Tuesday, May 1, 2018


Several years ago I bought this book at a thrift store written by a guy who went on a long tour with THE GRATEFUL DEAD.  Being mostly absorbed in gospel and country music while pursuing my own career ambitions, I had never paid much attention to the band though they were immensely popular with other people at the time.  (By now you must be aware that I hardly ever do what other people do.)  I started reading because I thought it might be interesting to learn about the band members, the things they did on the road, and the people they met along the way.  The book went something like this:  "We got up in the morning, got high, traveled to the next gig, got high, set up, did the show, got high, slept a couple hours, got up, got high, traveled to the next gig, got high, set up, did the show, got high.......".  Well, you get the picture -- they did a lot of drugs!  About a quarter of the way in I gave up expecting anything sober and abandoned the book.  Later I was surprised to find THE GRATEFUL DEAD were very good when they tried to be and they had also made a hit cut of a "sacred number" I had liked very much when my favorite bluegrass band sang it on their TV show.  The man who wrote the song was even more surprised!

William Toliver Carlisle was born on December 19, 1908 in  Wakefield, Kentucky to Van Luther and Mary Ellen Carlisle. They moved to Louisville when Bill was ten. Being from a musical family, he learned to play guitar at an early age.  His father was a music teacher who taught the kids to read shaped notes in church.  Bill and his siblings listened to THE GRAND OLE OPRY on the radio.  He longed to be a country entertainer and thought if he could just get to play the OPRY he would have accomplished the greatest achievement possible.  By the 1920s he had begun playing shows around the region.  He and his brother Cliff, who was four years older, teamed up do shows on radio WLAP-AM  in Lexington, Kentucky and WNOX-AM in Knoxville, Tennessee.  In 1929, Bill, Cliff, their father and other family members landed a radio show on a Louisville station called THE CARLISLE FAMILY SATURDAY NIGHT BARN DANCE.

In 1933, Cliff helped him get a recording deal with ARC Records.  His first solo single RATTLESNAKE DADDY, which he written himself,  was a huge hit.  Bill and Cliff traveled the radio circuit during the 1930s performing in Lexington, Louisville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greenville, Shreveport, and Knoxville.  Bill made popular such songs as STRING BEAN MAMA, JUMPIN' AND JERKIN' BLUES, and SALLY LET YOUR BANGS HANG DOWN.  The duo performed for several years on Knoxville's MID-DAY MERRY-GO-ROUND and TENNESSEE BARN DANCE shows.  Bill created an alter-ego named Hot Shot Elmer, a bumbling clown who would interrupt the performances with comedy.  His leaping around onstage earned him the nickname of "Jumpin' Bill which stuck with him throughout his career.  He had a unique guitar style and often enhanced his vocals by yodeling.  

After World War II, the brothers signed with King Records as The Carlisles.  Their first duo hit came the next year with an Ernest Tubb cover called RAINBOW AT MIDNIGHT.  That was followed by Bill's solo hit of TRAMP ON THE STREET.  Cliff retired in 1950 but Bill continued with a backup group known as The Carlisles though none of them were actual family members.  This group included singer Martha Carson and songwriter Betty Amos.  


Bill switched to Mercury Records where he continued to write and release often humorous songs that contained hints at sexuality.  His TOO OLD TO CUT THE MUSTARD was a top ten
hit in 1951.  That song was later covered by Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and the odd duo of Rosemary Clooney and Marlene Dietrich.  That song was soon followed by his biggest hit NO HELP WANTED in 1953.

That same year, Bill was invited to join THE GRAND OLE OPRY.  He had just moved his wife and two kids to Minden, Louisiana to be near THE LOUISIANA HAYRIDE in Shreveport.  He became a regular on ABC-TV's OZARK JUBILEE.  His version of The Drifter's song HONEY LOVE was a surprise hit in 1954 reaching number twelve on the country charts.




His son Billy and daughter Sheila became The Carlisles in the 1960s.  Bill recorded his last hit song WHAT KIND OF DEAL IS THIS in 1965.  As his fame receded, Bill continued to appear on THE GRAND OLE OPRY and such shows as HEE HAW and later RFD-TV's COUNTRY'S FAMILY REUNION.  He was elected to the COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME in 2002.

In addition to the many novelty songs he had written, Bill also wrote a gospel song called GONE HOME that became a hit for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.  I was a huge fan of Flatt and Scruggs so I never missed a single one of their weekly TV programs.  That is where I first heard the song.  It was later recorded by Ricky Skaggs.  Strangely enough, Bill thought he was too known for his comedy songs so he never recorded the song himself.  He loved to tell the story that one day in 1988 he received notice from his publisher the song was being recorded again.  He told his son that some group called THE GRATEFUL DEAD wanted to record GONE HOME.  He said "I don't even know who they are."  Billy said "You will Dad.  You will."  The group released the song as being by THE JERRY GARCIA ACOUSTIC BAND. Needless to say Bill became aware of just who they were when he received his songwriting royalty check!

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs 

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band

I gave you both versions because I personally love this song so much!

 Bill Carlisle continued to sing on THE GRAND OLE OPRY for over fifty years.  Often appearing with the aid of his walker after years of declining health,  he could still have the audiences laughing and cheering at his funny songs and antics on stage. His last appearance on the OPRY was on March 7, 2003.  He suffered a stroke on March 12 and passed away at his Nashville area home five days later.  He was 94 years old.




Tuesday, February 27, 2018


As I start to write this I notice it's the birthday of a man whose voice was often in our house when I was a kid.  Sometimes you get a public impression of a person that is nothing like they are in their personal lives.  I found this to be very true when I delved into the life of this beloved singer who recorded country hits but was mostly associated with wonderful renditions of old standard hymns.  

Ernest Jennings Ford was born to parents Maud Long and Clarence Thomas Ford on February 13, 1919 in the town of Bristol, Tennessee.  He began his career as a radio announcer at WOPI-AM in Bristol at an early age.  In 1939, he left the station to study classical singing at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

When World War II came, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corp.  He had the rank of 1st Lieutenant and served as the bombardier  on a B-29 Superfortress flying missions over Japan.  He also was given the task of bombing instructor at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California.

The war ended and Ford found himself in San Bernadino, California. He got a job as a radio announcer on KFXM where he was the host of an early morning country music program called NOTHIN' RANCH TIME.  To be different from other disc jockeys  he created the character of TENNESSEE ERNIE, a wild, crazy exaggeration of a stereotypical hillbilly.  Tennessee Ernie became very popular in the area and soon received an offer to go to station KXLA in Pasadena.  He repeated the success of the same show at KXLA and soon joined the cast of Cliffie Stone's live country music DINNER BELL ROUNDUP.  He sang on the show while continuing his early morning disc jockey program.  It was during his time at KXLA that he earned the nickname of Pea Picker because he often said "Bless your little pea pickin' hearts!"

