The Cats & The Fiddle and the 5 Jones Boys have to rank as my favorite jive groups. Close behind them come the early recordings of the Spirits Of Rhythm. Their "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes" became one of my favorite songs the first time I heard it.
NOTE: Several of the Spirits played the tipple, an instrument that was very popular in the 1930s. Also spelled "tiple", it looks like a large ukulele, but usually has 10 strings (arranged in sets [called "courses"] of 2, 3, 3, 2), although different kinds can have 4, 6, or 12 strings. According to François Moret (Martin Tiple Blogspot), tipples use steel strings and were, therefore, louder and easier to hear in a theater than ukuleles, which used gut strings in the 1930s. The strings in each 2-string course are tuned to the same note; in the 3-string courses, one string is tuned to the same note as the other two, but an octave lower. The multiple strings give both volume and a peculiar sound due to the fractional time interval the nail or pick takes to hit each of the strings of a course. Also, with the octave tuned courses, you have a kind of honky-tonk piano sound. (Also note that many articles used the alternative spelling "ukelele".)
The first mention of any of the future members of the Spirits Of Rhythm is in the August 18, 1928 Pittsburgh Courier, which talked about a show put on by Mabel "May" Whitman's company at Chicago's Willard Theater. It said: "Two ukelele boys, Douglas Daniels and Leo Watson, quaint racial singers in melody that flows, stormed the house." Supposedly Douglas and Leo had started together on the streets of St. Louis, performing for whatever change people would throw to them. (This is exactly how the various members of the Ink Spots started on the streets of Indianapolis.)
[The Whitman Sisters ("America's Colored Sweethearts") had a traveling Vaudeville show and, at one time or another, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Willie Bryant, Jeni LeGon, and Leonard Reed were part of it. Note that the Whitman Sisters featured very young talent, including their own relatives.]
Douglas and Leo were, presumably, new to the show, since they weren't in a July 1927 blurb about the Whitman Sisters that named all the members of the troupe, nor were they in the list of performers that appeared in the February 11, 1928 Pittsburgh Courier. The September 29, 1928 Pittsburgh Courier mentioned them again when the show was at Pittsburgh's Elmore Theater: "And we almost forgot Douglass [sic] & Watson, who by the way, were a phenomenal success in their ukelele numbers. They were called back for three encores." On October 20, 1928, the New York Age called them "Leon and Douglass, masters of the Ukelele". They were unnamed, but called "two young guitar-playing fools" in the November 3, 1928 Pittsburgh Courier. The November 10 Pittsburgh Courier named them as "Douglas and Leo", but just as members of the troupe. Daniels and Watson were mentioned again in the February 2, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier as being featured banjoists with the unit, and the March 2, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier said of a Detroit show: "the Ukulele boys were also sensational". A July 27, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier blurb said that Watson and Daniels "ukeleled well". Note that, in spite of the blurbs mentioning ukuleles, the two were really playing tipples. (Actually, as long as they were with the Whitmans, their instruments were always written about as ukuleles, never tipples.)
Douglas Daniels was a tenor who played the tipple. In a March 1934 article (which we'll see later on), he was said to be 20 and from Little Rock, Arkansas (although his family had moved to St. Louis by the early 1920s). However, I can't find him in any census record, birth record, military record, or death record. His family appeared in the 1910 census, but Douglas hadn't yet been born. The only trace of him outside newspaper articles seems to be in the 1942 Los Angeles City Directory: Douglas Daniels (musician) and his wife, Clara, are living at 1185 East Vernon Avenue. Online Daniels family trees don't mention him, with one exception (and the only thing that one says about him is that he was born sometime after 1910). In spite of the fact that he was mentioned in many newspaper articles, if you suggested that he was in the witness protection program from birth, I wouldn't argue.
Leo Watson was a baritone/bass who played the tipple, drums, and trombone. In two 1934 articles (which we'll see later), he said he was born in Henderson, Kentucky and was 21. He died in Los Angeles in 1950 (more about his age below; much more). Supposedly Leo had a talent for picking up instruments and figuring out how to play them (although never really completely mastering any of them). He became famous for improvisational scat singing and strange behavior (and much more about those later also).
Before we go any further, let's look at Leo's age. The 1934 article that said he was 21 would place his birth in 1912 or 1913. However, everywhere on the Internet it says that he was born on February 27, 1898. That birthday (kind of) belongs to Leo Latimer Watson, who died in Los Angeles on May 2, 1950 (and who was actually born in Kentucky on April 8, 1898, per his California death record). That's the same state in which our Leo was born and the same place and time period in which he died, so it's tempting. But was he really around 15 years older than the others? He doesn't look it in photos. (And, other than that death record, there's not a single trace of Leo Latimer Watson anywhere, although there's a "Leon L. Watson" in the 1948 Los Angeles phone book.) Although it proves nothing, the two examples of his signature that I've seen just say "Leo Watson", not "Leo L. Watson".
In the 1930 census, there's a Leo Watson, 16, born in Kentucky in 1913 or 1914, living in St. Louis as a lodger (this is where all the original members initially lived). His occupation is shown as "none" (as was that of all schoolchildren), but it's possible that whoever answered the census questions didn't want the census taker to know that Leo was working in a traveling show. So far, that's two votes for 1912-1914 and one vote for 1898.
In his autobiography ("I Remember: Eighty Years Of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, And The Blues"), trombonist Clyde Bernhardt remembered Douglas and Leo from the Whitman Sisters show: "Leo Watson and Douglas Daniels worked together as a team. Leo was only 14 and Douglas 13 - neither of them grown [italics are mine]. They sang and scatted all kinds of songs. Both played banjo, mandolin, ukulele, and other stringed instruments." (Since Bernhardt joined the Whitmans in December 1928, that would mean he believed Leo was born in 1914; one more check mark in that column.) Look at the accompanying 1928 photo and decide for yourselves. If Leo had really been born in 1898, he'd have been 30 then.
One more piece of evidence. My best guess is that Leo was the son of Dan Watson and Clara Alves Watson. In the 1910 census, they'd been married for 9 years and had never had any children (the census specifically asked those questions). Two years later, the Kentucky birth index records a child, Leon Watson (no middle name), born in Henderson, Kentucky on November 2, 1912; his mother is Clara Alves. Tragically, however, both his parents died within a few years: his father in 1918 and his mother the following year. By the time of the 1920 census, he (mistakenly listed as "Lee Wilson") was living with his grandmother (also named Clara Alves). Grandma Clara made out her will in 1923. In it, she left a share of her property to eight of her children and "my grandson, Leo Watson, son of my deceased daughter, Clara Watson of Henderson, Kentucky". So, even though his birth certificate said "Leon", his family called him "Leo". (And remember that the October 20, 1928 Pittsburgh Courier blurb and the 1948 phone book both said "Leon".)
[As an aside, this was also in Clara's will (it's straight out of a Hollywood B movie): "I will and direct that my Executor hereinafter named, shall pay to my daughter, Maria Hughes, wife of John Hughes, the sum of $1.00. I so direct because my said daughter has never in any way cared for or taken any interest in me." The moral: kiddies, be good to your parents.]
Conclusion: I may be beating a dead horse, but I refuse to believe that Leo Watson was born in 1898. If the May 2, 1950 California death record is really for him, they got his birth date wrong by about 15 years. Leo Latimer Watson's mother's maiden name is given as "Adams", not "Alves", but the one could have been a misrepresentation of the other. I was only able to find a single male "Watson" marrying a female "Adams" in Kentucky records, and that was in 1854. Somebody has made a big error here (and I freely admit it could be me).
Okay, I had to do it. I requested a copy of Leo Latimer Watson's death certificate and it's interesting. First off, his parents names were Dan Watson and Clara "Adams", so I was correct about that. Whoever gave that information misremembered her maiden name. I doubt it was Leo himself, since it says that he's married, but his wife's name is unknown. He's a "retired musician", born in Henderson, Kentucky, so all that ties in. He died at Los Angeles County General Hospital on May 2, 1950, of bronchial pneumonia, with chronic alcoholism as the underlying cause. The glaring error is the birthdate of April 8, 1898, but (1) since we know that Dan and Clara's son was born on November 2, 1912 and (2) Leo wasn't giving this information himself (or, if he was, he was too befuddled at this point to get it correct), it can be discounted (although the Internet will never change it). I still wonder about the "Latimer", since that wasn't on his birth certificate, but that's a minor mystery. He was buried at Paradise Memorial Park Cemetery in Santa Fe Springs, a suburb of Los Angeles, on May 8.
Restated Conclusion: Leo Watson was, without question, born on November 2, 1912, not in 1898. and was, therefore, in the same age group as the rest of the Spirits. Go ahead, Internet, fix it - I DARE YOU. (And sorry about the horse.)
And then, things started to coalesce. The September 28, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier has the first appearance of what would become the Spirits Of Rhythm. The Whitman Sisters show was at the Grand Theater in Chicago and: "The [unnamed] quintet in string music and songs was led by Virgil Scoggins, a clever young chap who has a singing voice and each player did a solo, which added to the act as a sensation.... The quintet consisted of Virgil Scoggins, Leo Watson, Douglas Daniels, Wilbur Daniels and Buddie Burton [sic; should be Buddy Blurton]."
Virgil Fredrick Scoggins (sometimes mistakenly seen as "Scroggins") was born on May 1, 1914 (in St. Louis); married in 1936 (in New York); and died in November 1980 (in Philadelphia). His birthdate came from both his World War 2 draft registration (by which time he was living in Philadelphia) and his Social Security registration (which had taken place in New York). He's the first cousin of Douglas and Wilbur Daniels (their mothers were sisters). Virgil, a tenor, was originally a dancer, but later on became famous for playing a paper-covered suitcase with whiskbrooms. [NOTE: He wasn't original in this. Josh Billings, of the Mound City Blue Blowers, for example, also did that. It was a fad that was probably occasioned by a cheap way of obtaining a percussion instrument. The suitcase, being hollow, would give a different sound than just hitting something solid. Also, barbers used whiskbrooms to remove hair from customers' clothes after a haircut, and some of them played a rhythm on the customer while doing it.]
Wilbur T. Daniels (a tenor who played the tipple, later the bass) was born on October 31, 1909 in Little Rock, Arkansas (the March 1934 article said he was 23; it was off by a year). He's the older brother of Douglas Daniels and the first cousin of Virgil Scoggins. In the 1910 census he's 5 months old, so the October 1909 birthdate is a good one. He's in the 1940 census, living in New York City with his wife, Ruth. Wilbur died in New York City on November 10, 1963.
Lawrence Edward "Buddy" Blurton (not "Burton") played the tipple. He was born January 25, 1913 in St. Louis and died there, from cirrhosis, on November 11, 1964. In the 1930 census, he was a "musician - traveling show". He's in the 1931, 1932, and 1933 St. Louis City Directories (as a "musician", an "actor", and a "clerk" respectively); these four dates will become important later. In the 1940 census, he had no occupation listed and hadn't worked at all in the prior year (because of the Great Depression, that question was asked). He was in the army in World War 2, but nothing else is known about him. (I assume you're not particularly interested in knowing that, on March 18, 1916, at the age of three, he attended William L. Hussey, Jr.'s birthday party, so I won't mention it.) Note that there was another entertainer, Evans "Buddy" [or "Buddie"] Burton, who played the piano, organ, drums and kazoo (he's sometimes seen as "W.E. Burton", although he was born Evans Burton, Jr.).
One account has Virgil, Wilbur, and Buddy having been part of a Vaudeville company called "Madam DeCossis' Honeymooners" (spelling extremely uncertain) before joining up with Douglas and Leo. I can't find any corroboration, but, since they all joined the Whitman troupe at the same time, it might be true. The November 30, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier said: "Miss [Mabel] Whitman was so pleased with the work of two boys whom she brought out last year that she went back and got the rest of the kiddies - hence the 'five ukelele boys,' ...." This would have taken place in August or September of 1929.
All their names turned up in a list of the members of the Whitman Sisters troupe who donated to a fund for old performers (Pittsburgh Courier of October 5, 1929). Douglas Daniels, Wilbur Daniels, Buddy Blurton, and Virgil Scoggins were listed sequentially (although not linked in any way); Leo Watson's name was separate.
Almost a name. The Morning Herald (Uniontown, Pennsylvania) of October 26, 1929 told us that the "Four uke boys led by Virgil Scoggins, present their repertoire of songs and instrumental works which is simply 'red hot'." Why four instead of five? Who knows? Possibly one was sick. Or, it might explain the four linked names in the prior paragraph; it's possible that, for a while after the other three joined, Leo sometimes performed separately (although, remember, he was named as part of the quintet mentioned in the September 28 blurb). The Pittsburgh Courier of October 26, 1929 said: "... the Ukelele boys serve to completely stop the show upon each appearance."
And then, the November 16, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier finally gave them a name: "The Ukulele Five". However, a November 30, 1929 Pittsburgh Courier ad for the troupe (appearing at Gibson's Standard Theater in Philadelphia) said: "Rock with the Five Ukulele Boys".
The January 4, 1930 New York Age mentioned the "Ukulele Five, a wonderful quintet of dancers, singers and musicians." The troupe had just finished an engagement at New York's Lafayette Theater. They returned there on the 21st of February, 1930, where they were characterized (but not named) as "the five singing masters of the ukulele" in the February 22, 1930 New York Age.
The Pittsburgh Courier of March 15, 1930 said of the show: "This time Mabel [Whitman] has her 'Five Uke Boys' and the way those youngsters can get music out of their stringed instruments is a revelation. They're ready for the big-time right now. They have to be heard to be appreciated." I get the feeling the group didn't really have a concrete name; there were five of them - they played "ukuleles" - make up your own!
But that's the last we ever hear of them. Sometime between the middle of April and the middle of July 1930, the 5 Ukulele Boys left the Whitman Sisters. (Remember, Buddy Blurton had told the 1930 census taker that, as of April 1 of that year, he was a musician in a traveling show, so they were still part of the troupe then.)
I can't find any appearances on their own as the 5 Ukulele Boys (or variant). That's because, by the time they played Chicago's Regal Theater the week of July 26, 1930, they had re-named themselves the "5 Spirits Of Rhythm". They, and the Three Gobs (in the ads as "Three Gods"), "bring you a swift and swanky stage show". This seems to be their earliest appearance under that name.
Why the "Spirits Of Rhythm"? While there's no one left to ask, I'll put forth two possibilities (one probably reinforcing the other), based on my long-held belief that nothing happens in a vacuum. First, they came from St. Louis. Only three years before, Charles Lindbergh had flown the Spirit Of St. Louis from New York to France, becoming the first person to make a solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by air. (The first non-stop flight had been made in 1919, but there were two aviators on that one: John Alcock and Arthur Brown.) In 1930, Lindbergh was still one of the most famous people in the world and the exploit was still fresh in everyone's mind. My second guess has to do with Sherlock Holmes (an interesting coincidence as you'll soon see), or rather, his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Sir Arthur, who had died on July 7 (only about three weeks before their Regal Theater appearance), was an ardent spiritualist, and papers all over the country were full of articles about how he'd made plans for his spirit to contact his family. For example, the July 7 Las Vegas Daily Optic had one titled "Doyles Expect Message From Spirit World". For weeks, papers printed blurbs about mediums who claimed to have been contacted by Doyle's spirit. The most prevalent one appeared in dozens of newspapers on July 14 and it mentioned a London clairvoyant who was in touch with "five spirits".
