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Mad About Music: My Life in Records Mad About Music: My Life in Records

Part 1: The Dorseys and Beyond

Nobody could be more surprised by this series than I am myself. I was making a few posts about music I like on my Facebook page, just for fun. And the next thing I knew, I ended up writing what amounts to a small book!

I am planning to do something kind of autobiographical for my next book project, that is to say after I finish writing, drawing and inking the book that I am working on now.* And I like to overlap projects a little. It helps me keep that head of steam going that powers me through a project. So that’s what happened. That head of steam of mine blasted out kind of an extra added attraction book!

It has a lot about me and my background, but essentially it is about recorded music; listening to it, hunting for it, finding and collecting it. All kinds of music. What makes this particular series even more interesting is that there will be lots of links, so you can actually hear some of the music I will be talking about. I hope you enjoy it.

*The new book is called The Amazing, Enlightening And Absolutely True Adventures Of Katherine Whaley. Coming soon from Fantagraphics.

The Fabulous Dorseys: I just got my copy of The Big Broadcast CD, which is a perk one gets for contributing to WFUV’s fund drive. Great as always. (Love that Singin’ Sam.) But one cut in particular (not necessarily the best either), held particular fascination for me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fanFHTpHcwk

It is the first cut, “Fate”, by a combo called The Scranton Sirens, from 1923. It features legendary jazz sidemen and future star band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey in what may be their first outing on wax. It is a pleasant record, by no means super. But it is amazing to hear these two legends at the very dawn of their illustrious careers.

It was particularly fascinating to me, as I DID get to see them frequently in action at the end. I’m old enough to remember very well their interesting adventures on live TV toward the end of their lives. I saw, live on TV, the famous episode of the Jackie Gleason show where Ralph Kramdon ends the Dorsey Brothers’ famous feud. In reality it had been patched up years before, but I didn’t know anything about that when I saw the show. I haven’t seen the show since its live broadcast but it still remains fixed vividly in my memory. What I also didn’t realize at the time was that this show was a setup for the Dorseys to take over as Jackie Gleason’s summer replacement show, which was called Stage Show.

It was on this show that the Dorseys introduced Elvis Presley to a national TV audience for the first time. (Man! I didn’t know WHAT to think of that, but it sure stayed with me! They hold up extremely well in kinescopes.) It was also the show that Charlie Parker (a Jimmy fan) was watching a year earlier, when he dropped dead.

The Dorseys were in their fifties at the time but seemed much older. I think there were two categories of roaring twenties burn outs: guys like Bix, who more or less drank themselves to death on the spot, and guys like the Dorseys, who tippled their way there by the time they were in their fifties. Tommy died in ’56. Jimmy followed him shortly after in ’57 (although he did go out with a top 40 hit on the charts, “So Rare”).

I remember watching that show one evening. Jimmy was playing a sax solo just as my father walked into the room. He stood there watching with me and as Jimmy finished said, “Man. Jimmy Dorsey must be the worst sax player that ever lived.” I was a little too young to have an informed opinion about it at the time. But I will say this: It may have been true at that moment in time, but career wise, it was anything but true.

Jimmy Dorsey does not get enough credit for being one of the greatest jazz sidemen that ever lived.

Both Dorseys, after their 1935 break up, had solid money-making careers with swing era big bands. Of the two, Tommy’s career seems to have been the more distinguished in that period. It’s not really my favorite period, but some undeniably fine things came out of the Tommy Dorsey band.

But really, for me, I think most of their finest hours can be heard on earlier sides—even earlier, in most cases, than the official Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Where they tend to really knock me out are on sides you can hear almost any Sunday night on WFUV’s Big Broadcast. Sessions from the late ’20s and early ’30s, sometimes for singers like Seeger Ellis, Lee Morse, Annette Hanshaw, Chick Bullock, the Boswells, and in various other instrumental combos. The personnel on these sides varies but there is usually the solid nucleus of Tommy, Jimmy, and guitarist, Eddie Lang. On the Hanshaws Tommy also plays some really nice trumpet.

