What's the connection between the Black Sox Scandal, the punk band Cockney Rejects, the pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, one of the most popular boy's names in Estonia, and this weekend's edition of Mark at the Movies?
Okay, here goes: An impromptu riff on telly led me to yesterday's movie pick, so, just to extend things even further, yesterday's movie pick led me to today's song selection. The Public Enemy begins and ends with "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" - and indeed the latter iteration counts as one of the first ironic uses of a pop record in a motion picture, two-thirds of a century before Quentin Tarantino made it de rigueur. William Wellman closes his tale with the gramophone needle clicking the last groove over and over and over and over ...because anyone around to take it off is too distracted by the body on the floor.
In the context of that 1931 film, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" is an obliquely mordant comment on the illusions of small-down gangsters in way too deep. Is that why Wellman and Daryl Zanuck chose it?
I doubt it. They chose it because their boss owned it. Today's Warner Chappell global behemoth was back in 1931merely Warner Brothers Music, and two years earlier they'd bought Jerome H Remick's publishing company, whose catalogue included "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles". So Warners didn't have to pay for the song.
Who owned it before Remick's? Ah, well, there lies a tale.
Either way, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" is with you for triumph and disaster. If you're an English footie fan, you'll know it as the great anthem of West Ham United:
That's West Ham vs Tottenham Hotspur in February 2013 - and a long way from where that song started out. It was introduced on stage in 1918, very briefly, but no record was made until the following year, so in 2019 we are marking one hundred years of a big hit song. Here's the very first recording of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", by the star tenor duo of the second decade of the twentieth century, Albert C Campbell (of Brooklyn) and Henry Burr (of St Stephen, New Brunswick):
And that was how the song sounded on January 22nd 1919. After Campbell & Burr came Charles Hart and Ben Selvin's Novelty Orchestra, all three having big bestselling records on "Bubbles" in 1919. So who wrote it?
Answer: John Kellette and Jaan Kenbrovin.
Who? Well, in fairness, there is not a single person alive or dead who ever met Jaan Kenbrovin. By contrast, there is at least some persuasive evidence for the corporeal existence of John Kellette. If you can track down a print of the 1915 short film Mercy on a Crutch, Mr Kellette can be glimpsed therein as a member of the posse. Two years later, he appeared as a tramp in the feature film A Child of the Wild. And then he became a director: in 1919, the year "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" took off, he made two films - Before the Circus and After the Circus. Presumably During the Circus got stuck in development hell. Here is John Kellette almost exactly a century ago, as glimpsed in the October 1919 edition of Film Fun, second from the right in the front row:
Kellette and his cast and crew were breaking for lunch during filming of Paramount's series of comedy shorts based on a couple of Clare Briggs' comic-strip characters. Aside from producing a film with the composer of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", Mr Briggs has a couple of other musical connections, in that one of his most famous comic strips "Ain't It a Grand and Glorious Feeling" was borrowed for a song title by Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse, and his other famous comic strip "When a Feller Needs a Friend" is referenced in the second chorus of the Gershwins' "(They're writing songs of love) But Not for Me". Don't believe me? Listen:
Okay, I'm over-annotating here. At any rate, in between his on-and-off-screen contributions to motion pictures, John Kellette also found time to write one hit tune. Obviously he then needed a lyricist for it, and he found one in Jaan Kenbrovin. Or, rather, he found three in Jaan Kenbrovin. Mr Kenbrovin is the collective nom de plume for James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent - Ken-Bro-Vin. The Estonian Christian name "Jaan" is presumably "n" for Nat plus an extended vowel sound for the two Jameses. Yet the ingenuity of the composite pseudonym obscures a more basic point: Why does it take three guys to write..?
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high
Nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams they fade and die...
A trio of lyricists seems even more superfluous when one considers the text is essentially a sideways rewrite of a big hit of the previous year:
I'm Always Chasing Rainbows
Watching clouds drifting by
My schemes are just like all my dreams
Ending in the sky...
"I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" had the advantage of a tune by Chopin - the Fantaisie-Impromptu - rather than by a failed actor and aspiring film director. But there was a lot of fatalism around in 1918 - the final year of the Great War - and again in 1919 - when a global flu epidemic swept the world and, unlike bubbles and rainbows, didn't fade and die in the sky. And so there was room for more than one song about schemes and dreams bursting like bubbles. Of that composite lyric writer, Nat Vincent started out in Kansas City, James Kendis hailed from Minnesota, and James Brockman was a Russian Ă©migrĂ©, who set off for New York as a nine-year-old boy in 1896 all by his ownsome and managed to make it.
According to Kellette, it was he who came up with the idea for "Bubbles" and wrote the tune. Also according to Kellette, James Kendis came up with just one line for the chorus, and Nat Vincent (who was as much a composer as a lyricist) changed a single word. Whatever the truth of who did what, three of the four writers had a more basic dilemma: They were all under contract to different publishing houses, and so were not in a position to collaborate with each other. Convinced they had a monster hit on their hands, they created "Jaan Kenbrovin", and two-thirds of Mr Kenbrovin then established the Kendis-Brockman Music Company to publish the song - which, one would have thought, rather gave the game away as to at least some of Jaan Kenbrovin's constituent parts.
George Brockman managed to get it interpolated into a Broadway revue, The Passing Show of 1918, where it was introduced late in the run by Nell Carrington:
Fortune's always hiding
I've looked ev'rywhere
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.
