Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, November 6, 2009

Porter Grainger - birth date discovered

Above, a detail from the 1925 New York City telephone book, showing addresses for music partners Porter Grainger and Robert Ricketts

I recently received an email from an enthusiastic Porter Grainger fan. In fact, his first comment was to point out that "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" actually made it onto piano rolls! Readers of this blog - and of the book - will know that the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" was Porter Grainger. Grainger was one of those souls who disappeared almost completely from public consciousness, even though he left a significant mark on the music of the 1920s. His contribution has been minimized, and I (as well as my correspondent, Andrew Barrett) think that is inaccurate and unfair.

Generally, not much is known about Grainger, aside from the fact that he wrote songs for Bessie Smith, and accompanied her in concerts and revues (a very fancy dresser, he was for a time part of Bessie's inner circle). He is one of the characters central to the story of SJI, and makes an important appearance in my book. Still, even the most reliable resources, such as the remarkable allmusic.com, say things like "Very little is known about the pianist Porter Grainger . . . even his birth and death dates are unknown."

I can't help with the date of his death, but while researching the book I did discover when (and where) he was born. The census records don't help. He first makes an appearance in the 1900 records, which show he was living with his grandfather, and was about nine years old. His draft cards, however, are another matter.

Above, Grainger's WWII draft card, revealing his date of birth.

Both Grainger's WWI and WWII draft cards reveal his birth date as October 22, 1891. He was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. His 1917 card declares his profession as "Composer of songs." His WWII card shows he was employed at the Minsky-Eltinge Theatre at W42nd Street, in New York City.

These draft cards - both for Grainger and his friend Robert Ricketts - bring up further questions that are covered in the book.

For those who enjoy clarifying the obscure, Mr. Barrett wrote to me, "If you think Porter Grainger is obscure, try his friend Robert W. Ricketts (bandleader, pianist(?), led 'Ricketts' Stars' accompanying many blues singers) and Everett Robbins (a FANTASTIC blues pianist and singer)." Everett Robbins - whose piano rolls are of particular interest to Mr. Barrett - shared writing credit with Grainger for the famous blues song (first recorded by Bessie Smith) "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

12 comments:

Andrew Barrett said...

First, thank you so much for mentioning me in your blog! I'm flattered! Little things like this inspire me to continue on with research.

It looks like Porter Grainger at least lived through 1954. Evidence:

he renewed the copyright of his book, "How to Play and Sing the Blues", co-written with his friend Bob Ricketts, on October 7th, 1954, according to "U.S. Copyright Renewals, 1954 July - December":

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11810/11810-8.txt

The book is also listed here:

http://www.loc.gov/folklife/guides/BibBlues.html

This instruction book was originally copyrighted on November 30, 1926, and apparently sold poorly; I have never seen a copy of it nor have my sheet-music collector friends.

I am sure there are a FEW copies out there SOMEWHERE, since a few recent books about blues quote a couple passages of the text, but I currently do not have a copy of the original work. (or even a photocopy)

It is probably fascinating, I am sure. One of my friends, an assiduous novelty piano solo and Jack Mills publication collector, says this instruction book is on his "most wanted" list.

Your research is fantastic! I am glad you dug up the birthdate of Grainger, and also his WWI and WWII cards.

Some other blues legends, such as Lemuel Fowler, remain frustratingly hard to research... no one has yet found his birthdate, birthplace, death date or place of death, despite eyewitness evidence that he lived at least through the early 1960s.

Fowler was a fantastic pianist, everyone agrees, based upon his recordings and piano rolls.

Less kind things have been said about Grainger (and also about Clarence Williams) with regards to their piano playing.

However, having recently listened to several recordings of the latter two pianists (accompanying singers), I feel confident in saying that although they didn't apparently have a lot of technique, both these gentlemen could accompany very well and play very musical-sounding things on the piano, something that far too many "pianists" today, accompanying or otherwise, can't do.

To compare them to James P. Johnson is ridiculous, since he possesses a different style, and (according to Joe Turner) also was considered the best jazz pianist in New York before Art Tatum arrived in town. (This would be like comparing all New York jazz pianists of the '30s and '40s to Tatum).

Also, I read somewhere that Porter Grainger was Bessie Smith's favorite accompanist, and that he was a "snappy dresser". You might want to look into the source of those quotes to confirm they are genuine.

Regarding the Minsky-Eltinge theatre, I wonder if this has something to do with Julian Eltinge, the famous female impersonator of vaudeville.

This blog entry:

http://newmedianewsroom2008d.blogspot.com/2008/11/burlesque-during-great-depression.html

and this article:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsky's_Burlesque

both seem to imply that the Eltinge Theatre (on 42nd Street) was actually a burlesque house associated with the Minsky brothers. I am not sure whether working at a burlesque house would be considered a step down for Grainger in his career, but it's a possibility.

Andrew Barrett said...

Regarding piano rolls, as far as I know, Porter Grainger never made any himself. (I could be wrong, I haven't yet found out about every piano roll ever made).

However, there was at least one roll made of "Dyin' Crap Shooter's Blues". This roll was "played" (arranged) by J. Lawrence Cook and originally issued as QRS 88-note word roll #3974. The release date of the roll was July, 1927, but Cook probably worked on the arrangement in the time between the first publication of the sheet music, and the release of the roll. The actual title given on the roll is "Dyin' Crap Shooter's Blues (Blues & Fox-Trot)". This is according to page 118, Volume 1, of the Billings Rollography.

I have never seen or heard of this particular 88-note roll before, so I have no idea if any copies survive.

It is well-known to roll collectors that original copies of piano rolls by the likes of James P Johnson, Thomas Waller, and Lemuel Fowler are very hard to find (especially in the case of the Fowler rolls). It is less well-known that the early J. Lawrence Cook rolls of blues-oriented tunes can be equally hard-to-find.

This is partially explained by them being sold to a "race" market, rather than the general market, and also for the general public showing a preference towards pop songs and ballads rather than blues and jazz in their roll-buying activities.

This 88-note QRS roll, as per the common practice of the day, was re-edited and adapted by the Clark Orchestra Roll Company for their coin piano and orchestrion rolls, and it is these versions that this roll arrangement is definitely known to survive.

It was rearranged and issued as tune #6 of 10-tune Clark A coin piano roll, #A-1348, titled [appropriately enough], "Crap-Shootin' Blues". This roll is available as a new recut from Johnny's Music Rolls in California:

http://www.johnnysmusicrolls.com/goodies/php/rollslistuserview.php?rolltype=a

Tim Trager wrote about this roll in the Mechanical Music Digest in 2008, unaware of the actual origin of the tune:

http://www.mmdigest.com/Archives/Digests/200812/2008.12.14.03.html

It was also rearranged and issued as tune #2 of 10-tune Clark 4X orchestrion roll, #4X-182, titled "Mrs. Sippi Blues". This roll is available as a new recut from Valley Forge Music Rolls in Pennsylvania:

http://www.valleyforgemusicroll.com/new_page_3.htm

The tune may have also been re-reissued on Automatic A and 4X rolls, given that this company (Automatic Music Roll Co., a division of Seeburg) seemed to do nothing but reissue Clark rolls under different numbers and titles.

Given the expense of both these rolls, and the fact that I don't think you have anything with which to play them, you might try asking the two gentlemen (who run the respective roll companies) nicely for recordings of "Crap-Shooter's" on those rolls, since a recording would be of more use to you than the roll. Maybe explain your project, give them the history of the tune, etc. You can also ask them to please adjust their coin piano or orchestrion to play the roll at an appropriately relaxed tempo.

Be warned that Cook did not always have the most exciting style. Some of his blues rolls are fantastic and rank up there with the best by anyone, while others are just so-so. However, he never seems to have made a truly bad roll. All of his rolls are at the very least, consonant and musical, and give a good account of the tune. Considering the sheer number of rolls that he made, this is quite a feat!

http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/page11.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Lawrence_Cook

http://www.myspace.com/jlawrencecook

Andrew Barrett said...

Cook also made a roll of "St. James Infirmary (Blues)", QRS 88-note roll #4915, released in May, 1930. The roll, naturally enough, credits Joe Primrose as the composer. [source: Billings Rollography Volume 1, page 146]

I don't have a copy of this roll or a recording of it, but apparently your blog owner friend on NO NOTES found a copy:

http://nonotes.wordpress.com/2007/07/25/roll-on/

This looks like a later issue of this roll, possibly from the 1950's or 60's. Throughout the 1940's, 50's, and 60's, Cook would sometimes go back and do a new arrangement of a popular old standard tune (such as this one) in a new more "modern" style, to keep up with changing public tastes. Typically, the new arrangement would be assigned a new number in the series, but sometimes, they would re-use the old number of the original arrangement (or worse, the number of a completely different old tune which was then passe'), with little or no indication that anything had changed from the original issue.

The surest way to tell whether this arrangement was ever "updated", or is merely a later issue of the original arrangement, is to find an old 1930s edition of the roll, which would probably have a regular black box and white label (with the letters "Q R S" in red at the top). During the 30's and 40's, QRS changed over to some tan fake-wood-grained boxes (or even plain bare cardboard at the nadir of the depression) before finally settling on the now-familiar red box. Also, the old 1930 roll will probably have an actual roll label, rather than the stamped-on ink label of later copies. I invite better roll experts than me to correct me on these points.