Anyway, that’s about it except to say, what careers! Neither one made it to age 60 and yet they lived long enough to both record for Thomas Edison and introduce Elvis to a national TV audience. That IS kind of fabulous.

Mad About Music: My Life In Records, Part One.

Gosh. When mentioning the Dorsey’s clients in those early days, I completely forgot to mention the great Bing Crosby. Such was his power and influence that he actually got the Dorseys to come together in 1935, the same year of their split, for one more session together with him.

Early in 1956, when I was 12, I was going through a box of budget records in a variety store. These were newly pressed as they were made of vinyl plastic and were about 8 inches in diameter. They looked more like some odd new 45rpm record than what they really were: strange, last gasp, microgroove 78s that came in two color paper covers and sold for 39 cents a piece. The brand name was Bell Records, and it must have been pure idle curiosity that had me flicking through this box, since these records were generally pretty generic in subject matter. Today only a hardcore misanthropic record collector would even remember this line of records and then probably with no particular fondness. The particular record that caught my eye that day was by The Dorsey Brothers doing two mambo tunes. This meant the tunes couldn’t have been too new, as the Mambo craze was pretty well kaput in 1956. 1953 would really have been your peak mambo craze year and this was probably the most likely year that this material had been recorded. It was also the official year that the Dorsey Brothers officially got together in a band again. Even in their heyday they were always known as truculent characters, a pair of battling Irish Americans breaking out into fist fights with each other with very little provocation.

The final fight that ended their professional association as the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra occurred in 1935. The bad blood between them must have ended sooner than that though because this famous split was documented in the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys, in which they played themselves. In it Tommy walks during the band’s rehearsal of the song, “I’ll Never Say Never Again”. I’ve always wondered how much of that scene was really true, as there was so much about that film that seems really bogus. It is a film of some fascination but it leaves you wishing it was a better movie than it actually is.

Well, for reasons I can no longer explain, I decided I wanted to buy the Dorsey Brothers’ mambo record. However, I did not have the required 39 cents. It was Saturday and I went back to our house, at this time in Hastings on Hudson, New York, and found my father upstairs reclining on my parents’ bed, reading a book. I asked him if I could borrow 39 cents.

When I told him it was so I could buy a record by The Dorsey Brothers doing two mambo tunes he got a very pained expression on his face. “What in the World do you want a thing like that for?” he said. Then he told me to come down to the basement with him.

There were a lot of cool things in our basement and I already spent a lot of time down there. For instance, there was a truly massive pile of science fiction pulp magazines that my mother kept down there dating from 1939, when, still in her teens, she hitch hiked with my grandmother from Denver, Colorado to Los Angeles. I didn’t ever read any of these, but I loved to look at their lurid covers. More to my actual tastes was a fairly big pile of old Life magazines that covered every issue of that king of magazines from 1949 to 1956. I was down in the basement reading those often.

 But on this particular day my father led me to another interesting pile of cast off material. These were boxes of old 78 records. If I knew they were there I certainly hadn’t paid them much note. My father still wasn’t saying much as he started flicking through these records, but every now and then he’d pull one out. One of the first ones was a 78 on the red Good Time Jazz label. It was “Tiger Rag” by The Firehouse Five Plus Two.

Good Time Jazz was a label that started up in the 1940s, devoted to the New Orleans Jazz revival that started as a sort of negative reaction to the swing era. A yearning by some, including my parents, to see jazz get back to its black New Orleans roots. The most celebrated band of this sort was the Lu Waters Yerba Buena Jazz band, a rather good and hard-driving combination that started recording around 1940, ’41, and patterned itself after the line up and sound of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band as it sounded on its first 1923 records.

Well, The Firehouse Five did not really have the same kind of reputation. This was a band made up of guys that worked at Walt Disney.

Best known of them was trombonist Ward Kimball, a legendary Disney animator/director.

My father knew these guys because they, like him, were moldy figs.

This is what jazz writer Leonard Feather called the New Orleans Jazz revival fans. Of course Feather was extolling the new Bebop sound at that time. If the New Orleans revivalists frowned on swing, you can just imagine what they thought of Bop! Consequently they took the moldy fig term that Feather had laid on them as a badge of honor.

The next record my father pulled was an acetate disk he had recorded himself. Acetate records were metal disks coated with vinyl, one-of-a-kinds that my father made on his own home recorder. This one was of a group called The San Gabrielle Blue Blowers. He explained to me that this was what the Firehouse Five originally called themselves and this disk was one of their first experimental records.

Another acetate he pulled was a dub he’d made of a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton record called “Steamboat Stomp”, a good one.

Then he pulled out a pretty ancient looking record on a maroon-colored Okeh label. “You’ll like this,” he said.

It was called “The Laughing Record”. I couldn’t imagine what that could be and couldn’t wait to find out. He pulled out a few other things. The only other one I can remember was a home acetate he’d made of the Henry Morgan show in 1946, and which was recorded at 33 1/3 RPM. Henry Morgan was a caustic post war comedian, almost a precursor of guys like Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman who came later. He never caught on in a big way. An interesting fact concerning that, according to my father, is that he was the only comedian whose radio show was sponsored by another comedian, Fred Allen.

Finally, my father solemnly handed me the pile of records and said, “These will do you more good than a mambo record by the Dorsey Brothers.” And I have to admit, much as I have come to love the Dorsey Brothers, I think he had that one right.

Well, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Okeh “Laughing Record”, but it’s the damndest thing! It must have been recorded some time in the early 1920s, but I am not sure except to say it happened no later than that. No artist credit was given on the label. It starts out with a solemn sounding trumpet solo, and gets maybe fifteen seconds into that when somebody starts to laugh. The poor trumpeter starts in again and pretty soon he’s interrupted by two people laughing. He keeps trying to play and he keeps getting interrupted by loud, rude laughing. This goes on for about three minutes. Pretty amazing. This was a very popular record for Okeh and it stayed in print for a very long time. The last sighting of it I experienced was at Rye Playland in the early ’60s, where I upgraded to a large hole 45 RPM copy of same record, still on the Okeh label. The other side had a hillbilly record, made much later, that ended up as a crying jag. Ah, the wonders of this world!

But, for all the fascination of the Okeh “Laughing Record”, by far the record in the pile that grabbed me most was that record of “Tiger Rag” by the Firehouse Five. “Tiger Rag”. Now that really is your basic Jazz 101 tune. The earliest record of it I know of is the 1918 record of it by a white group known as The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It is said that young Bix Beiderbecke taught himself to play jazz cornet by playing this record on the family talking machine at a very slow speed and playing along with it again and again. In the Library of Congress records that Allen Lomax made of Jelly Roll Morton in 1937, there is a fascinating passage where Morton demonstrates how this tune had been adapted from an old French Quadrille. So it really went way back.

I guess I was ready for it because the Firehouse Five record really worked for me. I couldn’t stop playing it! I even brought it into my 6th grade class one time when we were having some sort of show and tell deal. The strange thing about that was my schoolmates, among whom I was not overly popular, were as crazy for it as I was! And this was the first big year of Rock and Roll. What was going on with that record? One kid in the class offered to pay me a dollar for it right then and there but I wouldn’t do it.

Over time, “Tiger Rag” went the way of most childish things. I had gained an appreciation of jazz but don’t really care much for “Tiger Rag” any more. (Well, there is Jimmy Grier’s nice arrangement of it in that 1929 Gus Arnheim short, but I digress.)

Anyway a few years ago I was plowing through a pile of old LPs in a Goodwill store. Now is the time to be looking for old LPs. Nobody wants them. But that WILL change.

Well, in this batch was a ten-inch Good Time Jazz LP of old Firehouse Five sides, including “Tiger Rag”. I couldn’t resist. I had low expectations but I bought it and brought it home. Amazingly, when I put the needle on the “Tiger Rag” cut, it sounded as good to me as ever! I don’t claim that it is any kind of masterpiece, but it is a record of real freshness, joy, and vitality.

So, that’s how I started collecting records way back in 1956.

One other of the Firehouse Five alumni later directed the very underrated Haley Mills movie, Pollyanna. In fact, the Firehouse Five make a cameo appearance in that film.

The few LPs of the Dorsey Brothers that I have from that era are surprisingly bad. In their prime those guys were as good as anybody and better than most but, sadly, their prime ended. In my humble opinion, popular American culture took a big hit in the 1940s that it never really recovered from. The same thing might even be true for the United States of America.

According to Rich Conaty’s notes (in the latest Big Broadcast CD where I heard “Fate”), it was not generally issued, but a limited pressing that the guys in the Sirens band sold at gigs.

“Tiger Rag” as arranged by Jimmy Grier. Watch for Russ Columbo playing some hot violin in this one.


28 Responses to Part 1: The Dorseys and Beyond

  1. Kim Deitch says:

    That Pulp Mag cover is By Edd Cartier and was a jumbo sized pulp in my Mother’s pile that particularly fascinated us. I have a few more sides to go with this post over on my facebook page.

  2. Tom Stein says:

    My introduction to old Jazz music was at age 13. Mickie Finn’s aired on NBC-TV during 1966, and it was 30 minutes of live music from the early 20s performed by the Mickie Finn Band. I tuned in every week!

  3. Kim Deitch says:

    I’ll look him up on youtube.

  4. Robin Solis (Bobbie West) says:

    Micky Finn….Partay!

  5. Kim Deitch says:

    I just posted another video of Tiger Rag by Spike Jones over on my facebook wall. This will tie in with episode three of this series as well as the present one.

  6. R. Fiore says:

    The last cartoon Tex Avery ever directed uses an original Okeh laughing record (I don’t know if it’s the one Kim’s talking about) as its soundtrack:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9w0QoQX48kw

    Still a genius, even when they weren’t going to let him work anymore.

    I got to visit Ward Kimball at his house as part of a Fantagraphics project and got to see his incredible antique toy collection. He said that when Robert Crumb visited him he would spend hours just gazing at these things. At the Walt Disney studios in Burbank they have this Hall of Fame type thing with plaques where Disney greats (if living) left their handprints. Kimball did his in such a way that it looked as though he had twelve fingers.

    Looking forward to reading more of these, and really looking forward to seeing the autobiographical comics.

  7. Kim Deitch says:

    I have heard about the cartoon Bob and noticed that it was on youtube when I hunted up the original record which was recorded in Europe in 1922. I’m pretty sure the cartoon was based on this record. there were many imitations such as the Melotone laughing record etc. and even spike Jones weighed in with a knock off of it in the 1940′s. It was part of record culture for years.

    Crumb told me about that visit to Kimball. Kimball told Crumb he visited George Herrriman on the 30′s and that they smoked weed together.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    I have to say, the image of George Herriman toking up with the young Ward Kimball is extremely pleasing. I smile whenever I think of it.

    This is a great essay, Kim, and I’m also looking forward to reading more as well as the wonderful comics that will inevitably come of this.

  9. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah that is something Crumb told me the first time I met him. I guess we were all lighting up. Jeet. If you go over to my facebook page, I have more records posted to go with this first episode.

  10. Gene Deitch says:

    Yeah, I’m the Old Man all right, and Kim rings a lot of my old bells! I haven’t heard the Okeh Laughing Record since I played it for him, and hearing it now, not only got me yucking along with it, but almost feeling young again!
    Kim’s blog is off to a roaring start. How in hell am I gonna top him when my own blog hits the net? I’m trying my best to ignore both FaceBook and Twitter. With over 200 names on my email list I don’t feel lonesome, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore, with a daily flood of people I don’t know (yet!) wanting to “chat” with me. I’m not into chatting, but always happy to exchange real words with people about jazz, animation, movies, The Meaning of Life,
    and stuff like that. XXX Ol’ Gene

  11. Kim Deitch says:

    This is great. I was hoping to get the one and only Gene Deitch to weigh in since so much of this has to do with him. He has generously supplied us with some really fine pieces of art for the next episode too. and I will have a fascinating Gene Deitch movie link for episode three as well.

