THE TOP RECORDING ARTIST PRIOR TO THE DEPRESSION

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Billy Murray is unknown to the majority of Americans,

including those professing to know something about popular

music. Therefore, it is understandable that Murray would

receive few votes in any poll attempting to name the twentieth

century's most influential entertainers. After all, his career was

effectively over by the time of the stock market crash of

1929. Moreover, there has never been any concerted

effort to revive his recordings since the period of his peak

popularity. Even during the time when he was a highly

successful artist, between 1903-1927 (the span when his

recordings were recognized to be best sellers), his name

was curiously absent from the mainstream mass media as well

as most entertainment publications.

But one of the greatest entertainers in this century he

was. Murray's influence was centered within the recording

industry; his impact manifested itself from a wide variety

of perspectives. During an era dominated by a formal,

operatically-influenced style of singing, he was a pivotal

figure in ushering in a more natural approach, especially

through the witty interplay of his duets with Ada Jones.

The utilization of many dialogue-like features lead some

contemporary observers such as singer William Robyn to

wrongly dismiss Murray as a "talker."

It is notable that Victor, the company with which Murray

is most closely identified, referred to him primarily as

a comedian. The accomplishments of such notables as Cal,

Stewart, Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan, Billy Jones

and Ernest Hare (The Happiness Boys), Spike Jones, Ray

Stevens, and Al Yankovic notwithstanding, Murray left a

greater body of comedy recordings than any other artist in

the history of the medium. Like all great comedians, he

often transcended his material through his mastery of dialect,

nuance, and characterization. His range in the interpretation

of humorous material was awesome. Whereas most comedians

tended to focus on one subcategory such as satire or nonsense

verse, Murray's body of recorded work suggested a talent for

all comic forms (see: Figure 1).

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FIGURE 1: A REPRESENTATIVE LIST OF BILLY MURRAY RECORDINGS

CLASSIFIED BY HUMOR GENRES

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Allegory

The War In Snider's Grocery Store (1914)

Black Humor

Some Little Bug Is Going To Find You (1915)

Blue Humor/Double Entendre

Hinky Dinky Parley Voo (1924)

If You Talk In Your Sleep Don't Mention My Name (1912)

You've Got To See Mama Ev'ry Night (Or You Can't See Mama At All) (1923)

Caricature

He's A Devil In His Own Home Town (1914)

They Start The Victrola (And Go Dancing Around The Floor) (1914)

This Is The Life (1914)

Comic Sketches

At The Village Post Office (1907)

An Evening At Mrs. Clancy's Boarding House (1907)

Ethnic/Racial Humor

Hi Lee Hi Lo (1923)

Indianola (1918)

The Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago (1942)

That Tango Tokio (1913)

When Tony Goes Over The Top (1919)

Nonsense Verse

Can You Tame Wild Wimmen? (1920)

Humpty Dumpty (1922)

Story Book Ball (1918)

What Does the Pussycat Mean When She Says "Me-ow"? (1923)

Whistle It (1907)

Yes, We Have No Bananas (1923)

Nut Songs

My Little 'Rang Outang (1903)

Up In A Cocoanut Tree (1903)

Parody

Africa (1924)

I'm Looking For The Man That Wrote The

Merry Widow Waltz (1908)

K-K-K-Katy (1918)

My Cousin Caruso (1909)

Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night? (1916)

Rube Sketches (See: Comic Sketches)

Satire

He Goes To Church On Sunday (1907)

In The Old Town Hall (1920)

My Old New Jersey Home (1920)

Over On The Jersey Side (1909)

Situational Comedy

Any Ice Today, Lady? (1923)

Do You Take This Woman For Your Lawful Wife? (1914)

Don't Bring Lulu (1925)

Everybody Works But Father (1905)

He Went In Like A Lion And Came Out Like A Lamb (1920)

I Don't Like Your Family (1907)

I Love Me (1921)

I'm Afraid To Come Home In The Dark (1907)

I've Got My Captain Working For Me Now (1919)

If War Is What Sherman Said It Was (1915)

Keep Your Skirts Down, Mary Ann (1926)

Topical Humor

The Alcoholic Blues (1919)

He'd Have To Get Under--Get Out And Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile) (1914)

I Think I Oughtn't Auto Any More (1907)

The Little Ford Rambled Right Along (1915)

On The 5:15 (1915)

Take Your Girlie To The Movies (If You Can't Make Love At Home) (1919)

They Were All Out Of Step But Jim (1918)

Wait Till You Get Them Up In The Air, Boys (1920)

Word Play

And He'd Say Oo-La-La! Wee Wee! (1919)

