Composer, librettist, playwright, actor and director - Noel Coward's position is secure as one of the best-known figures in 20th century In the Charleston Era and its immediate aftermath, flappers had their hair bobbed and the more fashionable among them went in for Eton crops and kiss curls, cloche hats and long cigarette holders. They made up with almost white powder, red rouge on the cheeks and red lipstick. Eyebrows were plucked and lines drawn in with eyebrow pencil. And for dancing the Charleston our flappers invariably wore petal skirts which reached just about to the knee. Their young escorts wore Oxford bags, striped blazers, straw hats and sported canes. It was an era when, despite economic difficulties, the flow of lively tunes continued unabated and people enjoyed themselves as well as they could.
The songwriting team that most typified the carefree, upbeat era of the Roaring Twenties was undoubtedly the trio of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson. They are represented by two songs which spawned two dance crazes. First off is Black Bottom which became all the rage in Britain in 1927. The iron-lunged, clear 'megaphone-voiced' Irving Kaufman delivers the goods effectively - no crooner he! The Varsity Drag was a hectic production number sung and danced by the entire student body of the hit collegiate musical 'Good News', the plot of which is loosely based around an impending football match.
George and Ira Gershwin carry off top honours with three songs. Two are performed by 'original cast' members who made resounding successes of their roles both in New York and London. The earliest is Fascinating Rhythm from 'Lady, Be Good!' by the brother and sister singing and dancing act of Fred & Adele Astaire, recorded just a few days after their Empire, Leicester Square opening with composer George at the piano.
The most popular British star ever to appear on Broadway was probably Gertrude Lawrence, though that would be difficult to guess from her records alone. She possessed that indefinable thing called 'star quality' and we can be grateful to her for introducing standards like Someone To Watch Over Me from 'Oh! Kay'. The charming High Hat from the Gershwins' musical 'Funny Face' features a fresh-voiced Leslie A Hutchinson (Hutch).
Jack Hylton & His Orchestra, at this time on the threshold of even greater fame and fortune, keep up the Twenties feel in the bouncy I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight?
When Elsie Carlisle recorded I Love My Baby at her first recording session in 1926 she was already a fully fledged performer. Well into her twenties, Elsie had served her apprenticeship the hard way with years of touring in the provinces. Her luck changed after a radio broadcast when she was offered a recording contract.
Paul Whiteman, the large American bandleader with the misleading sobriquet of the 'King of Jazz' features in two very different recordings. There's the original Charleston which as a dance sensation endures as the most representative of the era. From the Broadway revue 'Runnin' Wild' it sparked off the whole Charleston craze. Whiteman's recording includes some strange vocal effects which makes one wonder for a moment if the session had been double-booked with the local Chinese martial arts club. In Ol' Man River from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's 'Show Boat' we have the full resources of the Concert Orchestra with the great bass Paul Robeson in his first of many recordings of this timeless classic.
A beguiling performance of Looking At The World Through Rose Coloured Glasses brings us to Nick Lucas' The Singing Troubadour' (1897-1982) in a remarkably undated performance. Nick was one of the first musicians to replace the banjo with the guitar in the studios and was a prime mover in introducing the intimate or crooning style of vocalising.
The Savoy Orpheans recorded prolifically from the time of their formation in 1923 until the end of 1927. Debroy Somers was their first leader. On his departure in April 1926, vocalist and violinist Cyril Ramon Newton took over as musical director for nine months. It's Cyril's slightly stentorian tones we can hear on the typically Twenties number Let's All Go To Mary's House. See if you can spot the quote from 'The Pirates Of Penzance' near the beginning - no prizes now. Richard Rodgers' Charlestony The Girl Friend was the title song of the musical. The Savoy Orpheans version, despite lacking a vocal, doesn't pall under Carroll Gibbons' tight direction. There's the added bonus of a piano chorus from Carroll.
Pre-dating 'Show Boat' by just over two years was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's first musical collaboration 'Sunny'. The show opened in New York in 1925, coming to London the following year. In Binnie Hale and Jack Buchanan we have two of Britain's brightest stars from the London production in the most popular number from the show, Who?
