No Gal Made Has Got a Shade on Sweet Georgia Brown

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. 

Adrian Smith, Phone Home

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We’re up over 2,500 posts in the life of this website since its birth in 2004. Most of those posts go unread, day after day, and that’s fine. It’s the nature of a website like this one. But all 2,500 of ’em live somewhere in the Google-verse, so at some point, any one might end up finding a reader again one day.

Back in 2009, in a post about a WCFL radio survey from the summer of 1973, I wrote the following:

I have been able to learn practically nothing about Adrian Smith, except that she’s not the guitarist with Iron Maiden. The phrase “tiny lady, big voice” pops up in a significant number of web citations about her self-titled album, but that’s it. “Wild About My Lovin’” rode the charts at WCFL for at least 12 weeks in the summer of 1973, and it got some play on other Chicago stations as well. If you know anything more, help a brother out.

Apart from one comment that linked to an eBay listing for Smith’s self-titled album, I never learned anything else about Adrian Smith.

One morning recently, I opened my e-mail to find some scans of newspaper clippings about Adrian Smith, sent to me by Drew, who was working on a research project and googled his way to my mention of her. An August 1973 clipping from what is probably a suburban Chicago paper reveals that Smith was from Harwood Heights, Illinois; local interest helps explain why WCFL gave her airplay. The clipping also reveals that after she cut her self-titled album, MCA Records wanted her to tour with the studio musicians who had backed her. But she wanted her own touring band, so she recruited a number of Chicago-area musicians for it. After losing out on a gig with Dr. John for some reason (the clip doesn’t elaborate, as if the story had already been well-reported and any reader would know what had happened), Smith and her band opened some shows for Sha Na Na, during which they were very well-received.

Two September 1974 clips from Indiana newspapers discuss an upcoming show at Ball State University starring Richie Havens, and mentions Smith as his opener. One article describes her as “a forceful, dynamic act that employs stage antics and ‘raw emotional energy.’ She combines pop, country, gospel, and rhythm and blues into a volatile mixture of powerful proportions.” That sounds like a direct lift from a record-label or management-company press release, but it fits the “little lady, big voice” characterization. It also fits with a quote from her bass player, Mark Beringer, in the 1973 article: “You’d have to see her to believe how much voice is in that body.”

Beringer also told the reporter in 1973 that the band and would be going to Los Angeles to cut a second album. The 1974 article mentions Smith’s first album (the one with “Wild About Your Lovin'” on it), but not a second one. Drew has a theory that the 1973 interview may have had more to do with promoting Mark Beringer than Adrian Smith—that he hoped the album to be made in Los Angeles would end up being his. Drew also suggests that Beringer’s mother, who worked for one of the major Chicago advertising agencies, might have used whatever clout she could muster to get WCFL to play Smith’s record. While it’s true that radio stations frequently played records that were not and would never be actual hits, and they jiggered airplay numbers reported to trade magazines, it was usually done at the behest of record labels and not advertisers. In any event, it does not appear that the second album was ever made, with Smith, Beringer, or anybody else.

ARSA listings show “Wild About My Lovin'” got to #13 at WCFL. WBBM-FM in Chicago listed it for a while, along with a couple of other small-market stations. It bubbled under at #114 in Billboard. But the trail of Adrian Smith goes cold after that, because she’s hard to search. The world is full of prominent Adrian Smiths, not just the heavy-metal guitarist but a Congressman, a body builder, an architect, and others. The only new-to-me bit of info I found about the singing Adrian Smith was a mention in Cash Box that she was 18 when her album came out. So if she’s still out there somewhere, she’d be 75 65. (Math is hard. Ed.) But if she were still out there somewhere, some Internet music aficionado would surely have found her by now.

Thanks to Drew for reading my old piece and helping a brother out. He’s recently posted the 45 of “Wild About My Lovin'” at YouTube, and it’s great. Listen here.

Sadie’s Song

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(Pictured: Hall of Fame songwriter Johnny Mercer.)

Here’s one last story inspired by James Kaplan’s Frank Sinatra biography, although Frank himself isn’t involved much. 

Like other people in other times and other places, Sadie Vimmerstedt, a fiftysomething widow in Youngstown, Ohio, was interested in the lives and loves of celebrities. Sadie had been outraged when Frank Sinatra threw over his wife and the mother of his children for actress Ava Gardner in 1950, and felt vindicated when Gardner divorced him in 1957. The latter gave her an idea for a song. A good song, too, not that rock ‘n’ roll junk the kids liked. Trouble was, she was no songwriter. She had only one line: “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” She thought that “When Somebody Breaks Your Heart” would be a good title. But what to do with the idea?

