by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) was accounted the “King of Jazz,” a title that made him a target of critics who said that his well-arranged and precisely performed orchestral popular music, while including ornaments of jazz sounds, lacked the improvisation, syncopation and general power and excitement of real jazz.
More authentic versions, according to most critics, included that performed by white musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and the Chicago players like Eddie Condon and Mezz Mezzrow, or the great black innovators like “Jelly Roll” Morton, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson and, especially, the phenomenal Louis Armstrong, from whom the white musicians appropriated (or stole, depending on point of view) even if out of genuine respect and love for the music.
Reading a biography of Louis Armstrong now (having read one way back in 1990 when I did some basic initial pre-internet research on early jazz), it becomes clearer that Whiteman, who did have a sincere love of jazz and worked with some fine musicians, including Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and a young vocalist, Bing Crosby, tried to introduce jazz stylings while retaining the interest from an audience that wanted the smooth orchestra pop that he produced.
While it may not have been jazz, Whiteman was the dominant force in orchestra popular music during the entirety of the 1920s, selling huge numbers of 78-rpm phonograph records for Columbia Records. His popularity was so pronounced that, by the end of the decade, the labels on the shellac discs, in what was likely a first, were customized with a caricature of the bandleader’s face and bright, colorful graphics that were far removed from the general and austered black label with white or gold printing that was commonplace.
Today’s post highlights a phonograph record from the Homestead’s collection of a pair of Whiteman’s hits, “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “My Lucky Star.” Recorded in New York on 8 February 1929, the tunes were written by the famed songwriting team of Ray Henderson, Buddy (B.G.) de Sylva, and Lew Brown for the musical “Follow Thru” [the plot was basically centered around golf as a “musical slice of country club life”) which opened on Broadway on 9 January 1929 and ran for 401 shows.
Jack Haley, best known as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz (1939), and dancer Eleanor Powell, who also went on to have a successful movie career in the last half of the 1930s, starred in the production, which wrapped up at the end of the year as the Great Depression began. A 1930 film version, only the second all-color and all-talking version from Paramount Pictures, starred “Buddy” Rogers, who broke out in the 1927 classic Wings, Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd, and Haley and Zelma O’Neal from the Broadway production.
“Button Up Your Overcoat” was published in 1928 and there were popular versions by female star vocalists Ruth Etting and Helen Kane (who was the inspiration for the “Betty Boop” cartoon character). Whiteman’s version featured Vaughn DeLeath, who is obscure now, but was famed in the Twenties, having started in the early days of a radio as a crooner who accompanied herself on several instruments. She even ran radio stations briefly before returning to performing full-time, often billed as the “First Lady of Radio.” DeLeath also recorded prolifically, often under several pseudonyms, but her career stalled by the early 1930s and she died an alcoholic at age 48.
The Whiteman/DeLeath version features a partial vocal of the humorous lyric:
Button up your overcoat
When the wind is free
Take good care of yourself
You belong to me
Eat an apple every day
Get to bed by three
Take good care of yourself
You belong to me
Be careful crossing streets, ooh ooh
Don’t eat meat, ooh ooh
Cut out sweets, ooh ooh
You’ll get a pain and ruin your tum-tum
Keep away from bootleg hooch
When you’re on a spree
Take good care of yourself, honey [spoken]
You belong to me
“My Lucky Star” has a rich, smooth arrangement and is played with typical Whiteman precision including an interesting prelude before the melody is launched, a bridge played with interesting atmospherics, and the partial vocal sung with honeyed warmth and clear enunciation by baritone Norman Clark. The instrumental passage that concludes includes clanging bells, dramatic rises and falls with the orchestra, and other clever touches with variations of the melody.
Clark is another unknown name now and recorded about two dozen sides between 1927 and 1929, including one for Whiteman the day before he cut “My Lucky Star,” and some under his “South Sea Islanders,” specializing, naturally, in the “Hawaiian” tunes that were all the rage at the time. He was also presented at times as the “Creole Crooner” without his real name being used and with these songs being “Southern” themed.
As for Whiteman, he’d signed a contract with movie mogul, Carl Laemmle, the prior October to appear in a Universal Pictures release, “King of Jazz,” featuring him and his orchestra. A screenwriter traveled with the band at the end of 1928 to develop material and a concert was filmed two days before Christmas for possible inclusion in the movie, though the footage was not utilized.
In May 1929, Whiteman and his orchestra traveled by train in high style from New York to Los Angeles with stops for concerts and appearances along the cross-country jaunt. The 50-person group traveled with three sleeping cars, a dining car, a club car, two cars for baggage and equipment, and an observation car, a travelling entourage fit for royalty.
They arrived in mid-June and reported to Universal Studios at the end of the month, with a specially built lodge provided for them. While waiting for the script, Whiteman and his band continued their weekly radio broadcast performances and played private concerts for entertainment royalty like Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and others. After two months with no script yet completed, the band headed back to New York.
Ideas considered for the theme of the film included those centered on Whiteman personally, including him as a romantic lead (which seemed a stretch given his girth and less than matinee idle looks!) and on the daily life of the orchestra. It was decided at last to make the film a vaudeville or stage-like revue with the script actually written after performances were shot.
The orchestra returned to Hollywood in October and two-dozen cars were acquired for band members, with Whiteman’s well-known caricature on the spare tire cover on the back. Whiteman’s own vehicle was shipped on the train that brought him and his band back to the West Coast.
Filming began at the end of that month, though Bing Crosby was arrested and sentenced to two months in jail for a drunk driving related accident that injured one of his passengers (the other driver was also arrested.) Crosby was given a special release each day for the filming of the movie, his first appearance in what later became a spectacular career, and served 40 days. Bix Beiderbecke, who did travel to Hollywood in the spring, did not do so in the fall because of illness. Shooting wrapped in February 1930 with retakes the next month and the movie premiered in early May in New York.
Though “King of Jazz” won an Oscar for art and set decoration, the lavish production of $2 million only pulled in less than half that in domestic release, though a small profit was realized on overseas receipts. With the Great Depression erupting literally as Whiteman and crew arrived in Los Angeles to begin filming, his situation gradually diminished as his radio program was cancelled and he let go band members and reduced salaries for those retained.
Whiteman continued to record and perform throughout the Thirties, but the rise of swing music and the decline of “old” sound of Twenties orchestral pop music. The bandleader did work as a musical director for the new American Broadcasting Company (ABC) after World War II and occasionally performed with an orchestra. In the early Sixties, he appeared in Las Vegas for a brief period before retiring not long before his death in 1967.