Inquiries into the early years of SJI
Showing posts with label Irving Mills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Irving Mills. 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.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Original Sheet Music for SJI???

This, to the left, is the generic cover of the 1929 sheet music for "St. James Infirmary." The cover was designed so that a performer's image could be inserted without breaking the flow, as in the next picture. In those days images had to be set physically - that is, with an editor's hands placing the components in place. And so it was important for the Mills organization - and everybody else - to create flexible background images.

This is the first music score ever released for "St. James Infirmary." In the same year Mills Music (aka Gotham Music Service) also released an orchestral arrangement for SJI (which you can find elsewhere on this blog - search "sheet music"). The Mills music machine was fully engaged. The song had been subsumed.

Ahhh. But while it's the first music score for "St. James Infirmary," the sheet music for "Gambler's Blues," an earlier title for the song, had been printed four years earlier. The composer credits were to, not Joe Primrose, but Phil Baxter and Carl Moore. I wrote a bit about it here: The Golden Grail - you'll find more in the book.

"St. James Infirmary" aka "Gambler's Blues" had been around for many years before being taken into a recording studio. There were a ton of variations. There were many verses. The song, chameleon-like, changed its colour for the environment it stumbled into. The sheet music below, the first of its kind, gives us a taste of the song. But the song was more than this. It assumed many shapes; there were many versions.

This was just one of them.





Sunday, February 26, 2017

Copyright entries for SJI, etc.

I have been searching Library of Congress copyright records for an article I am writing about the original Carter Family. I took some detours into "St. James Infirmary" territory; here are actual song copyright entries for some of these songs.

The full music sheets are
elsewhere on this blog

Gambler's blues ; w C. Moore, m P.
Baxter, of U. S. © Jan. 15, 1925
2 c. Jan. 15 ; E 605070 ; Phil Baxter
and Carl Moore, Little Rock, Ark.
1159

The first version of SJI to enter the copyright books was "Gambler's Blues," in 1925. While credited to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, this (under the title "Those Gambler's Blues") was collected as a traditional song by the poet Carl Sandburg, in his 1927 book The American Songbag. Hmmmm.

Phil Baxter and Carl Moore


St. James' infirmary ; words and musicby Joe Primrose. © Mar. 4, 1929 ; 2 c. Mar. 26; E pub. 4595; Gotham
music service, inc., New York. 6527

This copyright, to the fictional Joe Primrose, was registered in March, 1929.
The recording, by Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five, was recorded in December, 1928 - three months earlier than the copyright. Something was afoot.

Irving Mills aka Joe Primrose

Porter Grainger

Dyin' crap shooter's blues ; words and
melody by P. Grainger. © 1 c. July
27, 1927; E 672418; Porter Grainger,
New York. 13674

"Dyin' Crap Shooter's Blues" was recorded three times in 1927, and then abruptly forgotten ... until resurrected by Blind Willie McTell in the 1940s. McTell was very convincing when describing how he wrote this song - but, obviously, he didn't. Bob Dylan's lyric for his song, "Blind Willie McTell" - "I'm standing in the doorway of the St. James Hotel" - was partly responsible for the writing of this book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sheet music for second trumpet

A reader let me know that, in posting the 1929 orchestral score for St. James Infirmary, I had neglected to include the part for second trumpet.

This score, probably the first published orchestration, included parts for piano, alto sax, bass, trumpet, drums, violin. trombone, banjo. You can find the other sheets scattered through this blog (search "sheet music").

Selling for 50 cents, the score was arranged by famed banjoist Fred Van Eps, and published by Gotham Music Service, an arm of Mills Music, Inc. Mills Music was co-owned by Jack and Irving Mills. Irving Mills was Joe Primrose, who didn't write the song.

Clicking on the image should enlarge it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Yet another article about copyright

How long can you own a song?
image © Robert W Harwood  ; )
Writing about a song like "St. James Infirmary" inevitably leads one to consider the nature of copyright, including how copyright law relates to societal well-being. This is because SJI never had an original composer, and yet was saddled by copyright restrictions for decades. Those with a financial interest in copyright generally argue that its protection should be extended in order to protect the creative community. The artist is an original talent, this argument often goes, who should be rewarded; that will stimulate others to contribute their original creations.