The gifted Starita brothers, Al, Rudy and Ray were of Italian extraction but spent their formative years in the USA. During the Twenties they travelled to Britain and became active on the musical scene, Rudy principally as a drummer, vibraphone and xylophone player and brothers Al and Ray as bandleaders. Ray, who also played clarinet and tenor saxophone, vocalises on Ain't She Sweet? with the Piccadilly Revels Band in a recording made in the spacious acoustic of London's Wigmore Hall.
Songwriter Harry Woods, one of the best, turned out his greatest work between 1926 and 1936. When The Red Red Robin (Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along) was his first really big hit; in fact it was one of the biggest hits of 1926 and here it gets the works from Al Jolson.
The versatile Nat Shilkret was in many ways the American equivalent of Ray Noble. One of his roles was as conductor of the Victor 'house' band and he had at his command good arrangers and top studio musicians. Hallelujah! was a show stopper from the 1927 musical 'Hit The Deck' and it remains an evergreen. Franklyn Baur was a quality freelance vocalist of the 20s and early 30s and can also be heard to good effect on the Roger Wolfe Kahn recording of Crazy Rhythm. This catchy number was written by the bandleader in collaboration with Joseph Meyer and Irving Caesar. Kahn (1907-1962), the son of millionaire Otto Kahn, was more than a dilettante dabbler. He led a good band and often utilised the services of jazz greats like Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.
Noel Coward 'The Master', was formidably gifted. Hear him in Dance, Little Lady. First sung by Sonnie Hale in the C B Cochran produced revue 'This Year Of Grace' at the London Pavilion, Noel himself introduced it to New York audiences when the show opened at the Selwyn Theater in 1929.
The beautiful American-born actress, dancer and singer Dorothy Dickson died in London in 1995 aged 102. She had arrived in 1921 and scored an immediate hit in a revue at the London Pavilion. 'Peggy-Ann' was a Rodgers and Hart musical and Dorothy starred in the London production at Daly's Theatre. We have her here in the peppy Where's That Rainbow? from the show.
Also from the States, Turner Layton & Clarence Johnstone were top-liners in variety and at nightclubs from almost the moment they arrived in London in 1923 until their partnership was disbanded twelve years later. From 1924 they recorded over 700 sides for Columbia and deservedly enjoyed phenomenal record sales. Miss Annabelle Lee is one example of why.
Cliff Edwards ('Ukulele Ike'), born in Missouri in 1895, had a pleasing easy-on-the-ear vocal style which brought plenty of work his way throughout the 20s and 30s. Here Cliff glides his way through the delightful Good Little, Bad Little You and even takes a brief kazoo solo.
Like 'Good News', the Hollywood musical 'The Time, The Place And The Girl' had a collegiate theme (and yes, it involved college football too). Doin' The Raccoon, introduced in the film, has clever, pithy lyrics by Raymond Klages. George Olsen's recording was the best-selling hit version. Quintessential 1920s stuff.
Another film, 'Movietone Follies Of 1929' introduced The Breakaway, yet another dance craze. One of the most exhilarating and tasteful versions on record must surely be this one by the Dorsey Brothers' Orchestra.
The 'Boop-Boop-a-Doop' girl Helen Kane epitomized the flapper era of the late Twenties and no song is more representative of this than I Wanna Be Loved By You, introduced by Helen in the Broadway musical 'Good Boy'. Her distinctive style became widely imitated, and gave rise to the Betty Boop film cartoons.
New York born Whispering Jack Smith (1899-1951) was a whispering baritone, as his nickname implies; even so his voice could still be heard at the back of a theatre. His art was the epitome of understatement.
Our final American dance band track is by Ben Selvin(1900-1980), responsible for hundreds of high quality studio band sessions during the 20s and early 30s. Vocalist Smith Ballew(1902-1984) was similarly prolific, consistently good and versatile. Am I Blue?, introduced by Ethel Waters in the film 'On With The Show', is played at just the right lilting tempo.
Seventy years on this lively collection of music remains as immediate as ever; a glowing testimony to the artists and songwriters whose work continues to bring us joy.
1998 HUGH PALMER