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The Amazing Influence of
Al Jolson
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Al Jolson Portrait
Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson [some sources cite Joelson] in Russia, May 26, 1886-October 23, 1950) was in the minds of most who saw him perform, and many who have only heard his many recordings or seen his films, the greatest entertainer of the early 20th century. He was certainly the most influential, and his picture easily appeared on more music covers than even Anna Held or Sophie Tucker, both big contenders for the title. Jolson was a stage performer in every way, and it shows in his films and records. He also, according to his peers (one relatively credible source is comedian George Burns) had one of the biggest egos in the entertainment world, but got away with it because of his charm and talent. He reportedly had the habit of leaving the water running in his dressing room so he would not hear how much applause the other entertainers were getting!
Through all of his fame, Jolson never forgot nor denied his Jewish heritage, and regularly performed songs of his faith in his shows. The Jazz Singer can be viewed as semi-autobiographical (as it was for both of his colleagues Eddie Cantor and Georgie Jessel, the latter who played the role on stage), and is recommended watching in any case, as is the follow up "talkie", The Singing Fool. His performances of Kol Nidre and Sonny Boy respectively are emotionally stirring even to this day.
What happened to Jolson that put him in the position of appearing to be a caricature of himself? He was the first to discover the mass media (records, radio, and sound film), but did not know how to adjust his stage persona so as to not overwhelm people in their living rooms or in front of the big screen. Overstatement worked well on a stage where one was unamplified, but not so much when the entertainer is more directly in the face of the audience.
Jolie eventually made a comeback in the mid-1940s when no less than two biopics about his life were produced while he was still alive. In the end, it was his desire to continually entertain and be heard, in this case it was the American and UN troops in Korea, that contributed to his death at the age of 64 as a result of the unquestionable strain of travel performance travel (42 shows in 11 days) overseas. He would sometimes remind show managers that "Nobody follows Jolson." It really is true that nobody has.
Presented here are many of his big hits, all of which have his name on the cover, and most that also have his influential picture. In the case of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, who were both already on the way to brilliant careers, his endorsement of their songs was a factor of notoriety that helped them both immeasurably. In later years Jolson had cover credit, although the extent of his contributions are, for the most part, not entirely clear. They were more likely to have been lyrical than melodic, but still changed the character of a tune.
For more information on Al Jolson, either read my extensive web biography on him or please visit one of the finest Jolson sites on the web,, which includes some fabulous film clips of him in action. Tell 'em the "Perfessor" sent you. Thanks, and RAGards.

mp3 fileThe Spaniard That Blighted My Life
Billy Merson - 1911
The Spaniard That Blighted My Life Al Jolson was still looking for a hook of sorts to make his mark in show business. He was gaining popularity on New York stages, but hadn't settled in to the sentimental variety of Mammy or Dixie songs yet that he would later be associated with. So throughout the 1910s Jolie had some very successful encounters with comedic novelty numbers. This particular one, which has an undercurrent of violence and rage from a jilted lover, actually comes across as silly when performed correctly. His smarmy manner, which is apparent in his 1913 Victor recording of the work, suits the piece well. However, the studio band did not pick up on the Spanish style that the composer was trying to establish, and they come off as rather stiff in their interpretation. In the 1940s, comedian Jerry Colonna did a rather frenetic recording of the piece with a band that could barely keep up with him. Having grown up in California surrounded by multi-cultural music forms, I clearly heard a Mariachi band in my head when I first encountered this song, which is how it eventually got recorded on Perfessor Bill Sings, Volume 1, complete with an actual bullfight crowd mixed in and even a piano and guitar duel! OLE!!
mp3 fileWaiting for the Robert E. Lee
Lewis F. Muir (M) and L. Wolfe Gilbert (L) - 1912
Waiting for the Robert E. Lee This is one of many songs that helped make Al Jolson famous, or possibly vice versa. In Tin Pan Alley, author Dave Jasen tells of its curious origin. Muir already had a string of hits behind him, and had just composed When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary. Gilbert, in a column for the New York Clipper, wrote a column attacking the song as sacrilege, and derided both the composer and the publisher. The two ran into each other a few days later, and Muir asked Gilbert about any hits he had written. Gilbert named some obscure publications that Muir had never heard of. Gilbert challenged Muir to write a song with him if he was so talented. They went to Muir's home that evening and turned out a love ballad and a Dixie chorus. The very next morning, they took their songs to Muir's publisher, Fred Mills. Mills told them the ballad stank, and that Dixie songs were now passé. He offered Gilbert a batch of songs to show him what Mills Music published. Gilbert left steaming, then realized he hadn't taken the songs offered him. He came back in and Mills asked him to play that Dixie tune again because he couldn't get it out of his head. A few weeks later, Jolson introduced Waiting for the Robert E. Lee, and it has been a favorite ever since.
Excerpt paraphrased from Tin Pan Alley by Dave Jasen, a terrific book that is currently out of print and hard to find, but worth the effort to locate.
mp3 fileYou Made Me Love You (Miss Kelsey Vocal)
mp3 file(Bill Vocal)
James V. Monaco (M) and Joe McCarthy (L) - 1913
You Made Me Love YouIt has surprised me as to how many people actually believe that this is a song from the 1930s, and that more of them know of Judy Garland's performance than of Al Jolson's. Actually, this may speak of the song's durability since it is still performed often today, even in television commercials. You Made Me Love You and Waiting for the Robert E. Lee both helped to launch Jolson's career, every bit as much as he made them popular, both at the Winter Garden Theatre and through his early recordings for Columbia Records. However, it had a tenuous start, saved by alcohol.
McCarthy and Monaco had written some tunes together, and brought this piece as a ragtime one step to publisher Harry Von Tilzer, who subsequently rejected the tune. One of Von Tilzer's song pluggers, Nemo Roth, was a friend of the composers. While it was his job to promote Von Tilzer tunes at events like dance contests, he sometimes knew enough to take a chance on a rogue entry. Roth was at a Brooklyn dance event one evening prepared to sing Am I In Love published by his employer, but Monaco and McCarthy asked if he would try their tune instead. The singer had been downing large quantities of beer that evening, and by the time he got up to perform his pace had slowed considerably. As a result, he had to sing the piece You Made Me Love You at a much slower pace, instantly (if accidentally) transforming a ragtime song into a tear-jerker of a ballad. Even though Harry, who was present, was clearly irritated by the substitution, by the end of the performance he acknowledged that it was a tune with great possibilities. The following week he presented it to his friend Jolson at the Winter Garden Theater, and after its performance the singer was called back to stage over a dozen times. Ironically, it was Harry's brother Will Von Tilzer who ended up publishing the piece under his Broadway Music imprint. This is one of those songs in which the lovely verses seem to have been forgotten over the years, and the chorus has been altered somewhat by numerous interpretations of it. Two versions are included here, one in the form of an early jazz trio with verses and the original melody intact, and "I did want to do it!"
mp3 fileSister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers
Hermann E. Darewski (M) and R.P. Weston (L) - 1914
Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers (Original cover)  Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers (Later cover)While most people think of Al Jolson as someone who just might take himself too seriously, a perception no doubt enhanced by their knowledge only of his movies or his 1940s recordings, he was actually a very capable comedic talent early in his stage career. Jolie was already an established talent on the way up when he recorded this song for Columbia Records in late 1914. It was actually introduced first in England by American singer Jack Norworth in the beginning of what was at that time the "European War" (eventually WWI), and Jolson quickly latched onto it for his show Dancing Around at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. He would do a couple of verses of this charming tongue twister, and then issue a challenge to the audience members. To any man who could get through the chorus at speed without bobbling it, he offered a new hat or five dollars, and to any women who would meet his challenge she would get either a new hat or a ten-pound box of chocolate (try that trick in THIS century!). Evidently he rarely paid up, knowing that the combination of stage fright and the intimidation of his mere presence would yield a fluffed performance. Except for one occasion in particular, that is. A week after he recorded this number for Columbia, complete with a reduction of the staged routine with an audience (which sounds like all men), an executive from the recording company accepted the challenge, produced a portable phonograph, and proceeded to play a fresh pressing of the record. Everybody got a good laugh from that. The original cover showed Jolson both as himself and in blackface, but less than three years later during our involvement in the war it was changed to a more appropriate format. Take a look at the lyrics and see if you are up to the Jolson challenge. By the way, there is no five dollar reward coming from me!
mp3 fileWhere Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night
George W. Meyer (M), Sam Lewis, and Joe Young (L) - 1916
Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night Early in his career, in his long running series of shows at New York's Winter Garden Theater, Al Jolson was as well known for his comedy numbers as he was for his show stoppers. He was able to inflect enough smarmy witticism into his voice and on his face to make a seemingly risqué song about most anything. This was one of his masterpieces from the show Robinson Crusoe Jr. which was also put down on a recording the year it came out. Based on the famous marooned protagonist and his sidekick from Daniel Defoe's famous novel, this piece actually leans towards musical trends that would come to fruition in the 1920s, with some relatively "jazzy" progressions in the middle of the chorus. It also left room for what would become an expected triple ending, absent from Jolie's original recording, but present here. One must wonder about the odd cover, which features a grinning black-faced Jolson in overalls standing next to a goat with a bottle of booze around its neck (a rescue goat?). Don't ask, and he won't tell!
mp3 fileDown Where The Swanee River Flows
Albert Von Tilzer
(M), Charles McCarron and Charles S. Alberte (L) - 1916
Down Where The Swanee River Flows Two years before the composition of Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, Al Jolson had this sentimental chestnut, a fairly big hit in his repertoire which was eventually eclipsed by the later song. In fact,
Albert Von Tilzer's
had already composed a piece by this name with Andrew B. Sterling in 1903 that had not done very well, so this was a remake of the original in some ways. By this time the misspelling of Suwannee was so ensconced in the American culture that even the people of Florida really didn't mind. In this year before the widespread popularity of jazz, some writers and musicians were still a bit wary of "swinging" a piece. This one is written with both straight and swung rhythms throughout, a harbinger of styles to come. In his recording of the piece, Jolson sounds rather constrained by the resident Columbia Records Orchestra, most of whom played the transcription from the sheet music rather stiffly while he is clearly trying to put some lilt into it. Of further interest are the verses, which capitalize on moviemaking, or "photoplays," something that would eventually bring Jolie further fame than he already had.
mp3 fileI Sent My Wife to the Thousand Isles
Harry Von Tilzer
(M), Andrew B. Sterling and Ed Moran (L) - 1916
I Sent My Wife to the Thousand Isles While the sentiment conveyed in this song would likely fall subject to widespread ostracizing today of anybody associated with it ("I sent my wife to the Thousand Isles... She'll spend a week on every isle..."), husbands coping with or ridding themselves of overbearing or tiresome wives was a common theme in vaudeville and theatre in the early 1900s. This attempt at good-natured fun is more than evident in Al Jolson's 1916 recording of the piece. His take on the verses is truly deceptive to the uninitiated since he sets up one of those maudlin choruses about being separated from one's true love. He then lets out a gleeful "Ha ha!" and proceeds to the chorus sounding just a little too enthusiastic about the situation - but then again on stage it likely came across very well. Whether or not it was Jolson's true attitude is a matter of conjecture. He was still married to his first wife, Henrietta Keller, at that time. It was reportedly a rather tenuous relationship as Jolie had an eye (and likely more) for the ladies. While it was she who left rather than wait to be shipped off to the tropics, she was only the first of four wives for the famous entertainer. A look at the extra verses and choruses that Jolie didn't sing reveal a progressively more hedonistic attitude about the whole situation, and are extremely suggestive for that time.
