Leonard Joy Orchestra, voc. Johnny Marvin, “Happy Days Are Here Again” (1929)
One of the most recognizable songs of the Crash years, “Happy Days Are Here Again” was conceived by Tin Pan Alley hacks Milton Ager and Jack Yellen — previously best known for faux-blues numbers which would go on to be popularized by actual blues singers — as a pick-me-up for a nation in which optimism has never been undersold, no matter how dire the straits. This recording, by a third-rate orchestra and a second-rate singer, was if not the first, one of the first waxings of the song, and the public’s appetite for it would only increase over the next three or four years as it appeared in movie after movie, became the campaign song of FDR’s successful presidential bid, and — joy of joys — soundtracked Repeal.
Leonard Joy was a pleasant but thoroughly undistinctive bandleader of the dime-a-dozen school — his greatest achievement in latter years was being RCA’s in-house bandleader during World War II — but Johnny Marvin was the famous name on the disc label. A hugely popular ukulele-strumming crooner in an age when a ukulele-strumming crooner was something to be, he had a rather richer voice than the standard (compare him to the thin-voiced Nick Lucas or the reedy Cliff Edwards), though he rarely made use of it: the 1920s was the era of champagne singers, when light and bubbly was at a premium in popular music, and it wasn’t until the ascent of Bing Crosby that creamier voices would come into vogue.
6. Ray Miller & his Orchestra, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (1928)
Our first encounter with actual jazz! Although critics might cavil at calling a white bandleader like Ray Miller jazz, especially when there were many black bands superior in every way, and his boys don’t even swing as hard as certain white players of the time. A clarinetist imitates Frankie Trumbauer (but that’s all it is, an imitation), and the guitar-violin break is meant to recall Lang/Venuti (but without their chromaticism), but Miller’s band was far more of a danceband than a jazz band.
But it is a jazz song. “Sister Kate” is the genuine article, which means its provenance is uncertain. Black bandleader Clarence Williams got it down on paper first, in 1919, credited to his violinist and publishing partner Armand Piron, but Kid Ory claimed that it was based on a bordello song Louis Armstrong sang about a murdered madame, the original lyrics of which he was too bashful to repeat for print. The shimmy, as a dance, was popularized in the mid-1910s along with the rise of jazz as a national music, and the version of the song with lyrics (Spotify link: Clarence Williams backing his wife Eva Taylor) brings out the sexual implications of both.
But this cheery, rather doofy instrumental version is more in line with the giddy, raggy version of jazz first publicized by the Original Dixieland Jass Band (white to a man) than with the low-down blues culture the song originated from. In the company of the rest of this compilation, however, it’s the closest we’ve gotten to actual jazz so far, and the first song that could actually have been played at one of Gatsby’s lavish parties in 1922.
5. Gracie Fields, “Thoughts of You” 1929
It would be hard to get more British than this without actually involving Noël Coward.
Lancashire-born, music hall-reared singer and actress Gracie Fields was a superstar in the UK from the mid-20s until her death in the 70s, but though she did some work in Hollywood in the 30s and again during World War II, she was never famous in the US. She was a “light entertainer” — which at the time meant sentimental or comic songs without tipping over into either jazz on the one side or concert music on the other, and her image was that of the prototypical “nice girl” from Northern England, which meant a fairly colorless and bland personality as far as the US appetite for celebrity was concerned.
“Thoughts of You” was written by Ivor Novello, the composer/actor who (apart from Coward) was Britain’s only real answer to the wellspring of jazz-inflected song pouring from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. His songs are light and airy with lovely melodies, but rarely anything more — no rhythmic, harmonic, or lyrical interest — and so far as I can make out, “Thoughts of You” wasn’t even a hit in the UK. The recording is quite pretty, with lush strings and tripping piano, and Fields sings it well, without histrionics or music-hall “business,” but you would have to have sentimental associations with it, or her, or Novello’s brand of light parlor-song, to get much out of it.
4. Jack Hylton & His Orchestra, vocal by Pat O’Malley, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (1931)
And here we have the first indication of the compilation’s true provenance. American compilers — with perfect justice, in my view — generally ignore British dancebands, since there’s plenty of the good old homegrown to go around. But Europeans have a weakness for the polite UK version of jazz, and more general access to it anyway.
Jack Hylton, who was enough of a musician to achieve Director of the Army Entertainment Division during the War, naturally became one of the premier bandleaders in London during the 20s and 30s (and beyond — he went on to successfully introduce many of the next generation of British stars to the public). His band here is light and airy, and, to do them justice, the few bars that each soloist takes are well-spent.
The singer only takes one chorus, and that’s enough; his light tenor is fine, but the orchestra wisely keeps it moving so the customers can dance. As J. Pat O’Malley, he would have a long career as a successful character actor in Hollywood starting in 1935, when Hylton’s band paid a visit to the US and O’Malley stayed. Prematurely balding, he would play middle-aged men for forty years, including Florence Henderson’s father in the Brady Bunch pilot.
“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” was a transatlantic hit of the day — another of the cockeyed-optimist songs of the post-Crash period (which, ahem, is not Gatsby’s; this collection is like sourcing a Mad Men soundtrack from the psych scene of Haight-Ashbury), written by a trio of longtime Tin Pan Alley mainstays, the songwriting team of Ray Henderson (music), Buddy DeSylva and Lew Brown (lyrics). Ethel Merman introduced it on Broadway, and Rudy Vallee had the hit record in the US. It’s not such a wow of a song that you miss the verses, though.
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! by 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.
