Saturday, May 28, 2022

Nate Wilcox, "Let It Roll," and an interview about "St. James Infirmary"


Here is an interview I had with Nate Wilcox for his "Let It Roll" podcast - which aims at "putting together a history of popular music in America with a focus on the social, technological and business forces that drive the culture."

Wilcox is an engaged, very knowledgeable historian of the evolution of popular music. The interview went to some extraordinary places.
The interview is about an hour long and focuses on I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, published by Genius Books.

Nate Wilcox's podcast can be found here.

The interview can be caught here.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

St. James Infirmary played on a carrot

 A friend brought this item to my attention, prefacing it with "And now for something completely different."

The musician in the video below is Hugh Levey. He writes: "My grandson quite often picks up a toy and pretends to play it like a clarinet, so last week I thought we could make a carrot clarinet together ..."

Mr. Levy runs Woodwindly, a music store in the UK. He also has a Facebook page. And he plays a darned good carrot!

Friday, March 11, 2022

Bob Dylan and St. James Infirmary


Above, Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan, from a collage by the author.

I am aware of three times Bob Dylan has sung or spoken about "St. James Infirmary."

The first was in his 1983 song, "Blind Willie McTell," which closes:

I'm gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I can tell you one thing
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Readers will recall that McTell claimed authorship of "The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" which was long thought to have been inspired by "St. James Infirmary." McTell did not write the song, which was recorded two years before the first version of "St. James Infirmary." But he sure sang it well.

The second was in a Feb. 20, 2008 radio broadcast. It was the 69th episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour, the theme was "Doctors," and Dylan spoke for quite a while. I have written about this elsewhere on the blog, so suffice it to say Dylan played Snooks Eaglin's 1959 interpretation of the song.

The third time was in the song "Murder Most Foul," which he recorded in 2020.

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung
Play St. James Infirmary in the court of King James
If you want to remember, better write down the names
Play Etta James too, play I'd Rather Go Blind
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind

Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" lyric was a key reason I began researching the byways of "St. James Infirmary." It's a grand journey!

Friday, February 18, 2022

3rd Edition launched by Genius Books!!!!

February 18th, 2022. Today is the launch date for the 3rd edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Updated with new material, it is now being published by Genius Books.

Operating out of Los Angeles, Genius is developing an impressive array of music-centric volumes, along with, of course, other genres. Their music books will have historical impact.

For instance, there is author/photographer Michael Cooper's photo book on Brian Jones, Butterfly in the Park.

Another is a pictorial history titled  A Pig's Tale: Open Edition, by Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick. This is about the folk who created, among others, Dylan's "Great White Wonder" bootleg, and spawned an underground industry.

There's the "Rock and Roll Detective," Jim Berkenstadt, who "examines the secrets, myths, legends, hoaxes, conspiracies, and the widely inexplicable events that are such an intriguing part of rock and roll history," in Mysteries in the Music: Case Closed. Including tales of Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and more. 

And others enticing titles. Including, now, this 3rd edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

This is an exciting publisher on an exciting journey, and I am happy that SJI has settled here.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Owners Of El Torreon Ballroom, Home of Phil Baxter, Have Big Plans For Renovations

The El Torreon lives!

This is where Phil Baxter, the first registered co-author (along with Carl Moore) of "Gambler's Blues" - aka "St. James Infirmary" - held sway from 1927-1933 (with his big band, "The Texas Tommies.").

In the previous post we visited the resurrection of the famous mirrored ball which reflected light onto the ceiling in the days of dance bands and huge dance floors. And now, news of the renovation of the dance hall itself!

You can read about it here:

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Resurrection of the El Torreon mirrored ball!

Cover for 1925 sheet music.
Phil Baxter (music), along with Carl Moore (lyrics), were the first of many to claim authorship of the song "St. James Infirmary." They printed the sheet music (then named "Gambler's Blues") in 1925. This was three years before Louis Armstrong recorded it with writing credit to Don Redman (well, until the second pressing, when Joe Primrose emerged as the "author").

