Archive for singer

The Pickens Sisters: Singers of High Society

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by travsd

Jane Pickens (1908-1992) of the Pickens Sisters was born on this day. She’s chiefly on my radar because I’ve lived and recreated in Newport, Rhode island, where she was a longtime resident (summer and otherwise) and there is a theatre there named after her.

Jane was the musical leader and arranger of the trio that first included her sisters Grace and Helen. Grace later became the group’s manager, replaced by the fourth sister Patti. The girls were Southern belles from Georgia, taught to harmonize by their mother. Their father, a wealthy cotton broker, loved to accompany them on piano. In the early 1930s, they moved to New York’s Park Avenue and became involved in New York, Long Island and Newport Society. They often sang at private functions, with a specialty in what were then called “Negro Spirituals”. Fortunately, a search was on at the time to find female trios to compete with the popular Boswell Sisters. The Pickenses were spotted at a party and quickly landed both a radio deal and a recording contract.

Their radio shows ran from 1932 through 1936. They appeared in the 1933 Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and in the 1933 feature Sitting Pretty. Next came the Broadway revue Thumbs Up! (1934-1935). Jane sang solo in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

The group split up when several sisters left to get married. Patti married radio actor Bob Simmons, with whom she performed for a time as Pickens and Simmons. Jane, the most serious about music, studied at several prestigious schools, and continued her career as a solo. She appeared on Broadway three more times: in the revue Boys and Girls Together (1940-1941), as the title character in Regina, a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1949), and the musical Music in the Air (1951). She also made several appearances on television variety shows through the mid 1950s, and even briefly had her own such series as a replacement in 1954.

Jane was married thrice, to T.J. Russell Clark (whom she divorced), stockbroker William Langley, and Walter Hoving (the head of Tiffany and Bonwit Teller, and father of the Met Museum’s Thomas Hoving). In 1972 she ran as the Republican against Ed Koch for a New York Congressional seat (unsuccessfully, of course). Newport’s Jane Pickens Theater, named after her, opened in 1974. She died in Newport in 1992. Patti, the youngest sister, was in the midst of plans to record a tribute album to her deceased sisters when she too passed away in 1995.

R.I.P. Glen Travis Campbell

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, Crackers, OBITS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on August 8, 2017 by travsd

R.I.P. Glen Campbell, who passed away today at the age of 81, and let me tell you something, that ages ME, because well do I remember our family gathered to watch The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour when Campbell was a fairly young man in his mid to late 30s. Campbell’s tv variety show carried more political significance than most folks probably realize. It debuted on CBS in 1968, to replace the abruptly cancelled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Begone, troublesome, controversial satire; make way, for light, wholesome, apolitical all-American fun!

I don’t think Campbell was conservative particularly, he just liked to pick and grin and give everybody a good time. In fact, that was sort of his comic persona, such as it was, on his own tv show, and when he appeared on other people’s variety shows, and in his rare film appearances as in True Grit (1969). He liked to play that he was dumb, cheerful, a little goofy. If he’d been a better actor he’d have been PERFECT for the character of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). I’d be shocked if the character wasn’t somehow BASED on his persona. (Ye Gods, Nilson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, the movie’s theme song, backed by the Wrecking Crew, of which Campbell had been a member, SOUNDS like Campbell!)

wit Ray Charles on The Goodtime Hour

Anyway, the point is that he was an Arkansas hillbilly, All-American, the same stock of people as my dad’s family. Not only do we have many a Campbell in our family tree; but Glen Campbell’s middle name — like mine — was Travis.  (And my grandfather’s name was Glenn!) 1968 was a moment of sea change, when the country turned away from Kennedy-Johnson era activism and towards Richard Nixon. The right-wing hell we have been living in ever since can be traced at least as far back as that. I don’t blame Campbell for it; like I said he wasn’t a political guy (he was a registered Democrat who supported both parties and swung more Republican in later years).

