William Forest Crouch, director & producer of soundies, considered himself as having "discovered" Mabel Lee, though undoubtedly brought to him by Harlem agent Bud Pollard who Crouch worked closely with on many projects. I'd bet it was Pollard pulled her out of the Apollo Girls chorus line & was first to attempt to make her a star, but the only director who was ever responsive to her star potential was Crouch.
Crouch put her in a number of soundies, initially as a dancing decoration, & very soon as a singer & dancer. Even when "just" a dancer, he gave her star billing above Noble Sissle on the credits-card for Sizzling with Sissel 1946, & she does rather steal the show dancing her heart away & smiling like the moon at midnight.
She gets an odd little "acting" role opposite comedian Eddie Rochester Anderson in the introductory moments of the soundie Brother Bill (1945) just before the harmony group the Jubilaires take over. She's briefly glimpsed in the Louis Jordan soundie Old Man Mose (1942), & has a great dance sequence in Jordan's feature film Reet, Petite & Gone (1946), all from Crouch's casting.
The Chicken Shack Shuffle (1943) celebrates a Harlem landmark, Tillie's Chicken Shack, the place for fried chicken & sweet potato pie during the Harlem Renaissance, right up to today.
In the 1920s & '30s it was one of the few places where white musicians could jam with black musicians in order to learn how to play jazz right. It remains a Harlem landmark up on Sugar Hill.
Mabel Lee sings the title number, wearing as little as was legally possible at the time, a slightly ridiculous feathered bikini.
The soundies were not subject to the motion picture decency code, & between filming burlesque acts for the panorams in the adult arcades & getting girls to show lots of skin in musical numbers for the entirely above-board, those panoram boxes whether in the back room or front room alike were selling sexiness.
So Mabel wears a tiara & feathered bathing suit, the same as worn by Pauline Bryant in Jungle Jamboree (1943). On a set tricked out to look like a chicken restaurant, Mabel sings:
"There's a skiffle & a skuffle/ In the chicken shack shuffle/ You can do it any way you will/ You jump to the left & you cross your legs/ And tip along like you're walking on eggs/ Do anything but a pigeon wing/ Strut like a rooster but you gotta swing.
"There's a riffle & ruffle/ In the chicken shack shuffle/ Up on Sugar Hill/ In Harlem, up on Sugar Hill."
Mabel then dances a wild long-legged dance around the chicken shack, while boogie piano provides the instrumental. The uncredited pianist was the legendary Dan Burley.
There've been several girls (billed in other Mabel Lee soundies as the Harlem Honeys, probably some of Mabel's Apollo Girls chums) & a couple guys sitting around the place the whole while.
Presently two of the observers get up to do some really fine boogie-woogie moves. Although they don't do the bigger acrobatic moves, this couple may nevertheless have been from White's Lindy Hoppers who appear in several soundies.
The jitterbuggin' couple are followed by a semi-comical tapdancer (though as is often the case in soundies no one recording the sound of the tapping) who finishes off the show.
Mabel's voice for Chicken Shack Shuffle is adequate; but without showing so much of her gorgeous body the voice might not have been enough to make it seem like a good song.
Yet in the The Cat Can't Dance (1945) she seems to have scored a song fully within her powers. She's backed by a decent quartet & she's even prettier than usual & permitted her dignity, which was sometimes hard to sustain when forced to wear such costumes as the recycled feathered bathing suit in Chicken Shack.
The quartet is the Deryck Sampson Band with Deryck at boogie piano; he's a mere kid but brilliant, & had a couple R & B hits of his own. Mabel's low sexy voice sings: "There's a guy down in Tennessee/ Who's really sweet on me/ Gives me thing/ Like big diamond rings/ But the cat can't dance.
"Now there's a guy down on New Orleans/ Calls me the girl of his dreams/ Got a great big car/ Downs those caviar/ But the can't can't dance.
"Now there's a guy in Salt Lake City/ Who's got a lot on the ball/ But on the dance floor it's a pity/ He ain't nowhere at all.
"Now there's a character in Harlem/ Cat ain't worth a dime/ And yet I know I'd die/ If he said goodbye/ How the cat can dance!"
There follows an instrumental with strong slap-bass beat, piano line, & guitar lead, as Mabel dances & kicks with great skill & girlish charm. She repeats some of the lyrics with variations & shakes that booty for a close.
Boogie pianist Maurce Rocco plays & sings the title song on Beat Me Daddy (1943), a boogie classic that was also included on the three-soundie Official Films home-reel Blues & Boogie (1947).
It was included with Maxine Sullivan's Some of These Days (1942) & Ida James with the King Cole Trio on Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby (1944).
Putting Rocco on the same reel with Nat King Cole underscores their similarity of physical beauty, piano prowess, & even a degree of vocal interpretation of a song. The set for Beat Me Daddy is very simple, just Rocco with piano, & a backdrop curtain with a painting of piano keys & black hands, quite attractive really.
Maurice has no piano stool but is standing in a posture which Jerry Lee Lewis must've seen & copied. It's a wonderful jump-jazz rendition of the fun 1940 number by Don Raye, adding a tiny speck of his own scat & variations to the lyrics.
At the piano break, out runs the gorgeous Mabel Lee showing lots of leg as she shakes her stuff while Rocco beats those keys eight to the bar in rapid syncopation.
Mabel's a swell dancer & dominates the screen for these moments, but then dances off-stage with a half-kiss tossed to Maurice, leaving him to finish the number with appealilng flair.
Mabel guests on other soundies as a dancer, with Nobel Sissle on Sizzle with Sissle (1946) & with the Jubilaires on Brother Bill (1945).
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl