This dashing dude is one of the few men in these annals with anything like modern sex appeal. Suave and devil-may-care, the good-looking Richman was a sort of 1920s Renaissance Man: singer/dancer/songwriter/piano player/movie star/ and even aviator. He is reputed to have gone to bed with Mae West, Nora Bayes, and Clara Bow (but not all at the same time).
He was born Harry Reichman in 1895 in Cincinatti, Ohio. He began playing piano in bars at age 11. When he was 14, he teamed up with violinist Bud Remington, and the following year formed a singing trio that was first called “The Jewel City Trio”, lated renamed “Those Three Boys.” By age 18 he working the circuits regularly around San Francisco as “Harry Richman, the Singing Comedian”.
In the early twenties, he began to work regularly as an accompanist to the likes of Mae West, the Dolly Sisters and Nora Bayes. It was West who fired him him for making a bigger hit with the audience than she did.
In 1923, he worked up his own act as a song and dance man, doing impressions of Al Jolson and David Warfield. He broke into radio the following year, and started cutting his first records the years after that. Those broadcasts and hit records made him a star of stage as well. By the second half of the twenties, he was a hit at the Palace and George White’s Scandals. By the early thirties he had moved up to the Ziegfeld Follies.
His hit songs included “Puttin’ On the Ritz” (the title song of a 1929 movie in which he also starred), “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”; “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Singing a Vagabond Song” (which he co-wrote).
In the mid-thirties, he set several aviation records, setting the world altitude record for a single-engine amphibious plane in 1935, and making the 26th transatlantic solo flight in 1936. As American vaudeville dried up, he found a home in England for several years, where he was a frequent star at the London Palladium. By the mid-40s he was back in the U.S. and he was starting to lose his voice, so he retired, occasionally coming out of mothballs to accept the odd offer, but with nothing like the stardom he had formerly known. He passed away in 1972.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including influential stars like Harry Richman, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.