In December 1930, the Five Spirits Of Rhythm appeared in a benefit show called the "Christmas Basket-Fund Party" at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. Also appearing were bandleader Ralph Cooper and Jackie Mabley (both of whom were at the Regal Theater). At the time, the Spirits were appearing at Chicago's Ritz Cafe, as part of a show with Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon.
In early 1931, they somehow became associated with bandleader Ben Bernie (composer of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and known as "The Old Maestro"). Supposedly he'd heard Leo screaming "Yowsah" (Bernie's catchphrase) and decided to promote the group. Since the earliest appearance I can find with his name appended to theirs is in Chicago (March 14, 1931 at the Regal Theater), I assume he'd seen them at the Ritz Cafe. At that point, they began calling themselves the Nephews, for unknown reasons.
The best I can say is that Ben Bernie sponsored (and probably managed) them, but there's not a single advertisement indicating that they ever appeared with him. Instead, they attached his name to theirs and began to make appearances under a variety of names:
You get your choice of variations (shades of the "ukulele" names), but nothing whatever about the group itself. Again I'll state that they never seem to have appeared with Bernie. He allowed them to use his famous name (for which I imagine he received a percentage of their earnings), and they got a lot of work out of it.
The November 6, 1931 Reading Times said of their performance at the Park Theater: "Ben Bernie's Sepia Nephews still hold forth at the popular Park theater. So far they have taken each audience by storm. They are 'hotter than hot'."
In December 1931, they made a movie. "The Subway Symphony" was an 18-minute extravaganza from Warner Bros./Vitaphone. Released in February 1932, filming (at the Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn) had started on December 23, 1931, when Ben Bernie's Five Sepia Nephews were appearing at Loew's State Theater in Manhattan. For some reason, the group was credited as the "5 Rhythm Boys". The New York Age of June 11, 1932 called the 5 Rhythm Boys "Harlem's famous troupe". (But if they were so famous how come there are no other references to them at all?) There's no question that it's them, however; a 1934 blurb, which we'll see later, confirms it.
"The Subway Symphony" tells the heartwarming story of the New York City subway system, which has decided to add musical performances both in the cars and on the platforms. I suppose it's a nice idea for a movie, but when I was taking the subway to work (in my misspent youth), most of the grumpy riders probably would have done grievous bodily harm to any entertainers who tried to cram themselves into a crowded car. In spite of this, there was another movie with the same theme: 1936's "Rush Hour Rhapsody", which had the 3 Peppers. (And, as I said in my 3 Peppers article: "Considering that a subway ride only cost 5 cents back then, it looks like the board of directors has come up with a sure-fire way of bankrupting the entire system.") "The Subway Symphony" is memorable for being the first screen appearance of singer and actress Frances Langford. By the time it disappeared from ads (in August 1933), it had played all over the country.
The Scranton Republican of March 8, 1932 said of it "... a musical mélange, brings the favorites of Broadway in a fast and snappy revue." An ad in the April 18 Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey) added: "It's just a featurette - but what a featurette; a musical short that should not be missed - new, novel, original." The New York Age of July 9, 1932 had a strange juxtaposition:
A great boom seems to be on to make pictures with all-colored or mixed casts. Warner Brothers are reported to be making quite a few shorts and so are one or two others of the big concerns. Some of the shorts seen recently are very likable and some not. Of those that I saw, judging from a racial point of view, Cab Calloway in "Minnie The Moocher," Duke Ellington in "Black and Tan," and George Dewey Washington and Doris Rheubottom in "Rhythm on the River" were the best. Bessie Smith in "St. Louis Blues" was revolting. "Subway Symphony" with the Five Rhythm Boys was also very good."
As I said, there'll be a 1934 blurb saying that the Spirits Of Rhythm had been in "Subway Symphony" (they'd no longer be the Nephews at that time). Other than that, there's only a single clue that links the 5 Rhythm Boys to the Sepia Nephews. The Philadelphia Inquirer of September 24, 1932 said of the stage show at the Earle Theater: "... followed by Ben Bernie's Sepia Nephews, who are Five Harlem Rhythm Boys." It's worded just vaguely enough to create some doubt, but why else would all the words start with capital letters? Maybe they made the movie behind Bernie's back or he didn't want his name associated with it for some reason.
Unfortunately, the movie isn't available. There were seven songs in the film, but I don't know who performed them: "Was That The Human Thing To Do", "It Cost Me Just A Nickel To Find The Girl I Love", "Rhythm Of The Wheels", "Doing The Subway", "Collegiate", "China Boy", and "Nobody's Sweetheart Now". Aside from the 5 Rhythm Boys, there were five acts in the film: Charles Bennington's New York Newsboys Harmonica Band, Joan Abbott (singer), Frances Langford (singer), Frank Hazzard (singer), and the Dave Gould Boys & Girls (dancers).
And now, censorship rears its ugly head. But wait; for a change it's not so ugly after all. It turns out that, at the time, movie scripts had to be submitted and cleared. In 1915, the Supreme Court had decided that movies weren't covered under the First Amendment's freedom of speech guarantee and from 1921 until 1965, New York State censored all films shown commercially. The censorship was done by the Motion Picture Division of the State Education Department. Those scripts still exist in the New York State Archives and Mark Cantor (of Celluloid Improvisations) was able to obtain a copy of the script for "The Subway Symphony".
The "conductor" announces "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the 135th Street Station. The 'Harlem Follies' show is now beginning, step off, right this way please." The Rhythm Boys (not introduced in any way) sing four lines of "Nobody's Sweetheart Now", before going into "Rhythm Of The Wheels", which is the last song in the film.
Of course, this was all shot on a sound stage, not the real 135th Street station. They appear in front of a very non-subway-station-looking backdrop. Buddy, Leo, Douglas, and Wilbur, seated, are all playing tipples (Buddy having a 4-string one), while Virgil dances. At one point, Leo stands for a tipple solo.
And, backing up something I said before, that September 24, 1932 Philadelphia Inquirer blurb concluded with: "There doesn't seem to be very much of a connection between them and the Old Maestro [Ben Bernie]."
On January 9, 1932, "Ben Bernie's Cousins - The Four Spirits Of Rhythm" appeared at the Jovial Ballroom in Calumet City, Illinois, where they were part of the entertainment at the National Mad Marathon. Those running the dance marathon were holding a celebration for the remaining contestants, who would pass the 1000 hours mark that night (that's almost 42 days of dancing non-stop, 45 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day). Fun times.
This seems to be the only occasion on which they were billed as Bernie's "Cousins", and not his "Nephews", so they were either using that name too or the ad just got it wrong. It also seems to have been the only time that Bernie's name was associated with the "Spirits Of Rhythm". Since there were only four of them, we can infer that Buddy Blurton had recently left, probably soon after the filming of "The Subway Symphony". Buddy's departure may have been occasioned by the group relocating to New York. Remember, he was in the 1931 St. Louis City Directory as a musician, the 1932 directory as an actor, and the 1933 directory as a clerk. This doesn't pinpoint exactly when he left, but keep in mind that the information for the 1932 book would have been collected sometime in 1931 and the book itself issued late in that year. Missing from the 1932 book are Wilbur and Douglas Daniels, who'd moved to New York by then (although their mother, Edna, is still in St. Louis). Virgil Scoggins was never listed in any St. Louis Directory that I have access to; Leo turns up only in 1929.
In March, they were added to the new edition of comedian Lou Holtz's 1932 Vaudeville Revue, which opened at the Hollywood Theater (Manhattan) on the 21st. It starred Lyda Roberti, Harry Richman, Hal LeRoy, and Mitzi Mayfair, as well as "other Broadway stars". The review in the March 22 Brooklyn Daily Eagle didn't mention the Nephews, lumping them in with "the rest of the show is mere Broadway." However, the April 2 New York Age said: "Ben Bernie's Five Sepian Nephews opened Lou Holtz's Revue at the Hollywood, N.Y. Their offering included 'Dinah' and 'China Boy' done in hot rhythm style." The revue ran for about a month before the entire cast was replaced (two of the new kids were Jack Benny and Martha Raye).
Note that they were back to being a quintet again since they'd recently picked up guitar virtuoso Teddy Bunn.
Theodore Leroy "Horse" Bunn was a baritone and guitarist. Teddy was born on May 7, 1910 in Freeport, Long Island, New York and died on July 20, 1978 in Lancaster, California. He joined the Washboard Serenaders in 1928, staying with them for about 18 months, and was in their Warner Bros. short, "Low Down", released in December 1929. He then joined Duke Ellington for a tour (and recording with him in September 1929). After that, he was part of Dan Healey's revue at the Cotton Club, before becoming the accompanist for Cora Green and then Frances Carter. In 1930, he'd hooked up with pianist Spencer Williams to record for Victor records. (Williams was the writer, in whole or in part, of "Basin Street Blues", "I Ain't Got Nobody", "I've Found A New Baby", and "Everybody Loves My Baby", but he's not the Spencer Williams who played "Andy" on the "Amos & Andy" television series.) Also in 1930, Teddy rejoined the Washboard Serenaders. When he left them, he joined the Nephews. Even though he was acknowledged as one of the best guitarists in the country, in a 1939 interview he admitted that he couldn't read music. (This was echoed by Douglas Daniels; in an article that was printed in the February 2, 1941 New Republic, he said that none of the Spirits could read a note of music.)
[Something else in that New Republic article was the mention of Leo and Douglas appearing at the Missouri Theater, "Leo in his short pants and crazy legs". Adults didn't wear short pants in those days; children and early teens did. Just one more indication that Leo wasn't 30, or even close to it, in 1928. However, I won't put too much credence in this one, since the events took place over a decade before the article and the writer certainly hadn't been present at those performances.]
According to an interview in the October 28, 1939 magazine Band Wagon, Teddy said that, when he was with the Washboard Serenaders at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., "Playing in a night club right opposite us were a small novelty band that I'd heard quite a bit about. They were known as Ben Bernie's Sepia Nephews. My old friend, Leo Watson [whom he had known years before in the Washboard Serenaders] was leading the band, which consisted of tipples, guitar, bass, and Virgil Scoggins tap dancing and doing his swell drumming. You know, a couple of whisks on a suitcase. Well, it so happened that they were short of a guitar man and were due to open at the Howard Theater in a week's time. I expect you can guess that I was with them on that date." I've been unable to find out when either the Washboard Serenaders or the Nephews played the Howard Theater, but Teddy would have joined by March 1932, when they became part of the Lou Holtz show. (Unfortunately, Howard ads of the period generally only listed the main star, not the supporting cast.)
When they were at the Penn Theater in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in May 1932, the May 10 Wilkes-Barre Record said: "Ben Bernie's latest Vaudeville find: Five Sepia Nephews, a quintet of merry colored entertainers." The May 11 Times-Leader (also from Wilkes-Barre) said: "Five Sepia Nephews, the colored quintet discovered by Ben Bernie and playing for the first time in this city with their speedy dancing, comedy and music."
On November 23, 1932 Leo Watson and Wilbur Daniels recorded a couple of songs with the Washboard Rhythm Kings at the Camden, New Jersey studios of Victor Records. Both "Underneath The Harlem Moon" and Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean" feature Wilbur doing a straight lead with Leo scatting. None of the other Nephews were on these. They were released (Victor 23373) in December 1932 (and "How Deep Is The Ocean" was reissued, on Bluebird, in May 1939).
We're not the only ones in the dark about this group. The Pittsburgh Courier of November 26, 1932 plaintively asked "Would like to have information of Ben Bernie's Sepia Nephews. Address Theatrical Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier."
The January 14, 1933 New York Age, reporting on the Nephews' appearance at the Lafayette Theater, said: "Top honors go to Ben Bernie's Nephews - four guitar players and conductor, who present a novel and enjoyable act and stop the show each time."
It looks like the last Nephews appearance was on the Detroit steamer Put-In-Bay on July 29, 1933. This was a moonlight showboat cruise featuring many acts that I've never heard of (including "the Rhinelanders, a real German band"). "Ben Bernie's Five Sepia Nephews" had just finished a week at Detroit's Fox Theater.
Never reported in the press was the Nephews' break with Ben Bernie, so I don't know if it was amicable or not. It would have occurred between late July 1933 (when they appeared in that Fox Theater show) and mid-September of that year (when the "Spirits Of Rhythm" name re-emerges). That 1939 Teddy Bunn interview in Band Wagon said that they were such a big hit at the Howard Theater that, six months later, they were "at Chick G[r]oman's Stables just off Broadway, no longer under Ben Bernie's management and renamed the Spirits Of Rhythm". However, that can't be right, since they continued to use Bernie's name through July 1933. (Of course, he might now be talking about a 1933 appearance at the Howard rather than the one in early 1932, but that isn't evident from the interview.)
[I don't want to put down another writer, but the author of that 1939 "Band Wagon" interview showed clear signs of hero worship and was prepared to accept anything that Teddy said. I am absolutely not saying that Teddy was making anything up. It's just that he'd done so much in the preceding 10 years that things tended to get jumbled.]
The week of September 16, 1933, having reverted to the "5 Spirits Of Rhythm" name, they appeared at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. The headliners were the Hall Johnson Singers and Mamie Smith. The September 23 New York Age claimed that they were "favorites of the audience and were heartily applauded".
On September 19, they received a $150 advance (against 2% royalties) from the American Record Company (ARC). The next day, on September 20 (probably between shows at the Lafayette), they recorded three test pressings for ARC (on the books as by the "5 Cousins"): "Nobody's Sweetheart Now", "I Got Rhythm", and "I've Got The World On A String". All prominently feature tipples rather than Teddy Bunn's guitar and all have Leo Watson doing his signature scatting. As test pressings, they weren't meant for release.
It's possible that their recording career had been set up by Ben Bernie right before the split happened. Bernie himself recorded for Brunswick Records, the leading label of its parent company, the American Record Corporation (ARC).
A little more than a week later (September 29, 1933), the 5 Cousins had a real session for ARC, recording four more songs, all of them rejected: "That's How Rhythm Was Born", "I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes" "Nobody's Sweetheart Now", and "I Got Rhythm".
In the fall of 1933, they began appearing at the Onyx Club, a speakeasy for white customers at 35 West 52nd Street in Manhattan (it would move across the street, to Number 72, the following February). When Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, Joe Helbock, the club's owner (a former bootlegger who was also a jazz enthusiast), immediately converted it to a night club. The Spirits did so well there that they were identified with the Onyx for years. One of their routines featured Wilbur Daniels leading a take-off on the Mills Brothers. Ed Sullivan's syndicated column of September 28, 1933 (as printed in the Detroit Free Press) said: "Newest hangout for jaded society debs is the Onyx Club, rendezvous of bandsmen, with Priscilla Gurney, elevator heiress, and Alice Griswold, Philly millionairess, leading the rush". He didn't mention the names of any entertainers in this almost-useless sentence, but the "rendezvous of bandsmen" phrase tells us that other musicians were flocking to the Onyx to hear the music.
There was another session for ARC on October 24, at which they re-recorded "I Got Rhythm" and also did a tune simply called "Rhythm" (written by Wilbur), both of which were ultimately released. There are some sheets in the Columbia files (which had the ARC material) detailing the sessions and with the notation that this was the time when their name was switched from the 5 Cousins to the Nephews. Ferdie Gonzalez (of Disco-File) has copies of those sheets.
Then, on October 31, they made another stab at recording "That's How Rhythm Was Born" and "Nobody's Sweetheart Now". Once again, they were rejected. They never could record usable copies of those two songs.
On November 20, 1933, they made two more re-recordings: "I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes" and "Rhythm".
[NOTE: One source (Brian Rust) has another session on November 23, at which they recorded the original, unreleased, version of "My Old Man" and another song called "Her Majesty (My Sugar)", a song that had been recorded the prior year by the Rhythm Boys, singing with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. Ferdie Gonzalez, of Disco-File, says that when he inspected the Columbia files, he didn't find those songs listed for the 5 Cousins. Since I never saw the files myself, I'll just mention them here without further comment.]
On December 6, they recorded "My Old Man" and had their final try at "I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes".
At the November 20 and December 6 sessions , the five group members were augmented by bassist Wilson Myers. Therefore, these recordings were by: Teddy Bunn (guitar), Douglas Daniels (tipple), Wilbur Daniels (tipple), Leo Watson (tipple), Virgil Scoggins ("drums"), and Wilson Myers (bass). Myers was just brought in for the sessions, but don't forget him; he'll be back later.
Finally, a record! on December 30, 1933, Brunswick released the jivey "My Old Man" backed with the spiritual "I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes". The label credited the "Nephews", but that wasn't right; the group no longer wanted that name. In January 1934, the record was reissued as by the "Five Spirits Of Rhythm".
"My Old Man" had been written by Johnny Mercer and Bernie Hanighen, who had heard the group and were influenced by their style. Mercer himself later said: "The middle part of 'My Old Man' is written around a riff developed by the Spirits Of Rhythm." In the song, the "old man" takes his wife to a club. Mercer and Hanighen had written "Cotton Club", but the Spirits changed it to "Onyx Club", since they were appearing there at the time.
A real mystery to me (as you'll soon see) is why they bothered with a number in their name at all. The number of members kept changing, which meant they had to keep changing their name. It never seemed to occur to them to just call themselves the "Spirits Of Rhythm". (Record companies would, but the group had no control over that.) When you're advertised as the 5 Spirits Of Rhythm and someone doesn't show up, customers and management feel cheated. (Leo Watson was extremely unreliable and many times would either show up hours late or not at all.)
The Big Time. In mid-January 1934, it was announced that the 5 Spirits Of Rhythm would begin a series of radio shows on WABC, starting on January 16 (although the Boston Globe listed them for the night of January 10). (At the time, WABC was part of the Columbia Broadcasting System.) These shows, broadcast four days a week, continued for two months. In addition, on January 23, they appeared on the "Harlem Serenade" show (also on WABC), with the Claude Hopkins Orchestra, Aida Ward, and Orlando Roberson; they'd later become regulars. The Buffalo Evening News of January 23 said: "Three of the 'Spirits' play tipples, which are slightly enlarged ukuleles, another strums a guitar and a fifth swishes two whiskbrooms over the top of a suitcase. Three are tenors, one's a baritone and the fifth's a basso."
On February 3, they were part of the first broadcast of a new CBS show: Radio Playhouse. Among the guests were Alexander Woollcott, "Col. Stoopnagle and Bud", George Jessel, Andre Kostelanetz, Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.
On February 9, 1934, just two weeks after it opened, the 5 Spirits Of Rhythm played the Apollo Theater. Others on the bill were Valaida Snow and the Berry Brothers.
The Boston Globe of February 21 detailed what the Spirits were going to sing on their show that night: "Ever More" (a spiritual), "Fare Thee Well To Harlem", "Melancholy Baby", "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me", and "Lady Lou".
Finally, a real write-up. The February 24, 1934 New York Age had an article titled "Five Spirits Of Rhythm Newest Radio Sensations". It went:
The Five Spirits of Rhythm (two baritones and three tenors), who broadcast over the Columbia network four times a week, are the latest sensation of the air waves. This group of singers came east from St. Louis a short time ago, after playing at the Booker Washington Theatre under Charles Turpin [the owner of the theater].
Since coming to New York they have made personal appearances with the Lou Holtz revue at the Hollywood Theatre, also with Ben Bernie at the Paramount and at Loew's State. [It was the Brooklyn Paramount, not the one in Manhattan and Bernie's name was mentioned in the ad, but not as a performer.] They have already played in a Warner Brothers short, "Subway Symphony", and will appear in another soon. They are now entertaining at the Onyx Club.
Members of this group are Vergil [sic] Scroggins [sic] of St. Louis, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels of Little Rock, Ark., Leo Watson of Henderson, Ky., and Theodore Burns [sic] of Long Island, N.Y. None of the boys are over 24.
But, in spite of press agent puffery, their radio show wasn't very successful. The March 2, 1934 Schenectady (New York) Gazette said that "WABC-CBS appearances of the Five Spirits of Rhythm are to be confined to the Harlem Serenade hereafter." They'd remain with that show until early June.
The most extensive write-up of the group was in the March 3, 1934 Pittsburgh Courier in Lillian Irby's "On The Airways" column. (This is the article, with the ages of the members, to which I've been referring.) It's long, but it has more about the group than anything else ever published. And note that I can't track any of the appearances that they mention, other than the one with Lou Holtz.
The Five Spirits of Rhythm, radio's newest novelty musical troupe, swung into New York in the spring of 1933 after a sensational season in sunny Miami and immediately became the rage of a fashionable night club. They were recently signed to broadcast twice weekly over the WABC-Columbia network.
The quintet is composed of young men ranging from 20 to 23 years of age. Three of them play tipples (enlarged ukuleles, two of which have ten strings each and the other four). Another strums a guitar and the fifth enlivens the rhythm by swishing two whiskbrooms over the top of a suitcase. In addition, each of them sings, three being tenors, one a baritone and the fifth a bass.
By name they are Wilbur Daniels, 23, tenor, who plays a 10-string tipple; Douglas Daniels, 20, tenor, who plays the four-string tipple [however, photos show him with a 10-stringed instrument]; Leo Watson, 21, bass, who plays the other 10-string tipple; Theodore Bunn, 22, baritone, who strums the guitar; and Virgil Scoggins, 21, tenor, who conjures rhythm with the whiskbrooms and suitcase. Wilbur and Douglas are brothers, and Virgil is their cousin. Each hails from St. Louis, Mo., except Theodore, who comes from Hempstead, Long Island.
Wilbur Daniels is the leading spirit of the group. He first began strumming a tipple in 1925, and within two years had taught his brother, Douglas, and Leo Watson to play the instrument; and they were joined by Virgil Scoggins, whose specialty was a flash dance. This quartet made its debut in a St. Louis night club, The Tent, in 1927, for a stipend of $20 per week each, and shortly afterwards went into vaudeville for three years with the Whitman Sisters. [A lot of this is press agent invention, as most of these pieces are. Note the omission of Buddy Blurton. There was a Tent Night Club in St. Louis, but no ads mention anyone that could be them. A "flash dance" is a tap dance that also includes acrobatics; the best flash dancers were the Nicholas Brothers and the Berry Brothers.]
During the latter part of this long engagement the quartet met Theodore Bunn, who then was appearing with another novelty organization. Not long afterwards Bunn joined the two Daniels brothers, Watson and Scoggins, and at that time they began to gain some bit of fame. Ben Bernie, the Old Maestro, took them under his wing and featured them in the famous College Inn, Chicago. They trouped with Duke Ellington's orchestra, then with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, played throughout the South in Lou Holtz's second edition of the Hollywood Revue, and made their first invasion of Broadway in 1931. At that time they appeared at the Paramount, Roxy, Loew's State and Brooklyn Paramount theaters, attracting immense crowds in each case. After playing New York, they toured again and finally went to Florida.
Only within the last few months have the Five Spirits of Rhythm aspired to a radio career. In grooming themselves for it, Virgil Scoggins abandoned his dance and took to swishing the whiskbrooms over the suitcase. This, in addition to enhancing the rhythm, eliminates the monotony of strings alone. After months of rehearsing, they were given an audition in the CBS studios in New York and immediately signed a radio contract. Simultaneously, they began making records, the first two of which are being released this month. [I assume that they're talking about "My Old Man" and "I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes", which had already been issued. There were no other Spirits releases in America until late 1934.]
Since they gave the ages of all the members, that should have made it easy to track their origins. I wish it were so. I can't think of any reason why they should misrepresent Leo's age (or why he himself should; he's not even listed as the oldest). Of course, by now you know that I've proved that his age wasn't misrepresented. And, remember, the February 24 blurb that said Leo was born in Henderson, Kentucky, ended with "None of the boys are over 24." (Will the ASPCA prosecute me for beating that dead horse unmercifully?)
"Famous Radio Group Started Out Poor" read the headline in the March 31, 1934 Honolulu Star Bulletin:
Four of Columbia's new troupe of hotlicks experts, the Five Spirits of Rhythm, used to do a vaudeville turn. When they made their debut in St. Louis in 1927, their financial problem was one of mountainous proportions. Wilbur and Douglas Daniels and Leo Watson each bought a new tipple on which to accompany themselves. The total cost of the three instruments was $5.40, which exhausted their capital and left the fourth member of the troupe, Virgil Scoggins, without anything to play. He danced instead. Then Theodore Bunn, the guitarist, joined them and Scoggins increased their musical equipment by the addition of a suitcase on which he beat - and still beats - with whiskbrooms. Now they're bigtimers. They have $460 worth of instruments, exclusive of whiskbrooms and suitcase.
Thank you, press agent, for that revealing story.
Their other two "good" recordings, "I Got Rhythm" and "Rhythm" (from the prior October 24 and November 20 sessions, respectively), were released, in the spring of 1934, on British Brunswick. Credited to the "Five Spirits Of Rhythm", these were never issued in the U.S.
In April 1934, tenor Morton Downey (the main influence on the Ink Spots' Bill Kenny) got a new twice-weekly radio show. The Saturday edition was in the form of a revue with guest stars, and the 5 Spirits Of Rhythm (along with Fats Waller) were chosen for his second show on April 14.
On April 28, the 5 Spirits and comedian Eddie Bruce were guests on the Terraplane Travelcade radio show at 10 PM. (The Terraplane was an automobile manufactured by the Hudson Motor Company.)
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on May 26 that: "The Spirits of Rhythm, vocal and instrumental sextette, have been signed by Felix Ferry for appearances at the Monte Carlo Casino. The Spirits of Rhythm will sail on June 27." For whatever reason, it never happened. We'll get to an explanation of "sextette" in a moment.
On June 29, the Spirits were part of the stage show at the Loew's Jersey City. (Probably more popular was the extra attraction of Walt Disney's "Big Bad Wolf".)
According to the Buffalo Evening News of July 21, 1934, the Spirits Of Rhythm were to get another radio program of their own. However, they never would and there are no further radio listings for them at all in 1934.
And another numbering problem. On August 24, 1934, the annual Beaux-Arts Ball was held in Atlantic Beach, New York. Some of the acts were Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, and the Seven Spirits Of Rhythm. According to the August 25 Long Island Daily Press, they "gave Negro spirituals". I guess it was so formal that they felt the need to add two more members, although no names were given.
But I can tell you who one of the additional members was. Remember when Wilson Myers was the bassist on their November 20 and December 6 recording sessions the previous year? Well, now he'd been added as an actual member and they became (with little thought involved) the 6 Spirits Of Rhythm. A San Francisco publication called The Spokesman, had said in their June 7, 1934 edition that "The Five Spirits Of Rhythm, formerly Ben Bernie's Sepia Nephews, will soon be six, according to press reports from the east...." It's a shame that the rest of the scanned blurb is mostly illegible, because they were going to pull off some stunt that would make them "even more sensational than the Mills Brothers", but it's garbled to the point that I can't make out what else it says. [I guess it's a moot point, since the Spirits never became more sensational than the Mills Brothers.]
Wilson Ernest "Serious" Myers (bassist) was born on October 2, 1906 in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, and died in Philly on July 10, 1992. Before taking up the bass, he had played drums with Bessie Smith in the mid-1920s and was also with King Oliver's orchestra. Almost a one-man band, Wilson could also play the clarinet, trombone, guitar, and banjo. He was with Lucky Millinder in the early 1930s (the two of them returned from Europe on the same ship in 1933). After the Spirits, he went back to Europe and played with Django Reinhardt. Returning to America in 1939, he was part of Plink, Plank And Plunk (with Tiger Haynes and Bob Mosley), recording "Salt Peanuts" for Decca in 1944 (and for a V-Disc the following year). He also had some sides on Black & White in 1945, and performed with Sidney Bechet, and Mezz Mezzrow. Wilson was originally called "Serious" because he loved classical music, however it stuck because he was famous for not smiling.
On September 12, 1934 an Almost Momentous Event occurred: the S.S. Olympic (sister ship to the Titanic) docked in New York Harbor. One of its passengers was famed British bandleader Jack Hylton, who had come to the United States to bring some American talent back to England. One act he wanted was the Spirits Of Rhythm. However, they didn't go with him, supposedly because they were practicing for a recording session. Instead, he took a relatively unknown group that had recently come to New York: the Ink Spots.
The story about practicing for a session can't be true, however, since they had just done one the day before he landed and had two others scheduled for September 14 and 27 (Hylton wasn't due to leave for England until the 29th). The real reason probably had to do with George M. Cohan, but you'll have to wait a few paragraphs to find out what that's all about.
As long as I've mentioned the sessions, let's document them. On September 11, 1934, they recorded four songs for Decca Records behind Red McKenzie: "From Monday On", "Way Down Yonder In New Orleans", "As Long As I Live", and "I've Got The World On A String". These were all released in late 1934.
William "Red" McKenzie was a white tenor and jazz musician, who specialized in playing the comb. (Put some paper over a comb, blow on it the right way, and it sounds something like a kazoo. It's amazing what you can become famous for.) However, there don't seem to be any combs on these tunes, just some nice tipple playing behind a pleasant-voiced McKenzie, although his performance is a bit over the top at times. McKenzie seems to have started managing the Spirits at this time, although, other than these recordings, there's absolutely nothing in the press that links him to the group.
Three days later, on September 14, the Spirits (without McKenzie) recorded two more songs for Decca: "That's What I Like About You", and "Shoutin' In That Amen Corner". Neither was up to par, since both were recorded again on September 27, along with "Junk Man" and "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes". More about "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes" (one of my favorite songs) below. That tune (which has Wilson Myers' bowed bass) and "Junk Man" were issued on Decca by the end of the year, probably in November. They were also issued on Brunswick and Decca in the U.K.
Note that I always see "Junk Man" associated with drug songs, since "junk" was slang for heroin. I can make out most of the lyrics, and they're really about a rag collector. They clearly say "any old rags", "pickin' up all the junk he can", and "he buys old clothes". (Rag collectors were prevalent at the time; I can remember them walking the streets and yelling "high cash clothes" when I was a child in the Bronx.)
