Sepia Cinderella - part 1: Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra
Assuming that an article has a punch line, very few authors would share it up front, preferring to lead the reader slowly to “this or that surprise.” In this case, however, the so-called punch line might well be the reason the reader wants to pursue what follows. Therefore, it seems unfair not to share information up front that will be revealed many pages hence:
The orchestra credited to Walter [Gil] Fuller in this feature film is his in name only. This is actually the only screen appearance of a big band led by Mercer Ellington during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Having said that, and acknowledging up front that the jazz content of the film is better served by the John Kirby Sextet, here we deal with the background of the film, and Mercer Ellington’s contribution, returning to the other musical performances at a later date.
Introduction to the Film
By the late 1940s, the production of “race films” --- that is, black cast films, independently produced, distributed to theaters catering to African-American audiences --- was beginning to taper off significantly. Escalating production costs made it more and more difficult for filmmakers to make a profit on even modestly produced films, and distribution was always difficult for these “niche” motion pictures.
But while fewer black cast films were made during the period 1946-1950, the quality of many was certainly stronger than during the previous decades. In fact, save for the color of the performers’ skin, at times it would be difficult to distinguish between some black cast features and those films produced by mainstream “Poverty Row” studios such as Monogram, PRC and Screen Guild.
During this period, the limitations imposed on African-Americans in the workplace, housing, and in access to the basic necessities of life, extended to entertainment as well. Black Americans who lived in large urban centers could certainly attend theaters in black neighborhoods. Elsewhere, “common practice,” if not legal statute, would require that black audiences sit in the balcony, or perhaps attend blacks-only midnight screenings. According to a 1946 Ebony article, “Jim Crow was...so strong in some areas that Negroes were still not allowed to sit in the orchestra at these [midnight] shows.”
Without exception, movie theaters serving the black community would screen the Hollywood bill of faire, as well as an occasional “race films.” (It should be noted that the term “race” to designate African-Americans developed in the black press, and was not considered a pejorative at the time.) Thus, despite the fact that production of black cast films had begun to diminish during the late 1940s, there were many theaters, probably as many as 684 nationwide, where African American audiences could spend between 22 to 40 cents (five cents more on weekends) to view a feature film such as SEPIA CINDERELLA.
Jack Goldberg and Herald Pictures
Much has been written about Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering black filmmaker who produced and directed films with the most miniscule of budgets, and a somewhat limited sense of “technical know-how.” It sometimes seems that his features were assembled by force of will alone! Spencer Williams, who followed Micheaux in the later 1930s, seems to have had a stronger cinematic sense, and while his films cannot compare technically to those made in Hollywood, they are, in my opinion, more focussed and well-planned than those of Micheaux.
Jack and Bert Goldberg are lesser known figures in the world of black entertainment, although their impact on black cast films is substantial. The brothers were the sons of German immigrants, Jews who escaped Europe well before the horrors of the Holocaust. Jack seems to be the more enterprising of the two, and his earliest involvement in black entertainment can be traced to the early 1920s. Between 1932 an 1950 the Goldberg name can be found on at least a dozen films, none of which feature a white cast. Despite the low budgets endemic to independent films, black or white, the Goldberg product has a more polished look than their black counterparts, and as noted above, some of his films could pass as Hollywood productions.
Beginning in 1932 the Goldbergs began producing sound features under an ever-changing array of corporate names: HARLEM IS HEAVEN (Lincoln Productions, 1932), DOUBLE DEAL (Argus Productions, 1939), PARADISE IN HARLEM (Jubilee Pictures, 1940), BOOGIE WOOGIE DREAM (Hollywood Productions), and so on. In 1946 Jack Goldberg formed Herald Pictures, his final production concern, which turned out four feature films: BOY! WHAT A GIRL! (1946), SEPIA CINDERELLA (1947), MIRACLE IN HARLEM (1948), and HARLEM FOLLIES, released by Futurity Films.
Sepia Cinderella: Production
While Harald Pictures was based in New York City, with offices on Broadway, it probably produced all of its features at Filmcraft Studios, a rental space in the Bronx used by William Forest Crouch. Crouch produced more than 600 SOUNDIES at the studio, but there was undoubtedly space that could be rented to other filmmakers. While file materials are limited, we know that the film was produced in December 1946. Production would have probably lasted less that two weeks, and the biggest surprise is the use of a large ballroom set in which much of the musical action takes place.