mp3 fileYaaka Hula Hickey Dula (Hawaiian Love Song)
E. Ray Goetz, Joe Young and
Pete Wendling
- 1916
Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula (Hawaiian Love Song) There was a time when Hawaii was simply a United States territory with an obvious strategic advantage in the Pacific that was a few days sailing from San Francisco. There were no sliding electric guitars or Tiny Bubbles, no Hilo Hatties trying to seduce you into buying garish shirts (of which I own a few). It was a simple and beautiful tropical paradise that was also steeped in a unique musical heritage all its own. One of the signature pieces was the well-known Aloha Oe (Farewell to Thee) composed by no less than Queen Lilioukalani at Haunawili in 1878. The Queen was also responsible for hundreds of other songs composed on her guitar. Her musical style became a benchmark for mainlander's perception of the music, and in the 1910s, as travel to Hawaii became more common as a vacation trip, popular songwriters did their best to combine Aloha Oe and variances of it into songs that romanticized a destination that needed no assistance with romanticizing. This piece in particular was a big hit, in part because of its association with Al Jolson. The chorus of the song is a variation on the famous Hawaiian anthem, and appropriately so since it talks of reunion rather than parting. The title is little more than an imitation of the native Hawaiian language designed as a catchy hook, rather than something with a specific meaning.
mp3 fileRock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody
Jean Schwartz
(M), Sam Lewis, and Joe Young (L) - 1918
Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody Two recurring themes in the more serious songs that Al Jolson chose to interpret were those of Dixie and Mammy. What better marriage for him, then, would be a song that utilizes both prominently (although most songs of the genre had at least some mention of both in some context). This was one of three featured songs he performed in a 1926 synchronized sound film that preceded the Jazz Singer by nearly a year, and to which the soundtrack was just recently rediscovered and restored in the late 1990s. The film was A Plantation Act, and in it, Jolson defends the genre of "Mammy" songs as an introduction to this particular one. His reading of it is decidedly overly dramatic depending on your taste, but that's the very reason that audiences flocked to the theaters to see and hear Jolie in the first place - because he could sell any song he liked to nearly anyone. In later years, this tune became associated with Judy Garland as well, but none will replace the original jazz singer who made it ever so popular.
mp3 fileSwanee
George Gershwin
(M) and Irving Caesar (L) - 1919
Swanee (Original Cover)  Swanee (Common Cover)  Swanee (British Cover) In the middle of 1919 at the age of 20, George Gershwin already had five years of Tin Pan Alley experience. He started out doing piano roll interpretations, and moved up to composition. With at least a few minor hits under his belt, he wrote two Broadway revues in 1919. The second revue included pieces penned with lyricist Irving Caesar, and even though Swanee (reportedly written in just 15 minutes) was a big production number in the The Capitol Revue (as shown on the original cover), sheet music sales in the lobby and in music stores were rather sparse. Then Caesar implored his friend Al Jolson to try it out after Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party. Jolson liked Swanee enough to interpolate it into the show he was performing in at the time, Sinbad, and recorded it as well. Overnight it became the best-selling number that Gershwin would ever have, proving that sometimes it IS who you know (and who is on the cover)! It also soon became a hit in London in another show, Jig Saw, and helped establish a firm fan base for Gershwin in England where he would spend a good bit of time in the 1920s. The structure of Swanee is unusual for the time period, as the F minor verse segues into an F major chorus, and there is a tag chorus, making this a three-part song. Presented here is a competition version of the piece, performed twice by myself at the World Championship of Old-Time Piano Playing. Incidentally, as anyone from Florida will tell you, the correct spelling of the river from which the name is derived is Suwannee. How I love ya.
