I first heard the team of Van and Schenck on a very old recording of “Mandy.” Then I saw them again on a DVD devoted to short films made by vaudeville stars. And now Archeophone Records, those marvelous restorers of vintage recordings to CDs, has hit gold again with “Van and Schenck: Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland, Breakthrough Recordings, 1916-1918.”
Among the hundreds of “two-man piano acts” in Vaudeville, this duo was at the top, “not far behind Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor” (as the customary full Archeophone program notes put it). The high tenor voice of Schenck was a good selling point for the act, to which Variety gave high praise. Their full names, by the way, are Gus Van and Joe Schenck. It is, also by the way, Joe at the piano.
Judging from the 28 selections (3 of which are longer versions of the piece on the previous track), we can see that the team specialized in comic songs, some of which had nonsense lyrics, such as “Yaddie kaddie kiddie kaddie koo” and “In the land o’ Yamo Yamo.” In fact, the only titles that were familiar to me were Irving Berlin’s “Dance and grow thin,” which I have on another CD, and “For me and my gal.”
So to name a few more of the songs, we have “That’s how you can tell they’re Irish,” “Mother, may I go in to swim?” “I don’t think I need a job that bad,” “Southern gals” and “Beans beans beans.” There is a strong influence of the great Bert Williams in “I wasn’t skeered but I thought I’d better go,” which is sung-spoken by Van in a minstrel show “black” voice.
Many of the songs reflect the times, some (like “Me and my gal”) have universal themes. Many more are parodies, such as “I miss the old folks now,” in which the rosy recollections of Van are contradicted by the not-so-rosy ones of Schenck.
This is all, of course, living history. Having contemporary singers reproduce these songs is of little value when we can hear them sung in the style of the times in which they were written by the very artists who often helped in creating the songs. Add to this the sound of the old acoustic discs, and there is nothing to beat these Archeophone restorations. And please look at their website (www.archeophone.com) to see their amazing full catalogue of what I call “audio time machine” recordings.