Certain pieces of music stop time, take you places, call up images that are indelible. When you play the song at the top of this post, what do you see? If you are of a particular age, you can probably picture the famous Harlem Globetrotters “weave,” the warmup the team does when they first hit the court, which has been accompanied by the sound of “Sweet Georgia Brown” since 1952.
“Sweet Georgia Brown” was already an oldie by 1952. The original recording by Ben Bernie and His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra spent five weeks at #1 on the primordial charts of 1925, while competing versions by Isham Jones and Ethel Waters also charted. Bing Crosby took it to #2 in 1932. But the recording you know, the one that the Globetrotters use, came along at the end of the 1940s.
Freeman Davis was born in Alabama in 1902 but discovered in California. His prowess as a whistling shoeshiner earned him the nickname Whistling Sam, but he was also proficient on the bones, a percussion instrument often made from real animal bones, but also of wood. (They’re cousins to castanets and spoons.) In the late 40s—maybe 1947—Davis got a chance to record for the Hollywood label Tempo, laying down “Sweet Georgia Brown” and three other sides, which were credited to Brother Bones and His Shadows. In addition to Davis on bones and whistling, two other musicians are heard on “Sweet Georgia Brown”—a tenor saxophonist whose name is unknown, and Herb Kern on Novachord.
Herb Kern on what?
The Novachord was the original electronic synthesizer, manufactured by the Hammond Company and introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as yet another avatar of times to come. It was a cousin to the Mellotron, capable of recreating a high-pitched flute or a deep theater organ, with 120 presets to create other, more exotic sounds in between. But the Novachord was not destined for mass popularity. Each one weighed 500 pounds, contained 163 vacuum tubes, and had miles of cable and hand-tied wiring. It required the skills of an electronic tinkerer to operate and maintain. A new one cost $1,900—which is equivalent to about $35,000 today. Only about a thousand Novachords were manufactured between 1938 and 1942. But one of them belonged to Tempo Records, which released a number of Novachord-and-organ duets in the 40s featuring Kern and a guy named Lloyd Sloop. Kern was the organist of the duo, but he moved over to the Novachord to provide the bassline for “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
“Sweet Georgia Brown” sat in the Tempo vault until the summer of 1948, when it finally was released to what was known as the “race” market. After it caught on among black audiences, it crossed over to pop, eventually hitting #10 on Billboard‘s main chart early in 1949. Brother Bones got his picture on the covers of Billboard and Cash Box, and a 1951 starring role in a blackface musical called Yes Sir Mr. Bones.
(In his Pop Memories: 1890-1954, Joel Whitburn says that the Brother Bones “Sweet Georgia Brown” features not sax and Novachord but organ and a clarinet played by Joe Darensbourg. Darensbourg was a prominent New Orleans-born clarinetist who worked in Los Angeles during the late 40s, and he played on some of Brown’s other recordings, apparently, but I’m pretty sure he’s not on this “Sweet Georgia Brown,” mostly because there’s no clarinet. On another matter, Whitburn says that Davis charted a version of “Ain’t She Sweet” in 1949. It was a duet with organist Barney Lantz but was released under the bizarre, awkward name of Mr. Goon Bones and Mr. Ford.)
Brother Bones does not appear to have had any connection with the Harlem Globetrotters apart from his performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which has granted him a peculiar combination of immortality and obscurity. Freeman Davis died in 1971 and is buried in his longtime home of Long Beach, California.
The Novachord was used to score movies and TV shows as late as the 1960s, but apart from “Sweet Georgia Brown,” its most famous appearance on record might be on Vera Lynn’s original 1939 recording of “We’ll Meet Again.” Her more famous recording, which did not hit in America until 1954, was backed by a conventional orchestra, but her first recording features Arthur Young on the Novachord, sounding very much like an organ, but also very much not.
Additional postscript: it was easy to miss in the frantic 2020 news cycle, but Vera Lynn, who was one of the most popular performers in Britain during World War II and through the 50s, died in June at age 103.