Cliffie Stone worked as a talent scout for Capitol Records and brought Ernie to the attention of label executives who signed him to a contract in 1949.  Ernie became a local TV star hosting Stone's popular SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOMETOWN JAMBOREE.  RadiOzark recorded 200 35 minute episodes of THE TENNESSEE ERNIE SHOW for national radio syndication.

Capitol released around fifty country singles of him during the early 1950s many of which made the country and crossover pop charts.  His early hits such as SHOTGUN BOOGIE and BLACKBERRY BOOGIE had a driving boogie- woogie sound featuring the HOMETOWN JAMBOREE BAND including Jimmy Bryant on lead guitar and pedal steel pioneer Speedy West.  Ernie's duet with label mate Kay Starr I'LL NEVER BE FREE  was a huge country and pop crossover hit in 1950.  His duet with Ella Mae Morse FALSE HEARTED GIRL was also a top-seller.


He eventually ended both radio shows and moved on to television.  In 1954, he took over for bandleader Kay Kaiser as the host of the NBC quiz show KOLLEGE OF MUSICAL KNOWLEDGE when the show returned briefly after being off the air for four years.  He became well-known all across the country for his portrayal of country bumpkin "Cousin Ernie" on the I LOVE LUCY SHOW.   The character was wildly popular and appeared on three episodes.  Shortly after that, he recorded the song DAVY CROCKETT, KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER.  That song went to number four on the country music charts.  He sang the title song for RIVER OF NO RETURN starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe.  The song was released as a single and did well on the charts.

Ernie Ford recorded what was to become his signature song in 1955.  SIXTEEN TONS was written and recorded in 1948 by Merle Travis and reflected his own family's experiences working in the coal mines of Muhlenburg County, KY.   Those of us who even know who Merle Travis is immediately think of his down-to-earth songwriting and his unique style of guitar picking.  Ernie was well aware of Merle and his work too when he recorded the song as they had performed together on HOMETOWN JAMBOREE.  He had not imagined what an immediate hit his rendition would be or the controversy it would generate!  The political climate in the late 1940s and through the mid 1950s was wary of communists and the emerging Cold War.  J. Edgar Hoover and others in the Government saw songs about workers' woes as seditious and singers who sang them were investigated as agitators.  Travis' earlier song NO VACANCY had made him a target of Hoover hysteria and radio stations had been "advised" not to play his songs.  Ford added his snapping fingers to a simple clarinet driven arrangement of the song and created a monster hit which spent ten weeks at number one on  the country charts and seven weeks at number one on the pop charts.  The song made him a crossover star and sold over twenty million copies which earned him a gold disc.  SIXTEEN TONS was also credited with being the first Rock and Roll hit (yeah, before Elvis and those other guys) that officially kicked off the Rock and Rock era!


Ernie released his first gospel album in 1956.  Simply called HYMNS, the album remained on the Billboard charts for 227 consecutive weeks.  This was to be the first of many over the years.  HYMNS and later SING A HYMN WITH ME both earned gold records.  

In September of 1956, Ford Motor Company announced a country-wide search for someone to host a variety TV show they were sponsoring on NBC.  On October 4, 1957 THE FORD SHOW (so named after Ford Motor Company) went on the air starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.  Running a half hour each week, the show had all the features of other popular variety shows, top Hollywood stars, professional production, and great music.  The network and Madison Avenue executives were not in favor but Ernie insisted on ending every show with a hymn or song of faith.  This may have seemed like a bold move from the star but the segment became the most popular part of the show with viewers and brought inspirational music into the mainstream of American Entertainment.  The show ran for five years before ending.



After the show ended, Ernie moved with his wife the former Betty Heminger and their two sons Jeffery and Brion to Portola Valley in Northern California.  He also often retreated to his cabin in Grandjean, Idaho on the Upper South Fork of the Payette River. He shortly became the host of a daytime talk/variety show, THE TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD SHOW ( later called HELLO, PEAPICKERS) on KGO-TV in San Francisco which ran from 1962 until 1965. He published TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD'S BOOK OF FAVORITE HYMNS in 1962 which was followed by a companion record album later that same year.

He continued to record and perform during the years after his show was ended.  He narrated a 1968 Thanksgiving TV special for NBC called THE MOUSE ON THE MAYFLOWER.  The mouse narrator character William the Churchmouse was a caricature of him.   He was the spokesperson for the Pontiac Furniture Company in Pontiac, Illinois in the 1970s.  He became the spokesperson for Martha White Flour in 1972.  Some my favorite performances were on the popular show HEE HAW.  He just seemed to fit right in when he put on overalls to tell jokes with the cast in the cornfield.  But the best segments were when he would join Grandpa Jones, Stringbean, and Roy Clark to sing a gospel quartet song.  He along with Roy Clark and others made the first country music tour of Russia in 1974.


His experience as a navigator and bombardier led to his interest in the Confederate Air Force (now called the Commemorative Air Force) a war plane preservation group in Texas.  He was the celebrity guest announcer at the annual CAF Airshow in Harlingen, Texas from 1976 until 1988.  He donated a once-top-secret Norden Bombsight to their B-29 bomber restoration project.  As a CAF colonel, he recorded the group's theme song BALLAD OF THE GHOST SQUADRON.

During his career, he was awarded many honors among them the PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM given by President Ronald Reagan.  He received three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for radio, one for records, and one for television.  He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994.  His album GREAT GOSPEL SONGS recorded with The Jordonaires received a Grammy in 1964 for for Best Inspirational Recording.  He was the fourth person to receive a Grammy in that category. He was the third person to receive the Minnie Pearl Award for his lifetime achievements in both Country and Popular music.

Even though he was adored by millions and enjoyed great success in his career, Ernie and Betty both had a problem they couldn't seem to shake.  Both were heavy drinkers.  In addition, Betty suffered from emotional issues that made their lives and those of their kids  more difficult.  Her death in 1989 was directly related to her substance abuse.  Ernie married again to Beverly Wood less than four months later.  His love for whiskey never seemed to affect his continuous working nor was it ever made public for fear it wouldn't fit the image his fans had of him.  It did take a toll on his liver and later began to affect his voice.  He did his last public interview with his old friend Dinah Shore on her TV show in 1991.