On the other hand, it’s the company you keep. Here he was with the Duke in “True Grit”. He also teamed up with neo-con Clint Eastwood a decade later in “Every Which You Can”

But damn I love his music. I particularly love “Witchita Lineman” (1968). My friend Frank Cwiklik used it for his stage adaptation of Quicksand which I acted in back somewhere around the turn of the century, and MAN I grew to loving hearing that song every night, its surprising melodic turns, and that voice of Campbell’s ringing out clear as a bell. My oldest brother, a bit of an obsessive compulsive, had a major thing for “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) — I must have heard that one a thousand times. And I must have heard “Southern Nights” (1977) almost that many times strictly from radio plays.  “Gentle On My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix (both 1967), and “Galveston” (1968) are all great too, if less flashy.

But above all I associate him with youth: apple-cheeked, red-blooded, tow-headed health and vigor. For God’s sake, he’d even been a substitute Beach Boy! I think that’s why so many of us were so shocked a few years back when stories broke about his Alzheimer’s. Photographs of the grizzled and confused old man, no longer cheerful, in fact, now kind of snappish and nasty. The Glen Campbell everybody first knew and loved died quite a while back, I think. It’ll always be bittersweet to look at those older clips and listen to the older records. But it always is anyway.

Polly Bergen: Heard But Not Seen

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The late Polly Bergen (Nellie Burgin, 1930-2014) had a birthday of July 14.

I became really interested in her when I saw her entertaining performance in the 1975 tv movie Murder on Flight 502 and so I perked up and noticed her whenever I saw her in things subsequently. But here’s something that I think is worth mentioning and altogether not negligible: I had already seen her in many things previously without ever taking particular note of her. And this includes her Tony-nominated performance in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies. (That was a special case; I was dragged to that. You might think I would like a show about a bunch of old Follies broads, and if I saw it today I might feel differently but probably not, for the simple reason that all Sondheim after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bores the absolute ever-loving shit out of me. There, I said it. Go ahead, be outraged. I am unmoved, either by your umbrage, or by Sondheim’s reputation for genius. I don’t care how many hits he has, I find him an untheatrical bore. So when I saw that production of Follies, I’m sure I spent the whole two hours looking at my watch, the ceiling, any place but the stage.)

“The Stooge” is the one in the middle

So there’s that. But I had also already seen her in her three movies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, At War with the Army (1950), That’s My Boy (1951) and The Stooge (1952), as well as the original Cape Fear (1962), the western Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), the insane asylum melodrama The Caretakers (1963) with Joan Crawford, and the 1983 tv mini-series The Winds of War, again without ever particularly marking her existence.

But, as I say, I liked her Murder on Flight 502. And I have my theories as to why. She is given full reign to play a big personality in that film, a big cocky diva character with a lot of bark on her, very Elaine Stritch. And she makes an impression. No doubt her Follies performance had been in this vein but I wasn’t open to anything I was seeing. But I SAW her in this dopey tv disaster movie and then subsequently I noticed her, even if she wasn’t particularly doing anything flashy. For example, she is sexy but subdued in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, and yet I noted her and liked her in that. (TCM had been playing this screwball comedy about America’s first female chief executive the last few years because of a certain prominent democratic candidate whose initials are HRC. Something tells me they decide to mothball it now, the way early 60s assassination films like The Manchurian Candidate got shelved after the JFK assassination. TOO SOON! Bergen’s role in this film was why she was stunt-cast as Gena Davis’s mother on Commander-in-Chief, which ran 2005-2006). And I enjoyed her on The Sopranos as Tony’s father’s old girlfriend in a 2004 episode.

Still, I can’t be the only one who had trouble “seeing her”. Her movie career had had a couple of mild peaks at best, but had never ever really taken off. She’d had some moderately good roles and shots, but she was never able to break through to the other side, although she continued to work (especially in television) pretty much all her life.