mp3 fileAvalon
Vincent Rose and Al Jolson [and Giacomo Puccini] - 1920
Avalon (Red cover)  Avalon (Scenic cover) Even more so than the famous 1958 Four Preps song "Twenty six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is the island for me..." (it's really closer to 22 miles) this is the most famous song about that mystical island owned by gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., and the town that sits on its bay. The original reference was most likely to the mythical island from Le Morte D'Arthur, the first successful novel about the life of the legendary King Arthur. It soon became associated with California's Avalon, which is located on the eastern side of Santa Catalina island, and was quite a hot spot back in the 1920s and 1930s. While it was certainly a romantic little island resort town not too far removed from rapidly growing Los Angeles, the eventual highlight of a visit there, other than the beautiful water in the crescent harbor and the Wrigley field replica, was the circular Catalina Casino at the edge of the bay. However, it was not completed by 1929, so is not a factor in this song. My family took water taxis out there on occasion for an enjoyable day, and I attended Scout summer camp at Emerald Bay, not far from the main town. So this song evokes many personal memories as well.
Avalon has been performed in a variety of styles, including the hot jazz combo featuring Benny Goodman over the persistent beat of Gene Krupa in the 1930s, and Harry Connick, Junior's fabulous habanera take on it. However, I have chosen to return to the roots from which it sprang, which would be closer to the original performance by co-composer Al Jolson, and the sheet music notation. This is in part because of the source of the core of Avalon, an item of controversy in the courts at one time. The melody had a relationship with a melody composed by Giacomo Puccini in his opera Tosca. That relationship with the aria E lucevan le stella was determined by the courts to be that of near-IDENTITY. In 1921 G. Ricordi, the Italian publisher of Puccini's operas, successfully sued the named composers and the publisher for lifting the haunting melody, and was awarded $25,000 in punitive damages as well as all future royalties to the tune. This may have been slightly unfair since the verses were most likely penned by Jolson at or near the time of his recording of the piece in the summer of 1920, and it is the chorus most associated with the aria. Either way, this was a better compromise than removing the piece from circulation. So the rendition here is a little gentler than some of the jazz recordings circulating. But that is in deference to its operatic origin, and perhaps my sentimental and sappy personal memories of Avalon from my youth. And one more thing, which is absolutely true - I left my hat in Avalon inside the bay. Oh well!
mp3 fileDown Yonder
L. Wolfe Gilbert - 1921
Down Yonder Many performers I know of have long been politely amazed at the durability of this simple piece, but then again, it may be that simplicity that has made it durable. Down Yonder is essentially a partial plagiarism of a piece Gilbert co-wrote with Lewis F. Muir nine years earlier, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. There is even one line, lyrics and music, lifted directly from the predecessor. However, this song was not a big hit at its inception. Like 12th Street Rag it had to wait for the ragtime revival to really catch on. It is curious that even though the cover advertises it as a big hit for Al Jolson in 1921, it does not show up in his recorded repertoire of that period or even later. Jo Ann Castle,
Lou Busch
Del Wood
were among the artists who did rather well with the piece in the 1950s and 1960s, none more so than Wood who became the first female recording artist to surpass the million seller mark for an instrumental record. As with many revived ragtime era hits, the verse was typically excised. This allows for a level of repetition that helps the melody sink in, but a level of redundancy that can stymie some musicians or quickly fatigue listeners. So here it is presented here as interpreted from the original sheet music. If you want to hear it again, well, you'll have to find me down yonder.
mp3 fileMy Mammy
Walter Donaldson (M), Sam Lewis, and Joe Young (L) - 1921
My Mammy (Original cover)  My Mammy (Jolson cover) This is the ultimate "Mammy" song, so much so that they had to title it as such. Surprisingly, though, this tune about certain consequences of wanderlust was not originally an Al Jolson hit. Jolie latched on to it soon after it was published, and associated the song with himself so completely that a new cover had to be issued with his sales-grabbing visage pasted onto it. Both covers are displayed here. One might wonder, in light of the recurring Mammy theme in Jolson's repertoire, whether the Russian-born Jew had an Oedipus complex or some deep-seated insecurity that had him constantly running back into Mammy's arms. It is most likely that he knew he could sell these songs quite convincingly on stage, since they provided an outlet for his emotional interpretations whilst down on his knees, replete with his "aaoooohhh" vocalisms. Jolson did have some insecurities concerning the public's perception of him, but he never let them show when he was at his ultimately favorite home, the stage. I've infused two known interpretations here - one from the original recording that has a relatively straight rhythm accompaniment, and repeated with a much looser feel, closer to his Decca recordings of the 1940s. As for his dropping to the knees on occasion, the unconfirmed reason for that had to do with painful bunions that he was trying to remove the pressure from. In the same vein, George Burns told the story of Jolie's rise to fame with this song: It seems that Jolson had consumed a large pasta meal shortly before a show one evening, and the tomato sauce was creating gastrointestinal discomfort for the singer. During Mammy the heartburn became too much for him as he sang, "Mam-my Oooooooaaawwwwwww, Mam-my OOOoooooaaaawwww." He then had to drop to his knees for "I'd walk a million miles for one..." which is how the legend was born. Riiiiight, George!
