Sophie Tucker and The Blue Amberol that Wasn’t

You may have noticed that three different CDs of ours include the all-time classic, “Some of These Days,” by Sophie Tucker, recorded in 1911 for Edison. It first appeared on our Stomp and Swerve CD in 2003, and then again on Origins of the Red Hot Mama in 2009, and yet again on 1911: “Up, Up a Little Bit Higher,” which came out last year. There’s no questioning its significance in the history of American song. But how popular was it really at the time?

The American Quartet, with Billy Murray in the lead, recorded the Shelton Brooks song first: December 27, 1910, for Victor 16834. Elise Stevenson and the Columbia Quartette made it for Columbia A1029 on May 29, 1911. Sophie Tucker’s version for Edison was recorded around February-March 1911 and released in June 1911 on four-minute wax Amberol 691. The great thing about these original renditions is that you get the verses along with the chorus; when the song became popular again in the 1920s, nobody recorded the verses. Sophie’s is definitely the best of the bunch, and pop researcher Joel Whitburn suggests that it was a very popular record.

Here’s the second half of the song (from our 1911 yearbook):


Try to find a copy of the original cylinder today. When it does show up at auction, it goes for big money (we’re talking close to a thousand bucks), just like all of Tucker’s cylinders. One imperfect sign of a hit record is the persistence of copies today, and “Some of These Days” fails this test. We got to thinking about this the other day because we still are not clear why Sophie stopped making records between 1911 and late 1918. It’s true that most stage stars did not have recording careers—either they didn’t like recording or had schedules that never allowed for it—but Sophie’s activities in the studio both early on and in after-years shows that she wasn’t afraid of the acoustic horn or the electric microphone. Stars like Nora Bayes and Al Jolson, on the other hand, kept one foot firmly on the stage and the other inside the studio. As a result we have a trove of their recordings today.

 Edison Amberol lid for

Edison Amberol lid for “Some of These Days” (Courtesy Edison National Historic Site)

A number of artists appeared on the sheet music to

A number of artists appeared on the sheet music to “Some of These Days,” including Sophie’s rival Blossom Seeley. Seeley did not record the song.  (Courtesy Adam Swanson)

Tucker began making records at a very tenuous time in the Edison business narrative. She debuted in early 1910 with selections on the old two-minute wax format, which was slowly being phased out in favor of the longer-playing wax Amberols, which had been introduced in 1908. Moreover, the wax compound Edison used for these late two-minute records was especially brittle and subject to degradation. Add that up and you see these are difficult records to find—especially in playable condition.

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Bert Williams on the Silver Screen

Tonight we’re attending a screening of Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day at the Logan Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Chicago. Filmed in 1913 but never released, the film was thought lost by the few who even knew of its existence, and it has taken decades to identify and put together the version now before us.

Seven unidentified reels of silent footage had sat in storage at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art (MoMA) since the museum’s first curator, Iris Barry, had obtained them in 1939 from Biograph in a hoard of 900 negatives—saved from sure destruction, as the company was just then going out of business. Rushes from the hoard were printed on safety film stock in the 1970s, and restoration began in the 1980s. Someone noticed the existence of a film portraying middle-class pleasures being enjoyed by an all-black cast—including legendary vaudeville star Bert Williams. The only reference to the film in print that has been found is a 1914 obituary of a crew member; fortunately, it’s a match.

A still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day

A still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Courtesy of MoMA)

MoMA’s curatorial team began assembling the film in 2004. They’ve taken the rushes (or what are often called “dailies,” the raw, unedited footage) and put them together, including some multiple takes, into a rough narrative. We get to see not only the genius of Williams and his acting peers from the Harlem arts circle of the early 1910s, but also—because of the rough nature of the product—the mechanics of early film-making, the subtleties of direction and acting, the humor and rapport among the cast members. Besides that, the subject matter—African-Americans depicted enjoying life carefree, independently, and intimately, with only a few stereotypes imposed on them—is a stunning revelation for its time. MoMA speculates that the film was never released because of the impact that D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had both on race relations in America and characterizations of blacks in the cinema. That film “poisoned the well for progressive filmmakers,” reasons Ashley Clark, in an article that provides a good overview of the project. In a way, the historical record has been corrected, as the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry added Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day to its list last year.

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A Word that Means the World

Happy Mothers’ Day! To celebrate, we’ve got the Columbia record of “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word that Means the World to Me)” by Henry Burr over on Soundcloud. Enjoy!

Burr recorded it on November 11, 1915 for Columbia and again on November 17, 1915 for Victor, apparently getting pretty much an exclusive on this song. The sheet music is another story, however. Eva Tanguay first popularized the song, but you can find scores of other performers gracing the cover of the published music—including Maurice Burkhart, Marie Russell, and our favorite, the Ragtime King himself, Gene Greene. It’s very difficult to imagine Greene singing this song on stage, at least with a straight face.

Sheet music to M-O-T-H-E-R featuring Gene Greene (Archeophone Records collection)

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Quinn’s Neighborhood Pride

As noted by Jim Walsh, chronicler of pioneer recording artists, if you were to walk into 312 West 20th Street in Manhattan in the early 1930s, you would be standing in a theatrical booking agency, run by one Dan W. Quinn. But what Walsh didn’t realize was that this was also Quinn’s home. Now what we don’t know is how much space he and his family had in that flat in the days before all the apartments were cut up into smaller units. Was Quinn able to set aside dedicated space for the business and keep his home private? Or was there no real “agency” to walk into? Does anybody know?

There’s a charming bit in one of Quinn’s letters to Walsh in which he takes understandable pride in his little neighborhood, noting all the great things that had happened on 20th Street:

I’m beginning to think that Twentieth Street is illustrious. #4 East 20 St, Howley, Haviland & Co had their famous publishing house, 29 East 20 St, was George L. Spaulding, Publisher, where “I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph My Baby” (Geo. Cohan) was born, 41 East 20 St, Stern & Marks, held forth. Now we have Music Lover’s Guide, at 42 East 20 St. The mansion at 28 E. 20 still stands, majestic and grand—where Theodore Roosevelt was born. Gottschalk & Alpuente—the great Concert Managers, at 21 E. 20 and last but by no means the least—a-hem, Dan W. Quinn, at 312 W. 20. Now do you not think we are rather proud of Twentieth Street?
(August 27, 1934)

Current map of Dan Quinn's old neighborhood

Dan Quinn’s old stomping grounds.

Quinn lived the better part of four decades in the Chelsea neighborhood.

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