Technical difficulties (a broken turntable) have kept this site out of commission for a while. Meanwhile, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester will be playing at the Byham in Pittsburgh on April 15. Here’s a sample of their work on a well-known 1920s tune.
Charles Dornberger and His Orchestra
Recorded in 1924
Charles Dornberger had an amazingly prolific recording career at Victor in the 1920s, but I have never once run across an A side by his band. His recordings were always released as fillers, the flip side to some expected hit by some more celebrated band, like Paul Whiteman’s or Jean Goldkette’s.
Nevertheless, Dornberger’s was a good dance band in its own right. Here we have one of the earliest recordings of what would soon become an unstoppable jazz juggernaut of a tune, “Nobody’s Sweetheart” by the great pianist and composer Elmer Schoebel, given a good and jazzy performance by Dornberger’s enthusiastic band of nobodies.
Carl Fenton’s Orchestra
It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’
Recorded in 1924
Here’s a good example of a genre we might call hick jazz, a style designed to appeal to the large rural market. Its characteristics are cornball jokes, squawky sound effects, and a surprising amount of real jazz behind the silliness.
“Carl Fenton” at this time was Gus Haenschen, who picked the name more or less at random to replace his own unsalably German name. His records apparently earned “Carl Fenton” some name recognition; in 1927, Rudy Greenberg took over the band and bought the name “Carl Fenton,” later legally changing his name to Carl Fenton. Both Carl Fentons died in 1980. You can read the story on the Mainspring Press site, and if you like it you might consider ordering the book.
This record is as corny as an Iowa silo, but there’s enough musical interest in the arrangement and solos to keep you entertained even if you don’t go for rural humor. Listen especially for the hot cornet chorus.
Victor Herbert’s Orchestra
Liszt: A Dream of Love
Recorded in 1911
Once again we hear Victor Herbert’s meticulously rehearsed orchestra playing a popular classical favorite. Last time we heard Puccini; this time it’s Franz Liszt’s famous Liebestraum in an orchestral transcription that really gives the fluttery woodwinds a workout. For 1911, the sound (it’s a twelve-inch Victor record) is really astonishingly good, and Herbert as a conductor seems to feel the music as though he had written it himself.
Frank Auburn and His Orchestra
Chinnin’ and Chattin’ with May
This is actually Harry Reser’s prolific band under one of its many pseudonyms. As we’ve seen before with other bands, the structure of the recording industry in the 1920s made it profitable to disguise your name: you got paid a set fee per record, with no royalties, so the more records you made, the more money you made. Harry Reser might have an exclusive recording contract with some company, but that didn’t prevent Frank Auburn and His Orchestra or the Clicquot Club Eskimos or the Six Jumping Jacks from making records for anyone they liked.
The vocal chorus is by the unmistakable Tom Stack. Most of the soloists are relative unknowns, but the relaxed feeling of the whole ensemble shows that they’d been working together for a while and enjoyed each other’s company.
Bach: Fugue in G Minor (“Little”)
Another of Albert Schweitzer’s recordings from the 1930s (see also the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor). This is a short fugue that takes up one side of a 12-inch record. Once again, we have the pleasure of hearing a real organist play unedited. You will hear wrong notes and hesitations, as you would when any real organist sat down to play an organ; there was no editing, other than to do the side over if things went far enough wrong. In spite of the slight surface noise, these unedited performances seem more like the experience of hearing a musician play the organ than our best modern recordings do, with their hundreds of little edits aiming for an artificial perfection.
All By Yourself in the Moonlight
New Mayfair Dance Orchestra
All By Yourself in the Moonlight
Recorded in 1929
Here are two versions of the same novelty number by two British bands recording at about the same time. But what different recordings they are!
First we hear Harry Bidgood, whose reliable recording band appears on so many Broadcast records under various names (we’ve already heard “I Think of What You Used to Think of Me” and a medley from The Girl Friend). His is a good performance, probably from a stock arrangement, that includes the lyrics of verse and chorus, brings out the humor, and gets the job done efficiently.
Then we turn to Ray Noble, whose New Mayfair Dance Orchestra operates on a different plane entirely. Noble was probably the best arranger in England, and he had extraordinarily good taste in musicians. This performance is typical of the band, with a sophisticated bounce in the rhythm, good solos, rich harmonies, the baritone sax weaving through the last chorus, and a general sense that the musicians are enjoying themselves rather than reading a score. You don’t know what you were missing with Harry Bidgood until you hear Ray Noble play the same number.
Recorded in 1926
More slick and professional dance music from Sam Lanin, whose Ipana Troubadors were the house band for a radio program sponsored by Ipana toothpaste. (We heard them earlier playing “Hello Cutie.”)
Sunny was one of Jerome Kern’s most successful shows, and this is the title song. As usual, the band gives it an irresistible dance rhythm. Other bands had better jazz musicians and special arrangements, but Sam Lanin’s bands made the patrons want to get up on their feet, and ultimately that’s what you want most from a dance band if you’re hiring one.
George Olsen and His Music
Nobody Knows What a Red-Headed Mama Can Do
Recorded in 1925
George Olsen’s band was one of the most reliable dance bands of the 1920s, with an instantly recognizable style. The band made quite a number of recordings, and played the entire musical score for the glorious two-strip Technicolor movie version of Whoopee!, the Eddie Cantor musical for which Olsen’s band had also provided the music on Broadway.
This is a very early pre-electrical Olsen record, and we hear a lot more jazz than in his later recordings. In fact, in this instrumental version of a not-very-well-known song of the day, we never actually get the melody played straight. Instead, after the verse, we get a full-chorus alto-sax solo that doesn’t even attempt to stay close to the melody; then a trombone chorus interrupted by orchestrated variations for brass; then the verse again; then as close to a straight chorus as we get, with the brasses playing a variation on the melody, interrupted by breaks, and with eight bars taken over by the hot cornet.
It’s a surprising performance, and it would have been impossible just a couple of years later, when pure hot jazz had fallen out of favor and the public demanded more orchestration from popular dance bands. Luckily, Olsen made it into the studio in the nick of time.
The Victor sound is about as good as acoustical recordings get. In just a few months, all that skill and knowledge carefully accumulated over three decades would be utterly useless: the electrical system would eclipse acoustical recording, and recording engineers would have to learn their trade all over again.
Eddie Elkins Orchestra
Recorded in 1922
Eddie Elkins was a minor dance-band leader who was fairly successful in the early 1920s, but then retired from the musical world to go into the stock market in 1932. His obituary in the New York Times (he died in 1984) makes him sound like one of the great names in American musical history, but then that’s what obituaries are for.
Born in San Francisco, Mr. Elkins was among the first to develop the use of elaborately arranged dance numbers for orchestras. He was also alert to new talent and under his baton musicians such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, Oscar Levant, Mannie Kline and others honed their techniques.
It is at any rate interesting that a man who had been out of the music business for more than half a century nevertheless wanted to be remembered as a bandleader. The obituary says literally nothing about his life from 1932 to 1984. Children, learn this lesson from Mr. Elkins: Music is more important than the stock market.
This particular record is a clever novelty number, with an effective plodding beat that conjures up a musical picture of a Victorian melodrama villain peering out from behind his cape as he pauses in mid-stalk to twirl his mustache. It’s a bit scratchy from sitting in unsorted flea-market stacks, but not enough to ruin our enjoyment of the music.