Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jack Shea recording from 1922 - Lovesick Blues mp3

Readers of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary know that the first song of his own that Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose) published was "Lovesick Blues" in 1922. He shared the writing credit with Tin Pan Alley songster Cliff Friend. As you can see on the record label, though, only Cliff Friend's name is printed below the title. Was this a mistake? Or did Mills 'assume' partial ownership later that year?

Jack Shea's was probably the second recording of "Lovesick Blues" (after Elsie Clark's, earlier the same year). This song is much different from the one recorded by the yodelling blackface minstrel Emmett Miller in 1928. It was Miller's recording that inspired Hank Williams, whose version shot to the top of the charts in 1949.

To hear this song, click on: "Lovesick Blues" MP3.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Interviews on NOnotes

I am delighted and flattered to report that the esteemed NOnotes is posting a series of interviews with yours truly. Mr. Walker is a canny interviewer; answering his questions has been an enjoyable challenge. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lonesome Lefty's Scratchy Attic

This might seem a bit off the track for this blog, but I just stumbled upon this site. Lonesome Lefty transfers old records to mp3 files, and posts them on his blog.

The first album I saw there was called Music Hall Memories, and features British music hall performances from as early as 1906 (and as recently as 1938). So, this is a kind of roots music and although you won't hear anything resembling "St. James Infirmary" here, you will hear tunes that were enormous influences on British popular music as well as on the music that came from American Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley.

In fact, the second major hit for Irving and Jack Mills' fledgling sheet music business was "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sean" - a song that would be very much at home on this collection. The Gallagher and Sean song ensured that Jack and Irving had enough money to continue buying songs, and so probably played a key role in the later drama of SJI.

I have an old 78 of "Mr. Gallagher and Mr Sean," the flip side of Jack Shea's 1922 recording of "Lovesick Blues." It's very scratchy, but I've just purchased an old turntable; my son, Alex, gave me an accessory that will allow me to create mp3 files from those records, and I shall be posting them in the near future.

Highly recommended here is the hilarious 1932 ditty "The Lion and Abert" by Stanley Holloway.

Friday, November 14, 2008

St. James Infirmary trumpet sheet music

The page of sheet music you see here was scanned from a 1929 orchestral score, published by Gotham Music Service Inc., sole selling agents for Mills Music, Inc., 148-150 W. 46th St., N.Y.C.

Clicking on the image should give you a larger, readable version of the page.

This particular score was almost certainly used by an orchestra of the period. An instruction pencilled in at the bottom of the page tells the player when to "stand up" during the performance.

In this orchestral score, music is included for drums, piano, 1st and 3rd alto saxophones, 2nd tenor saxophone, violin, trombone, 1st and 2nd trumpet, tenor banjo, bass, and 1st violin. The price for the entire score was 50 cents.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Carl "Deacon" Moore - "Nobody Knows Where She's Gone" mp3

It's time, I think, for another Carl "Deacon" Moore (and his orchestra) song. Like the rest of Moore's entire recorded output, this was recorded for Decca in 1938.

To paraphrase the big band historian Joesph E. Bennett, if one were simply to listen to a Moore performance, one would first hear Deacon's introductory remarks delivered in a broad hillbilly twang - and would expect, upon opening one's eyes, to see a country hick in bib overalls, chewing on a bit of straw. Instead there would stand "a handsome, slender young man immaculately arrayed in a spotless tuxedo, leading an orchestra which was equal in appearance to the most impressive New York ensemble. The band's music was tasteful and modern, with an impressive mix of popular up-tempo numbers and traditional lush ballads, all delivered with an obvious high degree of musicianship."

You can hear all of that in this selection. To listen to this song, click on: "Nobody Knows Where She's Gone" MP3.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Buying In and the selling of St. James Infirmary

When Irving Mills gained ownership of "St. James Infirmary" he did everything he could to make it a success. Mills did not expect the song to be more than a novelty hit with a short shelf life, so he saturated the airwaves with it - he wanted to make sure it was heard again and again, so that the song became familiar to as many people as possible. Of course, in the days before television and the Internet, media saturation meant something other than it does now. In the late 1920s radio was immensely popular (although it had been introduced to the general public only a few years earlier); live shows were broadcast from dance halls across the nation. Most households owned a wind-up Victrola or similar record player. (In 1929, the year OKeh released Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" the Victor Company alone sold 35 million records in the U.S., which had a population of 120 million.) Dance was a major pastime, and dance-halls dotted the landscape.