But there are no original creations.

In January 2016 the "Association of Research Libraries" published a document illustrating where many creative ideas originated. Twain, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolkein, Bowie, Bach, Beethoven, Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, JayZ, Michelangelo, Manet, Picasso are among those cited. (Their 15 page pdf, a very engaging read, can be downloaded here: Nothing-New-Under-the-Sun.)

"... authors do not create in a vacuum" the document asserts. "The raw material for their creativity is existing works. Artists borrow themes, styles, structures, tropes, and phrases from works that inspire them. And if copyright overprotects existing works—if it restricts authors’ ability to build on the creative output of authors who came before them—it will be more difficult for authors to create."

Overprotection by copyright inhibits creative growth; it weakens our society.

In 1988 the U.S. House of Representatives published the following:
"Under the U.S. constitution, the primary objective of copyright law is not to reward the author, but rather to secure for the public the benefits derived from the author's labors. By giving authors an incentive to create, the public benefits in two ways: when the original expression is created and ... when the limited term ... expires and the creation is added to the public domain."

Internationally, the original intent of copyright law was to enrich the public - and so limits were placed on the period in which a creation was protected.

"St. James Infirmary" was removed from the public domain in 1929.Were it not for the fact that it so obviously is not an original composition, it would still be under copyright until 2024. If Irving Mills had been able to copyright the song under today's laws, the date it returns to the public domain would be 2055 - seventy years after his death, 127 years after its initial copyright. This is much too long.



(Mickey Mouse was copyrighted one year before "St. James Infirmary." You can read about that here: How-Mickey-Mouse-Evades-the-Public-Domain.)







Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?

Sheet music cover for a 1924 Irving Mills song
From Porter Grainger's World War One song, discussed in the previous post, we move to another song rooted in the Great War.

 "Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" (also known as "Whatever Happened to the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?") was published by Jack Mills Music in 1924, six years after the end of the "Great War." It is based on a very popular WWI song, "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" that was sung by British soldiers as they marched towards battle. "Mademoiselles" was itself based on a song popular with troops during the Boer War in the 1880s. These songs were in the public domain.

While "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" had its popularizers, the marching song was far too blue for public performance back home. The troops would improvise verses while on the march; sex and the dark humor of war dominated the lyrics.

A typical, mild version of the lyric went like this:

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres
She hasn't been kissed in forty years
Hinky dinky parlez vous

For the 1924 release, Irving Mills got together with Al Dubin (posthumously inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970), Jimmie McHugh (also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970, a year after he died), and Irwin Dash (not much is known about Dash, but under the name Fred Heatherton he later wrote "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"). The sheet music cover boasted "With twenty new choruses!" From reading the lyric, one gets the impression that many ex-soldiers actually missed the war (or maybe the writers were being sarcastic?):

What has become of the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo
What has become of all the happy times you knew
I'll bet there are lots of married men
Who wish they were back in the army again
Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo

The lyrics - devised for a popular audience - could be fodder for researchers into social attitudes of the time. For instance, both Uncle Tom and the devout and devoted Eliza (or Liza) were the central black characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin:

What has become of Uncle Tom and Liza too
Up in his cabin on the hill
I hear his daughter is running a still

"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" opens with the verse:

Do you ever think of the time
When all the boys went 'cross the sea
To the land of Wee Wee Wee,
Where they strolled with sweet Marie,
Then the boys came back with a song 'bout
"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo"
If you don't recall the song at all
I'll sing it over for you (shout) Say!

I wonder how well this sheet music sold? You can read the "twenty new choruses" here (clicking should enlarge):



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.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Porter Grainger: Sheet Music

Some time back I posted both an MP3 and the lyrics to a 1927 Porter Grainger song called "Song From a Cotton Field." You can see those postings here. The MP3 features Grainger as both pianist and vocalist.

A couple of months ago the sheet music for a number of Grainger songs came up for sale. I could only afford to bid for one of them, and this is it.