The members of the crew, all white, were veterans of East Coast film production, and they would have been comfortable working quickly, on a limited budget. Director Arthur Leonard had made SOUNDIES for both Cinemasters and L.O.L. Productions, and among his feature assignments were STRAIGHT TO HEAVEN (Lenwal Productions, 1939), THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER (Domino Productions, 1939) and BOY! WHAT A GIRL! (Herald Pictures, 1946). If not an auteur by any stretch of the imagination, Leonard was a competent filmmaker who got his story on film in a manner that holds our interest.
Vincent Valentini wrote the screenplay, as he did for five other black cast films during the 1940s. George Webber was a busy cinematographer, perhaps second only to East Coast master Don Malkames. Webber had worked for Paramount and Educational in the 1930s, and the following decade he was on call for whatever work presented itself, including a half-dozen black cast films. The casting for the picture was done by agent Billy Shaw, whose main legacy seems to be the use of his name in the Dizzy Gillespie bop composition “Shaw ‘Nuff.” Little is known about musical director Jack Gluskin, although he provided the service in three of Herald Productions feature films.
The feature was released in July 1947, and it was reviewed in both the white and black press. Understandably, the white press (Variety, July 30, 1947), was somewhat dismissive of the film. While recognizing that is was “worth its keep in the Negro houses...and offering a fair degree of entertainment,” it went on to note that the film presents “a slight and familiar story” and that “much speed has been lost in the editing.” Still, the reviewer notes that “the film displays some entertaining moments in its musical interludes.”
A review in the black press (New York Age, July 26, 1947) is far more positive. “Using Hollywood standards, Harold Pictures...has raised production of all-Negro-cast pictures to the point where he [Jack Goldberg] plans to get distribution to theaters catering to white audiences....”
The Cast and Plot
SEPIA CINDERELLA starred Billy Daniels, a young singer who had recorded with Erskine Hawkins a decade earlier. He appeared on 52nd Street during the 1940s, but it was his 1950 hit “That Old Black Magic” that led to worldwide fame, and a lengthy entertainment career. The other members of the cast, introduced in the plot summary below, were all well know performers within the New York black community, although none achieved any success on a nationwide basis.
The story centers on the lives of two young performers, Bob Jordan (Billy Daniels) and Barbara (Sheila Guyse). We meet Barbara at the home of her guardian, Mama Keyes (Hilda Offley), as the John Kirby Sextet finishes up a rehearsal. Barbara is friends with struggling songwriter Bob, and with her help he completes a love song that he titles “Cinderella.” Bob’s song becomes a hit, and Bob is introduced to Vivian Marston (Tondaleyo), who is part owner of the Swan Club. The bandleader at the club is Barney Ray (Ruble Blakey), and against Bob’s wishes bandleader Ray is replaced by Bob.
The press creates a “romance” between Bob and Vivian, angering Vivian’s fiancé Ralph Williams (Jack Carter). Meanwhile, Barbara gets a job at the Hang Out Club, working with bandleader Ray. Amid the plot developments at the club we are treated to a musical performance by Deek Watson and the Brown Dots. Plot machinations follow on plot machinations, but when the dust finally settles Barney Ray, is back at the Swan Club (renamed the “Cinderella Club”), Bob Jordan is his featured singer, and through a contest based on the Cinderella fairy tale, we finally see Bob and Barbara in each other’s arms, ditto Barney and Vivian.
Cameo Appearance: Freddie Bartholomew
One of the most incongruous segments of the film occurs at the Cinderella Club, where Bob encounters actor Freddie Bartholomew. Bartholomew and his date the only whites in the club, and what follows is a comic monologue that deserves some comment.
A child actor of considerable talent and fame, Bartholomew had starred in such esteemed films as DAVID COPPERFIELD (MGM, 1935), LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY (Selznick International, 1936), CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (MGM, 1937), and KIDNAPPED (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1938). After serving in the armed forces during the second world war, Bartholomew returned to entertainment, although he was rarely able to attract the scripts and topnotch staring vehicles of his youth. He was a rather strange choice for this cameo role since relatively few members of the black community would have been familiar with his films, or cared much that he was appearing in this feature. (Herald Pictures also included a cameo in their 1946 release, BOY! WHAT A GIRL! In that film Gene Krupa’s short performance with Sid Catlett was musically successful, and featured a performer who was far more familiar to audience members than Bartholomew.)
