Singing Sweethearts of the 78: Ruth Etting & Annette Hanshaw.
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com
Before the coming of electric recording and the mighty mike, which was claimed to be able to capture the sound of a powder puff dragged across a face, the soft sound of a female voice was not available to the record-buying public. Acoustic recording, bellowing into a horn, required lusty stentorian voices with the delivery of a howitzer. Thus vaudeville women with the power to hit the back end of a theatre were in demand. There would be little offering of moonlight, roses and the delights of the boudoir. Instead Bill Bailey and rough love would be celebrated.
But with the mike a new breed of singing women came along, soft and caressing, although often burdened by unrequited love. There was to be much carrying of torches for careless lovers. Tops in the presentation of plaintive and lively recorded music were Ruth Etting and Annette Hanshaw. Etting had a darkly dramatic and sexy approach while Hanshaw was more laid back, full of a jazzy ease. Their stories are very different.
Ruth was from David City in rural Nebraska and was raised by her grandparents, her father having disappeared. At sixteen, stunningly pretty, willowy, blue-eyed and with a splendid figure, she moved to Chicago for art school. Soon she was designing costumes for the floorshow at the Marigold Gardens nightclub and then graduated into singing and dancing in the chorus line. Her dancing wasn’t too good but her singing was special. She never had lessons, modeling herself after Marion Harris, a vaudeville star and recording queen, an early blues interpreter.
She was spotted by a local gangster named Martin Snyder, or ‘‘The Gimp” on account of his limp due to having 17 bullets in him. He fell for her and, after his a divorce, made an offer she couldn’t refuse. Scared stiff, she married him in 1922. Now Snyder had connections; he’d been bodyguard to such stars as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. Soon they were settled in New York City, nerve center of show biz, and as manager he’d got mighty Columbia Records to contract her.
No tough stuff had been necessary. Frank Walker, the boss, recognized her uniqueness right away. She was a quick learner with a strong, tuneful voice and knew how to present any kind of material, even the most pitiful Alley tripe, in a professional manner. And she had great diction, unlike the red-hot mommas of the jazz age. She wasn’t a jazz singer but she had an innate sense of rhythm as well a fascinating trick of breaking words into two. Hot jazz musicians, often a snotty lot, loved playing for her.
On her early records she’s merely the band singer with just one vocal refrain. In “Hello Baby!” (1926) she rides nicely with the spirited Art Kahn orchestra. Next year she has the song to herself and we hear her vivaciously celebrating “Sam The Old Accordion Man”, written by hitmaker Walter Donaldson. Rube Bloom, who was to be her long time pianist, provides fine backing and Mario Perry makes the squeezebox rock, while Etting sails on breezily. She now has established her trademark note swoops, coming down like an angelic dive-bomber and she breaks up words into sparkling syllables.
In 1927 Irving Berlin, between hits, came up with a potent mixture of lasciviousness and black religiosity: “Shakin’ the Blues Away”, set at a southern revival meeting, he reckoned just perfect for the slim, slinky body of Ruth Etting. Florenz Zeigfeld agreed and Ruth, after passing the producer’s ritual ankle test, was featured delivering the hot number in his latest Follies. She stopped the show. The rattlingly good recording is simply Ruth with the speedy piano of Rube Bloom.
Zeigfeld realized he had a new discovery and gave her a plum spot in his new musical comedy “Whoopee!” starring Eddie Cantor. Here she wasn’t called on to dance or act but to present a lament-plea written for her by Donaldson and Gus Kahn. “Love Me or Leave Me” is a beguiling mixture of major and minor chords with lyrics reflecting a miserable life under Moe the Gimp, her Svengali. There are some good internal rhymes (“I intend to be independently blue”) and the chord sequence is so clever it was later lifted by George Shearing for “Lullaby of Birdland”.
On her Columbia record Ruth is ably accompanied by jazzmen — Joe Venuti’s violin and Eddie Lang’s guitar. She faces a sad fate nobly and with head up, enunciating clearly, scarcely concealing a sob. She even does a little improvisation leaving the jazzmen to fill in. She sits like a falling angel in a smoky cabaret.
From now on she was stuck as a supreme sufferer, a woman martyr. For the Ed Wynn comedy “Simple Simon” (it’s odd how this queen of sadness is stuck amidst buffoonery) she was handed a masterwork by Rodgers & Hart. “Ten Cents a Dance”, to a solemn almost hymnal tune, tells of a poor girl stuck as a taxi dancer manhandled by “butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor” not forgetting “pansies and rough guys”. There’s another spiffy internal rhyme ; “sometimes I think I’ve found my hero but it’s a queer romance”.
As the Great Depression closed in she branched out into radio and made a slew of short movies and a few features. She admitted that he was no actress and had never wanted to be, but she demonstrated how to sell a song demurely in her short movies just by being sexily statuesque and employing a few hand movements with some tasteful eye-batting. On record she continued to deliver torch songs but as Swing rushed in she realized she didn’t fit the new fast-paced scene and in 1937 he announced her retirement after filing for divorce.
Matters were made worse when ex-husband Snyder took a shot at her gentleman friend in Los Angeles. She married the friend and they retreated to Colorado where they lived a quiet private life. In post-war entertainment Etting was seen as a figure of the past but interest was sparked when a biopic, “Love Me Or Leave Me” was released in the early 1950s. She was pictured as a heavy drinker. She sued and won. Shortly afterwards Columbia released a fine LP of her 1920s numbers and she enjoyed a revival, especially among the young. Smack dab in the midst of rock and roll I, as an English schoolboy, was entranced by her styling and heart-encompassing voice. Much later, after I’d moved to California, I met record collector Jim Bedoian who had befriended her, even as far as having her visit his house. Jim told me that Ruth was very down-to-earth mid-western with no time for discussing her Snyder problems. She’d quite forgotten making most of her records and thought her early voice rather babyish. Her favorite song was “After you’ve Gone” which she’d never recorded in her heyday. Her favorite fellow singer was Annette Hanshaw whom she described as having a tiny but expressive voice.
Altogether she had little interest in her own career and was focusing on her present life as a Colorado widow, cooking and painting. Indeed she gave Jim a lovely oil of a quaint farmhouse nestled in a tranquil valley. She deserved her well-earned peace and quietude.
In contrast to Ruth Etting’s melodramatic life, Annette Hanshaw, the other great songbird of the late jazz age, had a placid life both at home and in the recording and radio studios. The bright lights never entranced her and she gave up her singing life in the mid-1930s. She later considered her records “old and out-dated”; her fans were shocked for they saw her as a great, albeit graceful, jazz singer. Not for her the grittiness of “empty bed blues”; or the gin mills of Bessie Smith and the black blues singers. Hanshaw sang a sort of urban jazz, reflecting her comfortable background and the flower-fresh charm of the girl next door. She was confined to records and radio and never let imaginations stray. But she could swing like mad in a tight jazz combo that might include the likes of Red Nichols and Jimmy Dorsey. Her voice swam over the jazzers like a best feather pillow. She was singing not at her audience but especially for them -- breathing syncopated sweet nothings. Who had been her inspiration? We don’t know but she was discovered in her teens almost as a finished model, without designer.
Her well-to-do New York family liked throwing parties and inviting show people. At one of them Herman Rose, a record talent scout, heard the 15-year-old girl sing to her own piano accompaniment and was enthralled. He eventually wooed, won her and signed her to a small label. Annette herself was shy and retiring. On her test pressing, relieved to have survived the ordeal she announced charmingly, girlishly: “That’s all”. This became her catch phrase even as she moved higher to Columbia where Ruth Etting ruled the roost by order of Mr. Snyder.
After some success in sales Snyder ordered that Hanshaw be sent down to a cheaper budget label. This actually gave her more freedom and she was able to spread her wings vocally. Columbia, the home company, used her as a workhorse dressed in various styles. One minute she was crooning Hawaiian numbers such as “I Love a Ukulele”; next she was imitating Helen Kane, the fey, lisping singer of boop-boop-a-boop fame. Or else she was given a lush slice of Broadway operetta like “Lover Come Back to Me.’’
Freedom is found in “Big city Blues” (1929) where she establishes herself as the “society blues singer”. She’s all alone on Thanksgiving and takes two verses to tell of her plight. Annette made sure to set up the mood by having two verses, an exception in those days when the chorus was seen as all-important. She had also begun producing her recording dates, sometimes calling for extra takes if she felt the music not up to scratch, sometimes even walking out. On “Big City” she hits blue notes fairly and squarely and indulges in mock duel with a kazoo at one stage.
“My Sin”(1929) isn’t the kind of dark deed black blues belters would be guilty of. She has romanced the wrong man but is still in love with him. Her voice is pure velvet cooing — who could resist such expert mike technique? The good little girl shaken up. Her masterpiece is a bluesy song written by Sam Coslow obviously with a black performer in mind.” “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home?” is a plea set to a chunky 4/4 jazz beat with the band having fun playing loosely and easily. It contains a priceless tag line: “there are other of new sheiks who would like to be sheikin’/ haven’t slipped yet but I’m liable to weaken”.
And so Annette sailed on into the gray 1930s, making superb recordings and becoming a radio hit. She never did shows or cabaret, preferring to stay home and be a good wife to Herman her manager/husband. Eventually she gave up her career and settled into domesticity.
Like her friendly rival Ruth Etting, she was rediscovered in the 1960s by fans. Some even coming by ship from England, they beat a path to her door in a swell part of Park Avenue. She was polite but baffled. Why would anyone bother with her old records? Surely they had better things to do? But legacy speaks differently. Both Etting and Hanshaw elevated their music above the jazz age into a timeless zone, where torches are never extinguished and the melodies linger on for ever after.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com