mp3 fileApril Showers
Louis Silvers (M), Bud G. DeSylva (L) - 1921
April Showers Definitely one of the biggest and most enduring hits ever associated with Al Jolson, this charming little song is often misunderstood, and frequently performed in a manner quite different from the original intent of the composers. This was one of the few pieces in which Jolson used his rich baritone "cantors voice" in his early recordings of it, particularly on the intentionally rubato verse. There is a possibility that he contributed at least some to that verse, without receiving credit. Looking at the original score, and listening to early recordings (pre-Decca), one hears a very light and poignant sound applied to the performances. This is achieved in the piano arrangement largely through simplicity, with a single melody line switching between the hands either over or under light chords. For the second chorus, I choose a little more traditional reading of the piece with a jazz trio. Listen for a snippet of another famous "rainy" song at the end.
mp3 fileToot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'bye
Gus Kahn, Ernie Erdman and Dan Russo - 1922
Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'bye (Original cover)  Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'bye (Common cover) Jolson was already on a roll when his interpretation of this piece really took off. By this time, record sales were as brisk or better than sheet music sales. It was also a big hit in the late 1940s when he re-recorded many of his earlier tunes for Decca records, in conjunction with the two movies about his life. Toot, Toot, Tootsie was among the best examples of a piece that fell into the "popular song" genre. It wasn't ragtime, wasn't quite jazz, wasn't a set stage piece (even though it was featured in a show); it was just a song that anybody could sing, but for many, that only Jolie could interpret. Actually, my interpretation is more geared towards exhibition performance than to singing. I have done well with it in competition, most notably at the World Championship of Old-Time Piano Playing held each Memorial Day weekend. I really don't get a full head of steam going until the end, but then hang on for the finale!
mp3 fileCarolina in the Morning
Walter Donaldson (M) and Gus Kahn (L) - 1922
Carolina in the Morning Although mildly popular when first released, Carolina did not initially enjoy the big success it has even today, and wasn't even closely associated with Al Jolson until his recording of it for Decca in the mid-1940s. Actually, it was another song released at the same time, My Buddy by the same composers, which got most of the attention. It has long been well known in the recording and movie industry that a company should time song releases so that they do not conflict with other possible hits from the same artist, composer or company, thus detracting from potential sales. While Carolina hardly suffered from a malaise, it still took a few years for it to build momentum. Note that it is less the static melody that makes this composition great than it is the underlying harmonies and light swing. There is a story that Donaldson was asked by the publisher to play him just the melody - sans accompaniment - to see if he liked it. His reaction was non-plussed at best, but when played in context with the chords it must have helped to sell the tune. The version here blends the original sheet music with some elements from the well-known Jolson recording.
mp3 fileMy Buddy
Walter Donaldson (M) and Gus Kahn (L) - 1922
My Buddy - Original Cover  My Buddy - Jolson Cover  My Buddy - Movie Cover This piece provides a nice opportunity to get a glimpse into the hit-creation process that had become such a vital element of Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s. The "Alley" was actually comprised of a number of publishers centrally located in New York City, although there were also some in Chicago and on the West Coast of the US. The sole purpose of many of these publishers had shifted from the 1880s edict of producing good music for performance or home use to that of creating massive hits that would spawn sales of phonograph records, piano rolls, sheet music, and royalties from many different sources. In essence, composers were hired to turn out hits, and some even had quotas to fulfill. Whether it be a sentimental weeper, some new dance craze, or a novelty number, getting it out to the public and pushing it in exchange for revenue (most of it going to the publisher and not the composers) was the focus of many of the firms in the music business up through even the mid-1960s.