The week of September 28, 1934, the 6 Spirits appeared at the Apollo Theater, along with the Fess Williams Band. The New York Age of October 6 said: "The 'Six Spirits of Rhythm' do not appear to be so hot and if they would muzzle the guy who makes the funny noises [not named, but presumably Leo Watson], the band would be a sight better." This was echoed by the Pittsburgh Courier of December 15, which said: "Brooklyn didn't take a liking to the Six Spirits of Rhythm when they played the Fox theater there a week ago. They got a build up as a very hot combination and, when they didn't deliver, the audience soured to the extent that the bow-off applause was weak." It's hard to imagine the 1934 Spirits not being exciting.
The 6 Spirits (along with pianist Art Tatum) were at the Onyx Club when this gem was printed in the New York Age of September 29, 1934: "Looked in and saw the Six Spirits Of Rhythm at the Onyx, at 52nd street and Broadway, the other night .... They are the Daniel Brothers, Les Watson, Burns and Mise, and the ofays are coming from all over to hear them .... They rate it too." Okay, it's the "Daniels" brothers, "Leo" Watson, "Bunn", and "Myers", but aside from that (and Virgil Scoggins not being mentioned at all), it's pretty accurate. (The accurate part is that the Onyx, because of the Spirits, attracted white audiences by the hundreds. It became increasingly difficult to even get into the club.)
In fact, the 6 Spirits became so well-known that they were hired by one of the biggest names in show business: George M. Cohan. He had decided to make a film out of his 1929 stage play, "Gambling", and the Spirits were tapped to be in it. The September 13, 1934 Los Angeles Times said: "Evidently Harold B. Franklin is seeking to insure his production of 'Gambling,' starring George M. Cohan, with a deal of musical entertainment. He has signed Frank E. Tours, the composer, to provide melodies, and now has added the 'Six Spirits of Rhythm' from a leading club in New York to enliven the harmony of the production. Whether Cohan himself will indulge in a song or two is still undetermined, but he may." (Frank Tours was the musical director for the film. Now that I re-read the blurb, it's possible that producer Harold B. Franklin, former president of Radio City and RKO theaters, was the one who actually hired the Spirits.)
The September 29, 1934 Ithaca (New York) Journal had this: "We have high hopes for the picture 'Gambling' which George M. Cohan will start [filming] at the Astoria studios on Long Island. With Cohan's own play, and with his experience in production given opportunity to influence the making of the picture, entertainment should result." [That last sentence is word for word.] Even though it said "will start", production had actually concluded by that date. The September 2 Cincinnati Enquirer had said that "Camera work has begun at the Eastern Service Studios in Astoria...." Filming seems to have taken place between August 27 and September 26.
[Cohan had made one other movie, 1932's "The Phantom President", and found that he didn't like being told what to do by Hollywood types. This time, he was going to do it his way, by filming in New York.]
Johnny Mercer and Bernie Hanighen (who had written "My Old Man") wrote a song for the movie called "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes". Did the Spirits sing it in the movie? I don't know. Many contemporary accounts mention the song, but none of them say who sang it. While it's reasonable to suspect so (and they had recorded it right after "Gambling" had finished filming and there were only two songs in the picture), nothing ever said what the Spirits actually did in the film. As a matter of fact, I don't believe that a single reviewer who had seen the movie, ever mentioned either the Spirits or the song. What I really don't understand is why there's no mention of them in the black newspapers, which usually lionized performers in vehicles like this. Hang on a moment and you'll learn why this is so hard to figure out.
The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) of November 8, 1934 had this enigmatic sentence [they had just mentioned "My Little Girl", which had been written for the film by Cohan and sung by him]: "Other musical interludes in the dramatic story include the introduction of 'Amazing, Dr. Watson - Elementary, Mr. Holmes' written by two famous song scribblers, Johnny Mercer and Bernie Hanighen, and the 'Six Spirits of Rhythm,' entertainers from the Onyx Club, New York City, who will interpolate one of their characteristic numbers." However, since the writer hadn't yet seen the film (it wouldn't open until the following day), he wouldn't have known if the Spirits had sung the song. The exact same pre-review was printed in other papers, such as the December 20 Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), once again the day before the film opened. I was amazed to find the same review printed in the April 25, 1935 Grenfell Record (New South Wales, Australia). We not only exported our films, but their reviews too!
When the Decca record came out (probably in November 1934 to correspond with the release of the film), the label said "From 'Gambling'". (It would have been so nice if it had said "as sung by the Spirits Of Rhythm in 'Gambling'".)
Fortunately, Mark Cantor came through again, obtaining the shooting script for "Gambling". It confirms that the Spirits sang "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes" in the movie. There's a scene in which Cohan's character is leaving his club and, as he goes, there's a long shot of the "orchestra" (actually the Spirits) singing the song (some of the lyrics are printed in the script). Then, per the stage directions, it shifts to "CLOSE. Two singers; other men in b.g." (that is, a close-up of the two singers who are doing the vocal interplay, with the others in the background), and ends with another long shot of the "orchestra". The segment concludes with the stage direction "Song ends with vo-de-o-do stuff."
Things didn't start off well for the movie. During filming, on September 18, 1934, one of the cast, veteran stage actress Marie Shotwell, died of a cerebral hemorrhage on the set.
But it got worse. Released in early November, the film was generally not well-received by the critics. Cohan, playing a gambler, tries to uncover the murderer of his adopted daughter, but the way he went about it had little to do with reality. [It didn't help that his 1929 play, on which the film was based, had been considered mediocre at the time. As a note of interest, Cohan had hired a young actor named Clark Gable to star in the stage version. However, Gable didn't know that Cohan only wanted someone for the Philadelphia tryouts to see what worked and what didn't. At the last minute, when the play was about to open on Broadway, Cohan paid off Gable and played the part himself.]
The December 4, 1934 New York Times had this to say:
Having his own tart opinion of the mentality of the cinema maharajahs in Hollywood, based upon his experiences during the production of "The Phantom President" several years ago, George M. Cohan has elected to make his second talking picture on Long Island far from the doltish interference of the feeble-minded film supervisors. It is an unpleasant duty this morning to report that he has provided his enemies with unexpected fodder for their cannon. His new photoplay, "Gambling," which was screened at the Mayfair last evening, is a more persuasive argument on behalf of the Hollywood simpletons than any that the cinema's apologists have been able to invent. For "Gambling" is unfortunately deficient in many of the technical fundamentals in which the usual Hollywood product manages to be so unobtrusively suave. Narrated in an inexpert succession of medium and close-up "shots," it qualifies as a photographed stage play rather than a brilliant example of camera technique.
In spite of that, the review went on to say "Its principal actor has not suffered as acutely as his play in the process of transformation. Despite an occasional tendency to speak some of his confidential whispers to the mythical customer in the balcony [in other words, yelling, as if he were on a stage, so that everyone in the theater could hear him], he projects a marvelously friendly personality in his curiously winning style."
This is the review from the December 15 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
"Gambling" might not have been so bad if it weren't just a photographed copy of Mr. Cohan's play, a play which, incidentally, was less than a masterpiece in the first place. Clever direction and imaginative camera work might have helped. As it is, it's a cut-and-dried mystery drama which, come to think of it, is never very mystifying. Mr. Cohan is good, but there isn't much to say for Wynne Gibson, Dorothy Burgess and the others who make up a pretty second-rate supporting cast.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of December 19, 1934 summed it up by saying "'Gambling' isn't particularly a major mistake, just an annoying one." The Pittsburgh Press of December 19 added: "Made economically, it is conspicuously lacking in those lavish touches characteristic of Hollywood-made films. For a murder mystery it travels a rather gentle and unthrilling course and there are no stunning climaxes. And the photography is mediocre." (But they liked Cohan. In fact, most negative reviews were still positive about Cohan.)
Cohan was so distressed by the whole thing that he ordered all copies of the film destroyed. As far as is known, they were, so we'll probably never be able to see their performance. That's a shame, because "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes" was a perfect vehicle for them. (George M. Cohan never appeared in another movie, although he would go on to star in five more Broadway plays. )
In late November 1934, the "Five Spirits Of Rhythm" were appearing at Meeker's in Davenport, Iowa. I have no idea who they were. From time to time, other groups calling themselves the Spirits Of Rhythm were advertised (but there had never been a Spirits Of Rhythm before "our" group).
Here's another enigmatic blurb. This time from national columnist Walter Winchell, as printed in papers all over the country, such as the Reading (Pennsylvania) Times of January 28, 1935: "Who stabbed Teddy Bunn, the Onyx boys' guitarist, in Harlem last week? No mention in the gazettes, either." He was right; there wasn't a single mention of the event other than in his column. I suppose it wasn't all that serious.
On February 28, 1935, the 6 Spirits were guests on Rudy Vallee's radio show (The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour). More important, the night before their appearance, the Onyx Club was destroyed in a fire, along with their instruments. A couple of newspapers reported that the Spirits had to borrow instruments, including a paper-wrapped suitcase and whiskbrooms for Virgil Scoggins. Vallee introduced them by speaking about an imaginary "trip" to the "ultra hot" Onyx Club. He continued: "The fact that the place burned down yesterday needn't bother us." Thanks to J. David Goldin, I got to hear the Spirits sing "Dr. Heckle And Mr. Jibe", a tune that been recorded by the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, and Jack Teagarden. It's a fun song; Leo is scatting; the rest of them are spouting nonsense; and the music is great (lots of tipples and a suitcase being smashed). This is the Spirits at their peak.
While the Onyx fire was real (there were references to it up to a year later), not a single newspaper reported it at the time. (The club was rebuilt and reopened on July 13, 1935.)
I don't know what this was all about, but the Pittsburgh Courier of March 9 had a little blurb titled "Spirits Of Rhythm To Sail For Europe". "They will be gone indefinitely", it said, "to Paris, London and Vienna." For the third time, they didn't go, instead opening on March 21 at the Coin de Paris (62 West 52nd Street), down the block from the shuttered Onyx Club. At least, except for spelling Virgil's name "Scroggins", the article got them all right: Virgil, Douglas, Wilbur, Leo, Wilson, and Teddy.
In early March 1935, the "Five Spirits Of Rhythm", characterized as "A miniature edition of the Mills Bros." were advertised as being in the movie "She's My Lily", playing at the Lee Phoebus Theater in Newport News, Virginia. The title should have been "She's My Lilly, I'm Her Willie" and the group was actually the Five Spirits Of Harmony.
By April 1935, when "Gambling" was playing in Melbourne, Australia, a newspaper advertisement said that it was "Approved by the Censor as Not Suitable for General Exhibition". (There was no explanation given.) While I'm sure Cohan never saw that, he certainly wouldn't have liked it.
Sometime in the spring of 1935, British Brunswick released "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes" and "Junk Man". They also came out on British Decca, but I don't know when.
The New York Post of April 13, 1935 talked about the Spirits at the Coin de Paris: "Then there's continuous entertainment by the Six Spirits of Rhythm, an amazing aggregation of sepian musicians who perform on an assortment of instruments ranging from a pair of whiskbrooms to a bass viol. Some of them wear infectious grins, but the one with the bass [Wilson Myers] maintains the saddest mien while getting 'hot.' It's a first rate act, with plenty of tricks, vocalistics and good music.
By the time of the New York Post's May 20, 1935 column, the 6 Spirits had moved across the street to the Famous Door (35 West 52nd Street): "... there you will hear the Six Spirits of Rhythm, a Negro orchestra composed of four guitarish instruments, a bass viol and a suit case with paper tied over one end. The man who plays the viol never smiles, does wonderful things with it, and is called 'Serious'."
July 2, 1935 saw the opening of Dan Healy's Broadway Room (231 West 52nd Street). Entertainment would be Joe Venuti's Orchestra, Lillian Fitzgerald, Dolores Farris, Floria Vestoff, Ann Ayers, and the 6 Spirits Of Rhythm.
On July 7, the 6 Spirits were guests on a radio program called Uncle Charlie's Tent Show. "Uncle Charlie" was Charles Winninger ("Captain Andy" in the 1936 movie version of "Show Boat"). The Syracuse American of July 7 mentioned the appearance and said: "The Spirits obtain their novel musical effects from the bass fiddle played by Wilson Myers; the guitar of Teddy Bunn; the vocal improvisations and tipples, a combination of guitar and ukulele, of Leo Watson and Doug and Wilbur Daniels, and the whisk-broom drum beats on a paper-covered suitcase, played by the leader, Virgil Scoggins." It always amazes me when newspapers actually get all the names right.
Two of the 1934 tunes ("That's What I Like About You" and "Shoutin' In That Amen Corner") were released on British Brunswick around July 1935 as by the Spirits Of Rhythm. However, the title of the former was mangled to "That's What I Hate About Love" (a point that was mentioned in the October 1935 British magazine Swing Music). These are two more songs that were never issued in the U.S.
And then, another chance at the Big Time. The 6 Spirits were appearing at the Gypsy Tavern in Greenwich Village, when they were hired to become part of the cast of "At Home Abroad", a revue starring Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, Eleanor Powell, Reginald Gardiner, and Eddie Foy, Jr. (It was the first Broadway musical to be directed by Vincente Minnelli.) The August 11, 1935 Long Island Sunday Press reported that the cast was so large (100 performers) that the production company rehearsed in three different theaters: the ballets at the Shubert, the ensembles at the Majestic, and the principals at the Masque.
On August 16, while the show was in rehearsal, Virgil Scoggins (of 298 West 149th Street, New York City) was cited for reckless driving when he crashed into another car on Central Avenue in Yonkers. No one was hurt. (Isn't it amazing the stuff I come up with?)
Out-of-town tryouts were held at the Schubert Theater (Boston), beginning on September 3. Two weeks later, on September 19, it opened at the Winter Garden Theater in Manhattan. The Spirits were used as backup to Ethel Waters when she sang "Hottentot Potentate", "Loadin' Time", "What A Wonderful World", and "The Steamboat Whistle". They also performed "Get Away From It All" along with Roy Campbell's Continentals, another group of singers, whose ranks included future Hollywood and TV actors John Payne and Craig Stevens.
Actually, contemporary accounts differ as to which songs the Spirits were present on. I've heard a recording of "Loadin' Time" and they sound for all the world like a typical Broadway chorus and nothing like the Spirits Of Rhythm. I assume that, because Ethel had to have a black chorus behind her, they just picked a group with name value.
For whatever reason, the Spirits never took a photo with Wilson Myers. The picture in the show's program is the five-man group, although it's captioned "The Six Spirits Of Rhythm".
Brooks Atkinson reviewed the play for the New York Times on September 20 and praised Ethel Waters without mentioning the Spirits at all. They were truly minor members of the cast.
The New York Post of September 24, 1935 said: "And now that Eleanor Powell is rating stardom, the producers just offered her an additional number in the revue. She turned it down because it also called for the Six Spirits of Rhythm - Harlem's music combination - to accompany her in French!" I'm not sure what the implications of this are, or if it's even true.
