Billy Murray, a Top Vocalist of a Century Ago, Sings Again

A-ARCH-Billy MurrayBilly Murray, a Top Vocalist of a Century Ago, Sings Again

Many of my readers will instantly recall such popular music vocalists as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Rudy Vallee, and Al Jolson. But what about Billy Murray? If that strikes no bell, read on.

Among my most treasured recordings are those released by the fantastic Archeophone Records. On them are hundreds of recordings transferred from the earliest cylinders up to the acoustic 78 rpms of the late 1920s onto CDs. In the compilations that make up the Phonographic Yearbook series, there are several selections sung by a certain Billy Murray, who sang exclusively for recordings and whose career spans 1903-1940.

Just why his name is practically unknown to the general public is explained in the copious program notes that Archeophone has included with “Billy Murray Anthology: The Denver Nightingale. Recordings, 1903-1940.” Perhaps the designation does not quite fit Murray’s light comic voice, but his enunciation is perfect and his approach to the lyrics impeccable.

835Among the 30 examples of his legacy on this disc, the more familiar include “Meet me in St. Louis,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give my regards to Broadway,” “In my merry Oldsmobile,” “Harrigan,” “Shine on, harvest moon,” “By the light of the silvery moon,” “K-k-k Katy,” and “Charley, my boy.” The less familiar are even more fascinating, being first hearings for most listeners: “The way to kiss a girl,” “Come take a trip in my air-ship,” “He’s a devil in his own home town,” and the bitingly satiric “He goes to church on Sunday.”

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Sheet music with altered title and lyrics

Notice especially the references to (then) modern inventions like the automobile and airplane. His recording of George M. Cohan’s “The grand old rag” keeps the original noun that Cohan had to change when audiences reacted unfavorably. In a few numbers, he is accompanied by vocalists Ada Jones, Aileen Stanley, Ed Smolle, Walter Scanlan, and the Haydn Quartet. As soloist or as part of a duet, Murray never fails to please.

Some other Archeophone discs feature vocal stars of the past are ‘Irving Kaufman Anthology,” “Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth,” “Marion Harris,” “Van and Schenck,” “Henry Burr Anthology,” and three sets devoted to “Bert Williams.”

My favorites of all are the CDs in the Phonographic Yearbook series, each holding nearly two dozen hits from specific years. They all contain thick booklets that alone are worth the price of the sets. It is like going back in a musical time machine.

Vintage Songs from 1911 and 1919 for School and Home

A-ARCH-1911Vintage Songs from 1911 and 1919 for School and Home

Let us say you are a history teacher (Junior High to College) and are teaching American History for (say) 1911. That is the year in which the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down with most of its workers, a woman was the first to fly across the English Channel, the big books included G.K. Chesterton’s  “The Innocence of Father Brown,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made Irving Berlin famous, and the first effective electric self-starter for cars was developed.

I could just see how much of this would be ho-hum time for the students. As I have been stating for years, perhaps songs of the period, tied into the events and temper of the time, would begin to rouse the interest of some of the tweeters. Even if they laugh at them, that would be a step in the right direction.

Well, Archeophone has just released two more CDs in their incredible “Phonographic Yearbook” series, one of which happens to be “1911, ‘Up a Little Bit Higher’.” Here are 25 vintage recordings released that year, each of which connects with life in that period of history, each of which has a bounce designed to please people of all ages, or a lovely melody which just might get through the indifference of some students.

ComeJosephineBrownieCarrollCoverA woman aviator? “Come, Josephine, in my flying machine” is an “invention” song, as is “The Oceana roll.” A growing sense of national superiority? “Under the yum yum tree” and “King of the Bungaloos” are part of the call to exotic places. An increasing wave of the Irish into the  country? “Mother Machree” is the tear jerker of the first water. A desire for musical comedy?  “Italian street song” from “Naughty Marietta” and other Herbert operettas is just the ticket.

Of course, the majority of the songs deals with Love. (No surprise.)

1919“1919, ‘Jazzin’ Around and Paintin’ the Town’” has 25 selections of recordings from that year in which soldiers returning from the Great War demanded a better deal and formed unions to get it. I have several older CDs filled with “protest songs,” but this Archeophone collection is of a wider range. Only the plaintive voice of Bert Williams in his “It’s nobody’s business but my own” and “Oh, Death, where is thy sting?” represents the underdog. But people were more interested in the fact that “A pretty girl is like a melody” or “A good man is hard to find.”

a0081-1-72dpiEven the non-Irish could praise “That wonderful mother of mine” while those who moved to the cities could still yearn for “Beautiful Ohio.” On the other hand, “How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm? (after they’ve seen Paree).” The two selections that directly refer to the war are “Oui, oui, Marie” and  “The Rose of No Man’s Land.” (I suppose that “Make love, not war” is the implication here.) Among the happier sort is “Ja-da (ja da, ja da, jing jing!)” [and they say our lyrics today are sappy!] and the rest are love songs as one would expect.

Among the voices heard on these two sets are Marion Harris, Nora Bayes, Henry Burr, Billy Murray, Al Jolson, John McCormack, Ada Jones, Blanche Ring, and the instantly recognizable Sophie Tucker.

It is apparent that these stars knew how to project and to enunciate. First of all, the size of the vaudeville houses in which they performed demanded both skills. Also, not all vocal performers had voices suited to the then state-of-the-art recording techniques. Students today might laugh, as I said, at these singers; but a good teacher could elicit from them just why they had to sing that way. (What! make students think?)

Another plus is the excellent booklets included with each Phonographic Yearbook. They are loaded with information about the events of the year being featured, facts about each recording, and lots of photos of the times and of the singers. Oh, for those not in the teaching profession, you will enjoy these discs for many reasons other than educational. For my age group, that means “nostalgia.”

Kudos, Archeophone!

Not only does the Archeophone website (www.archeophone.com) list all of their available discs but it even supplies the track listing for many of them.