A ukulele player's look at jazz and popular songs of the early 20th Century



One of the joys of learning the ukulele is discovering the wonderful songs of long ago--the beautiful melodies and lyrics that deserve to be remembered and revived. Thankfully, vintage sheet music abounds on the internet, and so I've had a great time tracking down lots of the old songs, transcribing them to chord/lyric sheets--in a good key for my voice--and then learning them on the uke. If you would like to receive my chord/lyric sheet for any of the songs featured here, email me and I will be happy to share them.


Have a listen to Van and Schenk, a popular Vaudeville duo:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)"

Although this well-known tune was written in the 1930s, to me it always feels much more recent, regardless of who I hear singing it. Perhaps that’s because it has been recorded by prominent vocalists ever since its debut in 1939 in the Gene Autry western, SOUTH OF THE BORDER.
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In 1953, Frank Sinatra gave it the swing treatment, with no apparent dismay over the loss of his Mexican love. (“The mission bells told me--ding dong--that I must not stay--stay south of the border, down Mexico way.”) On the other hand, Patsy Cline’s 1961 recording imbues it with all the drama it deserves, though she does do away with the autobiographical perspective by giving it the third-person treatment (“The mission bells told him that he mustn’t stay…”) Marty Robbins chose to omit the second verse entirely in his 1995 recording, and perhaps accidentally changed “wander” to “wonder”, rendering it a disappointment considering how perfectly the song suits him. A year later, Chris Isaak released an excellent understated recording, diminished only by his substitution of “and love had its day” in place of the quaint “and we were so gay”. I particularly like his addition of “goodbye, goodbye” after the “ay-yi-yi-yi’s” at the end--an embellishment I've adopted in my video below.
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Lyricist Jimmy Kennedy (1902-1983) was an Irish songwriter whose lengthy career produced some 2000 songs, of which over 200 became worldwide hits and about 50 are all-time classics. Among those are “My Prayer”, “Harbor Lights” and “Red Sails in the Sunset”. Composer Michael Carr (1905?-1968?) did not have as prominent a career, though he did produce a great quantity of songs, many of which were written for stage, screen or television.
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This song is well-suited to the use of the fan stroke, which adds additional Mexican flavor to the instrumentation. I play it in the key of A.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"The Breeze (That's Bringin' My Honey Back to Me)"

This blog entry is dedicated to an old friend who passed away in 2003, Harry Will. I was first introduced to Harry in about 1980, through a couple of other close friends, Terry Baxter and Barry Hensley. The three of them were devotees of jazz and popular music from the 1920s through the 1960s, roughly, and collectively introduced me to a wide spectrum of performers. Harry had an enormous collection of LPs, tapes and CDs, as did Terry and Barry. It was Harry, though, who would often arrive for a visit with a few LPs to add to my own collection, or he’d hand a few to me when I would stop by his house. Many of these gifts were recordings of people I was not familiar with, and so it was not unusual for me to gratefully accept the gift and then add them to my own collection without listening to them. Many even stayed covered in their original shrink wrap for years.
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One of these gifts to me was a boxed set of LPs entitled “Echoes of the Thirties”, released by the “Nostalgia Book Club” at Columbia Records containing “70 performances from the golden age of popular music and Jazz”. This item sat in my small collection for approximately twenty years, at least, until I finally put it on for a listen a few months ago. That’s one of the side effects of playing the uke: you start digging around for songs that are perfect for the uke but have not been performed to death already. An immediate stand-out on the LP was this uptempo tune performed on the disc by Gene Kardos and his orchestra, from June 26, 1934, with a vocal by trumpet player Joe Hostetter. Its authors are Dick Smith, Al Lewis and Tony Sacco. I’ve done a great deal of searching on the internet for information on the song and the songwriters, but there is very little to be found. I can’t imagine that this wonderful little tune is not widely known, but I certainly had not heard it before discovering it on this record. As for other recordings of the song, the only one I’ve found is a 1952 version by Kay Starr.
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Lyricist Dick Smith’s (1901-1934) most famous composition was probably “Winter Wonderland”, a Christmas standard he composed during a lengthy stay in a sanitarium where he was being treated for tuberculosis. It was this disease which claimed his life in 1934, at the age of 33.
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Al Lewis (1902-1967) was primarily a lyricist but occasionally served as composer. This is not the Al Lewis that played Grandpa on “The Munsters” sitcom in the 1960s. This Al Lewis had songwriting successes such as a Rudy Vallee tune, “Ninety-Nine Out of a Hundred” (1931), the Eddie Cantor hit “Now’s the Time to Fall in Love” (1933) and 1940’s “Blueberry Hill” -- a chart-topper for Fats Domino in 1956.
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As for Tony Sacco, there is very little to be found on the internet. From what I can determine, he was a member of the Eddie Paul Paramount Orchestra and would sometimes perform vocals on their recordings. If anyone can provide me with further information about him and his work, I’d be happy to include it here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

“My Bluebird’s Singing the Blues”

For the past few months I have let life’s daily demands get in the way of posting a new blog. Tonight, however, I’m jumping back in with a nod to one of my favorite songs of the 1930s. It was introduced by Baby Rose Marie in the 1933 Paramount picture, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. Baby Rose (the future "Sally Rogers" on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) appears just long enough to sing the song, but she does so atop a grand piano in a musical interlude being broadcast on a television machine. You read that right: there‘s a television in a motion picture made in 1933. Of course, it’s a 1933 envisioning of what a television will look like once it’s invented, but the contraption is a central plot element. The stars of the flick are W.C. Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi and Rudy Vallee.
Ralph Rainger (1901-1942) worked on many film scores, and was responsible for well-known songs such as "Moanin' Low" and "Love in Bloom". His principal collaborator was composer lyricist Leo Robin (1900-1984). Together they became one of the leading film songwriting duos of the 1930s and early 1940s, writing over 50 hits, including the Oscar-winning "Thanks for the Memory". Robin's other contributions to American song include "Beyond the Blue Horizon" and "Prisoner of Love", with Broadway contributions such as GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, and THE GIRL IN PINK TIGHTS. Robin and Rainger worked together until Rainger's untimely death in a plane crash in 1942 near Palm Springs.
If you click on the title of this blog entry, you'll be taken to YouTube where you can see Baby Rose Marie performing this song. Below you can view my own take on it. As with all the songs profiled on my blog, the chord/lyric sheet for “My Bluebird’s Singing the Blues” can be yours just by sending me an email with your request: tims.email@yahoo.com