On a stage arranged to look like a basement club in Harlem, the Sun Tan Four play a hot jazz original The Pollard Jump (1946).
The number is named after Fredrick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard, who had a talent agency called Suntan or Sun Tan Studios in Harlem, responsible for getting a great many black entertainers into the soundies. Fritz' initial & most lasting fame was as the first black coach in the National Football League, & Brown University still gives an annual Fritz Pollard Award to signal black coaches.
Many acts otherwise never filmed can be seen today thanks to Fritz & to soundies producer William Forest Crouch's sincere receptivity to African American performers.
The Sun Tan Four were one such group who might otherwise have left no visual document of their quartet with piano, trumpet, sax & drums.
I wish I knew the names of the band members as they undoubtedly were drawn from established groups to serve as house band in this Pollard production.
Halfway through their performance, out strolls Apollo girl Nicky O'Daniel, a fine jazz dancer with the cutest space between her teeth.
She played the title character in Louis Jordan's feature film Caldonia (1945) & other black-cast films. She almost steals this soundie as her own star vehicle, but generously dances back off-screen so the musicians can retain some of the focus for the close.
The Chocolateers; aka, the Three Chocolateers were Eddie West, Paul Black & Albert Gibson. They perform their most famous dance number Peckin' (1942) in an embarrassing if nevertheless amusing soundie that has them mugging & shuffling & ringing around the rosies like little boys.
The pecking dance included a childish form of scatting, as one of the Chocolateers makes goofy stocato jabbering noises while the other two explain in sundry ways that this is pecking.
The main dance move when pecking is for two dancers to face one another & jerk their heads forward & backward at each ot her like pecking chickens. Squatting & pecking at the floor was also basic.
This was one of those acts that was great in its day & especially for all-black audiences who wouldn't be assuming this represents black men in a natural state of mental retardation. Like Stepin Fetchit once beloved by all black audiences, it just doesn't play as well today. But think of it as history & it has some lingering appeal, because these three guys really do have a bundle of energetic talent.
The Three Chocolateers began doing their "Peckin'" routine in 1934 in black clubs, including the Savoy. They did the act in the feature film New Faces of 1937 (1937).
To a composition called "Peckin'" with lyrics & words Ben Pollack & Harry James, & new variant words by Eddie Cherkose, the Three Chocolateers show how it was first done in their act, & a group called the Four Playboys provide the chorus (the Four Playboys had a novelty hit of their own, "Jungle Stomp"). The musical arrangement for "Peckin'" became a hit that year for Benny Goodman.
The film bombed at the box office or RKO would've made it a series. But the premise seems to have inspired Mel Brooks' The Producers (). Robert Hunt (Jerome Cowan) is a crooked producer who takes investors' moneys then attempts to put together a show that will fail so he can take the money & run.
But Hunt's girlfriend Pat (Harriet Hilliard, without her hubby Ozzie Nelson) believes in the performers & when it seems likely she's about to rat him out, he takes it on the lam. Young commedian Wally Wedge (Milton Berle) sets out to make the show a success, packing it with great vaudeville performers of the era.
The show includes the child act the Seven Loria Brothers dancing to "The Widow in Lace" sung by Thelma Leeds. Leeds met comic Harry Einstein on the set, married him, & retired from showbiz; one of their kids was comic actor Albert Brooks. Harry under the silly stage name "Parkyakarkus" did comic monologues with heavy Greek dialect.
Other vaudevillians in the feature film include comic Joe Penner singing & dancing; Eddie Rio & Brothers performing "It Goes to Your Feet" while Henry Hite "the world's tallest man" dances; violin prodigy Derry Deane; the Three Brian Sisters assisting Harriet Hilliard on the title song "New Faces" amidst a choras line of guys & dolls, highlighting a young specialty dancer, Ann Miller in her feature film debut; & much else.