Fortune isn't always hiding, but she can be pretty elusive. Audiences at The Passing Show liked the song, rather more than the other numbers and, in fact, the show. So the production closed, and the quartet of writers realized that you can have the greatest song of the day, but you still need to plug it and ballyhoo it and get it in front of the public - because a catchy song can't be caught if it's not performed, and you need a bigshot publishing house to get it to the top singers and bands. And so a few months after self-publishing it with the Kendis-Brockman Music Company they did a deal with one of the biggest publishers in New York, Jerome H Remick, and that's when the song really took off.
"I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" was, for its day, a slightly old-fashioned waltz, but it proved hugely popular with all kinds of players. Here's the Original Dixieland Jass Band's take on it. As readers will know, their "Tiger Rag" from the year before is often called the first jazz record. Which would make this 1919 track the first "jazz waltz". But not really. You can sense them wanting to swing it, but not quite plucking up the nerve:
As to how any of the above got connected with West Ham United, in fact the song's first sporting association was not with English football but with American baseball. In October that same year - 1919 - the World Series was held: Chicago White Sox vs the Cincinnati Reds. And, if you're even the most casual American sports fan, you'll know that that all wound up with eight Sox players on trial the following year for taking bribes to throw the series. The great sports writer Ring Lardner was also a man with Tin Pan Alley ambitions, so he deftly summarized the "Black Sox" scandal thus:
I'm forever blowing ballgames
Pretty ballgames in the air
I come from Chi
I hardly try
Just go to bat and fade and die
Fortune's coming my way
That's why I don't care
I'm forever blowing ballgames
And the gamblers treat us fair.
Many years ago I wrote a BBC show about Ring Lardner's songwriting. We didn't include "I'm Forever Blowing Ballgames" (although I did get another baseball parody in there), but you can hear Stubby Kaye singing the opening number (music, after a fashion, by yours truly) here. Lardner's "Blowing Ballgames" parody was instantly recognizable because by early 1920 "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" was so well known - not just across America, but around the world.
Which brings us to West Ham United Football Club in the East End of London - or anyway to the nearby Park School, whose own soccer team had a lad called Billy Murray. Young Billy bore a resemblance to the boy in "Bubbles", a painting by John Everett Millais first exhibited in 1886. Sir John was shortly thereafter prevailed upon by Pears Soap to add a cake of soap to the painting and let them use it to advertise their fine product, as they did for many generations. At the time "I'm Forever Blowing..." was written, for example, the soap poster was a familiar sight on London bus sides.
In consequence, all kinds of people got nicknamed "Bubbles" over the ensuing half-century or so, but the original Bubbles was the model for the painting: Millais' grandson, who grew up to be Admiral Sir William James, GCB, but was nevertheless known as Bubbles for his entire life. In retirement, Sir William moved to Scotland, where the Elie and Earlsferry Sailing Club named a dinghy after him ("Bubbles", of course).
So there was nothing particularly unusual in nicknaming Billy Murray "Bubbles" because he looked like young William James in the famous Pears Soap ad. What made the difference was that the Park School headmaster, Cornelius Beal, took it to the next level and, every time Billy scored or made a spectacular pass, he would bellow out "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles..." Which became a more general anthem for whenever the team did well.
Headmaster Beal happened to be a good friend of Charlie Paynter, who was first the trainer and then the manager of West Ham for a combined four decades until 1950. And that friendship was apparently enough for a song for a local school team to transfer itself to the local professional team, where it has stayed for almost a century. And so, when West Ham made it to the 1975 Cup Final, they also made it to the UK Top 40 (albeit for one week only):
Five years later - 1980 - the club was back in the Cup Final, but this time contracted out the musical duties to local band (and West Ham supporters) the Cockney Rejects. If you've ever wanted to hear a punk version of a fragrant waltz from the Great War, enjoy:
They were, at the time, a hipper combo than the chaps who put together the 1975 arrangement, but, alas, the punkified version only made the Top 40 for a single week. What John Kellette would have made of that, we can never know, because he never heard it. But then he never heard most other versions of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" either: less than four years after writing the song, he died in Massachusetts in 1922, a year shy of his fiftieth birthday.
Of his pseudonymous composite of a collaborator, James Brockman died in 1967, and Nat Vincent lingered till mid-1979 - almost long enough to enjoy the royalties from that Cockney Rejects record. Somewhere along the way, Mr Vincent detoured into "hillbilly songs" and, if you're a Patsy Montana fan, you'll know "I'm Gonna Have a Cowboy Weddin' When the Sage is All A-bloom" - which, to my non-cowboy ears, sounds like the sort of thing a Tin Pan Alleyman writes when he wants to get a piece of the country-western action:
As for the remaining third of "Jaan Kenbrovin", James Kendis died in 1946 without ever enjoying another hit - unless you include "When it's Wednesday in Italy, it's Nighttime Over Here", which for some reason both the Ames Brothers and the Everly Brothers revived in the early Sixties:
Okay, we're done, we're outta here - Cockney Rejects, sage a-bloomin', onions in Sicily... This is supposed to be a column about quality songs, and the quality is sliding off a cliff - or fading and dying like all my dreams. To close this song's first century of success, here's a favorite version of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" by a favorite singer of mine, the great Mildred Bailey:
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