Bert and John Firman

Maurice Elwin recorded extensively with the Zonophone studio bands of brother Bert and John Firman between 1927-1932.

“Sweet and Lovely” (1931)

“Sweet and Lovely.” Words and music by Gus Arnheim, Harry Tobias, and Charles N. Daniels (using the pseudonym Jules Lemare; 1931). Recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London c. October 23, 1931 by the Orpheus Dance Band (under the musical direction of John Firman) with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5987 mx. 0Y-1506-2.

Personnel: John Firman dir. Max Goldberg-t / cl-as / cl-as-bar / cl-ts / ?Bert Read-p-cel / pac / Joe Brannelly-bj-g / Billy Bell-bb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Charles W. Saxby-or / Maurice Elwin-v

Orpheus Dance Band (v. Maurice Elwin) – “Sweet and Lovely” (1931)

I have yet to find a version of “Sweet and Lovely” that I do not like. A creation of lyricist Harry Tobias, composer-lyricist Charles N. Daniels, and California-based bandleader Gus Arnheim, 1 the song was surprisingly effective at using its unusual melody to elevate romantic attraction to the spiritual plane. It became Arnheim’s signature tune, but the Orpheus Dance Band’s version with Maurice Elwin stands out as something special.

John Firman’s Zonophone house band used the pseudonym “The Orpheus Dance Band” when it recorded in the Kingsway Hall with Charles W. Saxby on the organ (the name “The Arcadians Dance Orchestra” had been used for that purpose up until 1930). In “Sweet and Lovely,” the organ and Billy Bell’s tuba establish a mellow pulsation for the other instruments to play off of. The effect is decidedly hypnotic; it establishes a sort of dream state for Maurice Elwin’s vocals to emerge from.

On this website I say a lot about Elwin’s precision as a singer and about how funny he can be, but “Sweet and Lovely” gives us an example of his being incredibly tender. He is operating at the higher end of his baritone range, which makes him sound more emotionally vulnerable, and he moves through the vocal chorus just quickly enough to give the impression that he is being carried away — transported — by his own argument. I come away from listening to this recording feeling younger and less jaded, convinced of the higher potential of romantic love.

Some representative American recordings of “Sweet and Lovely” made in 1931 are those by Gus Arnheim and His Cocoanut Grove Orchestra (v. Donald Novis), Ben Selvin (as Phil Hughes and His High Hatters; v. Jack Miller), Bing Crosby (whose version includes the intro that would have been in the sheet music but that was dropped in band arrangements), and Ed Kirkeby (as Bud Leonard; v. Elmer Feldkamp).

Other British dance band recordings were made in 1931 by Roy Fox and His Band (v. Al Bowlly), Dave Frost and His Band (v. Sam Browne), Jerry Hoey and His Band (v. Les Allen and two unknown singers), The Savoy Hotel Orpheans (dir. Howard Jacobs; v. Al Bowlly), Percival Mackey and His Kit-Cat Band (v. Phyllis Robins), Eddie Grossbart and His Café de Paris Band (unknown vocalistPathé footage survives of Grossbart’s band performing “Sweet and Lovely” in the Café de Paris itself), Jack Harris and His Grosvenor House Band (v. Harry Bentley), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), Jack Payne and His Band, and Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley, in a 12″ concert arrangement). Jay Wilbur recorded three different versions in November and December 1931: one as Jay Wilbur and His Band (with an unknown vocalist), and two as the Biltmore Players (one with Sam Browne and one with Les Allen).

Notes:

  1. It is possible that Arnheim’s contributions were minimal, but he did have past experience with songwriting.

“How’s Your Uncle?” (1931)

“How’s Your Uncle?” Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Jimmy McHugh; composed for Shoot the Works (1931). Recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London c. October 23, 1931 by the Orpheus Dance Band under the musical direction of John Firman with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5987.

Personnel: John Firman dir. Max Goldberg-t / cl-as / cl-as-bar / cl-ts / ?Bert Read-p-cel / pac / Joe Brannelly-bj-g / Billy Bell-bb / Rudy Starita-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v / Charles Saxby-or

Orpheus Dance Band – “How’s Your Uncle?” (1931) (Andy LeMaitre)

“How’s Your Uncle?” is a song deriving from the 1931 American revue Shoot the Works! (a slang expression referring to placing all of one’s money on a single bet). The show had been arranged as a way of providing temporary work for actors unemployed due to the Great Depression. The illustrious contributors to the revue (including “How’s Your Uncle?” songwriters Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh) did not charge royalties for their work; instead, as much money as possible went to the cast.

Now, a revue involves singing, dancing, and sketch comedy, and the individual acts are held together by minimal, flimsy, or even no unifying narrative; the audience, including the reviewers, would not have expected much of a plot. In spite of those low expectations, apparently Shoot the Works! still lacked something important. New Yorker reviewer S. Finney wrote that it “had been put together with string,” and in spite of constant rewriting, it closed after only nine weeks. 1

Fortunately, the failure of a revue does not vitiate its constituent parts, and “How’s Your Uncle?” saw great success with recording artists. The song’s lyrics consist of the sort of small talk (e.g. “How’s your uncle? How’s your auntie?”) that might lead up to a more important question (“And incidentally, baby, how are you?”). The questions about the more pedestrian aspects of life always precede the theme of love:

How's the cooking
And the washing
And the plumbing coming along?
Is the coffee
That you're making
Just as strong as your love for me?

The sing-song tune is catchy and perfectly suited to up-beat dance band arrangements.

The arrangement used by the Zonophone house orchestra, the Orpheus Dance Band, is particularly delightful, especially considering the interplay between the band and the organ played by Charles W. Saxby. There is also a wonderful sense of space in this recording. The echo that can be heard in Zonophone recordings made in Kingsway Hall is the polar opposite of the acoustically dead studios used by Decca in its otherwise excellent early recordings.

Maurice Elwin had been the Zonophone bands’ main vocalist since late 1927, so we should not be surprised to find him singing the refrain in “How’s Your Uncle?” He does seem perfectly suited for this song about the pedestrian sort of banter that people bury their real feelings in. Elwin’s approach to interpreting lyrics is famously understated, so to the extent that the song is a joke, Elwin could be said to be delivering it deadpan. He does alter his tone slightly when alluding to his love for the song’s addressee (and while asking after “the brother [he] could smother”), but for the most part he sounds like any one of us does when beating around the bush. The vocal refrain is subtly comical and contributes to the success of the whole recording.

Some American versions of “How’s Your Uncle” that were recorded while Shoot the Works! was still on stage were those of the Jesse Stafford Orchestra (v. Paul Small), the Troubadours (directed by Nat Shilkret, with vocalist Chick Bullock), and Fred “Sugar” Hall and His Sugar Babies (v. Arthur Fields).

Other British dance bands who recorded “How’s Your Uncle” in 1931 were Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra (v. Cavan O’Connor), Jerry Hoey and His Band (v. Les Allen and unknown person), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), the Filmophone House Band (v. Sam Browne), and Bidgood’s Good Boys (v. Tom Barratt).

Notes:

  1. Dan Dietz, The Complete Book of 1930s Broadway Musicals, Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 138-140.

“Somebody Mighty Like You” (Two Versions; 1930)

“Somebody Mighty Like You” originated in the partially Technicolor 1929 musical film Paris, whose plot concerns an upper-crust American man who causes a scandal by falling in love with a French cabaret girl. Less than two minutes of the actual movie still exist, although the soundtrack survives on Vitaphone discs. Paris was based on the 1928 Broadway play of the same name, whose songs were all by Cole Porter. Strangely, very little Cole Porter material made it into the movie (some of it, such as “Let’s Do It [Let’s Fall in Love],” may have been deemed too racy). Instead, other songwriters, including Alfred Bryan and Eddie Ward, were brought in to write entirely new songs. Bryan and Ward’s “Somebody Mighty Like You” was introduced in the film by Irène Bordoni and Jack Buchanan (in his talking-picture debut).

I have not seen the full lyrics as they were used in the movie, but it is easy to get a sense of their contents by comparing different vocal refrain excerpts. There are two themes. First, the singer invokes the idea of an ideal lover that he has found in dreams, one who is “somebody mighty like [i.e., very much like]” the real-world lover that he is addressing. 1 Second, the singer appears to be highly frustrated by the beloved’s lack of reciprocation; this theme seems to have been edited out of many arrangements of the song. As it happens, Maurice Elwin ended up singing two vocal refrains of “Somebody Might Like You,” one without and one with the element of discontent.

“Somebody Mighty Like You.” Words by Alfred Bryan, music by Eddie Ward (1929). Recorded in London on January 16, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1586 mx. MB-855-2.

Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Sylvester Ahola-Dennis Ratcliffe-t / Danny Polo-cl-as / Joe Crossman or Johnny Helfer-cl-ts / Claude Ivy-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Tiny Stock-bb / Max Bacon-d-vib / Maurice Elwin-v

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “Somebody Mighty Like You” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

Maurice Elwin’s usually restrained vocals sometimes contrast with the hotness of the bands he accompanies, but that is not so much the case in the Rhythm Maniacs’ version of “Somebody Mighty Like You.” This version is smooth and mellow by their standards, contrasting greatly with the flip side, the booming and slightly bizarre “Jus’ Keepin’ On.” The song is arranged in such a way that Maurice Elwin uses the higher end of his range; his voice sounds gentle and appropriately dreamy. The B part uses the lyrics

If I fell in your arms, dear, would you complain?
And would you smile and coax me to fall again?