The same year as New Faces of 1937, the dance troupe known as the Cotton Club Express introduced the "peckin' dance" to white audiences. It became a very popular novelty dance that just everyone was doing for a short while.
So what the Chocolateers had done in jest sparked a fad, & soon there were boogy woogy renditions of "Peckin'" by Duke Ellington & Cab Calloway, & Cab came up with a second song to be peckin' to, "Peck-a-doodle-do."
By the time the Chocolateers brought back their routine in a soundie, it was old-hat. To the expected boogie beat, they do the standard pecking with their heads while an unnamed boogie pianist goes full-blast behind them.
They add a lot of other comic dance moves, & it's soon clear that this is exactly where Chuck Berry got his "duck walk." The peckin' dance was more or less revived by Rufus Thomas in the 1960s as "the funky chicken" adding more wing-flapping with thumbs in armpit to the pecking, squatting, & high-stepping.
This was one of three soundies filmed in one day, the others being Harlem Rhumba (1942) & Tweed Me (1942).
Dance Your Old Age Away (1944) is Taush Allie "Tosh" Hammed's only soundie. A performer since the Roaring 'Twenties, he became a vaudeville headliner with his comedy dance act "Tosh Hammed & Company," the "company" being a choras line of babes who in this routine all of them dressed up as old ladies.
Tosh was also a songwriter who co-wrote with such composers as Clarence Williams, Willie "The Lion" Smith, & Ben Garrison. Rarely caught on film, his one soundie is a very rare opportunity to see an entertainer who was once well-known to African American households even if never to the general public.
He's wearing a long black coat, carrying a cane, his face mostly hidden behind a big white beard as he sings the jesting song about having taken a miraculous rejuvenating elixer made from monkey glands:
"Capers that they cut today, my but they are grand/ But you just watch us old folks go, with our monkey glands/ We're gonna Dance, Dance/ We will take a chance/ And dance our old age away/ We're shoutin' hey, we'll sway, what we mean to say/ We feel so youthful & gay..."
It develops into a comedy tapdance routine between Tosh & the six "old" ladies & their canes, wonderfully goofy, climaxing with Tosh doing some amazing acrobats. This soundie was liked well enough by a dvd packager that they made it the title for the compilation disc Swing Years: Dance Your Old Age Away (2004), a truly mixed bag of random soundies from the excreble exotica band The Three Suns to such great stuff as the Mills Brothers' Till Then (1944) & some of the soundies reviewed on the present page.
The Musical Madcaps made five soundies in 1943. The jump-jazz & humor band was founded about 1936 at the Apollo Theater, though they were initially called The Tramp Band. By their alternate name they were in Stormy Weather (1943) performing "Moppin' & Boppin'" & with Bill Robinson "Dah Dat Dah."
They continued performing after their name-change until 1950, when key members of the band (i.e., founder & washboard player Alvis Cowans' & pianist Nick Aldrich) decided they wanted to stay in Montreal, having found it a hell of a lot less racist & demeaning than any city they'd been in in the States.
Hit That Jive, Jack (1943), staged to look like a club scene, features commedian Lester "Pinky" Johnson in a ridiculous zoot suit conducting the band, & Joe Caroll performing the vocal. The rest of teh group are Johnny Cousin on guitar, Ebenezer Paul on bass, & Willie Jones with home-made drums.
Their physical presentation is comedic but they're easy to take seriously as musicians. Joe's singing a jump-jazz classic composed by Skeets Tolbert & John Alston, which had been a 1940 hit for the Nat King Cole Trio, who did it well, but the Musical Madcaps are not second-best, the chorus running:
"Hit that jive jack/ Put it in your pocket till I get back/ Going downtown to see a man/ Ain't got time to shake your hand..." Though lacking time to shake hands, Joe & Pinky seem to have plenty of time for a "gimme five" style smooth wipe of one another's palms.
A jitterbug dance couple rushes out at the instrumental break, followed by a slow tapdancer, who does a backward moonwalk. This is simply a delightful soundie!
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