There are a few things about the cover that catch my attention. First, of course, is the photograph of the performers. "The Record Boys" (good luck trying to find them in any music database today) are dressed in tuxedos, looking very sophisticated, in order to represent a song with lyrics like:

All my life I've been makin' it
All my life white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done

(Of course, in those days publishers would design these covers with an empty frame where the photograph of a performer could be inserted before reprinting the music sheets. It could very well have been another performer of the song, Bessie Brown, who was pictured there. What I mean is, the photograph of The Record Boys was probably their standard publicity photo, and was not chosen with the theme of the particular song in mind. Even so, I still find the contrast jarring.)

The second is the subtitle. "A Southern Classic." There was nothing classic about this song. It was written by Porter Grainger not long before this sheet music was released. But its lyric hearkens back to the cotton fields, and I guess the publishers felt this was a good marketing ploy. I doubt Grainger would have objected; he wrote songs in order to make a living.

And then there is the publisher's stamp at the bottom of the page. None other than Gotham Music Service - the publishing arm of Mills Music, of which Irving Mills was vice-president; his brother Jack was president. (For those new to this subject, Irving Mills was Joe Primrose, the fictional - in more than one way - composer of "St. James Infirmary.")

So, back in 1927 Mills was actually publishing the music of Porter Grainger. This is the same Porter Grainger who, at about this time, wrote "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," which was long considered a Blind Willie McTell composition and a tribute of sorts to "St. James Infirmary," but which was not written by McTell and was recorded before "St. James Infirmary."

The images here should enlarge if you click on them. Pay attention to the small advertisements on the bottom of the pages - which are kind of like intrusive Internet ads. For instance one of them features songwriter Rube Bloom, who had a hit for Mills with "Soliloquy" and who was one of the many who recorded SJI under the Mills umbrella in 1930.




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.



Friday, June 14, 2013

The Golden Grail - found! Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary), the first sheet music


Ahhhh.

I have been looking for this sheet music for years. Dare I say, for at least a decade?! And it escaped me. It was as if the object did not exist. I mean, I read about it, and I even found evidence that it was locked in the archives of the New York State judicial library, as evidence in a 1930s lawsuit. But it was rare as the Dickens and I could never find the actual thing.

But two months ago I did.

I found it on ebay. The starting price was ninety-nine cents (plus postage), and there were two weeks left in the bidding. "Oh dear," I thought, "this is such an important historical document, one that has eluded me for a decade, and I am sure many people will be bidding for this. There is no chance that, with my meager resources, I shall be able to actually get my hands on this item." But, as you can see, I did win it. For ninety-nine cents (plus postage).

What an odd thing!! This was something of considerable importance to me. And I was the only one to enter a bid. Nobody else in the world cared. It was my golden grail. And nobody else cared. There were no other bids. And so I now possess (what I thought to be) a great historical document at a cost of ninety-nine cents (plus postage).

I must be deluded. I have been pursuing this story, this history of "St. James Infirmary," for over a decade. One of the critical links in the saga of this song appeared for sale, and . . . well . . . it sold for ninety-nine cents.

I shall have to ponder this.

Maybe history depends upon who writes the story.

The year on this music sheet is 1925. It was published by Phil Baxter in Little Rock, Arkansas. My research had informed me that "Harry D. Squires, Inc." was the original publisher of this song, and that Squires was the person who convinced Fess Williams to record it. So it is possible that Baxter released this edition before finding a bona fide publisher. Also, I had noted that Baxter and Moore neglected to copyright the song (thereby leaving the way open for "Joe Primrose" to take ownership of it). But "International Copyright Secured" is printed on these pages. I had found no evidence of this when I contacted the U.S. copyright offices, so I am not sure what this means.

The sheet music with lyrics is below - the pages should expand when you click on them. I leave it to you to compare this music with the versions of this song in Carl Sandburg's "American Songbag," published in 1927. Whatever this comparison tells you, it will be clear that neither Phil Baxter nor Carl Moore nor Joe Primrose nor anybody else wrote "St. James Infirmary."