On September 28 1991, he attended a state dinner dinner at the White House hosted by  President George H. W. Bush.  After leaving the White House that evening he went to Dulles Airport where he collapsed from severe liver failure.  He was rushed to H.C.A. Reston Hospital in Reston, Virginia.

Tennessee Ernie Ford passed away on October 17, 1991 36 years to the day after the release of SIXTEEN TONS.  He was buried in Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California where he was joined ten years later by Beverly.  He remains on of the most beloved entertainers of all time.



Friday, January 19, 2018


"You KNOW you're a character!"  The thirty-five year old over the hill beauty queen looked down her botched rhinoplasty at her forty year old size 20 drama student.  Her silicone C cups heaved because she had just hurled the worst insult she could imagine and fully expected the subject of her snobbery to slap her right in her spackled face.  I thought about all the marvelous, talented character actors I had loved through the years.  All the side kicks and scene stealers -- actors who were cute little urchins, pesky teens, the fat friend, the old curmudgeon. The beauty queen was pretty much washed up but age, weight, or even a crooked nose meant nothing to a CHARACTER because they had real TALENT!  That meant I had talent!  "THANK YOU!"  I said out loud.   She's probably still glaring.

One of my all-time favorite character actors was born February 2, 1903 in Mound City, Missouri.  Benjamin Franklin McGrath, who was of Irish and Native American ancestry, started working in rodeos at an early age.  He soon became a jockey at midwest racetracks and then in Mexico.  He was working in Mexico when the racetrack went broke so he hopped a northbound train.  The story goes that a movie producer saw him jump from the train and encouraged him to enter film stunt work.

He began his on camera stunt career at age 16 as a stunt double for stars including Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Warner Baxter, and J. Carroll Naish.  His small 5'8" frame allowed him to double for female stars like Gene Tierney. 

In 1932 Frank got his first small speaking role as well as doing stuntwork in the movie THE RAINBOW TRAIL based on the Zane Grey novel of the same name.  The part was uncredited but his acting career was launched.  After that came WESTERN UNION, SUNDOWN JIM, and HELDORADO.  He worked on Gene Kelly's 1948 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS.  Also in 1948, he and his longtime friend Terry Wilson became part of John Wayne's stunt crew.  Frank played the bugler in two gigantic John Ford films starring John Wayne.  In FORT APACHE, he appeared in fifty-one scenes with stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda.  He appeared on camera one hundred and twelve times in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON.  Only John Wayne himself had more scenes in that movie.  At age fifty-three and recently recovering from a broken back, he performed performed three separate fall and drag scenes for the 1956 John Wayne movie THE SEARCHERS.

http://dai.ly/x2rlj66 SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON

Frank moved to the small screen to play ranch foreman John Pike in the 'Quicksand" episode of the first hour long TV western CHEYENNE starring Clint Walker.  He had an uncredited role as a stagecoach driver  in the Henry Fonda picture THE TIN STAR.

In 1957 after forty years in the business, Frank was getting ready to retire. His friend Ward Bond, with whom had worked in FORT APACHE among other movies, convinced him and Terry Wilson to join the cast of a new TV show that was being put together called WAGON TRAIN.  He played the irascible cook Charlie Wooster and Wilson was cast as Bill Hawks.   These roles brought them both the fame they had never achieved before.  They became popular guest stars at rodeos and fairs across the United State and Canada.


Ward Bond passed away in November of 1960.  The show continued with new wagon master, Chris Hale, played by John McIntire.  Frank appeared in all 272 episodes during WAGON TRAIN's eight year run.

After the show ended, he made nine appearances as Uncle Lucius in ABC's comedy spinoff of the movie TAMMY.  Debbie Watson reprised the Debbie Reynolds role of TAMMY  and Denver Pyle played her grandfather.  That lasted for two seasons after which he made guest appearances on TV westerns such as a stagecoach driver on THE VIRGINIAN and a would be outlaw on THE BIG VALLEY. 

 He returned to movies to play Ned Martin in GUNFIGHT IN ABILENE and Ballard Weeks in Glenn Ford's THE LAST CHALLENGE.  He teamed up with John Wayne and Terry Wilson again when he played the bartender in THE WAR WAGON.  All three movies were released in 1967.  His very last movie role was Mr. Remington in THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST starring Don Knotts and again featuring his friend Terry Wilson.  

Frank McGrath had a heart attack on May 13, 1967 and sadly passed away.  He was survived by his wife the former Libby Quay Buschlen, a native of Canada, and his stepson Quay.  He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Friends say that in real life he was pretty much like the ornery little Charlie Wooster character he played on TV.  He was known to consume large quantities of Seagrams gin and bitters.  He loved to start fights then duck out to leave his friends to finish them.  In spite of that, Frank McGrath was one of the most respected stuntmen in Hollywood.  He worked hard, he played hard, and was known for getting the job done.  


Wednesday, December 13, 2017


MERRY CHRISTMAS!  Yes, I said Merry CHRISTmas! Celebrating was pretty simple when I was a kid.  Christmas was Jesus' birthday so we all got gifts keeping in mind THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL.  Now everyone has a different idea.  Some Bible scholars think Jesus was born in the spring.  Some use a whole long trail of Biblical events and Jewish feasts to prove the birth of Jesus was actually in September during Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) and it's pagan anyway so we shouldn't celebrate at all.  Just last week I read something written by another Bible scholar who used the exact same argument to prove that our Christmas customs are not as pagan as first thought and the date of December 25 is actually pretty close to Jesus' real birthday.  No matter which side of the argument you fall on, (I'm still on HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS, the colored lights are pretty, and I do like presents!) it is almost a surety that sometime during the holiday season you sit in front of your TV long enough to watch the story about a certain little misfit reindeer as told by Sam the Snowman. Sam, though an animated children's character, was voiced by an already famous Academy Award winning actor/singer.

Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in Hunt City Township in Jasper County, Illinois on June 14, 1909.  His father Frank was a tenant farmer and later a contractor for the county.  His mother Dellie loved singing so her six children were surrounded by music at an early age.  Burl, the youngest, started his professional career at age four when his uncle overheard him in the garden singing with his mother.  He was invited by his uncle to sing at the Old Soldier's Reunion in Hunt City.  He delivered a rendition of the old folk song BARBARA ALLEN that greatly impressed his uncle and the audience.  From then on he was asked to perform at various places around the area.  He was paid twenty-five cents per performance and used the money to help his family.  He soon learned to accompany himself on guitar and banjo.  