Bartholomew’s encounter with Bob allows him (Freddie) to talk about his plans to tour on stage. His “featured” joke is a story based on an ethnic stereotype ... and this is presented in a film for African-Americans who would recognize stereotypes of any kind. Briefly, a Scotsman is traveling on a train and he gets into an altercation with the conductor about the price of the ticket. The problem escalates until the conductor grabs the Scotsman’s heavy bag and throws it overboard. It bounces off the trestle and into the river below. At this point the Scotsman yells, “There you go, there you go. You’re not only overcharging me, you’re drowning me son as well.” This is followed by a quite unfunny joke based on the difficulty of understanding English accents, segue to a brief monologue from ROMEO AND JULIET, and finally a comment about Big Sid Catlett, about whom Bartholomew comments, “He’s my boy.”
We can only shake our heads and wonder.
Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra
One of the main reasons that we are drawn to a film like SEPIA CINDERELLA is the appearance of interesting and/or historically significant musical performers. In fact, the shear amount of fine music in this feature is such that I will cover the other well-known groups --- the John Kirby Sextet, and Deek Watson and the Brown Dots --- in a follow-up article. Here we look closely at the big band billed as Walter Fuller and his Orchestra.
Walter “Gil” Fuller, an arranger of modern jazz, should not be confused with the Walter Fuller, trumpet star and vocalist, who is usually associated with Earl “Fatha’” Hines and his Orchestra. The Fuller in question arranged music for many years, often writing for Dizzy Gillespie, but also creating charts recorded by bands under the leadership of James Moody, Benny Carter, and Charlie Barnet, among others. The extent to which he actually arranged the music is open to discussion.
Budd Johnson, who is probably responsible for much of the music in this film, spoke of Fuller, and SEPIA CINDERELLA, in Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the 1940s
“This man has always been a mystery to me, Gil Fuller...He had some knowledge, but I never saw him really make an arrangement.”
“I remember when we were doing this movie, SEPIA CINDERELLA...and Gil Fuller had the band...So he called me up, he said, 'Hey, I'm writing a movie. You want to help me do some of the work?' ...So he gave me a couple of things, and he gave Elton Hill some things. And we did all of the writing of the movie. He didn't write one song in the movie, but now he's gonna take the credit for it. But he was a sharp operator, smooth operator. I had a hard time getting my bread from this cat..."
Jazz composer, arranger and historian Jeff Sultanof further notes,
“According to Chico O'Farrill, Fuller operated an arranging service in the late 40s. What he would do would be to assign the same arrangement to a couple of writers, take the best parts of both, and submit the arrangement to the client. Ever since, some have wondered how much he wrote on his own. I tend to think that the Moody octet sides, the recordings of his own big band for Discovery, and his later work for the Monterey Jazz Festival are his.”
“Based on Dizzy's autobiography, the way Gillespie and Fuller worked was that Gillespie would play his ideas on the piano or sketch them out, and Fuller further developed them and scored them for Dizzy's band; Artie Shaw also did this with his arrangers, who included Jerry Gray and Lennie Hayton.”
“Fuller published the compositions in the Gillespie big band repertoire, and several compositions of Monk and Bud Powell. Without telling anyone (according to Don Sickler), Fuller subsequently sold the publishing of these pieces to J.J. Robbins (a son of the Robbins Publishing family), who subsequently sold these copyrights to a company called Amsco, which is now Music Sales.”
While we cannot be certain, it appears that Goldberg, or perhaps agent Billy Shaw, contacted Gil Fuller to provide a band, some of the songs, and the arrangements for the film. Fuller is given on-screen credit for two of the songs, including “Cinderella,” the main love song. Whether he actually did the actual music and lyrics is not known, and Budd Johnson states that he and Elton Hill provided for arrangements.
As for the band, it is not Fuller’s but rather a “variation” on the Mercer Ellington big band of 1947.
Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra
For many years nobody questioned the presence of Walter Fuller’s orchestra in the film. Some mistakenly pointed to the Hines' trumpet star, but nobody questioned the main credit given to Fuller. The only recognizable musician was Budd Johnson, and it was assumed that he was a member of the Fuller band. As it turned out, by research twists obscure and not obvious, it is indeed Mercer Ellington’s big band!
