In a post on May 14, I mentioned a song written in 1920 by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar: “So Long, Oolong, (How Long Ya Gonna Be Gone?”) I didn’t mention that I happen to have a recording of that song, sung by Frank Crumit on the Columbia label. Crumit was a popular singer and radio personality who also wrote about 50 songs, including “Buckeye Battle Cry” which is played at Ohio State University football games.
My recording of the Ruby-Kalmar song is a 78 rpm shellac disk. I could play it on the electric turntable that we use to listen to our 33 rpm LPs, but I don’t. I play it on our 1927 model wind-up Victrola. I have an odd assortment of records stored in the cabinet of that phonograph. Most of them are 10-inch disks, but there are a few of the 12-inch disks. Some of these are recorded on only one side – including a 12-inch Victor record of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aida” from the Verdi opera. By the mid 1920s, Crumit was recording for Victor, so the recording I have has to date from before that. The Martinelli recording was made at the Victor studios in Camden on Nov. 25, 1914. I was able to determine that at THIS LINK, which is a complete catalog of Victor recordings. An interesting detail is that the Martinelli recording – one side only – sold for $1.50 and the Crumit record sold for a buck.
I got on this subject because of a story I read today HERE, on the Boston Globe web site. The nut of this story by Sarah Rodman is as follows:
As consumers buy fewer and fewer CDs, an interesting phenomenon is occurring — artists who appeal to older listeners are showing up surprisingly high on the charts.
The reason: Adults are largely the ones buying CDs these days. Younger people tend to download in general and focus on singles.
The story makes it clear that while this isn’t universally true, it’s a clear trend. It’s also interesting to note that “surprisingly high on the charts” is a relative concept. Rodman points out that a reissue of a Rolling Stones album recently hit the charts in second place on the strength of about 76,000 sales. In the “early 2000s,” the writer explains, a recording had to achieve six figures just to be in the Top 10. The early 2000s are already “the old days.”
The acts the story cites as appealing to “older listeners” are an eclectic group that includes Sarah McLachlan, Sade, Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble, and Susan Boyle.
There is a lot of discussion about the changes that have taken place in the recording industry. Like some other fields affected by rapidly evolving digital technology, this one presents a variety of challenges to everyone involved. And the challenged include people like me, who have lived through all of the developments in recording except wax cylinders — and who have accumulated evidence of every stage.
Besides the heavy shellac records and the acoustic talking machine, we have boxes of 45 rpm records in the garage — including a duet by Connie Francis and Marvin Rainwater — hundreds of LPs in the living room — dozens of cassette tapes (and several cassette players, including the one in my Beetle), CDs all over the house, and a couple of MP3 players. The only stage we skipped was 8-track.
There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza, having seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway, can’t get the song “Master of the House” out of his head. We’ve all had a similar experience, and it can be annoying. I read a book by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in which he discusses the possible causes of this phenomenon. Pay attention. I think the next step in sound technology will be a chip implanted in the listener’s head and songs transmitted directly into the brain.
Meanwhile, is there a market for all these jewel cases?
May 14, 2010
When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.
The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of Ruby and Kalman.
Harry Ruby first came to my attention when I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.
The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”
Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.
As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.
Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard