The Duke, the 'Southern Syncopator' and a Mysterious Record Label from 1925
By Steven Lasker
A “comedy” vocal record by “Bert Lewis, the Southern Syncopator with piano accompaniment,” recorded acoustically and released in 1925 on the obscure Everybodys label, just may be a Duke Ellington item that’s gone undetected by jazz collectors, discographers and reissue compilers ever since.
A copy of this scarce record was offered for sale in Kurt Nauck’s most recent auction, which closed April 12, 2014. The item piqued my interest because, as will be shown, it was recorded in the spring of 1925 when Bert Lewis and Duke Ellington were both appearing nightly at the Club Kentucky, a basement cabaret and restaurant at 203 W. 49th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway in New York City. The record was listed in the auction catalog as lot “4056. Everybodys 1047 (mx SAH-1/2) Bert Lewis, the Southern Syncopator: Don’t Bring Lulu/It’s Time to Keep Away From You MB [minimum bid US$] 50 V [condition].” Happily for me, my bid was successful. I’ve now heard the record and am delighted to report my conclusion that the pianist is none other than Duke Ellington. I’m going to explain why I think that’s so, but first, let’s set the stage -- and meet Bert Lewis.
Duke Ellington began a long residency at the club on September 1, 1923, when he was playing piano with Elmer Snowden’s Washingtonians and the club was called the Hollywood. In February 1924, Snowden was forced out of the band and Ellington was elected its leader. A fire in the early morning hours of December 16, 1924 gutted the Hollywood’s interior. On February 19, 1925, after extensive remodeling, it reopened as the Club Kentucky. The singers and dancers in the initial revue at the Kentucky, who were African American, were replaced on March 18, 1925 by white entertainers with Bert Lewis, who received top billing in ads, as master of ceremonies. Lewis, a young man from Greenville, Mississippi, sang “rag numbers in telling style and clowns all over the place to his and the mob’s delight” according to a review by Abel Green (Variety, April 1, 1925, p44, reprinted in Mark Tucker’s “The Duke Ellington Reader” on p23); elsewhere on this same page (in Variety only) it was noted that “Bert Lewis is now in charge of the floor show and entertainment at the Club Kentucky.” A later review (The Billboard, December 5, 1925, p22, also quoted in Tucker’s “Reader” on p23) noted “Lewis is an adept clown, politely offensive at times, and yet the kind one finds easy to forgive. His songs are strictly of the sawdust variety, with gestures equally ‘blue,’ but it is this very hotsy-totsyness of material that sells the pudgy little man.”
Ads placed by the club in the New York Telegram and Evening Mail (research courtesy of Ken Steiner) together with reportage in Variety document that Lewis and Ellington worked together at the club from March 18 until early August 1925, when Lewis took a four-week vacation (per Variety, August 5, 1925, p36), and again from September 9 until October 22, 1925 when Ellington’s band left to take a job three blocks away at the Club Cameo (228 W. 52nd Street) from which they were fired after a single night (per Variety, November 25, 1925, p42). (According to Variety, it was “the shock of Duke’s life.”) The Club Kentucky had in the meantime replaced them with a band led by the Washingtonian’s former leader, Elmer Snowden, who apparently worked out a one-month contract, with Ellington returning on November 23, 1925. The December 5, 1925 Billboard review referenced above noted that “Duke Ellington, director, pounds the baby grand, and while he chow-meins in an adjacent eatery Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller understudies. Both lads are deserving of all the available superlatives in the English language, while it is necessary to borrow a few from the Latin to adequately extol the performance of the latter.” This is the only reference I’ve seen in the 1920s press that places Waller at the Club Kentucky. Was Waller initially hired because Lewis, spoiled by working regularly with Ellington, was dissatisfied with the pianist in Snowden’s orchestra? While that scenario would stand to reason, Fat’s son Maurice, in the 1977 book he co-authored with Anthony Calabrese (“Fats Waller,” pp56-57), offers a different account, one he says he heard from his dad, that Fats was hired as Lewis’ accompanist at a time when Ellington’s band was resident at the club. I suspect Maurice’s recounting of his father’s story was garbled in this single detail if no other.