The Daily Register (Elmhurst, New York) of an unknown date in November 1935, talked about Todd Duncan (star of a brand-new musical you might have heard of: "Porgy And Bess"), who, on November 3, 1935, performed in a radio play called "Glory Road". Also in the cast was "a singing Negro jazz band known as the Six Spirits of Rhythm." I assume it was over by curtain time at both "Porgy" and "At Home Abroad".
In mid-December, the 6 Spirits, along with Edith Wilson and Buck & Bubbles, were entertaining at the Kit Kat Club (152 West 55th Street). They were still in "At Home Abroad".
On Sunday, January 5, 1936, radio audiences were treated to a special version of "At Home Abroad", broadcast over ABC stations at 8:30 PM. It was narrated by Howard Dietz, who had written both the book and the lyrics for the show. Later in January, the show moved from the Winter Garden to the Majestic Theater.
On February 4, 1936, the 6 Spirits ("sad-faced bass player, whiskbrooms and all" said the February 1 New York Post) started alternating with Red Norvo & His Swing Septet at Jack Dempsey's Supper Room. Between night club appearances and the show, the Spirits were certainly busy. The February 8 New York Post said of Wilson Myers: "An additional attraction is the Six Spirits of Rhythm, which boasts the saddest-faced bass player that ever dispensed gay tunes."
"At Home Abroad" ended its Broadway run on March 7 after 198 performances (making it the longest-running musical of that season). The Spirits continued on as part of the road company that took it to the Forrest Theater (Philadelphia) from March 9 to March 22. Then, it was on to the National Theater (Washington, D.C.), from March 23 to March 28. From there, it traveled to Beatrice Lillie's home town, Toronto (March 30 to April 9), but I couldn't find out what theater. April 11 through May 23 found it at the Schubert Grand Opera House (Chicago). On May 25 it opened for six days at the Cass Theater (Detroit). Since Beatrice Lillie's contract was up on June 1, the May 30 performance was the end of the show's run.
Along the way, write-ups of the revue occasionally mentioned the Spirits (but only that they were in the cast). Actually, the only real mention of the Spirits as performers was this (from the January 10, 1936 California Eagle): "There is also a quintette, 'The Five Spirits of Rhythm', which is very good." This was from a report sent to California by the members of the Three Brownies, who saw the show while in New York. Why a quintet? I suppose it's possible that Leo didn't show up that night.
The group was allowed to take on side jobs during the road company's tour, since they played the Club Rio ("3 Miles West of Allentown on Route 222") starting March 21, 1936. The ad in the Mauch Chunk (Pennsylvania) Times-News said: "Stars of Radio, Stage and Screen. Direct from their appearance with Ethel Waters in 'At Home Abroad'. You saw them in Geo. M. Cohen's [sic] Moving Picture 'Gambling'. Several seasons with Ben Bernie as his 'Sepia Cousins' [sic]." The problem? While all the above is true, the group itself was advertised as the "6 Rhythm Rompers". There really was a group by that name and they were advertised in the July 9, 1937 Leader-Republican (Gloversville and Johnstown, New York) as "The dark diamonds of swing, direct from Harlem's Onyx Club, New York". Someone got really mixed up here (me included).
And then, back to New York. June 1936 found them at the Caliente, another spot on West 52nd Street. By October, however, they'd returned to their old home, the Onyx Club (which had re-opened, in the same location, after the fire). They alternated with the orchestra of swing violinist Hezekiah "Stuff" Smith, who was a favorite of author John Steinbeck.
On December 10, 1936, Virgil Scoggins and Wilson Myers copyrighted a song called "That Sunkissed Gal Of Mine". It doesn't look like anyone ever recorded it.
However, by the time an article about the Onyx Club appeared in the January 16, 1937 Billboard, both Virgil and Wilson had departed. (Virgil gave up music, moving to Philadelphia, supposedly to become an undertaker - this was mentioned in that February 2, 1941 New Republic article. Possibly his leaving was occasioned by his marriage to Helena McGavock in June 1936.) Now the group was: Teddy Bunn (guitar), Leo Watson (tipple and trombone imitation), Wilbur Daniels (tipple), Douglas Daniels (tipple), Wellman Braud (bass; "one of the best dog-house beaters in the East"), and Connie Berry ("femme pianist"). [Since it's so big, a stand-up bass is referred to as a "dog-house".] Part of that article read: "Six Spirits achieve their orchestral jam effects solely thru the use of strings, plus a piano, and their vocal work. Troupe is inimitable, typically torrid with their basic Negro rhythm and make departure from hearing a hard job. Arrangements are different from anything done by other instrumental or vocal swing teams. And to top that each of the Spirits has plenty of personality, reflected in the personality of the unit itself."
Wellman Braud (pronounced "bro") was a bassist who was born on January 25, 1891 in Louisiana and died on October 29, 1966 in Los Angeles. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he was part of Duke Ellington's orchestra. After he left the Spirits, he appeared with Hot Lips Page, Sidney Bechet, Clarence Williams' Blue Five (1942 version), Al Sears, Kid Ory, and Bunk Johnson. He was still appearing in February 1966, after a 50-year career.
Cornelia "Connie" Berry was a pianist ("Queen Of The Ivories") who was born in 1904 in Atlanta, Georgia and studied at the Atlanta Conservatory, becoming an Atlanta music teacher. On October 9, 1936, "Cornelia Berry and piano" could be heard on New York's WNEW from 2:50 to 3:00. Gone from the Spirits by mid-1937, she appeared in Pittsburgh in early March 1938 (as accompanist to Gladys Bentley) and was on the Clarence Williams Trio's 1938 Vocalion recording of "I'm Falling For You". After that, she went to Italy to entertain. She'd later appear with the Clarence Williams Trio again. In the 1940s she became Helen Humes' accompanist for several years, Connie died in 1995.
The New York Sun of April 17, 1937 said: "The stay-out-laters still flock to the Onyx Club for their nightly lesson in hot swing music, as played by Stuff Smith and his band, alternating with the Six Spirits Of Rhythm. And now that the Onyx Club has moved to larger quarters in West Fifty-second street, a visit there is doubly enjoyable." Since the Onyx's new address was 62 West 52nd Street, it looks like they took over the premises of the Coin de Paris. With the larger site, they were able to cram in 100 additional customers.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of March 12, 1937 had this delightful sentence fragment: "... Joe Helbock's new Onyx Club quarters, a drunk's throw from the old ..."
The June 19, 1937 Pittsburgh Courier had a little blurb that I find confusing. It's titled "John Kirby Holds Own At N. Y. Nitery" and says:
The latest assembly of swing music in which John Kirby (former Fletcher Henderson bass fiddler) presents Leo and his Spirits of Rhythm now engaged at the Onyx Club, 72 W. 52nd street. The young maestro, who is well known in musical circles, is successor to "Stuff" ("I'se a-Muggin'") Smith, who closed the Onyx engagement after 18 months, is holding his own at the swank nitery, and making a name for himself in Mayfair. [The April 28, 1937 Brooklyn Daily Eagle had talked about Stuff Smith's leaving: "After a record-smashing run of almost two years Stuff Smith turns his Onyx Club baton over to Leo and his Spirits Of Rhythm tomorrow night."]
The outfit consists of Leo Watson, drums; Teddy Bunn, guitar, formerly of "At Home Abroad"; Frank Newton, trumpet; Pete Brown, alto sax; Don Frye, piano, and Buster Bailey, formerly of the Blue Rhythm Band. [William "Buster" "Bailey played clarinet and saxophone.
In addition, they are supplemented with an added attraction, a pair of comely young lades Maxine Williams and Janice Dillard, who are excellent exponents of swing rhythm. [Marietta "Maxine" Williams is the real name of the singer who would soon become famous as "Maxine Sullivan" (and would marry John Kirby the following year). Pianist Janice "Jennie" Dillard was the one who'd discovered Maxine in Pittsburgh and brought her to New York. Jennie would go on to team up with Nora Lee King.]
What does this mean? Are those musicians now the Spirits Of Rhythm? It also isn't clear, but bassist John Kirby is part of it (there was a photo taken of the septet). This would all be so much easier if the Onyx Club had advertised its acts. Actually, Kirby had recently decided to become a bandleader in his own right (having been with Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, and Lucky Millinder) and it probably served his purpose to have the well-known (at least on 52nd Street) Leo Watson's name up front. I imagine that there'd been a rift in the group, with Leo and Teddy continuing to use the Spirits name with Kirby.
Patrick Burke, in his book "Come In And Hear The Truth: Jazz And Race On 52nd Street" (University Of Chicago Press, 2006), attempted to unravel this mess:
In May 1937, Down Beat announced that [Stuff] Smith planned to leave New York around May 15 and that his place at the Onyx probably would be taken by a small group led by bassist John Kirby [which had already happened on April 29]. The group, which had been "rehearing around town for several weeks," comprised Kirby, clarinetist Buster Bailey, alto saxophonist Pete Brown, pianist Don Frye, drummer Freddie Moore, "and [guitarist] Teddy Bunn and Leo Watson of The Six Spirits Of Rhythm." Although this article is not clear about Watson's role, in June the magazine reported that he was the drummer (presumably replacing Moore, who is not mentioned).... The leadership of the group appears to have remained uncertain for some time. Although the May announcement claimed that Kirby was the leader, the June report credited leadership to Watson, and a July advertisement referred to the group in cumbersome fashion as "John Kirby with Leo and His Spirits Of Rhythm featuring Buster Bailey and Frank Newton" (the latter had by this time joined the band on trumpet).
And what happened to Wellman Braud, Connie Berry, Wilbur Daniels, and Douglas Daniels? I've read that there were problems in the group and that there could be two Spirits groups playing on 52nd Street at the same time, but no one ever thought to document that at the time. (Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have either.)
Who were they? A July 8, 1937 ad in the San Francisco Examiner touted the opening of the Plantation. Three of the acts were Dudley Dickerson, Phil Moore, and the Seven Spirits Of Rhythm. The ad copy read: "Fascinating swing music played as never heard before in San Francisco by the Seven Spirits of Rhythm, direct from the Onyx Club, New York City." It also said: "A real Harlem Swing Band, direct from the famous Onyx Club, New York City." I suppose that this was the Kirby group, but why were they in San Francisco, when they'd only recently opened at the Onyx? Another of life's mysteries.
A September 17, 1937 Vocalion session (Buster Bailey & His Rhythm Busters) consisted of Buster Bailey, Pete Brown, Don Frye, John Kirby, and Frank Newton, but not Leo Watson or Teddy Bunn (O'Neil Spencer was on drums and James McLin on guitar).
I don't know why Teddy wasn't there, but the reason Leo Watson didn't record with Buster Bailey on September 17 is that he was recording with Artie Shaw on that day ("Shoot The Likker To Me John Boy", "Free Wheeling", and "I've A Strange New Rhythm In My Heart"). These were all released in 1938 on Brunswick (and Vocalion in the U.K.). The Brunswick labels all said "Art Shaw & His New Music" and "Vocal (?) by Leo Watson". I can't find any evidence that Leo ever appeared with Shaw; it was just the one session. After this, it looks like he returned to Kirby.
Like most musical aggregations, Kirby's could be very fluid. I don't know how much later this was (probably late 1937), but there's another photo that has John Kirby (bass), Leo Watson (vocal), Buster Bailey (clarinet), Pete Brown (sax), O'Neil Spencer (drums), Charlie Shavers (trumpet), and Billy Kyle (piano). Again, there's no Teddy Bunn in sight. (Without Watson, and with the substitution of Russell Procope for Pete Brown, this group left the Onyx for the Famous Door in December 1938.)
One place you could find Teddy was with the other Spirits Of Rhythm, the group that was playing during intermissions at Nick Rongetti's Nick's Tavern in Greenwich Village, some two miles south of 52nd Street (at 7th Avenue and 10th Street). Douglas and Wilbur Daniels were also present, and Leo Watson showed up on occasion. Bassist Wilson Myers was there for at least some of the time (he was off to Europe in 1939). In late 1938, Sidney Bechet (clarinet and sax) would sometimes sit in with them and even Red McKenzie was there at times. I don't know when they started at Nick's, but they were there until early October 1939, after which the Spirits played the Flamingo Club (Boston) before moving on to Kelly's Stable (see below).
In April 1938, Leo left "John Kirby's Sextet" at the Onyx, this time to join drummer Gene Krupa's Orchestra. Leo recorded four songs with Krupa at various times during 1938: "Nagasaki" (on July 19, 1938), "Tutti Frutti" (August 10, 1938), "Jeepers Creepers" (November 18, 1938), and "Do You Wanna Jump, Children" (December 12, 1938). These had all been released, on Brunswick, by the end of 1938.
The April 30, 1938 New York Age had a column of marriage licenses taken out, including one for Wilbur Daniels and Ruth Dash (the stage name of a former Cotton Club dancer, currently working at the Plantation Club).
In the spring of 1938 Teddy Bunn recorded with the Milt Herth Trio (making it the Milt Herth Quartet). He went on to record with Mezz Mezzrow's Quintet by 1939, followed by the Ramblers (with Bob Hamilton on the electric organ, Billy Kyle on piano, and O'Neil Spencer on drums), and the Sidney Bechet Quintet. However, in that October 1939 Band Wagon interview, he seemed to indicate that these were all side jobs and that he'd never left the Spirits (presumably the ones at Nick's Tavern). At this date, it's probably impossible to unravel who was and wasn't in the Spirits (and even how many Spirits groups there were) during the 1937-1940 period.
In the fall, the Spirits went into the Little Club. The October 23, 1938 New York Post said: "A new spot, the Little Club, will open on the site of the old Onyx later this month [actually November 3], featuring Pee Wee Russell and Edith Roark on the program." The November 12 New York Post said: "New faces in gay places ... The popular Spirits Of Rhythm, who have joined Pee Wee Russell, Edith Roark and Dolores Farris at the new Little Club on Fifty-second Street...."
The New York Sun of November 17, 1938 had this (after talking about the Famous Door, at 66 West 52nd Street): "At the adjacent Little Club, the depressing show of the opening week [which had an accordionist, an Irish tenor, and a stripper, in addition to Russell] has been eliminated and the entertaining Spirits Of Rhythm imported to spell Pee-Wee Russell and his band. The Spirits at present number only four rather than the usual six, but it is promised that the missing two members will be added in a few days. However, the atmosphere of the place is still distinctly uncertain, with no assurance that all or most of the members of the band will be present on a given evening." This has to be Kirby's group, since Teddy's was still at Nick's.
The problem? The Onyx didn't close, at least not until December 1939 (a new one would open in 1942), and there continued to be many references to it (even some that I'll have for you in a moment). Just another mystery (but I'll let someone else unravel this one).
A couple of months later, Leo Watson was back with Kirby's outfit. The New York Sun of an unknown date in February 1939 said: "Leo Watson, swing singer is back at the Onyx Club, where he first rode the rhythm rails to recognition with Stuff Smith's band [they actually meant to say that Leo and the Spirits alternated with Smith at the club in 1936], then rose to the featured vocalist spot with Gene Krupa's orchestra. Watson now heads the Six Spirits Of Rhythm ensemble at the Onyx." How soon they forgot that Watson was an original member! Walter Winchell, in his March 4, 1939 column, gave "orchids" (praise) to "Leo Watson's scat-singing with John Kirby's crew at the Onyx."
