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 7. “Your Feet's Too Big”
Fats adored Lorraine. He’d look at her and say, “Who dat walkin’ around here.” “Sounds like baby patter, hmmm, baby elephant patter, dat’s what I say!”
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
“Your Feet’s Too Big” was composed in 1936 by Fred Fisher with lyrics by Ada Benson. It has been recorded by many artists, most notably Fats Waller, but Leon Redbone, the Ink Spots, Chubby Checker and even the Beatles have sung it. Their version was never released, but you can see and hear them sing it here.
The song became associated with Waller who ad-libbed his own lyrics such as "Your pedal extremities really are colossal," and his quirky, “One never knows, do one?"
He created what came to be known as the Harlem stride style which influenced many jazz players to follow. He’s best-known for “Ain't Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” but he ultimately copyrighted over 400 songs. Many of these were co-written with his friend and collaborator, Andy Razaf. Fats died of pneumonia in Kansas City when he was just 39 years old.
This song is pretty accessible, the chords are the familiar I, IV, and V in this case C, F and G. But if there’s one thing that gives character to it it’s the use of the iv, the four minor, Fmin. There’s a nice blues effect in the way that the harmony changes from the F to the F minor, almost like bending notes on the lead guitar.
The verse is pretty straight V – I, or G7 to C and again, G7 to C. Then the chorus goes into the F and Fmin riff and back to C, then C7 to G7 and resolving to the C.
The bridge uses C to Amin7 and then the borrowed dominant, D7 and G7, and that happens again to complete the eight bars. The intro is distinctive in its use of a walk of broken intervals that draws the listener in. The notes are: c, e, d, f, e, g, f, a, g, c, b, a, g, f, e, d. It would be good to play along with the track to see how the elements of verse and chorus are used in the instrumental sections.
My recollection from hearing this song in my childhood is that it was a wonderful way to express affection. All of us are insecure about some aspect of our appearance, and the feigned disgust is actually sweet. Otherwise, it’s mean, but I never took it that way.
From the book:
The silent films usually had musical accompaniment, sometimes even large orchestras, but most often just a pianist. Many films came with cue sheets that suggested musical selections. There were certain classical pieces that were commonly used to evoke suspense, or excitement or danger, even comedy. Johnny was adept at any of the styles needed to take this role, and he did enough of it to fill in the lean times with rent and groceries.
But few people know that musicians were employed on the movie set, and that was a very lucrative job when you could get it. Geraldine Farrar was already a famous opera star when she was courted by the studios to sign a movie contract. She agreed to make three pictures for $20,000, while that was less than half what she would have earned for the same time on tour. In her contract she demanded a pianist and violinist be employed to help her to keep current with her vocal exercises, but also to cheer up the otherwise drab and businesslike atmosphere of the sound stage.
Other stars had their own musicians and when one pianist was dismissed for cocaine use, Johnny was given a chance to try out. He was clearly more suitable than any of the other candidates, and this became a very promising career path for him. He even had occasion to bring in other players, and he didn’t hesitate to include me. We found that our blend and patter were celebrated in a small way by the actors and crew, and we were very happy to have that work.
The companies had opened up two sound stages in the city in addition to the large stages in Brooklyn and the Famous Players Studios across the Hudson at Englewood Cliffs. One of these was the Norma Talmadge Studio on West 48th Street and the other, the West End Studio on 125th Street.
Once America entered the war, a national policy of energy conservation was imposed and the studios had to cut back on the use of electric lighting. This meant using these smaller facilities, shorter work days, a shift of shooting schedules, and occasionally some layoffs.
We met several of the stars. The one who impressed us the most was Mabel Normand. She was very beautiful, starting out as a model, she had been one of the girls that Charles Dana Gibson had immortalized on postcards. But she was also funny, genuinely funny. She starred with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in more than a dozen one-reel pictures and had written many of them.
But there was something going on at the studio which caused all of us to feel insecure. Mabel was battling with one of the heads of the studio. She was under contract for what we learned later was the unbelievable sum of $3,500 per week. But she complained that her nemesis felt that he owned her, he would contrive to have her accompany him to press parties and openings, even out of town jaunts where he would try to impose his affections on her.
When she was angry, she would do a vicious imitation of the man, mocking his high-pitched voice and his stammer. The stammer we came to learn was more pronounced when he was in her presence, but she nailed the high-pitched voice. She had a genius for comedy, and was even funnier when she was angry.
The studio executive had an assistant, Abe Lehr who would try to control her, and she would send him scurrying off like a whipped dog. Mabel could be frightening when she was angry. At one point Abe brought the executive down from his office and that’s when we realized that it was none other than Samuel Goldfish.
But the saddest thing of all was that Mabel would get into what seemed like a mood, but which we were to find out was the altered state of drug use. It was disturbing, but also very sad when she would swing wide of the mark with a comment or an emotion, and once she threw her arms around Johnny’s neck, frightening us both. Her dressing gown was not adequate to maintain modesty, and we both had that sickening feeling that things were out of control, that a tragedy was unfolding, even if it would be several years before it brought death and dishonor with it.
In 1916, Samuel Goldfish had formed a production company with Edgar and Archibald Selwyn. They were called themselves Goldwyn Pictures Corporation based on their combined last names. But once the company got established, Goldfish, who had anglicized his name from Schmuel Gelbfisz, decided to change his name to Goldwyn which he did in December of 1918. This caused his partners no end of consternation.
This was not altogether surprising from a man who fabricated his own birth date and many of the details of his biography. He was actually two years older than me, but always claimed to be born in 1882. You can’t blame him for wanting to start fresh after escaping the pogroms of Alexander III. But he had become a gifted author of his own legend, as he put it, “I always wanted to be somebody.”
He had worked his way across the Atlantic on a schooner, the Labrador, and left it at St. John, New Brunswick. He slipped across the U.S. border and found his way to Gloversville, New York where he worked in the leather trade. He achieved his first success as a salesman for Elite gloves throughout New England and through an odyssey of connections and in-laws, landed in the arcade and fledgling ‘flicker’ business in New York.
My friend Millie was a sweet person, wholesome and innocent. Goldfish probably never knew the injury he caused me when he took her away from me. Not that I could have given her anything like the life he offered. Trouble was, he wasn’t really offering it at all. He was just collecting women because in his position he could.
He was the first real ‘roué’ I ever met, but I guess he did me a favor. If Millie was more attracted to the money, the clothes or the high life, then maybe I was better off without her. That wasn’t the way it had seemed at the time.
With Lorraine I was happier than I had ever been, happier than I felt I had a right to be. Never quite sure of my own substantiation as a person, I had to agree when people said that things turn out for the best. I would cross my fingers, and avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, and thank my lucky stars for my good fortune.
Things were looking up. With Johnny’s studio work, he and Betty had been able to hire a Jamaican woman to come in once a week to help with the laundry and cleaning. With the two little girls, this was a big help.
In August, Ernestina told Betty that her husband was very ill, and that she would not be able to come to work. Within a week she reported that her husband had died of the terrible flu. Others he worked with on the sanitation crew had died and she had a horrible fear that she may have exposed the children.
Within a week, little Anna began to exhibit symptoms of fever. Betty too began to suffer, but fortunately her ordeal with the flu was mild. Soon Anna began to rally, and it seemed she had escaped any other effects, but then we realized that Jack had contracted the disease. Jack was to have an altogether much more frightening and prolonged experience, and very nearly succumbed more than once.
This was a difficult time. As relieved as we were that Betty and Anna had come through the infection and survived, we all believed that Jack, a man in his late fifties, was much more vulnerable. And it did seem that in its course the disease was ravaging him cruelly.
In just a few days, he went quickly into a desperate state which then simply did not let up. The doctors gave the best advice they could which was mostly to bring down the fever and wash the bedding, but nobody seemed to have any idea of how the disease could be fought.
Lorraine and I agreed that I would move in with Jack and Mary for whatever time it took for Jack to recover, or until the worst had played out, and that I would avoid contact with her and with little Johnny until we were sure that I couldn’t infect them.
Mary and I would take turns with Jack. Giving him fluids, trying to control his fevers, and all the while trying not to submit to the desperate fear of his slipping away from us. When Jack’s symptoms included discoloration under his eyes, the ‘cyanosis’ that the doctor had warned us about, we were both alarmed. There was nothing that we could do but continue with our care as we had.
I would read the newspaper to him even if it seemed that he didn’t comprehend anything I read. I avoided stories about the war, though the general sense of things was that the Allies were winning. So much of it was about the loss of ships, battles in places with names like Saint-Mihiel, and Dobro Polje. There was a train wreck in the Netherlands that killed 43 people. Baseball was the only light reading.
Because of the war and the “Work or Fight” order the baseball season had been curtailed. For the only time in history the World Series was played in September. The Red Sox defeated the Cubs in six games, and the whole thing was pretty unexciting. Neither team hit a home run in the whole series. Babe Ruth pitched a shutout in game one. I kept wishing that I was telling Lorraine about the games.
In the long dark, I would imagine that Jack could speak to me. There were times when he actually could speak, but then his voice would turn to rags and drift into madness, which was more frightening. I hadn’t realized how much I had depended on his strength, and how unprepared I was for him to be taken.
As I sat for those hours the margin between Jack’s and my suffering would disappear. In the murky depths of my dreams I could see what appeared to be a lattice, an interweaving of thin slats of wood, the kind that people put up to separate their small gardens from their neighbors.
Behind the lattice someone moved, but not really a person, more of a presence, a dark presence. Perhaps it was death, but not an angel of death, or the reaper, or the illness, something more vague and eternal. The staves of the lattice became swords, and the spaces were the squares of a chessboard. Then the presence behind the lattice was my own soul.
I remember one intense obsession with the chessboard, and the lowly knight which Jack had so patiently explained could actually have real power. I wasn’t able to see it all those years ago, but Jack had shown how the knight, even though his movements were limited to two squares up and one square over, could still dominate eight squares, and with a second move, could be decisive.
The rook could build a stone wall, a battlement protecting an entire rank or file, and the bishop could strike from a distance on an angled path of white or black squares, depending on his ordination, but the knight could leap over the defenses and threaten that square to which the opposing king had hoped to retreat. I felt I was that lowly knight, but I was powerless against the tyranny of this disease.
I found it impossible to extricate myself from the misery I felt as Jack’s strong shoulders, those shoulders that had born me aloft, would heave helplessly, racked by the illness. I found myself calling on the god that Mary had invoked, the Quaker god for which she had used the words spirit and light and love. She had talked about the inner light and the inward light, and I felt that she knew the nature of a god that could underscore her life and perhaps mine.
I didn’t need there to be a heaven, or anything beyond this one life. I just couldn’t accept that Jack’s life might be ending, and I sought comfort from my misery and fear. I was not ready to abandon the enfranchisement of the conscious mind that I cherished in myself, and which I always felt that Jack had confirmed in me with his frank exercise of thought and wit. He had that light, and he kindled it in all of us. I could accept that it would go out with me in my time, but couldn’t accept that that time had come for the man I loved as my father.
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
Mabel Normand in Should Men Walk Home?