Actor John Dye passed away Monday. He starred in the TV show “Touched By An Angel” with Della Reese. First and foremost, RIP Mr. Dye.
I just realized we d0n’t have any Della Reese on this blog! Della got her start in 1944 at age 13 singing with Mahalia Jackson‘s gospel group. She signed with her first record label in 1953 and in 1960 she earned her first Grammy nomination for her album “Della.” She added acting to her impressive resume in 1956 and in 1969 she became the first African-American woman to host her own talk show. Here she is in a groovy Scopitone all about heaven and angels. It was made three decades before she starred in the series “Touched By An Angel.” Coincidence? Yes, of course it is but it’s still a pretty fun one. Plus, it’s a soundie!
I never watched “Touched By An Angel” because I am a heathen. To be more precise, even though I’m not a person of faith myself, I believe nearly all major religions and belief systems have something important to teach us. Yes, even astrology. Even with the new change in signs it’s still totally valid. I used to be a Cancer which meant I was domestic, nurturing, intuitive, and emotional. Which, omigawd, sounds just like me! Now I’m a Gemini which means I’m lively, charming, and a great conversationalist which, omigawd, sounds just like me! I checked and I’m a total Taurus, Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, and Capricorn too so if they ever have to move us again I’m probably safe. If they bump me to Sagittarius though I’ll know it’s all bogus. Optimistic, independent, and philosophical indeed… oh no wait, omigawd, that totally sounds just like me!
Have I mentioned how much I love soundies? Okay fine, but have I mentioned it today? This one is from 1942 and it features singer-dancers Marie Bryant and Paul White performing the song “Bli-Blip.” It was written by Duke Ellington and Sid Kuller for the musical review “Jump For Joy” which was aimed at breaking down African-American racial stereotypes which were prevalent in the entertainment industry at the time. Bryant and White starred in the show.
I checked the internet to see if restaurants with singing waitstaff exist any more. It turns out there is a place in Studio City, CA called Vitello’s Italian Restaurant where they do still sing! It’s mostly showtunes apparently so I’m not sure if they swing. They do have live jazz there though so that’s bound to count for something. I guess the one drawback to the place is that most customer reviews say the food is awful. My favorite quote was ” it’s Chef Boyardee nasty!” Perhaps it’s a good thing that most restaurants aren’t quite as musical these days. I guess at some point in our recent past we, as a nation cried out “more service, less swing!” Now our restaurant music may be canned but at least our ravioli isn’t.
I thought I’d play “Tampico” today which is a song I first heard on the Crystal Telephone radio podcast a few weeks ago. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that You Tube has the soundie! Here’s Stan Kenton and his Orchestra with June Christy in living black and white.
My how times have changed since 1945! Back then when we went to war after an attack on American soil we actually won. No one in the movies was allowed to even hint that sex existed and yet that generation went on to make enough babies to completely crush our Social Security system. Now this song tells us that people used to travel to Mexico to buy cheap, shoddy souvenirs made in the USA! If it wasn’t for the pesky little problems of rampant racism and sexism, I’d build a time machine and start selling vacations to our glorious past immediately. I’d market it as ” Bizarro World Holidays” and I’d make a fortune!
Long before music videos completely disappeared from MTV’s line-up and even before Debbie Reynolds’ unholy hammer swinging alliance with Scopitone, there were the soundies. Soundies were a series of (mostly) musical short films made to be played on Panoram visual jukeboxes. More than 1800 were released between 1940 and 1947 and if you love them as much as I do, you can view many of them on archive.org.
“C Jam Blues,” the song featured in this 1942 soundie, was written by Ellington and recorded during what is known as the band’s Blanton-Webster period. Double bassist Jimmy Blanton and saxophonist Ben Webster were only in The Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1940-1942 but many people call those two years the orchestra’s golden age. This film names almost every musician individually which was almost unheard of at the time but these men were all famous enough to warrant it. Sadly, the unnamed bassist featured in this video is not Blanton. He was probably either very ill or already dead by the time this was filmed. He contracted tuberculosis and died in July of 1942. He was 23. Ben Webster left the band the following year. Apparently there was an ugly fight where Webster cut up one of Ellington’s suits! (So says Wikipedia with a cautious  thereafter)
I posted on Facebook today that my daughter cannot tell the difference between Batman and Spiderman which makes me a failure as a nerd mom. BUT today we went to see “Toy Story 3” finally and she turned up her nose at the hip-hop tunes they were playing before the show. When we got home and I cranked up “C Jam Blues” she said “Oh cool I love this song!” So as a jazz loving mom, it appears I’m doing something right! I shall end now and carefully omit the part where I confess that she also really really loves the song “Achy Breaky Heart.” *sigh* I have got to get this child out of “Mayberry!”
Saxaphonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmy Blanton both played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra during the period between 1940-1942. Most critics call these years “the golden era” for the orchestra. The video is a 1942 soundie of “C Jam Blues.” The bassist is uncredited in this video. He’s hard to see but I doubt it’s Blanton who died of tuberculosis in July of that year.
I love Ellington’s soundies! I love soundies in general but he made some particularly fine ones. Duke Ellington also did quite a few feature films. He was in “Cabin In The Sky” with Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Lena Horne to name a few. I haven’t seen it in years but I remember it being full of the stereotypes you expect from a movie of that era. But it also had some fantastic performances by an amazing all star cast. Now that I’ve been reminded of it, I think I’ll buy that one along with “Stormy Weather” which I love and which was released the same year.
Ethel Waters is also in that little clip of young Sammy Davis I put up a few posts ago. While I was reading up on Duke I took a bit of a tangent to locate the source of that clip. It’s from a 1933 short film called “Rufus Jones For President.” In it Sammy plays Rufus, a young boy who falls asleep and dreams he is president. That tap numer you see is his first act in office. I watched this one last night and all I could say was “wow!” Mainstream Hollywood movies of this era almost always contain offensive stereotypes but… “WOW!” This thing is hilariously offensive. They actually appoint ministers of fried chicken and watermelon and then it REALLY gets rude! The only non-insulting moments in the whole thing are the musical numbers. During the height of the civil rights movement people used to get really angry about the stereotypes perpetuated in films like this one. Personally I think in 1933 when many Americans were out of work and struggling, a cast of 20 or so Black actors and heaven knows how many crew members got to take home a paycheck. They created a film that features 3 great Ethel Waters songs and a song and dance by young Sammy Davis who, at that point, had already been working in show business more than half his life. If I ever find this one on DVD I will pick it up too for the great music and for the historical significance.
PS I may get disbarred from the Fraternal Order Of Black People for saying this, but a lot of Black people, myself included, really do enjoy fried chicken and watermelon. Sue me for spilling the secret but that’s just dang good eatin’ right there!