Phil Baxter and Carl Moore

Both Baxter and Moore are important characters in the tale of "St. James Infirmary," and both are detailed in the book  I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

Phil and the Texas Tommies in 1926, a year before they
became the house orchestra at the El Torreon Ballroom.
Trombone. Trumpet. Drums. Piano. Clarinet. Banjo.

Phil Baxter, a Texan, and his band "The Texas Tommies" roamed the land dressed in Stetson hats and cowboy boots, performing hot jazz in the many dance halls that spotted the landscape. Forgotten today, they were a major draw. In the years 1927-1933 they served as the house band in Kansas City's hottest dancehall, the El Torreon Ballroom.

Phil and the Texas Tommies in Kansas City c 1927 
Photo taken at the El Torreon Ballroom.

Here is an excerpt from I Went Down to St. James Infirmary:

"The El Torreon was huge. It had room for two thousand dancers. It was decorated in an exotic Spanish motif. Clouds, projected onto the high vaulted ceiling, floated across glistening stars. The dance floor was illuminated by a massive mirror ball of a hundred thousand facets that hung from the ceiling. The El Torreon's opening night featured a double bill. The Texas Tommies, now an orchestra of sixteen musicians, had traded in their cowboy gear for tuxedos. At the opposite end of the dance hall stood the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks, back in Kansas City for a three-week stint. The Nighthawks were once the most popular band in the city but had relocated to Chicago three years earlier."

That mirrored ball struck me as extraordinary, prefiguring the decorations of the disco era. It must have been a fantastic sight in the 1920s, giving the dancehall an exotic, unforgettable atmosphere.

Almost a century later the mirrored ball has been resurrected. The El Torreon underwent many changes since Phil Baxter's day. From a 1920s fancy ballroom ("the tallest building in Kansas City") to a skating rink to a rock 'n roll arena renamed "The Cowtown Ballroom" in the 1970s - where Frank Zappa, Ravi Shankar, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, The Byrds, BB King, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and many others performed.

And then the mirrored ball was taken down and put into storage.

In subsequent years (after 1974) the El Torreon served as a flea-market venue, a church, etc.

The mirrored ball has been resurrected, 45+ years later. You can see it in the Kansas City Museum.

These days, the El Torreon hosts weddings, business meetings, and special events.

Here is a link to an article about the resurrection of the mirrored ball.

Here is a link to its present incarnation.

And here is a preview to a movie about the Cowtown Ballroom of the 1970s - when the mirrored ball still spun above the stage.

  St. James Infirmary.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Borges, tattoos, conspiracy notions, and SJI

A quick post, here. Three items that I've had on the burner.

1. Jorge Luis Borges, singer of St. James Infirmary

Are you familiar with Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)? Argentinian, he is often considered one of the premier fiction writers of the age. While he received many international awards, many think it atrocious that he was not given the Nobel prize for literature.

Borges' short story collection, Labyrinths, had a big impact on me.

And, abstract writer par excellence, he was a big fan of St. James Infirmary. He enjoyed singing it.

2. A tattoo artist imprinted stop-motion impressions of the cartoon featuring Cab Calloway circa 1932. 76 inkings on 76 bodies.

3.  Conspiracy theorists put forward the notion that the the SJI cartoon predicted Covid-19.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

A 1951 cartoon, an 1887 poem, and St. James Infirmary

When my son Alex was a wee lad I would read him bedtime stories. One of our early books was Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). Harold, dressed in sleepers, was about the same age as Alex.

Harold had a purple crayon, and when he went for a nighttime walk he drew a moon so he could see in the dark, and a path so he could walk. And so the story of Harold and his purple crayon progressed until he drew a bed and went to sleep.

I had forgotten about this book until I received an email from Philip Nel. Philip is working on early cartoons by Crockett Johnson, the author of Harold and the Purple Crayon.

In the 1940s, Johnson created a brilliant comic strip featuring another young boy called Barnaby. Barnaby ran from April 1942 to February 1952. Nel has been co-editing the Barnaby cartoons. He is now working on the fifth and final volume.

What does this have to do with St. James Infirmary?   

Well, in the July 30, 1951 cartoon Barnaby's rather inept and blustery fairy Godfather recited a variation of the opening lines of the song SJI:

"'Twas a balmy summer evening and a goodly crowd was there!
It well-nigh filled Joe's barroom, on the corner of the square."

Nel had recognized this as similar to the opening lines of many (or most) Gambling Blues/St. James Infirmary iterations. He wrote me, asking if I had encountered this lyric before. "No. It's new to me."

It presented a puzzle.

I searched more deeply and found that these are the opening lines of an 1887 poem by the poet, playwright, actor, and movie executive Hugh Antoine d'Arcy (1843-1925). The Face on the Barroom Floor (or The Face on the Floor, etc.) is a poem which became immensely popular in the early 20th century. People read poetry back then, and even attended poetic recitations for which they had to pay.

D'Arcy himself recited it in front of paying crowds. Charlie Chaplin made a short comedic silent film of the same name in 1917. Hank Snow recorded it as late as 1968. Joe Cocker's stage manager Sherman "Smitty" Jones recited it from memory during a break from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1971. Charles Manson, who was once an ambitious singer/songwriter, recorded a recitation. Composer Henry Mollicone wrote a 1978 opera of the same name, based on the poem. The list goes on.

Despite its immense popularity I hadn't come across the poem until Nel brought it to my attention. 

Famous as it was, The Face on the Barroom Floor would not have been considered "serious" poetry. It is a kind of pop-poem. It tells an emotional tale that would resonate and excite, in the days before the easy-to-access entertainments of our era. It's the story of a homeless man, impoverished, poorly dressed, who wandered into a bar, and of whom a bar patron said (reflecting one of the discriminations of the time): "I wouldn't touch him with a fork, he's filthy as a Turk." 

For the price of a few drinks the man told his story of woe. He was once a successful portrait painter who fell in love with a woman "with a form like the Milo Venus, too beautiful to live; / With eyes that would beat the Koh-i-noor, and a wealth of chestnut hair." She, however, became distracted by a fair-haired dreamy-eyed youth he was painting, and she ran away with him. The artist fell into disarray and now, in this bar of attentive listeners and ever reinforced by drink, he offered to draw the face of his beloved on the floor with chalk the bar used to record baseball scores. In the final lines of the poem:

Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,
To sketch a face that might well buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!

This is an exciting find. This poem from 1887 supports the notion that St. James Infirmary was created from myriad sources: a couple of lines taken from The Face on the Barroom Floor, bits from a number of old songs like Let Her Go, God Bless Her, or Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her, or She's Gone, Let Her Go, and so on, interwoven with imaginative lyrics from which emerged a new story.

"Face Upon the Floor"
Engraving by John Held Jr. 1925
(John Held Jr. also illustrated the coffin
scene from the song
St. James Infirmary.)

Another poet, John Henry Titus (1853-1947), claimed authorship of the poem. He said he wrote it in 1872, fifteen years earlier. Titus was adamant that d'Arcy had re-written it and then claimed it as his own (making, I am sure, quite a bit of money). This poem continues for three single-spaced pages, is a more difficult read, and concludes:

Another as wil-o'clock dram..and
knelt with char askan at sketch
of one might bestir the soul of
any man: then a truant memory lock accent low, "Madgelene" thou
mistook one! struggles to rise and
with cry as phantom of dread..
leaps as in her arms forgiven; and
fell on the picture dead.

Titus recited it for a record series "Voices From The Past," on his 90th birthday.

These expressions of The Face on the Barroom Floor illustrate a common, dynamic aspect of creativity. Nothing arises from a vacuum. Everything depends upon what came before. The Face on the Barroom Floor lent a couple of lines to St. James Infirmary. In the same way, Bugs Bunny would not have existed without Mickey Mouse. Before Mickey there was Felix the Cat (of whom animator Otto Messmer credited the influence of Charlie Chaplin). Before Felix there was Krazy Kat. And before Krazy Kat all sorts of newspaper cartoons - all the way back to drawings on cave walls.

