One of the pioneers of the raucous, rapid-fire, eight-to-the-bar piano style described as ‘BOOGIE’ was Jimmy Yancey. Born in Chicago in 1896 he worked in vaudeville as a singer and tap dancer – starting at the age of 6 – before taking up the piano in 1915. Although he did not make a recording until 1939 his student – Meade “Lux” Lewis – would become one of the first to document the boogie-woogie piano style on record with his 1927 ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ – a masterpiece of intricate cross-rhythms that highlighted Lewis’s skills. In this same year Pine Top Smith gathered widespread attention with the catchy ‘Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie’.
The 1930s were a crucial period in the development of the blues. It was then that the Mississippi Delta blues performers Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson travelled throughout the southern states, singing about their woes, freedom, love and sex to community after community. Johnson – who allegedly made a pack with ‘The Devil’ in order to become a better guitar player – was the first true blues performance artist. On the east coast, musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry and the Rev Gary Davis developed a more folksy, ‘Piedmomt Blues’ style. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Count Basie was absorbing the blues and – reinjecting it into the big band jazz style of the swing era. In New York Billie Holiday, one of the most famous blues/jazz singers of all time’s, began captivating audiences with her haunting, sensuous voice. We’ll come back to her another day.
In the 1930s, Great Britain was not without its’ own performers. Jack Hylton – born John Greenhalgh Hilton in 1892 – was an English pianist, composer, band leader and impresario that rose to prominence during the British dance band era. Being referred as the “British King of Jazz” and “The Ambassador of British Dance Music” by the musical press, not only because of his popularity which extended throughout the world, but also for his use of unusually large ensembles for the time and his polished arrangements.
By the time the Depression started biting in 1930 Jack had downsized his band and began performing less frequently in Europe. However, in that same year, Maurice Chevalier recorded with Jack, who also made the first record of “Body and Soul”. In 1932, Hylton was decorated by the French government, recording with Paul Robeson the same year and making the first transatlantic entertainment broadcast with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.
In late 1933 Jack left Decca after refusing to take a pay cut and did not begin making records again until 1935 when he re-joined HMV. He had spent 1934 touring Europe again, and adopted “The Soldiers in the Park” – more commonly known as “Oh Listen to the Band” – as his signature tune. In 1935 he appeared in his first feature film, the musical comedy ‘She Shall Have Music’, which starred June Clyde and Claude Dampier. That same year, Jack was finally able to perform in the United States, something he had repeatedly attempted for almost a decade, but had been opposed by the musician unions who, in 1929 cancelled his tour at the last minute. Standard Oil signed Jack for a radio show on CBS, not only paying him and his star players, but also paying all expenses for those band members unable to play in the U.S. While in Chicago, Hylton made a number of records with his radio band for Victor but Union pressure led him to return to the UK in 1936. Pat O’Malley and Alec Templeton stayed in America, making a name for them-selves.
Upon returning to Britain, Jack was criticised for adopting the then-popular swing rhythm, so he kept playing in his well-established style, including a series of new “concert recordings”. After a new tour of Europe in 1937, which included a performance at the Scala in Nazi Germany, Hylton began appearing on radio more frequently, starring in Radio Luxembourg’s Rinso Radio Revue until 1939, when he appeared in BBC’s Band Waggon as well as its 1940 film adaption. He mostly retired from the music industry after 1940, becoming a successful theatrical businessman until his death.
We’ll tell the story of another man of the times next week.