Teams worked well, and firms such as Jerome Remick, Shapiro, Bernstein and M. Witmark hired people with the intent of teaming them up. With a good collection of lyricists and composers, if one combination didn't click another would soon be discovered. Such was the case with Donaldson and Kahn, who were responsible for many of the standards composed in the 1920s. Once decent songs were copyrighted (and even some not-too decent ones), the next phase was to push it. There were several methods, some employed simultaneously, to achieve this. E.T. Paull depended in part on his colorful covers to attract attention to the piece in the store. But just as it has remained since the 1910s in advertising, endorsements are a big key. So the firms also employed people who did nothing but shop the songs to various artists who were either recording or performing on stage, or both. And some artists actually had agents who sought out new songs from the publishers based on a particular topic, the antecedent of musical writing that was still two decades off.
In the case of a piece like My Buddy, it sometimes took a little while for the endorsements or for the tune to catch on. It was still published in a generic format, as shown in the first cover. Once an artist, in this case it was Al Jolson, took a liking to it or recorded it, they would get their name and/or picture on the cover, sometimes in exchange for gratuities of some type. This is clearly shown in the second cover. An additional aspect of endorsement started to come into use in the late 1910s - that of associating a song with a movie or stage production. While there were obviously no soundtracks to movies until the late 1920s, a director or producer, sometimes at the insistence of a publisher (financial or otherwise) would request that a thematic piece be played at a certain moment in the movie, thus providing continuity between performances and another method of selling the song (shown by the third cover). Copies would, of course, be available in the lobby after the performance. My Buddy was thus introduced to the public this way, and has long remained a sentimental favorite based largely on the quality of the tune. Ella Fitzgerald sang this to a weeping crowd at the funeral of Harlem drumming legend Chick Webb in June of 1939.
mp3 fileCalifornia, Here I Come
Joseph Meyer, Bud DeSylva and Al Jolson - 1924
California, Here I Come When you write two big hits within a year, both are about going home, and Al Jolson is involved with both of them, you're bound to get similar results. Such is the case with California, Here I Come and Alabamy Bound, which both feature lyrics by DeSylva, and were monster hits for Jolie. While Jolson's contribution is unclear, it may be little more than his name, which was enough to sell the product. And actually, the by-product was, of course, California itself. Who knows how many people were influenced to move there by this optimistic tune! This is once again one of those songs to which virtually everybody knows the chorus (which was frequently used in cartoons of the 1930s to 1950s), but the well-developed dramatic verse is largely ignored. I do it here in a similar vein as my arrangement of Alabamy Bound, as they are developed in nearly the same fashion. It is also with a tip of the musician's hat to Marty Mincer, who contributed some of the ideas used in this arrangement. And remember, I started out as a California boy, so there may be something to this!
mp3 fileAlabamy Bound (Vocal)
mp3 file(Competition Instrumental)
Ray Henderson (M) Bud G. DeSylva and Bud Green (L) - 1925
Alabamy Bound Looking back at the 1910s and 1920s, it is really amazing how many people were flocking to Alabama, particularly on trains, if popular song lyrics had any truth to them. It is equally alarming to see how many songs Al Jolson was introducing as well. When Alabamy Bound first came out, Jolie was nearing peak, no doubt. Actually, so was Henderson, who had also co-written Five Foot Two and I'm Sitting On Top of the World. Alabamy Bound was originally more associated at the time with Eddie Cantor who had included it in one of his shows, but it became a Jolson hit again in the 1940s as a result of his Decca recording of it. In any case, I take full advantage of the train theme and apply it mercilessly to the piano. The opening station bells are followed by the sound of the locomotive working up a head of steam. It took years to achieve this affect properly, but well worth it. I learned it from Colorado pianist Dick Kroeckel, who fully emulated the engine through by puffing on a cigar to create the smoke. The minor verse melody so lends itself to a dramatic reading that I create somewhat of a melodrama out of it. This piece will certainly test the full capability of your sound card or module!
mp3 fileIf You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie) (Inst.)
mp3 fileBarbershop Quartet
Bud G. DeSylva - 1925
If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie) - Standard Cover  If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie) - Jolson Cover Since it has long been known that the study of music is also the study of culture contemporary to that music, songs such as this only reinforce the contention that things in the United States had certainly "loosened up" in terms of morality by the mid-1920s. Even the title provokes some speculation as to what exactly the performer may "know" about Susie. Gasp!! But this was the music of the college youth, who were reckless and relatively carefree. In the days before Oklahoma hit the stage, it was rare that a song would be directly associated with a musical, much less a specific character from that musical. A song was just a song, and the script for any stage show could be and often was rewritten to accommodate interpolation of the latest hit into the performance. The two covers shown here help to prove that point. With what little information could be uncovered concerning Susie, and based on common practices of the day, it is likely that that this song was shopped to all of the performers shown on the cover, and they readily took to it. But in order to appease Al Jolson, who was clearly the dominant celebrity here, and to accommodate increased sales and exposure (music was often sold in the lobby of the theaters), another printing was arranged with his picture solely on the cover. This way they could capitalize on Jolson as well as the evident (and lasting) popularity of this fine tune. The arrangement here is arranged less for singing and more for championship playing, but you can still take a whack at it!
mp3 fileSonny Boy
Ray Henderson, Bud G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Al Jolson - 1928
Sonny Boy Just one year after making his "debut" sound motion picture, The Jazz Singer, (there was one short sound demonstration made of Jolson doing three songs in 1926), The Singing Fool was released, and became the biggest motion picture for over a decade, later eclipsed by Gone with the Wind (1939). In the movie he plays an entertainer/songwriter whose marriage turns into a sham. The one thing he loves most in his life, his son, is taken from him by his former wife. He does not see the boy for some time until he gets a call from his ex-spouse at the hospital where their son is dying. It is here that he gives an incredibly emotional performance of Sonny Boy that nobody is immune from in terms of tears. Originally written as a schmaltzy tongue in cheek joke-like exercise, even the writers were eventually affected by it. The song went on to become the first million selling record. As many times as I've played it, I still well up, particularly when thinking about my own boys, and in memory of my recently departed dad, Sam Edwards, who sang it often from the 1940s up until a month before his death. Read the lyrics while the song is playing and you'll know what I mean.
Copyright ©1928, 1965 by Warner Music

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The Ragtime Webring-Dedicated to Scott Joplin and the music of the Ragtime Era, this ring is an invaluable resource for jazz music lovers, musicians and historians. Sheet music, midi files, afro-american history, record collectors...

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Including some of my recommended favorites:
Max Morath Dick Hyman Dick Zimmerman
Paul Lingle Wally Rose Lu Watters
James P. Johnson Tony Caramia Squirrel Nut Zippers
Marcus Roberts Butch Thompson Jelly Roll Morton
Glenn Jenks Sue Keller Fats Waller
The Good Time Jazz Catalog and Bill's personal favorites, The Firehouse Five+2!

And don't miss these movies which include some ragtime music:
The Jazz Singer The Sting
Alexander's Ragtime Band Scott Joplin
The Legend of 1900 Ragtime
For Me and My Gal Meet Me In St. Louis
In the Good Old Summertime Take Me Out to the Ball Game
The Jolson Story Jolson Sings Again
Cheaper by the Dozen San Francisco
Somewhere in Time Titanic (1953)
The Other Pretty Baby
42nd Street Reds
The Son of Kong Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Cheyenne Social Club The Shootist
How To Dance Through Time - Dances of the Ragtime Era

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