3. Eddie Walters, “Makin’ Whoopee!” (1929)

You’ll often find people who write about the pre-rock era making statements like “songs were just songs in those days, there were no definitive versions, songs were not associated with particular performers, etc.” While that’s an important corrective to the rock-era fetishization of singer-songwriters and studio recordings, when the neologism “to cover” arose because original songs were assumed to be the default, it’s not entirely accurate. The concept of the “signature song,” which a performer always sang and audiences would be disappointed (and/or hurl produce) if they didn’t, predates the twentieth century entirely, and especially once recorded music became a boom industry in the 1910s, the race to become the performer who left an indelible mark on a new song in the public’s mind was furious and hard-fought.

All of which is by way of preface to note that Eddie Walters, a pleasant-voiced tenor and ukelelist who cut a handful of records in the late 20s and early 30s, and about whom little else is known, did not record the definitive version of “Makin’ Whoopee!” Eddie Cantor did. Of course, history belongs to the victor, and Cantor’s multimedia success stretching almost to the dawn of Beatlemania more or less obliges anyone caught under his shadow to freeze to death from lack of sun. "Makin’ Whoopee" was written for Cantor to sing in the Broadway show Whoopee!┬áby Tin Pan Alley veterans Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, which role he would reprise in movie form in 1930.

Not everyone could have gotten away with the sly suggestiveness of the song in 1929 — Cantor’s gawky-kid persona allowed for the plausible deniability of whoopee meaning merely “carousing,” and the cynicism of the final verse, in which our weaselly hero bemoans alimony law, is calculated precisely to engage the “tired businessman” which was Broadway’s key demo in the 20s. Walters sings it professionally and blandly, with all traces of either fruity suggestiveness or burlesque cynicism removed — a hit song’s a hit song, sing ‘em all alike, kid, and maybe the teeming hordes in the record shop won’t look any further than the first name on the label.