Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Williams Sisters: The Jazz Age

The Williams Sisters - The Vaudeville and Broadway Years (English) The Jazz Age (English) Hannah's Career (English) The Life of Dorothy (English) The Williams Sisters - De Periode van de Vaudeville en Broadway optredens (Nederlands) De Jazzjaren (Nederlands) Hannah's Carriere (Nederlands) Het leven van Dorothy (Nederlands)

THE WILLIAMS SISTERS Discography - Hans Koert

Vocal trios have always fascinating me:
The Boswell Sisters, The Mills Brothers and The Andrew Sisters are the three most well known. But what about those numerous unknown an obscure forgotten groups like the Brox Sisters, the Paull Sisters, the Trix Sisters or the Keller Sisters? Bill Schoerner is fascinated by The Williams Sisters. He made an in-depth investigation about this Pennsylvanian vocal duo and sent me a lenghtly contribution he loves to share with the visitors of this Keep Swinging blog. Today the second part: The Jazz Age.

The Jazz Age

Bill Schoerner

The Williams Sisters entered the scene as child performers on the vaudeville stage, then progressed to the Broadway Stage. They also participated in the early excitement of the Jazz Age in the 1920's and met and performed with some of the biggest jazz legends and actors of the stage and music industry. Sadly, their careers peaked in their early twenties. Even though Hannah married wealthy men, they did not encourage her career in show business, so we may never know what she could have achieved. It's a story with an exciting beginning but an unhappy ending.

By 1925 the Williams Sist
ers were in Chicago, singing and dancing for the Charley Straight Rendezvous Cafe Orchestra. That year Bix Beiderbecke, played with the band for about three months. During a trip to see Bix in Chicago, Red Nichols later recalled wanting to see Hannah again, whom he had known in New York. The Williams Sisters made their first recordings on March 10, 1926 with the Charley Straight Orchestra for the Brunswick label. These songs were "What a Man!" and "Hi-Diddle-Diddle."

Williams Sisters with the Charley Straight Rendezvous Cafe Orchestra, 1925

Later in 1926 the Sisters joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra which was performing at Chicago's Southmoor Hotel and in December they made three recordings for Victor: "He's the Last Word", with the Ben Pollack Orchestra and "Nothing Else Matters Anymore" and "Sam, the Old Accordion Man" accompanied by Wayne Allen, on the piano. On this recording, it's just the Williams Sisters accompanied by a piano so you can really hear their singing and blending. While it's pretty much a straight arrangement, the Sisters show their talents in scat-type vocal improvisation perhaps sounding a little like Helen Kane, but this was more than 18 months before Helen Kane's first recording.

Click here to hear "Sam, the Old Accordion Man"

Band leader, Roger Wolfe Kahn, produced a Vitaphone film short that included an act with the William Sisters. It was filmed on February 14, 1927 at the Manhattan Opera House in New York, and the Sisters were featured as "singing and dancing youngsters." in a number titled "Thinking of You."

Dorothy and Hannah with Roger Wolfe Kahn (center) 1927

The Vitaphone film was an early attempt at sound movies which used both film and disk for sound. A reviewer in the San Antonio Express, April 10, 1927 wrote the following: "Roger Wolfe Kahn's specialty on the Vitaphone is undoubtedly the best subject offered since the installation of the devise. His instrumental harmony is wonderful and original... and the Williams Sisters act brings the act above par for any circuit." A copy of the sound disk supposedly exits at the Library of Congress in Washington, but the film elements are missing and presumed lost. 20-year-old band leader Roger Wolfe Kahn - 1927

