, and walked away with it after offering the natives two dollars and eighteen cents for it:

2013 110

Ten days later, we visited the Goodwill in Petaluma, where I’d once found — magically — WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, thanks to Mr. Crosby and some collection of Hidden Powers (a story we treasure).

No such revelations awaited us, but on the floor were four cartons of 78s, most in paper sleeves — more than a few from a Berkeley record store — and some in brown paper albums.  Someone had admired or collected Bing, for two of the cartons held Deccas, from the sunburst 1937 LET’S CALL A HEART A HEART to the early-Fifties duet with son Gary, SAM’S SONG.

I went through them quickly, out of respect for Bing, but my attention was drawn by the scraps of someone’s record collection — the ones I collected for myself reached from the Twenties to the late Forties.  I bypassed any number of sweet bands — Tom Coakley for one — but went for many varieties of Hot and Sweet.  Each was ninety-nine cents plus tax.

The most recent, circa 1946, is a West Coast big band led by reedman Cates — including trumpeter Clyde Hurley:

2013 109

Going back nearly a quarter-century earlier, a label that makes collectors’ hearts race:

2013 108

January 1924, with Phil Napoleon, Miff Mole, Jimmy Lytell, Frank Signorelli, Tony Colucci or John Cali, Jack Roth.

2013 107

Aptly named — from 1940 — conducted and arranged by someone we admire, before he became Paul Weston.

2013 105

The way we feel about Miss Wiley.

2013 103

Another sweet star — asking a meteorological question.

2013 106

Miss Helen Rowland —  a singer memorable but not sufficiently well-known.

2013 104This record isn’t listed in Lord’s discography, but “Comedienne” suggests a certain amount of energy; having heard Miss Walker sing, I wouldn’t expect her to “get hot,” but she’s never a disappointment.

2013 102The other side of this disc appeared first to my eyes: I GOT RHYTHM by the Bud Freeman Trio, with Jess Stacy and George Wettling.  I find it nearly impossible to pass up a Commodore 78 — holy relics of devotion to the Hot Grail! — but this one comes with its own story.

I couldn’t find out anything about William H. Procter, but I do not doubt that he was a swing fan in the late Thirties and mid-Forties.  The two brown paper albums of 78s — mostly Goodman — all had his stickers on the label.  And it took me back to a time before my birth when a proud swing fan would have bought those stickers as a point of pride: “These are my records!” so that when he brought a new group of precious acquisitions to a friend’s house for a listening party, there was never any discussion that his new Bluebird or Blue Note was his.

Where is William H. Procter now?  I hope he is with us — just having decided that he could have the music of his elated youth on his iPod rather than those bulky black discs.  I send him gratitude for his good taste.

And let us consider — at our collective leisure — that these apparently fragile objects (and others) prove to be so durable that they may outlive their first owners.  The Beloved, who is wise, says, “Human beings cannot be stored in closets and attics, which is what happens to records.”

May your happiness increase!