On the radio this past week, I mentioned Alan Jay Lerner, author of My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon, Gigi, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, etc. And about twenty minutes after I came off-air I remembered a conversation I had with him decades back. The Pope was on tour somewhere (my estimate from the time period would be eastern Canada): he'd landed at the airport to be greeted by a shy moppet bearing a garland of flowers, and he'd kissed her head. And Alan showed me the headline above the picture in the newspaper:
Thank Heaven for Little Girls
- a song of his from Gigi. And so we started discussing the fondness of sub-editors for using song titles as headlines - and he and I simultaneously pounced on that morning's big front-page pic, of the Princess of Wales with her newborn baby boy:
She's Just Wild About Harry!
That conversation was a long time ago, in Alan Lerner's London home just off the King's Road in Chelsea. Yet, as you can see at right, the editors still reach for that ancient song title. In fact, its usefulness to headline writers seems to have outlived the actual song. So, with Their Not Quite Royal Highnesses still consuming a truckload of column inches, I thought I'd put in a word for the semi-prince across the water's musical namesake.
This is the version I grew up with - from a favorite LP of my dad's, Al Jolson with Morris Stoloff's orchestra:
I'm Just Wild About Harry
And Harry's wild about me
The heavenly blisses
Of his kisses
Fill me with ecstasy...
As I got older, I occasionally wondered why a guy called Al was singing a song about being wild for a guy called Harry. But I think it would be a stretch to claim it as a gay anthem: "I'm Just Wild About Harry" is so peppy and infectious that it's awfully self-denying to let a little thing like the sex of the object of your affection stop you from belting it out. The song is just shy of a hundred years old, and one reason for all that infectious pep is that it was written by two men who were at the time principally performers, and knew more than a little about how to put a song over.
Eubie Blake, the man who wrote the music, was the son of former slaves who'd moved north to Baltimore. John Sumner Blake was a stevedore and Emma, his second wife, a laundress. Between his two brides, Blake had fathered twenty-one children, but James Hubert, known as "Eubie", would be the only one to survive to adulthood. He knew no grandparents or any other family members, because both his mother and father had been sold in infancy. One day, out shopping with his mother on South Broadway, six-year-old Eubie wandered off and was eventually found in a music shop, playing a pump organ as if born to it. The impressed store owner insisted they needed to buy one for the kid. Eubie's dad earned nine bucks a week. Nevertheless, Mr and Mrs Blake bought their son a $75 Weaver organ, for a dollar down and 25 cents a week.
Noble Sissle, the man who wrote the words to "Harry", was an Indianapolis boy, the son of a pastor and a schoolmarm. He met Blake around 1915, when Eubie had composed a few fiendishly complex rags that had to be simplified for publication because otherwise nobody else would have been able to play them. But he hadn't tried his hand at songs because, until he met Sissle, he didn't have anyone to write the lyrics. Eubie and Noble were taken up by James Reese Europe, the most prominent black musician in New York and the founder of the Clef Club Orchestra, a 125-piece ensemble that played black music for white society figures. Jim Europe had put together a regimental band for the 15th Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard, and, when America entered the Great War, the band set sail for the Continent, under Lieutenant Europe and his sergeant-cum-lead vocalist Sissle. Europe's ensemble is credited with introducing jazz to France.
With the war over, Jim Europe resumed his bandleading career back home. On May 9th 1919 he was playing the first of three concerts at Boston's Mechanics Hall. During the intermission, he reprimanded two drummers for what he regarded as ill manners towards the other musicians. One of the men, Herbert Wright, resented the rebuke, lunged at Europe with a penknife, and stabbed him in the neck. Everyone thought it a superficial wound, and the bandleader told his men to carry on with the second half and he'd see them later. Instead, the hospital was unable to stanch the bleeding, and he died a few hours later. James Reese Europe was the first Negro to be given a public funeral by the City of New York.
It fell to Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake to take over Jim Europe's huge ensemble and try to keep it going. Which they did for a bit. But Sissle and Blake were the obvious breakout stars of the operation, and very soon they were touring as a double-act, the Dixie Duo. Despite the name, they eschewed both blackface and the broader Negro comic persona - or tragicomic persona (Bert Williams) - and presented themselves, somewhat distinctively for the era, as musical and sartorial sophisticates, Blake at the piano, Sissle on vocals.