Isn’t it obvious?

Sadie took a couple of sheets of paper from an old desk calendar and wrote to the most famous songwriter in America, Johnny Mercer. By 1957, Mercer had won two Oscars, created famous Broadway musicals, helped found Capitol Records, and wrote or co-wrote many entries in the Great American Songbook: “Fools Rush In,” “Blues in the Night, “Skylark,” “That Old Black Magic,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” “Autumn Leaves,” and many others. Sadie did not know Mercer’s precise address, so she put “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York, N.Y.” on the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox. The post office didn’t know Mercer’s address either, but it figured that ASCAP, the songwriters and publishers’ association, would. So the letter was forwarded, and ASCAP sent it to Mercer.

Johnny Mercer sat on the letter during a couple of fallow years in the late 50s, finally writing Sadie back to apologize for the delay, at about the time he started writing new songs again—a period during which he’d write two more Oscar winners, “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” He incorporated Sadie’s suggested line into a lyric, but changed her proposed title to “I Wanna Be Around.”

Sources vary on exactly what happened next. Sinatra biographer James Kaplan says Mercer told Sadie he would not have the song recorded until he found the right singer for it. But it’s possible that if Mercer said that, he was just being polite. According to Mercer biographer Gene Lees, Mercer’s son-in-law said the songwriter thought that the song “stunk.” Mercer told a song plugger named Phil Zellner that it was “the worst song I ever wrote.” But Zellner heard something in it, and he placed it with Tony Bennett. However it happened, Bennett premiered the song on October 1, 1962, singing on Johnny Carson’s first Tonight show. In the winter of 1963, “I Wanna Be Around” went to #14 on the Hot 100, higher than Bennett’s previous hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

When he finished the song, Mercer told Sadie he would give her a co-writing credit and 10 percent of the royalties. When the song hit, he upped her royalty to 50 percent. “I never expected any royalties,” she said. “[The song] was his to do with what he wished.” Toward the end of 1963, Sadie Vimmerstedt opened her mail to find a royalty check in the amount of $50,000—and money would keep flowing in for the rest of her life and beyond. She also became a Grammy nominee when “I Wanna Be Around” was nominated for Song of the Year, and she attended the awards banquet. She traveled to Cleveland and Cincinnati for radio interviews and to New York for a TV show, and she was even asked for her autograph from time to time. All the while, she continued to work as a cosmetologist. The demands on her time caused her to write Mercer at one point and say, “I’m getting tired of show business.” The two apparently maintained a correspondence for years. Mercer once said, “She’s just the cutest thing.”

Johnny Mercer died in 1976; Sadie Vimmerstedt died in 1986. Tony Bennett celebrated his 94th birthday earlier this month. And while “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” will always be Bennett’s best-known song, “I Wanna Be Around” is probably #2 or #3, and his version is definitive. Sinatra recorded it with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1964.

Heaven Is Goodbye

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(Pictured: Lee Marvin in a moment of reflection, 1967.)

Although I am not sure he is especially well-remembered today, Lee Marvin was one of Hollywood’s great bad-asses. You can spot him in famous 50s films including The Wild One and Bad Day at Black Rock, but at the same time he was doing lots of television, including a regular role on M Squad from 1957 to 1960. In 1965, he won a Best Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou. He played cowboys, cops, soldiers, good guys, and bad guys with a stern, thick-lipped face and a voice that originated somewhere deep below ground. And it is the sound of that voice that has brought Lee Marvin to your notice and mine today.

In 1968, Marvin turned down a role in The Wild Bunch in favor of the lead in a version of the 1951 Lerner and Loewe western/musical Paint Your Wagon, which also starred Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg. It occasionally appears on lists of Hollywood’s most infamous bombs. Although it was one of the top-grossing movies of 1969, Paramount Pictures never made a dime on it. Its script was adapted by Paddy Chayefsky and its songs arranged by Nelson Riddle, but critics disliked it. Young moviegoers disdained it, at the moment in history when both westerns and old-fashioned musicals were falling out of style.

Marvin plays Ben Rumson, a prospector for gold in California who has loved and lost, and by the latter stages of the film he is musing about all that has happened to him, and what made him do it. As he walks through the rain, he sings a song called “Wand’rin’ Star.” In the UK, where Paint Your Wagon played in one London theater for a solid year-and-a-half, “Wand’rin’ Star” became an unlikely hit, eventually spending three weeks at #1 on the official singles chart in March 1970, keeping the Beatles’ “Let It Be” from the top spot.

