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8.120704 - Children's Favourites, Vol. 1: Original Recordings (1926-1952)
Original Recordings 1926–1952
‘Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go…’
Sara Josepha Hale, 1790-1879
According to legend, those were the first words uttered by Edison into the tinfoil phonograph of 1877, and although there would be no commercial application for that new invention for more than a decade, it was surely more than mere chance that the first records offered for sale were nursery-rhymes aimed at the children’s market – flat black shellac Berliner discs issued in 1889, five inches in diameter and to look at and handle not so different from CDs. During the first three decades of the last century the market expanded significantly, first offering Bransby Williams and Albert Whelan reciting Rideout’s adaptations of Aesop and other children’s fables and, with the advent of Children’s Hour programmes on radio, Marjorie Montefiore and others reading nursery rhymes. From the 1950s onwards Children’s Favourites programmes breathed life into golden oldies and promoted personality discs from America which have since become part of everyday vocabulary, forging a nostalgic link into the 21st century.
To most people, Children’s Favourites are summed up in the piercing, jaw-cracking tones of The Laughing Policeman. But this million-selling No.1 slot evoking a jovial, old-fashioned bobby, however irrepressibly delivered by Charles Penrose (1876-1952), was not entirely that music hall comic-turned-songwriter’s own effort, although it inspired him to produce several (less commercially successful) sequels. Only the words were his creation (penned under his nom-de-plume ‘Billie Grey’). The tune he purloined, from a laughing-song popularised in England around 1900 by the American comedian Burt Shepard (c.1854-1913).
A fair proportion of qualifiers for the Golden Oldie Children’s Classics list are American, originating either from vaudeville and Country & Western, or tailor-made for the kiddies’ market in Tin Pan Alley. Among the classier ‘arrangements’ Frank Crumit’s “Granny’s Old Armchair” and “The Prune Song” or Spike Jones’ hilarious trad-jazz demolitions of “Old Macdonald Had A Farm” or “Mother Goose” are classics which spring immediately to mind (and for these and a wealth of other nostalgic children’s gems, see Naxos Audiobooks double-album CD Sparky’s Magic Piano, NA 227912).
Typically American-sounding, but of curiously international appeal, is the work of Mel Blanc (1892-1989) of “I’m Glad That I’m Bugs Bunny” fame, heard here with his 1951 US No.9 hit I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat. Born Melvin Jerome Blanc in San Francisco in 1937, ex-NBC radio violinist, bassist and tuba-player Mel joined the Warner Bros. Cartoon department as a voice specialist. A regular on US radio and TV, he also played cameos in films.
The sardonic, occasionally off-putting humour of Danny Kaye (1913-1987) may be an acquired taste, but as a children’s entertainer he rates second to none. Still remembered for such films as The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947) and Peter Pan (1976), when it came to rapid tongue-twisters Brooklyn-born singing-actor and dancer Kaye (aka David Daniel Kominsky) was inimitable, a real live-wire. And certainly, whether debunking coloratura sopranos in “The Fairy Pipers”, playing the fool in “Woody Woodpecker”, trying to instil fear in “Manic Depressive Presents” or jerking tears with the monumentally sentimental “Tubby The Tuba”, his contribution to classic children’s recordings would be hard to overestimate. Perhaps it was not just the impeccable timing that did it, but also the subtle, often scary, changes in vocal tone. In 1952 Danny produced a clutch of sizeable hits, Frank Loesser compositions from the Oscar-nominated Sam Goldwyn musical Hans Christian Andersen, notably ‘Thumbelina’ and the moral tales The Ugly Duckling and The King’s New Clothes.
Popeye, The Sailorman – that daring, seafaring, spinach-guzzling creation of E. C. Segar who, between 1932 and 1950, was the hero of more than 250 Paramount cartoon shorts realised by Austrian-born cartoonist-producer Max Fleischer (1889-1972) – remains yet another children’s favourite perennial. Billed ‘Popeye, the Paramount Filmstar’ and incarnated by the gravel-voiced Billy Costello, he may yet delight us on CD, as he did our grandparents on 78, with his renderings of “The Man On The Flying Trapeze”, the sea-shanty “Blow The Man Down” and this rather off-beat version of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Composed in 1907 (by Delaware-born vaudeville singer, actor and music publisher John W. Bratton, 1867-1947) this piece, best known through a million-selling 1932 version by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, was originally a salon miniature for piano.
Surely, no trip down Childhood’s Memory Lane would be complete without hopping aboard The Runaway Train for a short, helter-skelter jaunt with pioneering C & W star ‘Vernon Dalhart’ (aka opera-singer-turned-entrepreneur Marion Try Slaughter, 1883-1948). This million-selling song was written by Dalhart under his pseudonym ‘Guy Massey’, in collaboration with guitarist-vocalist and whistler par excellence Carson Jay Robison, 1890-1957). And continuing the Dream Western connection exploited on screen and records by Gene Autry and others, we come to Roy Rogers (aka Cincinnati-born singing-cowboy Leonard Slye, 1911-98). The star of almost a hundred Westerns and, on US TV during the 1950s of his own show, in later years Rogers was a millionaire TV producer and chain-restaurateur. He succeeded Autry as ‘King of the Cowboys’ in 1942. Here he offers his two Children’s ‘Faves’: Me And My Teddy Bear and A Four-Legged Friend, his paean to Trigger, ‘the smartest horse in the movies’.
Children’s classics featuring a more typically ‘British’ kind of daftness have also been many and varied, and in this specific category “Grandfather’s Clock”, “Ten Green Bottles” and “When Father Papered The Parlour” spring at once to mind. These were featured and recorded by two distinguished Aussies: the first two by baritone Harold Williams, the third by music hall comic Billy Williams, dubbed ‘The Man in The Velvet Suit’. There were also lullabies, notably “Dicky Bird Hop” and “Christopher Robin” by Gracie Fields and “Little Man, You’ve Had A Busy Day”, popularised by Paul Robeson. And, also still remembered with affection by many for his endearing silliness, the diminutive, Liverpudlian ‘Cheery Chappy’ Arthur Askey (aka Arthur Bowden, 1900-1982) regales us once again with his famous Bee Song.
And finally we cross the Atlantic again, first for some zany advice from ‘King of Comedy’ Jerry Lewis (aka Newark (NJ)-born actor, director and producer Joseph Levitch, born 1926) with regard to table manners and “where not to spit the bones” in James Copp’s hilarious creation The Noisy Eater. Then we enter the enchanted world of Sparky, the little boy who meant well but somehow never could do things right. A sequel to Jay Livingston’s best-seller ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’, in Sparky And The Talking Train we catch another interesting glimpse of late-1940s children’s humour as well as contemporary over-dubbing techniques.
Peter Dempsey, 2003
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