One day, in August 1920, they were booked at the Dunbar Theatre in Philadelphia for a NAACP benefit - the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Also on the bill was another black double-act. This was in itself unusual: vaudeville managers usually only booked one colored act per night, so you didn't often get to run into the other talent on the circuit as often as you might. Backstage and after the show, Sissle & Blake introduced themselves to Miller & Lyles, and hit it off. Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles were inventive comics, a nice complement to Sissle's singing and Blake's piano playing. Say, maybe they could all get together and put on a show...
Alas, both acts had full calendars. But a couple of months later they ran into each other by chance on the streets of New York, and decided that one way or another they were going to write a musical comedy because it was time "to put Negroes back on Broadway". But what would such a show be about? Because they were all vaudevillians, the first thing they did was ransack their acts. Miller & Lyles had two stock characters, Steve Jenkins and Sam Peck, they'd been playing since The Colored Aristocrats back in Chicago, and, because one was very tall and one was very short, their mismatched boxing-match sketch, "The Jimtown Fisticuffs", was always a hit. So that went in. And what if Steve and Sam were competing in the Jimtown mayoral race, and find themselves up against a more heroic, less corrupt figure? Maybe he could be called Tom, Dick, or ...Harry.
When four performers decide to write a play, they're not trying to be Eugene O'Neill. They took what they had to hand, and threw it all together. Just as Miller & Lyles had skits and sketches ready to be repurposed, so Sissle & Blake had a bunch of songs in the trunk that had never gone anywhere. So Miller & Lyles cooked up a "book" and Sissle & Blake did likewise with a "score".
That was the easy part. As four black vaudevillians with no track record on the Great White Way, Miller & Lyles and Sissle & Blake were obliged not only to write and star in their show (Eubie playing the piano) but also to produce it. Shuffle Along shuffled along, with scenes being written around whichever second-hand stage costumes friends were minded to donate. It nearly closed out of town, but it picked up some friends along the way, among them the composer and musicologist Alec Wilder, who went back to see it again and again. "The theatre was so sparsely occupied you could sit where you pleased," he recalled. "I used to move down to the front row during the first act and listen to Mr Blake play the piano in the pit."
They could have used more like Wilder. Instead, by the time they reached New York, Miller & Lyles and Sissle & Blake were broke. They managed to acquire sets and clothes from two big-time Broadway flops, but the costumes had prominent sweat stains and they had no money for dry-cleaning. The only available theatre was too far uptown - on West 63rd Street - and was in fact a converted lecture hall without an orchestra pit or even a proper raised stage.
And yet they had a show. As the Second Act begins, Harry has lost the Jimtown election, and his gal Jessie needs a song to express her ongoing devotion to the floppo mayoral candidate. What to do? Well, in 1916 Sissle & Blake had written a number called "My Loving Baby":
I'm just wild about Baby
Baby's wild about me
And when I look into his dreamy eyes
His very soul I can see
He's just as sweet as 'lasses candy
Sweeter than the honey from the bee
I'm just wild about Baby
Baby's just crazy 'bout
He can't just do without
Baby's just wild about me.
Hmm. Maybe there's the germ of something in there...
Because the scene was a sincere expression of romantic love, Eubie Blake wanted a waltz of the kind Jerome Kern might have written. Lottie Gee, who was playing Jessie, objected: "How can you have a waltz in a colored show? Make it a one-step."
Blake was furious: it was a beautiful three-quarter-time melody, and an up-tempo treatment would destroy it. But Noble Sissle sided with Miss Gee: make it a one-step. Here's Joan Morris, with William Bolcom at the piano, with a glimpse of how the composer heard his melody, followed by how the world has known it these past ninety-nine years:
A waltz about being wild is not entirely a paradoxical concept. But Eubie Blake did not write a wild waltz. The sentiment of the lyric is far more obviously delivered by a one-step. The aforementioned Alec Wilder thought the peppy "Harry" rather formally similar to "Whose Baby are You?", a Jerome Kern number from The Night Boat, which opened exactly a century ago - February 2nd 1920 - ie, a year before Shuffle Along. In particular, the melodic syncopation, its "forceful falling on the last eighth of the measure" (in 2/4, the original time signature) tied to the down beat, is heard in both Kern and Blake, and a little Vincent Youmans, too: For a very short period of time, it was a sound of the era.
Also like "Harry", "Whose Baby are You?" has an insistent four-bar tag just to hammer it home. "If you hum the last section," said Wilder, "you'll see the similarity of concept." On the one hand:
And Harry's wild about
He can't live without
Harry's wild about me!
On the other:
Whose honey bug?
Whose Baby Are You?
Then again, Blake & Sissle's earlier effort, "My Loving Baby", has exactly the same "similar concept" - which is no more or less than a vaudevillian sense of how to sell a song and bring it home: Every night around the world a thousand singers improvise their own two- or four-bar tags just because that's the easiest way to a big finish. Yet few songs come with as built-in a big finish as "Harry".
Other black composers of the day had syncopation; other white composers had melody. But Kern and Blake had both melody and syncopation, and that was rare. Nevertheless, Eubie Blake was constrained in a way that Jerome Kern wasn't. The question of whether a tune should be played as a waltz or a one-step was not of purely musical consideration. As Lottie Gee pointed out, this was a "colored show" - and for New York audiences the notion of a heartfelt love song between two black performers was already a reach: On the American stage such relationships were played for laughs. As James Weldon Johnson, poet, professor and lyricist of "Under the Bamboo Tree", put it:
A love scene between two Negroes could not strike a white audience except as ridiculous.
Eubie Blake was a black musician but he didn't accept the idea of "black music": He had loved theatre music since he was a kid, and his heroes were men like England's Leslie Stuart of Floradora fame ("Tell me, pretty maiden, are there anymore at home like you?"). He saw himself as a stage composer, operating in the same sphere as Jerome Kern or Victor Herbert ...or Franz Lehár. So, if he wanted to write a waltz, why shouldn't he? The big take-home tune in the score was supposed to be the ballad, "Love Will Find a Way" - which is indeed a beautiful song and again unusual in its sincere romantic treatment of black stage characters. But "Harry" would displace it, and remain the blockbuster hit from Shuffle Along down the decades.
It didn't, however, start out like that. "I'm Just Wild About Harry" didn't exactly stop the show. In fact, it slowed it - to the point where Blake, Sissle, Miller and Lyles considered dropping it. And then, just before they hit New York, they got lucky. Each night Lottie Gee had performed the song with six chorus boys - the "Jimtown Sunflowers". But that evening a Sunflower had wilted and was out, so a substitute was drafted - a fellow called Bob Lee, a singer but not one of the show's dancers. He didn't know the steps, so he couldn't do the sort of modified cakewalk the other fellows were doing. Instead, he just broke out into what Noble Sissle called "a jive smile and a high-stepping routine of his own". He went wild over "Wild About Harry" - and the audience loved it. From his piano that night, Eubie yelled out, "Keep him in!"
And from that moment the number never looked back. They opened in New York on May 23rd 1921, and Bob Lee found himself taking nine or ten encores a night. Word spread from 63rd Street downtown to Tin Pan Alley and the song pluggers - and the singing stars and bandleaders rushed to the studios. Here's a particular favorite of mine from those first big-selling records - from 1922, Marion Harris:
This was not the first time Miss Harris had heeded the call of the wild: She had had an earlier hit with "They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me" - so she was merely reciprocating by going wild, simply wild over Harry.
An astonishing array of rising black talent got its big break in the cast of Shuffle Along - Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, my old friend Adelaide Hall - in a run of 484 performances that was extraordinary for its day and longer than any show by Kern or Berlin or Sigmund Romberg or the other bigshots: In 1921, the record for longest-running Broadway musical was still held by A Trip to Chinatown, which had closed in 1893 after 657 performances. Shuffle Along was the biggest hit musical to be produced, directed, written and performed by black Americans, and made many of them international celebrities. It was the first show to break a Broadway taboo and show serious romantic scenes between a black man and a black woman, and in that and many other ways it opened up new opportunities for black musicians, black dancers and black singers. Langston Hughes credited it with sparking the Harlem Renaissance, and its white admirers ranged from Irving Berlin to a young George Gershwin.