As a kid he joined the Lone Scouts of America, a group that tried to teach self-reliance and respect through studying the American Indian tradition.  In 1924, the group was incorporated into the Boy Scouts of America.  Ives continued to support the Boy Scouts throughout his life.  

Burl went to high school in Hunt City where he played on the football team.  He had an idea of becoming a football coach so he enrolled in Illinois State Teacher's  College where he also played football.  But life takes abrupt turns sometimes.  One day in his junior year, he was sitting in class listening to what must have been a very boring lecture on Beowulf.  It struck him that he was learning absolutely nothing of value.  He walked out of class slamming the door so hard the glass shattered.  Sixty years later the school named a building after him.

He traveled the country in search of jobs playing music wherever he could.  This earned him the nickname of "The Wayfaring Stranger"  which he used for his shows, and later albums and autobiographies.  He often supported himself by working on riverboats and doing odd jobs.  He was jailed in Mona, Utah for vagrancy and singing a song called FOGGY DEW which the authorities considered too bawdy.  His travels took him to Indiana where, in 1931, he began performing on WBOW radio in Terre Haute.  He enrolled in Indiana Teacher's College to finish his education.  He also took voice lessons from Madame Clara Lyon in Terre Haute.

He went to New York in 1937 where he attended the Juilliard School and New York University School of music.  He sang in Greenwich Village clubs and acted in small stock theater companies while continuing his voice and acting lessons.  In 1938, he landed a small role in the Broadway show THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE.  He appeared on the CBS radio broadcast FORECAST which led to getting his own radio show n 1940.  He called the show THE WAYFARING STRANGER because of his old nickname.  He made popular many of the old folk songs like LAVENDER BLUE, FOGGY, FOGGY DEW, BLUE TAIL FLY, and BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN.  He performed on Broadway again in HEAVENLY EXPRESS and at the prestigious club VILLAGE VANGUARD in Greenwich Village.  During this time, he became friends with Eddie Albert.  The two later roomed together after going to Hollywood.


Ives was associated with the Almanac Singers a folk singing group that at various times also included Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Millard Lampell, and Pete Seeger.  They were active in the American Peace Mobilization an antiwar group opposing Franklin Roosevelt's pro-allied stance and America's entry into World War II.  Their songs included GET OUT AND STAY OUT OF WAR and FRANKLIN, OH FRANKLIN.  When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, that same group reorganized into the American People's Mobilization changing their stance in favor of the US entering the war.  Songs recorded during that time included DEAR MR. PRESIDENT and RUEBEN JAMES after the name of a US destroyer sunk by the Germans though at that time the US had not entered the war.

He was drafted into the army in early 1942 and sent to Camp Dix and then on to Camp Upton.  There he joined the cast of Irving Berlin's THIS IS THE ARMY a musical aimed at boosting troop morale.  He was promoted to the rank of corporal but when the show went to Hollywood, he was transferred to the Army Air Force.  He made some recordings for the United States Office of War Information and hosted a radio show called G. I. JIVE which played to the troops overseas.  He was discharged in September of 1943 for medical reasons.

After returning to civilian life, he continued his singing and acting career.  He hosted a CBS radio show for about a year before returning to Broadway.  He was given a Donaldson Award for his performance in SING OUT SWEET LAND a Broadway folk music revue.  He made some recordings including MULE TRAIN and GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY.  In 1945, he married  screenwriter Helen Peck Ehrich, from whom he was later divorced.  They adopted a son named Alexander.

Burl Ives was noted for his liberal political views.  He was a member of Hollywood Fights back, a movement by entertainers to protest the actions of the House Unamerican Activities Committee which had been set up in the late 1940s to identify communists in the entertainment industry.  He was noted as being a member of a left wing group and blacklisted by the Government.  In 1952, he went before the committee and convinced them he was not a communist.  But a lot of his folk singing friends accused him of naming names of others who did have communist ties.  Pete Seeger in particular was angry that he had sold out his friends and political beliefs to save his own career.  They didn't speak to each other until forty-one years later when they sang BLUE TAIL FLY together on stage at a benefit concert in New York City.

He made his screen debut in the film adaptation of the Will James horse story SMOKY playing the character named Willie.  This was followed by appearances in GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING, STATION WEST, and SO DEAR TO MY HEART a Walt Disney family film.  SO DEAR TO MY HEART was his breakthrough film role and the song LAVENDER BLUE was his first big hit song.  His popularity as a singer grew as well due to the rising attention to folk songs after WWII.  He starred with Audie Murphy in HIGH SIERRA and appeared on Broadway in shows such as SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, SHOW BOAT, AND PAINT YOUR WAGON.  He put together four books during that time and recorded more than 120 songs for a six album collection called HISTORICAL AMERICA IN SONG released by Encyclopedia Britannica.  He recorded hits with songs like THE COWBOY'S LAMENT, HUSH LITTLE BABY, JOHN HENRY, NOAH FOUND GRACE IN THE EYES OF THE LORD, ON TOP OF OLD SMOKY, and SWEET BETSY FROM PIKE.



In 1955, he played Big Daddy in  Tennessee Williams' play CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF which was arguably his most famous role.  His film career picked up considerably during the next few years.  He had a supporting role in EAST OF EDEN and a minor part in THE POWER AND THE PRICE.  He made an uncredited appearance as himself in  A FACE IN THE CROWD.  The pinnacle of his film career came in 1958 when he repeated his role of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks' screen version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.  His next role was in THE BIG COUNTRY, a story about a man who is forced to kill his own son.  His performance was so impressive he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for that role.  He followed that by starring in DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, and DAY OF THE OUTLAW.

During the late fifties and early sixties, he did some comedies, children's movies and recordings, and guest starred on several TV shows.  One of my personal favorite guest appearances  was on an episode of DANIEL BOONE.  He played a wandering shaman named Prater Beasley who traveled around with a 3,000 year old invisible bear named Mr. Dobbs.  This bear was supposed to have been acquainted with Old Testament Biblical characters and possessed the wisdom of the ages.  Pretty insane sounding but he did solve whatever problem the people of Boonesborough were facing at the moment.

Now back to Christmas! In 1964 Burl Ives was picked to be the voice of Sam the Snowman to narrate the animated movie RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER.  Two of his own songs HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS and  SILVER AND GOLD were featured in the film.  RUDOLPH became an instant beloved Christmas classic which still delights children and adults 53 years later!  

He continued to work in TV and movie roles throughout the seventies.  He starred in two TV series OK CRACKERBY which was a story about the richest man in the world and THE BOLD ONES:THE LAWYERS. He appeared in PINOCCHIO and ROOTS among other shows.   With the legendary Owen Bradley as his producer, he recorded some country hits such as  A LITTLE BITTY TEAR, FUNNY WAY OF LAUGHING, AND CALL ME MISTER IN-BETWEEN.  He recorded one last major album PAYIN' MY DUES AGAIN before devoting himself to children's and religious music.  He was the voice of Sam the Eagle when the AMERICA SINGS attraction was added to Tomorrowland in Disneyland.  He was in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's campaign THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND......KEEP IT CLEAN with their fictional spokesperson Johnny Horizon.

He and Helen divorced in 1971 and she received custody of their adopted son.  He married Dorothy Koster Paul in London two months later.  She brought him three step-children.   Upon reaching the age of 70 in 1979,  he retired with his new family to Washington State.  

He didn't use the term "retirement" to totally stop working.  He continued in TV commercials as the spokesperson for Luzianne tea.  He appeared a science-fiction movie named EARTHBOUND and also in WHITE DOG a racial drama.   He did many benefits for Indian reservations, peace academies, environmental groups, arts foundations, children's hospitals, and the Boy Scouts.  In 1984, he provided narration for the Star Wars telemovie CARAVAN OF COURAGE: AN EWOK ADVENTURE.  The characters spoke only Ewokese so the narration had to explain the plot in the opening scenes and continue throughout the drama about a brother and sister who had to rescue their parents from a giant monster.   His last movie was TWO MOON JUNCTION, an erotic thriller in 1988.  His last recording was THE MAGIC BALLADEER in 1993.

Burl Ives received many honors and awards for his varied career.  Among them were his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit, a laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, and several Grammy Awards.  He was the inspiration for the comic book drawings of Green Lantern's archenemy, the evil Hector Hammond.  He was associated with the Boy Scouts of America throughout his life. He often performed at their quadrennial Boy Scout Jamboree  including the one in 1981 where he appeared with the Oak Ridge Boys.  The Boy Scouts highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award, was given to Ives and the certificate for that honor is in the Scouting Museum in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

He was most proud of being born into a family of Masons.  He became a member of the George M. Todd Chapter of DeMolay in Charlestown, Illinois in 1927 and remained involved from then on.  He attained the level of 33rd Degree Mason.  He received the DeMolay Legion of Honor in 1986 and was inducted into the DeMolay Hall of Fame on June 24, 1994.

He had always been a heavy smoker and was often photographed with his pipe.  He was diagnosed with mouth cancer in the summer of 1994.  After several unsuccessful surgeries,  he decided against further treatment.  He passed away at his home in Anacortes, Washington on April 14, 1995 at the age of 85 and was buried in the Mound Cemetery in Hunt City Township, Illinois.  

His music will never go away.  I heard him singing one of his Christmas songs in the background of one of the shows I was watching on TV last night.  Burl Ives and his unique voice  followed that outcast reindeer and they both went "right down in history".



Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Archie and Edith Bunker began each show with a loud off-key rendition of a song about the things of the past that were lost to them forever.  Each generation can name a certain band or entertainer that can be recalled as providing the soundtrack of their young lives.  Archie and Edith lamented the loss of  an era where they learned to swing (and probably fell in love) to the music of a man who in four short years had more number one hits than Elvis or the Beatles.

Alton Glenn Miller was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa.  His paternal grandparents
were part of the westward movement shortly after the Civil War having moved to Iowa when their son Elmer was three.  Elmer grew up there and married a local girl Mattie Lou Cavender who became a respected teacher.  In 1906 the Millers sold their home in Clarinda and moved to Nebraska to homestead 640 acres under the Kincaid Act of 1904.  The future bandleader lived with his father, mother, and older brother in a sod house on the flatlands.  His mother started a school there called Happy Hollow.  The family moved to North Platte, Nebraska where two more children were born.  By 1917 they had moved to Grant City, Missouri where Glenn went to grade school.  There he met a businessman named John Mosbarger who was the director of a community band   He wanted Glenn and his older brother Deane to join the band.  Glenn had an old trombone but Mr. Mosberger bought him a new one so he would have something nice to play in the band.  Glenn worked for Mr. Mosberger to pay him back.

In 1918, the Millers moved to Morgan, Colorado where Glenn enrolled in high school.  He decided he might like to play football and at the end of the season was chosen as "the best left end in Colorado" by the Colorado High School Sports Association.  During that time, Glenn became very interested in a new musical sound called Dance Band Music.  He and some classmates formed their own band.  He was so excited about his music he missed his own graduation to go to Laramie, Wyoming to play.  His mother accepted his diploma for him.

By graduation, he had decided to be a professional musician.  His first professional contract was with a Dixieland group named Senter's Sentapeeds.  Soon an opportunity opened up for him to play in the Holly Moyer Orchestra in Boulder which gave him enough money to attend the University of Colorado where he joined the Sigma Nu Fraternity.  Glenn was so busy going to auditions and playing gigs he failed three out of his five classes.  He gave up on college to become a full-time musician.  He studied the Schillinger technique with Joseph Schillinger under whose tutelage he composed what came to be his signature song MOONLIGHT SERENADE. 

He toured with several bands during 1926 and wound up in Los Angeles where he landed a good spot in Ben Pollack's Orchestra.  He was the main trombone soloist until Jack Teagarden was hired in 1928.  Glenn found his solos being cut more and more.  He realized his future might be in writing and arranging music.  He had a songbook published in Chicago in 1928 called GLENN MILLER'S 125 JAZZ BREAKS FOR TROMBONE.  He wrote a song ROOM 1411 with his roommate Benny Goodman which was released as a Brunswick 78 credited to Bennie Goodman's Boys.  When the Pollack tour reached New York City, Glenn sent for his college sweetheart Helen Burger and the two were married.

During the late 20s and early 30s, he worked as a freelance trombonist with several bands.  He arranged and played on sessions with the Dorsey Brothers including THE SPELL OF THE BLUES, LET'S DO IT, AND MY KINDA LOVE all with vocals by Bing Crosby.  He was hired by Red McKenzie to play on HELLO, LOLA and IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT which are now considered to be jazz classics.  He played in the pit bands of two Broadway shows STRIKE UP THE BAND and GIRL CRAZY.  He composed the songs ANNIE'S COUSIN FANNY, DESE DEM DOSE, HARLEM CHAPEL CHIMES, and TOMORROW'S ANOTHER DAY for the Dorsey Brothers Band.  In 1935, he put together an American band for British bandleader Ray Noble.  He made his first movie appearance as part of the Ray Noble Orchestra in the Paramount Pictures release of THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936,  starring Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, Jack Oakie, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  The movie also featured Dorothy Dandrige and the Nicholas Brothers who would star with Miller again in two Twentieth Century Fox pictures in 1941 and 1942.

Finally, in 1937 Glenn realized his dream of forming his own band.  Failing to distinguish himself from other bands of the era, he soon ran into financial troubles and had to disband.  Very discouraged, he returned to New York to figure out what to do next.  He understood that he would have to develop a unique sound. He decided to make the clarinet play a melodic line with the tenor saxophone holding the same note while three other saxophones harmonized within a single octave.  He hired a saxophonist named Wilbur Schwartz and put him on lead clarinet.  Wilbur's tone and way of playing brought a sound that was hard for others to imitate.  This time when Glenn put together his own band the outcome was much different.

The Miller Band began recording on Bluebird Records in 1938. A prominent East Coast businessman, Cy Shribman, started financing the band giving them much needed help.  In the summer of 1939, the band was asked to play the summer season at the famous Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York.  It was said they attracted 1800 people, the largest opening night crowd ever at the prestigious casino.  The popularity grew rapidly and they performed at Meadowbrook, New Jersey that same year.  Both places had frequent radio broadcasts so the Glenn Miller Orchestra soon developed a nationwide following.  In the fall of 1939, they began a series of radio broadcasts sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes which increased their popularity even more.  They were in constant demand for recording sessions.  The Glenn Miller Orchestra appeared in a film SUN VALLEY SERENADE with Milton Berle and Dorothy Dandridge.  The film featured the Nicholas Brothers in a show stopping version of CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO.  Their next movie appearance was in ORCHESTRA WIVES with Jackie Gleason playing as the group's bassist.


Glenn Miller seemed to have a fix on what kind of music would please his listeners.  He was panned by jazz critics for endless rehearsals and being too polished.  They thought he was so perfect he took away any feeling from the performance.  They accused him of being too commercial by using novelty instrumentals and vocal numbers.   They said Glenn Miller had no personality on or off stage.  His audiences loved him however and so did his musical peers such as Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, and Frank Sinatra. 


Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941 and the United States was dragged into an already raging World War II. At the height of his civilian career, Glenn Miller was too old to be drafted but he decided to join the war effort.  He volunteered for the Navy but was told they didn't want him.  In August of 1942, he wrote to Army Brigadier General Charles Young in an effort to convince him the Army needed him to be in charge of a modernized Army band that could "put a little more spring in the step and a little more joy in the hearts" of the fighting men.  His offer was accepted.  Glenn played his last civilian concert in Passaic, New Jersey on September 27, 1942.  The program ended with an emotional MOONLIGHT SERENADE.

Glenn reported for duty on October 8, 1942.  He was given the rank of Captain in the Army Specialists Corp but was soon transferred to the Army Air Forces where he gained the rank of Major.  He spent the next year and a half arranging music, putting together and directing his own 50 member band.  He modernized military music sometimes clashing with the old guard that didn't want anything changed.  He raised millions of dollars in War Bond drives.  He appeared on weekly I SUSTAIN THE WINGS radio broadcasts to attract new Air Corp recruits.  He was on a mission to boost morale and bring a touch of home to the troops.

But he wanted to do more.  In the summer of 1944, he gained permission to take his band to England where he gave 800 performances. The group was headquartered at 25 Sloane Street in an area under constant barrage from German V-1 buzz bombs.  He became concerned and made arrangements for them to move to new quarters in Bedford, England on July 2, 1944.  The very next day a bomb landed in front of their old quarters and killed 100 people.

He recorded a series of propaganda recordings at Abbey Road Studios.  (Yeah THAT Abbey Road!)  Some of the songs were sung in German by Johnny Desmond and Glenn Miller spoke in German about the war effort denouncing fascist oppression in Europe.  The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band stayed busy entertaining the troops at the bases and performing radio broadcasts.  They made a recording with singer Dinah Shore (not released for more than fifty years later) also done at Abbey Road.  These were the last recordings made by the band while being led by Miller.  Even though he was in the military and working tirelessly, Glenn and his wife Helen were able to adopt two children, Steven in 1943 and Jonnie in 1944.

A tour of other European cities was scheduled late in 1944.  Their last performance in England was at Milton Ernest Hall near Bedford on the night of December 14, 1944.

Glenn Miller HATED airplanes but early on the morning of December 15, 1944, he decided to fly to Paris to make arrangements to bring his band there for a Christmas Eve broadcast.  It was cold and snowing but Glenn and his traveling companion, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, along with the pilot, John Morgan. boarded the single-engine plane and took off from RAF Tinwood Farm in Clapham near Bedford heading for Paris.   Their plane disappeared over the English Channel and was never heard from again. 


No trace of the plane or the men have ever been found  Over the years different theories have been put forth as to what might have happened.  The first story I ever heard was they had been shot down or captured by the Germans.  For a long time there was the story their plane had been hit accidentally by a bomb jettisoned by Allied planes returning from an aborted bombing raid over Germany.  This idea was discredited by the log of a plane spotter who had reportedly seen them heading on a course that would keep them out of the area where bombs were jettisoned.  I watched a TV documentary that outlined the current determination that the fault may have actually been the plane itself.  The plane was a UC-64 Norseman, USAAF Serial Number 44-70285.  That type of aircraft had been known to have a faulty carburetor that could ice up in cold weather and had a history of causing crashes in other aircraft.  It is thought the cold snowy weather combined with the faulty plane part caused the aircraft to go down into the water.  Just like Amelia Earhart, what happened to Glenn Miller and the two other men became another of history's great mysteries.

The orchestra performed the Christmas Eve concert without him but were soon decommissioned and sent back to the United States.  In 1946, his estate authorized an official Glenn Miller "ghost band" under the direction of Tex Beneke who had been a part of Glenn's civilian band.  The band was immensely popular playing to large audiences around the country.  Soon what started as The Glenn Miller Orchestra Under The Direction of Tex Beneke became the Tex Beneke Orchestra.  The Miller estate parted ways with Beneke in 1950.

There are many archives and tributes to the late bandleader.  His daughter Jonnie purchased the home in which he was born and it is now part of the Glen Miller Birthplace Museum.  His name is on the "Wall of the Missing" at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in England.  A headstone was erected for him in Arlington National Cemetery.  A monument was also placed for him in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut near the campus of Yale University.  He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  For his military service he was awarded the Bronze Star, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Marksmanship Badge with Carbine and Rife Bars.  Three of his recordings, MOONLIGHT SERENADE, CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO, and, IN THE MOOD were placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame.  Jimmy Stewart portrayed him onscreen in THE GLENN MILLER STORY.

Glenn Miller pioneered a unique musical style through hard work and perseverance.  At the height of his career he joined the United States Army Air Corps, modernizing military bands and boosting the morale of Allied fighting men.  Having given the supreme sacrifice for his country, he is remembered as a great American Patriot.  He was a man who achieved many things in forty short years.  He loved trout fishing, playing baseball, sleep, money and reading the Bible.  I will end this with his favorite quote which happened to be from another great bandleader Duke Ellington.  IT DON'T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING!


Monday, October 9, 2017


I LOVE A PARADE!  And brass bands with shiny instruments gleaming in the sun!  One red faced plump kid struggling to keep marching and blowing his gigantic tuba!  Sweet memories of Macy's Thanksgiving Day, the Tournament of Roses. and just local Fourth of July!  High school brass bands are still highly competitive but somehow they don't liven up a parade they way they used to.  They play songs I seldom recognize and have fallen back to whatever that little marching ditty they play is by the time they get to where I am.  Ok I'm OLD but I like the lively marches that lift your spirits and make your feet want to move! (Well, plus a little Hawaii Five-O and Wipeout!) So all that got me to thinking about the man who really knew how to write a great brass band song!

John Phillip Sousa was born November 6, 1854 in Washington, D.C. near the Marine barracks.  His father Antonio Sousa was a musician in the Marine Band.  Young John went to grammar school in Washington and studied music at a private conservatory of music operated by John Esputa, Jr.  He learned to play piano and most of the orchestral instruments but his first love was the violin.  He became so proficient on the violin that at age 13 he was offered a job with a circus band.  His father would have none of that and enlisted him as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band.  There he remained until he was 20.  He also studied music theory and composition with George F. Benkert, a well-known Washington orchestra leader and teacher.

After being discharged from the Marines, he played the violin, conducted, and toured  with several traveling theater orchestras.  He decided to move to Philadelphia in 1876 where he worked as a composer, arranger, and proofreader for publishing houses.  He joined an operetta company that was producing a musical called OUR FLIRTATION.  He wrote the incidental music and the march for that show.

Sousa got married in December of 1879 to Jane van Middlesworth Bellis.  They went on to have three children John Phillip, Jr., Jane, and Helen.  

On October 1, 1880, he became the 17th leader of the Marine Band in Washington.  This was his first experience conducting a military band and his approach was much different than that of his predecessors.  He replaced much of the music in their library and changed the instrumentation to suit his needs.  Sousa conducted strict rehearsals and soon shaped his musicians into the country's finest military band.  The band's fame spread and soon they were attracting large audiences.  

He led the band under five presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes to Benjamin Harrison.  He played at the Inaugural Balls of James A. Garfield in 1881 and Benjamin Harrison in 1889.  During that time he wrote he wrote such songs as THE GLADIATOR MARCH, SEMPER FIDELIS (which became the official March of the United States Marine Corps),  and THE THUNDERER.  In 1893 he wrote THE LIBERTY BELL MARCH which was later used as the credits theme for MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS TV show!  His composition THE WASHINGTON POST MARCH became the most popular tune in America and Europe thus earning him the title the MARCH KING.  Under his leadership, the Marine Band made it's first recordings.  Columbia Phonograph Company produced 60 cylinders of recordings of the Marine Band conducted by Sousa making them some of the first recording "stars".


 The Liberty Bell March

Sousa left the military in 1892 because he wanted to pursue a more lucrative career as the leader of his own band.  He conducted a farewell concert at the White House on July 30, 1892 and was discharged from the Marine Corps the next day.  He organized his own Sousa Band which toured from 1892 until 1931.  They performed 15, 623 concerts in America and around the world.  He aided in the development of a new tuba like instrument that came to be know as the Sousaphone.  

Despite his earlier recording with the Marine Band, Sousa had a very low opinion of the emerging recording industry.  He called it 'canned music" and bragged "I have never been in the gramophone company's office in my life."  His Sousa Band made numerous recordings but never with him conducting.  He wrote to a Congressional hearing in 1902:
     "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.  When I was a boy ...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs.  Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day.  We will not have a vocal cord left.  The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

Not wanting to get into an evolution debate, I will just pause to wonder what he would say if he could hear the kind of stuff recording companies call "music" theses days.  I'm sure he would have the same opinion I do about the thing called auto-tune and music "stars" who are so untalented even auto-tune can't keep them on pitch.  (No I won't try to embarrass anyone by naming names!)

During that time, he continued to compose marches among them being my personal favorite.  Whenever I hear a band playing this song I can't help but want to jump to my feet, wave the flag, and join the parade!   Or maybe jump on a brightly colored Carousel horse and plunge forward into the breach!

Stars and Stripes Forever

He had many interests and talents outside of composing and directing.  He wrote a novel called THE FIFTH STRING, a book titled PIPETOWN SANDY, and a story named THE TRANSIT OF VENUS.  He also wrote a booklet A MANUAL FOR TRUMPET AND DRUM published by the Ludwig drum company.  An early version of the trumpet solo to SEMPER FIDELIS  was printed in the book.  He was one of the greats of trapshooting and is in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame.  He started the first national trapshooting organization and wrote many articles about the subject.  He competed regularly representing the US Navy usually against the US Army registering over 35,000 targets during his shooting career.

The other night I was watching PBS's HISTORY DETECTIVES (you can watch this episode on the HISTORY DETECTIVES website) and learned something I had never even imagined.  This lady had a handwritten sheet music of THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER that had been given to her grandfather by his music teacher, a man named Arnold Gantvoort.  At the top of the page was written five names: Arnold Gantvoort, William Earhart, Walter Damrosh, Theodore Sonneck. and JOHN PHILLIP SOUSA.  The lady investigator from the show traced the history of the document and found something very interesting (at least to a history buff and Sousa fan like me)!  Francis Scott Key didn't know anything about music and had written just a poem during the War of 1812. People began singing the words to the tune of an old British drinking song.  In fact, at least two tunes were used over the years.  Fast forward to 1917.  There was a push in Washington to make THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER the National Anthem of the United States (though Congress didn't actually vote on it until 1931).  A committee was set up consisting of two music educators, two famous composers and conductors, and the head of the Library of Congress Music Division.  These five men, which included Sousa, wrote the arrangement we sing today!  They had a hard time deciding where to go with it (and left the note written in pencil on the manuscript) but they are responsible for the high note on the word FREEEEE!

That same year, the United States entered World War I. Although he was already 62, the mandatory retirement age for Naval officers, Sousa was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve.  During the war, he led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago.  He did not need the money so most of his salary was donated to the Sailor's and Marines' Relief Fund.  For his service he was given the World War I Victory Medal and elected as a Veteran Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars.  He was discharged from active duty in November of 1918.  He went back to conducting his own band and never returned to active duty even though he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the early 1920s.   He continued to wear his naval uniform for many of his concerts and public appearances.

Sousa received many awards and honors during his lifetime and continued to do so in later years.  He was given the palms of the Order of Public Instruction of Portugal and received the Royal Victorian Medal from King Edward VII.  A ship was named for him during World War II, the Liberty ship SS John Phillip Sousa.  The Marine Band continues to use that ship's bell in their concerts.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976 and the Classical Music Hall of Fame in 1998.  The band hall for the Marine Band is dedicated to him as the JOHN PHILLIP SOUSA BAND HALL.  In 1987, Congress named THE STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER as the National March of the United States.  The man even has a star on the HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME!

John Phillip Sousa died of heart failure at the age of 77 on March 6, 1932 in his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania.  The previous day he had conducted a rehearsal of STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER with the Ringgold Band.  He is buried along with his family in Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery.  His legacy is kept alive by The John Phillip Sousa Foundation.  The Foundation provides scholarships and awards to outstanding young marching band students who show musicianship, dependability, loyalty, and cooperation.

And so my children, now you know why that crusty old band teacher INSISTS you learn at least a few of this old dead guy's songs.  He was the MARCH KING (but so much more) and always will be!  

For your listening pleasure!


The Thunderer March
(recorded in 1890 with historical photos) 

The Washington Post March

Monday, September 4, 2017


To say I was a picker when picking wasn't cool would be an understatement although I have never been blessed with enough money or space to indulge my tendency.  Even as a teenager I was always on the lookout for just the right piece to add to my growing collection.  Daddy came home from work one day with the object of my latest search in the trunk of his car.  The antique Victrola had been refinished but it was in working order and it only cost $8.00.  It even had a stack of records inside.  That's how I discovered a whole new genre of music that had never caught my attention before.  (I think that was during my folk singing days.)  There were a couple of Bessie Smith records.  She was famous enough even I had heard of her.  I knew who Ethel Waters was.  She was the sweet older lady who sang HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW at the Billy Graham Crusades.  But as I played those 78s, I began to notice the piano player on all the records was the same guy and there were some very fancy runs there.  His name was listed on the labels so I did some research to find out he was the grandfather of one of THE MOD SQUAD!  

Clarence Williams was born October 8, 1893 or October 6. 1898 (depending upon which source you believe) in Plaquemine, Louisiana (on the outskirts of New Orleans) of Choctaw and Creole heritage.  He performed at his family's hotel and sang in the streets until he left home at the age of twelve to join Billy Kersand's Minstrel Show as a singer.  He soon became the Master of Ceremonies for the troupe.  Upon returning to New Orleans, he began the first of several businesses he would own, a suit cleaning service for the many stylish piano professors in that town.  He began playing piano in the honkytonks of Storyville and soon became a well known entertainer.  He was a great businessman who worked as an arranger and managed entertainment at the local African American vaudeville theater as well as several saloons and dance halls around Rampart Street and clubs in Storyville.  

He started a publishing business with Armand Piron, writer of I WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE, and wrote his first money making song BROWNSKIN, WHO YOU FOR?.  He received $1,600.00 for the song.  According to him, that was the most anyone in New Orleans had ever received for a song.  They formed a vaudeville act with Piron on violin and Williams on piano and vocals.  The duo became acquainted with W. C. Handy who helped them get some of their compositions in Memphis music stores. Williams was never a humble man and claimed to be the first writer to use the word "jazz" on his sheet music.  His business card called him "The Originator of Jazz and Boogie Woogie".

 He moved to Chicago in 1920 and opened a very successful music store which soon grew into three music stores.  He jumped on the new-found popularity of female black singers and made quite a profit from selling recordings of them.  He married blues singer Eva Taylor, one of the first females blues singers ever heard on the radio.  They began writing songs together including the hit MAY WE MEET AGAIN a tribute to Florence Mills one of the most popular black stage entertainers of the time.

Clarence sold his Chicago stores in 1923 and moved to New York.  He opened offices in the Gaiety Theater and became one of the primary pianists on scores of blues records made in New York during the 1920s.  He supervised African-American recordings (the 800 Race Series) for the New York office of Okeh Records and recruited many of the artists who performed on that label.  He also recorded on Columbia and other record labels with studio bands.  

He took Bessie Smith to Columbia to make her first recordings.  He accompanied Smith on many of those recordings (that's how I came to notice him) and took credit for writing such hits as BABY, WON'T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? and T'AIN'T NOBODY'S BIZNESS IF I DO.  The origins of some of these songs remain in doubt because Williams was known for putting his name on songs he hadn't written entirely on his own.  He was also less than honest with the singer who thought she had signed a contract with Columbia records.  In reality, the contract named him as her manager and he was pocketing half of her recording fee.  She soon figured it out and her boyfriend payed him a visit demanding she be released from the contract and be allowed to sign directly with Columbia.  (I can picture that guy making him an offer he couldn't refuse!)


While he (like other agents) was known for taking advantage of new artists, he also helped launch or furthered the careers of many other successful stars  including Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.  During the 20s and 30s, he was a very prolific producer organizing at least two sessions a month for other artists and recording over 300 songs under his own name on different labels.  His name appears as writer or co-writer on numerous songs including some by other composers. It was common practice during that time to purchase songs written by others and put the purchasers name on the final product.  Admittedly, Williams did that on many occasions.  He is even credited with writing Hank Williams' 1947 hit MY BUCKETS GOT A HOLE IN IT.

In 1927, he decided to try musical theater.  He wrote the book, music, and produced the show BOTTOMLAND.  His wife Eva was cast in the lead role.  The show was not a critical success.  His New York publishing company continued to prosper until 1943 when he sold its catalog over over 2000 songs to Decca for $50,000.  That doesn't sound like much by today's standards but then it was quite a lot.  He tried to retire but soon bought a used goods store.  He continued to write songs until he lost his sight after being hit by a cab in 1956.  


Clarence Williams passed away on November 6, 1965  and was buried in Saint Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale on Long Island.  He was the father of singer-actress Irene Williams and the grandfather of MOD SQUAD actor Clarence Williams III.  He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.  He may have sometimes been quite a "rascal" but he was a prolific writer, a shrewd businessman and he had magic fingers!