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’ as a pop song specialist.” Listen to her 1928 recording of the song she introduced in Show Boat, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” beginning at 15:23.

The strangest thing that I know about Tess Gardella: the photograph below appeared in the 1974 edition of The Black Book, 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 cousin (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.

[Tess Gardella. From The Black Book, ed. Middleton A. Harris (New York: Random House, 1974).]


June 18, 2020: An interesting perspective on Tess Gardella, suggesting that her success
was owing not to her perceived “whiteness” but instead to her ethnic positioning between white and black. Like both Jewish and African American women, Italian women have historically been portrayed as matriarchal nurturers – domineering precisely in their excessive capacity for affection — and so Gardella could be hailed as a natural delineator of black womanhood, while allowing the audience a comfortable distance from actual African American and Jewish women alike.

Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

More Tess Gardella
“Didn’t I Tell You (That You’d Come Back)” (1928)
“C’mon Folks” and “Hey Feller” (1929, film footage from Show Boat)
“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: 5

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.

Unknown said...

I was looking up Tess Gardella on google and found your site. You mention you are related to Tess. According to family legend, my grandmother's sister Molly was gay, and one of her lovers was Tess Gardella. In fact, there was a story my mom used to tell about when she was a kid. She had a lovely voice and Molly brought Tess over to their apartment in the Bronx to hear my mother sing. The family thought my mom's voice would save them from poverty and welcomed Tess with food and wine. My mother hid in the bathroom and wouldn't come out. Molly hung out with Broadway people and mobsters. Another one of her lovers was probably Trude Heller who later opened a famous/infamous disco in NYC. So, now that I've written all that, is there anything that you know about Tess that could confirm my memories and hunches or dispute them? THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Michael Leddy said...

That’s quite a story you’ve shared.

As for sexual orientation, I have no idea. The NYT obituary mentions no survivors and no marriages. But it may not have been the norm to mention past marriages when the obit was written. If TG was lesbian, her orientation could have been an open secret in show business, just something that wasn’t discussed. There are many such examples.

Keep in mind — she’s a very distant relation, gone well before my time. I learned about her long after the time I could’ve asked my grandmother about her. My mom doesn’t recall meeting her. Everything I know is in this post.