Rhythm Maniacs Articles

The Rhythm Maniacs were one of the Decca studio bands led by Arthur Lally.

“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.

“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.

“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.