While the only press report that found Waller working at the Kentucky dates to December 1925, Everybodys 1047 was recorded in the spring of that year. Had Waller worked at the club continuously from the spring of 1925 into December, don’t you suppose -- considering that several publications regularly reported on Bert Lewis and activities at the Kentucky -- Waller’s presence at the club would have been noted more than once in the periodicals of the day? This observation suggests Waller’s tenure at the Kentucky was likely brief. Whatever the case, the pianist on Everybodys 1047 strikes me as more likely Ellington than Waller -- or anyone else I'm familiar with – given his touch, pet licks, mastery of stride technique and sense of swing. (For anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with Ellington’s early piano style, a good place to start is at the beginning, with his earliest recordings known to survive: six sides waxed for the Blu-Disc label in November 1924 and a single side recorded circa January 1925 for Up-to-Date. While Ellington mostly comps in the background on the two sides by the Washingtonians -- all six of them -- his piano is prominent in accompaniments to vocalists Alberta Pryme [this spelling is correct], Jo. Trent, Sonny Greer and Florence Bristol.)
On December 23, 1925, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that 41 New York City night clubs and speakeasies would soon be padlocked for prohibition violations, the Club Kentucky among them. On January 4, 1926, a new revue opened at the club without Bert Lewis, and on March 22, 1926 the Kentucky closed pursuant to a court order for a period of six months. Lewis returned to work at the club from September 25 through November 7, 1926, dates when the house band was Ellington’s, but Lewis no longer worked with Ellington according to the New York Morning Telegraph (October 11, 1926, section 3p9; citation courtesy of Ken Steiner) which reported: “Jack Carroll, formerly pianist with Sophie Tucker, has been added to the revue at the Kentucky Club and assists Bert Lewis in all of his numbers.” The duo’s October 13, 1926 recordings for Gennett were labelled as by “Bert Lewis (Of Club Kentucky) Piano Acc., Jack Carroll.” Having heard two of the three sides recorded that day, I suppose we may safely exclude Carroll from the subset of pianists who might be on Everybodys 1047, because on his Gennett sides Carroll plays barrel house piano, not stride.
As much as I’d like to relate the exact date when the recordings on Everybodys 1047 were made, the event apparently went unremarked in the press, Ellington didn’t keep a diary, if Bert Lewis kept one I don’t know where to it is today, while the files of “Everybodys Record, Inc.,” which seem to have eluded discographers, are likely lost to the ages. It is believed there were 85 issues on Everybodys, numbered from 1001 to 1085. Since the song When My Sugar Walks Down the Street, first introduced in December 1924, appears on Everybodys 1006 (in a version originally recorded by Fred Weaver for the Up-to-Date label), it’s not likely the inaugural releases on Everybodys date to 1924 as some have suggested, but rather to 1925. The listing of new incorporations in the May 21, 1925 issue of the New York Times includes “Everybodys Records, realty and merchandise. J. W. Ogden, S. A. and F.B Hatem.” This nugget comes courtesy of VJM editor Mark Berresford, who also notes the 1925 New York City Directory lists “S. A. Hatem, records, 225. W. 46th Street, New York City.” (Two more nuggets from Mark: One Samuel Hatem, born November 1884 Dardanelles, Turkey, submitted a Petition for Naturalization dated April 1, 1922; a listing of new corporations in the November 12, 1923 issue of the Brooklyn Standard Union includes “Hatem Realty Corporation. Assad Hatem, D. Joseph, Matilda Khoury.”) Everybodys Record Inc. folded in late 1925. Variety (December 23, 1925, p39) reported: “Record Company Bankrupt. Everybody’s Record, Inc., has consented to a receivership on Frederick R. A. Stiefel’s complaint that the company had $12,000 in assets and but owed $6,165.19 on three notes to Stiefel and had other obligations totaling $9,000. Stiefel alleged a receiver would preserve the assets and Jacob DeHass has been accordingly appointed in $5,000 bond. Everybody’s Record, Inc. markets a popular priced disk from headquarters at 747 Southern Boulevard, [Bronx] New York.” Per Brian Rust’s “The American Record Label Book” (1978): “There seem to have been some 85 issues during the spring, summer and autumn of 1925. Some were drawn from Paramount, most from Emerson-Consolidated.” (The “A” side of Everybodys 1021 is Rainy Nights by the Washingtonians, an Ellington recording from the catalog of the Blu-Disc Record Co.) Everybodys was apparently succeeded by a label called “The Electric,” with issues numbered from 1086 through 1092. Common to both labels was a bat-wing design and the typography of their brand names. Alan Sutton, in his “American Record Labels and Companies, An Encylopedia (1891-1943)” notes that “a second Electric series, beginning at catalog #1, drew on SAH-prefixed masters, some of which had previously appeared on Everybody’s.”
