Monday, February 5, 2024

The NRR Project: 'Puttin' on the Ritz'


‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’

Composed by Irving Berlin

Performed by Harry Richman with Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore Orchestra

Recorded 1930


Irving Berlin was expanding his horizons. The preeminent American songwriter had already conquered Tin Pan Alley, churning out hits such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), “I Love a Piano” (1915), “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (1919), and “What’ll I Do” (1924). Berlin’s music publishing business was making money hand over fist. His Music Box Theater, still in operation at 239 West 45th Street in New York’s theater district, opened in 1921. It served primarily as an outlet for his continuing, prodigious output. Now Berlin wanted to conquer the movies as well.

Berlin, born Israel Beilin in Russia, immigrated to America with his family at the age of 5, in 1893. He grew up in poverty on the Lower East Side, and went to work at age 13 after the death of his father. Self-taught though musically illiterate, he composed obsessively (creating some 1,500 songs over a 60-year career), relying on transcriptionists and orchestrators to get his notes on paper. Through discipline, effort, and sheer force of will, he hammered out hit after hit — cheery comic songs, stirring patriotic songs, sincere ballads — simple, heartfelt, catchy melodies all.

He was there at the very beginning of sound film. Al Jolson sings Berlin’s “Blue Skies” during the groundbreaking The Jazz Singer (1927). Three Berlin songs could be seen and heard in the Marx Brothers’ debut film The Cocoanuts (1929). Now the composer, normally loathe to leave Manhattan, went West to Hollywood to oversee a movie vehicle featuring his music — 1929’s Puttin’ on the Ritz.

The title song was one Berlin wrote three years previously. Long before the digital era’s multiple-platform release strategies sprouted, the music industry was already hip. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” would in rapid succession be featured in a film, released on recordings, and published in sheet music form. The movie was panned and quickly faded; the song endured.

Harry Richman was the first singer to be identified with the song, although he was not the first to commit it to record (that distinction goes to Lew Conrad, who recorded it with Leo Reisman and his Orchestra a few months prior to Richman’s version).

Like Berlin, Richman was another assimilated Jewish American and musical autodidact. Born Henry Reichman Jr. in Cincinnati in 1895, he started working at age 10, playing piano in a saloon with a screen around him to hide how young he was. Heading to New York, he got his big break as an accompanist for established stars such as Mae West and Nora Bayes. He became a valued singer on radio, and served as prominent master of ceremonies at New York stages and nightclubs. The apogee of his career was introducing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to the public.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a snappy, upbeat number, with a propulsive stutter-step beat. The title phrase, a synonym for dressing up and going out on the town, is taken from the reputation of the hotel chain of the same name, founded in Paris in 1898, noted for its rich d├ęcor and its service to high-end customers in Europe and America.

It’s possible to watch faded copies of the film, and in the “Ritz” number Richman embodies the perfect style for the song. He’s in black tie, top hat, and tails, with brilliantined hair, sporting a nasal, fruity baritone topped by a slight lisp. His delivery is corny – broad, jaunty but stiff, almost italicized. He’s Mr. Monopoly’s rakehell nephew. Richman was one of the last generation of pre-amplification popular singers like Jolson and Eddie Cantor, someone who was used to making themselves heard and understood all the way to the back row. All would have to learn how to resize their performances to fit the more intimate dynamics of radio and electric recording.

The moviemakers were proud to let it be known that the title sequence in Puttin’ on the Ritz was the first in film to feature both blacks and whites onstage; sadly, a close examination of the sequence shows that while there is a white chorus and a black chorus, the two never share the stage at the same time — on-set segregation.

Likewise, the original lyrics for the song are highly problematic, as they are those of what was termed a “coon song.” These tunes cast African Americans as stereotyped and denigrated sources of amusement, and were popular in white American culture from the 1880s through the 1930s. The song’s lyrics imagine impoverished, pretentious African Americans literally “aping” their supposed betters:

“Have you seen the well-to-do

Up on Lenox Avenue

On that famous thoroughfare

With their noses in the air

High hats and arrowed collars

White spats and fifteen dollars

Spending every dime

On a wonderful time

If you're blue and you don't know where to go to

Why don't you go where Harlem flits

Puttin' on the Ritz

Spangled gowns upon a bevy of high browns

From down the levee, all misfits

Puttin' on the Ritz

That's where each and every Lulu Bell goes

Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus

Rubbing elbows

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee

And see them spend their last two bits

Puttin' on the Ritz”

This set of lyrics stayed with the song until 1946 (Clark Gable delivers a brave but awful performance of it, complete with straw boater, cane, and chorus girls, in the 1939 film Idiot’s Delight). By then, the cultural climate no longer tolerated such words, and Berlin rewrote them for Fred Astaire, who delivered the new version in the film Blue Skies.

“Have you seen the well-to-do

Up and down Park Avenue?

On that famous thoroughfare

With their noses in the air

High hats and arrow collars,

White spats and lots of dollars,

Spending every dime

For a wonderful time.

If you're blue and you don't where to go to

Why don't you go where fashion sits?

Puttin' on the Ritz.

Different types who wear a day coat

Pants with stripes and cut-a-way coats,

Perfect fits . . .

