Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

January 20, 2020

The Song, Not The Singer, in the 1920’s

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 1:24 am
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In the popular music world pre-Bing Crosby (and still true to some extent until the rise of Frank Sinatra in the 1940’s), people bought records to get the songs they enjoyed so they could hear them when they wanted to in the comfort and privacy of their homes. The singer of the song was not that important unless the record buyer was buying the disc because  they were a fan of the singer—-in which case, they’d enjoy that singer performing anything. In most cases, though, it was the song that was being sold, and any competent vocalist could sing it, and with the bewildering array of pseudonyms on records in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, particularly on budget labels, who could ever know the actual performers anyway. Also, with budget labels, or the budget and dime-store subsidiaries of major labels (such as Columbia’s “Harmony” label, the source of 3 tracks found on the album discussed here), the people in department stores (not music stores) picking up a record of a favorite song for 30 or 35 cents with leftover change from some other purchase would not especially care who was singing it, if it was competently performed. This led to an odd occurrence I’ve heard a few dozen times over the years on 20’s Dance Band records….the phenomenon of songs written for a female singer performed by a male singer who did not bother to change to pronoun, singing it as originally written. Although some might have gotten a laugh out of the irony of that back in the day, I’d bet 95% of listeners wouldn’t have cared. After all, records were not an outlet for singers doing autobiographical baring-of-the-soul on disc; in a way, they were like someone in a music store doing a “demonstration” of a song so someone would buy the sheet music of it. Would they change the pronoun? Of course not, it’s a product they are selling. They are not expressing their true feelings in song.

fred rich

I’ve commented on this phenomenon to family and friends before, and they’ve gotten a laugh out of some of the songs, but I mention it today because as I am pulling out of my flu and trying to get caught up with the backlog of work my job requires before I return  tomorrow, I thought I’d put on a CD of snappy 1920’s Dance Band 78’s, so I dug out this 25 year old collection of 1929-1930 sessions under the baton of Columbia head of recording Fred Rich, many of which feature vocals by that great Texan SMITH BALLEW (1902-1984). He and his brother had both been involved, in differing degrees, with the seminal 1920’s Texas jazz group JIMMIE’S  JOYS (there is a fine Jazz Oracle CD documenting their body of work, circa 1923-1928–see pic at bottom). Also, Mary Anne will be a happy to learn that Ballew was a UT man!


So you get to hear the male vocal group The Rollickers sing about how “He’s So Unusual” (their man, that is) and Smith Ballew croon the Gershwin classic “I Got Rhythm” with its original woman wanting “my man” lyrics. Ballew does a tidy, swinging and satisfying version of the tune, and I wouldn’t have noticed it myself except that I’d wanted to comment on this phenomenon at some point, and hearing two (I think there was even a third on this album!) examples at once set me off.

I’m surprised no one has done a collection of this kind of thing–all you’d need is a dozen or so examples and it would make an entertaining compilation that many would enjoy, albeit on a campy level.

And since I’ve been including You Tube links in so many of my recent posts, why not another….. here’s that hot version of “I Got Rhythm,” sung by Smith Ballew, and featuring such great jazz players in the band as Joe Venuti (amazing here!), Eddie Lang, Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey, and Tony Parenti! Recorded 29 October 1930.


smith 2

Smith Ballew eventually moved into films and has 18 credits as an actor on the IMDB. He was also in the unreleased 1930’s footage that was eventually cobbled together with other old and new footage into the 1949 mind-bending patchwork film GUN CARGO (in which he sings a song!).

He eventually retired to his home state and passed away here in Texas in 1984. I always enjoy his work on record and on the screen. He should be better remembered today, but alas, the 1920’s, when he first made his mark, are now 100 years distant.


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