Mercer Ellington formed his first band in 1939; an article in the Baltimore Afro-American (August 1939) refers to “Mercer Ellington’s newly formed orchestra.” The band seen in the film, however, was assembled sometime in the spring of 1946, then booked at the Apollo Theater for the week of June 15, 1946 in a program that also included the Deep River Boys (vocal harmony group), The Clark Brothers (tap dancers) and Spider Bruce (comedian). A year later, on July 7, 1947, the band had a gig at Sparrow Beach in Annapolis.
The band’s recordings are somewhat obscure: two issued sides for Musicraft recorded on May 17, 1947, and two more for the Sunrise label in May 1947.
Mercer Ellington’s orchestra returned to the Apollo Theater for a program the week of June 15, 1946, and Mercer was still performing with the big band in late 1951. Ellington researcher David Palmquist cited a newspaper article that Mercer was disbanding, and going to work for his father as an advance man in 1952. Furthermore, Palmquist notes, it is possible that Mercer disbanded and reformed new units during this six year period.
The key to solving the problem was string bassist Al McKibbon, a good friend who watched the film with me and recognized drummer Percy Brice. I contacted Percy Brice, who first stated that this was Mercer Ellington’s band.
In a telephone interview (7/24/01), Percy Brice recalled,
“I was the drummer on Benny Carter's band, and we broke up in Boston, in October 1946. I recall going with Mercer Ellington's band right away, but you say the film was made in December '46, and others have told me it was early in '47. But I really don't know, that was over fifty years ago. Anyway, the band was Mercer Ellington's, but Gil Fuller, he was the musical director. Now I've heard people say some things about him that were, well, not really very complimentary. But I have to say that he was always real, real nice to me.”
“As I remember, Candy [Ross] and Charlie [Johnson] were on Benny’s band with me, and we moved over to Mercer. I wasn't with the band for that long, maybe just one or two gigs. I recall one at the Hampton Institute out in New Jersey. We had Ray Copeland and Sonny Stitt and Chippy Outcalt on the band ..... hey, and never any strings. They must have been added for the movie.”
“After leaving Mercer I joined Johnny Otis for a traveling show, a great show, featuring June Richmond, the Ink Spots, Coles and Atkins .... and Cholly Atkins's wife, Dottie Saulter. Lewis and [Slappy] White were on the tour, too. Let’s see, after that I worked with “Cleanhead” Vinson, and the band was a good one. Then I worked with Hal Singer --- do you remember “Cornbread?” --- and the featured trumpet player was Blue Mitchell, years before he joined Horace [Silver].” It was Percy Brice who suggested that, “along with Budd, I think that is Bo McCain on tenor sax.”
In a telephone interview (10/03) tenor saxophonist Alva “Bo” McCain recalled the genesis of the Mercer band:
“I was with Christopher Columbus’s band, it was around 1946-47, and we were playing at Small’s Paradise. Columbus left to go with Louis Jordan, and his son [sic] Sonny Payne took his place, at least for a while. So we changed our name and called ourselves “The Madmen.” We had Ray Copeland (he came in a bit later), Harold Mitchell, Don Cole, Elwyn Frazier and Fletcher Allen. And me on tenor sax. The rhythm section changed a lot during this time. Anyway, this was the band that Mercer took over, although the only one, other than me, who may be in your the film is Don Cole, because there was a lot of turnover at first.”
“This was an early big band job for me in New York, and I didn’t know many of the men when I showed up. Of course, I was familiar with Budd Johnson, and I might have met Percy Brice. But I recall meeting Bill Pemberton when we made the film. I didn’t know anyone else and can’t recall them after so many years. To the best of my memory, we got together and rehearsed for the film and did the recording and filming, but I don’t recall that we ever played in public.”
Bo McCain also recalled that Luther Henderson was with the band, and suggested that I give him a call. I had known Luther for many years, and had never associated him with the Mercer Ellington band. In a telephone interview in the fall of 1996, Henderson noted, “I was with Mercer for quite some time, but it was an on-and-off sort of thing because the band was not working all that much. I did some recordings with Mercer, but that is not me in the movie, that’s Hank Jones.”
In a telephone interview on November 22, 2003, Hank Jones spoke of his time with Mercer Ellington:
“I was on that band and I certainly do remember the film, but not much about it. I don't recall ever having seen it. I wasn't with this band a long time .... soon after the film I played with the John Kirby Sextet, and you tell me they are in the film, too. Who knows? Maybe that's why Kirby thought of me when he needed a replacement for Billy Kyle.
Actually, the band was just Mercer's in name .... he was just the leader in name. Gil Fuller .... it was his band, and he was the musical director. He also did the arrangements and put together the band for the film. The strings certainly were just added for the film, to make the band sound a little fuller for Billy and the girl singer. What was her name again? [Sheila Guyse]
I don't recall the band playing in public, at least during the time I was with it. We did rehearse for the film, and I remember meeting Bill Pemberton for the first time at the gig.”
The careful reader will obviously note that there is a conflict between what Hank Jones has to say about the nature of the band, and the recollections of those who have been previously quoted. The best that I can say is that this is a conflict that cannot be resolved at the present time.
The instrumentation of the band on screen is unusual, to say the least, and it is probable that there were additional men added to the soundtrack sessions. The reeds and rhythm section are standard for the period, with three violins added for the film appearance. The brass, on the other hand, is composed of three trombones and one trumpet, and it is possible that the trumpet may occasionally sideline on trombone. The following is the band’s personnel as currently known:
three trombones, from among the following, possibly in left-to-right order: probably Charlie Johnson; Candy Ross; possibly Alfred “Chippy” Outcalt or Don Cole
reeds: Budd Johnson, tenor sax, top left; Jackie Fields, alto sax top right; Alva “Bo” McCain, tenor sax, bottom left; Frank Powell, alto sax, bottom right
Hank Jones, piano
Joe Benjamin or Bill Pemberton, string bass
Percy Brice, drums
three unidentified violins
Considering the buildup, one might be surprised that there is precious little actual jazz performed by the orchestra in this film. Such are the disappointments in jazz film research. What follows are the musical performances where the Mercer Ellington orchestra can be seen on screen. Other music, by John Kirby, Deek Watson and the Brown Dots, and other variety acts, will be detailed in a follow-up article.
(1) unidentified title - Leonardo and Zola, exotic dance, accompanied by Mercer Ellington and his Orchestra, largely performing a rhythmic accompaniment
Exotic dance such as this --- the Caribbean influences of both rhythm and dance are clearly evident ---- was a mainstay in nightclub and stage presentations featuring both black and white performers. Cursory research on Leonardo and Zola has yielded no information about their careers, and lacking last names it has not been possible to assemble any biographical information. In any case, the accompaniment to their routine is largely rhythmic --- additional percussion might have been added during soundtrack recording --- and while it is indeed interesting to view the performance, the style of which was common during the period, their routine does not add much to our understanding of jazz per se.
(2) Cinderella - This particular song is the “centerpiece” musical performance since it basically retells, in ballad form, the Cinderella fairy tale that is the story framing the plot of the film. Credited to Gil Fuller, the song is performed by Billy Daniels, who’s stellar career will be covered in the second article in this two-part series. While the song is rather lackluster, Billy Daniels, backed by the orchestra, provides a strong and unaffected reading of the title.
(3) Ring Around My Rosie - Despite a title that does not promise much, this Walter Fuller composition is indeed the musical highlight for the Mercer Ellington orchestra. On a medium tempo song by Fuller, again of little musical consequence, Daniels once again demonstrates the straight forward, jazz-influenced vocal approach that made him a star for so many years.
The high point of the song is the only jazz to be heard from the big band in this film, a sixteen bar tenor sax excursion by Budd Johnson. One of the unheralded figures in jazz, one hears both the influence of Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet in the solo, with long phrases created over the rather simple harmony line. During this period Johnson was featured frequently on record, playing both alto and tenor saxes, and as limited as his solo space may be, it is an important jazz statement by Budd, his first on film.
(4) Cinderella - The song is featured three more times in the film, first by Sheila Guyse, and then twice by Guise and Daniels. Nothing new is presented here, merely restatements of music that we have heard earlier in the film. There is nothing wrong with the performances by Daniels and Guyse, just little to interest the jazz fan.
As noted above, there is very little jazz presented by the Mercer Ellington band beyond one sixteen bar solo by Budd Johnson. This is not to say that the band is not strong, because its backing of the vocalists is well-played and professional; it just isn’t jazz. However, considering the importance of the musicians involved, it seemed that investigation into the band’s history, and its personnel, was fully warranted. Of course, there is great jazz presented in the film by the John Kirby Sextet, and that music will be the subject of a future article in this series of Celluloid Improvisations.