by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the core components of our Ticket to the Twenties festival, held this Saturday and Sunday from 2-6 p.m., is comprised of concerts by several bands playing music from the Roaring Twenties. Performers play from a palette of styles from Dixieland jazz to popular songs to novelty tunes reflecting the wide range of music found during the decade.
In anticipation of the exciting sounds that will be heard throughout the Homestead this weekend, this post highlights a local music-related artifact from the museum’s holdings: a 78 rpm phonograph recording by Herb Wiedoeft and the Cinderella Roof Orchestra, one of the most popular orchestras in Los Angeles during the decade.
Wiedoeft was born in 1886 in Neunberg in the state of Bavaria in Germany and came to America with his family when he was five years old, which included his musician father, his mother, and three brothers and a sister, all of whom were musicians. After his father’s death, the family moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1904, and all five children played in an orchestra. Rudy Wiedoeft became a widely known and highly regarded saxophonist.
Wiedoeft became his own orchestra leader by World War I and his big break came in 1922 when the Biltmore Hotel opened across from Pershing Square and the bandleader was hired to bring his band to the Cinderella Roof club. Wiedoeft and his ensemble, which included his brothers Gerhard on tuba and bass and Adolph on drums and xylophone, remained the house band there for the remainder of his life and their stature grew rapidly. In fact, that year he began performing radio broadcasts for KHJ, one of the first stations in Los Angeles.
Notably, at one of his engagements at Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights, a poll was taken of audience members about whether they preferred jazz-like rhythms and effects or smoother popular dance tunes. It was reported that the overwhelming consensus was for the latter and Wiedoeft evidently responded by saying that he would adapt his music accordingly.
Although the article’s headline read “Jazz Fast Dying,” in later years, the bandleader was hailed as a “king of jazz” and a “jazz monarch,” though his music was probably no more true to the jazz coming out of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York by black artists like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and many others than other so-called jazz royalty, most prominently Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones, Jean Goldkette and the like.
By summer 1923, the reputation of the orchestra was such that Wiedoeft signed a contract with Brunswick Records, one of the major labels in the music industry, and began a series of recordings over the next several years. The first was “Cinderella Blues,” in homage to his home base at the Biltmore. There was also a novelty, “Those Monte Blue Blues,” written in honor of silent film star Monte Blue. Over the next two years, the group recorded some two dozen sides, which were marketed throughout the country, and there was even a Brunswick facility set up in Los Angeles so that recordings could more easily be laid down.
In fact, Wiedoeft had a knack for utilizing commercial connections in a variety of ways to elevate the stature of himself and his band. The orchestra played regular weekend concerts at Lincoln Park, gave shows at the Ocean Park Pier, performed in outlying populations centers like Santa Ana and San Bernardino, and were endorsed by local music stores.
In summer 1924, the Wiedoeft ensemble toured the nation under the auspices of Brunswick and returned home to Los Angeles in the fall recognized as internationally known and described as the world’s greatest dance band. The leader made personal appearances and was, excepting Abe Lyman, another local band maestro, probably the best known popular musical figure in Los Angeles. Another lengthy four-month tour in 1927 on the vaudeville circuit was arranged by contract with national theater chains and through his label.
After that, the group spent an extended period in Seattle playing largely at the Trianon and toured elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. In May 1928, however, as the band was in Oregon performing, Wiedoeft was killed in a car accident near Ashland, Oregon and his stellar career came to a sudden and tragic end. After Wiedoeft’s death, Jesse Stafford, trombonist and arranger for the band, took it over and renamed it after himself. He also recorded thirteen sides for Brunswick with the retooled orchestra.
The phonograph record featured here was recorded in May 1925 and is listed among several recordings by Wiedoeft in a Brunswick ad later that year. The A-side is “Beside a Silv’ry Stream” with “Roamin’ Around,” an original by the bandleader, his musical assistant and trombonist Jesse Stafford, and Sonny Clay.
Just before his death, Wiedoeft was interviewed by a Medford, Oregon newspaper about the finer points of recording and stated,
It takes long experience and endless calculation to learn how to gauge the positions of different instruments. You must learn by experiments just which ones must be closer to the receiving horn than others; which ones have a tone which cuts through the others and which have to coaxed forward. You can’t always stay in one place through a whole number either. As the melody is passed from one instrument to another, you have to move them to always keep it in evidence. Of course, with the modern improvements the task is simplified somewhat, but even then it is difficult and requires considerable study.
Obviously, with Wiedoeft’s untimely death, it is possible that his career might have continued to be successful through the end of the Twenties. The Great Depression, however, had a distinct effect on large ensembles and musical styles also changed in coming years as melodic dance bands were replaced in vogue by such newfangled types as swing.
Still, for several years, Herb Wiedoeft was at the pinnacle of popular music prestige in Los Angeles and this phonograph record is, to date, the museum’s sole example from its collection. We do have a playlist of Los Angeles recordings on an iPod discreetly concealed behind a non-functional radio and record player in the Music Room of La Casa Nueva and it is played during regular public tours Wednesday through Sunday.
So, who knows, if you’re out taking a tour during those days you might actually get to hear “Beside a Silv’ry Stream” or “Roamin’ Around” wafting through the room and taking you back over ninety years in time.