Tag Archives: Savannah

SHE’S SWEET. SHE’S FROM SAVANNAH.

savannah

Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, and Shelton Brooks wrote this song in 1929 for the revue CONNIE’S HOT CHOCOLATES.  I’ve read that Fats sold the rights to this and nearly 20 other songs to Irving Mills for $500 — a fortune in those days, but nothing compared to the money Mills made from that bundle.  Alas.

But back to the theme. To some, it’s not the most memorable composition — melody, rhythm, or lyrics — but I love it ardently because of the music its inspired, and because I always imagine a line of nimble chorus girls dancing to it. Like many of Fats’ most memorable tunes, it relies greatly on repeated melodic phrases moved around over the harmonies — simple to annotate but not as simple to create.

Here are four recordings from 1929, in chronological order, and a later masterpiece.  Consider the delightful possibilities.

The first ever: Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Bert Curry, Crawford Wethington, alto saxophone; Carroll Dickerson, violin, conductor; Gene Anderson, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, drums.  New York, July 22, 1929.  (I think the intuitive relationship between Louis and Zutty — the latter on bock-a-de-bock cymbals and solidly thudding accents) foreshadows that of Louis and Big Sid. July 22, 1929:

Irving Mills’ Hotsy Totsy Gang.  Mannie Klein, Phil Napoleon, trumpet; Miff Mole, trombone; possibly Arnold Brilhart, clarinet, alto; Larry Binyon, tenor saxophone; possibly Arthur Schutt, piano; unknown banjo, guitar; Joe Tarto, tuba; Chauncey Morehouse, drums; Lilian Morton, vocal.  July 31, 1929:

I wonder what else can be known about Lilian Morton, aside from the two sides she made for Parlophone, THAT’S MY MAMMY and AFTER MY LAUGHTER CAME TEARS (accompaniment unknown) and that in 1926, she was praised in a tiny notice in The Scranton Republican from Scranton, Pennsylvania, as “Broadway’s well known singing comedienne … a peppery singer of the original type,” with “a splendid voice.”  She sounds very good on this recording.

Here’s the non-vocal version (made for the European market) with Miss Morton’s place taken by a duet for Arthur Schutt (perhaps?) and wonderful drumming by Chauncey Morehouse.  Praise to Larry Binyon, too:

And for the Lilian Morton completists in the viewing audience, the other Fats song — a good one! — from the same score, with Miss Morton’s vocal:

The originator, Fats Waller, at the piano, August 2, 1929:

And an utterly remarkable recording of SUE by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra, September 20, 1929.  The Louis and Mills recordings seem to use the same stock arrangement, but this recording is notable for a slap-tongue clarinet solo after the last eight bars, completely satisfying vaudeville singing from the leader, wondrous piano by Hank Duncan, and delightful trumpet work from either Temple or Brown.  Fess Williams, clarinet, alto, vocal, leader; George Temple, trumpet; John Brown, trumpet, vocal; David “Jelly” James, trombone; Ralph Brown, Felix Gregory, alto saxophone; Perry Smith, clarinet, tenor, vocal; Henry “Hank” Duncan, piano; Ollie Blackwell or Andy Pendleton, banjo; Emanuel Casamore, tuba; Ralph Bedell, drums, vocal:

and one of the most endearing recordings I know — in its own way evoking Louis and Fats together in the persons of Ruby Braff, cornet; Dick Hyman, piano; July 2, 1994:

May your happiness increase!

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THE “POTATO HEAD” MYSTERY SOLVED AT LAST!

The genial man to the left doesn’t exactly resemble Sherlock Holmes or even Dr. Watson, but he’s helped me solve a nagging mystery.  He’s Dr. Julius “Boo” Hornstein, longtime resident of Savannah, Georgia, and chronicler of its varied jazz scenes.  His research, memories, and appropriate photographs have been published in his book, SITES AND SOUNDS OF SAVANNAH JAZZ (Gaston Street Press).  In it, I found more than I’d expected about King Oliver’s last days and his benefactor Frank Dilworth — and anecdotes about Jabbo Smith, Johnny Mercer, Ben Tucker, and other improvising natives.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this post.  Exhibit A:

Recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven in 1927, POTATO HEAD BLUES has been a mystery to many for nearly eighty years.  The music itself isn’t mysterious — exultant, rather — but the title has puzzled jazz enthusiasts forever.  Some plausibly have thought it came from the teasing way New Orleans musicians made up names for each other based on essential physiognomy — and one of my readers, Frank Selman, wisely suggested that the title was a sly dig at Clarence Williams, whose cranial structure resembled an Idaho Russet.

Eighty pages into Dr. Hornstein’s book, we meet Sam Gill — not the Brooklyn-born bassist who recorded and played with Randy Weston, Monk, and Blakey, but a Savannah-born trumpet player who (as a young man) had met the down-on-his-luck Joe Oliver. 

But I’ll let Dr. Hornstein lead us back to POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Sam Gill is the kind of guy who likes to tell a story.  Consider this.  We’re sitting around City Market Cafe one early summer afternoon, and Sam is holding forth.  “You ever heard the expression ‘potato head’?  You know, ‘So-and-so is nothing but a potato head?’  No one in our group can rightly say that we have, so Sam proceeds to set us straight.  ‘Well, the expression goes way back in time and has to do with the parades which frequently took place on West Broad Street.  If you were an important figure in the black community, say, a businessman, it was expected of you to have your own band to march in the parades.  The bigger the band, the better in terms of your the image.  So, every now and then you would beef up your band with one or two good-looking men.  The problem was, a lot of the time these fellows looked good, but they couldn’t play.  So, you’d put a potato in the bell of their horns and let them march.  Of course, no sound came out, but that was okay ’cause you only wanted the guys to look good.  That’s how they got to be known as potato heads.” 

You have no idea how relieved I am by this riddle, now unraveled for all time.  And how prescient of Louis not to have turned to his band and said, “Boys, I have a new song for us: it’s about those street parades in New Orleans.  You’ll never forget it: BLUES FOR THE CATS WHO COULDN’T PLAY SO WE HAD TO MAKE SURE WE COULDN’T HEAR THEM PLAY A NOTE EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE SHARP-LOOKING CATS.  One, two!”

Thank you, Sam Gill; thank you, Dr. Hornstein — we’ll all sleep better tonight!