200 Great Records Of The 1920s, #79.

Ted Lewis
79. Ted Lewis & His Orchestra, “Is Everybody Happy Now?”
(Maurice Rubens/Jack Osterman/Ted Lewis)
Columbia 1207D, 1927 · mp3
Ah, vaudeville. I’d argue that any real affection for the music of the 1920s is impossible without an understanding of and affection for vaudeville. Which is hard to do, of course: vaudeville is dead, has been dead for nearly eighty years, killed off by the Depression and talkies. Names that are unfamiliar today — Julian Eltinge, Blossom Seeley, Joe Frisco — were major attractions both in the sticks and on the high-class Keith-Albee circuit, names in lights, everything. We’ll be talking more about vaudeville as we head on down the list, but perhaps the best-known representation of its show-biz desperation are the Warner Brothers shorts where Daffy and Bugs try to one-up each other with increasingly impossible acts. (Daffy, having killed himself on stage to riotous applause: “Yeah, but I can only do it once” is an old vaudeville joke in itself.) Ted Lewis came up through vaudeville as a bizarre, riotous clarinet player with a line of snappy patter that included his catchphrase (everyone who was anyone on the road had a catchphrase), “Is everybody happy?” (The large-scale idolization of happiness in general during the decade is another essay in itself; but the irresponsibility of its pursuit is what made the twenties roar.) It turned out that what he was playing was jazz, or analogous to jazz anyway — nobody really looked that closely in those days — and in the 1920s he became the second-biggest white jazz act, and was plenty hotter than the biggest, Paul Whiteman, too. His light, improvisational tenor and undisciplined, birdlike clarinet remain his most attractive features, and though he was as nothing compared to real black jazz, his band made decent pop which was pushed over the edge into great pop by the force of his top-hatted, loose-limbed personality.

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