(Digression: “Wand’rin’ Star,” which was backed by Clint Eastwood singing another Paint Your Wagon song, “I Talk to the Trees,” made #6 in the UK for the entire year 1970. As Tom Ewing wrote in his series Popular, about every UK #1 single, “The singles chart at this point was clearly still wide open, deserted by emergent ‘album acts’ and without much grip on a younger teen audience.” As a result, the British charts in this period are full of novelties, recorded by everyone from macho movie stars to singing soccer players.)

Although the Paint Your Wagon movie soundtrack managed to make #28 on the Billboard album chart in a 56-week run, “Wand’rin’ Star” was not a hit in America. The vast majority of its chart action at ARSA is from the UK and Australia. Only five American stations in that database charted it; KNUZ in Houston was the most influential station to do so, ranking it as high as #30 in November 1970.

Marvin sang “Wand’rin’ Star” himself, refusing to be dubbed. He strains to get most of the notes, and the impossible depth of his untrained voice is incongruous opposite the old-fashioned Hollywood mixed chorus backing him. Marvin’s Paint Your Wagon co-star, Jean Seberg, famously described it as the sound of rain gurgling down a pipe; “Wand’rin’ Star” was also described as the first 45 ever recorded at 33 1/3. I find a certain weird charm in it, but your mileage may vary.

After Paint Your Wagon, Lee Marvin remained a familiar presence in movies throughout the 1970s. By the end of the decade, he was embroiled in the famous “palimony” case, in which his live-in companion, Michele Triola, sued for spousal support and community property after the breakup of their five-year relationship, even though they had never been legally married. The case, filed in 1976, wasn’t settled until 1979, when a court ruled that Marvin was required to make only a $104,000 payment and not give up one-half of his net worth—a sum of $1.8 million—which Triola was seeking. (The smaller payment was eventually overturned on appeal.)

By the dawn of the 80s, Marvin was only in his mid 50s, but his career momentum slowed. He appeared in a handful of films and TV roles after that, his last one in Delta Force alongside Chuck Norris in 1986. His health failed at the end of that year, and he died in August 1987 at age 63. Lee Marvin had been a Marine and was wounded while serving in the Pacific during World War II, so he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Do I know where hell is?
Hell is in hello
Heaven is goodbye forever
It’s time for me to go
I was born under a wand’rin’ star
A wand’rin’, wand’rin’ star

The Cat Who Came First

I don’t write about every musician who dies, because most of the time, other people will do a better job than I. In this case, however, I can do OK. 

Jazz came to Europe from America during World War I, when the regimental band of the Fighting 369th, a black unit that was the first American force to reach France, played the music that was taking America by storm. When war again tore through Europe in the 1940s, American GIs again brought their music along. By the end of World War II, the European jazz scene was thriving. In Denmark, a young fan named Bent Fabricius-Bjerre formed a band after the war and made the first-ever Danish jazz records. They were successful enough for him to form his own record label, Metronome, in 1950. He later hosted a show on Danish TV, a variety series called Omkring et flygel, translated to English as Around a Piano. (He had, by this time, shortened his name to Bent Fabric.) By 1961, the show was so popular that its theme song became a hit in Denmark, and it quickly spread to other countries in Europe.

The early 60s were an uncomfortable time for pop music. Elvis had gone Hollywood; the creativity and freshness of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had waned; although Bob Dylan was in New York and the Beatles were in Liverpool, neither had broken through yet. Even R&B, which had provided such a deep well of material for record labels like Atlantic through the 50s, was going through a dry spell. On the lookout for the next big thing, Atlantic noticed Fabric’s popularity in Europe, and picked up some of his songs for release in the States. The label believed that the Omkring et flygel theme would be a hit here, too, but not with that title. And so, in true American zippy-marketeer fashion, the song was renamed “Alley Cat.” (Atlantic’s marketing department concocted a story that Fabric had been inspired to write the song by his two cats. Fabric did not own a cat.) In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to #7 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name became Atlantic’s best-selling title of the year.

The followup single, “Chicken Feed,” failed to match the stateside success of “Alley Cat.” “Alley Cat” did, however, win the first Grammy given for Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording (in 1963), which would boggle the mind if the Grammys didn’t do stuff like that all the time. A collaboration with British clarinetist Acker Bilk didn’t return Bent Fabric to the American charts, either.

It’s doubtful, however, that he cared much. He remained a well-known figure in Danish musical circles, and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. Metronome eventually moved into television production and, after becoming part of a larger media group, produced (if Google Translate is helping me understand the Danish obituaries properly) Scandinavian versions of shows including Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2003, Fabric scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs. In 2010, at age 85, he appeared in a movie as a brothel owner. He played his final concert in 2019.