Bergen with Woody Allen and Andy Williams on The Andy Williams Show, 1965

I think I have the key, though. Bergen was more an entertainer than an actress. Don’t get me wrong — her acting performances are fine, but with some exposure to the full performer, you can see that she reigned herself in as an actress. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Bergen began singing professionally as a teenager in the big band era, on the radio and with local orchestras. She cut ten record albums in the 50s and 60s (a couple of them charted), and for one season (1957) she starred in her own NBC tv variety show The Polly Bergen Show, on which every week she sang her closing theme song “The Party’s Over”. It is worth noting that show won an Emmy for her 1958 performance as the title character — sad, smoky, cabaret singer — in the tv movie The Helen Morgan Story. At any rate, to see the full firecracker in action, go to Youtube. Lots of clips of Polly the Performer there. She was also a popular panelist on What’s My Line? for  couple of years. Singing and cutting up in patter is what she did best. Ain’t nothin’ wrong ’bout that.

For everything you need to to know about early show business, including cabaret and tv variety performers like Polly Bergen, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Gertrude Niesen: Singer, Comedienne, Wrecker of Mansions

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2017 by travsd

Singer, actress and comedienne Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975) was born on this day.

Niesen started out as a child performer in vaudeville. She was trained for opera, but became a pop singer in big bands, in films, on radio and records, and was cast in the occasional Broadway show. Half Swedish, Half Russian, her exotic, vaguely “Eastern” beauty added to her appeal.

I became aware of her from her 1932 Vitaphone short Yacht Party, in which she sang with Roger Wolfe Kahn and his Orchestra, and Artie Shaw. 

In 1933, she became the first person to record the Kern-Harbach standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from the musical Roberta. Often referred to as a “torch singer”, she was prized for her comic ability as much as her singing. She was a frequent radio guest throughout the 1930s and 40s on the shows of such stars as Rudy Vallee, Edgar Bergen and others.

With vaudeville all but wound down, in the early 30s one finds her performing in the big presentation houses that largely replaced it, like Loew’s State in NYC, the Orpheum in Los Angeles, or the various RKO houses.  She was on the bill at Radio City Music Hall’s Inaugural Spectacular in 1932. Broadway shows included the Lew Brown revue Calling All Stars (1934-1935), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and the biggest hit of her career, Harry Delmar’s Follow the Girls (1944-1946), in which she played a burlesque queen named Bubbles Lamarr. Co-starring Jackie Gleason, Follow the Girls played over 800 performances on Broadway, then went on tour. Niesen’s show stopping number was “I Wanna Get Married”.

Niesen appeared in a dozen films between 1932 and 1948, usually playing some version of herself singing in a night club. The last two are probably best known today: This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, and The Babe Ruth Story (1948) with William Bendix. She also co-wrote the song “I Want to Make with the Happy Times, which was used in A Night at Earl Carroll’s (1940).

In the 1941 she became the owner of the Newport mansion Rosecliff, estimated to have been worth $2.5 million at the time but purchased by Niesen’s mother as a birthday present for $17,000 at auction. The Depression and wartime combined to make upkeep very problematic, which is how the family managed to acquire it for such a low price in the first place, and indirectly why they sold it off soon thereafter. In March 1942, with no caretaker having been hired for the winter, all the pipes froze and burst, flooding the house with lakes and waterfalls which in turn froze into great, thick sheets of ice. The Niesens resold the house not long after that. Both the purchase and the damage received national publicity.

In 1950, she starred in the west coast production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, taking the Carol Channing role. She also did lots of tv variety in the early days of television, singing on the programs of Ed Wynn, Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Paul Whiteman, and others. Her last tv credit is in 1951. The last recordings I can find from her are from 1953.

Last record

In 1943, Niesen married Chicago nightclub owner Al Greenfield, owner of The Black Orchid and other establishments. The couple were divorced but remarried in 1954, remaining married until Niesen’s death in 1975. Her death notices all mention a “long illness”. Given that her last professional activity seems to have happened around 1953, and that Greenfield sold The Black Orchid in 1956, reportedly to be with her, one speculates the illness, whatever it was, was very long.