Mills covered as many bases as he could. He gave orchestra scores to dance bands, free records to radio stations, discounted sheet music to newsstands. Bands he managed released versions of "St. James Infirmary" for both the premium record labels and the budget record labels, so whatever their income level there was probably a version of the song in the buyer's price range. And as you can see in an earlier entry on this blog, newspaper advertisements sometimes made no reference at all to the music, but instead hinted that cool dudes owned this record.

I found myself musing again and again about the selling of SJI when I read Rob Walker's recent book "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are." Song publicists in the 1920s were a creative bunch, often devising unusual ways of popularizing a product and could, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has" see to it that the music was heard. While Mills was well ahead of his time in terms of advertising know-how and moxy, he hardly held a candle to the bright lights of today's advertising business.

Rob Walker is, of course, responsible for the remarkable NOnotes website, the best resource for SJI-related material on the web. He is also an authority on consumerism - by which I mean the means whereby we are convinced of the seeming advantage (or necessity) of owning a particular product, taking a particular point of view - and writes a regular column for the New York Times Magazine. I'm an occasional reader of his Murketing blog, where his musings are sometimes nothing short of brilliant.

We think of ourselves as a pretty sophisticated bunch these days. We're savvy to advertising tricks, immune to their various arts of persuasion. I thought of myself this way. Until, that is, I read Buying In. Cultural artifacts like, well, like "St. James Infirmary" should come to us of their own accord, because something about them resonates with our essential selves or with the spirit of the times. "St. James Infirmary" survived, I think, despite the efforts of Irving Mills. These days, though, one can be excused for wondering how much of what we buy into has any real weight outside that of the pen signing the advertising contract. It's good to be aware. This is a good book to read.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Marjorie Moore and "Deacon" Radio, revisited

Readers of this site will know that Carl Moore is intimately tied to the fascinating history of "St. James Infirmary." I received a telephone call from his wife Marjorie Moore this afternoon. Although we exchanged letters while I was writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, this is the first time we've actually spoken to each other. This was an exciting moment, and in celebration I am revisiting one of the earliest posts on this blog.

While Carl Moore was born in 1902 Marjorie Moore, who he married in 1941, was quite a bit younger than him. Margie, now 92, is a warm and energetic woman. About Carl she said, "He was one neat guy - very kind and loving and caring." Whether as a singer and big band leader or as a country music DJ, she says that Carl always had time for his fans. During his later career as a country dj, he hosted an influential amateur show on Sunday mornings. Margie told me that, "After a show people would line up to see him, and he would stay as long as they wanted to talk. He was a down-to-earth guy; he didn't put on airs." When I first wrote to her, asking about SJI, she wrote back, "'St. James Infirmary' is a mystery to me, also. I always understood that Carl wrote the words to it." She also remembered "Carl telling me that someone took several songs to Chicago and sold them but did not put his name on them."

Margie sent me a number of photographs and press clippings, including this photo that I did not include in the book. This is Carl as a California country radio dj "The Squeakin' Deacon."

Moore's first radio job was an early morning show on Cincinnati's WLW radio station. This station was originally built to help sell radios and used such a powerful transmitter that it interfered with Canadian radio signals. From Cincinnati the Moore's moved to St. Louis (where Carl hosted a country show called "The Shady Valley Gang"). By 1947 the Moore's (Carl, Margie, and their daughter Carole) made California their permanent home. The hillbilly persona he adopted in the dance halls of America served him well in the increasingly popular world of country music. It is still possible to see Carl "The Squeakin' Deacon" Moore on some of the Bear Family videos of the 1950s country TV show, Town Hall Party, making brief appearances to tell jokes and advertise his Sunday morning amateur hour. On the August 8th, 1959 show you can not only see the Deacon telling a couple of his jokes, but also watch a 27 year old Johnny Cash doing an impersonation of Elvis Presley.