Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Deep River Boys

As one might expect, the story is presented on screen in a Biblical setting, with the cast members dressed in costumes from the period. More than half of the film focuses closely on the group as it sings and tells the Biblical tale. While the visual elements of the film are fairly straightforward, the short does descent into low comedy as slaves are frightened by the fire, followed by the “awakening” of the Golden Idol, which also flees. All in all, the visual elements work well in this SOUNDIE, and do not distract from the strong musical content.

For more than two decades, the Deep River Boys straddled the uncomfortable line between their origins in spiritual music, and the popular tunes (including ersatz gospel songs and spirituals) that gave the group its greatest recognition. Björn Englund’s article on the HMV recordings by the Deep River Boys (N & N, 56, p. 35) suggested to me that a follow-up piece, covering the quartet’s SOUNDIES of September 1941 (and one curiosity from the early 1950s), might help paint a more detailed picture of the group’s musical life.

“Group Biography” Both Howard Rye and Jay Warner (American Singing Groups, De Capo Press, 2000) have written about the Deep River Boys, and I am indebted to their research for much of this section of the article.

The Deep River Boys was formed at Virginia’s Hampton Institute in the mid 1930s, with the group originally performing as the Hampton Institute Junior Quartet. The members of the quartet were sufficiently confident of their abilities to move to New York City, appearing on the Major Bowes radio program in 1936. The group reportedly won first place, and the $100 prize money. Following an appearance in a revival of Emperor Jones, produced by Josh Logan, the combo worked with Rex Ingram on a promotional tour for the film Green Pastures. It was Ingram who suggested that they change their name to the Deep River Boys, after their theme, the spiritual Deep River.

The personnel of the original group consisted of Vernon Gardner (first tenor), George Lawson (second tenor), Harry Douglass (baritone, who also served as leader) and Edward “Mumbles” Ware (bass). Their accompaniment was furnished by pianist Charles Ford, who was replaced by Horatio (Ray) Durant in 1940. (Durant is possibly the same pianist who recorded with Connie McLean’s Rhythm Boys for Decca and Bluebird in 1936.)

Warner notes that after working in a “political/entertainment road show for the New York State Democratic Party,” the group auditioned for a CBS radio series. They were turned down because they did not have any popular songs in their repertory. Soon after, however, with a selection of pop songs in their “book” (and further experience, this time a short-lived Broadway play, How Com Law’d), the Deep River Boys was signed to a radio contract by CBS. Warner also reports that the group, “… had an historic performance on a closed-circuit TV broadcast … overseen by David Sarnoff in July of 1940… .”SOUNDIES contract materials suggest that the quartet had moved to the National Broadcasting Company by the time the shorts were produced in September 1941.

In 1939, the Deep River Boys appeared in the Broadway musical Swingin’ The Dream. Despite the participation of an immensely talented cast – Louis Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, Benny Goodman, Butterfly McQueen, Jackie Mabley, Dorothy Dandridge, Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude Jazz Band, and the Deep River Boys were all on stage, among many others — the play was not a success, closing after only 13 performances.

Radio success led to a contract with Victor Records, and in 1940 the Deep River Boys began recording for Victor’s budget-priced Bluebird label. Further radio work, along with touring and public performances, bolstered their popularity. Most of the quartet’s early recordings were far from its spiritual roots, with the group committing to wax such pop titles as CherokeeGod Bless The ChildJust A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’That Chick’s Too Young To Fry, and the ever-dreaded Utt-Da-Zay.

The Deep River Boys’ post-SOUNDIES activities included recording, touring, radio work and at least one film, described later in this article. In July 1942, for example, they recorded with Fats Waller, and appeared with him on stage in January 1943. Warner notes that the Deep River Boys were invited to the White House in 1955, at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A review of You Tube postings, and a listing found at the Internet Movie Data Base, point to a large number of television appearances during the late 1940s and 1950s. Surviving kinescopes clearly show the group integrating many elements of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll into the performance style!

There were personnel changes throughout the years, and periods of inactivity, until the Deep River Boys finally disbanded in the 1980s.

Minoco Productions
Minoco Productions is responsible for this series of SOUNDIES, along with close to 450 more juke- box shorts produced primarily in New York City during the period 1941-43. Minoco was an acronym of sorts: Mi = Mills, No = Novelty, Co = Company. The Mills Novelty Company of Chicago was not only the primary owner of Minoco Productions, but also the producer of the Panoram projection device, and the distributor of the SOUNDIES musical product.

Jack Barry was Minoco’s President and Executive Producer, and his appreciation of black talent, and vocal harmony groups in particular, led to a high number of shorts featuring African-Americans. In the months preceding the Deep River Boys series, Barry produced SOUNDIES featuring The Charioteers (June 1941) and The Delta Rhythm Boys (August 1941). This pattern would continue with other SOUNDIES production companies later filming The Mills Brothers, The Little Four Quartet, The Chanticleers, The Jubalaires and others.

It was presumably Barry (or possibly producer Fred Waller) who decided that this series would be evenly divided between two popular songs of the period, and two that might generously be described as “swinging the gospel.” This “musical ambivalence” probably reflects the music that the group performed at this time on radio and in public. The fact that the “visuals” in this series occasionally undermined the actual music should surprise nobody who is familiar with SOUNDIES!

Fred Waller, a former director of Paramount short subjects who would later develop “Cinerama”, produced all of the 1941-42 Minoco shorts. Directing this series of four shorts was Robert Snody, who has 154 SOUNDIES to his credit. Over a period of more than forty years Snody served a producer, director, writer, editor or production assistant for more than twenty-five feature films. He was involved in film as late as 1962, serving as production manager on The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm (MGM).

All of the songs in this series were licensed at the same rate, a $75.00 advance versus a 5 cent per print royalty. This was the standard licensing fee for all but the most important composers or hit tunes.

Sadly, no production documents confirm the group members who appear in this series of SOUNDIES. All available evidence suggests that the personnel of the Deep River Boys at this times was Vernon Gardner, George Lawson, tenor voices; Harry Douglass, baritone voice and vocal lead; Edward “Mumbles” Ware, bass voice. However, I have not been able to place Vernon Gardner on screen, and a confirmed personnel for the entire group remains a subject for further research.

Various contract materials were signed by Charles Ford, who was the group’s original pianist. It appears that when Ray Durant took over the piano chair, Ford remained as the vocal arranger for the group, and was possibly serving as manager as well.

Production Dates And The Soundtrack Orchestras
An analysis of the production of these shorts raises questions that cannot be answered at this late date. Although the series contains four films, a Minoco “standard practice,” there are two orchestras credited with soundtrack support, those of Claude Garreau and Jack Shilkret.

It appears that Claude Garreau’s studio orchestra provided all of the instrumental support for the Deep River Boys vocal work. However, save for Toot That Trumpet, the band has little opportunity to shine, essentially providing introductions and concluding musical phrases to the vocal performances; Ray Durant, the group’s regular pianist, provides most of the instrumental support.

The soundtracks were recorded on September 23, 1941, at the R.C.A. Studios (411 Fifth Avenue, New York City). All of the soundtracks were committed to wax in a three hour session, 2:00 P.M.–5:00 P.M. Garreau was paid $60.00, while the sidemen, including the Deep River Boy’s pianist, Ray Durant, were each paid $30. Garreau’s studio band included many familiar names: studio orchestra composed of New York union musicians under the direction of Claude Garreau: Claude Garreau, leader; Russ Case, trumpet; Sal Franzella, reeds; Horatio (Ray) Durant, piano; Benny Martell, guitar; Lou Shoobe, string bass; Milton Schlesinger, drums

A note about Claude Garreau, somewhat of a mystery man among SOUNDIES aficionados: In an interview with Garreau’s son in March 1995, it was noted that, “Dad was born in 1893, and he lived a long and successful life. At a time when life spans were not what they are today, Dad lived to a ripe age of 77, passing on in 1970.” Garreau was originally a pianist (and he appears in this capacity both on soundtrack and/or screen in at least 15 SOUNDIES), although he later “went with the publishers, which led him to Ray Bloch, working with him as an arranger.” Block is best know as the orchestra leader on the Ed Sullivan Show, but he earlier conducted for theater stage presentations and on the radio. Among his credits is an astounding 84 SOUNDIES soundtracks. Claude Garreau, according to his son, “wrote a few songs that didn’t make it. He supported the family, for the most part, by his arrangements, for Bloch, also the Elm City Four, and on the Beatrice Kay “Call For Philip Morris” program.