  12. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    This article, and the subsequent comments, have blown my mind at least three times. More please!

  13. Kim Deitch says:

    More is on the way Sean. Stay tuned.

  14. Rob Clough says:

    That is a really great arrangement of “Tiger Rag”. Anyone who’s ever been to a sporting event featuring Clemson or Louisiana State (both the Tigers, natch) has heard that song played about five million times as their fight song. As fight songs go, it’s a pretty great one.

    I’m loving this feature! Perfect example of something that would only work on the web, and not in print.

  15. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah. it’s turning into an interesting experiment. A thing have always missed in comics is the lack of music. This multi media thing is rife with possibilities. I have another interesting version of tiger Rag on my facebook page. check it out.

  16. R. Fiore says:

    “George Herriman, Pothead” is an area of Herriman studies that deserves far more attention than it’s gotten. Not that it doesn’t make perfect sense.

  17. Jeet Heer says:

    Michael Tisserand is looking into the pot angle, which will (I hope) figure in his upcoming Herriman biography. Obviously the Tiger Tea storyline has pothead implications. Also Herriman had a character (a Mexican dog) whose name was Mary Juana (or something like that — I’d have search to get the exact detail right). The other drug related question is whether Herriman did peyote when he stayed among the Navajo.

  18. patrick ford says:

    George Herriman: “Ghost Dancer” might be an even more illuminating area of study.

  19. Kim Deitch says:

    It’s all kind of interesting, and worth looking into. I have mixed feelings about the stuff, but it has been used by a lot of people going back pretty far. People were just more discreet about it once upon a time; and with good reason.

  20. Kim Deitch says:

    Really?

  21. Jeet Heer says:

    I should emphasize that this is purely surmise on my part and not based on actual evidence. But circumstantially we know that 1) Herriman spent a lot of time with the Navajo in Monument Valley 2) he was interested in their religious ideas and professed to believe in their notions of re-incarnation and 3) he incorporated Navajo religious motifs in Krazy Kat. Does that mean he partook of peyote? Again, there is no evidence that he did but its definitely in the realm of the possible and worth speculating on because of the psychedelic and proto-surrealist art in Krazy Kat.

  22. Kim Deitch says:

    It all makes me want to learn more about him.

  23. Tony Eastman says:

    I have to say Kim, the clip of Elvis doing ‘Money Honey’ is really fantastic. The viewers of the Dorsey Bros. show got to see the complete Elvis, unlike those of us (me included) who only saw the top half of him on Ed Sullivan. I can also see why many of those a generation older (our parent’s age) would have been freaked out by ‘The Pelvis’ – Tony

  24. Kim Deitch says:

    Yeah. I think those Dorsey show appearances are stellar. I only ever saw one of those Dorsey shows live. Looking at the kinescopes today, I think it was probably Elvis doing, Baby Let’s Play House. [So great] Stay tuned. I’m going to have more about Elvis, and you. in several episodes to come.

  25. Paul Slade says:

    http://www.planetslade.com/black-swan-blues1.html

    Dear Kim: I hope you’ll forgive me plugging some of my own work, but there’s one fascinating story from the very early days of the US record industry which you may not know. Harry Pace was the first black man to own his own record label in America and achieved much of what Berry Gordy would do with Motown a good 40 years before that label was even thought of. In the racial climate of Pace’s day – the 1920s – he had a particularly turbulent time of it, facing bomb threats, charges of racial betrayal and eventual rejection by the very black community he’d worked so hard to champion. More details in the essay above.

  26. kim deitch says:

    Paul. That’s very interesting and the first I have heard of this.

  27. Wow! This is completely fascinating! I just stumbled upon this today, and can’t wait to read parts 2 – 6. Thanks Kim – and your work is completely amazing, by the way. Can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed “Smilin’ Ed” “Blvd. of Broken Dreams” etc. etc…

  28. Rod McKie says:

    My mood is up; I’m up. This is digital weed to me. You surely can’t top this…can you?

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