For more on vaudeville, including performers like Gertrude Niesen, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

Gertrude Lawrence: So Close But Yet So Far

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2017 by travsd

gertrude-lawrence-08

Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) was born on the Fourth of July. She is a frustrating figure for the show biz buff. She may well be the latest (most recent) star of her stature to be so out of reach to contemporary audiences. She is of the modern age, but did very little film, television, or radio, and died comparatively young. It adds up to a legend that happened within the living memory of the older people in our lives but which we have little access to. Other than mentions in books, I discovered her chiefly through the 1968 bio-pic Julie Andrews made about her called Star! based on her own memoir A Star Danced. 

The daughter of a professional stage singer, Lawrence began her own career when she was only a child of ten, performing in a Christmas pantomime and the London version of Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle (1912), among other early productions. In 1920, she performed a music hall act with singer Walter Williams. She met Noel Coward when they were only teenagers, a lifelong friendship that later resulted in some of her most legendary stage appearances (London Calling! [1923]; Private Lives [1930]; Tonight at 8:30 [1935]). She was only 18 when she was hired by Andre Charlot to be Beatrice Lillie’s understudy. She would later star in several editions of Charlot’s revues herself, which allowed her to become a major figure of Broadway as well as the West End. This led to the Broadway hit, Oh, Kay! (1926) in which she co-starred with Victor Moore, with music by the Gershwins and book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. She sang the show-stopper “Someone to Watch Over Me”, which became a signature song for her. In 1928 she was teamed with Clifton Webb and Walter Catlett for Treasure Girl, also with songs by the Gershwins, and in which she sang “(I’ve Got a) Crush on You”.

In 1929, she made the first of her nine films, The Battle of Paris, filmed at Paramount’s Astoria studios, directed by Robert Florey and co-starring Charles Ruggles and Arthur Treacher. Other notable pictures included Rembrandt (1936) with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester; and her heavily panned appearance as Amanda, the mother in Tennessee Williams Glass Menagerie (1950).

Other notable stage productions included a Broadway revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1945), and a West End appearance in September Tide (1948), which Daphne Du Maurier had written especially for her, and during the production of which the two became close friends. She was appearing as the original Anna in The King and I when she was felled by an illness that proved to be advanced liver and abdominal cancer, which took her at age 54.

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

 

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.

 

 

Leo Dryden: The Kipling of the Halls, Correspondent in Chaplin Break-Up

Posted in British Music Hall, Movies, Silent Film, Singers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2017 by travsd

Born this day: Music Hall star Leo Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, 1863-1939).

Dryden was quite a well known performer in his day, nicknamed “The Kipling of the Halls” on account of his repertoire of patriotic and sentimental ballads. There is also an extant cylinder recording of him singing his most popular song “The Miner’s Dream of Home” which he recorded in 1898. It has been used on the soundtracks of several films including The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947) and The Entertainer (1960). He also appeared in one silent movie The Lady of the Lake (1928).

Dryden would be pretty well known to music hall buffs to this day, but nowadays he’s best known for something else: breaking up Charlie Chaplin’s parents. While Chaplin was a small boy and his father Charles Chaplin Sr, a music hall performer himself, was out on the road, Chaplin’s mother Lily Harley had an affair with Dryden, resulting in a baby: Wheeler Dryden. Chaplin Sr. was a rake and a drunkard himself so he was probably only too glad for an excuse to be rid of his responsibilities; he left his wife and child. Dryden also took his own son away from Harley, and raised him himself. And Chaplin’s mother went slowly crazy. In later years, Wheeler Dryden looked up his famous half-brother and went to work for him. Meanwhile, with music hall dying out, Leo Dryden was out of work and was eventually reduced to singing for coppers in the streets — pretty much like something out of one of his own songs.

To find out more about vaudeville and music hall history and performers like Leo Dryden consult 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 silent comedy and the Chaplin family 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

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