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A Perfect Ten for Blackbirds and Shuffle Along

A Perfect Ten for Blackbirds and Shuffle Along

By Peter Filichia —

The birth of any innovation makes for some growing pains. That too was the case with the so-called long-playing record when it came into existence in the late ‘40s.

At first, two different sizes – ten-inch and twelve-inch — played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Because classical records and original cast albums needed more space to accommodate all (or much) of their music, the powers-that-be decreed that twelve-inch records would be used for these recordings.

But for pop recordings, they likely reasoned, ten inches’ worth of music would be enough. The thinking was that consumers, conditioned to buying a 78 r.p.m. record with a song on each side, would be satisfied with four songs to a side. What’s more, a ten-inch record would cost commensurately less than a twelve-inch record with six or more songs to a side.

Ah, but these marketing wizards underestimated American appetites in a booming post-war economy. Consumers always want more, and many are willing to pay for it. Besides, in that “Keeping up with the Joneses” era, neighbors didn’t want anyone thinking that they couldn’t afford the “big” discs. So that’s what they bought, spurning the ten-inchers. By the mid-fifties, only the twelve-inchers survived.

But in 1953, when ten-inchers were still around, RCA Victor decided to start a “Show Time Series.” It was advertised as “a new series of recordings from the most beloved Musical Comedies, Operettas, Revues, etc.” And yes, those four words were capitalized. It was another indication of how culturally significant musical comedies, operettas and revues were then thought to be.

The ads also said that the series would be “sung by leading Broadway stars under the direction of celebrated theater conductors.” There were eight “Show Time” recordings, sporting four songs from one musical on each side. Now Masterworks Broadway is making one available for digital download and disc-on-demand. It’s complete with original cover art and new liner notes, via Arkivmusic.com.

It’s Blackbirds of 1928 backed with Shuffle Along. They were two of the most successful black musicals of their era. The former, the first collaboration between composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields, opened on May 9, 1928 and ran for 518 performances at the Liberty Theatre (now home to Madame Tussaud’s). The latter, with music by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Noble Sissle, debuted on May 23, 1921 at the (now-long-gone) Sixty-Third Street Music Hall, where it continued for 504 showings.

Starring in this Blackbirds recording are Cab Calloway and Thelma Carpenter. No one knew it then, but fourteen years hence, both would occasionally play together in Hello, Dolly! In 1967, Calloway would portray Horace Vandergelder to Pearl Bailey’s Dolly Gallagher Levi — but when Bailey couldn’t (or wouldn’t) perform, Carpenter, her understudy, spelled her.

Under Lehman Engel’s baton, the first cut is the song that mollified the title character of Bringing up Baby — and should equally please you: “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” Even if you’ve known the song since time immemorial, there’s a good chance you don’t know the verse (“Gee, but it’s tough to be broke, kid”) – which Calloway inserts in the middle in between his trademark growling and scatting. (Few know that the song was originally written as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Lindy” – in honor of recent aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh.)

Alas, that’s Calloway’s only appearance on this recording. The other three Blackbirds songs are essayed by Carpenter. The first celebrates a primitive society where one native will occasionally spot another and each heart beats out a tattoo that says “Diga Diga Doo.” The most felicitous couplet states “So let those funny people smile / How can there be a virgin isle with Diga Diga Doo?” Reading a double entendre into that is certainly allowed, if not genuinely encouraged.

Carpenter next gets a torch song called “I Must Have That Man.” For those who assumed that Lorenz Hart was the first to rhyme “angel” and “change’ll” (in I Married an Angel in 1938), here’s proof that Fields beat him to the punch ten years and two days earlier: “He’s not an angel … perhaps a change’ll come some day.”

Shows of Blackbirds’ era always seemed to be celebrating a new dance that everyone just had to learn. Here Carpenter endorses “Doin’ the New Low-Down.” What fun to hear her assert that “I got my feet to misbehavin’ now” before admitting “I got a soul that’s not for saving now.”

On to Shuffle Along. Carpenter again stars, but that’s to be expected, because she and the other three singers on this recording actually appeared in the show’s 1952 Broadway revival.

Well, if you can call it a revival. The new version bore precious little resemblance to the 1921 original. A look at where each show was set proves that: the first Shuffle Along was set in Jimtown, a subdivision of Dixietown, and took place everywhere from Calico Corners to Possum Lane. The second started at the Castel del Vezzio in Northern Italy and ended at New York’s Pier 17. Also lost in the twenty-four-year span was a big chorus that was divided into Jazz Jasmines, Happy Honeysuckles, Syncopated Sunflowers and Majestic Magnolias.

More to the point, the 1952 Shuffle Along only took two songs out of the original eighteen, and had new writers provide the rest. The holdovers start this section of the disc.

Louise Woods and Laurence Watson sing “Love Will Find a Way,” and both sound as if they genuinely believe it. Then comes the show’s most famous song: “I’m Just Wild about Harry.” Carpenter starts it, but her observations get appreciative comments from the performer portraying Harry: Avon Long, best-known for playing Sportin’ Life in three Broadway revivals of the Gershwins’ — and DuBose Heyward’s — Porgy and Bess.

You may not know the final two songs, but each is a honey. Long sings “Bandana Days,” a banjo-strummer that would be right at home on a riverboat. The disc closes out with Carpenter’s “Gypsy Blues,” in which a fortune-teller doesn’t have such good news for Carpenter’s love life. Long – who’s apparently the object of her affection – has a few things to say in his defense.

But the case is made that if the 1952 revival had included these two songs, it would have been enhanced by them. As it was, it ran only four performances – a full 500 fewer than the original.

Be apprised: this entire recording weighs in at just 23:35. And while we mourn that Blackbirds of 1928 and Shuffle Along didn’t get a twelve-inch disc that would have given us a couple of more songs from each show, eight is enough to appreciate these two musicals that roared during the ‘20s.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com

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