Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Emmett Miller, Hank Williams, Cliff Friend, Irving Mills, and "Lovesick Blues"

In 2008 I wrote on this blog an entry about the famous Hank Williams song, Lovesick Blues. Written in 1922 as a song in a play about lovelorn pilots called "Oooh Ernest!", it was recorded by the yodeling minstrel Emmett Miller in 1928, but did not become a hit until Hank Williams took it to the charts in 1949. The writing credit (at least after the first recording) was shared between Cliff Friend and Irving Mills.

In my book I wrote extensively about this song, including the following:

"Rex Griffin, an early country singer, had recorded the song in 1929, closely modelled on Emmett Miller's version. Hank had both this version and Emmett Miller's in his record collection. His 1949 release was credited to Griffin as composer, with Hank Williams as arranger. Acuff-Rose was listed as the publishing company. When Irving Mills heard about this he sued, and in winning the suit he ensured that the ownership remained with Mills Music ... "In the depth of the depression Cliff Friend was nearly penniless and sold all his rights to 'Lovesick Blues' to Irving Mills for a reported five hundred dollars. In 2004 it was one of fifty songs the American Library of Congress added to its National Recording Registry as having significant historical and cultural importance."

Correspondent Page Schorer aka Old_Cowboy recently wrote that he found a quote from Cliff Friend on this music site CountryMusicTreasures.com:

"I was a fighter pilot in the First World War at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. I was impressed by the lovesick boys who left their young wives and sweethearts for the service, blue. I had been writing songs since I was 12. So I wrote 'Lovesick Blues.' After the war I went to New York City. Cliff Edwards (Ukelele Ike) recorded the song on Perfect Records—a good job, but the song, ahead of its time, was a flop. I took the song back from Jack Mills. Twenty years went by and fate stepped in in the guise of a stranger who met Hank Williams and sold him 'Lovesick Blues' as his song for $100. Fred Rose published it, but I had the copyright. When Williams' record hit the market, I flew to Nashville and took all the money, since I was also the publisher. Meanwhile, Frank Ifield in England had sold 4 million, and altogether, the song had sold 10 million."

Is this braggadacio on Cliff Friend's part, or is historical "fact" being once again fragile? By the time Hank Williams recorded the song Irving Mills reportedly had full control of the copyright. Jack Mills, cited by Friend in the quote above, was Irving's brother and president of Mills Music Publishing. It sounds like Friend was claiming he regained some rights to the song by the time of Hank Williams' recording.