About this Recording
8.120770 - LEWIS, Ted: Is Everybody Happy? (1923-1931)

‘Is Everybody Happy?’ Original Recordings 1923-1931

As the jazz and dance band world of the 1920s and ’30s continues to fade into oblivion, only the most powerful images retain their vividness. One of the most indelible of these is an impeccably dressed man with a clarinet and a battered top hat, leading a dance band that entertained millions during the turbulent twenties. Ted Lewis began with a dance band but his vaudeville smarts enabled him to outlast the Depression, defying plummeting record sales by doffing his hat, pointing his jaunty clarinet to the heavens and asking the musical question, ‘Is EVVrybody HAPPeeee?’ For many, the name Ted Lewis means pure, unadulterated corn, outof- date even in his own time. But there was a lot more to Lewis’ music than his squeaky, hokey clarinet playing and saccharine nonsinging vocal style. On much of the music he waxed between 1923 and 1931 there exists some of the hottest jazz of the period.

Lewis was born Theodore Leopold Friedman on 6 June 1892 in Circleville, Ohio. As a boy, he was excited when travelling circuses came to town, triggering a desire to become a performer himself. Taking up the clarinet, Ted joined his brother Edgar, a cornetist, in a local boys’ band. Although his parents tried sending him to business school, Lewis bolted and went into vaudeville when he was only fourteen. By 1910 he had formed his first band and the next year moved to New York. By mid-decade, he was performing with a comedian named Eddie Lewis, resulting in an erroneous billing listing the team as Lewis and Lewis. ‘Ted Lewis’ sounded better than ‘Ted Friedman’ so the young vaudevillian changed his name.

After working at the College Arms Cabaret, Lewis joined Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra at Rector’s Restaurant, becoming a sensation with his antics on the clarinet. In 1917, the success of the Original Dixieland Jass Band at the rival Reisenweber’s Café resulted in Lewis accentuating the barnyard animal effects used by members of the ODJB. Two years later, he started Ted Lewis & his Band, taking members of Fuller’s group with him. He also began a long association with Columbia Records that would last until 1933. It was during this period that he made his most successful recordings.

During this time, Lewis developed his image as a showman, adding a silk top hat to his wardrobe, which he had won in a game of chance with a hansom cab driver parked in front of Rector’s. He took to asking the rhetorical question, ‘Is everybody happy?’ which soon became his catchphrase. He didn’t sing his songs as much as he talked them, in a sing- songy lilt that was parodied for years to come (Al Jolson often comes to mind when listening to Lewis’ vocals). Billing himself as ‘the top-hatted tragedian of jazz’, addressing his audience as ‘folks’, and using phrases like ‘yes, sir!’ ad nauseum, Lewis was the audiovisual embodiment of a carnival barker (there is even a photograph of Lewis in top hat and tails, leading his bandmembers, who are dressed as circus clowns).

By 1925, Columbia was taking out full-page ads in The Talking Machine World, promoting his personality more than his dance band. Lewis’ early recordings included jazz standards such as Tiger Rag and Tin Roof Blues as well as more sedate dance band numbers. By the late ’20s, Lewis recognized the trend toward hotter music and began hiring superb jazz musicians, including stalwarts Muggsy Spanier on trumpet and George Brunies on trombone. But despite the high grade of musicianship in his band, the main drawing card was still Lewis himself.

In 1929, Columbia produced a special record label just for Lewis’ recordings: a striking silver and black design complete with a hatdoffing Lewis drawing along with an attentiongetting sleeve that featured additional emoting poses by Lewis. Along with Columbia label mates Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo, Ted Lewis and his Band was one of the best selling acts in show business; at his peak in the late ’20s, Lewis was earning $10,000 a week from his highly successful stage shows.

Ted Lewis’ clarinet playing was a combination of different styles; first and foremost was the early stage of jazz clarinet playing, in which novelty effects reflected the inclination toward broad entertainment that was prevalent in vaudeville during this period. On occasion, Lewis also played alto sax, as you will hear on one of his signature numbers, When My Baby Smiles At Me, and a mawkish version of The Sweeheart Of Sigma Chi.

But there is another element to his playing that differs from that of slap-tonguing clarinettists like Boyd Senter and Wilton Crawley, a more klezmer-like influence that no doubt stemmed from his Jewish roots. Listen to The New St. Louis Blues and you will hear elements of this, not only played by Lewis, but especially by violinist Sol Klein (several other Lewis musicians were of Jewish heritage, including cornetist Dave Klein, saxophonist Hymie Wolfson, and violinist Sam Shapiro).

Despite Lewis’ injecting his overwhelming personality into his records, one can hear evidence of his skill as a bandleader, especially on those recorded in 1927 and ’28, when Lewis used the talented but doomed reedman Don Murray, an alumnus of the Jean Goldkette orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke. Murray livens up the otherwise ordinary novelty train song Hello Montreal! with some lively clarinet and sax take-offs. Lewis’ hiring of Frank Teschemacher and Jimmy Dorsey for several sessions in 1929 and 1930, as well as landing Benny Goodman in 1931 also evidence Lewis’ eye for talented jazz reedmen. It is conceivable to surmise that Ted Lewis may have wanted to be a jazz man but was either stuck in his ‘yes, sir!’ persona or could not play the hot style himself.

At times, the Lewis bands of the late ’20s and early ’30s swung as hard as the similarly constructed small groups led by the likes of Frankie Trumbauer, Miff Mole and Red Nichols, even including a Venuti-like hot solo by Sol Klein, with Harry Barth’s tuba assuming the role played by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini. Highlights of these years include recordings of songs such as Clarinet Marmalade and Yellow Dog Blues and the appearance of guest pianist Fats Waller on Dallas Blues, featuring one of Waller’s earliest vocal performances.

One of Ted Lewis’ chief admirers was Benny Goodman, another musician of Jewish heritage, who in his formative years played for tips doing an imitation of Lewis on the clarinet. On 13 April 1931, Goodman joined his former idol on what is considered by many to be Lewis’ hottest recording, Dip Your Brush In The Sunshine, on which Lewis gets carried away by Goodman’s virtuosity and absolutely revels in it, urging Benny on with exhortations of ‘Paint it, Benny! Paint it! Aww, do it, Benny! Paint it blue, Benny! Sky blue, Benny!’ By the time Muggsy Spanier takes over with a muted trumpet solo, Lewis’ enthusiasm has become unbridled: ‘Paint it red, Muggsy! Paint it red! Red hot! Red hot! That’s it!’ It’s probably Lewis’ best and most natural moment on record and shows that his love of jazz wasn’t just commercially minded.

After he left Columbia in 1933, Ted Lewis continued his career, surviving the Depression to become a relic of the ‘hotcha’ 1920s. He appeared in motion pictures, including a starring role in Here Comes the Band (1935) and was the subject of a screen biography, entitled Is Everybody Happy (1943), with Michael Duana playing Lewis. Satisfied with his place in history, Lewis never tired of the caricature he created for himself, and parlayed it into a comfortable denouement to his career. With his wife Adah acting as his business manager, Lewis performed regularly until his retirement in 1965. He died in 1971 at the age of 79. In 1977, his wife established the Ted Lewis Museum in his home town of Circleville.

Cary Ginell – a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism

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