The Mills Blue Rhythm Band
One of the most underrated black jazz bands of the 1930s is the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. As many commentators have pointed out, the outfit lacked the distinctive style of Duke Ellington’s band, or the outstanding soloists employed by Fletcher Henderson in the mid 1930s. Their rhythm was not as fluid as that produced by the Count Basie band, and they recorded few of the standards that would insure listening by those raised on “The Great American Songbook.” On the other hand, the MBRB was a highly professional, swinging outfit that recorded a wide variety of jazz originals, all brimming with fine solos. How lucky we are that the band appears on screen twice during the early 1930s.
The MBRB’s first appearance is in a film “news magazine” series titled Paramount Pictorial. They perform along with the jazz bands of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The segment is hosted by Irving Mills, who was managing all three bands at this time. In this article, however, we concern ourselves with a one reel (that is, ten minute) Vitaphone short produced in August 1933, or perhaps slightly earlier, at the Warner Bros. facility in Brooklyn, New York. The title, simply Mills Blue Rhythm Band.
The Mills Blue Rhythm Band had been formed in 1930 by Irving Mills as a backup band to cover dance, club and stage dates when his other “A” bands, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, were otherwise engaged. The band had a number of “front men” over the years, including Baron Lee, Billy Banks and, at the time of this film’s production, Eddie Mallory. In 1937 the MBRB was taken over by Lucky Millinder, and was hence force billed on record as Lucky Millinder with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.
Production of the Short Subject
Sometime in the spring or early summer of 1933, Irving Mills maneuvered the MBRB into the production of a one reel short that would feature the band, along with other vocalists, dance and variety acts. The fact that the short subject was titled Mills Blue Rhythm Band must have also been a Mills-negotiated decision since it put the focus on the band, as opposed to the slight story or other secondary talent.
Various writers have suggested that the film was made at an actual New York City nightclub, the Blue Rhythm Club. Indeed, no such club ever existed, and this is merely the name of the nightclub in which the band appears during the first segment of the film. As with all East Coast Vitaphone shorts from this period, the film was produced at the Warner Bros. studio in Brooklyn. Production files for the film located at the University of Southern California suggest that the actual production dates may have been August 1-4, 1933. I would guess that a day or two at most would have been devoted to soundtrack recording, with perhaps another two days dedicated to sideline photography.
To direct this one reel film Warner Bros. called upon one of their contract directors, Roy Mack. Mack specialized in shorts featuring black talent, and his less-than-sensitive attitude toward African Americans is one again on display in this film: at the short’s conclusion, when the entire cast has assembled at Hamtree Harrington’s “rent part,” the characters morph into scantily clad African natives. While this visual image may have been suggested by Cyrus Wood, who is responsible for “continuity,” which also means “screenplay” in this case, it is not atypical of other shorts directed by Mack. To complete the production crew, the camera was once again handled by Ed DuPar, long a stalwart of Vitaphone shorts; another Vitaphone regular, David Mendoza, serves as musical director, although I suspect that much of the music was already in the band’s book at the time.
The Mills Blue Rhythm Band worked regularly, and benefitted greatly from a fairly stable personnel. A slightly later edition of the band included such star soloists as Henry “Red” Allen, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Buster Bailey and Tab Smith. None are present in this film, however, which has the following personnel, seen on the bandstand in the first segment, from the perspective of the viewer:
Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Eddie Mallory, director; trumpets, left-to-right: Ed “Andy” Anderson, Wardell “Preacher” Jones, Shelton “Scad” Hemphill; trombones, left-to-right: Henry “Red” Hicks, George Washington; reeds, left-to-right: Crawford “Swifty” Wethington, alto sax; Eugene “Gene” Mickell, alto sax; Joe Garland, tenor sax; Edgar Hayes, piano; Benny James, guitar; Hayes Alvis, string bass and tuba; O’Neil Spencer, drums)
While an actual recording contract is not available, it is almost certain that the same personnel seen on screen also recorded the soundtrack.
The Plot and Cast
The plot of the short subject, if one can call it such, is simple in the extreme. The band is seen performing at the Blue Rhythm Club. At the club Henry Lee (played by comic actor Hamtree Harrington) is introduced to Fredi Washinton, who is visiting town from Birmingham. Being a light-skinned African-American, Lee greets her as “High Yellow.” After their final set, the band and guests parade out of the club and march to Henry Lee’s flat to perform at a rent party. There, influenced by hot music and presumably plenty of drink, the picture morphs to the African jungle motif, then back to the rent party as the film ends.
One of the strengths of the short subject is the presentation of at least four lesser-known variety acts from the period. The rope dancer has never been identified to this point in time. Production files confirm that the dancer was Vernon Duke, obviously no relation to the great songwriter of the same name. Duke performs his jump rope / tap specialty, and beyond what we see on screen, nothing more is known of him.
The Three Dukes —no relation that I know of to rope dancer Vernon Duke— are one of dozens of dance acts that patterned themselves after the Nicholas Brothers, Step Brothers and Tip Tap and Toe. The group is composed of Arthur “Pye” Russell, “Bubba” Gaines, and James Hutch. How the group got its names is not known! Marshall Stearns (Jazz Dance, Schirmer Books, 1964) describes The Three Dukes as a “class act,” although they seem to be more closely related to the “challenge tap” style of The Four Step Brothers. Dancer Pete Nugent was less than complimentary when he stated, “They stole everything but our tap mats.” Stearns claims that the group was “organized by Nat Nazzaro,” and while Nazarro may have been one of the original dancers in the trio, but he was not a member when this short was filmed.
The identification of the dancers who appear in this film was provided by the late Delilah Jackson, who noted that The Three Dukes “went to Paris as a part of the touring Cotton Club Revue. Hutch didn’t return with the group. He had gotten hooked on drugs in Paris...this happened a lot, I think...and so he just stayed there.” Jackson continues, “‘Bubba’ Gaines has the lightest skin of the three; he was very fair. The dancer on the right who dances on his toes, that’s Arthur Russell. And Hutch, he is in the middle.”
The Three Dukes toured Europe in the late 1930s, and their return was noted in some detail in the New York Amsterdam News (January 6, 1940, page 16), as reported in Franz Hoffman’s Jazz Reviewed - Working Book, vol. 1. The had apparently been abroad for “three and a half successful years” and were “happy to be back home.”
The last of the dancers is “Blues” McAllister, although his performance is more of a strut behind a Sally Gooding vocal (“There Goes My Headache”) than a dance per se. Also billed as “Blue” at times, advertisements in the Chicago Defender find “Blue” McAllister appearing in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in both 1929 and 1934. It is not known if he is the same “Billy McAllister” who performed in Chicago slightly later in the decade.
I have not been able to locate a great deal of biographical information about singer Sally Gooding, although jazz historian Tom Buhman notes the following: “Gooding was apparently in the Cotton Club Parade of 1932 that starred Ethel Waters. In Timme Rosenkrantz’ autobiography there is a fine piece about how Timme heard Sally Gooding with the Ellington band at the Cotton Club in 1937, and upon confessing his interest to Otto Hardwick, Hardwick presented her to Timme as a birthday present. Timme said, ‘Sally was overjoyed of being a birthday present. She took off her coat and stayed for 14 days.’”
This is one of two appearances that Gooding made on film (the other is a 1940 Oscar Micheaux feature THE NOTORIOUS ELEANOR LEE), and her discography is limited to two recording sessions in 1937, one with The Three Peppers, and one with Teddy Wilson; her sides with Wilson were not released until the LP era. She was obviously active on the New York City scene during this period, although to what extent is unknown. Howard Rye has provided a piece of evidence from the New York Amsterdam News (June 10, 1939), a notice with the heading “‘Plantation Club to Open ‘Bojangles’ Bar,’” which announces that pianist Kirby Walker would be appearing iwith Amanda Randolph and Sally Gooding.
Comedian Hamtree Harrington worked regularly on both stage and screen for close to 30 years. Early Broadway revues include STRUT, MUSS LIZZIE (1922) and DIXIE TO BROADWAY (1924). In 1933 Harrington appeared in AS THOUSANDS CHEER, an important production featuring a score by Irving Berlin. Most of Harrington’s film work was in the realm of black cast productions, including RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT (Warner Bros., 1933), BUBBLING OVER (RKO, 1934) and KEEP PUNCHING (M.C. Pictures, 1939).
