In the World of Soundies the budget determined all production decisions. In the summer of 1944, for example, New York filmmaker William Forest Crouch produced a session with George Paxton and his Orchestra, a group that included almost twenty musicians, plus vocalists and dancers. To counter the cost of this session Crouch turned to a trio, the Three Peppers, for another set of shorts. This was a strategy employed by Soundies filmmakers throughout the history of the enterprise.
The Three Peppers was formed in St. Louis in the early 1930s, and there is some evidence that the trio actually started as a dance act. By the mid-1930s, however, they had become an instrumental and vocal trio composed of Toy Wilson, piano; Bob Bell, guitar; and Walter Williams, string bass. The instrumentation and jivey approach to a song was a precursor to (and possibly an influence on) the Nat “King” Cole Trio. The combo was popular in Harlem and they made their first appearance at the Apollo Theater in 1936. The group also had a featured number in a 1936 Vitaphone short, Rush Hour Rhapsody. The following year they began recording for Irving Mills’s Varsity Records; in fact, Mills might have been booking the group at this time.
The Three Peppers was busy for the remainder of the 1930s. They played theater and club dates along the East Coast and were featured on stage with some of the top Swing bands in the music, including those led by Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Claude Hopkins and Cab Calloway. In 1939 Toy Wilson left the group and was replaced by Roy Branker; Branker might have been in the group when they appeared in the 1939 black cast film Straight to Heaven.
The Three Peppers worked regularly in the early 1940s. Tours not only included theaters in such cities as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., but also included engagements on the West Coast. While in Los Angeles they appeared in their only major Hollywood feature, The Lady Takes a Chance (1943).
The group was back in New York City in 1944 and were booked to appeared in four Soundies for Filmcraft. Three Soundies were released in 1944-45. An unused soundtrack was pulled off the shelf in 1946 and used for a dance subject. By the time of their Soundies session The Three Peppers were no longer recording, but they could be heard on radio, in nightclubs and on the variety stage. In the late 1940s the group disbanded, although they regrouped from time to time, finally passing from the entertainment scene in the early 1950s.
“Ain’t She Pretty” never achieved the status of “standard,” although it will be familiar to those who know the music of the 1930 and 1940s. A simple set, a camera for long shots and another for close-ups, probably the standard publishers’ fee ($75 in advance of a five cent per print royalty) and presto: Some of the pain of an expensive big band Soundies session has been mitigated in three delightful shorts.