The theme of frustration is absent, and Elwin is able to make a 35-second vocal refrain memorable for its sweetness.

“Paris — Selection” (Intro. “Miss Wonderful” / “Paris” / My Lover” / “Somebody Mighty Like You”). Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London on May 13, 1930 by the London Orchestra (dir. John Firman) with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5637.

Personnel: John Firman dir. Max Goldberg-another-t / Danny Polo-cl-as-bar / ?E. O. Pogson-cl-as / Johnny Helfer-cl-ts / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Billy Bell-bb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Charles W. Saxby-or / Maurice Elwin-v

Paris selection: “Miss Wonderful,” “Paris,” “My Lover,” “Somebody Mighty Like You.” London Orchestra directed by John Firman, with vocals by Maurice Elwin. Charles W. Saxby, organ. Recorded May 1930. Zonophone 5637.
(Transfer by John Wright)

Later in 1930, the London Orchestra, one of Zonophone’s studio bands under the direction of John Firman, recorded a medley of tunes from the movie Paris, all but one of which had been written by Alfred Bryan and Eddie Ward (“My Lover” is a Yellen-Ager composition). The recording session took place in the echoey Kingsway Hall, and the band was accompanied by an organ — overall the sound is very different from the comparatively dead acoustics of the Rhythm Maniacs’ Decca recording. The medley begins with a brief instrumental snatch of “Somebody Mighty Like You” and ends with Maurice Elwin actually singing it. Interestingly, this time his B part lyrics are

Why don't she try to coax me? I'll answer yes.
Fooling around provokes me. Why can't she guess?

One would expect Elwin to sound impatient singing these lines, and so he does. He does not sound as if he is happily drifting into a dream; rather, he seems mildly annoyed. I say mildly because the difference between the two vocals is subtle. A reserved singer, Elwin seldom overacts, but when he does, he makes quite an impression.

There was only one other dance band recording of “Somebody Mighty Like You” made in Britain, that of Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne). There were quite a few good American versions in 1929-1930, including those by Larry Siry and His Hotel Ambassador Orchestra (v. Charles Murray), Wayne King and His Orchestra (v. Ernie Birchill), the Carolina Club Orchestra (v. Hal Kemp, Saxie Dowell, and Skinnay Ennis), Tom Clines and His Music (v. Jack Carney), the Badgers (v. Scrappy Lambert), Joe Curran’s Band, John Vincent’s Californians (v. Rodman Lewis), and Sam Lanin and His Orchestra (v. Irving Kaufman).

Notes:

  1. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh would use the same idea the next year in “Exactly Like You.”

“I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (1930)

Surely two of the strangest recordings made by Maurice Elwin are his versions of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues,” a song written for Is Everybody Happy? (a Warner Brothers star vehicle for bandleader Ted Lewis). In order to understand what Elwin is doing with this song, it is important first to understand who Ted Lewis was. A self-styled “high-hatted tragedian of song,” Lewis led a commercially successful jazz band while wearing a battered top hat and playing a clarinet — badly. To his credit, he employed, at various times, first-rate instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Frank Teschemacher. On the other hand, though a non-singer, he insisted on doing vocals much of the time; the result was a lot of awkward speeches intoned over the music. He even had a way of making established song lyrics sound impromptu, and the result is highly irritating. A self-promoting, larger-than-life extrovert (perhaps comparable in some ways to Al Jolson), Lewis does not now enjoy the following he once had.

Is Everybody Happy? has been lost, although five minutes of it do survive; it is is worth watching the surviving footage if you want to understand his schtick (encountering real pirates, Lewis and his band claim to be pirates — for jazz). Lewis did make a record of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues,” and he does talk his way through this curious song praising the psychological benefits of music. Which brings us to Elwin.

“I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues.” Composed by Grant Clarke (words) and Harry Akst (music) for the Warner Brothers film Is Everybody Happy? (1929). Recorded in Studio A, Hayes, Middlesex on February 20, 1930 by Maurice Elwin under the musical direction of John Firman. Zonophone 5555.

Personnel: Sylvester Ahola-t / ?Arthur Lally-Danny Polo-as / Bert Read-p / Joe Brannelly-g / bb

Maurice Elwin – “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (1930) (Transfer by John Wright)

Elwin’s Zonophone recording of “I’m a Medicine Man for the Blues” is a solo recording, which is to say that it foregrounds his singing, with the studio band backing him, and the record label has Elwin’s name, not the band’s, on it. What is so funny about this song is that Elwin, an excellent singer known for sounding unaffected, makes all sorts of gestures of tribute to Ted Lewis, who cannot sing and who comes across as schmaltzy and decidedly insincere. You can tell that Elwin has seen the sheet music, because he sings plenty of real notes, but he keeps veering off into an approximation of Ted Lewis’s loud declaiming.