And, if lightning never struck twice for its writers as far as the Great White Way was concerned, well, Eubie Blake eventually got to write a big Kern-sized ballad in "Memories of You", a beautiful stately tune with not a whiff of "jungle rhythm" stereotypes about it and which Sinatra made two splendid records of.
As for "Wild About Harry", it bust free of all that nonsense about a mayoral race in Jimtown, and became just a song everyone knows and everyone sings. To be sure, it helps if you've got a Harry to hand - even if he's mainly there to pump gas. Here from a "Soundie" - an early Forties experiment in music videos - is Miss Eleanor French:
I said the song's origins in a convoluted plot about electoral politics are long forgotten. That may be true but they echo down through the ages. In the original script, "I'm Just Wild About Harry" is used as a campaign song for putative mayor Harry. Fast forward almost three decades, and President Truman is running for re-election:
That's Oscar Brand recreating the 1948 campaign's ever so slightly rewritten lyric - to which Republicans shrugged, "We're just mild about Harry" (which is an indication of how genteel the mid-century's partisan viciousness was by comparison with our own age). So a musical-comedy campaign song proved so good it became a real campaign song. You'd have to bet that more than a few Harrys running for political office in the last seventy years have dusted off the surefire smash. I know of at least one: Harry Connick, the father of Harry Connick, Jr. Shortly before he entered the race for District Attorney of New Orleans, Connick Sr wrote to Eubie Blake requesting permission to use the song. Permission was granted, and "Wild About" worked its usual magic: Mr Connick served as Orleans DA for three decades, from 1973 to 2003.
He's still singing that song. Here he is with Junior on TV in 2017 at the age of 91:
Eubie Blake lived a long life and enjoyed an unexpected Second Act. By the mid-Seventies, Marvin Hamlisch's score for The Sting and E L Doctorow's novel Ragtime and other manifestations of the ragtime revival had created an interest in the men who'd written the music. Scott Joplin was no longer around, but Eubie Blake was, and so he got invited to TV shows and to "And then I wrote..." evenings and awards ceremonies and gala concerts, and he went on a world tour playing and reminiscing, and eventually they built a Broadway show around his music, mainly just to cash in on spillover traffic that couldn't get in to the Broadway show built around Fats Waller's music, Ain't Misbehavin'.
In good times and bad times, he lived life to the full. "I don't have any bad habits," he said, stubbing out one cigarette and lighting the next. "They might be bad for other people, but they're all right for me." On February 7th 1983 he celebrated his 100th birthday, and five days later died - essentially from the strain and excitement of those centenary jubilations. Posthumous research subsequently revealed that it was actually merely his 96th birthday - and who's to say four fewer candles for those chain-smoking lungs to blow out wouldn't have kept the old boy going until 1987. Almost to the end he wrote a song a day, and I am always amazed, whenever I dip into the more obscure corners of his catalogue, what treasures are to be found there. But this song was the one that put him on top, as it did Harry Truman and Harry Connick, if not Harry, Duke (for the moment) of Sussex. You can hear what a great pianist he is in this recording, with Eubie tinkling the ivories while his lyricist Noble Sissle shares the vocal with Ruth Williams:
Incidentally, "wild about" (in the sense of madly enthusiastic) is an idiom that dates back to the nineteenth century. Before that, however, in British English it was more common to hear the expression "wild about so-and-so" as meaning angry with him. When it comes to being wild about Harry, I think we can guess which usage the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh incline to.
~If you've yet to hear it, do give a listen to our annual Twelfth Night music special featuring live performances from The Mark Steyn Show over the years - including Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Loudon Wainwright III, Elisabeth von Trapp and many more.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we'd do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Randy Bachman to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's songs, John Barry's Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. We don't (yet) have a Mark Steyn clubhouse, but we do have other benefits - and the Third Annual Steyn Cruise, on which we always do a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.