The Man is an audio novel set in the first decades of the 20th century
The stories and original songs are written by Steve Gillette
Track 9. “Whispering”
John Hammond was just fourteen years old when Danny noticed him hanging out near the stage at Small’s Paradise at 135th Street and 7th Avenue. This was in 1924 when Danny’s own son was only nine. But the young Hammond knew what he was listening to, he’d been buying jazz records with his allowance money since he was six years old.
Hammond became a fan of old Jack when he heard him play. He wanted to know all about Jack’s travels and his influences, and of course, Jack spared no eloquence in recalling the early days. I suspect he left out some of the real hair-raising details. But he had known so many of the greats.
For Danny and Lorraine New York was a true paradise. The Algonquin Hotel began to host the Round Table gatherings with writers like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and George S. Kaufman. Hearing about the theories of Albert Einstein, Benchley wrote, "If Mr. Einstein doesn't like the natural laws of this universe, let him go back where he came from."
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
"Whispering" was first published in 1920 by Sherman, Clay & Co., of San Francisco. The initial 1920 copyright and first publishing attributes the composition to John Schonberger and the lyrics to his brother, Malvin Schonberger. Some versions also list Vincent Rose as co-composer and Richard Coburn as a collaborator on the lyrics. The Paul Whiteman recording doesn’t use the lyrics, so the label on the record simply says John Schonberger under the song title.
Originally scored in E♭ major, the song is in 4/4 time. It has a 12-bar intro, then a 16-bar A-theme, followed by a 32-bar repeated chorus. The 32 bars is essentially a 16-bar B-theme played twice (or 4 times counting the repeat.)
Here are the chords as it’s played in the example:
From the book:
In 1921, hardly anyone had heard a radio broadcast. A few clever young people had experimented with crystal and wireless circuits. During the war, many had been instructed in the code developed by Samuel F. B. Morse. If they knew the Morse Code, they could listen to messages from ships and from land stations. Transmission had even been accomplished from airplanes, but there was not yet anything like a radio broadcast.
Frank Conrad of the Westinghouse Company of East Pittsburgh had been experimenting with transmissions of phonograph music and baseball scores from his barn research station. Enough amateur wireless operators were listening to them, that a Pittsburgh newspaper proposed advertising to them. Westinghouse then opened the first broadcast station with the idea of advertising their electronic radio equipment.
Radio station WJZ broadcast from the roof of the Westinghouse factory in New Jersey with the sonorous voice of Thomas H. Cowan. There were home sets available, but at $60 they were beyond our means. Rainy’s mom and dad were the first we knew to have one, and it was fun to go to listen to the Vincent Lopez band playing live from the Hotel Taft. So strange to think that Lopez was playing only a few blocks from us, but that the signal went to New Jersey by wire and then back to us through the air. What an amazing time to be alive.
The biggest breakthrough for music recording was the development of electrical amplification, and especially the invention of the condenser microphone which relied on the principle of capacitance. Sound waves moving across a thin, electrically charged membrane would change the device’s ability to hold a charge, and this variable could be amplified and captured by a recorder.
I couldn’t help but take an interest in this development, although I was immediately confronted with my lack of scientific knowledge. Physics was the farthest thing from the kind of study I had done with music theory and history. I found that the best I could do was to listen to the experts and try to focus on the applications of their knowledge.
Telephone industry giant Western Electric had research laboratories with resources that no record company or independent inventor had. They had developed the condenser microphone there in 1916 and greatly improved it in 1922. They also had the best amplifiers and test equipment. They had already patented an electro-mechanical recorder in 1918, and in the early 1920s, they developed two systems for electronically recording and reproducing sound. One system employed conventional discs and the other recorded an optical signal on motion picture film.
By 1924, such dramatic progress had been made that Western Electric arranged a demonstration for the two leading record companies, the Victor Talking Machine Company and the Columbia Phonograph Company. Both soon licensed the system and both made electrical recordings in February 1925. Neither actually released these new recordings until several months later. To avoid making their existing catalogs obsolete, the two rivals agreed privately not to publicize the new process until November, by which time enough electrically recorded product would be available to meet the anticipated demand.
The recording process up until then was done with the old Edison process; a large horn to gather the sound, and a sharp stylus to inscribe the groove into the wax medium of a cylinder or disc. In some of the studios the horn was enormous, sometimes made of wood and sometimes made of copper or brass. Musicians called it the ‘witch's hat.’ At the neck of the horn was still the old carbon microphone that Alexander Graham Bell had patented in 1876.
The engineers were ahead of the marketplace. With the expanded fidelity, the record companies found that they had to artificially reduce the frequency range of recordings so they would not overwhelm the non-electronic playback equipment that most people had at home. The steel needles and tinny sound horns reproduced very low frequencies as an unpleasant rattle and rapidly wore out discs with prominent high frequencies.
We were fortunate to be able to volunteer for some of the early recording trials that Chris Wente was doing in his lab-studio at Western Electric. Johnny was the one that Wente asked to come in to play the piano, and I served more as an assistant, among other things, moving the piano around in the studio to better capture the sound.
At first it was not feasible to move the microphone array, since it was a delicate assembly of wires and reflective panels and other attachments. It was only later that we got to try to record the guitar, and that was disappointing. We eventually realized that the capacitor element needed to be pointed away from the sound hole of the guitar, certainly nowhere near where the movement of air would overwhelm it and distort the signal.
For several years I had been playing my Gibson’s L-1 arch-top guitar. It had the power to hold up in a group session. In 1923, I was able to buy my L-5 which had many advanced features like the tunable bridge, which really helped its intonation and action. With the case it cost over $300, the price of a Model T Ford. But then, what use did I have for a Model T?
It seemed a lot easier to record my arch-top guitar than the flat-top mahogany Martin whose tone I loved so much. The arch-top had a punchy sound that cut through to emphasize the rhythm when I played with other instruments. But when it was just me and my small Martin parlor guitar, the tone was so sweet and the balance of voices on the instrument blended so well with my own that I wished we could capture that in a recording. I guess it was narcissism but that was what I really wanted to preserve for future listeners.
I found also that although the Gibson stood up to the bass and piano, it didn’t allow me to lighten up for a more arpeggiated or finger-style approach. If I laid off the heavy handed chunky energy and tried for a run of notes, or even bending a string for effect, as was so effortless on the Martin, the sound just dropped below the threshold of the recorder and disappeared.
Nick Lucas had recorded test cylinders as early as 1912, and began making records in 1921. His “Pickin’ The Guitar” and “Teasing The Frets” from 1922 are the earliest examples of unaccompanied solo guitar. The banjo was still used a lot as a rhythm instrument. You can hear a banjo on Paul Whiteman’s 1921 recording of “Whispering.” Eddie Lang played both guitar and banjo and began recording in 1924. He became a very successful studio musician.
The solo records I most admired were blues players whose guitars were edgy and raspy and whose voices were strident. I guess since the recording processes of the time weren’t adequate to transmit the range of frequencies and subtleties of dynamics, it worked best for the assertive hooting, hollering vocals, although a singer like Caruso could make it work, and he did make very successful records. As the technical side of things improved it would make way for the more soulful vocalists, even eventually the crooners.
Microphones which generated a signal with a metallic element moving in a coil were called dynamic mics. Ribbon microphones were also a type of dynamic mic. They used a thin ribbon of metal stretched between poles that would transmit their vibrations to an electronic sensor which would then be amplified. These microphones had a satisfying sound especially for the spoken word, and became the standard for the burgeoning broadcast industry. Often you would see these large squarish microphones in photos on the desk in front of a radio reporter.
This principle of a core of metal moving in a coil would also be applied to a guitar string moving over a magnet to create a signal which could be amplified. This made it possible to have an electrified guitar, and helped out guitarists as they struggled to be heard. Often the boosted sound would ‘overdrive’ the electron tubes in the amplifier, but since the tubes tended to create even-order harmonics which are actually pleasing to the ear, this form of distortion ended up becoming quite popular among guitar players.
In January 1921, President Harding was inaugurated and we were able to hear his speech on the radio in the lobby of the Ansonia Hotel. That month, J. Edgar Hoover organized more mass arrests. Upwards of 10,000 suspected radicals were arrested on blank warrants and held incommunicado.
Hoover claimed to have dossiers on over 70,000 individuals including prominent liberals Jane Addams and Fiorello LaGuardia. Newspapers, magazines and other publications were heavily scrutinized, especially Negro press and labor. In a congressional hearing, Hoover claimed that fifty percent of all labor strikes were Communist inspired, a claim that was unsupported by evidence. Five Socialists elected to the New York Assembly were barred from taking their seats.
Food prices had risen since the end of the war. In one ad I remember, it said, “One cent buys but a bit of meat or a bit of fish or a fifth of an egg, or a small potato, or a slice of bacon or a single muffin. One cent buys a big dish of Quaker Oats.”
Another magazine ad that caught my eye claimed that the “Greatest living authors are now writing for Paramount Pictures,” and then listed Sir James M. Barrie, Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Elinor Glyn and W. Somerset Maugham.
In the Spring we moved to Gramercy Park, a small garden apartment. Rainy could watch Johnny play in the gated commons. Life was perfect. I was making good money playing, but was also starting to earn some royalties, and was doing some free-lance arranging. We had weekly dinners with her mom and dad and we learned about everything that was happening in the world.
