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Ted Lewis: That Riga-Liga-Lee

March 10, 2010

Ted Lewis and His Band
That Riga-Liga-Lee

Recorded in 1920

Ted Lewis gets no respect from jazz historians, but to many in the early 1920s he was jazz. In America and Europe, he introduced millions to jazz who would never have paid any attention to it without him.

His success was founded more on personality than on music. Lewis was a great entertainer, one of the greatest in the history of American popular music. Writers in the 1920s expressed their astonishment at how he seemed to be talking to them personally with his clarinet. They had never heard anything like it. If they had delved deeper into the world of this strange new jazz music, they would have found that Lewis was a mediocre clarinetist, but what he lacked in musicianship he made up in personality and stage presence. We can thank Ted Lewis for much of the success that jazz enjoyed in the 1920s.

Here is one of his early recordings, made when Columbia was promoting him as their answer to Victor’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the group that had founded jazz recording. The ODJB was a great band; Ted Lewis’ band is not, but jazz historians ought to give it more credit for being a pretty good band. This number shows the band at its jazziest, and of course Lewis is all through it, playing both clarinet and alto sax. The Columbia acoustical sound is first-rate.

Benny Goodman began his long career performing as a Ted Lewis imitator. Obviously, that’s another thing to be grateful to Ted Lewis for, and an indication of just how fabulously popular Lewis was in his heyday.

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From → Jazz

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