Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethel, Portia, and Porter - Porter Grainger's family?

As I try to find out more about Porter Grainger, the view becomes murkier where one would hope for clarity. For example, there are plenty of references to Ethel Finney (or Finnie - even the census reports record her surname differently; Finney seems to be the correct spelling), with whom he recorded a number of songs between 1923 and 1926. With Ethel he (apparently) had a daughter, Portia Grainger. In his excellent book "Never Sell a Copyright"about Joe Davis (with whom Grainger collaborated), Bruce Bastin wrote, "When renewing the copyright for "Wylie Street Blues," Davis claimed it in his name and that of Portia Grainger, daughter of the late Porter Grainger. When first published by Triangle Music in 1927, Davis and Grainger were credited as writers. Upon renewal, more than one might have been tempted to drop the name of the deceased co-writer."

The suggestion here, of course, is that Davis was being kind, as Portia could now receive royalties. The song, however, never made much of an impression, and her royalties must have been close to nil.

Still, Portia Grainger and Ethel Finney (or Finnie) Grainger remain elusive. Bastin's reference is one of the few that suggests Grainger had a family. In researching U.S. census records, I have found Ethel Finney in 1900, 1910, 1920, as well as 1930. In 1920 she was living in New Orleans, with her father Noble (a butler), her mother Mary, and her brother, also named Noble and a pastor. Ethel was a grammar school teacher. She was 22 years old, and single. In 1930 she was (again or still?) living with her parents at the same address. She was now Ethel Grainger (her parents' name is recorded as Finnie, rather than Finney as in the earlier census records). Her daughter Portia was five years old, and she had a step-son called Marion LeBlanc, aged 6. (As a sidebar, a young couple called LeBlanc - Joseph and Mattie - were neighbours in 1910.) She reported her age as 30 (2 years younger than in previous census records), and that she had been married for 10 years. (Meanwhile, in New York City, Porter Grainger declared he had been married for five years.) Ethel was working as a cook in a private home - nowhere in the 1920 and 1930 records does she claim the profession of musician.

It seems unlikely that these census results are coincidental (although, of course, that is a possibility). What they suggest is intriguing. We could create a variety of scenarios. Perhaps Porter was correct, and they had been married a mere five years - that is, after Ethel became pregnant with Portia. Returning home - having become disillusioned with the music business, or with her husband (who, remember, is reputed to have been homosexual), Ethel altered the wedding date to something more socially acceptable.

Then again, there is no solid evidence that the Grainger in question with these census results was Porter (aside, that is, from the striking similarity with Ethel's daughter's name). Coincidence seems unlikely but not implausible.

Thanks to reader Andrew Barrett for leading me to Bruce Bastin's most interesting book, Never Sell a Copyright: Joe Davis and His Role in the New York Music Scene 1916 to 1978 (Storyville Publications, 1990)

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.