And why was Watson now back? Part of the reason was revealed by the January 28, 1939 Indianapolis Recorder, in their review of the Count Basie and Gene Krupa versions of "Do You Wanna Jump, Children": "Performances by both bands are excellent, with [Basie's] James Rushing and [Krupa's] Leo Watson, who hadn't been fired by Gene when the disc was cut, handling the vocals." Due to his unpredictable antics, Leo had been let go by Krupa in December 1938.
[It turned out that Leo was the last black performer appearing with a white band. Many bands had black singers in 1938, but social pressures forced the bandleaders to let them go. When Leo was fired, black newspapers lamented the prejudice in the music industry. However, while it must have been hard for Artie Shaw to let Billie Holiday go or Jimmy Dorsey to fire June Richmond, Leo's bizarre shenanigans must have driven Krupa crazy.]
So, if you like your spirits, there were now two groups: Teddy Bunn's downtown at Nick's and Kirby's unit uptown at the Onyx (sometimes called the Spirits Of Rhythm and sometimes containing Leo Watson).
On March 10, 1939, the Six Spirits Of Rhythm were part of a jam session at the Hotel Park Lane. Also present were Benny Carter, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Zutty Singleton, Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon, Billie Holiday, and Leo Watson (listed separately). Was Leo a part of the Spirits or performing alone? Again, there's no answer to that. Kirby, Leo, and the 6 Spirits were still at the Onyx in May.
A March 12, 1939 article in the New York Times talks about John Kirby's band at the Onyx Club. There are six of them and "Also in evidence in the same dim quarters are Julie Cardoba, singing the slow songs, and the Six Spirits Of Rhythm, getting hot with an assortment of ukuleles, banjos and an empty trunk for percussion." Does this mean that the Spirits were a separate unit from Kirby's band? It sounds like it, but you never know. Since they went out of their way to mention the trunk, does that imply that Virgil Scoggins has re-joined them or that some other musician brought along a suitcase because the patrons expected it? I suspect the former, since Virgil did come back for a while in 1939 (we'll run into him again in a bit).
In the Pittsburgh Courier's 1939 All-American Band poll, Teddy Bunn came in second, right behind Artie Shaw's guitarist, Al Avola.
"I Got Rhythm" and "Rhythm" were re-released, on English Parlophone in May of 1939. Label credit reverted back to the "5 Spirits Of Rhythm".
On Monday, June 5, 1939, "Slam and the Six Spirits of Rhythm" were part of an Apollo Theater benefit show for the Harlem Children's Center of the Children's Aid Society. It ran from 1 AM through 5:30 AM and had an amazing lineup: Eubie Blake's Orchestra (in the theater's orchestra pit), plus the orchestras of Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, and Mercer Ellington. There were also the bands of Dr. Sausage & His Pork Chops, John Kirby, and Noble Sissle. Other bandleaders present (who didn't bring their own orchestras): Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnett, Rudy Vallee, and Cab Calloway. If you're tired of bands, they also had Babe Wallace, Bardu Ali, Jigsaw Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Pigmeat Markham, Jimmy Baskette, Vivian Harris (the "Voice Of The Apollo"), Billy Rowe, Dan Healy, the Southernaires, Ralph Cooper, Buck & Bubbles, Helen Kane, Willie Bryant, Billie Holiday, Stump & Stumpy, Aida Ward, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Benny Payne, Joe E. Lewis, Mabel Scott, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Orson Welles, Sister Tharpe, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Maxine Sullivan, and Bob Parrish. There was so much talent present that 18 acts had to be cancelled for lack of time, including: the Plantation Revue, Sally Gooding, the Smalls Paradise Revue, Taps Miller, Rubberlegs Williams, Honi Coles, the Cole Brothers, and Hall Johnson's World's Fair Choir. I imagine that many, many Harlemites didn't make it to work the next day. Bet you wish you'd been there.
Note that, at that show, Kirby's band was listed separately from (and performed separately from) "Slam and the Six Spirits of Rhythm". Who's Slam? The only musician I know with the nickname "Slam" is bassist Leroy "Slam" Stewart, half of Slim & Slam. Sure enough, as confirmation, the book "Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews, And Other Riffs On Jazz Musicians" (by Max Jones) puts Slam with the Spirits in early 1939. Additionally, Joop Visser, in his liner notes to the "Slim Gaillard: Laughing In Rhythm" CD set on Proper, said: "By September 1939, Slam Stewart was also working with the Spirits of Rhythm and only worked selective dates with Slim." This would have to be the group from Nick's Tavern, since both Slam Stewart and John Kirby were bassists. I wish someone had bothered to document all this at the time.
Leroy "Slam" Stewart was a bassist who was born on September 21, 1914 in Englewood, New Jersey, and died in Binghamton, New York, on December 10, 1987. Not only did he add his own frenetic vocals to the Slim & Slam duets, but he bowed his bass (unusual for jive music), while humming an octave higher than what he was playing. (However, he knew how to slap a bass, which accounted for his "Slam" nickname.) He teamed up with Bulee "Slim" Gaillard in 1937 to produce some of the greatest nonsense duets the music world has ever known (including the iconic "Flat Foot Floogee"). During the 1940s, Slam performed with all the big names in jazz, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Red Norvo, Don Byas, Dizzy Gillespie, and even Benny Goodman. He was only with the Spirits for a few months in 1939 (certainly gone by November).
[The book "Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron's Memoir - 1934-1969" (Scarecrow Press, publishers of the most amazing Ink Spots book ever written) recounts the American trips of Timme Rosenkranz, a Danish baron and jazz aficionado. The one interesting sentence is: "So on nights when the spirits moved them in different directions, on less than the friendliest of terms, you might find two groups billed as the Spirits of Rhythm working at rival clubs."]
Leo Watson left again after this (although I don't know if he left the Spirits or Kirby) and did some recordings on August 22, 1939 as "Leo Watson and His Orchestra". This session was supposedly set up because the Andrews Sisters, who had seen Leo perform on several occasions, persuaded their manager, Lou Levy, to make it happen. The four tunes ("The Man With The Mandolin", "Utt Da Zay (The Tailor Song)", "Jada", and "It's The Tune That Counts") were released on Decca in late 1939. The other musicians were Frank Victor (guitar), Haig Stephens (bass), O'Neil Spencer (drums), Gene De Paul (piano), Paul Ricci (clarinet and sax), Ralph Muzzillo (trumpet), and Johnny McGhee (trumpet). These were probably just musicians gathered together for the session. [And, in case you're interested, "Utt Da Zay", also recorded by Cab Calloway and the Quintones (both on Vocalion), should be "ut azoy", meaning "just like that" in Yiddish. On top of that, the song was partially written by Buck Ram.]
A small weekly magazine called Jazz Information had this to say in their October 10, 1939 edition: "The Spirits of Rhythm, featuring Teddy Bunn on guitar and Marlo [sic; should be "Marlowe"] on piano, are booking for the Flamingo Club in Boston. The engagement was to start last night (Monday)." I'll assume [probably foolishly] that the group had the same members as at their Kelly's Stable appearance (below). The same issue had this: "The Onyx Club, long known as the Cradle of Swing, will reopen on Wednesday night with Jimmy Mundy’s new band and Leo Watson, vocalist formerly with Art Shaw, Gene Krupa and the Spirits of Rhythm."
In late October 1939, the Spirits went into Kelly's Stable at 141 West 51st Street in midtown Manhattan for around a month. There's a photo of them at Kelly's, showing Teddy Bunn, Wilbur Daniels, and Douglas Daniels. According to the Indianapolis Recorder of November 25, 1939, the other three were Les Millington (bass), Marlowe Morris (piano), and (surprise, surprise) Virgil Scoggins (no instrument mentioned). Looks like Virgil was brought back for one more round. (Since new members Millington and Morris were mentioned, Virgil's name couldn't have come from an old press release.) There's no trace of Leo Watson at this time. Interestingly, that article gave Douglas's instrument as the trumpet, although the photo shows him with a tipple. (Remember the trumpet, though, it'll be back later.)
Marlowe Morris, a pianist, was born May 16, 1915 in the Bronx and died May 28, 1978 in Brooklyn. In the army in World War 2, he later worked with Al Sears, Sid Catlett, and Tiny Grimes. He was only a member of the Spirits for a short while in 1939. In spite of the November 25 write-up, he was actually gone from the group by then. A small blurb in the November 14, 1939 Jazz Information told us that "Stella Brooks, who opened at the Onyx Saturday night, will continue as featured singer. Marlo [sic], recently pianist with the Spirits of Rhythm, will accompany her and play solo."
Leslie "Les" Millington, a bassist, was born in Culobra (Panama Canal Zone) on October 28, 1915 and came to New York at the age of five. He lived in Brooklyn, got married in 1934, and died in September 1976. 1947 found him as part of Kenny Watts' Hot Five, the group that backed up Redd Foxx on his Savoy recordings. He was another short-timer with the Spirits.
A small blurb in the December 8, 1939 Philadelphia Inquirer said that the "original" 6 Spirits Of Rhythm (whatever that meant) were at the Musical Bar at Irvin Wolf's Rendezvous Room in Philadelphia's Hotel Senator. The same paper, a week later (December 15), had a blurb that began with "The Spirits of Rhythm, Ben Bernie's 'Sepia Nephews' ...." At least someone remembered that.
The January 26, 1940 Philadelphia Inquirer said that "The Spirits of Rhythm's musical and vocal syncopation continues. They have added 'Scat Leo' Watson." He'd been, as we've seen, in and out of the group for the last couple of years; this is a pattern that would continue.
In February 1940, the Spirits (with Leo) were still playing the Rendezvous Room, where they alternated with the Toppers (not the group that would become the Red Caps). They were called the "Jivin' Five", but membership is uncertain.
It's even more uncertain by mid-March, when they finally ended their run at the Rendezvous, because now they were the "six jivin' Spirits of Rhythm". If it helps, on April 5, when the census taker came around, Wilbur was a "musician - orchestra".
The New York Sun, from May 9, 1940, said: "... another talented ensemble whose members include Leo Watson, Teddy Bunn on guitar and a pair of the original 'Spirits Of Rhythm' (presumably the Daniels Brothers)." At this time, there were only the four of them.
On August 19, 1940, Teddy Bunn (guitar), Douglas Daniels (tipple), and Wilbur Daniels (bass) appeared on radio with Lionel Hampton (as the Lionel Hampton Quartet). Two songs from that show, "Tempo And Swing" and "Flying Home", found their way onto a 1971 LP (Joker SM 3115 - "Great Swing Jam Sessions, Volume 2"). Note that Wilbur has now taken up the bass.
On August 21, 1940, Teddy Bunn and Douglas Daniels were on the Lionel Hampton session that recorded "Martin On Every Block" (for DJ Martin Block), "Charlie Was A Sailor" (with a vocal by Douglas Daniels), "Pig Foot Sonata", and "Just For Laffs". Called "Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra", the others were: Hayes Alvis (bass); Kaiser Marshall (drums); Marlowe Morris (piano); and Lionel Hampton (vibes). These were all released on Victor that year. They seemed to be musicians just gathered for the session, since, on September 1, Hampton flew to California to organize a new band.
December 30, 1940 found the 4 Spirits Of Rhythm at the Hickory House (144 West 52nd Street). Presumably this is Teddy, Leo, Wilbur, and Douglas, but of course that's not certain.
A new year; a new venture. In early 1941, the 4 Spirits Of Rhythm (definitely Teddy, Leo, Wilbur, and Douglas) relocated to Los Angeles and spent the rest of their career there. It would be nice to know why they went, but that was never reported. Possibly, Lionel Hampton convinced them that there were more opportunities on the West Coast. That New Republic article from February 2, 1941 said "They are now on their way to the coast." (Of course, I don't know when the interview took place, but they were probably planning the move in late 1940.)
Their first Los Angeles gig seems to have been four months at the Radio Room in Hollywood, probably beginning in March. There's a photo of the 4 Spirits there and the caption, printed on the photo, says "Appearing nightly at Hollywood's Radio Room". It shows Leo with his tipple, Teddy with his guitar, Wilbur on bass, and Douglas on trumpet.
On March 5, 1941, Teddy, Wilbur, Leo, and Douglas received a $500 loan from Hollywood Recreation of 1539 North Vine Street, the company that owned the building in which the Radio Room nightclub was located. The note that they signed didn't indicate the purpose of the loan. The online scan is small, but it really looks like Wilbur signed "Daniel".
It didn't take them long to hit the silver screen. In early April, filming began on the Columbia picture, "Sweetheart Of The Campus", starring Ruby Keeler, Ozzie Nelson, and Harriet Nelson. In it, the 4 Spirits Of Rhythm, led by Leo, sing "Tom Tom, The Elevator Boy". The scene opens with the four of them shooting dice on the bandstand; they stop only when they hear applause. Wilbur is playing the same white bass that's in the photo from the Radio Room, Teddy is on guitar, and Douglas has a tipple. Leo is playing a large tenor ukulele that has gut strings rather than steel (more comfortable to play, but not as loud, which probably isn't a consideration in a movie soundtrack).
Note that the plot of "Sweetheart Of The Campus" revolves around opposition to a nightclub opening up adjacent to a college. That's why the elevator in "Tom Tom, The Elevator Boy" makes stops at "Engineering", "Mathematics", "Chem", and "Science".
The California Eagle of July 17, 1941 said: "The Four Spirits of Rhythm now appearing at the Club Alabam are slated for a flicker very soon. (Note to those nosy people. This is why they are on leave from the Radio Room.)" I've been fortunate so far, because what's been written about the Spirits up to now has been in English, but I knew it couldn't last. In spite of it saying "very soon", "Sweetheart Of The Campus" had been released over three weeks before the blurb appeared. I get the feeling that the blurb should have been printed a couple of months before and someone forgot. That's why they seemingly haven't made the movie yet and why the Club Alabam appearance is overlaid over the Radio Room. This is borne out by the Club Alabam ad that appeared in the July 10 California Eagle; it said of the Spirits: "just completed a 4 months engagement at Hollywood Radio Room".
The June 24, 1941 Los Angeles Times gave the film a dismal review, titled "'Sweetheart Of The Campus' No Sweetheart Of A Movie". The review ended with "The best that can be said for 'Sweetheart of the Campus' is that it provided work for a bunch of people who must have needed it." (It was Ruby Keeler's last starring role.) There was only one bright spot, said the reviewer: "The Four Spirits Of Rhythm, with Leo Watson, put zip into 'Tom Tom'."
And then, some more recording. On September 4, 1941 they had a waste-of-time session for Columbia Records in Los Angeles (six songs, not one of them released). Four of them ("It's A Long, Long Way To Tipperary", "I Woke Up With A Teardrop In My Eye", "From Monday On", and "Exactly Like You") were as backup to Ella Logan; two were just the Spirits ("Walkin' This Town" and "We've Got The Blues").
Ella Logan was a Scottish singer and actress, born March 6, 1910 in Glasgow. By the late 1920s, she was a band singer in London and then a stage actress. Soon afterward, she came to America and became a club singer. By the late 1930s she'd found her way to Hollywood and was in some half-dozen films. Still in Los Angeles in 1941, she teamed up with the Spirits for this one session. During the war, she did a lot of USO shows in Europe and then turned to Broadway, where she was the first performer to sing "How Are Things In Glocca Morra" in "Finian's Rainbow".
