Pat Blythe – Squirrels, Applesauce and Swing
I have recently rediscovered (for the umpteenth time) an entire box of music, lyrics, short stories and pics stretching from the late 1930s to 1949. The collection once belonged to my late mother-in-law, Penny Blythe. Since she was born in 1924, by my calculation, she started collecting Hit Parader, Sing, Hit Radio Songs, Big Song Magazine, Song Hit Folio, etc. when she was a young teenager. They contain hundred of song lyrics and the list of performers is endless. Some names I am familiar with but many I’ve never heard of.
The magazines are spread out on my dining/living floor as I try to figure out which publication some of the rather tattered and torn pages belong to. Some ‘zines are in excellent condition while others are like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. A few had glossy, three-colour covers. Most were produced using newsprint which was cheap (some of the magazines sold for a nickel) and plentiful but doesn’t “keep” well, ripping and tearing easily as it ages. The dates and magazine names on the individual pages weren’t always noted back then either. I’m now on a discovery mission, one that should keep me busy for a while.
Bring me your tattered, your crumpled, your yellowed and weary….
As I read some of the stories I am discovering new/old artists that made significant, but largely forgotten, contributions to the world of music. The publicity machine was running at top speed, churning out all sorts of pap, little vignettes of nonsense. I suppose not much has changed. Many of these performers flamed brightly for a very short period of time and were then seemingly snuffed out in a heartbeat. Others managed to hang on by the “skin of their teeth” and reinvent themselves, a common occurrence almost 80 years later. Many of these musicians tie loose ends together, connecting music from the Swing area ( 30’s and 40’s) to the 21st century.
I discovered a half-page article on Canadian singer Bobbie Breen in a 1938 edition of Song Hit Folio. Born into a very musical family in Montreal in 1927, Bobby Breen made his professional singing debut at an extremely young age at the Silver Slipper Dance Hall in Toronto. (Aside: The Silver Slipper was originally located on the east bank of the Humber River, north of Lakeshore, and was built just prior to the start of Palace Pier, a half-mile-long amusement pier with arcades, theatres, shops and dance hall.) According to the story in Song Hit Folio, Breen’s family were so poor Madame de Monterey, a well-known vocal coach, took him under her wing. I can find no reference to de Monterey anywhere on the internet and personally, I believe it’s the perfect “pull at the heartstrings” story for a magazine. Hyperbole as it’s best. Most of my research tells of him playing vaudeville while his much older sister Sally paid for his musical education. I’ll go with the latter. Apparently Sally was both his vocal coach and his manager.
Madame de Monterey?
Breen left such an impression at the Silver Slipper, his clear, sweet soprano stunning the audience, he was soon scooped up by Hollywood. He made his first major appearance on the Eddie Cantor Show, a weekly radio show, in 1936, and quickly became the leading child star for RKO Pictures appearing in his first film, Let’s Sing Again, also in 1936. Eight more films followed including Rainbow on the River (1936), Hawaii Calls (1938) and Johnny Doughboy (1942), his last film at the age of 14. Four of Breen’s films earned single Oscar nominations: three for Best Original Score and one for Best Scoring. Comfortable singing in four languages — English, French, Spanish and Italian — the “boy soprano” appeared with such luminaries as Basil Rathbone, May Robson and Dolores Costello, all famous movie stars at the time. Careening into career-diminishing adolescence, audiences would not allow Breen to segue into adulthood as he entered his teens.
Rainbow on the River – Bobbie Breen 1936
Basil Rathbone and Bobby Breen
He continued working as a singer in nightclubs and a musical performer in stock theatre, later serving as guest pianist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra on radio. He recorded two singles and one unreleased album for the Motown label. According to Great Entertainer Archives, “by the time Bobby Breen arrived at Motown, he was in his late thirties and already seen as washed-up. …..by the time Motown picked him up he was positively prehistoric”. Breen appeared on The Comeback Story in 1953 but ten years had elapsed since then and his appearance at Motown. Breen currently resides in Florida and is the owner/operator of Bobby Breen Enterprises, a local talent agency. In a 2006 interview, 70 years after appearing in his first film , Breen had this to say about growing up in the public eye…. “They expect me to come onstage still wearing short pants. It takes a lot of work out there to make them believe I’m grown up. They resent it somehow. It’s something I have to fight every single performance.”
Motown Days (1964)
Here Comes That Heartache – Bobby Breen (Motown 1964)
Breen was featured on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. He is the young lad just to the right of George’s shoulder….between George and Marlene Dietrich.
George, Bobby, and Marlene
Honourable mention,– The comedian Lenny Bruce mentioned Breen in his comedy routines “Hitler and the MCA” and “The Palladium”.
Johnny “Scat” Davis
I liked his picture and became curious. Davis looks like he has a wicked sense of humour and loves his fun. I found out he was a trumpeter during the Swing era of the 1930s and got his nickname from “a tendency to do vocal manoeuvres, extend phrases and improvise on song lyrics.”
Born and raised in Brazil, Indiana, surrounded by a family of musicians, Davis quickly developed a love for music at a very early age. His instrument of choice was the trumpet and by age 13 he was performing with his grandfather’s band. After working as a musician in a number of “territory” orchestras around the country he found himself living in New York City. He had formed his own trio by 1930 and recorded for the Crown label and four sides for the Victor label. He then joined the Fred Waring Band which featured a large troupe of musicians and singers. Waring was primarily a studio band and Davis continued with them throughout the 1930s, recording 12 sides for the Decca label and taking most of the jazz trumpet spots. When the band appeared in a Warner Bros. musical called Varsity Show, Davis sang a few songs but it was his natural, innate sense of humour that caught Warners’ attention. They retained him for a series of musicals, his first was Over The Goal (1937). However, his breakout role was in the movie Hollywood Hotel also in 1937. The song “Hooray for Hollywood” is performed at the beginning of the film and “to this day when TV shows do a Hollywood-theme they usually trot out this version with Johnnie scatting away.” Garden of the Moon and Mr. Chumpgaye followed. Davis made a total of 10 films made for Warners’ in 1938 and 1939 before Warners’ decided to cut down on musicals and let Davis go. He was now a recognizable name and had enough cache to form his own band, The Johnnie “Scat” Davis Band. Their first successful gig was at the Blackhawk in Chicago.
How Am I Doin’ (Hey Hey) – Waring’s Pennsylvanians
The band were busy through the 40s and 50s with theatre dates, making a few movie shorts and recording four sides for the Hit label. The early 1950s found Davis in Detroit, Michigan with his own live TV show, Coffee and Cakes. Davis performed in Vegas and did a number of recordings during the next 20 years including one for Dizzy Gillespie’s DeeGee label. In 1981 Davis played at President Reagan’s Inaugural Ball. Davis and Reagan were colleagues at Warner Bros. and had managed to remain in touch over the years. Davis never stopped performing and was scheduled to play New Year’s Eve at the Dallas Fairmont Hotel when he died of a heart attack November 25, 1983. “Though not a major player on thejazz/swing roster, Davis brought lots of fun and good jazz to his audiences for many years.”
After You’re Gone – Johnny “Scat” Davis
This is a bit of fun….
Johnny Scat Hollywood Davis
….and where do the squirrels and the applesauce come in? After rescuing two shopping bags full of apples (I had forgotten about them after stashing them just outside my back door until I happened to catch a squirrel dash across my back deck with one its mouth) I made a huge pot of applesauce. The squirrels had managed to relieve me of a considerable number of apples until I caught them. So, while the remaining apples “sauced”, I explored the contents of the box and began to read some of the articles. After recommendations from several people, I’ve decided to catalogue and photograph Penny’s collection. The ads alone are hilarious, but when I stop to think about it, the content is not far off what we advertise today, the majority geared towards the female population. There has also been some interest in these “rags” within the music community since my post on Facebook. Some of them will go to Penny’s granddaughters and others will go to those who appreciate their intrinsic value as a small time capsule of what was.
….and those ads….
…need I say more?
Yep…..dine on seaweed to lose those pounds. Almost as good as kale
…and for all you budding Musicians, Hopefuls and Wannabees….
As Easy as reading English!
Charles Atlas, contour your form, cure those bunions, buy a ring and find romance…what doesn’t fit here….
All photos of the magazines and their contents by Pat Blythe, Girl With A Camera “The Picture Taker”
Wikipedia, Greatest Entertainer Archives, IMDb, YouTube, Song Hit Folio
Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.
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In “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husbandChristopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts, Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance!