Archive for the African American Interest Category

The Mystery of Hazel Green

Posted in African American Interest, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by travsd

There is a gent on IMDB who speculates that the Hazel Green in the 1927 Vitaphone Hazel Green & Company is the granddaughter of Confederate General John Stuart Williams and was born on July 3, 1892. Williams, who later became a U.S. Senator and the Founder of Naples, Florida, was from Kentucky. Early in the war, when still a Colonel, he participated in futile efforts to prevent a Union takeover of his home state, which included a minor action in the community of Hazel Green.  The writer claims that the singer is named after this military action,  that he “once read a bio of her”, and that she got the job due to “producers romancing antebellum times.” The fact that one of the songs in her set is “Just a Bird’s Eye View (of My Old Kentucky Home)” is possible support of that idea.

And yet I’m doubtful. I can’t find corroboration anywhere and it sounds like a stretch. Why would you name a child after one of your defeats? Among other things. And there is the fact that Hazel Green looks like she may be African American, as do a couple of her musicians. Her performance and the set are jazzy (it includes a very peppy, uptempo version of “Ain’t She Sweet”). Green tap dances in the film, along with a guest named Joe Lacurta. And one of the few references I can find to a singer named Hazel Green says she briefly formed a duo with blues pioneer Bessie Smith in 1918. Show biz was almost entirely segregated in those days; while not impossible, a black-and-white singing duo would have been rarer than rare. It would have meant that the white singer was willing to forego the better salaries and conditions of mainstream show business in order to perform in black vaudeville with Smith, which would be saintly but also highly unlikely. So the Hazel Green who sang with Bessie Smith etc had to have been at least partially black herself.

And then there’s this, taken from a book, which says she and her mother, one “Ma” Green choreographed a show at the Southland club in Boston, with Blanche Calloway (Cab Calloway’s sister) and a 14 piece band supplying the music in 1937.

Also, in the Bassically Speaking: An Oral History of George Duvivier, the musician’s mother Ismay Duvivier speaks of her own show business days and says this: “We all worked on the T.O.B.A. circuit…For a while I traveled with Ma Green and her daughter. That was a small combo…Normally there was about twelve girls in a [chorus] line, but there was one big production that required much more…” She also mentions a date in Baltimore (see below for the significance of that).

And we note that black artists were indeed represented in the Vitaphones. Hazel Green & Company is Vitaphone #2112. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the company had recorded Vitaphone #2009: Carolynne Snowden and Company “Colored Syncopation”. 

In short, the Hazel Green in the first paragraph does not sound much like the Hazel Green in the subsequent paragraphs. And yet there is a possible third way. I found this reference to Williams’ step-son Colonel A.W. Hamilton fathering children with Williams’ mulatto cook in the 1870s. This practice may have been rooted in the family culture. Williams was married twice, but there was a period of a dozen years between the death of his first wife, and his marriage to his second one. During this period, he owned upwards of 50 slaves. And it’s well documented that master-slave relationships and forced concubinage existed during those times. So it’s possible that Hazel Green is BOTH a descendant of Williams AND part African American. This is the wildest speculation on my part; I’m just trying to reconcile some seemingly contradictory puzzle pieces with logic. I’ve come across very little information on the woman, and would obviously welcome more.

But little pieces do help fill it in and contribute to this case. In the 1927 Vitaphone we see Green leading a quintet of musicians. I found an ad for her for performing in Baltimore with a “company of five” in 1922. Seems like the same woman. And the collaboration with Bessie Smith was also in Baltimore. So THAT seems like the same woman. This January 1923 ad for an engagement at Poli’s Bridgeport describes her act (“Hazel Green and Her Band”) as a “Riot of Color” — a possible allusion to the race of the performers, lending authenticity of the jazz, which was common in advertising at the time:

I find other references to the band playing in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Toronto, Brooklyn and New York City. The act is sometimes billed as “Hazel Green and Her Boys” or “Hazel Green and Her Beau Brummels”. All of these references pre-date the Vitaphone release. Oddly, I can find no references to her after it. Did she retire? Die? Change her name? Again, wild speculation, but I found a reference to a Hazel Green who was born in 1929 to a mother named Hazel Williams Green and a father named Dewey Green. Could Hazel Williams Green be our singer, given all that we wrote above? The timing would be right (many female performers retired to start families), as would the maiden name, though, granted, its a common one. At any rate, we put this out there in case anyone has the true facts — we’d be only too glad to have the record clarified and corrected so folks can learn the truth about this interesting and entertaining singer and bandleader.

You can see clips from Hazel’s Vitaphone on Youtube. In addition to the numbers already mentioned, the group also performed “That’s Why I Love You” and “I’ve Grown So Lonely.”

To learn more about vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

Paul Colin: The Visual Spirit of Jazz Age Paris

Posted in African American Interest, Frenchy, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by travsd

June 27 is the birthday of the great French poster artist Paul Colin (1892-1985). A native of Nancy, Colin attended the École des Beaux-Arts and became a master of Art Deco style, incorporating earlier movements such as Cubism.

Colin had been living and working in Paris for over a decade when Josephine Baker arrived in 1925 to become his lover and muse. His most famous poster (above) is also the one that put him on the map. Baker and Colin promoted each other’s work; they became Parisian sensations hand in hand.

In 1927 Baker, all of 21, published a memoir, with illustrations by Colin:

From a 1927 event that drew 3,000 people:

Paris in the 20s and 30s was in the grip of Le Tumulte Noir, “The Black Craze”, and this inspired a series of works from him by that name, in which Josephine was not absent:

Exoticism was key to the fad; jungle themes were prevalent, as were depictions evocative of American minstrelsy caricatures. As a consequence, these Jazz Age images can be tough for us to unpack. Racist? Yet worshipful. The height of fashion? And yet animal, not quite human? “Negrophilia” — but how deep did that love run? As we say, Baker was his lover. If you’ll pardon the expression, Colin had skin in the game. The pair remained friends for life. But outside the nightclubs, cafes, and artist studios of Paris, racism continued to reign in French culture, as is it did throughout the Western world.

Colin had a wider scope of subjects, at all events. Here is an advertisement for the great clown Grock:

Here’s an ad for the 1926 Rene Clair film The Imaginary Voyage:

Colin advertised products of all sorts over the ensuing decades and turned out dozens of pupils through his “Ecole Paul Colin”. Before the dust had settled, he had created 1,900 theatrical posters, and numerous book, theatre set and costume designs.

The Ongoing Saga of the Hottentot Venus

Posted in African American Interest, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by travsd

First of all, we no longer say “Hottentot”. The proper name for this tribe of Southern African hunter-gatherers is Khoikhoi; Dutch colonists dubbed them “Hottentot” in mockery of their click-based language shortly after first encountering them in the 17th century. In the 19th century, when Africans were often exhibited in Europe and America as curiosities and “missing links”, khoikhoi were among the more popular examples, due to their small stature and the condition present in many of the females known as steatopygia, which refers to large accumulations of tissue in their buttocks and thighs.

More than one woman was exhibited by Europeans as a “Hottentot Venus”; the best known was a woman named Sarah (sometimes Sara or Saartje) Baartman (sometimes Bartman, Bartmann, or Baartment), ca. 1790-1815. Baartman was brought to London in 1810 by two unscrupulous men and exhibited as a freak on the stages of Picadilly for four years. In 1814 she was acquired by another man who brought her to Paris where she was exhibited by an animal trainer and examined by scientists from the Museum of Natural History. When she died in 1815 her body was dissected and a plaster cast was made of her body, and the results were on public display in Paris for over a century. Her remains were finally returned to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

In 1995 Suzan-Lori Parks fictionalized Baartman’s story and transferred its themes of racist colonial exploitation to her OBIE-winning play Venus. The Signature Rep has revived the work as part of their season devoted to Parks’ plays. Performances began this week, with an opening day announced for May 15. Tickets and more information are here at the Signature Theatre’s site. 

Nine Favorite Chuck Berry Covers

Posted in African American Interest, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 19, 2017 by travsd

This is how Chuck Berry looked on tv when I was a kid. He just died at 90. Wake up call!

Rock in Peace, Chuck Berry! I have little to add to the tribute I wrote in 2010, except 90 is a damn good run, Rudolph. One good measure of the value of a songwriter is the number and quality of cover versions of songs you wrote, and the prestige of those who perform them. Here are some covers of Berry’s songs I have particularly enjoyed,in no particular order:

1.”Come On” — The Rolling Stones.

I love the original version of course (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bass) but I also love the Stones’ arrangement with its manic key changes, wacky energy, and harmonica punctuation. For some reason the Stones changed Berry’s more forceful “stupid jerk” to “stupid guy” — always wondered about that.

2. “Memphis” — Johnny Rivers

“Memphis” may well be Berry’s most covered song. It is haunting and poignant and sweet and wonderfully constructed, with that touching twist in the last verse, and original turns of phrase like “hurry-home drops”. Rivers practically made an entire career covering Berry tunes, but this may be his best known one (and perhaps the best known version) of the song. (Another version I’ve always loved is the Beatles’, from the Cavern years. John Lennon’s performance pulls the heart strings; he seems to invest a lot of emotion into it)

3. “Roll Over, Beethoven” — The Beatles

Well, it’s hard to choose just ONE Beatles Chuck Berry cover — their version of “Rock and Roll Music” absolutely tears it up. But I’ve always had a particular affection for their cover of “Roll Over, Beethoven” as one of George Harrison’s earliest moments to shine; he has a lilt in his voice I’ve always loved, and I like the way the Beatles version flows even more than the original. The whole thing is much more frenetic.

4. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — Jerry Lee Lewis

Okay, this song is dirty whether Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis is singing it, given their mutual penchant for VERY under-aged girls. But Lewis MAKES it more dirty in his virgin. Berry’s a writer; when he performs his version you at least IMAGINE the singer is also a teenager. When Lewis does it, nope, he’s 24…then 34…then 44. Probably still be tryin’ it at 84.

5. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — Buddy Holly

We all know that this began life as “Brown-SKINNED Handsome Man”, but that hasn’t stopped white skinned men from interpreting it. Buddy Holly, as he often did, brings a bit of Bo Diddly clave rhythm energy into it, and I hear Holly’s voice just as easily as Berry’s whenever I think of the song.

6. “Too Much Monkey Business” — The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds live version (from 1963’s Five Live Yardbirds) of this tears up. When one thinks of the Berry version one thinks mostly of the lyrics, it’s just a tour de force of language and vocal performance. With the Yardbirds, it’s all about the heavy, amplified bass and guitars. Keith Relf’s vocal performance is def proto-punk.

7. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — The Beach Boys (as “Surfin U.S.A.”)

As even a child can tell, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is simply “Sweet Little Sixteen” with altered lyrics, with that wonderful stop-and-start energy, and Carl Wilson’s almost note for note homage to his master (Wilson was probably Berry’s foremost acolyte as a guitar player. Yes, Keith Richard and George Harrison, too, but those guys absorbed and synthesized a lot of OTHER guitar players. With Wilson, you just hear the influence of Chuck.) The Beach Boys also had a hit with Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, one of their biggest hits of the 1970s, but I find the arrangement cluttered and simply don’t like it as much.

8. “Johnny B. Goode” — Jimi Hendrix 

Hendrix wasn’t just a musical, aural genius — we often forget that he was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing showman — much like Berry himself. The blues was always the foundation of what he did, no matter how psychedelic he got. His interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is a great illustration of the range of the performer, and the adaptability of the song itself.

9. “Around and Around” — The Animals

“Around and Around” is a great party song, it’s all about a fun time, “what a crazy sound”. It lent itself well to the Animals’ quintessential sixties wildness, with Eric Burdon’s rough, raw vocals, with Alan Price’s organ helping it swing.

Of Billie Thomas and Buckwheat

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by travsd

Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas was born on this day in 1931.

Thomas was all of three years old when he began to appear in Hal Roach’s Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedy shorts in 1934.

It wasn’t until 1935 that he began playing Buckwheat, a character previously played by Carlena Beard (Stymie’s sister) and Willie Mae Walton. Buckwheat was pretty clearly an attempt by Roach and his creative team to re-create the popularity of the previous Our Gang character Farina, who’d been with the series from 1922 through 1931, both by being gender-ambiguous, and by being identified with breakfast food.

Starting with the 1936 feature General Spanky, which was set during the Civil War, Buckwheat started to be attired more as a traditional “pickaninny” character and became more overtly male. Thomas remained with the series until it ended in 1944.

He later retired from show business and served in the army during the Cold War. He passed away in 1980, the same year as Farina.

Ironically, one year after he died, Eddie Murphy began portraying him on Saturday Night Live, the recurring bit becoming one of his most popular and enduring routines. The joke was that the adult Buckwheat spoke in the same adorable, childish speech impediment that he had possessed as a toddler. “O-Tay!” had been the real Buckwheat’s catchphrase; it also became Murphy’s. The success of the character proved problematic. The initial joke had been the absurdity of Buckwheat still talking the same way as a man in his 40s. But its wide popularity resulted in something else. The Our Gang franchise had been progressive in its own time for treating its African American characters as equals or near-equals as the white kids. The African American performers in the films were among the most popular, and certainly they were among America’s earliest black stars, and among the best paid black actors in their day. But that doesn’t mean that the characters weren’t relatively racist by later standards.

As a one-off, Murphy’s initial Buckwheat turn might have been read as naughty satire in the old National Lampoon/ SNL mode, and even at that it would have been a debatable gambit. But the popularity of the routine occasioned an uncritical resurrection of the character. It seemed to become too popular with white people, and for all the wrong reasons. Remember when Dave Chapelle quit his Comedy Central show, saying that he discovered that he was getting the wrong kind of laughter? Well, Buckwheat was getting the wrong kind of laughter. I was in high school at the time, and I can assure you — some of the white kids were laughing at Murphy’s Buckwheat the wrong way. Rather than being a satirist making fun of a black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites, he he had merely become the black man humiliating himself for the entertainment of whites. For some, that’s a difficult distinction to perceive, but it’s a crucially important one to make and be aware of. You “love” Buckwheat, huh? Do you “love” Billie Thomas? His family? Anybody black, when they’re not wearing overalls and saying “O-tay”? What is it, who is it you love, and why?

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

Louise Beavers: Started as a “Lady Minstrel”

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by travsd

Louise Beavers’ (1902-1962) birthday is today.

Originally from Cincinnati, Beavers moved to the Los Angeles area with her family at age 11. Her mother was a singing instructor. Through her, Beavers started singing in choirs and amateur concerts, eventually joining a group called “The Lady Minstrels” which played dates in vaudeville and presentation houses. In early adulthood she worked as a domestic to stars like Leatrice Joy and Lilyan Tashman, an irony given the large numbers of servants and house slaves she would play during her movie career. As was sadly common at the time, those sorts of characters were almost exclusively what she got to play.

Her first film work was as an extra in the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When talking films came in she instantly progressed to small speaking roles. She’s in Mary Pickford’s first talkie Coquette (1929), the lost classic Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), with Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Bombshell (1933) and dozens of others.

In 1934 she attained the highlight of her career, co-starring with Claudette Colbert in the classic race drama Imitation of Life (1934). While she had ample chance to shine in that movie, and received plenty of good notices, it unfortunately didn’t lead to lots of similar work. She was instantly relegated back to the same sort of domestic roles in films like General Spanky (1936), No Time for Comedy (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), although she did get a fine part in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as the star player’s mother. In the 1950s she was a familiar face on television on shows such as Beulah (1952) and Make Room for Daddy (1953-1954).

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Ruby Dandridge: In Her Own Right

Posted in African American Interest, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , on March 3, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the pathbreaking Ruby Dandridge (Ruby Jean Butler, 1900-1987). Dandridge was one of the few “pushy stage mothers” of famous performing children to achieve a substantial show biz career in her own right.

The daughter of a sometime performer (and “minstrel man”) from Jamaica, Dandridge grew up in Witchita Kansas. In 1919 she married minister and cabinet maker Cyril Dandridge and the pair moved to Cleveland, Ohio where their daughters Vivian and Dorothy were born. The perpetually jobless Cyril was soon out of the picture, and Ruby began a romantic relationship with a woman named Geneva Williams, who now became the mother figure to the daughters.

With Geneva as their manager the girls began performing as “The Wonder Children” in 1934. A third girl Etta Jones was added and their professional name became the Dandridge Sisters, which rapidly became an act of national stature, winning a Los Angeles radio talent show, and headlining at New York’s Cotton Club. Soon the girls were appearing in films like The Big Broadcast of 1936 and A Day at the Races (1937). The group broke up in 1940, with Dorothy going on to become the most successful, becoming the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for her performance in Carmen Jones (1954).

Meanwhile, Ruby had launched her own career as well. She began as an extra in horror films like King Kong (1934) and Black Moon (1934). She became one of the voices of the racist Warner Bros. cartoon character Bosko in the mid 30s. Her squeaky voice served her well there and on radio shows like Amos and Andy, The Judy Canova Show, and Beulah, and in other cartoons such as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943) and Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears (1944). Her epic size (larger by far than even Hattie McDaniel) was an asset on screen as well. You can see her in such films as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Saratoga Trunk (1945), Tap Roots (1948) and A Hole in the Head (1959), as well as the tv version of Beulah(1952-53), and one season of Father of the Bride (1961-62). The bulk of her roles were maid parts, a typical indignity for the time. She also performed in the occasional stage production and night club date.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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