After a few hours' deliberation on July 14, 1921, a jury convicted Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti of first-degree murder and they were sentenced to death. Anti-Italianism, anti-immigrant, and anti-Anarchist bias were suspected as having influenced the verdict. A series of appeals followed, funded largely by the private Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee. The appeals were based on recanted testimony, conflicting ballistics evidence, a prejudicial pretrial statement by the jury foreman, and a confession by an alleged participant in the robbery. All appeals were denied by trial judge Webster Thayer and also later denied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The case became a cause célèbre.
Speakeasies were opening everywhere as people began to feel a thirst engendered by prohibition. Authorities tried to cope. Portable stills were on sale at local hardware stores for only $6. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs attempted to stamp out popular songs because of their influence on young people. They endorsed only the old standards like “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “The Long, Long Trail.”
In another sad episode that involved morality and politics, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was to be at the center of a sensational storm of scandal in the death of a young actress. We had met him briefly when he worked with Mabel Normand in 1918. He was one of the most highly paid comedy actors of the day, earning $1,000 a day in 1914, and then signing a three-year contract with Paramount Pictures in 1918 for $3 million. Astonishing to all of us in the cheap seats. But he was very talented and a very funny man.
In September, he and two friends threw a party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. One of the women who attended the party, Virginia Rappe, a twenty-six year old actress, became seriously ill. Examined by a doctor it was determined that her symptoms were caused by intoxication. She was in terrible pain, but was given morphine and no further care. Two days later she was admitted to a hospital where she died from peritonitis. She had suffered from chronic urinary tract infections and the alcohol had caused more serious problems.
Arbuckle was accused of raping her and was charged with manslaughter and subjected to three trials. The first two resulted in hung juries and the third finally acquitted him. But his reputation and his professional and personal life were destroyed. The San Francisco District Attorney, Matthew Brady, used the trial to advance his own political ambitions, making prejudicial public declarations and forcing witnesses to make false statements.
One witness, Bambina Maude Delmont, who had brought the young actress to the party, tried to incriminate Roscoe and attempted to extort money from his attorneys in an offer to change her testimony. William Randolph Hearst took advantage of the trials to sell newspapers and said that he hadn’t had such sales since the sinking of the Lusitania.
The studios feared the negative publicity of the three trials and forbade any of their players to speak of the incident, especially not in defense of Roscoe. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton both defied the order to say that he was “a genial, easy-going type who would not harm a fly." In spite of the studio’s objections, Keaton testified for the defense in the third trial, which acquitted Arbuckle, and the jury gave him a formal written statement of apology.
After he was exonerated, Roscoe’s career had a resurgence of public interest, but Adolph Zukor, president of Famous Players-Lasky, insisted that his films be banned by the Hays Office, the motion picture industry censor. Zukor was faced with the moral outrage of various groups such as the Lord's Day Alliance, the powerful Federation of Women's Clubs and even the Federal Trade Commission to curb what they perceived as Hollywood ‘debauchery run amok’ and its effect on the morals of the general public. Zukor decided that Roscoe had to be sacrificed to keep the movie industry free of the moralists. Hays banned him from ever working in U.S. movies again.
In June of 1919, the Algonquin Hotel had begun to host the “Round Table” gatherings with writers like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, and Robert E. Sherwood. They would meet in the Rose Room restaurant. They called themselves the “Vicious Circle.” Lorraine and I began to follow their antics as many of them who were prominent columnists and humorists, wrote about each others’ savage wit.
According to Harriet Hyman Alonso , the author of Robert E. Sherwood The Playwright in Peace and War: "John Peter Toohey, a theater publicist, and Murdock Pemberton, a press agent, decided to throw a mock "welcome home from the war" celebration for the egotistical, sharp-tongued columnist Alexander Woollcott. The idea was really for theater journalists to roast Woollcott in revenge for his continual self-promotion and his refusal to boost the careers of potential rising stars on Broadway. On the designated day, the Algonquin dining room was festooned with banners.
On each table was a program which misspelled Woollcott's name and poked fun at the fact that he and fellow writers Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) and Harold Ross had sat out the war in Paris as staff members of the army's weekly newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, which Bob had read in the trenches. But it is difficult to embarrass someone who thinks well of himself, and Woollcott beamed at all the attention he received. The guests enjoyed themselves so much that John Toohey suggested they meet again, and so the custom was born that a group of regulars would lunch together every day at the Algonquin Hotel."
Tullula Bankhead once attended a play with Alexander Woolcott who was writing a review. She said, "I think there's less to this than meets the eye." Dorothy Parker had so many outrageous things to say: “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” and famously, "One more drink and I'd have been under the host!" At one point as she was telling a friend about a romantic disappointment she said, “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard!”
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
Recording with the ‘witch's hat’.