The first half of the 1930s saw Warner Bros. release no fewer than six one-reel Vitaphone band shorts that featured some of the better black Swing bands of the period. Eubie Blake, Elmer Snowden, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Noble Sissle, Claude Hopkins and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band all found themselves starring in these films. Here we consider the band short that spotlights Don Redman’s 1934 orchestra. As jazz musician and historian Dan Weinstein points out, this film might be the best representation of the band’s role in revues presented at such venues as Connie’s Inn. If the film falls just short of being a classic in the genre — the actual jazz content is somewhat limited — it nevertheless proves to be very worthy of detailed discussion.
A great deal has been written about Don Redman, one of the most important figures in the development of Swing, and it is not my intention to cover his career in detail. However, a brief biography will help put Redman and his band’s performance in proper perspective.
Don Redman was a talented reed player who had the ability to construct solos that are well-balanced and inventive; that is, they tell a musical story. He is not a major solo voice on the alto sax or clarinet, however, and it is not surprising that he turns over much of the solo work in this film to others in the band. As a singer, Redman had a high-pitched, somewhat pinched voice. He often employed phrases that combined singing and rhythmic speech to present the lyrics. Although opinions may vary, I find his vocal performances to be charming. As an arranger, Don Redman ranked among the best during the early years of the big band era, and he is responsible for developing many of the conventions used by hundreds of arrangers who followed in his footsteps.
Don Redman, born in 1900, began his musical training at age three, and by the time he turned twelve he was proficient on all wind instruments. Ultimately he choose reeds over brass, focusing on alto sax and clarinet. In 1923 Redman joined the Fletcher Henderson orchestra which at that time played music that was neither distinguished nor particularly swinging. Redman soon began writing arrangements for the band, and he brought a number of concepts to those arrangements that would become hallmarks of all Swing writing.
Although probably not the first, Redman excelled at creating melodic lines, improvisations on the melody, and then scoring these for the reeds or brass. In addition, Redman played the sections against each other, often employing a call-and-response pattern culled from earlier African American music. These techniques are often credited to Fletcher Henderson who indeed built a career using them; it was Redman, however, who largely introduced them to Henderson.
In 1927, at the urging of white bandleader and impresario Jean Goldkette, Redman joined McKinney’s Cotton Pickers as musical director. Four years later he formed his own band, composed of some of the finest musicians available on the Harlem scene. The band worked at Connie’s Inn, recorded for Brunswick, ARC, Victor and others. Redman toured throughout the 1930s, finally disbanding in 1940, although he would gather musicians for recordings and live performances for many years to come. In 1946 he took the first American jazz band overseas to a still shell-shocked Europe. The band was composed of Swing Era veterans, and it it played advanced arrangements by Tadd Dameron along with those by leader Redman.
For the remainder of his career Redman focused on freelance arranging and leading groups of studio musicians on occasional recordings. Redman passed away in 1964, age 64.
Don Redman and his Orchestra
The band that appears in this short subject was a strong aggregation of veteran jazz musicians. Sidney DeParis, the chief trumpet soloist, was a fine improviser, and in his sense of rhythmic freedom reflects the influence of Henry “Red” Allen, one of the important trend setters of the decade. Future Ellingtonian Quentin Jackson had recently joined the trombone section, although the trombone solos usually went to Benny Morton.
One might expect a four-person reed section, in addition to leader Redman. However, by this time Jerry Blake, who had anchored the section on baritone, had left for Europe to join Willie Lewis. He had not been replaced, and no baritone sax can be heard on the soundtrack. In any case, only three reeds, in addition to leader Redman (who does not appear with his alto sax on screen) are seen on in the film.
The rhythm section is strong, including the underrated Don Kirkpatrick on piano who is quite active in the background throughout the short. A great deal of the drive that the band achieves can be attributed to the fine drumming of Manzie Johnson, who was active in the music for over 40 years.