Who were the Spirits on these recordings? Instrumentation is sparse and there seem to be no more than four voices. Leo is there with his voice, Teddy is there with his guitar, and there are also a tipple, bass and drums. I've read that these last two were played by Red Callender and Georgie Vann. However, I'd have to see their names in the Columbia files before I'd believe that. My vote is for Leo on the drums, Wilbur on the bass, and Douglas on the tipple. However, in spite of some nice playing by Teddy, these songs are not as exciting as their earlier efforts. The really odd one is a jive version of "It's A Long, Long Way To Tipperary", with Ella Logan doing the vocal and Leo scatting. It doesn't work for me.
The following month, the Spirits Of Rhythm made four Soundies for R.C.M. Productions of Hollywood. (Note that the "R" in R.C.M. stood for James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.)
Much of the following information comes from Mark Cantor of Celluloid Improvisations.
They were called the 5 Spirits Of Rhythm in the Soundies, although the numbers don't always seem to add up: in "Alabamy Bound" there are only four of them onscreen, but on the soundtrack (on which they don't sing), they're augmented by pianist Raymond La Rue and trumpeter Jesse Perdue. There's also a drummer playing with wire brushes, but he's unidentified (certainly not the long-gone Virgil Scoggins). The drumming is somewhat rudimentary and could have been Leo, who liked to fool around with drums, or even Ray Bauduc, who was in the studio that day with Bob Crosby's band.
On October 23, 1941, they recorded three soundtracks for R.C.M., two in support of Dorothy Dandridge and one with comedian Jackie Greene. The following day, they did a soundtrack accompanying vocalist Judy Carol. As with most movies, soundtracks were recorded first; filming and lip-synching came later. ("Sidelining" is the term used to refer to being seen on camera, as opposed to being heard on the soundtrack. You can sideline to your own recording or to someone else's. Thus, Marni Nixon sang the songs in "My Fair Lady", but Audrey Hepburn sidelined them, as she was the one lip-synching on camera.)
The Soundies were:
Yes, Indeed!, with Dorothy Dandridge (released on November 24, 1941). The four singers appear onscreen with her; in the background is pianist Raymond La Rue. They sing part of "I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes" and then back Dorothy on "Yes, Indeed!" In spite of there actually being five of them, the title credit is just "The Spirits Of Rhythm".
Jim (released on November 24). They back Judy Carroll, but aren't seen on-screen. (The song is also known as "Carrying The Torch For Jim".) She'd go on to sing with Lucky Millinder's Orchestra for a couple of years and newspaper accounts spelled her name as both "Carol" and "Carroll" ("Judy Carol" is correct); she's the same singer who (as "Judy Carol") would record "I Want To Love And Be Loved" with the Basin Street Boys on Exclusive in 1947.
Alabamy Bound (released on December 22). The main "star" is Jackie Greene, an Eddie Cantor impersonator (and very good at it). They're billed as the 5 Spirits Of Rhythm, but only four are shown in their "big scene" (although there are 5 at the end). They provide the music on the soundtrack, but don't perform in the film, instead being used in a scene where they, as porters, shine shoes while wearing stupidly happy expressions. The January 3, 1942 Billboard, for some reason, thought that "Four Spirits of Rhythm cast as Pullman porters add to the production."
Easy Street (released on December 29). The Spirits (Douglas, Teddy, Leo, and Wilbur, but not Raymond La Rue) were sidelined backing up Dorothy Dandridge. (They sing on the soundtrack, but they're not playing; that's Bob Crosby's band.) Leo duets and scats with Dorothy on the soundtrack, but I haven't seen the full Soundie. (Note that Douglas is seen playing the trumpet, while on the soundtrack you hear a saxophone.)
The California Eagle of January 1, 1942 reported that Ruth Dash, wife of "Wilber Daniel" [sic] had come to California to visit her husband, "bass player with that popular swing combination, the 'Five Spirit [sic] Of Rhythm.' They are now featured at the famous Club Capri."
In February or March, Leo Watson was tapped for the M-G-M movie "Panama Hattie" (with Red Skelton and Ann Southern). Billed as "Zoot Watson", he's prominently seen playing the drums behind (and in front of) Lena Horne in a musical number called "The Sping". There were no other members of the Spirits in the movie, which was released in September 1942. ["Zoot" was one of the words Leo would yell from time to time for no particular reason. For example, the May 8, 1941 Los Angeles Times said: "... watching the 'zoot' antics of Leo Watson." However, he certainly didn't invent the word, nor did he have anything to do with the naming of the zoot suit.]
Numbering problem time again: by late February 1942, the reunited Slim & Slam (who had also migrated to California) and the Four Spirits Of Rhythm were at Billy Berg's Club Capri (at Pico and La Cienega). The Spirits had been held over as the intermission band between Slim & Slam's act. I believe that pianist Raymond La Rue joined them on and off, but wasn't a permanent member.
A big article in the March 7, 1942 Pittsburgh Courier outlined all the black talent working in Los Angeles. America had settled into war mode and defense workers needed all the diversion they could get. Playing in the area were Ceelle Burke, Cee Pee Johnson, Lorenzo Flennoy, Floyd Ray, the California Rhythm Rascals, Rose Murphy, Slim & Slam, and, of course, the 4 Spirits Of Rhythm.
In mid-March, Slim & Slam, the Spirits, and the Loumell Morgan Trio played at the Dance For Victory at the Shrine Auditorium. Jack Teagarden, Bob Crosby, Kay Kyser, and Paul Whiteman also entertained. It ran from 7 PM to 5 AM.
On May 2, 1942, Otis Rene, Herbie Jeffries, and Wilbur Daniels copyrighted a song called "I Woke Up With A Teardrop In My Eye". Herb Jeffries recorded it, as did the Ink Spots, but on neither label did Wilbur's name appear in the writer credit.
In May 1942, the Spirits began a short run at another of Billy Berg's clubs, the Trouville (at Beverly and Fairfax), along with Lee and Lester Young's combo, the house band. There were radio broadcasts from the club over KHJ (930 on your AM dial), and, on June 1, the Spirits sang something called "Bo-Go-Joe".
On August 13-15, Teddy Bunn & His 5 Spirits Of Rhythm appeared at L.A.'s Lincoln Theater. In addition to Teddy, Leo, Wilbur, and Douglas, the group once again had pianist Raymond La Rue as the fifth member.
Raymond "Jack" La Rue was a pianist, who played around the Los Angeles area. He seems to have been born in Pennsylvania on December 13, 1902 and died September 29, 1985 in Los Angeles. In 1945, he was part of the Red Callender Trio and in 1950, he portrayed the club pianist in the film "D.O.A.". He sometimes called himself "Ramon" (and that's how he signed the contract mentioned below). In 1946, "Jack LaRue and his Quartet" had several records on Aladdin. I assume he got the nickname "Jack" because there was a movie star by that name.
Also in August 1942, the 5 Spirits were back to playing Billy Berg's Club Capri, when they got a one-shot engagement to provide the entertainment at the Lakewood Country Club (a benefit to raise money for lifeguards). On the 29th, all five of them signed an agreement with the local musician's union to pay for substitute musicians to cover for them at the Capri. The Capri engagement was still going strong at the end of November, when they were alternating there with Lorenzo Flennoy.
But that's the last mention ever of the Spirits Of Rhythm containing Wilbur and Douglas Daniels. [In 1943, there were ads for Rudy Warren and his Spirits Of Rhythm and Frank "Dusty" Neal and his 3 Spirits Of Rhythm, but these were local bands in Albany and Schenectady, both in New York State.]
I have little idea what happened to the brothers after that, although I believe that they remained in California for a while. It's possible that Douglas returned to New York in 1945, since, on August 29 of that year, he was the vocalist on "Baby I'm Cuttin' Out" (which he'd written) with the Mezzrow-Bechet Quintet [fronted by Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow and Sidney Bechet]. It was waxed for Mezzrow's King Jazz label in New York, but wasn't released at the time. Wilbur will turn up once more, in 1947, but we'll get to that later.
Leo Watson carried on. In late 1942, he did the voice of "Prince Chawmin'" in the Warner Bros. cartoon "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs", released in January 1943 (with Vivian Dandridge as the voice of "So White"). Hilarious, but not at all politically correct, it's difficult to find a copy nowadays.
Another Warner Bros. cartoon that Leo voiced was "Tin Pan Alley Cats", released in July 1943. In this one, Leo plays a "Fats Waller" character (literally a cat) and does plenty of scatting. According to Rob Clampett (son of Bob Clampett, who directed both cartoons), this voiceover was done at the same time as "Coal Black", so Leo was at the studio and available to do both. In it, there's a group that sings "Nagasaki", and some sources say it's the 4 Spirits Of Rhythm. If it really is, there's no telling who the personnel are. Regardless of who does voices in Warner Bros. cartoons, usually only Mel Blanc gets any credit, making it difficult to know who else is present.
In early 1943, 20th Century Fox began filming the great "Stormy Weather" (with Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, and Babe Wallace). The April 1, 1943 California Eagle (talking about the film, which was then in production) apologized for the omission of several names from an article that had run the prior week: "Musicians left out of the story about Bill Robinson and his twenty drums in Fox's 'Stormy Weather' [in the 'African Dance' number] were Edward Short, Prince Modupe, Henry Gree [sic; was this future Red Cap and Trenier drummer Henry Tucker Green?], Leo Watson, Alton Redd, Roy Walton, Freddie Davis, Cornelius "Connie" Jordan, Harold 'Fess' White, Rudolph Hunter, and Lee Gibson, the leader. They, with ten other singers, who had recorded the song 'Jungle Drums,' beat them while Bill danced from one to the other." I've watched the sequence several times but I can't pick out anyone who could be Leo. The film was released in November.
[What I find strange about "Stormy Weather" is the actors and musicians who appeared, but who didn't receive any credit: Jeni LeGon, Stymie Beard, Judy Carol, Vivian Dandridge, Teddy Buckner, Benny Carter, Maggie Hathaway, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, Flournoy Miller, Taps Miller, the Nicholas Brothers, Zutty Singleton, Ernest "Bubbles" Whitman (as Jim Europe), and, especially, Babe Wallace (as "Chick", the "villain"). There were many others.]
In September 1943, the Spirits Of Rhythm cut the old Slim & Slam tune "Tutti Frutti" for an AFRS Jubilee record, which was "released" in October. (AFRS Jubilee recordings were made by black entertainers and broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service; the discs weren't meant for commercial release.) Just a trio, the personnel were Leo Watson (drums and scatting), Teddy Bunn (guitar), and Raymond La Rue (piano). Why not the Daniels Brothers? We'll probably never know.
The same three were due to appear as "Teddy Bunn & His Waves Of Rhythm" at Lew Le Roy and Bill Hawkins' Ship Ahoy on October 25, 1943. Two ads, prior to the start of the gig, named the others as "Scats" Watson ("That Trap-Happy Drummer") and Baron Raymond La Rue. However, those were the only two advertisements and the October 24 ad is the last one I can find for the Ship Ahoy, period, so I don't know if they performed at all or even if the club itself remained open. (By late December, Lew Le Roy was running another club.)
In November 1943, Esquire magazine announced the results of its first Jazz Poll. The top male jazz singer was Louis Armstrong; number two was Leo Watson. Leonard Feather (whom we'll meet in a moment) said that, in order to present Leo with the award, it took them months to find him (he was working in a defense plant, loading trucks). The other awards were given out at a war-bond fund-raising concert (featuring the winners and the runners-up) on January 18, 1944; I don't really know when Leo finally got his "Esky", but he missed out on performing at the Metropolitan Opera House (Manhattan) with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Red Norvo, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, and Jack Teagarden. Since Leo was still performing in October 1943, I don't know why it took so long to find him.
The May 27, 1944 Billboard said "Spirits Of Rhythm (3) held over at the Brown Derby, Chicago." [The "(3)" indicates that there were three members.] Actually, this was a female group that played the Chicago area. There were other groups calling themselves the Spirits Of Rhythm during this time, including two in Upstate New York. None of them had any relation to our Spirits.
July and early August found Teddy and drummer Zutty Singleton as part of the "Teddy Bunn Trio", backing up Savannah Churchill, who'd just left Benny Carter and was currently appearing at Billy Berg's Swing Club. In August 1944, "Teddy Bunn And His Rhythm Kings" were advertised at Major Kaye's H.Q. in Hollywood. No members were named.
While there's not a single mention of our Spirits in 1944, in his autobiography, "There And Back", drummer Roy Porter says that he came to Los Angeles in May 1944 and, some time later, became part of Teddy Bunn's Spirits Of Rhythm for a while. He called them a "tiple group", so it's possible that Wilbur and Douglas were there. The only member he names is pianist Jack La Rue and the only venue he mentions is Major Kaye's Supper Club in Hollywood. Did he really mean "Teddy Bunn's Rhythm Kings", who played Major Kaye's in August? Or, is it possible that Teddy bounced the name of the group from the Rhythm Kings to the Spirits Of Rhythm?
Roy Porter was born in Walsenburg, Colorado on July 30, 1923 and died in Los Angeles on January 25, 1998. Around 1942, he was part of Milt Larkin's Orchestra. After he left the Spirits, he became a member of the Howard McGhee Quartet. Embracing the be-bop movement, he played with Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss, and Charlie Parker, recording with the latter on his 1946 Dial session. He also drummed behind Charlie Mingus, Benny Carter, Little Richard, and Joe Liggins, as well as being a part of the Hollywood Four Blazes on occasion. In the 1950s he worked with Sonny Criss and Earl Bostic in San Francisco, graduating to Louis Jordan and Perez Prado.
But pianist, composer, and jazz critic Leonard Feather wasn't willing to let the Spirits evaporate just yet. In early 1945, after hunting up Leo again (and finding him cleaning floors in a restaurant), he arranged a session for Paul Reiner's Black & White Records with Leo, Teddy Bunn (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Georgie Vann (drums), Ulysses Livingston (guitar), and himself on piano.
George "Red" Callender (bassist) was born on March 6, 1916 in Haynesville, Virginia and died on March 8, 1992 in Santa Clarita, California. He began the 1940s as part of the trio that backed up Lillian Randolph, moved to the combo fronted by Lester and Lee Young, and then formed his own trio. Aside from the bass, he also played trumpet and tuba. Becoming a back-up musician, he was part of B. Bumble & The Stingers on their 1961 recording of "Bumble Boogie".
George Wilbert "Georgie" Vann (drummer and vocalist) was born July 15, 1906 in Oklahoma and died on April 28, 1960 in Los Angeles. He enlisted in the army (coastal artillery) in March 1941 and was discharged in May 1942. (Although that was a pretty short hitch, he was honorably discharged.) George was part of the Sepia-Tones on Art Rupe's Juke Box label, Luke Jones's unit in mid-1946, and Marvin Johnson & His Blue Rhythm Boys in December 1947.