Fredi Washinton, who had been featured in the early short BLACK AND TAN (RKO, 1929), has little to do in this particular film. Here she portrays Gooding’s cousin, who is visiting from Birmingham.
Theo Zwicky also suggests the participation of actors Spencer Barnes and Henry Jines, although it is not known what roles they play in the film; IMDB is incorrect in stating that they are members of the orchestra. Jines also appears in the 1937 short subject “Ko-Ko Korrespondence School,” and possibly other Jefferson Macamber shorts for Educational Pictures. As Henry “Gang” Jines he plays the part of Ned Green in the 1939 black cast feature LYING LIPS.
1. Underneath the Harlem Moon (partial, under opening credits and into beginning of the film) Mills Blue Rhythm Band (soloist: Ed Anderson)
This tune was a fairly popular composition from the early 1930s, and by this time had been recorded by Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and various white studio groups; it had also been a feature for Ethel Waters in the well known 1933 Vitaphone short Rufus Jones For President.
2. I Would Do Anything For You Vernon Duke, rope dancer, accompanied by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band
Another standard, one that would be recorded many times over the years, the tune is performed here as an accompaniment to Vernon Duke’s jump rope / tap dance routine. While rope dancing was a fairly common “specialty” during the period, it is seldom seen today and is an absolute delight. The light, propulsive feel from the band provides the perfect rhythmic drive for the routine. There are no solos in this performance, although Gene Mickell (alto sax) and Edgar Hayes (piano) provide brief counterpoints to the muted brass.
3. There Goes My Headache Sally Gooding, vocal + “Blues” Mc Allister, strut, accompanied by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band
As obscure as the previous song is familiar, “There Goes My Headache” is sung in an exuberant manner reminiscent of Nina Mae McKinney. The only other rendition of this piece that I can locate is by the Mills Brothers. Recorded the following year, the release is oddly different in terms of both melody and harmonic structure!
4. Rhythm Spasm (Harry White, arranger) Mills Blue Rhythm Band (soloists: Ed Anderson or Wardell “Preacher” Jones, trumpet: Joe Garland, tenor sax)
This is one of the MBRB rhythm specialties and is played as the band leaves the Blue Rhythm Club and parades to Henry Lee’s apartment. Either Ed Anderson or Wardell Jones is heard on a brief trumpet solo; at a guess, it sounds like Anderson to me. Also known that Hayes Alvis carries a brass base, rather than his upright bass, during the “parade” out of the club.
5. Peanut Vendor(vamp), segue to You Gave Me Everything But Love
The Three Dukes arrive at the party dressed as police officers, and perform their dance routine for the guests. There are no solos in this performance, although the band once again provides a fine rhythmic accompaniment for the dancers.
6. Love Is the Thing Sally Gooding, vocal, accompanied by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band (soloist: Edgar Hayes)
This song had been recorded by Ethel Waters, backed by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, and by the Casa Loma Orchestra. The Mills Blue Rhythm band would record the number as an instrumental in December 1933. Here it is used as the second vocal feature for Sally Gooding.
7. Blue Rhythm (Nat Leslie, arranger) Mills Blue Rhythm Band (soloists: unidentified trombone, possibly Henry Hicks; Joe Garland, tenor sax)
This is another rhythm specialty by the band, one that had been recorded twice in 1931. Here it is presented here at the house rent party. During the second chorus Henry Lee (Harrington) mutters, “Boy, don’t that remind you of the old days in the jungle?” His friend replies, “It sure do!” This leads to the embarrassing “transformation” of the band and guests to jungle attire during Joe Garland’s tenor sax solo.
Production file documents suggest that the tune “Tony’s Wife” was interpolated into one of the above songs, although exactly which one is not known.
Far from the best of the black cast Vitaphone short subjects, this film is marred by the racist images in the last number, and the demeaning dialogue in general. In addition, the band is regrettably given poor visual coverage during most of the film. How nice it would have been to have one number with a clear view of the band and soloists, as in the contemporary DON REDMAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA. On the other hand, the opportunity to view and hear the obscure but talented Sally Goodman, along with a trio of dance acts, makes this a valuable film. A trip to the Cotton Club, or to any of the smaller clubs or theaters in Harlem, is no longer possible. Through this film, however, some of the acts that one would see in Harlem during 1933 once again becomes a reality.