Puttin' on the Ritz.

Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper

Tryin’ hard to look like Gary Cooper

Super duper!

Come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or um-ber-ellas

In their mitts . . .

Puttin' on the Ritz”

With the new lyrics, the song enjoyed a revival, dozens of new cover versions, and a niche in the culture it still occupies. Whether as a memorable punch line in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) or as an unlikely synth-pop hit for Taco in 1982, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: the Cajun-Creole Columbia releases.




Monday, January 29, 2024

The NRR Project: 'Ain't Misbehavin''

‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’

Music: Fats Waller Lyrics: Andy Razaf

Fats Waller, piano

Recorded Aug. 2, 1929


If Ellington is our Beethoven, then Waller is our Mozart.

His was a spirit of life and joy. Anyone who listens to even part of his prolific output can really feel uplifted by his gregarious spirit and musical inventiveness. His constant joking and muttered asides on his recordings mark him as a clown prince of jazz, but they conceal his very real musicianship.

Thomas Waller was born in 1904 in New York City. He started playing the piano at age 6. At the age of 10, he added playing the organ to his talents, performing first in his father’s church, and later as a theater organist. He began composing, and studied under the great stride pianist James P. Johnson – and managed to study composition at Juilliard as well. Soon he was performing and recording without let or hinder.

This recording of one of his most famous compositions is instrumental only – Waller made a much more familiar recording with him singing and playing the song years later. It’s upbeat, inventive, and full of energy, a perfect expression of its composer.

It was written for the show Hot Chocolates, which moved to Broadway in June of 1929. There, Louis Armstrong, director of the orchestra, gained immediate fame by playing the tune on his trumpet onstage. Since then, it’s been recorded countless times by all sorts of artists.

Despite his impressive musical chops, some say Waller wasted his talent by recordings reams of inferior songs for quick cash. But even the corniest of tunes, given the Waller treatment, comes off as a playful tour de force. Those who have examined his entire catalog find much comfort in his giddy presence.

Any time you feel low, put on a little Fats.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: ‘Puttin on the Ritz.’

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The NRR Project: 'Wildwood Flower'

 ‘Wildwood Flower’

Music: Joseph Philbrick Webster; Lyrics: Maud Irving

The Carter Family

Recorded 1928


This lover’s lament is an integral part of the history of American music. The Carter Family, previously discussed here, were the pioneering and popular purveyors of what was then termed “hillbilly music,” which we now recognize as country.

Although it now sounds like indigenous folk music, “Wildwood Flower” is not a folk song. It is what was termed a “parlor song,” or sentimental ballad produced as sheet music for use in the home for singing and playing. It was written in 1860 by Maud Irving (in actuality J. William Van Amee), and set to music by Joseph Philbrick Webster. As such, it is a typical lament of the time, with a rueful singer realizing that “My visions of love have all faded away.”

The song is also notable for its demonstration of the guitar-playing innovation known as the “Carter scratch.” It consists of the guitarist playing the tune’s melody on the guitar’s bass strings, while strumming chords in rhythm with the treble strings. This was said to have been crafted when Mother Maybelle Carter had no one to accompany her – so she accompanied herself.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: ‘Ain’t Misbehavin.’



Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The NRR Project: Rosa Ponselle sings 'Casta Diva'


‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma’

Rosa Ponselle, soprano

Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra

Recorded Dec. 31, 1928 and Jan. 30, 1929


Rosa Ponselle was the first American-born, American-trained opera star. Born Posa Ponzillo in Connecticut in 1897, she began singing as a child to entertain silent-film moviegoers while the projectionist changed reels.

She became part of a double act with her older sister Carmela in 1915, working the vaudeville circuits. Meanwhile, she began formal voice training. Her teacher was so impressed that he convinced the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to listen to her. He was astounded by Rosa’s voice, and soon brought her to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she appeared as Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino on Nov. 15, 1918.

Her success was immediate and long-lasting. Her most iconic role was that of the title character in Bellini’s Norma, about a druidic priestess and her unfaithful Roman lover. The Met revived its production for her after 36 years of neglect for the now-ubiquitous mainstay of opera seasons. The vocal selection is the emblematic “Casta Diva” aria from that opera.

Her incredibly powerful voice is apparent from the recording. Best known for her work in the lower registers, here she moves from high note to high note with effortless ease, spinning out notes with remarkable consistency.

She essayed 22 roles in 19 seasons at the Met. Ponselle’s stellar career lasted until 1937. Her success meant that native-born American singers would begin to receive a chance on the great opera stages of the world.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: The Carter Family sings ‘Wildwood Flower’.



Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The NRR Project: Blind Willie McTell and 'Statesboro Blues'


"Statesboro Blues”

Written by Blind Willie McTell

Performed by Blind Willie McTell, vocals and guitar

Recorded Oct. 17, 1928


You have heard this song before, just not in its original version.

Anyone exposed to rock and roll will know the iconic 1971 performance of this song by the Allman Brothers on their first live album, raucous and slashing, full of bluesy guitar squeals and whines.