However, the fact remains that contract materials clearly indicate two recording sessions for this series, the second featuring Jack Shilkret’s studio band. Contract materials specify “Shilkret in the studio” and “part Deep River Toot Trumpet.”

A careful review of the soundtrack for Toot That Trumpet reveals a change in volume and sound quality just as the dance sequence begins. It appears that, subsequent to the production sessions of September 1941, it was decided that a dance interlude was needed in this SOUNDIE. Jack Shilkret’s band was in the recording studio (again, R.C.A Studios in Manhattan) on November 10, 1941, where he recorded two brief segments for SOUNDIES featuring dialect comedian Willie Howard. In addition, the band recorded a 30 second instrumental piece that supports the dancers in Toot That Trumpet. The music was edited into the existing soundtrack, with new footage shot of the jitterbug dance sequence, as detailed below.

Jack Shilkret was part of the remarkable family that produced older brother Nathaniel, and younger brother Harry. Jack was an accomplished clarinetist and pianist, and he worked continually in the recording studios, on the radio, and on motion picture soundtracks. Shilkret led bands on dozens of recording sessions, primarily for Victor in the 1920s, and ARC in the 1930s. The presence of such sidemen as Bunny Berigan, Charlie Teagarden, Artie Shaw, Adrian Rollini, Joe Venuti and others suggests that a reevaluation of his recordings may be in order. There is some evidence suggesting that this band was a regular radio combo broadcasting in New York City. The combo that recorded the brief dance sequence is as follows: studio orchestra composed of New York union musicians under the direction of Jack Shilkret: Jack Shilkret, leader; Phil Capicotto, trumpet; Sam Feinsmith, saxophone; John Gart, accordion; Harry Merkur, piano; Tony Gottuso, guitar; Charles Barber, string bass.

Sideline Photography
All of the sideline photography was completed at Minoco Studios, actually a rental stage in Astoria, Long Island. Originally the location of East Coast production for Paramount Pictures, this studio, now called Eastern Service Studios, provided space for many smaller independent film producers. The Deep River Boys series of SOUNDIES was probably completed over a period of two days, September 25 and 26 being likely candidates.

Toot That Trumpet, however, was only partially filmed in September. The dance sequence seen in the middle of the SOUNDIE, was filmed in mid-November, and spliced into the film, using Shilkret’s soundtrack performance.

While a contract identifying sideline extras is extant, the corner where the date was printed is missing, and it is impossible to know which of the two sideline dates the following refers to … at a guess, the first, from September 1941.

Sideline extras appearing in the Deep River Boys series of SOUNDIES include the following: Smalls Boytins, King Jackson, Nickie O’Daniel, Anna L. Porter, Kenneth Mitchell,Bobby Johnson, George Jones, Sahloo Wigfall, Shirley Johnson, Horatio Durant, Gladys Lawson, Irene Steeles, Jackie Lewis, Ora Gardner, Carol McLaughlin, Hilda Brown, Vivian Brown, Winnie Johnson, John Smalls, Buddy Phillips, Kelsey Pharr, J. (Jimmy) Robinson, one illegible signature (exact spelling of italicized names uncertain; other signatures not necessarily verified).

Shadrach – SOUNDIE release 3903 (Soundies Miniature Revue #1039, released the week of October 27, 1941).
This psuedo-spiritual tune (the full title is Shadrach, Mesach And Abednigo) was written by Robert MacGimsey, and was recorded by such diverse artists as Louis Armstrong, The Larks, Ruth Price and Sonny Rollins; Brook Benton had a hit single with the song in 1962. (MacGimsey can be seen with partner Johnny “Shadrach” Horace performing this tune in a Techniprocess/Vis-O-Graph short from 1941.)

The soundtrack recording is actually a superior piece of vocal harmony work, reflecting the style popularized by The Mills Brothers, The Golden Gate Quartet and others. The orchestra takes a back seat while the Deep River Boys swing their way through the Biblical story (taken from the Book of Daniel) of three Jewish youths thrown into the fire by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The close harmony is performed with confidence and swing, and includes the imitation of instruments (à la the Mills Brothers), as well as spoken segments that recall a Bible teacher’s storytelling efforts.

As one might expect, the story is presented on screen in a Biblical setting, with the cast members dressed in costumes from the period. More than half of the film focuses closely on the group as it sings and tells the Biblical tale. While the visual elements of the film are fairly straightforward, the short does descent into low comedy as slaves are frightened by the fire, followed by the “awakening” of the Golden Idol, which also flees. All in all, the visual elements work well in this SOUNDIE, and do not distract from the strong musical content.

While things come and go on YouTube, this SOUNDIE can currently be viewed, in a substandard transfer, here.

Booglie Wooglie Piggy – SOUNDIE release 4102 (Soundies Miniature Revue #1041, released the week of November 10, 1941).
Roy Jacob’s composition The Booglie Wooglie Piggy is perhaps a better tune than the title suggests, with an attractive melody, and lyrics that can be swung by a rhythm singer or combo. It is, of course, a variation on the child’s nursery rhyme This Little Piggy Went to Market. By no means a standard, but better than many novelties of the period, the tune was recorded by Will Bradley, Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters and others. Sammy Davis, Jr., along with with the Will Mastin Trio, performs this song on film in the 1947 Paramount Technicolor short Sweet And Low.

Like all of the SOUNDIES in this series, the soundtrack vocal by the Deep River Boys is strong. Their interpretation of this novelty song showcases Charles Ford’s arranging talents, as well as the group’s ability to flawlessly perform a close harmony interpretation of a rather offbeat composition. And, with all of their work in these SOUNDIES, the Deep River Boys make it swing!

Perhaps more than any film in this series, Booglie Wooglie Piggy finds the screenwriter, possibly Charles Abbott, straining to makes things work …. or perhaps it is the director or cast that just cannot pull things off. The comedy is broad, with more attention to broad “comic action” than most black-cast SOUNDIES that come to mind.

The scene is a picnic, the Deep River Boys have a piglet in a box, to which, and about which, they sing. All goes well – we are having a great time, including some wonderful jitterbug dancing — until the box falls and the piglet escapes. There are screams from the young ladies, as if a four foot tarantula has escaped, not a baby pig. The girls run, overturning this and that, screeching hysteri- cally, yet smiling at the same time. A terrified girl knocks pianist Ray Durant from the piano bench. Another lady tosses a cream pie into the air that hits one of the other picnic goers in the face. No, the visuals in this SOUNDIE just do not work completely, and when the film ends, we have enjoyed the music immensely, and are at least relieved that the poor pig has not been killed in the mayhem.

For some reason, this SOUNDIE has not been posted online. For those wishing a digital copy, drop me a line by clicking here.

Hark! Hark! The Lark – SOUNDIE release 4505 (Soundies Miniature Revue #1045, released the week of December 8, 1941)
This is the second of two SOUNDIES this series that might, in a stretch, be classified as pseudo- inspirational, at least in part. The soundtrack is actually composed of two songs, and neither is an attempt at a pop standard. However, the singing and swinging by the Deep River Boys is again superb, showing off all of the vocal strengths of the group: terrific voices that blend well and phrase as one.

The soundtrack begins with a brief flourish by the Claude Garreau orchestra, which is not heard from again until the final two bars of the film. The SOUNDIE does not open with the title song, but rather with a chorus of L’il Liza (not to be confused with Little Liza Jane). The song is performed in close harmony, swinging at uptempo, while four girls, one of them presumably Liza, watch at the window. But something else is happening here: a man deep in sleep tosses and turns, awakened by the singing of the group.