Love and theft. Imitation and flattery. St. James Infirmary.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Pass It Along

 Bob Bossin, from British Columbia's Gabriola Island, recently bought a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. We exchanged a few emails and then he sent me this video he put together of the Scott Cook song, Pass it Along. It's a remarkable cooperative piece featuring an international array of musicians (and - in the case of Elizabeth May, past leader of the Canadian Green party - a politician) including Peggy Seeger and Canada's Connie Kaldor. The song is a rewarding listen. Starting as an homage to a guitar, it spreads its wings to include ... well, everything. 

Thanks for this, Bob Bossin. I shall say no more. The song speaks.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

RIP Leo Crandall

Celebrated innovative cellist, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Leo Crandall died on May 29. Obituary.

In memory, here is a performance with The Gonstermachers of St. James Infirmary.

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Carter Family, Ralph Peer, copyright ... and, oh, Lesley Riddle

A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter
The original Carter Family
The Carter Family, immensely popular musicians a century ago, helped usher in "Country Music." At the time it was labelled "Hillbilly Music." They have a fascinating history, including a long stay in Mexico where they performed live on a radio station owned by an entrepreneur who made most of his fortune by enticing men to travel to his "hospital" near the radio station, and have goat gonads implanted in their scrotums. A cure for impotence. Following a few deaths (and a few miraculous cures) Dr. Brinley lost his fortune and his radio station. The Carter's were popular draws to the station; adverts recommended the treatments.

The Carter Family might be best remembered these days from their relationship with Johnny Cash. Johnny married June Carter; but she insisted he kick his drug addictions first. At one point the Carters, with rifles at the ready, kept dealers away while Johnny went cold turkey.

 The Carter Family was managed by music publisher Ralph Peer, from the time he "discovered" them in 1927. Not long before, Peer had signed a contract with the Victor Recording Company through which he received an annual salary of one dollar but, "my publishing firm would own the copyrights, and thus I would be compensated by the royalties resulting from the compositions that I would select for recording purposes."

In order to make money Peer needed clients who wrote their own songs (and who would sign over to him ownership of their material). This worked well for his client, Jimmie Rodgers, who wrote his own material. But the Carters - Alvin Pleasant (A.P.), Maybelle, and Sara - were not songwriters. They were expert at interpreting Appalachian songs they had been brought up with. Peer instructed them to find and modify already existing songs. These would be copyrighted as new songs, with A.P listed as the composer of both words and melody. The royalties did not come directly to the Carters, though. The money was funneled through Ralph Peer. He gave the Carters a portion of the funds, enough to keep them loyal.

Because of this arrangement with Ralph Peer, A.P. Carter went on many journeys through Appalachia in search of songs they could add to the Carter's copyrights. A.P. found the material in people's backyards and kitchens and front porches, where they played the songs of their ancestors. He found them in hymnals and songbooks. The old songs that survived in the Carters' home state of Virginia and surrounding territory were raw material.

The original Carter Family made over 240 records between 1927 and their break-up in 1943. Almost all of these were based upon songs they did not write themselves (you can count exceptions on the fingers of one hand).

As an example, "Bury Me Beneath the Willow" was based upon a traditional folk song called "Under the Willow Tree."

Here is the opening verse and the chorus from the original:

My heart is broken, I am in sorrow
For the only one I love
I ne'er shall see his face again
Unless we meet in heaven above

Chorus: Then bury me beneath the willow
Beneath the weeping willow tree
And when he knows that I am sleeping
Then perhaps he'll come and weep for me

Here is the opening verse and the chorus from the Carter Family variation:

My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow
For the only one I love
When shall I see him, oh, no, never
Till I meet him in heaven above

Oh, bury me under the weeping willow

Yes, under the weeping willow tree
So he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he will weep for me

Many, maybe most, Carter songs were like this. The cash machine kept dinging for Ralph Peer, and the Carters received a bit of the profits. Enough to keep them loyal.

