Showing posts with label Max Morath. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Max Morath. Show all posts

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

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Recommendation - Max Morath in concert!

I have mentioned the name Max Morath a couple of times in recent posts. His name will come up at least once or twice more in the near future because he is a really interesting individual with much to offer fans of "St. James Infirmary" and the period in which the song originated.

 Max has a DVD, available at places like eBay, that I watched this evening and which I recommend wholeheartedly. Morath is a well-known ragtime pianist, but is also a remarkable raconteur and performer. On this DVD, a one-man show recorded in concert in 1992, Morath is clearly in his element, talking, jesting, educating, playing, singing. I was utterly impressed with the way Max inhabits the songs he sings and plays. He knows how to get to the center of a tune, how to transcend the notes and get to the heart of the characters he sings about. It's been a long time since I have enjoyed so many belly laughs in such a short time (the film runs about 116 minutes). For a well-spent fifteen dollars, you will learn a lot about the popular music of the early 20th century, and thoroughly enjoy yourself in the process. A delight!

Monday, December 19, 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,, 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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Max Morath and St. James Infirmary

This illustration is a detail from a painting by the author
Not long ago, in my continuing research into SJI, I bought some sheet music on eBay. (More about that in an upcoming post.) When the vendor informed me that the sheet music was on the way I wrote back, I don't know why, and told him the reason I had purchased the music. We've enjoyed a few email correspondences since then. He once told me, in passing, that "I forgot to mention that I recorded Porter Grainger's Ain't Nobody's Business...for George Buck's SoloArt label back in 1994. I re-wrote it a bit." Recorded? I looked into that, and lo and behold there he was on emusic, and any number of websites, many devoted to ragtime piano. That's when I found out I was chatting with the Max Morath, who Wikipedia introduces like this: (He) "is an American ragtime pianist, composer, actor and author. He is best known for his piano playing, and is referred to as 'Mr. Ragtime'. He has been a devoted and prolific performer, writing several plays and productions, as well as being variously a recording artist, actor and radio and television presenter. Rudi Blesh billed Morath as a 'one-man ragtime army' . . ."

Max, I found out, has quite a presence in places like and eBay - by which I mean he has recorded a lot, written some books, and so on. He seems a tireless fellow who also, I venture to say, feels a primal connection to music of the early SJI period. Max sent me the following delightful anecdote about playing SJI:

Years ago I was working with a melodrama company in Phoenix. After the show I'd stay late at the piano doing requests, hustling the drunks for tips. One night a well-dressed guy staggered over and asked me if I knew St James. I said yes, and sang two choruses -- "I went down..." and "Let her go...etc." He was ecstatic. "Nobody knows that song.!" He stuck a five dollar bill in my cup, (a huge brandy glass) and said he'd give me another five for every other verse I knew. I didn't know ANY more, but I figured by then I knew my donor well enough (and he was blotto enough) that I could increase my evening's net considerably if I took my time and used my imagination. . So I MADE UP three more verses on the spot. I have no idea what they were, but he kept the fives coming!  I venture to say we were both happy.

I'd love to have been there!
Inquiries into the early years of SJI