Monday, February 10, 2014

George Burns and Tess Gardella

Trekking through DVDs of The Dick Cavett Show, I stopped in my trek as George Burns was speaking. From December 15, 1971:

“I love all kinds of songs, but I make a lot of money by not singing popular songs. Irving Berlin pays me twenty-five dollars a week not to touch any of his numbers. In fact, during the holidays I’m not even allowed to whistle “White Christmas.” But there's a Berlin song that I sing that he wrote and he doesn’t know it. He wrote it for Aunt Jemima a thousand years ago — for Tess Gardell, and she was a great blues singer. And she was a very heavyset girl, and she used to dress up like Aunt Jemima, and she had five musicans on the stage that were dressed up like bakers. And he wrote her this special piece of material. And I played on the bill with her in Montreal. I did an act then called Gary and Smith, Sid Gary and Charlie Smith. I was Charlie Smith. “Fifteen minutes of songs and fun for everyone,” that was our billing. . . . Anyway, I played with Tess Gardell and Jessel, Jessel was on that bill too, George Jessel. . . . Anyway, Tess Gardell was singing this Irving Berlin song. . . . It’s the greatest song:
Hello, everybody, don’t you know my name?
I'm Aunt Jemima of the pancake fame.
You see me in the subways here and there,
In fact I’m on the billboards everywhere.
The pancake business it was slow,
So I got my pancake bakers and went out to get
    the dough.
’Cause I’m Aunt Jemima and my five bakers,
They’re all ragtime shimmy-shakers.
We got kind of tired of the place that we were
We all walked out and left the pancakes flat.
The boys are good at bakin’, also shimmy-
That you must —
Anyway, that's the song.”
Too bad Burns didn’t finish. ASCAP’s ACE Index returns 498 Berlin songs, but not this one.

Billed as Aunt Jemima, Tess Gardella (1894–1950) appeared in vaudeville, in the musical theater, and in film. She was an Italian-American blackface performer, best known for originating the role of Queenie in Show Boat. She is my distant relation, my great-grandmother’s cousin.

Despite her stage name, Gardella had no connection to pancake mix or syrup. But she did indeed perform with a band of bakers. A 1920 issue of Variety lists Aunt Jemima and Her Five Bakers of Syncopation as a new act. Here from 1924 is a review of a performance with two-piano backing:

[Variety, September 9, 1924.]

Tess Gardella is still “in.” Listen to her 1928 recording of the song she introduced in Show Boat, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

The strangest thing that I know about Tess Gardella: the photograph below appeared in the 1974 edition of The Black Book (ed. Middleton A. Harris), identified as “Lois Gardella, the original Aunt Jemima, 1933.” A review of the book in Ms. magazine celebrated Gardella as “a beautiful woman!” — presumably African-American. A Gardella (Frank) wrote to the magazine with a correction.

The photograph is missing from the 2009 edition of The Black Book. It seems reasonable to infer from the absence that the book’s makers at first mistook Tess Gardella for African-American.

[A beautiful woman, yes.]

More Tess Gardella
“Does She Love Me”/“My Idea of Heaven” (1927, with Mal Hallet and His Orchestra)
“I Ain’t Got Nobody” (1932, with Howard Lanin and His Orchestra, from Rambling ’Round Radio Row #3)
“I’m Laughing” (1934, from Stand Up and Cheer!, dir. Hamilton MacFadden)

comments: 3

Sean said...

Great stuff, Michael. Thanks for this post.

stefan said...

I'm with Sean. That's a gem.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, gentlemen. If I locate a time-travel machine that can get to the Hippodrome and back, you’ll be the first to know.