 




Monday, December 24, 2012

. . . So God Took Caruso Away - sheet music

Cover of  the 1921 sheet music from Jack Mills Inc.
I am posting this as a kind of Christmas gift to you, readers of this blog. This post will contain a bit of history, related to (what else?) "St. James Infirmary." And - with a nod to all those who come here for my occasional postings of sheet music - there will also be some, well, sheet music.

I suspect that most readers of this blog know that Irving Mills was intimately entangled with the history of the song "St. James Infirmary" - as the fictional "composer" of the song (Joe Primrose), as the manager of various performers who recorded the song, as the impresario who publicized the song, and as the vice-president of the company that published the sheet music.

In the years prior to the rise of Elvis Presley, sheet music routinely outsold records, and was a major source of revenue for those involved with its publication. It was much more important to retain revenue from sales of sheet music than from the sales of records.

In 1921, the Mills brothers (not the singing group) were struggling publishers. Rising from poverty in New York City, largely on the strength of their ability to promote - or plug - other people's songs, Jack and Irving Mills eventually became owners of one of the most productive and important music publishing companies in North America - Mills Music. Formed in 1919, it was initially called "Jack Mills Inc." and in 1921 the company struck gold. The opera singer Enrico Caruso was the most beloved, revered, and top-selling artist of the era. He had just died, and Jack Mills Inc. bought the rights to a song titled "They Needed a Songbird in Heaven (So God Took Caruso Away)."  The song became so popular that in 1925 Time magazine described it as: "a ditty that was scratched from every phonograph, mewed through the sinus cavities of every cabaret tenor who could boast a nose, caroled by housewives at their tubs and business men at their shaving." (I should emphasize here that "housewives at their tubs" refers not to bathtubs, but to washing tubs -where the laundry was done by hand.)

It is possible that, were it not for this ditty, Mills Music would not have survived to, seven years later, discover and promote a gritty folk song called "St. James Infirmary."

Popular as "They Needed a Songbird in Heaven" was then, I have been unable to unearth a single vocal recording of this song, either by contemporary artists or on CD compilations of old songs. So . . . while it once enjoyed the heights of popularity, it has been forgotten today and, thus, is probably new to you.

So, without further ado, below you can see the three pages of the sheet music from 1921 (which should enlarge if you click on them). Merry Christmas.

Sunday, October 14, 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"

Saturday, March 31, 2012

MP3 Monologue 6 - Fess, Phil, and Carl: the first recording of St. James Infirmary

Here is monologue 6 from the ongoing series. These were recorded two or three years ago, when I was living in urban Ontario rather than rural Saskatchewan. Here we explore (with a number of period sound clips) the first recording, from 1927, of "St. James Infirmary" - then called "Gambler's Blues."

You might be startled to hear, in this monologue, that Phil Baxter and Carl Moore wrote "Gambler's Blues." Well, they did, in a way. The song had been floating around the music halls for some time. They wrote a version of the song and had some sheet music printed. But, of course, they weren't the creators of "Gambler's Blues."

I know that a sample of their sheet music lies somewhere in the files of New York's legal vaults, where it served as evidence in a 1930 lawsuit initiated by Irving Mills (unrelated to Moore-Baxter), but search as I might I have never been able to find an actual copy. I am sure, though, that Irving Mills did have his own copy, before he disguised himself as Joe Primrose.

To listen (about 4:45 at 256 kbps) click here: Fess, Phil, Carl, and SJI MP3

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

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, December 20, 2011

"Stack O' Lee Blues" - the first sheet music (and more)

I have recently had some very interesting email exchanges with Max Morath, who I urge you to look into. I encountered him while ordering some sheet music that Mills Publishing produced back in 1924.

Irving Mills was, of course, Joe Primrose, pseudonymous and imaginary composer of "St. James Infirmary." Irving, along with his brother Jack, was also the proprietor of Mills Music, which early established itself as a purchaser and publisher of "blues" music. As I wrote in the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, "Once it became clear to Irving and Jack Mills that there was money to be made from song copyrights, they were buying songs from black writers and reaping the profits from this newly popular musical form. . . . Musicians hoping to sell songs tramped the byways of Tin Pan Alley. They knew that if no one else would buy their songs, there was a good chance Irving Mills would."

As we know, Irving made a bundle off "St. James Infirmary" even though nobody in particular wrote it.

So I was intrigued when I saw this sheet music. This was the first time "Stack O' Lee" (or Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.) had been published, and I wondered if the Mills brothers were, back in 1924, attempting the same obfuscation they later performed with "St. James Infirmary." I mean, here was this old blues song, one that had arisen from the streets with no discernible original composer, being offered for sale as written by Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell. In fact, in a kind of synchronistic fashion, I had also been reading the recent book by Cecil Brown titled Stagolee Shot Billy (Harvard University Press, 2003) - an account of the history of the Stagolee song. Colwell wrote that, "In 1924 songwriters Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell published a sheet-music version called 'Stack O' Lee Blues.' This fact alone attests to the popularity of the song." (p 135).

I was surprised to find that this original publication of the "Stack O' Lee" song had almost nothing to do with its title. It is a silly dance tune which only mentions its supposed protagonist in the chorus: "Stack O' Lee Blues I don't know what it means. Come on honey let's be stepping, 'cause my feet won't keep still, I've just got to dance until I've had my fill. Stack O' Lee Blues. Play it over for me, I go crazy when I hear it, anywhere I may be, I long to hear them play that Stack O' Lee."

Here are some other lyrics: "Eeny, meeny, miney mo, they'll play some more, now let us catch a nigger by the toe, one more encore. We've got to left foot, right foot, hop and skip, Oh Lordy! hear that tune, ain't that a pipp . . ."

Oh dear me.

So, while this sheet music for Stack O' Lee wasn't an out-and-out ripoff, at least one of the authors had a history of entanglement in copyright issues. As recounted by one of the best music sites on the Web, www.redhotjazz.com, Ray Lopez had tried to copyright what is generally recognized as the first jazz record, "Livery Stable Blues," later known as "Barnyard Blues." The Original Dixieland Jass Band had neglected to copyright their smash hit, and Lopez scrambled to profit from it - although testimony showed that the Dixieland Jass Band had based their song on one of Lopez's earlier compositions.

Songwriting was like gold and prospectors everywhere were hoping to profit from it.

Here is the score for "Stack O' Lee Blues" as published in 1924. The pages should enlarge if you click on them.





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.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Common As Air - a reading recommendation

I have been away from this blog for some time, and this will be one of my last posts for some time yet. More about that later - for now, though, here is a reading recommendation.

Lewis Hyde's book Common As Air - Revolution, Art, and Ownership was released about a month ago. The book offers a stimulating discussion of copyright and ownership of "intellectual property," areas that I have found unavoidable in my researches into "St. James Infirmary" and its ilk. We know something about how a song like "St. James Infirmary" grew organically, and what happened to the song when it was suddenly transformed into an owned thing, "protected" by copyright from the very processes that gave it life.

"Common As Air " brings a fresh perspective to questions - today more important than ever - arising out of ownership of the intangible. I recommend it highly - although I doubt that Irving Mills would have given it much praise.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Phil Baxter, bandleader, 'co-composer' of Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary)

Today, I'm revisiting an earlier post about Phil Baxter, a pianist and band leader who was active in the 1920s and 1930s. Phil Baxter was a prolific and successful song-writer. Among his better known compositions we can include "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," "Piccolo Pete" (and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" - both were early novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), and "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).

Baxter also claimed co-authorship for "St. James Infirmary." He and Carl Moore actually published the song in 1925, but they neglected to apply for copyright. It is possible that around 1921 Baxter and Moore toured together as a duo.They would ride the train from town to town and perform skits and music, with Moore on drums, Baxter at the piano. Baxter eventually settled in Kansas City where, leading the house band at the El Torreon ballroom, he displaced the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks as Kansas City's favourite dance orchestra.

Baxter was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills.

Information about Phil Baxter is very hard to come by. Recordings of his can still be found on CD, but in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil I would love to hear from you. I understand that Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography of Phil, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.