Showing posts with label Duke Ellington. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Duke Ellington. Show all posts

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.

Friday, February 9, 2018

SPOTIFY playlist for I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Image by author, using sheet music for St. James Infirmary as background

All songs, all things, are connected.

While investigating the history of "St. James Infirmary," many other songs came into view.  Because of this I created a Spotify playlist of some of the songs mentioned in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. I couldn't find everything, though. Neither Daisey Tapley nor Florence Cole-Talbert are in the list. Aside from two or three women who were part of choirs, these were the first two black women to appear in recordings (1910 and 1919). I was able to include the first recorded solo black man (also, probably, the first solo male recording artist) - George W. Johnson with "The Laughing Coon" (c. 1894). Unfortunately, his first tune, "The Whistling Coon" (1891) is not on Spotify.

Neither are any of the songs by Carl Moore, aka "The Squeakin' Deacon." Moore was the first person, in 1924, to claim co-writing credit for SJI. From Arkansas, he adopted the persona of a hillbilly hick while fronting a smooth, swinging jazz orchestra. He recorded four catchy songs, but none of them migrated beyond their original 78 rpm discs. The only place you will find them today is on this site - enter "Carl Moore mp3" into the search box.

So far I have included 55 songs on the SJI playlist. You can hear Irving Mills introducing Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club on "Cotton Club Stomp." The Hokum Boys with their lost versions of "Gambler's Blues/St. James Infirmary." Gene Austin and "My Blue Heaven" (the best-selling song of all time ... until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") - as well as his take on SJI. Bessie Smith. Blind Willie McTell's "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell." Cab Calloway. Alphonso Trent's 1930 SJI tantrum. Sophie Tucker. Hank Williams. Ward-Bergeman's 2011 gypsy version of SJI. Jimmie Rodgers. Victoria Spivey's 1926 "Black Snake Blues."

I shall add more from the book's song index as time goes on.

If you have a Spotify account, look for "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" in the playlists, and enjoy.

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, October 13, 2012

More copyright questions: "Grist for the Mills"

Ratzo B. Harris
Well, this seems to be a day for copyright issues! Hours after I had written the article below, I received - from one of my readers - a link to another discussion that muses about copyright

The "Mills" in the title above refers, no doubt, to Irving Mills. And that part of the title is also the title (are you following?) of an article by bassist Ratzo B. Harris. The article concerns a number of things, in part a confession of a painful misunderstanding, but ends up discussing concerns about how financial difficulty or professional relationships can result in misattributed copyright assignments. (From another article by Ratzo Harris, but pertinent to this discussion: "there is the problem of whether something agreed to vis-à-vis economic coercion is actually a matter of mutual consent.")

For those unfamiliar with the music of Duke Ellington - who figures prominently in this article - let me say here that Billy Strayhorn was a gifted composer, pianist, and arranger who was, for many years, part of the Duke Ellington organization. While he and Ellington worked closely together, it is often difficult to determine which compositions Strayhorn originated (and were credited as a collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn), which ones Ellington originated and Strayhorn modified (but for which Ellington retained copyright credit), and so on. In the same way, sort of, that there is controversy over how much Irving Mills contributed to the many Ellington tunes on which he receives co-composer credit (likely more than is generally opined).

Okay, here I shall take a deep breath. And let Ratzo B. Harris tell his own story. His article can be found here, at The New Music Box website: "Grist For The Mills"

Friday, August 10, 2012

MP3 Monologue 8 - Don Redman (part 1)


The St. James Infirmary we know would not have been possible without Don Redman. And, it would not have been possible without the dance called the Foxtrot.

Don Redman, now almost forgotten, was among the most important of influences on American popular music. In the next Monologue we shall hear how Redman, about to leave for Chicago to help Louis Armstrong record some songs, encountered the "St. James Infirmary" that he then arranged for Armstrong's 1928 recording. For now, though, here is a little background information on Redman himself.

It might be interesting to note that, in this monologue, I made mention of a band called "McKinney's Cotton Pickers" (which Don Redman took over after leaving the employ of Fletcher Henderson) . . . here, you can see how black bands, even in the 1920s and 1930s, were being advertised. Dem ol slaves jus a pickin cotton. Even Duke Ellington, when recording under a pseudonym for Irving Mills, adopted names like "The Ten Blackberries." Even so, "McKinney's Cotton Pickers" were one of the most popular bands of the era.

To listen to this monologue (about 3 minutes) click here: Don Redman Part 1 MP3

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Illustration

A few years ago, while working on the first iteration of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary (which I had titled A Rake's Progress and of which perhaps a dozen copies are still in existence), I  created an illustration that brought together some of the principal characters in the SJI story. Albert Gleizes' 1913 painting "Women Sewing" was the inspiration for the underlying art work; onto this I layered photographs of various SJI personalities, and included myself and my wife (the book's designer) as, I guess, observers of the drama.

So here, in no particular order (the illustration should enlarge if you click on it), you can find Jimmie Rodgers, Porter Grainger, Dan Emmett, Mamie Smith, Irving Mills, Don Redman, Phil Baxter, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Carl "The Deacon" Moore, Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith, Emmett Miller, and Blind Willie McTell.

Speaking of Blind Willie McTell, he will be (part of) the subject of our next entry.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Irving Mills: Song Plugger

Even as vice-president of Mills Music, president of Gotham Music Service, and music impresario extraordinaire, Irving Mills remained a song plugger at heart. He was a teenager when he first got into the music business and, together with his brother Jack, spent his early years pushing for the success of newly published songs. In 1919 Jack received a $500 bonus for his efforts in publicizing the song Dardanella (and creating, in the process, possibly the first sheet music million seller). This became the seed money for Mills Music, Inc.

In the late 19th century pluggers were known as "boomers," for their ability to belt out a song that could be heard over long distances. They would often sing through megaphones, with racks of sheet music for sale in front of them. Or sit at pianos behind 40 foot counters at the back of a department store, where shoppers could ask to hear samples of the sheet music on sale. By Mills' day the boomer had become a plugger. A good one would become a sort of advertising whirlwind who, in the words of Isaac Goldberg, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer's music shall be heard."

One of the tools at Mills' command was the recording studio and radio. In 1925 he became probably the first to advertise a song over the radio, when he and one of the songwriters on his staff, Jimmy McHugh, calling themselves "The Hotsy Totsy Boys," performed "Everything is Hotsy Totsy Now." Song plugging for the new electronic age.

Once he secured the copyright to "St. James Infirmary" Mills ensured that it received the widest possible airplay - the greater the number of recordings out there the more likely it would be played, the more popular it would become, and the more copies it would sell. (Mills looked at popular music as having a very short shelf life.) So, between his copyright in March of 1929 and the end of 1930, at least 19 versions of the song were recorded. These included two by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra - managed by Mills. For these recordings they were known as the Ten Black Berries, and the Harlem Hot Chocolates. Irving Mills served as vocalist for that last one. Mills Merry Makers (created for recording purposes only), with musicians including Charlie and Jack Teagarden, Harry Goodman (brother of Benny), and Ruby Weinstein recorded a version. Mills could not have had any idea how eternally popular the song would become.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI