“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.

“I Fell for You” (1930)

“I Fell for You.” Composed by Rowland Leigh (words) and William Walker (music) for Charlot’s Masquerade (1930). Recorded in London on October 4, 1930 by Percival Mackey and His Band with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-145 mx. WA-10736-2.

Personnel: Percival Mackey dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Chester Smith-another?-cl-as / George Smith-ts / Dave Fish-vn / Pat Dodd-p / Bob Martin-bj-g / Jim Bellamy-bb-sb / Bill Harty-d / Maurice Elwin-v

Percival Mackey and His Band (v. Maurice Elwin) – “I Fell for You” (1930)

Percival Mackey’s version of “I Fell for You,” with its Maurice Elwin vocal refrain, starts out in a most impressive, stately fashion, and until we hear the lyric, it does not sound ridiculous in the slightest. Like “Who Cares?” “I Fell for You” comes from André Charlot’s sophisticated, short-lived Charlot’s Masquerade (1930) and has the same lyricist, Rowland Leigh. The song was introduced on stage by actors Constance Carpenter and Patrick Waddington, and we are fortunate to have a record of Waddington himself singing it to the piano accompaniment of Peggy Cochrane and William Walker (the song’s composer). The complete song is very witty, but I think the funniest lyrics have been fully preserved in the arrangement that Percival Mackey uses:

I fell like an apple from an apple tree,
I fell like a Dutchman in the Zuiderzee,
I fell like a Scotsman falls for £sd
On the day I fell for you.

(As an American, I had to think a little bit when I first heard that verse. “Ell-ess-DEE” refers to the symbols for pounds, shillings, and pence, and not the popular hallucinogenic drug, and Scotsmen were once reputed to be thrifty, if not stingy or miserly. Apparently Maurice Elwin, a Scot himself, was being a good sport that day.)

The lyrics continue in that vein, using bathetic similes involving falling, literally or metaphorically, to describe the act of falling in love. Elwin seems to be doing something comparable to telling a joke with a completely straight face; he sounds earnest, as if he does not know in the slightest how silly he sounds. He is all enthusiasm and warmth.

Another British dance band version recorded of “I Fell For You” in 1930 was that of Jack Leon (v. Jack Plant). Ray Noble had recorded an instrumental version of it in a medley of songs from Charlot’s Masquerade.

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” (1930)

“She’s My Slip of a Girl.” Composed by Cyril Watters for the Melody Maker “All British Song Competition” (first prize, 1929). Recorded in Chelsea, London on January 31, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1630 mx. MB-914-2A.

Personnel: Arthur Lally-cl-as-bar / 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 / Lew Stone-a

The Rhythm Maniacs (v. Maurice Elwin) – “She’s My Slip of a Girl” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” was the winning entry in the 1929 Melody Maker magazine “All British Song Competition,” whose goal was to identify a foxtrot “considered worthy of holding its own with foreign importations.” 1 The judges included C. B. Cochran, Noel Coward, and Jack Hylton, and there were 500 competitors. The prize was taken by Cyril Watters, a twenty-two year old pianist and musical clerk who would go on to compose over 250 songs and win many more prizes in the coming decades.

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” is inherently catchy, infectious even, with its dactylic patter and rapid-fire rhyme scheme. The singer speaks of his elation (verging on ecstasy) at somehow having been so fortunate as to have a certain slender or otherwise diminutive type of woman in his life. The B part is particularly precious:

Maybe she's not a beauty,
But beauty's only skin deep.
She's the kind of a cutie
Knocks 'em all of a heap.

I know of no other lyrics that express so well the idea of a visceral attraction that transcends conventional standards for good looks.

Of the four British versions recorded of “She’s My Slip of a Girl,” the Rhythm Maniacs’ version is best at realizing the trance-inducing qualities of the tune, which is very repetitive without being in any way boring. As with many early Decca recordings, the sound engineers set the gain very high, and the song is blaringly loud. The result is that it almost pulsates, bringing out the nearly primal appeal of the Lew Stone arrangement.

One of the side effects of the overall volume being so loud is that it creates contrast between the blaring instrumental parts and Maurice Elwin’s vocal. The latter sounds deeply earnest — who would expect otherwise from Elwin? — but he is also enthusiastic, almost impassioned. There is considerable warmth in his voice. At a couple of points the melody goes rather high, and the baritone follows it upwards deftly, allowing himself to sound momentarily more vulnerable, as men sometimes do when they successfully sing above their usual range.