Fido Is A Hot Dog Now (1915)

Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts For Soldiers (1918)

The Whole Damm Family (1907)

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Murray was far more than a brilliant comedian, though;

he was an incredibly versatile artist who was comfortable

working within a variety of styles. His career was a testament

to the fact that a multi-faceted recording artist could thrive

without being compartmentalized. Murray's contemporaries were

not always successful in avoiding the pigeon-holes provided

for them by the record companies. Henry Burr and Harry

Macdonough--the artists whose record sales came closest to

equalling Murray's during the first two decades of the

century--felt the need to change their names (from Harry

McClaskey and John Scantlebury Macdonald, respectively) as

well as to specialize in ballads and sentimental fare. Collins

and Harlan were identified almost exclusively with coon songs

and novelty items. Virtuoso instrumentalists were channeled

into playing seemingly endless rounds of either short bravura

pieces (e.g., violinist Charles D'Almaine) or time-tested

minstrel fare (e.g., banjo players Vess Ossman and Fred Van

Eps). Even the industrious and well-connected Len Spencer

found it hard to shake the label of rube impersonator for the

remainder of his career after the hitherto unprecedented success

of his comic sketch, "The Arkansaw Traveler."

Murray's career, however, served to shatter such precedents.

After starting out as an interpreter of the sentimental ballads,

vaudeville comedy, and novelty items popular at the time, he

kept on top singing ragtime and other dance numbers. Despite

some diminution of his popularity following World War I, he

adapted well to jazz and band-oriented numbers from a

stylistic point of view. Murray was still regarded highly

enough that the majority of American record companies

attempted to get him into the studio after the electronic

recording process was implemented beginning in mid-1925.

The new technology helped bring into vogue a softer, crooning

form of delivery. Murray was able to adjust yet again to

this new style, despite mixed results at the outset. During

the Great Depression his recorded output consisted largely

of spoken dialogue to children's stories and film cartoons.

He managed a singing comeback in the early 1940s, however,

concentrating this time on Irish numbers which steered clear

of the schlocky approach typifying the output of many other

practitioners within this genre.

But above all else, Murray was born to legitimize the

acoustical sound process which employed recording horns rather

than the electronic microphone. He was endowed with a

particular set of qualities--powerful lungs which enabled him

to project his voice to maximum effect, excellent intonation,

the bility to sing long phrases in rapid-fire material without

taking a breath, and an unerring sense for mastering the

basics of a song prior to the first take--which made him a

virtuoso in that setting. His ability to cut clean, vibrant

records gave that fledging industry the credibility--and sales

impact--necessary to carry it to the next technological phase;

i.e., electronic sound reproduction.

Perhaps of greatest importance to the recording industry,

Murray was one of the first artists--and certainly the most

successful of this group--to focus his energies on the studio

environment. Whereas many of his contemporaries concentrated

on live performance venues such as vaudeville and opera as well

as other professions (e.g., artist management, executive slots

with record companies, politics, education), Murray made a

living largely from the accumulated receipts of his recording

sessions. He considered himself a professional recording

artist, a significant point in an era when such work was

not widely respected. Even many of the recording artists

of that era had reservations about the aesthetic value of the

medium. Concerning the liberties taken by record companies

at the outset of his career, Harry Macdonough commented,

"That didn't matter, because I was completely

indifferent to what they called me. I thought

then that record-making was a sort of lowdown

business, anyway."

Sammy Herman, a xylaphonist who performed with Murray

and Burr as part of the Victor Eight during the mid-1920s,

had negative feelings upon hearing the results of his first

recording for Clear Tone, recalling, "It didn't sound the way

I expected it to sound. I didn't like it."

While a measure of this ill repute was a result of the

poor sound reproduction characterizing pioneer era records

and cylinders, certain artists were simply endowed with poor

recording voices. Sophie Tucker's reaction upon hearing her

first takes represented evidence that sensational live

performers did not always translate well to the studio (as

well as justifying the existence of a cadre of professional

record makers who possessed the voices, diction, and

techniques necessary to produced good records):

"I made the songs "The Lovin' Rag" and "That

Lovin' Two-Step Man." I worked a whole morning

on them. When I heard the playback I turned to

the boys and let out a yell: ‘My Gad, I sound

like a foghorn!’ I was terrible."

Classical music artists held similar reservations about

the new industry. Arturo Toscanini, the most famous conductor

of the first half of the twentieth century, spent little time in

the studio prior to the 1930s. He only began recording heavily

when he was convinced that the technology was sufficiently

advanced to permit reasonably decent sound reproduction

and he given complete control over the process. Caruso,

whose name is virtually synonymous with early recording,

also became involved with extreme misgivings, remaining

highly selective regarding his sessions right up to his

death.

Murray also deserves credit for his role in either

introducing or popularizing countless pop music standards,

including the more notable compositions of the leading

American songwriters of that era such as Irving Berlin,

George M. Cohan, and the von Tilzer brothers, Al and Harry.

The monographs and reference sources available to the

present generation tend to emphasize the role played by

Broadway and other stage performers in putting across a

song to the public. However, few Americans of that day

had the opportunity to take in a stage show featuring the

leading performing artists unless they were financially

well off and resided near the cultural centers generally

located on the Eastern seaboard (e.g., Boston, New York,

Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.). But many rank-and-file

Americans did own cylinder players and Victrolas. Popular

recordings, sold in a wide variety of retail outlets

honeycombing the nation as well as via mail order, often

sold millions of units at a time when radio and television

were not available in the home. Murray and his chief rivals

were household names on a par with sport celebrities like Babe

Ruth and movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin. Composers worked

hard to get their material recorded by these artists; in turn,

their interpretations became the ones most widely imprinted in

the American mind. It was no accident that Warren Beatty

included the American Quartet's rendition of "Oh, You Beautiful

Doll" as part of the aural backdrop to a social gathering of

intellectuals at home during the World War I era in his film,

Reds.

The roll call of song classics Murray made his own is a

lengthy one, including

--Alexander's Ragtime Band

--By The Beautiful Sea

--By the Light of the Silvery Moon

--Casey Jones

--Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine

--Everything Is Peaches Down In Georgia

--For Me And My Gal

--Give My Regards To Broadway

--The Grand Old Rag (Flag)

--If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)

--In My Merry Oldsmobile

--It's A Long, Long Way To Tipperary

--Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis

--Moonlight Bay

--Oh, You Beautiful Doll

--Over There

--Pretty Baby

--Shine On, Harvest Moon

--Yankee Doodle Boy

So why is Murray's name curiously absent from most

chronicles of the music of the early part of the century?

First and foremost, it should be noted that most music

historians have exhibited a greater interest in genres

other than mainstream pop music, especially classical forms

and rural-based indigenous American forms such as country

and western and the blues. Coverage of popular music has

revealed a bias toward the performing artist in the case of

Broadway musicals and the songwriter regarding Tin Pan Alley

material.

Part of the reason behind this lack of coverage would

appear to be the result of the negative stereotyping found

in much of the era's music. Staunch advocates of political

correctness would be alienated by the ethnic slurs of songs

such as "That Tango Tokio" (Edison 2026; 1913) and "Indianola"

(Victor; 1918). Likewise, feminists would find little humor in

material like "When the Grown-Up Ladies Act Like Babies" (Victor

17678; 1915), "There's a Little Bit of Bad in Every Good Little

Girl" (Victor 18143; 1916), and "Wait Till You Get Them Up In

the Air, Boys" (Columbia 2794; 1919/20).

An even greater downside to the pre-World War I repertoire

was the popularity of the coon song. The last stage of the

minstrel song, the genre--almost always written and performed

by whites--began with songs such as "Coonville Guards" (1881),

("The Coon Dinner" (1882) and "New Coon in Town" (1883)

and peaked with Barney Fagan's "My Gal Is a Highborn Lady"

(1886) and Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me" (1886).

Hamm defined it in the following manner:

The ‘coon’ song is usually in dialect, with a

text somewhat less than complimentary to blacks.

Musically, it takes on the verse-solo form of

contemporary Tin Pan Alley song, with the chief

melodic material in the chorus, and is sung at a

lively tempo, usually with some bits of simple

syncopation. It is, in fact, nothing more or

less than a slightly deviant offspring of Tin

Pan Alley song, difficult to distinguish in

style from the classics of the ragtime song.

In addition, the recording industry has been largely ignored

in studies of early popular music. This situation is largely

due to the primitive audio properties of acoustic recordings.

the limited frequency range, preponderance of surface noise, and

other features of early recordings have severely limited the

output of reissued material in contemporary configurations such

as the compact disc. It is notable that even legendary artists

whose output reaches back to the acoustic era--e.g., Al Jolson,

Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong, and Duke

Ellington--have had their later recordings receive far greater

attention than their oftentimes superior early work. The

potential for "cleaning up" and enhancing the sound quality

of pioneer recordings via new technological advances such as

the CEDAR 2 system could eventually improve the public's

access to this material and ultimately stimulate greater

attention on the part of researchers.