Inquiries into the early years of SJI
Showing posts with label Cab Calloway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cab Calloway. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Betty Boop & St. James Infirmary (1933)

From Betty Boop's "Snow White" with
Koko the Clown (aka Cab Calloway)
A reader recently reminded me of Betty Boop and St. James Infirmary.

Back in the 1930s, because of his contributions to the animation department at Fleischer Studios, cartoonist Roland Crandall was given free reign to develop his own notion of a cartoon story. He chose the tale of Snow White (the title of his creation) and, working alone for six months, single-handedly drew and formatted a seven-minute fable of delirious invention. In those days each frame of the film had to be drawn by hand, so it was a most intense process.

The soundtrack was a Cab Calloway version of SJI.

For parts of the film Crandall drew over rotoscopes of Cab Calloway, in order to capture Calloway's idiosyncratic dance moves for Koko the clown - and the ghost that the witch turned Koko into. (There can be no doubt that Michael Jackson closely studied Calloway's moves.)

In 1994 Crandall's Snow White was voted into 19th place of the greatest cartoons of all time by cartoon animators. The Library of Congress, that year, selected it for preservation in the national film registry. The film is now in the public domain.

In 1999 the White Stripes started their adventurous interpretation of St. James Infirmary with the exclamation "Oh, Koko!"

If you are drawn in, you can find some pretty interesting stuff by visiting Rob Walker's (unfortunately now defunct but hopefully to be resurrected) blog NO Notes and entering "Betty Boop" in the search rectangle. Rob was/is fascinated by this bit of cinema, as am I.

The wild imagination of Roland Crandall. Mysterious, analogical, weird.

(Click on the video to take you to the proper framing at YouTube.)


Saturday, April 7, 2018

Irving Mills sings (with Jack Pettis And His Pets) 1928


Irving Mills
Correspondent Beverly Mills Keys sent a link to a song in which Irving Mills is the vocalist. Historically, of course, Mills was not known as a singer - although he did contribute to a few recordings, including some by Duke Ellington. Mills is better remembered as an entrepreneur who managed many artists in the 1920s and 1930s, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. In the realm of the song St. James Infirmary, of course, he was - as Joe Primrose - an alleged composer.

Therein lies another story.

Irving Mills is a central character in my tale of St. James Infirmary. So it is good to actually hear his voice.

Jack Pettis
Below is the YouTube video Beverly Mills Keys sent to me, a 1928 recording by Jack Pettis and His Pets. For this song Irving Mills assumed the pseudonym of Erwin McGee. In other records he sang as Sonny Smith, Goody Goodwin, and so on. The pseudonyms were sometimes necessary, as he often recorded with predominantly black musicians; racially mixed performing groups could be, uhm, difficult in those times. (Mills, to his credit, was one of the first to record racially integrated bands.)

Pettis, though, was Caucasian, as were the members of his bands; an innovative saxophonist, he recorded occasionally with Mills' "Hotsy Totsy Gang" alongside such youngsters as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa ...  all soon to become among the biggest names in jazz/pop music. Mills had an uncanny way of recognizing talent.

You can read more about Jack Pettis here.

It is likely that Mills was managing Pettis when this record was made. "Baby" was written by two of Mills' stable of songwriters, early in their careers, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Both were eventually inducted into the songwriters hall of fame.

Mills' vocal comes in at about 58 seconds.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

SJI on Ukulele

While researching the book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I collected quite a few sheet music scores for popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s. While all contained the piano score, most included the chords for ukulele accompaniment. None of this sheet music refers to guitar accompaniment.

The ukulele is a relatively recent creation, Hawaiian in origin, it probably developed in the late nineteenth century - although with precedents in the Portuguese machete, which is probably related to the European lute (dating back about 800 years), which is probably related to the Arabic oud (dating back thousands of years) ... and so on.

It's doubtlessly a truism, but it bears reiterating: everything - including musical instruments and musical composition - is related to something that came before.

Following concerts in the U.S. by some Hawaiian bands, the ukulele became intensely popular in the early years of the jazz era. So, whether the sheet music was for  Phil Baxter's "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," or Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," or "St. James Infirmary," it was likely to have the ukulele chords included.

Now, what does SJI sound like as played on ukulele?

I recently exchanged some brief emails with Toronto ukulele player, Jennifer Schmitt. She had just posted a recording of the song on YouTube, and was curious about how to credit the composer ... "it was a favourite of my father's. He died ten years ago today, and I used some of my Lake Opinicon time to record this in his memory."

I like Schmitt's treatment of the song. Direct, expressive, and sweetly melodic.
(To view in its proper aspect ratio, watch it on the YouTube channel.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts while reading Teachout's new biography of Duke Ellington

At the recommendation of a friend I recently purchased a new biography of Duke Ellington. Written by Terry Teachout, the book was released a couple of months ago. I was surprised to find, while perusing the "Select Bibliography," my own book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, listed. In all humility I have to mention that this was one of close to two hundred books that Teachout listed. But he did write this: "No biography of (Irving) Mills has been written. The best short treatment of his life and work is in Harwood (I Went Down to St. James Infirmary)." Irving Mills, of course, was central to the early career of Duke Ellington, as he was for Cab Calloway and other black musicians of the era.

It is a shame that there is no detailed biography of Mills. Information about him comes in dribs and drabs; what is unearthed often requires considerable effort. And, of course, the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to write accurately or honestly about the man. A surprising amount of what we do find takes the form of critical opinion, rather than biographical fact, and that opinion is often scathing.

Let me try to explain. Irving Mills was intimately involved in the popularization of what the world thinks of as "American music" - music that arose out of the black culture of the 1920s and 1930s (as well as popular standards from the pens of white tunesmiths). He was foremost a businessman, though, and one who saw opportunity where others - because of the intense prejudices of the time - saw nothing. With the black artists he represented, Mills would take up to 50% of their earnings, rather than the 10% or 15% common between managers and white artists. But in return Mills worked hard. He made Ellington (for instance) into a star, and that could never have happened without a white manager; it might be surprising that it could have happened at all. In other words, Mills charged a lot for his services, but he did not take the money and run, and every indication suggests that he treated his clients with respect. Much of the criticism leveled at Mills is based upon contemporary notions of fairness and racial equality. From the perspective of nearly a century ago, things take on a different sheen.

If you're interested in Duke Ellington, this is a good book to read. Teachout takes an even-handed approach with Mills, and that is refreshing.

A side-light here: none of the three Ellington biographies I have read make any mention of "St. James Infirmary." This even though his band recorded it twice in 1930 - as The Ten Blackberries (with Mills assuming lead vocals under the pseudonym Sunny Smith), and again as The Harlem Hot Chocolates. But, really, it's not surprising. SJI is little more than a small footnote in the history of a man responsible for such standards as "Sophisticated Lady," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo" and seemingly countless other significant compositions.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

American roots music in Belgium: The Golden Glows

The Golden Glows (image from their website)
A few months ago I was doing some research on the song "Willie The Weeper." In my most-recent-entry-but-one you can read how "Willie The Weeper" became "Minnie The Moocher" which retained the instrumentation of "St. James Infirmary" while becoming Cab Calloway's signature song at The Cotton Club, and how parts of "Minnie The Moocher" have sometimes become embedded into renditions of "St. James Infirmary." Anyway, while doing this research I stumbled upon a contemporary version of "Willie The Weeper" on YouTube by a Belgian trio called "The Golden Glows." Consisting of two female vocalists and a male vocalist/guitarist, the Golden Glows lean heavily on vocal harmony, and this has been their mainstay through successive CD releases. They do it well. One of their members, Bram Van Moorhem, recently suggested that if I listen to their three CDs in succession, I shall be able to detect an evolution in their musicianship and sound. I did so, and discovered a second connection between The Golden Glows and "St. James Infirmary."

"Willie The Weeper" is from their first CD, titled A Songbook From The 20s. Their most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, is a tribute to the prison songs collected by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary) in Sugar Land, Texas in 1947. (The Golden Glows call these Lomax collections "the holiest of holies," and their treatment is both innovative and reverent.) It was 13 years earlier that Alan and his father, John, recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing "St. James Hospital" - a song that Alan himself recorded and, through some reasoning that I would describe as weird, declared it to be the link between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary."

In a way, that's beside the point. I can only describe The Golden Glows most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, as a remarkable accomplishment. These songs, while sparsely orchestrated, emphasize - in fine European style - the melodic underpinnings of these songs while incorporating a strong percussive drive that represents the pounding of spades and hoes on the hard ground that the prisoners had to work, without respite, day after day, year after year. While I am fond of all their re-creations I think this, A Prison Songbook, is a wonderful achievement. You can see some videos of their work by clicking here.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Minnie the Moocher: the "controversy" over the Hi-De-Hos

I have a few posts waiting in the wings, so you will be seeing them in close succession. I have chosen this one as the first of these because it refers to the previous post, about a rambunctious, startling, and thoroughly captivating modern New Orleans version of SJI. In that post I wrote that this version by the New Creations Brass Band contains "nods to the 1930s Cab Calloway with the call and response and the Hi-De-Hos."

So, about these Hi-De-Hos (or Ho De Hos . . .). I have written about these before. And I shall add a few more words about them here. But I do want to emphasize that, when I talk about the controversy, I am only talking about a pop song, and that the word "controversy" resides within that realm.

So here we go:

First, "Minnie The Moocher" was based upon two or three other songs - one being SJI (Calloway used SJI as his signature tune in his early days at the Cotton Club and insisted that its replacement should stay close, in the instrumental arrangement, to SJI) and another being an old song from the Wild West, "Willie The Weeper" (from which Calloway and Irving Mills borrowed very heavily). In Cab Calloway's autobiography, "Of Minnie The Moocher And Me" (1976) Cab (with his co-writer Bryant Rollins) said:

"The 'hi-de-ho' part came later, and it was completely unexpected and unplanned. ... During one show that was being broadcast over nationwide radio in the spring of 1931, not long after we started using 'Minnie the Moocher' as our theme song, I was singing, and in the middle of a verse, as it happens sometimes, the damned lyrics went right out of my head. I forgot them completely. I couldn't leave a blank there as I might have done if we weren't on the air. I had to fill the space, so I just started to scat-sing the first thing that came into my mind.
"'Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho. Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho. Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-hee. Oodlee-odlyee-odlyee-oodlee-doo. Hi-de-ho-de-ho-de-hee.' The crowd went crazy. And I went right on with it - right over the live radio - like it was written that way. Then I asked the band to follow it with me and I sang, 'Dwaa-de-dwaa-de-dwaa-de-doo.' And the band responded. By this time, whenever the band responded some of the people in the audience were beginning to chime in as well. So I motioned to the band to hold up and I asked the audience to join in. And I sang and the audience responded; they hollered back and nearly brought the roof down. We went on and on for I don't know how long, and by the end the rafters were rocking and the people were standing up and cheering."


That sounds pretty straight forward. But, in his introduction to the same book Calloway also wrote, referring to Minnie:
"I don't know how it got started, really, the scat singing. I think one night in the Cotton Club I just forgot the words to a song and started to scat to keep the song going ..."


Hmmm. His manager and co-writer (Irving Mills), on the other hand, was adamant that he, Mills, wrote most of the song, basing it upon "Willie The Weeper," and that the call-and-response had always been an integral part of it, as it had been with "Willie The Weeper." From the link above: "Irving Mills claimed he wrote 'Minnie the Moocher' himself. He completed it in a couple of hours, using one of the Mills Music house musicians to transcribe the melody." Calloway then, according to the 1933 newspaper interview with Mills, “injected his catching musical personality into the piece.”

The image accompanying this post is from one of the first sheet-music covers for "Minnie The Moocher." (Sheet music sales were still a major commercial enterprise.)  The date is 1931, the year Calloway started performing the song and, as you can see in the image below, the scat-singing was already integrated into the song sheet. (Clicking should enlarge the image.) Calloway became known as "The Hi-De-Ho Man," audiences loved responding to his Hi-De-Hos and - from the perspective of his career - "Minnie The Moocher" and its call and response were very important.

This doesn't, by any means, settle the "controversy." But it might help to give it an outline.



Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Brushing the borders of anarchy: SJI in today's New Orleans. Wow!

Michael Ward-Bergeman, a musician about whom I have previously written on this blog, will soon be moving to New Orleans, and he sent me a link to a current New Orleans performance of "St. James Infirmary." Of course SJI has long been associated with New Orleans, and one might be tempted to consider the song a kind of city anthem. The only time Louis Armstrong mentioned the song in his writings was in relation to a funeral in New Orleans. A member of his club, the Tammany Social Club, had died and Louis was one of the pall bearers. This was around 1917 (he mentioned that "Livery Stable Blues" had just been released) so Louis would have been about sixteen.

He wrote: "The funeral left from the corner of Liberty and Perdido Streets. All the members had to wear black or real dark suits, and I had been lucky enough to get my black broadcloth suit out of pawn in time for the funeral. In those days we did a good bit of pawning. As soon as a guy got broke the first thing he thought of was the pawn shop. All out of pawn that day. I looked like a million dollars. . . . It had been raining all morning; the gutters were full of water and the streets real muddy. I had on a brand new Stetson hat (like the one in St. James Infirmary), my fine black suit, and patent leather shoes. Believe me, I was a sharp cat."

In Louis' case the funeral didn't go quite as planned. His girlfriend Daisy saw him chatting with another girl, and in a jealous rage chased him down the street with a razor. His Stetson fell off, and she cut it to ribbons. (From Armstrong's "Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans," 1954)

Which might be a round-about way of introducing this contemporary version of "St. James Infirmary." But even before Louis' time, SJI had been played at New Orleans funerals, and the singer we are about to encounter works within this venerable tradition, being employed in his off-hours at a New Orleans funeral parlor.

Malcolm "Sticks" Morris is the lead vocalist, and also plays a fine bass drum and cymbal on this song. The group is called the New Creations Brass Band, and they can be found on this Facebook Page. Their musicianship is a wonder. The percussive drive here threatens, at all times, to turn the song into a runaway train, but the group is tight and incredibly energetic, and somehow everything holds together. Well, of course it holds together; this is a rehearsed and polished performance, and its effect is deliberate. There are nods to the 1930s Cab Calloway with the call and response and the hi-de-hos. But this 2013 interpretation is its own creature, lurching down the streets, scraping against buildings, staggering through the lyrics, blasting clouds out of the sky, before finally succumbing to the (inevitable) funeral march, but never giving up the ghost.

This is a "St. James Infirmary" for the 21st century. Wow! As you will soon hear, this song just keeps getting better.

I recommend turning up the volume for this. At 192 kbps and clocking in at 6:22, here is the New Creations Brass Band and St. James Infirmary Remix. (Many thanks for your permission to post this!!)

The New Creations Brass Band have a new CD coming out - as soon as I hear more, I shall let you know where to find it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Willie the Weeper - a Max Morath MP3

In the 1930s and 1940s, Cab Calloway was one of the biggest singing stars in the U.S. His manager, Irving Mills (famous in the story of SJI), secured him a position in Harlem's Cotton Club where Calloway used "St. James Infirmary" as his signature tune. Calloway might even be the only singer to have achieved a top-forty hit with the song, in 1931. (As an interesting tidbit, Calloway, dressed in a white tuxedo, performed a dynamic version of "St. James Infirmary" on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 23rd, 1964, the date of the Beatles' third appearance on the program. Cab was 56.)

Cab's search for a more "original" signature song led him to the very old folk song, "Willie The Weeper" which he and his songwriting collaborators transformed into "Minnie The Moocher" - a song with definite echoes of SJI in both its melody and instrumentation, and which owes an immense lyrical debt to "Willie the Weeper."

To me this presents an interesting contrast. SJI is a song that was stolen from the public domain. Minnie The Moocher is a song that was, uhm, to speak generously, inspired by a song in the public domain.

Anyway, you can read a more detailed story here, in an earlier post. My intent with this post is to offer you a compelling version of "Willie the Weeper," compliments of Max Morath.