“She’s My Slip of a Girl” encapsulates for me one of the things that I love generally about Elwin: he is a fundamentally calm, mellow singer with a wholesome-sounding voice who found himself working with some of Britain’s hottest bands (I think particularly of the Firman bands along with Lally’s studio orchestras). To a certain extent he introduces a pleasant contrast with his comparatively composed vocal refrains, but at no time does he sound out of place.

To appreciate the brilliance of the Rhythm Maniac’s version of “She’s My Slip of a Girl” requires us to compare the other contemporary interpretations of the song, which happen to be all very good in their own ways. Eddie Hardie and His Night Club Boys recorded a December 1929 version on Piccadilly with a Harry Bentley vocal that is slow and bluesy. The same month, Ray Noble’s New Mayfair Dance Orchestra made a booming but elegant one, also comparatively slow, with touching vocals by Pat O’Malley, who scats gently at the end of the recording. In March 1930, Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra did a purely instrumental interpretation of the tune that must be at least as fast as the Rhythm Maniacs and whose arrangement is marked by amusing variations on the underlying tune that keep it from seeming overly repetitious. Finally, there is an interesting French version that I think may be a response to the Rhythm Maniacs.

Notes:

  1. Daily Mirror, January 1, 1930, 4, British Newspaper Archive.

“Try a Little Tenderness” (1932)

“Try a Little Tenderness.” Composed by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry Woods (1932). Recorded in London on December 1, 1932 by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans with vocalists Maurice Elwin and the Carlyle Cousins. Columbia CB-546.

Personnel: Carroll Gibbons-p dir. Bill Shakespeare-Billy Higgs-t / Arthur Fenoulhet-t-tb / Paul Fenoulhet-tb / Sam Acres-tb / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / Laurie Payne-cl-as-bar / George Smith-ts / Ben Frankel-vn / Sid Bright-2nd p / Harry Sherman-g / Jack Evetts-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-The Carlyle Cousins (Cecile Petrie-Pauline Lister-Irene Taylor)-v

Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans – “Try a Little Tenderness” (1932)
(Courtesy of Charles Hippisley-Cox)

Some musical compositions have inherent flaws, while others, as a result of their success, acquire unpleasant associations over time. I would argue that “Try a Little Tenderness” actually falls into both categories. By making overly general psychological observations about women, it risks sounding patronizing and heavy-handed. Moreover, there is something about the tune and the lyrics that encourage saccharine performances.

Some renditions appear to be more than a little aware of the song’s cloying tendencies. I think particularly of the intentionally awkward title sequence of Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which a rather syrupy instrumental version of the tune is played over images of a nuclear bomber being fueled by another plane’s flying boom in a manner inviting Freudian interpretation. Then there is the 1958 recording of Dragnet star Jack Webb speaking the lyrics in his trademark stiff, dead way over overproduced orchestral music (by way of a joke, presumably, although it is not clear that Webb himself was in on it). These sorts of offbeat uses of a tune can be very entertaining, but they can also forever ruin our ability to enjoy it unironically.

Carroll Gibbons’s 1932 version of “Try a Little Tenderness” rescues the song for me, serving as a sort of musical palate cleanser and reminding me of what was good about the original composition. The whole recording is imbued with the elegance one expects from the Savoy Hotel Orpheans, and Maurice Elwin is exactly the right singer to deliver the song’s prescriptions for harmonious human behavior. His tone of sincerity and sympathy brings out what is admirable in the lyrics, and the alternation between his voice and those of the Carlyle Cousins is sweet, light, and playful.

Other British dance bands who recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” in 1932-1933 were Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (v. Val Rosing), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), Billy Cotton (rejected by Regal Zonophone), and Syd Roy and His R.K.O.lians (v. Sam Browne), and Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (v. Sam Browne; on Sterno and 4 in 1).

The Carlyle Cousins (depicted on a Wills’s cigarette card)

“Jus’ Keepin’ On” (1930)

There is a curious relationship between Maurice Elwin, the Rhythm Maniacs, and the odd, forgotten song “Jus’ Keepin’ On.” The Rhythm Maniacs are the only musicians I have identified who recorded it. What is more, they recorded it at three different sessions, each time giving Maurice Elwin more time to vocally express its bizarre, plodding themes of exhaustion and resignation.

“Pantomime Hits — Selection — Part 1” (Intro. “Jericho” / “You’re My Silver Lining of Love” / “Jus’ Keepin’ On”). Recorded in Chelsea, London on November 27, 1929 by Philip Lewis and His Orchestra (a.k.a. the Rhythm Maniacs) under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1585.

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

Philip Lewis and His Orchestra (a.k.a the Rhythm Maniacs; v. Maurice Elwin)
“Pantomime Hits — Selection — Part 1” (1929)
(Transfer by John Wright)

The first recording was on November 27, 1929, where “Jus’ Keepin’ On” was the last element in the issued medley “Pantomime Hits — Selection, Part 1.” It is worth noting that Elwin sings the lyric conventionally, sticking to the melody. His voice is soft and he sounds slightly weary, but there is nothing resembling overacting going on.

On December 16, the Rhythm Maniacs would record two rejected takes of the whole song. It is worth noting that in take 1 Maurice Elwin sings a fairly straight version of the tune before launching into a declamation about halfway through the song that is intoned, not sung. The last third of the first take is a fairly uninspired instrumental treatment of the refrain.

“Jus’ Keepin’ On.” Composed by Alexander Phillips (a.k.a. Van Phillips). Recorded in Chelsea, London on January 16, 1930 by the Rhythm Maniacs under the musical direction of Arthur Lally with vocals by Maurice Elwin. Decca F-1586 mx. MB-765-3.

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

The Rhythm Maniacs – “Jus’ Keepin’ On” (1930)
(Transfer by Henry Parsons)

The issued third take (recorded on January 16, 1930) has Elwin very much in the foreground for almost the entire recording. If he was ever at risk of being a little histrionic, he is here in this remarkable recording (although perhaps we should reserve a place of honor for “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues”). He sings, declaims, and sings again, dominating almost the entire booming, high-gain early Decca recording. I have the feeling that Arthur Lally must have come to the realization that the underlying composition was not really all that good, but that it would be incredibly funny to have a normally subtle vocalist bellow it out. By having Elwin ham it up a bit for comic effect, Lally (presumably) rescued what would otherwise be a rather wearying song about weariness.

I should add that, vis-à-vis declaiming lyrics in place of singing them, there is a reason we might lump Elwin’s performance in the Rhythm Maniacs’ “Jus’ Keepin’ On” together his two interpretations of “I’m the Medicine Man for the Blues.” It would appear that Elwin went through a phase of imitating Ted Lewis, who introduced the latter song, and who, being a poor singer, was prone simply to speak lyrics, often in an odd, sentimental way, with slight diversions and repetitions. I hear Maurice Elwin doing the same in many of his solo Zonophone and Decca recordings of this period. I look forward to eventually sharing some of them on this website.

“Who Cares?” (1930)

“Who Cares?” (1930). Words by Rowland Leigh, music by Norman Hackforth. Composed for Charlot’s Masquerade (1930). Recorded in London on October 4, 1930 by Percival Mackey and His Band with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-145 mx. WA-17034-1.

Personnel: Percival Mackey dir. Jack Jackson-Andy Richardson-t / Ben Oakley-tb / Chester Smith-another?-cl-as / George Smith-ts / Dave Fish-vn / Pat Dodd-p / Bob Martin-bj-g / Jim Bellamy-bb-sb / Bill Harty-d

Percival Mackey and His Band (v. Maurice Elwin) – “Who Cares?” (1930)

Percival Mackey’s “Who Cares?” (with its vocal chorus by Maurice Elwin) is a truly impressive treatment of a comparatively obscure song from “Charlot’s Masquerade,” which played at the Cambridge Theatre for only ten weeks in late 1930 — a comparative failure, though surviving silent footage of it leads me to believe that at least parts of it must have been mesmerizingly beautiful. The cast was impressive enough: the names Beatrice Lillie, Constance Carpenter, Florence Desmond, and Patrick Waddington are still familiar — less so that of Philip Lorner, an up-and-coming actor who impressed at least one reviewer with how he sang the closing number, “Who Cares?” 1 It is not clear to me that Lorner’s career really did go anywhere after that, and unfortunately his one dance band recording with the Four Brights Sparks (“Let’s Go Native”) was rejected by Columbia. His co-star Patrick Waddington did release a beautiful version of “Who Cares?” that preserves the intro, which makes its way into the compelling dance band arrangement of Percival Mackey, right after Maurice Elwin sings the refrain.

The song is about love’s being able to transcend all adversities. Elwin’s delivery is mellifluous and seems effortless, but more than anything he sounds sincere. There is a pleasant interplay between the elegant simplicity of his vocal refrain and the sophisticated complexity of the arrangement used by Mackey.

