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
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
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.