All but three issues on Everybodys are believed to contain masters originally recorded for other labels. The three issues pressed from masters exclusive to Everybodys bore an “SAH” matrix number on each side:
Everybodys 1047 Bert Lewis, the Southern Syncopator: Don’t Bring Lulu (mx. SAH 1)/It’s Time to Keep Away from You (SAH 2)
Everybodys 1062 Richard Hitter’s Cabineers: Eccentric (S.A.H. 6-2)/Bucktown Blues (S.A.H. 7-1)
Everybodys 1063 Richard Hitter’s Cabineers: Riverboat Shuffle (S.A.H. 4-2)/Breakin’ the Leg (S.A.H. 5-2)
The labels of Everybodys 1047 show the matrix prefix as “SAH,” without periods, but the labels of Everybodys 1063 show “S.A.H.,” presumably an abbreviation for “S. A. Hatem.” No engineer’s wax markings are visible “under the label” of Everybodys 1047, but what looks like “SA6 4-2” (sic) and “SAH 5-2” are visible “under” the labels of Everybodys 1063. Everybodys 1062 has not been inspected.
Two obvious questions occur: In what studio(s) were the “SAH” masters recorded? Can anyone report a record pressed from matrix SAH 3 -- and tell us what’s on it? (It might be found on “The Electric.”)
Everybodys 1047 isn’t found in any discography I’ve seen, but the two records by Richard Hitter’s Cabineers are found in Brian Rust’s “Jazz Records 1897-1942” where they are dated to “c. May 1925.”
The four songs recorded by Hitter were well-established by 1925, but the two recorded by Lewis were fresh: Don’t Bring Lulu, with words by Billy Rose and Lew Brown and music by Ray Henderson, was published by Jerome H. Remick; the song’s copyright deposit was received by the U.S. copyright office on March 18, 1925. It’s Time to Keep Away From You, with words by Lew Brown and music by Cliff Friend, was published by Irving Berlin, Inc. and deposited for copyright on March 30, 1925.
Bert Lewis was billed as “the Southern Syncopator” in the Club Kentucky’s ads from March 18 through May 13, 1925; ads from May 16, 1925 bill him as “New York’s Newest and Most Popular Entertainer.”
Thus, circumstantial evidence indicates Everybodys 1047 was recorded by Lewis in the spring of 1925, probably in April or May, at a time when he was billed as “the Southern Syncopator” and working with only one pianist I’m aware of: Duke Ellington.
Is Ellington the pianist heard on Everybodys 1047? By clicking the icon, you’ll be able to hear the record and judge for yourself. Enjoy….and let the controversy begin!
Bert Lewis - Don't Bring Lulu
Bert Lewis - It’s Time to Keep Away From You
This is just a sample of the quality of articles that regularly appear in the pages of VJM - and not all of them appear on the VJM website. To make sure you don't miss out on further discographical scoops and research click here to subscribe.