Other British dance bands to record “Who Cares?” in 1930 were Jack Leon’s Dance Band (v. Jack Plant) and the Original Havana Band (as the Rhythm Maniacs; v. Len Lees). Leslie Norman’s Radio Revellers (v. Jack Plant) would record the song in early 1931.

Notes:

  1. “London Theatres,” The Stage, September 11, 1930, BNA. The reviewer seems to be under the impression that the song is titled “Who Cares — If Love Be There?” whereas the lyrics that we have are “Who cares? — as long as there’s love.”

“Happy Ending” (1933)

“Happy Ending.” Composed by Harry Parr-Davies for the film This Week of Grace (1933). Recorded in London on July 1, 1933 by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-641 mx. CA-13777-1.

Personnel: Carroll Gibbons-p dir. Bill Shakespeare-Billy Higgs-t / Arthur Fenoulhet-t-tb / Paul Fenoulhet-tb / Sam Acres-tb / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / Laurie Payne-cl-as-bar / George Smith-ts / Ben Frankel-vn / Sid Bright-2nd p / Harry Sherman-g / Jack Evetts-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v

Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Maurice Elwin) – “Happy Ending” (1933)

Carroll Gibbons’s “Happy Ending” and the equally upbeat song on the opposite side of Columbia CB-641 (“My Lucky Day”), both of which have Maurice Elwin vocals, derive from This Week of Grace, a 1933 Gracie Fields film about a female factory worker who loses her job and becomes housekeeper to a duchess. I have not seen the film, although a clip of Gracie singing “Happy Ending” can be found on YouTube. Gracie starts out whistling the tune while strumming a banjulele. She begins to sing the lyrics, slowly and deliberately at first, but then in a more animated way, as if moved by its optimistic message.

By comparison, in Gibbons’s version of the song, Maurice Elwin is measured in his delivery of the vocal refrain, putting as much emphasis on sounding reassuring and convincing as he does on seeming happy himself. As is so often the case, Elwin’s interpretation of this song relies on an elegantly understated approach to conveying emotion. Elwin would appear to be singing towards the upper limit of his vocal range at points during this recording, but does not appear to be particularly challenged by the higher register.

Other dance bands who recorded “Happy Ending” in 1933 were Joe Loss and His Band (v. Jimmy Messini — on Joe Loss’s first record), Charlie Kunz and the Casani Club Orchestra (v. Eve Becke), Jack Payne and His Band (v. Billy Scott-Coomber), Ray Noble and His Orchestra, Larry Brennan and the Winter Gardens Dance Band, and Billy Cotton and His Band (in a medley of other songs from This Week of Grace). Gracie Fields also committed the song to shellac herself.

“My Lucky Day” (1933)

“My Lucky Day.” Composed by Harry Parr-Davies for the film This Week of Grace (1933). Recorded in London on July 1, 1933 by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans with vocalist Maurice Elwin. Columbia CB-641 mx. CA-13778-1.

Personnel: Carroll Gibbons-p dir. Bill Shakespeare-Billy Higgs-t / Arthur Fenoulhet-t-tb / Paul Fenoulhet-tb / Sam Acres-tb / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / Laurie Payne-cl-as-bar / George Smith-ts / Ben Frankel-vn / Sid Bright-2nd p / Harry Sherman-g / Jack Evetts-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-v

Carrroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (v. Maurice Elwin)
“My Lucky Day” (1933)

“My Lucky Day,” like its reverse side on Columbia CB-641 (“Happy Ending”), has Maurice Elwin interpreting lyrics originally given to Gracie Fields in the star vehicle This Week of Grace. He begins to sing after a very brief instrumental introduction and warmly expresses elation at his good fortune. In dance band recordings of this sort, it is more common to have the vocalist come in halfway through the song or even later; it speaks to Elwin’s reputation as a powerful vocalist that he was chosen for this particular arrangement.

Other dance bands who recorded “My Lucky Day” in 1933 were Harry Bidgood and His Band (v. Tom Barratt), Harry Leader and His Band (v. Sam Browne), Sydney Kyte and His Picadilly Hotel Band (v. Norman Phillips), Charlie Kunz and the Casani Club Orchestra (v. Eve Becke), Larry Brennan and the Winter Gardens Dance Band (whose unidentified female vocalist is amusingly terrible), and Billy Cotton and His Band (in a medley of songs from This Week of Grace). Gracie Fields also made a record with this song on it.