We drop down half a step on the musical scale, but keep the tempo “up,” as the group shifts to a variation of a song by William Shakespeare, Hark! Hark! The Lark, from his late romance Cymbeline. (The composer of the melody is unknown, but the group’s arranger, Charles Ford, would be a good guess.) The focus remains on the vocal quartet, two of whom contribute short phrases on ocarinas, probably sidelined only. And then the almost mandatory bit of “low comedy”: The sleeper has awakened, and he shushes the girls from the window. Picking up a handy bucket of water (don’t we all keep buckets of water in the bedroom?), but not noticing that the window has closed, he tosses the water at the window, only to have it splash back at him. Appropriately, the group is singing Shakespeare’s line, “His steeds to water at those springs.”

We then return to L’il Liza, and the boys complete the performance, each in a close clinch with one of the girls. We are left with the feeling that something odd has happened: two unrelated songs, impeccably sung at the same tempo and in similar style so one doesn’t necessarily realize that they are two distinct entities. Some straight ahead filming of a great vocal group, mixed with the corniest of comedy. And it all works!

Again, YouTube tends to share material in substandard quality, but this SOUNDIES can currently be viewed here.

Toot That Trumpet – SOUNDIE release 4703 (Soundies Miniature Revue #1047, released the week of December 22, 1941)
As discussed above, I am suggesting that both the recording and sideline work in this short come from two different sets of recording and sideline sessions. As with the previous three SOUNDIES in the series, the Deep River Boys are in fine form, well rehearsed and relaxed as they swing their way through a somewhat uninspired piece by Neal Hopkins and Harry Breuer. Their singing is strong enough, however, to overcome the shortcomings of the song!

The tune is titled Toot That Trumpet, and as one would expect, solo trumpet is heard throughout, behind both the vocal group and the jitterbug dancers. To my ears, there are two different soloists, supporting the theory that a short segment was recorded and spliced into the film after the primary soundtrack recording had been completed.

The film opens at what appears to be a dance, complete with a black band on stage, all of whom are merely sidelining, and none of whom has been identified. Girls dance in the background and the Deep River Boys are up front, singing Neal Hopkin’s lyrics. The fluid trumpet that we hear during this section is by Russ Case, a well known sideman and CBS staff soloist.

At around a minute and three-quarters into the film we have a change in both soundtrack and scene. It is now Jack Shilkret’s band that we hear, with a slightly less fluid trumpet soloist, Phil Capicotto, and Sam Feinsmith featured on clarinet. We are no longer at the dance, but rather an exterior set … the front stoop of an apartment house, perhaps … where jitterbug dancers perform to each other’s delight. Then back to the dance, with the original soundtrack and the Deep River Boys on screen.

Click here to view this film on YouTube.

And One More Effort By The Deep River Boys
In 1952, record producer Joe Davis decided to issue a 16 mm promotional short to accompany the May 1952 release of Sleepy Little Cowboy by the Deep River Boys (Beacon Records 9146, backed by All I Need Is You). The soundtrack of the film is almost certainly taken from the 78 rpm release of the song. The Deep River Boys do not appear on screen, however. Visually we see images of a “sleepy little cowboy” as drawn by Jim Timmons, Jr.

These SOUNDIES have never been given their due, possibly because of the nature of visuals that are used to tell the story. But one needs to broaden one’s attitude and enjoy the SOUNDIES for what they are: entertainments for a mass audience, great music and clever visuals that are well conceived and sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny.

The soundtracks require more serious consideration. The Deep River Boys are a superior vocal harmony group, certainly the equal of others that achieved greater fame during the period. They blend and swing and phrase impeccably, taking even less-than-inspired material and making it indispensable listening. But more important is the fact that we are seeing and hearing an important vocal group that moved successfully from gospel music to rock-and-roll. The 1930s finds the Deep River Boys performing gospel and spiritual music; the 1940s has different demands, and they are singing popular music, novelties and jazz. And then the dynamic musical change in the 1950s, and as You Tube demonstrates, the Deep River Boys are singing rock-and-roll, songs like House Of The Rising SunLove Me TenderRock Around The Clock and All Shook Up. A response to what people wanted to hear, no doubt, but from the 1930s through the 1960, always music that swings, and resonates clearly today. And the SOUNDIES are an important milestone in that musical arc.