For a few years A.P travelled through Appalachia in search of "new" songs he could transcribe and copyright. For much of this time he travelled with his friend Lesley Riddle. Riddle was an innovative guitarist with a prodigious musical memory (A.P. had neither). Riddle taught A.P. to play guitar - but A.P. never progressed beyond rudiments. Riddle taught Maybelle a picking method which became famous as "the Carter scratch," which became the basis for Johnny Cash's musical style. In the Appalachian homes they visited, A.P. scribbled down the lyrics while Riddle memorized the melody and the chord changes, and then taught them to Maybelle and Sara. Riddle (who we shall revisit in an upcoming entry) was black and, due to his association with the Carters, one of the formative personalities in Country music. He is not much remembered today, though. I wonder why?

Monday, April 19, 2021

Bob Dylan, Jimmie Rodgers, Duke Ellington, etc., and the story of St. James Infirmary

Some of the characters who inhabit
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary
The history of St. James Infirmary is fascinating and complicated. Some years ago I put together an image (based on a painting by Albert Gleizes) showing a few of the people who have been central to the song, its history and its evolution. Some of the faces will be familiar to you. In no particular order the ones portrayed here are Phil Baxter, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie McTell, Don Redman, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Carl 'The Squeakin' Deacon' Moore, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Mamie Smith, Emmett Miller, Irving Mills, Duke Ellington, Porter Grainger, Jimmie 'Blue Yodeler' Rodgers. The picture also references the road, the city, sex, fate, magic, OKeh records (who introduced the notion of blues/race music to the world), mountains of mystery, trial, possibility...and music.

Here are excerpts from reviews of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary:

"A sparkling book."

"A goldmine of information."

"This is not the first book devoted to one song, but it is the first to cross so many stylistic fences in its attempt to trace the origins of a tune."

"The definitive statement on the subject - and a very entertaining read."

"It will retain a favourite place in my library."

"The book: wow. I'd picked up bits of the story from the blog, but the book was an absolute feast. These are wonderful stories and you tell them so beautifully."

"This work is unique, so if you don't have it, get it."

"I am thrilled beyond belief at your great story. You found things out about (my husband) Carl Moore that I didn't even know."

"The best treatment of Irving Mills life and work is in this book."

The book can, of course, be purchased here: I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Friday, March 26, 2021

Irving Mills' Relentless Drive to Promote the Best Jazz Music


Irving Mills (c. 1982)
by Bruce Fessier
I have exchanged emails with Irving Mills' granddaughter, Beverly Mills Keys, for over a decade. Ms. Keys recently sent me a link to a remarkable article about Irving Mills by writer Tracy Conrad. 
Irving Mills, as you know, was the pseudonymous Joe Primrose, supposed composer of "St. James Infirmary." He was also a tireless promoter of musicians, a successful song publisher, and so on. Mills is part of a fascinating tale, recounted in my book  I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. 
Anecdotes about Mills are not easy to come by. He kept much of his life private, and so it is a pleasure to read about him. He was a significant force in the shaping of American music. Ms. Conrad has kindly permitted me to reprint her article on this blog:

* * *

Newspaperman Bruce Fessier chronicled an amazing story in 1982 as told to him by his friend Irving Mills. By then, Mills had retired to a big house in the south of Palm Springs and would regale Fessier with stories of the golden age of jazz. After all, Mills had been there for some of the most important moments, or really, had worked tirelessly to make many of those moments happen. 

For instance, Mills wrote the lyrics to “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) in 1929, but as Fessier recorded, Mills said it happened by accident. “‘I had an engagement in Chicago for a cafĂ© roadhouse that opened in the summer, and prior to the opening, he (Ellington) played for six weeks in theaters. After six weeks, doing four shows a day, five on Sundays, they became very stagey. I noticed the dancers weren’t dancing right. It wasn’t Duke Ellington’s dance music.’ Shocked after his first viewing, Mills said he ‘ran back to the dressing room’ and asked Ellington why he had changed his music. Ellington said the people liked it, but Mills told him to stop. "I said, 'It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,'" he recalled. And he said, “You know, Irving, you’ve got a lyric there. Let’s write it up." 