One last thing: part of the reason that Cook's "good" blues rolls are so great is that he had a close working relationship with some of the finest Harlem pianists, including James P. Johnson, Thomas "Fats" Waller, Lemuel Fowler, Clarence Johnson, and Luckey Roberts; and was responsible for the editing and creation of the final versions of their hand-played rolls.

In the case of Waller, Cook actually got the go-ahead from Waller himself to use his name on rolls made by Cook, since Waller thought Cook was able to imitate him quite well. Thus early rolls actually played by Waller (but edited by Cook) were credited as "Played by Thomas Waller", whereas later rolls entirely created by Cook in Waller's style were credited as "Played by Fats Waller".

Robert W. Harwood said...

Andrew, many thanks for these extremely intersting comments!

If you can send me your email address via rwharwood@rogers.com, I can send you a pretty interesting description of Grainger - although it might be a couple of days before I get around to scanning it.

Elliott said...

Gentlemen,

I'm fascinated to read the above, as a few months ago I submitted my entry on Porter Grainger to the African American National Biography. Thank heaven, I don't appear to have missed anything essential, not much, anyway.

I was under the erroneous impression that I was alone in having discovered the biographical and professional material that I'd included in the article, but glad to see others are doing this type of research.

- Elliott S. Hurwitt

Robert W. Harwood said...

Well, Mr. Hurwitt, I would be fascinated to read your entry! My book, of course, has a bit more info about Grainger than appears on this blog. Please contact me directly at the email address rharwood@rogers.com.

All the best!

Bob Hutchins said...

Porter Grainger composed the music to a song called "Quit Throwin' It McGivern," with lyrics by George Clardy, probably in the late '20s or early '30s. I have a copy of the original sheet music which Clardy sent to one of his aunts, my grandmother, in 1948. Of Grainger, Clardy wrote, "The enclosed song from "Quit Throwin' It, McGivern!" was with Porter Grainger. Twenty years ago, Porter put on his colored musical comedy in "Lucky Sambo." Like a rest of others cleaned up 2 1/2 Million Dollars when he sold out to Hurtig & Seamon's Theatres. Then he saved his money bought wisely in real estate in Bowling Greene, Kentucky." If anyone knows of Clardy, I'm interested in his days in New York. upleap79108@mypacks.net

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thanks for that, Bob. We could run something of this as a blog entry, if you like - maybe, maybe someone would have information about Clardy.
I am unclear about the lat part of you comment, though. Who made 2.5 million when he sold out to Hurtig & Seamon? Grainger? Youcan write to me at rharwood@rogers.com, if you'd like.

Thanks again!

Bob

Elliott said...

Per: upleap's post: Great new info, new to me, anyway, on that sonng. In my entry on Grainger for the African American National Biography, I mentioned a number of Grainger's songs, but not "Quit Throwin' it," which I didn't know about. In any event, I did not try to be exhaustive.

I don't think a figure of 2.5 million dollars for Grainger's properties (apparently sold to Hurtig & Seamon's) could possibly be accurate. Even if he had gotten all his earned royalties on "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" plus "Ain't Nobody's Business," it could not, by a wide margin, have amounted to that kind of money. I find that statement impossible regardless of its source, and I do a lot of research on African American songwriters per the music business.

However, the claim that Grainger saved his money and bought property in Bowling Green is intriguing, and probably correct, since he came from B.G., and was still in touch with relatives who lived there as late as the 1940s. Maybe he retired there, in which case I've been looking for his death date in all the wrong places.

Per: Andrew Barrett on "Hot to Play and Sing the Blues" -- I also found the copyright renewal entry for 1954, and mentioned it in my AANB entry. But I don't think it necessarily indicates Grainger was still alive in 1954, though he may have been. If you look at the discussion of Grainger in Bruce Bastin's brilliant book "Never Sell a Copyright," it mentions Joe Davis's close working relationship with Grainger (as well as many other African American musicians) and it seems he was trying to help out Grainger's daughter Portia in the mid-1950s. It wouldn't surprise me too much if he'd filed the copyright renewal to benefit Portia and himself both. Since Porter's death hasn't turned up in either the white, black, or show business press (so far) had he died in the early-mid 1950s, it might not have been common knowledge, and no reason the U.S. Copyright Office would have known. A go-getter like David, in any event, may not have been unduly troubled by the niceties, especially when he thought there could be money to be made.

Or he could have been grasping at straws trying to get Portia a little income. In any event, we need better evidence that Porter was alive in 1954.

- Elliott Hurwittt

Addison said...

A description of a party at Carl Van Vechten's in 1928 attended by Bessie Smith and Porter Grainger, taken from Chris Albertson's biography of Smith, appears at his blog, Stomp Off in C: http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2010/02/carl-van-vechten-part-ii.html

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thanks for that. I have made use of that book, and it contains perhaps the most complete description of Grainger that exists in print. I have made several attempts to contact the author, Chris Albertson, but without success.

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