“I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (Clarke-Akst; 1929). Recorded in Chelsea, London on March 5, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1677.

Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar dir. Sylvester Ahola-Dennis Ratcliffe-t / Ted Heath-tb / Danny Polo-cl-as / Joe Jeanette-cl-ts / Claude Ivy-p / Joe Brannelly-bj / Spike Hughes-sb / Max Bacon-d / Rudy Starita-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” (1930)
(Transfer by Mick Johnson)

You will note that, while made at a different studio with a different musical director, the Rhythm Maniacs version of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” has a lot of the same instrumentalists. The sound engineers are a very different story, however: this recording is blaringly loud in that familiar, early Decca way. The arrangement is truly inspired, and someone is either tap-dancing or doing a very good approximation of the sound. Maurice Elwin’s briefer vocal on this record also acknowledges Ted Lewis; Elwin talks his way through some of the lyrics, although he cannot help singing others nicely. He fully embraces the spirit of boasting derived from the lyrics and from Lewis’s interpretation of them.

These offbeat recordings give us an idea of how unlike himself Elwin was willing to be. They are outliers, but they were clearly done in good fun by an artist who did not mind seeming a bit ridiculous. It is hard to think of two men from this era with singing personas more different than Lewis’s and Elwin’s, and it is funny to think of what the latter must have looked like when he committed these somewhat bizarre songs to shellac.

Another British version of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues” was recorded in 1930 by Tommy Kinsman’s Florida Band (v. Harry Bentley, who gives the song a fairly straight interpretation). In America in 1929-1930, in addition to Ted Lewis’s own record, there were versions done by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra (v. Johnny Marvin) and by the Campus Cut-Ups.

“Short an’ Sweet” (1927)

“Short an’ Sweet.” Words by Billy Tracey and Sam Ehrlich, music by Dan Dougherty (1926). Recorded in Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex on October 20, 1927 by the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band under the musical direction of Bert Firman with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Zonophone 5033.

Personnel: Bert Firman-vn dir. Frank Guarente-another-t / ?Ben Oakley-tb / ?Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar / as / ?Bill Barton-ts / John Firman-p-cel / Jack Simmons-bj / ?Billy Bell-bb / Jack Trebble-d / Maurice Elwin-v

The Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band (dir. Bert Firman; v. Maurice Elwin)
“Short an’ Sweet” (1927)
(Transfer by John Wright)

In the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band version of “Short an’ Sweet,” Maurice Elwin gushes about a diminutive woman that he is in love with. The lyrics themselves are about as cute as their “eeny-meeny-teeny-weeny” subject, and Elwin effervesces with enthusiasm that almost seems to give rise to the hot instrumental segment. I was happy to see that Rust lists this song not only in his dance band discography, but also in his jazz book. 1

Near the end of the song, Elwin returns abruptly to reveal something more about his motivation in pursuing his love interest:

Lovely ma,
Wealthy pa,
Bank account and a great big car,
She's as sweet as she can be.

It turns out that the little lady is wealthy. Elwin rattles off these lines quickly and does not sing the rest of the verse, highlighting the joke.

“Short an’ Sweet” is thus a predecessor to the Coon-Sanders song “Got a Great Big Date with a Little Bitta Girl” (1929), in which Joe Sanders expresses excitement about a “little bitty 2 girl,” only to reveal that he finds her ugly — but she is rich. At least “Short an’ Sweet” has Elwin merely expressing two different reasons to be attracted to a woman. The song is funny, and Elwin’s vocals complement the band nicely.

I am so used to seeing a bewildering number of band names attached to what appears to have been one Zonophone studio band directed at various times by Bert or John Firman that I had written off the individual band names as mere marketing gimmicks, but it turns out that in 1926-1927, Bert Firman really did direct music at the Devonshire Restaurant in Piccadilly (and so presumably had acquired the legal right to use its name commercially). 3 It would appear that the restaurant band’s personnel overlapped quite a bit with the studio personnel in this recording. 4

The only other version I could find of “Short an’ Sweet” was one by American Jay C. Flippen and His Gang. The composer, Dan Dougherty, would go on to write the music for the song “Moanin’ for You” (1929).

Notes:

  1. Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes, British Dance Bands on Record, 1911 to 1945, and Supplement, Bungay, Suffolk: Richard Clay, Ltd., 1989, 230; Brian Rust, Jazz and Ragtime Records 1897-1942, Sixth Edition, Free Personal-Use Edition, Littleton, Colorado: Mainspring Press, 2016, 442, https://78records.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/rust_jazz-records_free-edition-6.pdf.
  2. He never does say “bitta,” does he? And yet that is what is on the label.
  3. John A. B. Wright. “Short ’n Sweet.” The British Dance Band Show 377 (May 25, 2018 – June 8, 2018).
  4. Chris Hayes, Dance Band Diaries from the Melody Maker 2 (1927): 2.