2. Fred Rich & His Orchestra, vocal refrain by Rollickers Quartet, “Singin’ in the Rain” (1929)
The song is of course a perennial, its most iconic performance the airy rendition Gene Kelly gives as he splashes through puddles on a studio lot in the movie of the same title, some twenty years after the song was originally written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed for a short-lived Broadway revue. All revues at the tail end of the 20s were short-lived — that was part of the effect of the Crash — but the song was enough of a hit to wind up in Hollywood Revue of 1929, one of the first hugely successful film musicals, though it was much more of a revue (a package of unrelated performances and setpieces) than what we would later think of as proper musicals with integrated storylines and characters. The vaudeville-croon-turned-Technicolor-extravaganza “Singin’ in the Rain” segment, sung by Cliff Edwards and the Brox Sisters, is generally considered the definitive pre-Kelly performance of the song.
Fred (sometimes Freddie) Rich was a pianist and danceband leader, born in Poland but thoroughly American in his musical instincts; in the late 20s he led a studio band that recorded for a variety of labels (this was issued on Columbia) and occasionally dipped into jazz, depending on the strength and ability of the sidemen. This is not jazz, which doesn’t mean it’s bad; the liveliness of the arrangement keeps the two instrumental choruses interesting before the Rollickers step in to sing the lyrics. This is an extremely common structure in dance music of the era, by the way: the reason Rich gets top billing is that the Rollickers were, in today’s notational parlance, very much “feat.”. Since most of us know the song well already, it’s not much of a loss to be without the lyrics for the majority of the song’s runtime; the modern equivalent of the convention would be a remix which only interpolates the original vocals for a climax.
A brief google hasn’t turned up any information on who exactly the Rollickers Quartet were, but they were fairly active, and had a radio show as late as 1932. They linger in popular memory on records like this one, where they deliver cheerful, professional, and anonymous renditions of choruses for equally cheerful and professional dance bands. The age of variety was marked by demand for any number of performers like this, who could plug in gaps in theatrical, broadcast, or recorded productions with a minimum of fuss and a near-total absence of celebrity. The most famous version of the same setup was the Rhythm Boys, who performed and recorded with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the most popular of the Twenties; we know them today only because one of them was Bing Crosby.
The song itself has been a signifier of Classic Hollywood for so long, and within the 1952 movie, of the emotional specificity of Don Lockwood falling in love with Kathy Selden, that it can be hard to hear what it might have meant to listeners, singers, and hummers-along in 1929. Looking at the lyrics reminds me that it’s of a piece with Crash-era songs like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” songs that maintain a determined optimistic outlook regardless of ill fortune (or weather). It’s not actually a love song; the singer is “ready for love,” but the more significant triumph of hope over despair is what’s really being celebrated. On a gray, drizzly day like this one, it’s a good theme song.
1. Helen Kane, “That’s My Weakness Now” (1928)
Back in August, I posted a rant about the ways in which the current landscape of streaming-music services is both incredibly useful and thoughtlessly destructive to deep historical research into the music of the past. The occasion for this word-splurt was a hundred-song “album” on Spotify titled The Great Gatsby and collecting a bunch of mostly white, mostly not-extremely-well-known dance-band, light jazz, vaudeville, and pop recordings from the 1920s. It’s also available on iTunes and Amazon MP3 for what turns out to be a reasonable price; nice (packaging) work if you can get it. It would be a decent soundtrack to a Twenties costume party, especially if all the guests were middle-class, white, and uninterested in any experience of the Twenties that wouldn’t have exactly mirrored their own.
My own interest in the Twenties has drifted over the past couple of years away from the white dance-band and sentimental music which was my first introduction to the era, and even away from the black jazz music which was by most measures the most significant populist achievement of the era, into contemporary modernist analogues in Latin America, the Caribbean, Mediterranean Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the Pacific Rim. But since my investigations in those directions have really only just begun, I thought it might be a good exercise for me to try to listen to this music, square and uncool as any music has ever been, and explain it as well as I can, maybe particularly since almost none of it is the music I’ve really loved from the era. (My previous hundred-song essay on the music of the Twenties can be found here.)
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is due in theaters May 10; if I write about one song per day (with Sundays off), I should be done by Opening Night. Assuming I’ve done the math right. I don’t particularly care about either Gatsby or Luhrmann (though I’ve no doubt I’ll see it), but it’s a convenient excuse to embark on a project I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while, and which will force me to write every day.
So to the song.
Helen Kane is today most famous for being the voice Mae Questel parodied (or, according to Kane’s lawyers, straight-up jacked) in the original Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons; but the fact that she was famous enough to be parodied is its own confirmation of her star quality at the tail end of the Twenties and beginning of the Thirties. Sex symbols with girlish voices have been with us always, of course, and Kane was actually on the more innocent end of the flapper-singer spectrum even for her day. Note her reiteration of never before having liked — or experienced — all the things “he” likes; when she gets to the nonsense syllables for which she was famous, “boop-oop-a-doop” can stand in for as much (or as little) naughtiness as the audience cares to imagine.
The orchestra backing her is credited to Nat Shillkret, who was the “director of light music” for Victor Recording Company between 1926 and 1932. Meaning, more or less, that he was responsible for the backing music for a huge variety of vocalists, soloists, comedians, and eccentric acts — anyone who didn’t provide their own accompaniment got Shillkret’s band of airy professionals, heavy on sweet strings and nimble enough if never so rhythmically dextrous as to be mistaken for jazz.
Written by Sam Stept and Bud Green (Ukrainian and Austrian child immigrants, respectively), “That’s My Weakness Now” was overwhelmingly identified with Kane, whose chirpy delivery and just-flirty-enough air carries the listener through the rather monotonous verses; it’s essentially a list song, and could be theoretically continued forever as she lists all the things he likes which she previously didn’t, but now, thanks to his personal magnetism, are particular weaknesses of hers.