On a fine CD titled Jonah Man, the original Piano Man, Mr. Ragtime himself, performed with a quintet in a tribute to the great Bert Williams. Among other treats the album includes a wonderful version of my favourite Bert Williams song, "Nobody." (Max has also recorded "Willie The Weeper" as a solo piece, but that recording is sadly no longer commercially available.)

Here we go, then. To listen (4:41 at 256 kbps), click here: Max Morath's "Willie the Weeper" MP3

Friday, March 12, 2010

SJI on old-time radio - Again!

You will recall, a year ago WFHB public radio in Bloomington, Indiana, hosted a live radio show featuring none other than Carl Moore, early claimant to the authorship of "St. James Infirmary."

They're doing it again!

No, no, no - not the same show! Carl Moore will be (as far as I'm aware) nowhere in sight (or sound) - although my erstwhile contact, WFHB alumnus Mike Kelsey, assures me that Cab Calloway will be there. And that a Calloway tribute will feature a version of SJI (which was, for many years, Cab's signature song).

According to music charts compiled by Record Research Inc., for the days before there were any record charts, Cab Calloway was the first (and last???) person to have a top 40 hit with St. James Infirmary - in 1931.

So cuddle up to your radios for a live broadcast, from the famous Buskirk-Chumley Theater in beautiful downtown Bloomington, at 8 pm (Indiana time), for "Digital Daze" - including a tribute to the master of scat, the wizard of radio dance music, Cab Calloway.

Or . . . tune your desktops and laptops here for a live feed. Saturday, March 13th, at 8 o'clock p.m. - Indiana time.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

St. James Infirmary, Willy the Weeper, and Minnie the Moocher

In the early days of his career Cab Calloway used “St. James Infirmary” as his signature song. By 1931 – when he was the house musician at the Cotton Club – he was looking for something new, something a little more original to serve as his theme. His manager Irving Mills, like many of the music makers of the day, owned a copy of Carl Sandburg’s recently published collection of American traditional songs, The American Songbag. He happened upon “Willy the Weeper” and used this as the foundation upon which to build a new song. (You can hear a 1927 recording of "Willy the Weeper" here.)

Willy hailed, probably, from the days of the Wild West – from the days when, as Alan Lomax put it, “taking dope was not regarded as a much more serious habit than drinking or chewing tobacco.” The song developed many variations, most of them adding verses that described further drug-induced dreams. Inevitably, though, Willy wakes up and, weeping, has to return to his mundane life and his mundane job.

Irving Mills claimed he wrote "Minnie the Moocher" himself. He completed it in a couple of hours, using one of the Mills Music house musicians to transcribe the melody. Calloway then, according to a 1933 newspaper interview with Mills, “injected his catching musical personality into the piece.” The song has writing credit to Mills, Clarence Gaskin and Calloway.

Willy was a chimney sweeper. Minnie was a red hot hootchie cootcher. Willy and Minnie were both hopeless addicts and the songs recounted their drug-induced dreams. Willy’s dreams took him to Bulgaria where the queen gave him a car with a diamond headlight and a silver steering wheel. Minnie wound up with the king of Sweden, who gave her a diamond car with a platinum wheel. The queen of Bulgaria had a million dollars in nickels and dimes which she’d counted a million times. The king of Sweden gave Minnie a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes which Minnie sat around and counted a million times.

In both Calloway's 1931 and (especially) 1933 recordings, one listens to the orchestral introduction expecting to hear "St. James Infirmary." But then, as Calloway starts singing, a variation of the earlier "Willy the Weeper" melody emerges. This was a really big hit for Calloway, and other related songs followed in its wake, including: "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day," "Kicking the Gong Around" (a euphemism for smoking opium), "Minnie's a Hepcat Now," and "Ghost of Smoky Joe" (Joe was Minnie's boyfriend, who taught her how to kick the gong around).

"The Hi-De-Ho Man" was another song in this Calloway stream - based upon the Hi-De-Ho call and response chorus of "Minnie the Moocher." The audiences loved this. When singing "Minnie the Moocher" Calloway would call out "Hi de hi de hi de hi" and the audience would shout it back; gradually the call and response would become more complicated until Calloway returned to the story. Coincidentally (or not) the earlier "Willy the Weeper" had a call and response chorus of its own.