The personnel, as seen on screen, is as follows:
Don Redman and his Orchestra (Don Redman, alto sax, vocal and leader; trumpets, left-to-right: Shirley Clay, Lanston Curl, Sidney DeParis; trombones, left-to-right: Eugene “Gene” Simon, Benny Morton, Quentin “Butter” Jackson; reeds, left-to-right: Rupert Cole, alto sax; Robert Carroll, tenor sax; Ed Inge, alto sax and clarinet; Don Kirkpatrick, piano; Talcott Reeves, guitar; Bob Ysaguirre, string bass; Manzie Johnson, drums)
Often referred to in the press as the “Colored Bing Crosby,” Harlan Lattimore’s presence on the jazz scene was a relatively brief five or six years. His short-lived career belies a greater impact on the music since Lattimore was one of the first black singers to primarily perform ballads, largely eschewing up-tempo rhythm numbers. Lattimore was a precursor to Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock and Nat Cole, and his rich baritone sound was popular with black and white audiences alike.
Lattimore was born in Cincinnati in 1908, and he began performing professionally on radio in the late 1920s. Early in the next decade he began recording with Don Redman, as well as appearing with the band in public. His appealing, low-key musical approach allowed him to also record with the white bands of Isham Jones and Victor Young. Lattimore remained with Don Redman until the spring of 1937, when he left the music scene. Some contemporary reports suggest that Lattimore had a substance abuse problem, but this has not been verified. In November 1949 Redman produced a concert at Carnegie Hall that was intended as a comeback for Lattimore, although it apparently failed.
Harlan Lattimore left the music business and died thirty years later in 1980.
Red and Struggie
Even to major Swing Era enthusiasts, “Red and Struggie” is one of the more obscure comedy/vocal/dance acts of the period. “Red,” the taller of the two performers, was born Reginald Tibbs; “Struggie” was born Walter Struggs. And, as we will see, there were many iterations of the act, and it is unlikely that the original “Red” appears in this film!
Red and Struggie started performing together the late 1920s or early 1930s, with their first publicized exposure a stage revue titled BROWN BUDDIES. The two portrayed privates “Red and Struggy” in a show that starred Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall, Putney Dandridge and Ada Brown. Reviewing an out-of-town tryout at the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh (October 1930), a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier noted that Red and Struggie “put over a ‘crazy’ dance act that proved an hilarious sensation….” The troupe the moved to Manhattan and opened at the Liberty Theater on 52nd Street on October 7, 1930. The show ran until January 1931.
When the revue closed on 52nd Street, it moved uptown to the Lafayette Theater in Harlem where Red and Struggie continued to garner positive comment. A reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, “What the audience liked best last night were the crazy antics of two inspired black imbeciles named Red and Struggy. It must have been Red who was the bigger and nuttier of the two. He had new movements to exhibit, demented doings entirely original and devastating.” All of the acts in the show were backed by Pike Davis and his Brown Buddies Band, under the direction of Charles Cook.
It appears that in September 1931, Struggs (Struggie) found a new partner in Arthur Bryson, and they performed together at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem. Billed as as “Arthur Bryson and Struggie,” the duo was together only briefly as Red and Struggie (possibly Tibbs returning as Red) were booked at the Lafayette in a program called JAZZ JAMBOREE. The two returned to the Lafayette in September 1932, and in December of the year played the Lafayette with Don Redman and his Orchestra. However, a press report in the New York Age confirms that “Red” is neither the original, Reginald Tibbs, nor Arthur Bryson.
Red and Struggie, with the second, post-Bryson, “Red,” continued to tour, working with Luis Russell and his Orchestra at the Apollo Theater in March 1934. The Chicago Defender, dated August 11, 1934, finds them back with the Don Redman orchestra at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Either before or after the Chicago engagement the duo made the Vitaphone short subject with Redman. In November they were back at the Apollo in a program headlined by Benny Carter’s fine band.
In December 1934, Reginald Tibbs … the original “Red” of the team … died from a heart attack. However, it is unlikely that he had been reunited with Struggie either at this time, or six months earlier when the short subject was made.
The team of Red and Struggie was transformed into Struggy and Johnson (March 1936), and later Strugs and Struggie; Strugs was actually Willie (Duke) Bryant, late of the Shades of Rhythm, and no relation to the Harlem bandleader. Nothing further is heard of this unique duo after early 1936.
It should be noted that IMDB cites the presence of Red and Struggie in the 1936 Vitaphone short RED NICHOLS AND HIS WORLD FAMOUS PENNIES. This is not Red and Struggie, however, but rather the better known team Cook and Brown.
Other Sideline Extras
There are five “acting” roles in the film. Two are patrons of Don Redman’s new night club, and the other three show up during the dramatizations that accompanies the song “Ill Wind.”
Edna Mae Harris
The woman who leaves the club with Leonard Ruffin at the conclusion of the short is not credited in the production files, but ironically she is the best known of the actors in the short. Edna Mae Harris appeared in more than a dozen black cast and Hollywood features, a handful of Broadway productions, and three SOUNDIES. In addition, Harris was featured in a handful of Broadway plays, including GREEN PASTURES, one of the best known black cast stage productions of the 1930s. Harris portrayed the role of Zeba in both the original 1930 production and the 1935 revival of the play. She also portrayed the same role in the 1936 Hollywood production of GREEN PASTURES produced by MGM.
During the second segment of the Ill Wind “song story,” Struggie (Walter Struggs) is seen as a man who is down on his luck. The wind blows a coat, hat and cane his way. In the coat’s pocket is some money, allowing him to have a meal at The Elite Cafe!
Doe Doe Green and Wilhemina GreyWilhemina Grey
Earlier in the “Ill Wind” segment, a man (identified as “Mr. Hardy”) receives a note from his girlfriend Georgina, curtly stating “I don’t love you any more.” Georgina’s friend, who has delivered the note, is attracted to Mr. Hardy, and after a teasing movement that brings to mind Mae West, invites the man to the dance with her. The vamp is played by Wilhemina Grey, a performer who was active from at least the early 1930s. Grey appeared in HARLEM SCANDALS, an Irving Mills productions, presented in January 1932. Two years later she was a member of the Apollo Theater chorus line.
An article in the Pittsburgh Courier dated October 23, 1937, notes, “Wilhemina Gray [sic], former chorine, who just recently became a sensation [sic] as a hip swinger along the illuminated land [I suppose this means Broadway], and Taps Miller, the lad who put the Suzi in Suzi-Q, have come to the paring [sic] of the ways, and now Taps rides his Ford alone.”
While Grey’s activities in the late 1930s are unknown, she is noted in a press account as attending a Tuesday night “theatrical presentation” at Clark Monroe’s club in Harlem; also in attendance were Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Count Basie. Gray was on the road in early 1941, appearing in Charleston, West Virginia; Columbia, Ohio; and Buffalo, New York. The following year she was back in Manhattan, appearing in a dance act as Tondelayo, although it is not know how long she performed under this name. It is possible that she is the “Tondelayo” who co-stars in the 1946 black cast feature SEPIA CINDERELLA, but this has not been verified. In 1947 Grey contributed the song “Barnyard Boogie” to Louis Jordan’s band book, and the following year appears on record with the vocal harmony group The 5 Kings. Nothing is heard of Ms. Grey beyond this point in time.
Doe Doe Green
Mr. Hardy, the jilted lover, is played by Doe Doe Green, an unknown name to contemporary audiences, but a performer who appeared on stage and film for at least twenty years. Doe Doe Green began his career as a rodeo clown, and later toured as a comedian on the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association, also known as Tough On Black Asses) circuit. Green appears in the trades as early as 1914, cited as “the funniest guy in the business” in an ad for a program at the Pekin Theater in Montgomery, Alabama. Two years later he was on tour in the Irvin C. Miller revue MR. RAGTIME. He was with another Miller Show, BROADWAY GOSSIPS, in 1920, again playing a comic role. In 1922 the Lafayette Theater in Harlem featured a Gertrude Saunder’s revue, HURRY ON, billed as “the sexiest show in town,” with Green as a supporting player.
The only recording by Green that has come to my attention was recorded in 1927.
Green also appeared in ENEMIES OF THE LAW (Regal Talking Pictures, 1931), which is apparently a lost film.
Doe Doe Green began a Broadway career in 1922, and he appeared in eight stage presentations, along with many nightclub revues throughout the 1930s. In 1937 Green was featured in a WPA presentation titled HORSE PLAY, presented at the Lafayette Theater. Doe Doe Green’s last noted appearance was on Broadway in a 1943 drama titled THE PATRIOTS. Green passed away the following year.
Leonard Ruffin is the most obscure of the actors in this film. This is his only film credit, and he made only one Broadway appearance, performing as a dancing waiter in the 1925 stage play TELL ME MORE. In 1926 he teamed with dancer Willie Covan, and they appeared together in a number of revues, over a period of six months, performing an act that they called “The Poetry of Motion.”
We next hear of Ruffin in 1932, when he appeared at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater in a traveling version of the COTTON CLUB PARADE starring Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. Nothing further is heard of Ruffin after his performance in this short subject.
Over the years various writers have mistakenly assumed that there were more than one short featuring Don Redman and his Orchestra. The noted jazz researcher Theo Zwicky once referred to the the film as “Take-A-Chance Club,” and that worked its way into print. Likewise, discographer Walter Bruyninckx cited the film title as “Sweepstakes.” While we would welcome multiple titles with the Redman band, there is only one, the Warner Bros./Vitaphone one-reeler under discussion here.
The film was produced on the East Coast, at the Vitaphone studios in Brooklyn. Both recording and sideline photography took place in August 1934, and it is unlikely that more than two or three days were needed to produce the film. Editing came next, with the film finally released in either late December 1934 or January 1935; IMDB cites a release date of December 29, 1934.
The sets for this short subject are well mounted, including one of the nightclub opened by sweepstakes winner Redman. Behind the bandstand are enlarged playing cards and lottery tickets, and a huge circular lottery device that rotates at various times during the stage presentation. In addition, there is an apartment interior, and an exterior set outside of the Elite Restaurant. Director Joseph Henebery keeps the acting moving in a story that includes two band numbers, a comic variety presentation and a vocal that is dramatized on screen. The short concludes with a “surprise ending” that would have delighted many in the audience.
While the film is available on DVD in the Warner Bros. set “Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy,” it can also be viewed on YouTube here.
(1) Yeah, Man – The music begins behind the opening credits, and we immediate know that we are hearing a great Harlem band in full swing. “Yeah Man” had been recorded one year earlier by Fletcher Henderson in an arrangement by his brother Horace, and there may have been a handful of viewers who recognized the song. (The tune, in roughly the same Horace Henderson arrangement, would be recorded by Fletcher’s band one month after the production of the short, under the title “Hotter Than ‘ell.” It would feature a majestic trumpet solo by Henry “Red” Allen.)
The performance in this film, on the other hand, features an arrangement by Don Redman, which is just as strong as Henderson’s. The music under the opening titles introduces what little melody there is to the song, but also let’s us know, via a newspaper mockup, that Don Redman has won the sweepstakes and has opened a club called the “Take-A-Chance Club.” Quote the article in the film:
“’Are you happy?’ asks reporter. “YEAH MAN,” says Don.
As the credits fade we see the elaborate night club set. Benny Morton stands to solo on trombone, sharing an incredibly inventive twenty-four bars. The first “A” section begins the musical journey, followed by the second 8 bars, largely played in double time. The release is impeccably performed in stop-time, as Morton then passes the musical baton to Ed Inge who completes the chorus on clarinet.
Redman’s talking vocal comments on both Inge and Morton’s solos, although not by name. After suggesting that the “musical crown” might be given to Morton, Sidney DeParis stands up and states, “Wait there just a minute, Don, let me blow out on this horn.” DeParis’s solo shows the tremendous influence that Louis Armstrong had on all trumpet players of this generation, although the solo also has some of Red Allen’s rhythmic freedom, which a lot of musicians were aware of at that time. Inge solos behind the call-and- response between brass and reeds, with Robert Carroll taking the release. Carroll, a fine improviser, seems to be uncomfortable with the tempo, and with just eight bars his solo ends before it has really started. Special mention should be made of Don Kirkpatrick’s impressive support on piano on this number, and throughout the rest of the short.
(2) Ill Wind – At the conclusion of “Yeah Man,” Don is congratulated by Leonard Ruffin. Ruffin’s date, Edna Mae Harris, points out that a lot of people had lost their money on the sweepstakes. Then, in a comment that has never made a great deal of sense to me, other than to introduce the next song, Don says, “Well you know what they say, it’s an ill wind blows nobody good.”
The band begins the song with a rather bombastic introduction, and now we see the letter to “Mr. Hardy” from his girlfriend Georgina. The melody is played by muted trumpets, with clarinet noodling along in the background. This does not sound at all like Ed Inge, and it could very well be Redman, who was a fine clarinet player. We see the band briefly, then back to the story with Struggie recovering the coat, and getting to dine on found money. Toward the end of this segment Harlan Lattimore begins his soundtrack vocal, with members of the band echoing in the background and we return to the club where we finally get to see Lattimore on screen.
At this point the song logically, and musically, seems to end. But instead we move into an out of tempo, symphonic ending which allows Redman to show off another aspect of his talent as a writer and arranger, and the band’s ability to play this sort of “stage show revue” ending.
(3) Nagasaki – This song, written in 1928 by Mort Dixon and Harry Warren, is a novelty piece that tells of the city where “fellas chew tobaccy, and the women wicky-wacky-woo.” While the song is usually presented as comic novelty piece — such is the case here — it nevertheless has attractive changes, and it was adopted and recorded by hundreds of jazz musicians, including Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Oscar Peterson. Redman recorded the title for Brunswick, although this is a different arrangement, possibly put together by Redman for Red and Struggie.
The comic duo enters to the moderate tempo of this arrangement. I cannot, for the life of me, describe their attire, so a picture is included, with Red to the left, Struggie to the right. Their vocal is not much in terms of their voices per se, although they have good “jazz chops,” and I find their performance to be charming and very entertaining. They dance to the last chorus …. again, a simple but effective approach …. with alto sax Rupert Cole heard during the release. Struggie’s rubber faced mugging may be offensive to some today, but in 1934 it would have been accepted as being just a part of this type of comic variety routine.
(4) Tall Man – Usually referred to as “Why Should I Be Tall?,” this tune, by Redman and lyricist Milton Drake, was probably written for this film; at the very least it fits the plot of the film like a glove.
After Red and Struggie leave the stage, Don wanders over to sit with Edna May Harris, who admires his huge diamond ring. Don gives the ring to her, as Ruffin, clearly miffed by Don’s behavior, comments, “Hey shorty, you’re doing pretty well for yourself, aren’t ya?” Cue the music, and Don’s talking vocal that extolls the virtues of his shorter stature: “I get everything that a tall man gets, so why should I be tall?” During the second chorus, however, Harris removes the ring and places it on Ruffin hand; they leave the club together. But Redman has the last laugh. He reaches into his pockets and pulls out a fist full of similar diamond rings, each priced at ten cents. Fade to ending credit.
In retrospect, after the passage of many decades, many might experience mild disappointment with this short, wishing for four solid jazz performances. But this is not the case, in large part because, especially in a nightclub setting, a band would not play a series of up- tempo jazz pieces. Even when playing for dancers, the band would be expected to vary the tempo. In any revue, jazz pieces would be alternated with vocals, dance/variety acts, features for the leaders, and so forth. And that is exactly what we see and hear in this short.
As historian Dan Weinstein notes, “the band’s tremendous execution speaks to Redman’s great influence in the music.” The band’s performance of the fine Redman arrangements, the strong statements by the band’s soloists, and the entertaining vocals by Lattimore and Redman … along with the variety act by Red and Struggie …. make this a superior band short. A classic? Perhaps not, but certainly one that holds our attention and never fails to delight more than eighty years after its production.
Thank to jazz historians Dan Weinstein and Marv Goldberg for their input for this article.