Remember the American idea of popular music is totally different from the Continental. [In America] we take a popular song as the starting point and interpolate it to suit our own ideas.
-David Berend, “Tenor Banjo Questions” in Metronome, January 1929 (quoted by Lawrence Gushee for “Improvisation and Related Terms In Middle Period Jazz,” in Musical Improvisation: Art, Education and Society)
Some bands and artists [during the twenties] had devoted fans, but most customers were apparently still shopping for songs rather than specific performances: They would hear “Whispering” or “When Francis Dances with Me,” go to a music store, and ask for a record of it…if the [version they heard] were out of stock most people were happy to go home with an alternate version…
-Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
A music lover was passing a pet shop one afternoon when he heard something that sounded like a bird singing dixieland jazz. Unbelieving, he hurried inside and beheld a big, beautiful bird in a splendid cage, giving out a spirited rendition of “The Saints.” Our music lover asked the proprietor, “Is that bird for sale?”
The proprietor nodded: “One thousand dollars for both birds, and that’s a bargain.”
The music lover now noticed a second bird in the shadowy corner of the cage: scrawny, with disheveled feathers and in sore need of a bath. This small wreck of a bird stood uncertainly, swaying now and then, occasionally blinking a bloodshot eye, sometimes sipping from a container of amber liquid.
The music music lover said, “I want the big bird that sings! You can keep that other one.”
The owner quickly replied, “You’ll have to take both birds or none at all. The little bird is the big one’s arranger.”
-Earle M. Moss in The Jazz State of Indiana by Duncan Schiedt
White jazz of the twenties was far from monolithic, though sometimes a little confused by its own vague notions of just what jazz was and by its chronic failure to distinguish between the real thing and novelty effect.
-Allen Lowe, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950
A new song might receive dozens of different recordings during the twenties, with record companies scrambling musicians to ensure that their label offered the latest hit to customers rifling through record shelves. Companies just sought a profit while musicians just needed a paycheck and consumers just wanted a catchy melody and/or danceable beat.
So goes the common wisdom about this era in American music. A hit from 1924 indicates that at least a few people in that iron triangle wanted more.
“Doodle Doo Doo,” written by “Sobbin’ Blues” and “Tin Roof Blues” composer Mel Stitzel, probably looked promising to sight reading studio players and discriminating record buyers. On the other hand, Art Kassel’s lyrics were the type of novelty that would continue to spellbound audiences through “ooh, eee, ooh-aah-aah,ting, tang, wallawalla-bingbang” right up to “zig-a-zig-ah.” Jeffrey Magee lists them as another instance of the craze for tunes with the word “doodle” in them, and this example worked like a charm for Eddie Cantor. David A. Jasen describes “Doodle Doo Doo” as another hit for the singer/comedian, whose signature phrasing and chutzpah helped sell many tunes:
Cantor is backed by a jazzy small group (mostly sticking to the printed sheet music) but his performance is all about the silly lyrics. Jasen also notes that “Doodle Doo Doo” became a dance hit for Ray Miller and Jack Linx, whose recordings (for Brunswick and Okeh, respectively) were cut within weeks of Cantor’s Columbia side. Perhaps they were given a boost by Cantor’s vocal rendition, or the record-buying public had enough of Kassel’s lyrics.
Miller’s Chicago big band features strong brass and creamy sax sections selling the melody, Miff Mole and Frank Trumbauer providing solo variations and not a single vocal:
No one was playing saxophone and trombone like Trumbauer and Mole. Miller was both business savvy and musically minded: he provides a smooth, medium-tempo beat for dancers that also allows listeners to savor his soloists’ elegant work. Roy Johnston’s trumpet on the verse may be dismissed as “dated,” but next to such polished company its clip and growl adds variety as well as humor.
Jack Linx’s Society Serenaders probably offered ample variety for audiences accustomed to Cantor’s earnest but slick delivery. It’s unclear whether Okeh’s mobile recording unit predicted success with this or any other tune from the Birmingham-based group, or whether listeners appreciated its approach as more than hillbilly exotica [skip ahead to 2:50 into the clip below for “Doodle Doo Doo”]:
Whatever else they made of it, people heard a territory band jamming on a pop song to its own country beat, without any attempts by banjoist/singer Maurice Sigler at drawling “Ah lahk the rest, but what ah lahk best….” The record’s popularity evidences the wide open possibilities for both sales and music at this point in American popular music.
Even if audiences were just looking for something to dance to, many musicians stepped up with more than a metronomic beat. Adrian Rollini and the California Ramblers, d/b/a the Varsity Eight for the Cameo label in May, throw out the lyrics but keep the melody for their hot small group instrumental:
Ray Kitchingham’s banjo keeps things strutting before Bill Moore’s trumpet buzzes in and sparks things with a spare paraphrase over Stan King’s cymbal cuts. A chase between Bobby Davis’s alto and Rollini’s bass saxophones on the verse is followed by bass clarinet decorating the chorus.
The Georgians, recording “Doodle Doo Doo” two days later for Columbia, also mine plenty of textural and rhythmic variety from a supposed novelty song using different musical resources:
The Varsity Eight builds up from its leader’s bass saxophone in the rhythm section while the Georgians let leader Frank Guarente’s trumpet drive things from the top. Following sustained chords in the intro, he leads a jittery New York-style collective improvisation, followed by a very a la mode sax section with Arthur Schutt’s piano tickling around it. The verse is then used like a riff, building up steam before the succeeding chorus reconfigures Stitzel’s syncopations on the upbeat. Guarente then returns with some King Oliver-inspired muted trumpet.
Twenties jazz was all about variety, all the more remarkable when a band was making what may have been the second, fifth or tenth recording of the same tune that year (or month). Ben Bernie and His Orchestra got around to “Doodle Doo Doo” for Vocalion a few weeks later than Cantor but after several other instrumental versions. His take is one of those distinctly overstuffed twenties arrangements that may or may not have had listeners humming but which must have made an impression on them; the band spins a tapestry of kazoo, bluesy chalumeau clarinet, talking trombone, crying saxophones, band vocal, banjo pickin’ and a minor key “exotica” section for bass clarinet and muted trumpets:
Bernie offers plenty of instrumental shtick with some purely musical rewards, such as the opening “doo-wacka-doo” trumpets that work well as a busy counterpoint behind the saxes on the first chorus. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo-wacka-doo”inspired solo with busy saxes behind it for a smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect.
Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for the Edison label in October as the Broadway Dance Orchestra, after all of the above recordings. Rather than trying to outdo anyone in terms of novelty or variety, the Lopez outfit keeps things simple and very personal:
Bob Effros’s trumpet is powerful but unflashy. The band works up a sturdy, straightforward groove. Aside from the intriguing clarinet/banjo duet and trombonist Dave Boyd, there is very little improvisation or clever orchestral variation. The band’s sound is enough: hot in its rhythms, warm in its textures, always confident and tight without seeming uptight. It may sound naive, but sometimes just the combination of several different instruments played by ten individuals yields exciting and very distinct results.
Even straightlaced performances such as that of the Benson Orchestra of Chicago aren’t necessarily just a matter of musicians reading their parts:
Proud and peppy, “le plus ultra of society dance music” interpolates a lush, violin-like saxophone variation into its chart, a dicty touch arranged for a jazz horn. Jasen mentions that their Victor recording (waxed in April) was another big seller. The music business of the twenties apparently had enough room to accommodate many different musical styles.
The outdated, profit-driven system that allowed allowed Eddie Cantor and Jack Linx to share sales might inform modern hindsight. It’s tempting to hear the Benson recording as the buttoned-up, commercial version of a mediocre song, outshined by what jazzier groups such as the Georgians had to say with the tune, which is in turn eclipsed by that group’s recordings of jazz instrumentals such as “Farewell Blues” before that’s all rendered obsolete by the music found in jazz history syllabi and Smithsonian boxed sets. It’s worth reconsidering the Benson band in the same light that Jazz Age consumers encountered it, as one of many groups, all working on the same tune within months or even weeks of one another, huddled in studios that may have been only a few blocks apart, making sense of the newest musical trend while splicing the sound audiences expected with the sounds they had to offer those listeners.
The musicians and recordings begin to express different musical priorities rather than advances or missteps, options rather than right or wrong answers. Some alternatives are more influential or musically sophisticated than others, some more likely to be grabbed off the shelf by twenty-first century ears, yet each one remains valid on its own terms.
That perspective is not only fairer to a band like that of “D. Onivas” but gives the listener something new to hear (rather than laugh at):
Onivas recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for Perfect in May, opting to put some grit into its polished surfaces via Hymie Farberman’s growling trumpet “taking a Boston,” getting the band in on the jazz act on its own terms. What might have been a gimmick in 1924 musical gimmick can now be heard (enjoyed!) as the meeting of stylistic eras and musical ideas. It’s not Louis Armstrong trumpet, yet that doesn’t take anything away from the music.
It’s worth mentioning that recording industry politics and the racial environment surrounding them prevented Armstrong, his then-employer Fletcher Henderson, his (and Frank Guarente’s) teacher King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Doc Cook or any other Black musician from recording “Doodle Doo Doo” until well after World War II. That may seem like a dispensation, yet as working musicians those band probably would have appreciated a stab at such a popular song. More importantly, their absence closes off further musical possibilities from those musicians and this tune.
Years after its publication, Kassel would make “Doodle Doo Doo” his big band’s theme song, allowing younger generations to hear it throughout the thirties and forties. It was reincarnated as a campfire song and at least two more risque ones, also making a brief appearance in Elvis Presley’s 1969 film THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS. Even Broadway singer Mandy Patinkin saw fit to include it on one of his albums.
On the border between nostalgia and creativity, New Orleans pianist Armand Hug apparently remembered the tune fondly, recording a rolling, bluesy piano rendition in 1956 that grafted chord substitutions and contrapuntal bass lines onto Stitzel’s tune (with Phil Darois’s bass and Charlie Duke’s drums accompanying Hug with the finesse and understatement of a Baroque continuo):
Jazz blogger Michael Steinman recalls trombonist Vic Dickenson using “Doodle Doo Doo” as a key-changing exercise at gigs in the mid-seventies, modulating up one step with each chorus. It hasn’t had much luck at jam sessions since, but who knows what the future may bring? It may or may not be a “good song” but it is a song, and that is all a musician needs.