100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #66.

Fats Waller & Morris’ Hot Babies
66. Fats Waller & Morris
Hot Babies, “Red Hot Dan”
(Sidney Easton)
Victor 21127B, 1927 · mp3
One of the entertainment giants of the Jazz Age — extending that age past the barrier of the Depression into the age which saw jazz as its most natural and exciting pop vernacular — Fats Waller was among a handful of legendary stride pianists before he was eighteen years old, when James P. Johnson secured him his first recording contract. And he recorded lavishly during the 1920s, both as a soloist and accompanying anyone who’d have him, which was nearly everyone who was anyone in hot music. Well-versed in Bach, he was virtually the only person to ever make a pipe organ a jazz instrument — especially difficult when playing accompaniment, as there is a delay of a few seconds between pressing the keys and the sound emerging, not to mention the impossibility of making it swing like a piano. Waller alternated between stride piano and hopped-up organ music on both his solo discs and his accompaniment sessions, and even made a handful of discs playing hot church organ with a jazz band led by Thomas Morris, a New York trumpeter with a checkered biography, recorded in an actual church, which makes the recordings acoustically rich in ways unusual for the decade. This number was Waller’s vocal debut — though he wouldn’t really take off as a singer until the 1930s — but the brief scatting solo he takes is Fats in a bottle: energetic, hilarious, harmonically astute, he always sounded like Louis Armstrong on barbiturates. (And his lyricless vocalizations provided a model for two other jazz greats who found it hard to keep silent while playing hard, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.) There may be a few too many false endings on this song for true canonization (real jazzheads are picky about that kind of thing), but its energy and unflagging good cheer make it impossible not to love.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #68-67.

Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five
68. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, “Heebie Jeebies”
(Boyd Atkins)
Okeh 8300A, 1925 · mp3
Enshrined in thousands of hand-me-down histories as the first scatting on record when Louis Armstrong’s sheet music fluttered off the stand and he kept singing anyway, “Heebie Jeebies” is of course nothing of the sort. For one thing, improvisational wordless singing is as old as time; there’s a tradition of it in every culture, from griots to qawwals. But more to the point, skee-diddley-bopping had been done for years on pop, vaudeville, and comedy records: a common vaudeville act was the gentleman (or lady) with the “trick voice,” i.e. people who used their voices like instruments, playing solos with it in the middle of a number. So it’s not scatting that Mr. Armstrong is introducing here; it’s something less easy to define, an approach to the lyrics that can be seen as either being cavalier or having fun, dropping lines, catching up to them, throwing in vocal interjections and asides, ignoring the meter and rhythm on the page. Not only the vocal line then, but even the lyrics are given the air of improvisation — and since Armstrong never sang the same song the same way twice, they were semi-improvised, just like his trumpet solos. It’s the recorded birth of twentieth-century singing: gospel singing, soul singing, rock singing, freestyle rapping . (Not the real birth; that’s lost to the ages, if indeed it ever had a birth and didn’t just exist alongside the stuffed shirts that made it into the history books). Armstrong goosed American vocals, making them loosen up and start to take liberties. It’s the beginning of pop as we know it and the end (an end, anyway) of art song, which is always tied to the page. And as a special indulgence to my particular obsessions, the title comes from a comic strip: Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google invented the phrase.

Blind Lemon Jefferson
67. Blind Lemon Jefferson, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”
Paramount 20074, 1928 · mp3
Lemon Jefferson (his real name, and not an uncommon one at that) was very nearly the first bluesman on record. Bluesman, that is, as we understand the term today: a black man from the rural South with a guitar who sang almost entirely in the blues mode. Blind from birth and raised in East Texas, he taught himself to play guitar in a curious, hesitant fashion that doesn’t always match up with his vocal ryhthms but was extremely influential in one of the many journeys that led from the blues to rock & roll. Though he was a top-selling recording artist, little is known about him, and the accounts of his contemporaries vary considerably (some even insist he wasn’t really blind). He was sent to Chicago to record his initial material, and ran across many of the names which have and will populate this list while there; but he also travelled quite a bit in the South, with the result that his music sounded like it was from no one place in particular, giving his best songs a hauntingly universal appeal. On record, he frequently used the pseudonym of Deacon L. J. Bates for material that he considered more religious in nature, and this song was initially issued under that name. Although it mentions church bells tolling (and he stops the song to imitate their sound, in one of the decade’s great pop moments), it’s concerned not with the afterlife but with the funerary arrangements of the singer, the last fragment of connection any individual personality has with the material world. It was certainly his greatest song, and proved universal enough that a young Minnesotan folksinger covered it on his debut album in 1962, giving it a place of honor as the last track on the album, and so the great river of song rolls on.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #69.

Bert Williams
69. Bert Williams, “Brother Low Down”

(Al Bernard/Samuel Briers)
Columbia A-3508, 1921 · mp3
One of the more bizarre effects of minstrelsy upon the national psyche is that when black people were finally allowed on stage after the Civil War, they had to black up: white audiences could not recognize actual African-American faces as “black” without burnt cork and huge painted-on red lips. Bert Williams, born in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and raised in New York City and California, was an educated, dignified man with a philosophical bent who would have been an engineer except that he was really, really good at comedy. (The notoriously abrasive W. C. Fields stood in awe of him till the day of his own death.) Given the limited options available to him, that meant blackface comedy. He teamed up with the flashy, fast-talking George Walker, and together they barnstormed the 1890s, starring in hit show after hit show on Broadway, and even appearing in a command performance at Buckingham Palace. Walker died of syphillis in 1911, but Williams had already become a solo recording star with records that only barely glanced at his race: his put-upon, can’t-win protagonist could have been any hard-luck case, and his slow, hilariously involved reactions anticipated figures like Bill Cosby in both performance style and mainstream acceptance. He didn’t sing jazz, or even ragtime; he barely sang at all, sprechgesang-ing his way through comic portraits backed up by session men who, like the Nashville band on Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” could play pretty dumb if they put their minds to it. One of his last recordings, “Brother Low Down” is a minstrel stereotype, the itinerant preacher who embezzles from church funds, cops feels from the church ladies, and keeps a flask behind the pulpit. It’s Williams’ good-natured, sympathetic performance that puts it over, going for a humanist portrait instead of the cheap laughs that white minstrel Al Bernard had written. Williams was one of the biggest stars in the world by this time, a headliner on the Ziegfeld Follies for a decade, of whom, when his white co-stars had protested sharing a stage with a black man in 1910, Florenz Ziegfeld had said, “I can replace every one of you but him.” But in 1921, he only had a year left: he would collapse on a Detroit stage, getting laughter from folks who thought it was part of the act. “The funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew,” said Fields.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #70.

Walter Pidgeon
70. Walter Pidgeon, “What’ll I Do?”
(Irving Berlin)
Bb 4896, 1924 · mp3
The magnitude and influence of Irving Berlin (pictured) on American music can scarcely be overemphasized. Best known today as the writer of sentimental WWII-era favorites like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas,” the kid born Israel Isadore Baline in the waning days of the Russian Empire was the first modern American songwriter, which is to say the first modern songwriter. Stephen Foster produced timeless ditties, but for a market and to express sentiments that are alien to us, and for the most part alien to him; Berlin wrote what he knew, and never wrote anything else. At ease with the colorful, prodigious American vernacular — both musical and linguistic — he wrote in every style imaginable, because like everyone else, he was subject to every mood imaginable. He wrote “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” for the troops in WWI because he did, he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because he was smitten with ragtime, he wrote “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” because he was working for Ziegfeld, and he wrote “What’ll I Do?,” a parlor song with Russian-novel levels of despair, because he was romantically lonely. The key to the song hinges on the fact that a vernacular phrase like “what’ll” is injected into an otherwise decorous form, and the music follows; when midwestern heiress Ellin Mackay, seated next to him at a dinner party, expressed fondness for his song “What Will I Do” (like something out of some Capra class-distinction comedy), he pursued her, married her in the face of her father’s objections, and wrote “Always,” a banal song of eternal devotion that was his biggest hit until the aforementioned sentimental WWII-era blockbusters. Walter Pidgeon was a Canadian-born actor and singer who recorded this song in England (though the overly-mannered style of singing was all his), and went on to become a slightly stuffy Hollywood actor; it’s apparently the first recorded version of the song.

100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #71.

Ida Cox
71. Ida Cox, acc. Lovie Austin & Her Blues Serenaders, “Blues Ain’t Nothin’ Else But!”

(Ida Cox/J. Mayo Wiliams)
Paramount 12212, 1924 · mp3
The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good woman feelin’ bad. That’s not a description that, say, Stevie Ray Vaughn fans would recognize, but it was true enough in 1924 that when, five years later, a wave of men began to record music inspired by the blues, some not-terribly-attentive critics protested the emasculation of pop music. (True as I’m standing here. They called them the crooners back then; but that’s a story for another time.) Ida Cox hailed from Georgia, and had the usual resumé: church choirs as a child, minstrel shows as an adolescent, headlining black vaudeville as a young woman. Unusually, she also had a career after the Depression, appearing at John Hammond’s 1939 Spirituals to Swing celebration of black music at Carnegie Hall, and even recorded with Coleman Hawkins as late as 1961. But the truly fascinating one is her accompanist: Lovie Austin was a flamboyant pianist who was the musical director at the T.O.B.A. stop in Chicago and recorded with virtually anyone who was anyone in the world of early blues and jazz. She wrote Bessie Smith’s debut smash “Downhearted Blues,” and used many classic jazz players in her Blues Serenaders group. And she was the primary inspiration for boogie-woogie empress (and probably the most prominent female musician ever in jazz) Mary Lou Williams, who recalled watching her play with one hand and compose with the other. This song’s incipient feminism — the blues is described as something not only sung by women, but inherent to the female condition, the inevitable result of masculine love-em-and-leave-em oppression — might not hold much water with the Andrea Dworkins of the world — after all, Ida’s still defining women only in terms of men loved and lost — but given the power and prestige of the women involved, it’s less simplistic than the casual listener might be tempted to think.