The Essential Songs of 1920, Part II
1924. George Gershwin, Nathaniel Shilkret, and Paul Whiteman, “Rhapsody in Blue.” Orchestra director Paul Whiteman commissioned “Rhapsody,” which was Gershwin’s first foray into classical music. Gershwin may have been postmodern before his time; Leonard Bernstein later noted, “The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific – inspired, God-given.” Whiteman, who had approximately thirty #1 songs in the 1920s and 1930s, later adopted “Rhapsody“ as his theme song.
1924. Wendell Hall, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo.’” Hall, also known as the “pineapple picador” due to his carrot top, sold more than two million copies of this record. It is believed that the verses existed in different songs for decades and Hall pulled the various parts together for his hit. Other variants of the line “How in the world can the old folks tell (that it ain’t gonna rain no mo)” include “How in the heck can I wash my neck” and the positively scandalous “How in the hell can the old folks tell.” Rain songs – going strong for nine decades.
1924. Cliff Edwards, “California Here I Come.” Al Jolson had the bigger hit with this one, which originated in the 1921 Broadway musical/Jolson star turn Bombo. Edwards, who had the nifty nickname “Ukelele Ike,” hit the top of the pop charts with “Singin’ in the Rain” in 1929 and later voiced Jiminy Cricket.
1926. Louis Armstrong, “Muskrat Ramble” and “Big Butter and Egg Man.” New Orleans native Louis Armstrong started his career as a sideman in the early 1920s. In late 1925, Armstrong began recording with his first band, known as the “Hot Five.” “Muskrat Ramble” is a playful instrumental number. On “Big Butter and Eggman,” singer May Alix pines for her sugar daddy. Armstrong, who reportedly had a real life crush on May, enthusiastically volunteers for the dairy role.
1926. Jelly Roll Morton, ”Black Bottom Stomp.” Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe pumped piano in a New Orleans brothel at the age of fourteen and as a young adult toured the minstrel circuit. Morton, no shrinking violet, would later claim that he invented jazz. While that claim may be disputed, the lively “Black Bottom Stomp” does reflect his mastery of the form.
1926. Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, “White House Blues.” “Roosevelt in the White House drinking out of a silver cup/McKinley in the graveyard, he'll never wake up,” Poole notes after the assassination of our twenty-fifth president. Poole hit it big with the gambling ode “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” and popularized the three finger style of banjo playing. He enjoyed a few adult beverages during his short life (it is believed that he died after a drinking binge at the age of 39). Loudon Wainwright III released his Grammy winning tribute to Poole High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project in 2009.
1927. Bessie Smith, “After You’ve Gone.” Smith, who started her singing career as a busker in the streets of Chattanooga, could belt out a tune. She took this jazz pop standard into the Top Ten in 1927. “After You’ve Gone” has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Sophie Tucker, and Frank Sinatra. Smith would be gone less than ten years after recording this number, as a result of a car crash in Mississippi on highway 61.
1927. Bix Beiderbecke, ”At the Jazz Band Ball.” Davenport, Iowa native Bix Beiderbecke was known as one of the premier jazz cornet soloists of his era. During his short career, the self-trained musician, who could not read music, recorded with different jazz ensembles and also recorded under his own name for Okeh records (including playing piano for his recording “In A Mist”). Beiderbecke would later join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but could not maintain the rigorous schedule, due to his problems with alcohol. Only productive for a few years, Beiderbecke established himself as a legend within his field and his music is often cited as a precursor to the “cool jazz” movement that occurred in the 1950s.
1927. Crockett Ward & His Boys, “Sugar Hill.” It may be humanly possible to not love an Appalachian fiddle tune that begins with the lyrics, “If you want to get your eye knocked out/If you want to get your fill/If you want to get your head cut off/Then go to Sugar Hill.” However, it is not possible for me.
1927. Dock Boggs, “Country Blues.” Instead of using the traditional clawhammer banjo technique, Virginia native Moran “Dock” Boggs incorporated blues guitar elements into his banjo playing. In “Country Blues,” Boggs narrates a tale of poverty, alcohol abuse, incarceration, adultery, and a death wish. In Virginia in the 1920s, that list of activities was also known as “Saturday afternoon.”
1927. Louis Armstrong, ”Gully Low Blues” and “Potato Head Blues.” Another twofer for big Louis, who added a tuba player and a drummer into his band in 1927, increasing his “Hot Five” to the “Hot Seven.” On “Gully Low,” Armstrong wails about how poorly his lady treats him. On “Potato Head Blues,” he just wails; performing one of his most famous and brilliant solos.
1927. Irving Aaronson, “Let’s Misbehave.” Cole Porter penned this one for the stage, but it was replaced in the musical Paris by “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.” This jazzy tale of young lust preceded “I Think We’re Alone Now” by four decades. You feel better knowing that Aaronson later voiced the cartoon character of the Hoover-ish “Mr. Nobody” for the 1932 cartoon Betty Boop for President.