Bent Fabric died yesterday at age 95.  One obituary says of him, “old age never came. He made sure to keep it at a distance.”

Like other hit records of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, “Alley Cat” spawned a dance of its own, a simple step that is still performed by elementary-school students today. I am told that I developed my own little dance to “Alley Cat,” which my parents had purchased on a 45. In the fall of 1962, I was two years old. So I guess it’s not true that “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. “Alley Cat” came first.

This post is rebooted from one originally appearing in 2009.

Boing Boing Boing

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(Pictured: the Soul Clan. L to R: Ben E. King, Joe Tex, Don Covay, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke.)

The Cash Box Archives are a fabulous resource for chart nerds. They disappeared from the interwebs for a time, but they’ve been back for a while now and are even better. They now include pop, country, and R&B/soul charts going back to late 1944 (I wrote about the first pop chart last fall) through the magazine’s demise in 1996. It’s vastly superior to anything you can get online from Billboard, and its only rival is the ARSA database of local radio charts.

The revised site includes listings for what Cash Box called “Looking Ahead,” equivalent to Billboard‘s Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart. So let’s poke around various late-July dates from bygone years to see what we can see.

July 29, 1961: this chart has a couple of songs that would endure a little bit (Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp,” Dick and Dee Dee’s “The Mountain’s High”), a country smash (“Tender Years” by George Jones), big stars with forgotten hits (Ray Charles, the Miracles, Gene Pitney), the first appearance of a future star (Tony Orlando) and some deep weirdness. Chicago DJ Dick Biondi discovered an old rockabilly-ish song called “There’s a Fungus Among Us,” had it recut by a Chicago group called Hugh Barrett and the Victors, and turned it into a promotion. (The story is here.) “Song of the Nairobi Trio” by the Fortune Tellers is a version of the music Ernie Kovacs used for a famous recurring bit on his TV shows.

July 30, 1968: at #1 on the chart is “Soul Meeting” by the Soul Clan, a supergroup with a mind-boggling lineup: originally Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, and Joe Tex. Before the group could record, Redding died (replaced by Arthur Conley) and Pickett left (replaced by Ben E. King). The latter lineup eventually made an album, each member recording his part separately, pieced together by Covay. The group had plans to be not just a recording act but a collective engaged in building an autonomous black business empire. But Atlantic Records was not interested in empire building, “Soul Meeting” foundered, and eventually the Soul Clan did too, although its legacy lives on. This 2017 story from the Oxford American tells the tale.

July 25, 1970: this chart (which is down to 40 positions from 50) contains several records we’ve mentioned here in the past, by Ten Wheel Drive, the Rattles, Elephant’s Memory, and Jim Campbell, as well as two that got entire posts, “Mill Valley” and “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore.” Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan, whose unlikely smash “Tennessee Birdwalk” has been a twisted favorite around here since always, were back on the chart with “Humphrey the Camel,” which is similarly bent, was another big country hit if not such a big pop crossover this time, and kinda racist.

July 29, 1972: now a 35-position chart, this one has some famous songs (“Rock Me on the Water,” “Delta Dawn,” “Garden Party, “Misty Blue,” “Walk on By”), 75 percent of Crosby Stills Nash and Young (“Southbound Train” and “Rock and Roll Crazies”) and a not-terrible cover of the Bee Gees “I.O.I.O” by Butch Patrick. Yup, Eddie Munster.

July 28, 1973: this chart (which is down to 30 positions and numbers them from #101 to #130, a change from earlier practice) is headed by Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids” and “Rock and Roll Heaven” by the group Climax, famed for “Precious and Few.” Their version predates the Righteous Brothers by a year, but is not remotely as good. The chart also includes “The Answer” by Connie Francis, subtitled “Should I Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree?”, which I invite you to listen to for as long as you can stand it. Same with “Old Betsy Goes Boing Boing Boing” by the Hummers, which was inspired by a Mazda commercial of the time.

July 27, 1976: the chart is down to 20 positions now. There are a couple of pretty good country-pop records on it: “Rocky Mountain Music” by Eddie Rabbitt and “Stranger” by Johnny Duncan, plus T. G. Sheppard’s cover of “Solitary Man,” all of which were country chart-toppers that summer. And any chart with “Kid Charlemagne” and “Cherry Bomb” is OK with me.

By the summer of 1977, the Looking Ahead chart was pared to 10 positions. It began to appear intermittently starting in 1979, later shrinking to three entries before being dropped entirely in 1982 and resurrected in 1990. Because we thirst after the kind of obscurities found thereon, we’ll probably dip back into it at some future time.