Ulysses Gwinn Livingston (guitar) was born January 29, 1912 in Bristol, Tennessee and died on October 7, 1988 in Los Angeles. He was a part of the Varsity Serenaders in 1939 and a member of the Hollywood Four Blazes from at least 1945 to 1947 (along with pianist George Crawford, bassist La Grande Mason, and a drummer/vocalist who was, at various times, Cornelius "Connie" Jordan, Dan Grissom, Roy Porter, or Charles Gray). He and Red Callender were part of the Jazz At The Philharmonic show in February 1945. Livingston later worked with Ella Fitzgerald in the early 1950s and was still active with a combo in 1968.
Leonard Geoffrey Feather (jazz critic, composer, pianist) was born in London on September 13, 1914 and died in Los Angeles on September 22, 1994. Coming to the U.S. in 1939, Leonard became an editor of Metronome and was the jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times, as well as the author of innumerable album liner notes. Along the way, he wrote over 400 songs, including "Evil Gal Blues", "Blowtop Blues", "A Woman's Place Is In The Groove", "Baby Get Lost", "I Know How To Do It", "Taxi Blues", "How Blue Can You Get?", and the Spirits' "Suspicious Blues", "She Ain't No Saint", and "Last Call Blues". Leonard was responsible for setting up many recording sessions, some of which (like the Spirits') he actively participated in.
This group recorded six sides on January 24, 1945: "Suspicious Blues" (vocal by George Vann), "Coquette (Chicken Croquette)" (vocal by Teddy Bunn & Leo Watson), "Honeysuckle Rose (Honey-Sock-Me-On-The Nose)" (vocal by Teddy Bunn & Leo Watson), "Last Call Blues" (vocal by George Vann), "She Ain't No Saint" (vocal by George Vann & Leo Watson), and "Scattin' The Blues" (vocal by Leo Watson). All were released during the first half of 1945.
In September 1945, Leo seems to have been part of a couple of Slim Gaillard recording sessions for Queen Records. However, if he's actually there, it's just as a drummer; he doesn't do any vocals.
But he does on an October 1945 AFRS recording (#151) with Slim Gaillard and Thomas "Tiny" Brown (who had taken over for Slam Stewart and was also nicknamed "Bam"). This rather long opus was titled "Avocado Seed Soup Symphony".
Meanwhile, Teddy Bunn had formed another group, a trio called the Aristo Cats (with Pete Martin on piano and Julius Gilmore on bass). By the time their Christmas greeting appeared in the December 20, 1945 California Eagle, they were appearing at the Susie Q Cafe in Hollywood.
In February 1946, "Teddy Bunn's Group" released a version of "E-Bob-O-Lee-Bob" (called "Ee-Bobaliba") on Gilt Edge, with a vocal by Monette Moore. The February 16, 1946 Billboard had this to say about the song (although they called it "Be Bobaliba"): "... another version, a poor one at that, of the very popular fast blues written, recorded and introduced by Helen Humes. Her version, needless to say, is still the best." Sadly, I'd have to agree that this one is nothing special.
And then, Teddy died. Well, kind of. Actually, not at all. The March 23, 1946 Pittsburgh Courier reported, in photographer Billy Rowe's gossip column: "East Coasters were shocked to hear of the suicidal shot which ended the career of Teddy Bunn, former member of the Six Spirits of Rhythm, out on the West Coast last week." Only it never happened. Teddy had just joined Edgar Hayes' Stardusters, and he would keep strumming away until 1978. The Courier, however, never printed a retraction.
In September 1946, Leo made one more recording with Slim Gaillard, this time for a V-Disc (#684). Called "Fried Chicken O'Routee (From the 'Fried Bird O'Roonee Suite')". Leo's vocals fit in very nicely with Slim's madcap way of singing. There should have been more things by them.
Around the same time (September 7, 1946), Leo recorded four songs with the Vic Dickinson Quintet: "Jingle Bells", "Snake Pit", "Tight And Gay", and "Sonny Boy". All released on Signature Records, the first two came out in December, the others in April 1947. The group consisted of Vic Dickenson (trombone), Leonard Feather (piano; as "Jelly Roll Lipschitz"), Arvin Garrison (guitar), Vivien Garry (bass; Arvin's wife), and Harold "Doc" West (drums). The "lyrics" mostly consist of Leo scatting, which gets tiresome after a while.
After this, Leo disappears from the scene. He supposedly had a drug problem and served some time in jail. Everyone who ever wrote about him in depth mentioned that he was highly "spontaneous" and "inventive" with his vocalizations and behaviors (read: "weird"). In truth, considering some of his antics on- and off-stage, he was probably somewhat unbalanced. While Slim Gaillard could do bizarre inspired nonsense, somehow Leo just sounds like he's raving on many occasions. Both Leo and Ella Fitzgerald became famous for scatting. However, whereas Ella used her voice as an instrument, Leo seems like he's using his as a weapon. Here are a couple of reminiscences of Leo in Los Angeles, from Leonard Feather's "The Jazz Years - Earwitness To An Era" (Da Capo Press, 1987):
A little later Leo went to work in a club where the bandstand and most of the room had been decorated with large mirrors. All night long Leo, seized by a Narcissus complex, concentrated on his multiple images, staring and grinning and making a series of weird faces at his mirror images.
One night he began to take a drum solo and it got him in a strong, steady groove, so good, in fact, that he just didn't want to stop, not for anyone. Loud and relentless, the solo went on for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, an hour. By this time the customers were more than slightly aroused. All efforts to stop Leo failed. Finally the police were summoned; as Leo was dragged bodily out of the club in the arms of two cops, he still had a small side drum in his grasp, and was beating it steadily as he passed out of sight.
It didn't take long for Leo to be completely forgotten. As I've already said, he died of pneumonia on May 2, 1950, but I've been unable to find a single obituary or other mention at the time. All that was ever written about his passing was by the highly-unreliable gossip columnist, Major Robinson, who said in the June 5, 1952 Jet that "Record collectors are offering as high as $500 for a record of the late Leo Watson singing Jeepers Creepers with Gene Krupa's band, recorded in 1940." (It was actually recorded and released in 1938, and that's almost certainly an absurd valuation to place on the record in 1952; it's the equivalent of $4600 in 2017.) Moreover, I have to ask myself why, if Leo had died in 1950, that single sentence was printed in 1952. Gossip columns printed junk handed out by press agents to keep their clients in the public eye, but what good would that have done here, since there was no client? Just another mystery
In 1947, Wilbur Daniels was part of the "band" playing on a yacht in the movie "The Other Love" (with Barbara Stanwyck and David Niven). The whole scene lasts less than a minute and Wilbur appears onscreen for no more than five seconds. The rest of the group consists of a trumpeter and a saxophonist, along with a pianist and a drummer, both of whom seem to be white, but their faces can't be clearly seen. There's no screen credit (either as individuals or as a group), so I'm not going to call them the Spirits Of Rhythm. They might have just been five musicians hired to play for the film or they may have been an actual group. This tells me that Wilbur was still in Los Angeles in 1947, but his name never appears anywhere after 1942. A possible exception is a blurb in the March 7, 1946 California Eagle, which said (talking about people spotted at a sorority function): "Hattie McDaniels [sic], starring on a rumba number with a very suave Lt., Wilbur Daniels and Ollie Green [a woman], Artis Grant and Gwen Harris."
Teddy Bunn became a respected jazz guitarist, but there were some notable stops along the way. In 1946, he became a member of pianist Edgar Hayes' Stardusters, along with Blinky Allen on drums and Willie Price on bass. ("Stardust" had been a 1938 hit for Hayes.) Price was succeeded by bassist Curtis Counce (usually misspelled "Counse") within a few months.
Teddy made at least one side trip while with the Stardusters: in late 1947, he was part of Maggie Hathaway & Her Bluesmen, along with Raymond La Rue (as "Ramon LaRue"), Julius Gilmore (bass), and Samuel E. Joshua (drums). The record was "You Have Fallen In Love" / "Nobody's Business What I Do" (Black & White - 2/48). There are no personnel listed for the first record by Maggie Hathaway & Her Bluesmen, but that was over a year in the past and probably had different musicians.
The Stardusters continued on for a couple of years until, in January and February 1950, "Teddy Bunn & His Spirits Of Rhythm" appeared at the Club Point Cafe in San Bernardino on two successive weekends. The members were "Blinky - Curtis - Gerald - (formerly with Edgar Hayes)". Well, we know who Blinky and Curtis were, but Gerald's last name was never given. Since Hayes was a pianist and they had all the arrangements for a piano, it's reasonable (but not certain) that Teddy brought in a new pianist. (My best guess is that it was Gerald Wiggins, who ended up with Curtis Counce in Chico Hamilton's group in the mid-1950s. Of course, he could have been a different pianist named Gerald, or a Gerald who played some other instrument.)
Bryant Wesley "Blinky" Allen was a drummer, who was born in Riverside, California on January 14, 1919. From a musical family, his mother and sisters were vocalists (and the sisters, Melba and Juanita, were also accomplished pianists). After his World War 2 service, Blinky joined the Stardusters as both drummer and vocalist. He later had the Blinkers, the Star Lighters, the Stardusters (his own group), the Blinky Allen Quintet, Blinky Allen's Orchestra, the Blinky Allen Group, the Blinky Allen Quartet, and the Kool Kats. Blinky died, in Los Angeles, on April 2, 1969.
Curtis Counce was a bassist who was born on January 27, 1926 in Haskell, Oklahoma (per an ocean liner manifest). He appeared with many of the leading jazz and be-bop musicians (such as Lester Young, Shorty Rogers, Stan Kenton, Shelley Mann, and Maynard Ferguson) and eventually formed his own quintet, the Curtis Counce Group. Curtis died, in Los Angeles, on July 31, 1963.
Gerald Foster "Wig" Wiggins (included on the chance that he's the "Gerald" in the group) was a pianist who was born on May 12, 1922 in New York City. He started his career as part of Doctor Sausage And His Five Pork Chops (and is, supposedly, the pianist on 1940's "Wham (Wham, Re, Bop, Boom, Bam)"), and then went on to be the accompanist to Stepin Fetchit. Wig moved to Los Angeles in the early 40s to be with Les Hite's orchestra, followed by Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter. In the army from June 1944 until 1946, he later played with various groups and soloists (such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, and Kay Starr). In the 1960s, he became a music director and vocal coach for Hollywood studios. Gerald died, in Los Angeles, on July 13, 2008.
To make things even more confusing, there's a record on Selective from December 1949: "Jackson's Nook" / "I've Come A Long Way Baby" by Teddy Bunn. The other musicians, listed on the label, are: Norwood "Pony" Poindexter (alto sax), Curtis Counce (bass), Bryant Allen (drums), and Jerome Parsons (piano). Could Jerome Parsons have been the "Gerald" in that brief resurgence of the Spirits? Could Teddy have had a new group every day?
That incarnation of Teddy's Spirits only lasted a short while, however, and, by late March 1950, Blinky Allen and the Blinkers were appearing at the Club Point Cafe. In mid-August "Teddy Bunn and his famous Combo" were at the Silver Rail in Oakland. By 1959, Teddy was part of Louis Jordan's Tympani Five. But then, there was one more try. In 1963, Teddy fronted a California band called "Spirit Of Rhythm", whose members are unknown; there was only a single ad for them.
Nothing further to tell about the Spirits, except this. The January 29, 1994 Billboard reported on the death of jazz pianist Roger "Ram" Ramirez in New York. (He was one of the composers of "Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)".) Between mentions of his time with Rex Stewart and Sid Catlett in 1933 and Willie Bryant's band in 1935, it (and other obituaries and biographies) said that he'd been in the Spirits Of Rhythm in 1934. However, this was never mentioned anywhere at the time, nor did the Spirits seem to use a pianist prior to 1937. I'm not saying it isn't true, but I'd really like to see some objective proof from 1934. (Interestingly, in 1939, he returned from a trip to Europe on the same ship as Wilson Myers. I suppose they'd played together.)
I like the Spirits Of Rhythm in their early days (I'm a sucker for that kind of jive music). But their style changed radically over the years and to me (since it's all subjective), there's nothing special about them later on. I imagine that seeing Leo Watson perform must have been an experience, but I'm not sure how much I'd have liked hearing him scatting incoherently for a half hour at a time. I'm content to listen to "My Old Man" and "Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes".
Special thanks to Mark Cantor, Michael Dover, François Moret, J. David Goldin, Casey Hynes, and Tony Fournier. Much of the discographical information is from Ferdie Gonzalez' Disco-File.
The Subway Symphony ("Nobody's Sweetheart Now" and "Rhythm Of The Wheels") - 2/32
UNRELEASED AMERICAN RECORD COMPANY (parent of Brunswick)
Test Pressings, not meant for release (recorded September 20, 1933 as 5 Cousins)
Nobody's Sweetheart Now
I Got Rhythm
I've Got The World On A String
Rejected masters (first four as 5 Cousins; rest as Nephews)
That's How Rhythm Was Born (recorded September 29, 1933)
I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes (recorded September 29, 1933)
Nobody's Sweetheart Now (recorded September 29, 1933)
I Got Rhythm (recorded September 29, 1933)
I Got Rhythm (recorded October 24, 1933)
That's How Rhythm Was Born (recorded October 31, 1933)
Nobody's Sweetheart Now (recorded October 31, 1933)
I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes (recorded November 20, 1933)
Rhythm (recorded November 20, 1933)
6728 My Old Man / I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes - 12/33
6728 My Old Man / I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes - 1/34
01698 My Old Man / I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes - ca. 3/34
01715 I Got Rhythm / Rhythm - ca 4/34
UNRELEASED DECCA (recorded on September 14, 1934)
That's What I Like About You
Shoutin' In That Amen Corner
NOTE: Released versions would be re-recorded on September 27
Gambling ("Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes") - 11/34
160 Dr. Watson And Mr. Holmes / Junk Man - ca. 11/34
[Brunswick 01944 (UK) - spring 1935; also Decca 01944 (UK) - unknown date]
186 From Monday On / Way Down Yonder In New Orleans - late 34
302 As Long As I Live / I've Got The World On A String - late 34
02058 That's What I Hate About Love / Shoutin' In That Amen Corner - ca 7/35
NOTE: Title should be "That's What I Like About You"
R2662 I Got Rhythm / Rhythm - 5/39
Sweetheart Of The Campus (singing "Tom Tom, The Elevator Boy") - 6/41
UNRELEASED COLUMBIA (recorded on September 4, 1941)
It's A Long, Long Way To Tipperary
I Woke Up With A Teardrop In My Eye
From Monday On
Exactly Like You
UNRELEASED COLUMBIA (recorded on September 4, 1941)
Walkin' This Town
We've Got The Blues
SOUNDIES (all recorded/filmed in October 1941)
Yes, Indeed! (backing Dorothy Dandridge) - 11/41
Jim (on the soundtrack only, backing Judy Carroll) - 11/41
Alabamy Bound (sound track instrumentalists only; but see text) - 12/41
Easy Street (backing Dorothy Dandridge) - 12/41
45 Tutti Frutti - 10/43
BLACK & WHITE
21 Coquette (Chicken Croquette) / Suspicious Blues - 45
22 Honeysuckle Rose (Honey-Sock-Me-On-The Nose) / Last Call Blues - 45
23 She Ain't No Saint / Scattin' The Blues - 45
All had been released by August 1945