And write it up they sure did. Mills added some more lines, and Ellington’s trumpet player Cootie Williams came in with the music, "Do-whacka-do-whacka-do-whacka-do."

Born at the end of the 19th century in Ukraine and having immigrated to the United States as a child, Mills had a spectacular, if unlikely, career. His father was a milliner who died in 1905 when Mills was just 11 years old, forcing him and his brother Jack to work at exceedingly odd jobs including busboy, wallpaper salesman, telephone operator, and “song demonstrator” to support the family. 

By 1919, Irving and Jack Mills were in business together publishing music. Soon, they were the kings of Tin Pan Alley, cultivating songwriters and then hawking those tunes to radio stations. Both Irving and Jack discovered a number of first-rate songwriters like Sammy Fain, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. (Carmichael and McHugh would also retire to the desert.)

But Mills also had a keen eye for performers, and started, or boosted, the careers of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Hoagy Carmichael, Lena Horne and the Dorsey Brothers. But most importantly, one evening in New York around 1925, Mills went to the Club Kentucky on West 49th between 7th and Broadway. Playing there was a small band of six musicians in from Washington, D.C., led by Duke Ellington. According to lore, Mills promptly signed Ellington, launching his career by managing to get the band booked uptown at the Cotton Club, and broadcasting those shows on radio.

Fessier noted that Mills did more than almost anybody to promote black musicians and singers. He was one of the first to record black and white musicians together, using twelve white musicians and the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a recording of “St. Louis Blues,” and was powerful enough to force the music label to release the record over their objections. He booked previously all-white auditoriums for black performers. Fessier recounts that one of the finest things he thinks Mills ever did was to hire a private Pullman car, with proper dining room and sleeping quarters, to take the Ellington band through southern states in order to spare them from having to endure the harsh segregation of restaurants and hotels. (Many Ellington compositions are known for conjuring train imagery.)

As was the practice at the time, many of Ellington’s most famous tunes were also credited to Mills, who was an able lyricist, including “Mood Indigo,” “(In My) Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady.”

Mills only produced a single movie, “Stormy Weather” in 1943 for 20th Century Fox starring an all-black cast including Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

In addition to relentless promotion of the best talent, black or white, Mills was an innovator. He printed “small orchestrations” transcribed off a record, so that non-professional musicians could see how great improvised solos were constructed. And he conceived of the concept of a band within a band, a rhythm section who could go into the studio without the full orchestra and lay down cutting-edge sounds.

Mills was constantly making records, arranging tunes, selling and merging companies, until he was the head of what would become Columbia Records. At the time of his last sale, the total catalog of songs was estimated to number in excess of 25,000, of which, 1,500 were still producing royalties. In 1964, Mills was enjoying royalties in excess of one million dollars per year, equivalent to about eleven million today, and the company encompassed 20 music publishing subsidiaries as well as outlets in Britain, Brazil, Canada, France, then West Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain.

After that spectacular career, Mills retired to Palm Springs, but was still busy creating. Fessier recalls, “I was at Irving's house one night in December of 1981 when Hoagy Carmichael called. Irving had published Hoagy's ‘Stardust’ in 1929 after challenging his stable of lyricists to come up with the right words for Hoagy's beautiful melody. In the late 1970s, Irving said he couldn't find the right piano jazz for the kind of cocktail parties he liked to throw, so he produced a series of 15 albums featuring the music of some of his favorite jazz and pop composers. He called them ‘Musical Cocktail Records’ (a phrase he trademarked) featuring great pianists playing the music of Hoagy, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Van Heusen.”

Fessier continues, “Irving went into business mode when Hoagy called, telling him he wanted to promote the record he had made with him, featuring Paul Smith. Irving didn't get the response he wanted and I asked him what Hoagy said. He said Hoagy's reaction was, ‘Irving, are you still working?’” Indeed, he was. Nice work if you can get it.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to her at

Inquiries into the early years of SJI