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Post Memories of an Old Victrola, Owl Jolson
Created by John Eipper on 05/28/21 3:50 AM

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Memories of an Old Victrola, Owl Jolson (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 05/28/21 3:50 am)

I very much enjoyed reading Gary Moore's recent post about American music and its vocabulary, as well as John E's mention of Al Jolson.

Back in my childhood in the 1950s, we had in our garage an ancient Victrola record player from probably the early part of the 20th century. The player was powered by a hand crank and the metal stylus, which was disposable, would be inserted into a metal tone arm, and then the arm placed upon a thick, black record made of shellac. The music on the record could then be mechanically played by tripping a switch near the turntable. As the power ran down, one could crank up the machinery again. We had a number of these thick records in the wooden cabinet on which the turntable was placed, including recordings ranging from Sophie Tucker to Al Jolson and to the Irish Tenor, John McCormack.

Listening to the Jolson recordings from the 1910s and 1920s made me one of his "posthumous fans." Aided by that start, I then monitored the weekend films broadcast on local television to find broadcasts of the 1946 Hollywood film, The Jolson Story, starring Larry Parks as Jolson, and I also sought out and bought sheet music for many Jolson classics, ranging from "Swanee" to "Mammy" and then on to "How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm," all of which I would (try to) play on my trumpet.

Jolson was also cleverly caricatured in a cartoon from the 1930s, in which the character, "Owl Jolson," performs a Jolson standard, "I Love to Sing-a," in a radio contest hosted by "Jack Bunny." Here is a link to the song from the cartoon, for your enjoyment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X60jBqWiZPk . Also on You Tube is a performance of this song sung by Jolson to the accompaniment of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra from the 1936 film, The Singing Kid.

Gary's post, in which he discusses minstrelsy, caused me to pull out from my bookshelf an autobiography of the famous music publisher, Edward B. Marks, titled They All Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallée, which had been released in 1934. It is a book that belonged to my mother, probably from her Ann Arbor/Detroit days, and contains Marks' story of his involvement in the music industry up to that time and also relates a history of American popular music, from minstrelsy to the music of the 1930s. The book contains a fascinating, first-person look into the development of the music publishing industry in America. The stories of how popular songs were marketed in the 1880s and the Gay Ninteties is eye-opening: Marks and others in the business, then based primarily in Lower Manhattan, would travel from nightclub to nightclub along the Bowery and on 14th Street offering sheet music for songs recently released by their publishing houses to the owners of the clubs, along with permission to perform the songs in front of club customers. If the music was then well received, the word would spread in this early entertainment district. From there, the music's positive reception would then spread through the United States, thereby stimulating sales of sheet music.

There is a very good summary of the personal history and career of Edward P. Marks and his publishing house on the house's website, which can be accessed here: http://www.ebmarks.com/about/ . I found this passage appealing, which describes the fresh ideas about South American and other foreign music injected into the house's business by Herbert Marks, son of the founder:

"Herbert Marks, the son of Edward who took over the company in 1945 upon his father's death, helped spark the craze in this country for Latin music in the 1920s when he honeymooned in Havana and fell under the spell of such writers as Moises Simons and especially Ernesto Lecuona, the composer of such classics as "Andalucia" (aka "The Breeze and I") and "Malaguena." The Marks international catalog has also imported hits from South America ("El Condor Pasa"), Mexico ("Yellow Days"), France (Jacques Brel and "If You Go Away"), Cuba ("Cecilia Valdes"), and Italy ("More," "Mah-Na-Mah-Na")."

N.B. Moisés Simons, mentioned in the quote above, was a famous Cuban composer and musician, who is responsible for creating the gem, "El Manisero" (The Peanut Vendor), among others. Here is a link to an early, orchestral recording of "El Manisero" along with its lyrics (in Spanish). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sj7NfrrnaKE . Here is the same piece, this time sung by Rita Montaner. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUElr_1D038 . Enjoy these images and sounds of a world that has since disappeared.

JE comments:  Thanks, Pat, for bringing up "El Manisero," possibly the most iconic Cuban song ever, and certainly one of my favorites.  Also, it's extraordinary that Edward B Marks is still in business selling sheet music.  (To be sure, the company has been under different ownership over the decades.)

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