The Sisters returned to Chicago and performed on stage at the Capitol Theater in an act called "A Concert of Jazz" with Del and His Merrymakers. While in Chicago, Hannah was briefly married to singer Charles Kaley, but the marriage was annulled in Cook County, Illinois, on June 30, 1927. She was just shy of her 17th birthday. Some time in 1927, Roger Wolfe Kahn hired Hannah Williams to dance at his New York Night Club, Le Perroquet de Paris, which had a mirror for a dance floor. Here she popularized "Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp from Savannah." It is not clear if Dorothy stayed with her sister at this time. In the September 3, 1928 issue of Time Magazine it was noted that the Williams Sisters were performing at the New York Paramount Theatre in a stage Act, "Parisian Nights" with Paul Ash and Henry Mack. The Sisters were hired to perform in a major Broadway musical review co-produced by Roger Wolfe Kahn called "Americana." Kahn was credited also for writing the music. It opened at Lew Fields' Mansfield Theatre in New York on October 30, 1928. It must not have been a success because it lasted only 12 performances and none of the songs were memorable. In March 1929, the Sisters were in a show called "Bubbling Over" with the Gamby Hale Ballet Girls, at the Paramount Theater. Roger Wolfe Kahn must have had a romantic interest in Hannah as noted by columnist Walter Winchell on April 12, 1929, "...Otto Kahn's boy Roger has told intimates he intends eloping with Hannah Williams ..." The Sisters continued their vaudeville stage act in Albany NY, Cambridge, Mass, and Des Moines, Iowa. They were also involved in a traveling production of the George White Scandals.
On April 12, 1929, Dorothy married jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. Jimmy was a Chicagoan and a member of the famous "Austin High Gang", which included Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman and Frank Teschemacher. When Bix Beiderbecke left the Wolverines in 1925, he recommended that Jimmy take his place. Jimmy was with the Ben Pollack Orchestra between 1927 and 1929, when he undoubtedly met Dorothy. They had a daughter named Dorothy but the marriage did not last and they were divorced in 1933. By late 1930, it seems that the sister act broke up when Hannah was hired for "Sweet and Low" a Broadway musical produced by Billy Rose and featuring his wife, Fanny Brice, George Jessel and Frank Barton. Hannah introduced the song "Cheerful Little Earful" which for the rest of her life was identified with her. Another memorable song she introduced was "Would You Like to Take a Walk?" A review in Time Magazine noted that she was a "pleasing crooner." In George Jessel's biography, "So Help Me", he recalls, "Little Hannah and I had a tiny crush, but she was keeping company with Roger Wolfe Kahn, the son of the famous banker. She was told by Fanny Brice that I was the last guy in the world she should fall in love with." It might seem odd that Hannah never recorded "Cheerful Little Earful." One possible reason was that during the Depression, theatre attendance suffered, and Billy Rose blamed radio and records for declining interest in the Broadway shows. So he established a policy of not promoting his songs by radio or recordings so they would only be heard in the theatre. (to be continued)

Bill Schoerner - keepswinging@live.nl

Bill Schoerner is an American living in Arizona. He was a research engineer but now retired. He has been a collector of vintage records for more than 40 years and has always been interested in the names on the record label, the musicians, the song writers and the instruments. His interests range from Gershwin to Jobim, but he is also a fan of opera. He is particularly interested in the history of American popular music and jazz from the first half of the twentieth century, musical casts, songs, composers and popular recordings.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is wonderful. Putting the Williams sisters story together like that and with rare photos. My Grandparents are Dorothy Williams and Jimmy McPartland and my mother was Dorothy. It was such a treat to read your story. thank you... donna

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Donna for your visit to the blog. On Friday the last part wil be published.
Please contact:

Keep swinging

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like my sister has beaten me to the punch. I am Jimmy and Dorothy's grandson. Thank you so much for compiling their story. I have done some small amount of research myself. Aunt Hannah is now known primarily through her marriage to Dempsey, but very little information seems to exist about Grandma Dorothy, especially after the act broke up. I remember her showing us a few old photos and playing an old 78 of "Sam, The Old Accordion Man." She and Hannah seemed somewhat estranged during our childhood and, of course, Jimmy had married Marian by the time I was born.



2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Doug and Anonymous!!! I am Hannah Williams-Dempsey's great granddaughter! We are related!!! Weird!!! Her daughter is my grandma!

6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feel free to contact me:

keepswinging at live point nl

9:09 AM  

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