The Allman version, however, is based directed on a slide-inflected, upbeat version recorded by Taj Mahal in 1967. The Brothers heard this in concert and determined to cover it themselves.

Taj Mahal reached far back into the history of the blues to revive this song. Blind Willie McTell, the song’s creator and first performer, played it into the microphone in 1928.

Now, I could not do better than the comprehensive essay onthis song by Bruce Bader on the National Recording Registry website. It is beyond comprehensive. However, I can say that McTell (originally McTier, but people couldn’t understand his slurring) was a quiet genius, one whose musicianship is expressed modestly, and with understated wit.

McTell accompanies himself on the 12-string guitar, and unusual choice at the time. The com-plex rhythms that underlie his verses propel the song forward, gently. His chiming tenor floats over the arrangement, chanting out a series of vaguely related blues verses, a kind of portmanteau song.

 Wake up, mama, turn your lamp down low

Wake up, mama, turn your lamp down low

Have you got the nerve to drive Papa McTell from your door?


My mother died and left me reckless

My daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild

Mother died and left me reckless

Daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild

No, I'm not good lookin' but I'm some sweet woman's angel child


She's a mighty mean woman, do me this a-way

She's a mighty mean woman, do me this a-way

When I leave this town, pretty mama, I'm goin' away to stay


I once loved a woman, better than any I'd ever seen

I once loved a woman, better than any I'd ever seen

Treated me like I was a king and she was a doggone queen


Sister, tell your brother, brother tell your auntie

Now auntie, tell your uncle, uncle tell my cousin

Now cousin, tell my friend

Goin' up the country, mama, don't you want to go?

May take me a fair brown, may take one or two more

 McTell never had a recognizable hit during his lifetime – he died in 1959, nine years before Taj Mahal’s rediscovery and rebroadcast of this essential blues track.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Rosa Ponselle sings ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma.’


Friday, September 29, 2023

The NRR Project: the Standing Rock Reservation Recordings


Standing Rock Reservation Recordings

Members of the Yanktoni Tribe

Recorded by: George Herzog

Recorded 1928

205 Yanktoni songs

First of all, I could not do better than the explanatoryessay by Daniel B. Reed, as published on the National Recording Registry website. It is concise yet comprehensive, full of all the information you might like to know on the subject.

That being said, it behooves me to take a crack at of at least summarizing this entry’s contents. It consists of 205 songs of the Yanktoni tribe of the Sioux nation, sung by seven members of the tribe, recorded in 1928 by budding (and pioneering) ethnomusicologist George Herzog. The songs range from sacred and ceremonial songs to secular pieces, made contemporaneously with the time of performance.

It seems distinctly ironic to me that the powers that be in the white man’s world first marked native Americans for destruction, subjugated them, and then meticulously preserved and studied the remnants of their culture. This schizophrenic pattern concerning indigenous and minority peoples is a familiar one. Nonetheless, with or without apologies here is a collection of vital memories that otherwise would have been lost forever.

Recorded on wax cylinders, the collection is still in the process of being digitized. Beyond the documentation of a collapsed culture, the material offers insights to scholarly researchers. Above all, it provides a link to the past for the surviving descendant’s of the songs’ singers.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: Blind Willie McTell and ‘Statesboro Blues.’



Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The NRR Project: 'Smyrneikos Balos'

Smyrneikos Balos


Performed by Marika Papagika; accompanists unknown

Recorded 1928


It took a while for ethnic music to be represented on American recordings. Frankly, at the beginning record companies wanted popular hits; for a few decades they maximized mainstream music production, putting out whatever they thought would catch the fancy of the widest possible audience.

But gradually it came to be realized that there were smaller but markedly more enthusiastic groups of folks that would buy ethnic music, specifically music from their homeland. The pangs of assimilating into American culture were tempered by an adherence to and affection for old, traditional cultural creations, helping to maintain the identity of the immigrants.

Marika Papagika was among the earliest Greek-American artists to be recorded. She was born on the island of Kos in 1890; she began her recording career in Alexandria, Egypt in 1913-14. Soon after that, she and her husband Kostas (Gus) immigrated to America. Over the course of 1918-19, she began to record for both Victor and Columbia. The subset of ethnic music fans snapped up her recordings, making her famous in the context of the Greek-American community.

In 1925, she and her husband opened a nightclub (and speakeasy), Marika’s, at 34th and 8th in Manhattan. There, the Greek-American, and migrants from other regions near the old country, settled in for food, conversation, and entertainment. \

It is estimated that she recorded at least 232 sides during her American recording career, 1918-1929. All were songs from the old country. She was accompanied by her husband on the cymbalom, and by others at various times on violin, cello, and clarinet.

Her soprano voice is clear and vibrant, keening at one moment and slurring into a note-quaver the next. Smyrneikos Balos is a dance tune, but it is also a lover’s lament, and even those of us with no Greek can catch the energy of longing she puts into the song.

Marika’s closed in 1930, and Marika more or less retired. Still, her 78 r.p.m. slices of sounds from home comforted its listeners.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: the Standing Rock Preservation Recordings.



The NRR Project: 'Puttin' on the Ritz'

  ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ Composed by Irving Berlin Performed by Harry Richman with Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore Orche...